Dark River Crossing

A History of Central American Migration

By Ana Lucia Ralda

Abandoned trucks overtaken by plants in Izabál, Guatemala. December, 2020. By Ana Lucia Ralda


The boy does not understand…

She says nothing.

She can’t even look at him. Slowly

she walks out onto the porch.

The boy clings to her leg. Beside her,

he is tiny. Without her,

he is so shy it is crushing.

The boy has no hint of what she is going to do.

What will become of him? He loves her deeply

as only a son can. Already

he will not let anyone else feed him or bathe him.

With her he is

openly affectionate. “Give me a kiss

mom,” he pleads,

pursing his lips. “Mira mami look,”

he says, softly

asking her questions about everything he sees.

She loves him so much she can’t

bring herself to say a word. She can’t

carry his picture. It would melt

her will. She can’t

bear to hug him.

She understands,

as only a mother can…

She knows the ache the boy will feel,

and finally,

the emptiness.

She can’t even look at him.

The boy is five years old.

Not so long ago

when a parent left to work in the US from Central America,

usually it was the father.

Children stayed home with their mothers

grandparents, sisters and brothers

and father would send money.

In recent decades however

divorces and separations

have left many a single mother.

With no income to recover

struggling to raise and feed their kids.

In large numbers

these single mothers decide to leave their children

with grandparents, relatives, neighbors

to go to north to the United States

to go work whatever job they can

find and send home whatever money they can

save to help their children have a better life.

“Well, yes,” she says

“They tell you how hard it is to cross

and that the trip is dangerous.

But desperation enters you

Because there is no thing to do

And you don’t know a thing or two

about where the next meal is coming from.

You see your children growing hungry

Shrinking skinny

Growing number.

You know what awaits,

But there’s no other way

So you get the strength to hit the road.”


She is short -

probably just under five feet tall -

with a beautiful brown complexion and small

brown eyes. Avoiding eye contact

she speaks in a low

voice revealing front teeth lined

with silver.

Because her parents were very poor,

she and her brothers

started working from an early age

to help provide for the family.

She did domestic work

sold vegetables at the local

market since the age of seven,

she was unable to complete schooling

past the second grade.

Yet she learned useful skills

and gained tenacity through it all.

Clearly it was not a lack

of perseverance that blocked

her and her children’s well-being.

Her destiny, my complaint and lamentation

the problem that we are not seeing

Poverty and its gendered consequences

bring different challenges in different life stages.

By her teenage years she was a mother of two.

The father too had little formal schooling,

together they faced a dearth of jobs

and the overbearing stress of poverty,

which soon turned into domestic violence,

the cycles of abuse that eventually start ruling.

Unable to overcome

structural barriers that prevent them to reach

the ideals that society imposes over them,

unable to be

the providers society upholds as ideal gents,

it is not uncommon that men

try to achieve masculinity

through aggressive expressions of domination.

She, unhappy with the situation

transgressed her own gendered expectations

and left him.

Soon, reality sinked in.

Luck, as always, running thin and

domestic work simply did not pay

enough to cover

the family’s most basic needs.

This is the common story

of Central American reality

one of perpetual inequality

A looting by wealthy

transnational corporations and local elites

A history of segregation

recent wars aided by US intervention

left countries devastated while

populations grow more and more separated

stratified by race




A mythology of poverty that’s inevitable

capitalistic nightmare of lowering costs at any costs

convenient to have a large poor population.

No education means you are subject

to social degradation

subject to become the cheap labor

child labor

that keeps the global capitalist system running.

Master-servant dynamics

low wages




therefore migration

therefore family separation

therefore dysfunctional families

repeated cycles of trauma and abuse.

Central America today

a history of mere strategy

conceptualized in a way,


as an east-west passageway

a north-south route

without a say.

A bull’s eye view for USA

intervention policies

that ensured its domination of the Americas

throughout the twentieth century.

Both target and bystander,

both fringe and center

Central America to this day

completely tied to US economics and military interests.

It is no coincidence that Central Americans

Have established their largest diasporas in the United States.

US involvement in Central America has helped

establish US affluence and control

at a global and local level, simultaneously

shaping Central American poverty,

disenfranchisement and marginalization.

Thus, while continued to be conceived

as an outcome of Spanish imperial colonialism,

don’t be deceived

it is the USA

with its too imperialist intervention

that continues to guide its fate astray

and shape the land, people and boundaries

of each Central American nation.

