Testimonies of Central American Migrant Women: A window into lived realities for mothers on the move

Updated: 4 days ago


Ser mujer, ser migrante presents 11 testimonies published from a series of in-depth interviews I carried out with mothers from the Central American region (mainly the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador), with whom I met and spent time whilst volunteering at migrant shelters in Mexico. The site was born out of the idea to feature the realities of women on the move in their own words, recognizing them as key protagonists of the migratory flow headed toward the USA.

Using an intersectional approach to analyse the stories reveals the multiple and collective forms of oppression women face as a result of their gender, class and immigration status. In this article, I draw upon some of the experiences, beliefs and sentiments shared by the mothers in their testimonies. I aim to highlight the overlapping dimensions of discrimination they encountered as women in their native countries, and as migrants, refugees, and/or asylum seekers in transit through Mexico and during detention in the USA.

Life in Central America: Motives for Migrating

Gender-based violence: rape and forced motherhood


All of the women I interviewed were survivors of multiple forms of GBV (referring to violence perpetrated against any and all genders, gender identities and sexual orientations) – including sexual, physical, emotional, verbal and/or financial abuse – committed against them (and sometimes their children) by a partner or male relative. Additionally, the majority had been cheated on throughout their relationships before being abandoned to raise their children as single mothers. In the most extreme cases, women were obliged to be mothers through forced birth.


In María’s testimony, she confesses that she didn’t want any more children with her abusive partner – a man who would strangle, beat and rape her – and when she found out she was pregnant, she tried home remedies to trigger an abortion. When these didn’t work, she appealed to some friends to help her get an abortion. They refused to get involved as “it was too dangerous”. Abortion is prohibited in Honduras in all instances, as well as emergency contraception; they would have risked imprisonment[1]. After she was forced to give birth to her son, María asked for a divorce. Her husband’s response was to threaten to kill her.


GBV restricts women’s autonomy over their bodies and lives through the enforcement of motherhood as a central expectation of their identity. I found it alarming that most Central American mothers I met en route to the USA, not only those I interviewed, were still in high school (if they were receiving an education at all) when they had had their first child. Several women declared in their testimonies that if given the option, they would undergo surgery to prevent having more children. This is not to say they didn’t value being a mother or to detract from their unconditional love for their children. In fact, children were often quoted as a source of strength, inspiration and motivation which kept them moving forward. But the immense pressure these women were under to fulfil the roles of nurturer, carer, provider and protector for their children and families intensified their marginalized state. Performing these roles out of coercion whilst dealing with the impacts of severe and prolonged domestic violence further damaged each woman’s mental and physical health, and negatively affected their relationship with their children.


María admitted to having mistreated her son and related her behaviour to being abused as a child, suffering for years being married to his father and being forced to have him as a product of rape. She was attending therapy when I met her, determined to heal from a “life of violence” in order to “fight” for her children.


Diana suffered with an internal conflict for repressing her son’s sexual orientation. Her desire for him to express his true self was overshadowed by her own experiences of abuse and fear of losing him to the brutal practices of GBV that LGBTQ persons in Honduras are subjected to[2].


By failing to punish perpetrators of GBV and guarantee women their reproductive rights, the state is the fundamental dictator of the injustice women suffer because of their gender. The Northern Triangle is the site of some of the highest levels of femicide in Latin America, with ongoing impunity for sexual and gender-based crimes[3]. Additionally, the restrictive legal environment for abortion sees the application of extreme laws, amounting to inflicting cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment under multiple human rights treaties[4].

As long as the advancement of women’s rights continues to be impeded, their exodus north will continue.

“What do these women know?” men think. “Why would we want girls if they can't help, if they can't do anything. They can only have children.” Litza quoting her father


Suffering in the shadow of gang violence


The Northern Triangle is deemed the world’s most dangerous region outside of an official warzone[5] and living among gangs is a decisive factor behind US asylum requests of hundreds of thousands from the Northern Triangle [6]. In their testimonies, extortion, armed theft, forced relationships, kidnappings, drug trafficking, child recruitment, control over territories and the assassination of a loved one were common elements of life for the mothers who lived in the shadow of gang rule.


In my interview with Eva, she showed me graphic images on her phone of her son Samuel’s father after he was shot up by gang members for outstanding debts. He died in hospital of blood loss and Eva was warned she and her son would ‘pay’ with the same fate.


Karla’s brother had also been killed for not paying the ‘war tax’. She expressed how scared she felt having two daughters because, “sometimes they grab girls and put them in their cars.” When her 10-year-old daughter was threatened by a pandillero on her way to school, this was Karla’s breaking point and she left Honduras with her girls for the USA.


