3 Things I Learned in Oaxaca

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Immigration is a conversation that does not just affect those living in the U.S. It is a constant on the minds of many people in Mexico and Central America, as well as around the world. I recently traveled to one of Mexico’s southern states, Oaxaca (wah-haw-kah), with group of women to learn about how Oaxacans are responding the factors that push people to migrate. I was so grateful for the chance to learn more about people’s stories from a different perspective and wanted to share three quick takeaways from the trip with you all.

#1 Migration Has a Long History and Its Own Culture

People have migrated between the U.S. and its southern neighbors for a long time. In the past couple of years, we’ve seen a huge growth in the attention immigration gets, but it’s been going on for a long time. And after decades, a culture and pattern of migration has been established.

We visited one agency that worked with young girls. They often ask groups of kids to raise their hand if they know someone who has migrated. Every time they ask the question, every child raises their hand. These children grow up hearing about migrant experiences, seeing how migration has benefitted families and their community, and knowing someone who lives abroad.

We even visited a local government agency dedicated to helping Oaxacan people who have migrated to other countries. Changing the culture of immigration, the structures at work, and the stories people tell about migration won’t happen in a quick shift.

#2 Migration Within Mexico Has Changed in Recent Years

Even though migration has a long history, I saw a couple of ways it’s changed in recent years. One difficult reality is that many of the Mexicans in Oaxaca have adopted an unwelcoming posture toward the Central Americans headed north to the States. When we visited shelter for Central American migrants, the staff worker told us that her family members tell her that she needs to quit her work and find a different job. In her time running the shelter, she’s only had one Oaxacan volunteer. Most of their support comes from outside the country. But her mom supports her. The staff worker told us that her mom has always said, “When you see people hurting, you fight for them.” These two women encouraged me. Even as the broader narrative regarding migrants becomes more hostile, they refuse to allow distrust and unwelcome to reside in their own hearts and work.

I also learned more about why the routes and methods of migration have changed. You’ve probably heard about the migrant caravans and it many ways their existence feels like a new phenomenon. In Oaxaca, we heard about “La Bestia” (the Beast), or an infamous train route up through Mexico to the border with the U.S. It’s always been an incredibly dangerous way to travel, but in the past few years, drug cartels have increased their presence on the train. They’ve extorted migrants and upped the violence on this route. This new reality has made it too dangerous for many migrants. And as migration itself has shifted from single men to more women and children, the migrant caravans emerged as a safer alternative that relies on safety in numbers.

#3 Combined Factors Push People to Migrate

Many of us have heard about economic opportunity as a huge driver of migration. Part of the reason Billy and I are living in Guatemala now is to start a business with the goal of creating an economic opportunity for Guatemalans. We hope to offer more people the option of a local job before migrating. Economics as a factor have always hit home with me, especially as the owner of a small business.

I’ve also known about additional factors, such as gang violence, drought, famine, and other factors that influence migration. But this trip to Oaxaca opened my eyes to overlapping realities of domestic violence and the ways they influence people - particularly women - to move. The women we spoke with talked about not only gang violence, but also physical and sexual violence against women in more depth.

One agency we met with works with young girls how to teach them about setting boundaries for themselves. Listening to their stories, I got new insight into how poverty can intersect with violence to drive someone to seek a different life somewhere else. In a place like Oaxaca, it’s unlikely a women fleeing domestic abuse will be able to find safety through the legal system or be able to be employed on her own. She may see migration as her only true option.  

The trip reminded me that migrants are seeking the same things most of us want. We want to be safe, to be with our families, to eat, to have freedom to build memories.The reasons people leave their home are complicated and multi-faceted, which is both challenging and encouraging. It gives me hope because it means we don’t need to be experts in everything when we’re loving our neighbor or pushing for change in immigration policy. Instead, we need deeper partnership and collaboration, recognizing that we all share a common goal.

I’m so grateful for the ways all of you reading along have been part of that. You’ve listened, you’ve prayed for us, and you’re grappling with loving your neighbor. Thank you for your commitment to deepening engagement as we seek to advocate for welcome. I talked about these takeaways and our trip on both Facebook and Instagram. If you want to watch, you can see it here or on my IGTV.