US-Central American relation

not a 21st century phenomena

and neither is Central American migration to the US.

In fact, the influx of migration

Is intrinsically connected

to the social division

of economic condition

to political collision

military strategies planned and deployed onto each

Central American nation by US functionaries

With anti-communist justifications

or anti-gang, War on Drugs argumentation

That ensure migration

Rather than mitigate it.

No, the US cannot be held

solely accountable however

for the extreme dependency

the distortions that continue.

Each national state apparatus perpetuated

legacies of colonialism

patriarchal ideologies of whiteness

male heterosexual superiority

global consumerism

and economic materialism as the purpose of life.

Complex negotiations of space

nations, ethnicities,

narratives, location, identities

visual and linguistic codes.


The boy is now seventeen.

He lives with grandma and they’re just as poor

as they were when his mother was still with them.

He weeps from within.

A kid with a boyish grin.

He weeps for his mother,

starts developing a drug habit.

His mouth is sticky.

He is always jumpy

and nervous.

His eyes grow red.

Aunt Maria calls him a lazy bum

a drug addict, a nobody.

He looks at the tennis shoes his mother sent him from the US,

the one’s his schoolmates envy;

‘I’d trade it all for my mother,’ he thinks.’

He wants to make the journey to find her.

He is standing on the same porch

his mother disappeared from

eleven years before.

He has said his goodbyes.

For a long moment he looks

at a picture of his mother

But he does not take it.

He might lose it.

He writes her telephone number

on a scrap of used paper.

Then he steps off.

He has fifty seven dollars in his pocket.

By the time he makes it to Oaxaca,

He had slept on the ground,

in a sewage ditch,

on an empty old bridge,

in a graveyard

curled up with other migrants.

Once he grew so hungry

he leaped from the top of La Bestia

-the train moving- to the ground

to pick a pineapple.

Another time,

he went two days without water.

He got mugged

by both criminals and policemen,

lost his mother’s number,

was pushed off ‘La Bestia,’

and almost lost a leg to the train wheel.

He got returned to Guatemala six times

in the so-called ‘Bus de las Lágrimas’.

But he didn’t give up. After all,

his will is made of steel.

Women doing this journey

suffer these and more dangers

Many are raped,

sometimes killed.

Human rights abuses plague the routes

north and impunity reigns

over the horrific crimes committed.

More and more often

minors travel unaccompanied.

Since the year 2000

the number of children entering the United States

from Mexico and Central America has surged

to an estimated one hundred thousand per year.

Some are as young as seven,

though typically in their teens

they travel with pictures

numbers written in pieces

of paper. Their humanity lessened,

They travel on pure hope.

More than migrants, refugees

of societies that neglect them and their needs,

that see them simply as cheap labor,

as useless Indians or peasants.

No visa granted on the premise of oppression.


The American Dream crumbles

upon arrival.

Though migrants try to find employment

their undocumented status constrains them

to informal sectors of the economy

where poverty wages again

make it difficult to sustain

themselves and their families.

Invisible labor force

Central American immigrants

become topicalized

they stay marginalized

become demoralized

rendered stupid illegal

violent criminal figures

turned out of their homelands

wanted by no one

they are denied entry

and belonging.

So they remain flexible



In Roque Dalton’s words:

“Los hacelotodos,

Los vendelotodo,

Los comelotodo.”

Labor made cheap and invisible

by the same immigration acts

that produce their undocumented status.

And despite of what they have to endure

they make good

on the promise of building a better future

if not for the first

for the next generation.


We must reconstruct

the greater immigrant myth

that represents a threat

to national security

rather a contributing force

that back in the 60’s began to fill the void

of the skilled labor force

drafted into Korea and Vietnam

laying the cornerstone

for present day Latina/o enclaves.

We must listen

to the migrant experiences

encoded and imagined

between languages

feeling soledad y nostalgia


sintiéndose mudos

yet looking for oportunidad.

Though in many cases

despite the many sacrifices

no real life changes

neither in the US nor in Central America.

Because memories [of migration]

are not left behind

but rather leave permanent traces

of a past operative in the present.

Historical memory is made

of these testimonies of struggle,

displacement, and diasporic belonging.

Transnational identities that link territories.

They become embedded

in a larger effort for justice,

they create community

and provide historical context

to advance political action.

Through stories, commemorations

rituals and performative manifestations

Central Americans reconstruct their past

with a unique spatial imaginary

in a foreign urban cityscape.



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