Doña Teresa had been on the run for 11 years with her children and grandchildren in the aftermath of the brutal murder of her daughter, who was suffocated to death for refusing to be a jaina (girlfriend of a gang member) in El Salvador. This femicide was completed with her body tossed in a river and a life of trauma for her grieving mother, who was prone to severe headaches, recurring nightmares and frequent convulsions.


The immense pain and grief these mothers were dealing with is a direct bearing of the patriarchal power structures that triumph over this region. The bodies of women and girls represent territories where domination is exercised via ruthless acts of what Varela describes as “femicidal violence”[7] (2017). The mothers I spent time with had lived in a heightened state of fear, tension and uncertainty in their home country (and Mexico in the case of Doña Teresa whose family were being “hunted down”). Their lives revolved around protecting their home and possessions, making sure their income would stretch enough to pay extorters, navigating divided neighbourhoods, planning for a possible forced relocation. They told me leaving their home was the best decision they could make, because nothing would ease the torment that would plague them if their daughters were abducted or sons became “lost in that lifestyle.”


As mothers, they were primarily responsible for making sure their children didn’t meet such a fate. “Gang members will always be there because when one dies, another one takes their place… nobody helps you… Politicians are corrupt; they are with the drug traffickers and the gangs. They are all the same.” Diana


Exiles from poverty


Central Americans are typecast as seekers of the ‘American Dream’, which overlooks the fact that most are refugees of structural violence, often driven by a neoliberal agenda that favours the privatization of public services, aggressively pursues extractivist development, and reduces the means of subsistence for the poor [8]. Patriarchal development models – including gang extortion – perpetuate economic violence and disproportionately affect women [9]. In their testimonies, single mothers found themselves trapped in a cycle of debilitating poverty, working themselves to exhaustion to provide for their families.


Isabel lamented that she hadn’t been able to fulfil her dream of being a nurse, having left high school early to work in a tobacco factory to support her family. She had no time to complete her diploma once she had her first son at 19 and second son four years later – both from fathers who abandoned her. She couldn’t earn enough to support her sons and her sick mother, so risked the perils of the notorious journey north riding atop the ‘Train of Death’ to send remesas home so her boys could “make something of themselves”. She ended up being deported back to Honduras and is currently struggling to feed her sons due to the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the aftermath of hurricanes Eta and Iota.


Deysi was offered zero childcare support by her ex-boyfriend who completely abandoned his family after taking a scholarship in San Salvador to improve his own job prospects. She worked 12 hour shifts in dangerous gang-controlled territories selling cable contracts so their little boy wouldn’t go without. After one particularly terrifying experience she refused to return to the same neighbourhood and had her pay docked.


Elizabeth worked three jobs plus the domestic chores without a day’s rest to supplement her ex-partner’s infrequent maintenance deposits for their sons. She never stopped, but even so was unable to keep up with the debts and demands of gang extortioners.


No matter how hard they tried, and how many hours they put in, the mothers couldn’t meet the needs of their loved ones.


The deepening of the ‘feminization of poverty’ has been stressed during the pandemic, with women in Honduras experiencing an increase in their workload by at least four hours a day; yet the majority receive less than minimum wage for domestic work[10]. The mothers I spoke to saw migrating as the only way out of their desperation. An increasing number of women, many of whom are single mothers, are following suit and joining caravans of mass migrations – originating in Honduras and a regular phenomenon since 2018 – to try and better their circumstances. In a recent conversation with Isabel, she told me she would try again.


“There is a lot of wealth in other countries that is generated from the wealth of Honduras. But Hondurans do not see any of that because little is left for us. Being a mom influenced my decision. Necessity made me migrate.” Isabel

Suffering in Transit and Detained at Their Destination

The human costs of ‘Crimmigration’ practices


The Trump administration’s fortification and expansion of the ‘prevention through deterrence’ strategy through hostile anti-immigration policies[11], along with Mexico’s Southern Border Plan has amounted to a regional manhunt of undocumented people, with hyper-militarization extending as far as the Guatemala-Honduras border[12]. MSF’s ‘No way out’ Report[13] outlines the devastating effects that the criminalisation of migration is having on people fleeing violence by pushing them to take increasingly dangerous routes across Mexico to avoid police and military checkpoints. I passed through such checkpoints myself when I took a bus from Monterrey to Chihuahua which was repeatedly stopped by agents checking for ‘illegals’.


Women are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence, fraud, extortion, armed theft, disappearances, forced labour and exploitation into sexual slavery at the hands of corrupt authorities, criminal networks of narcos and unscrupulous coyotes (UNHCR Women on the Run[14], 2015). All of the mothers I interacted with had some idea of these dangers, several citing reports of women being trafficked and kidnapped, hearing of their remains being found in the desert. They were willing to take the risks, but they were not prepared for their grievous crossing.


Deysi survived an exhausting journey. She travelled heavily pregnant, going days without eating or washing, walking for hours at a time and scrambling up mountains to hide from police patrols. When smugglers separated her from another mother she had been travelling with, she felt she could not object: “What could I say? We didn’t know the way and they were guiding us.” She was subsequently kidnapped by the man she had trusted to take her to the US border.


Elizabeth was sexually assaulted by the driver who was transporting her and her children from Guatemala. When she felt his hand between her legs, she reacted furiously but later regretted yelling at him, worried she would be thrown out of the vehicle with her sons and have no idea where to go. She recalled: “I was too scared to sleep in case that man wanted to rape me.”

Each mother had undergone a nightmarish ordeal travelling across Mexico. Stories such as Deysi’s and Elizabeth’s demonstrate how migrant women become dependent on those who see them as sexual objects and targets for exploitation. The mass deportations that have taken place under US “crimmigration laws” have demonized migrants as fugitives and delinquents who must be removed, a process which collides with humanitarian norms[15]. Women’s human rights violations are invisibilised by the ever-looming threat of deportation, a barrier to their denouncement of abuses[16]. In this way, deadly legacies of border enhancement stay unchecked.


“I feel frustrated to be seen as a bad person, to be distrusted. When you know in your heart that you have never done anybody wrong, that you don't even know how to kill. Yet they see you as a criminal. When you have never set foot in a jail.” Deysi


Locked up, then thrown out


In Tijuana, I interviewed nine mothers who had made it to the USA and each had turned themselves in to border patrol upon arrival, pleading asylum. All had the same experience of being “tricked” by ICE: they were detained, told they would be able to apply for asylum in the USA, and then bussed or flown to a second deportation centre without any explanations. Many ended up in San Diego where they were told they would be “punished for violating the law”.


Their testimonies detail their stays in freezing and overcrowded holding cells, where they endured physically and verbally aggressive behaviour by officials (door-slamming, being pushed against walls, being screamed, sworn at and racially insulted), insufficient and unsuitable food, and a lack of access to hygiene materials, before being physically threatened and forced to sign their own deportation documents. This was all part of the punishment. It was difficult for the mothers to talk about the treatment they received in the infamous hieleras, particularly for those who had been victims of Trump’s torturous family separation policy[17].


Whilst in detention in San Diego, Elizabeth’s 13-year-old son was removed from her, alleged to be a “sexual threat”, and she spent eight days having no idea of his whereabouts. The officials responded to her fury and indignation by interrogating her, questioning her relationship to her sons and intimidating her with the threat that she would have to take a DNA test.


“The truth is that they do not want us. They are angry that we don’t stay in our country, but we cannot stay.” Asunción


When I asked what their most trying moments were, the mothers all agreed that their time in detention made them feel dehumanized and defeated. I recommend consulting Human Rights Watch’s In the Freezer report[18] to get a full picture of conditions in US detention for women and children. But their desperation reached its peak when they were entirely abandoned on the other side of the border in Tijuana – deported under the Migrant Protection Protocols, more commonly known as Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico[19]’ policy – with zero resources and at a loss as to how to respond to their children’s cries for food.


The next stage of their search for freedom was to wait for a far-off asylum hearing in a shelter, living in unhygienic conditions (I experienced these myself staying in one of the shelter’s flea-ridden tents, in a teeming hall with no shower facilities in the midst of a flu outbreak), in deteriorating health and worst of all, at risk of being kidnapped and trafficked by criminal organizations.


Yet they resumed the challenge. I know of one single mother who, until President Biden’s recent lifting of MMP [20] , had remained at the same shelter with her sons where I met them 20 months ago, undeterred by having had her hearing cancelled for the fourth time.


“We don’t have human rights. And the moment we come in and knock on the door of the USA – and we did knock on the door – they deny us.” Junieth

Conclusion


The stories of Ser mujer, ser migrante cast light on the patriarchal dimensions of discrimination that seek to disempower migrant women at each stage of their journey. Supreme machista convictions in their home countries exacerbated the oppression these women were under, rendering their exodus what Varela (2017) terms a “forced migration”. After being neglected by their societies, they were further marginalized by the racist and xenophobic practices of the North American and Mexican governments.

Yet what struck me as most powerful when listening to their stories, was that even when they were completely dejected, these mothers never gave up. I heard time and again how being a mother was the primary reason for sentiments of joy and gratitude at having brought life into the world. Their immense courage, resilience and spirit propelled them forward, in the continual search for a life of dignity for the future of their loved ones.


Being a migrant mother means making sacrifices and being sacrificed, navigating the perils of being undocumented. It means living and travelling in a state of fear lacking the most basic services. It means being deemed a criminal and living under constant threat of being detained in cruel and inhumane conditions. But most of all, it means being a fighter.



Dedicated to the voices of Central American migrant women en route to the USA in search of safety and respect for their human rights.


The full stories of the women featured can be read here.



Roslynn Beighton is a graduate in Human Geography and has a master’s in Understanding and Securing Human Rights (Latin American Pathway) from the School of Advanced Study. She spent a year in Mexico from 2018-2019, volunteering with El Pozo de Vida visiting women and children at a detention centre in Mexico City before travelling independently to the US border and working at several migrant shelters. Roslynn is interested in promoting social justice for women and indigenous peoples in Latin America. She is a volunteer for Peace Brigades International Honduras.


[1] ‘Life or Death Choices for Women Living Under Honduras’ Abortion Ban: Women Tell Their Stories.’ Human Rights Watch, June 6 2019 https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/06/06/life-or-death-choices-women-living-under-honduras-abortion-ban [2] ‘Left in the Dark: Violence Against Women and LGBTI Persons in Honduras and El Salvador.’ Latin American Working Group https://www.lawg.org/left-in-the-dark-violence-against-women-and-lgbti-persons-in-honduras-and-el-salvador/ [3] ‘Addressing the Sex and Gender-Based Violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador Fueling the U.S. Border Crisis.’ Pulte Institute for Global Development https://pulte.nd.edu/assets/383519/report_sgbv_cory_smith.pdf [4] Zureick, Alyson (2015) ‘(En)Gendering Suffering: Denial of Abortion as a Form of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment.’ Fordham International Law Journal, Vol. 38, No. 1, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2579416 [5] ‘FORCED TO FLEE. CENTRAL AMERICA’S NORTHERN TRIANGLE: A NEGLECTED HUMANITARIAN CRISIS’ MSF, 2017 http://urbanspaces.msf.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/forced-to-flee-central-americas-northern-triangle_-a-neglected-humanitarian-crisis.pdf [6] ‘Death threats and gang violence forcing more families to flee northern Central America – UNHCR and UNICEF survey’ UNHCER and UNICEF survey https://reliefweb.int/report/honduras/death-threats-and-gang-violence-forcing-more-families-flee-northern-central-america [7] Varela Huerta, Amarela (2017) ‘The perverse trinity from which Central American women flee: Femicide, state and market violence.’ Debate Feminista, Vol 53, [8] Alvarez, Linda (2020) ‘No Safe Space: Neoliberalism and the Production of Violence in the Lives of Central American Migrants.’ Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics, Vol 5, Issue 1, pp. 4-36 [9] ‘Social Struggle in Neoliberal Central America’ https://latinamericanperspectives.com/social-struggle-in-neoliberal/ [10] ‘Pandemia y huracanes han hecho retroceder los derechos de las mujeres en Honduras.’ Criterio.hn February 23 2021 https://criterio.hn/pandemia-y-huracanes-han-hecho-retroceder-los-derechos-de-las-mujeres-en-honduras/ [11] ‘PRESIDENT TRUMP’S EXECUTIVE ORDERS ON IMMIGRATION AND REFUGEES.’ Centre for Migration Studies https://cmsny.org/trumps-executive-orders-immigration-refugees/ [12] ‘A HONDURAN MIGRANT CARAVAN COLLIDES WITH THE U.S. “VERTICAL BORDER” IN GUATEMALA.’ The Intercept. Sandra Cuffe, February 2 2021 https://theintercept.com/2021/02/02/honduran-migrant-caravan-vertical-border-guatemala/ [13] MSF Report: ‘No way out - The humanitarian crisis for Central American migrants and asylum seekers’ 11 February 2020. Available at https://www.msf.org/report-no-way-out-central-american-migration [14] UNHCR Report ‘Women on the run: First-hand accounts of refugees fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico’ October 2015. Available at https://www.unhcr.org/publications/operations/5630f24c6/women-run.html [15] Dingeman, Katie et al. (2017) ‘Neglected, Protected, Ejected: Latin American Women Caught by Crimmigration.’ Feminist Criminology, Vol. 12(3), pp. 293-314 [16] ‘Easy Prey: Criminal Violence and Central American Migration.’ International Crisis Group, 28 July 2016 https://www.crisisgroup.org/latin-america-caribbean/central-america/easy-prey-criminal-violence-and-central-american-migration [17] ‘Trump's separation of families constitutes torture, doctors find.’ The Guardian. Amanda Holpuch, February 25 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/feb/25/trump-family-separations-children-torture-psychology [18] ‘In the Freezer: Abusive Conditions for Women and Children in US Immigration Holding Cells.’ Human Rights Watch, February 28 2018 Available at https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/02/28/freezer/abusive-conditions-women-and-children-us-immigration-holding-cells [19] ‘Q&A: Trump Administration’s “Remain in Mexico” Program.’ Human Rights Watch, January 29 2020 https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/01/29/qa-trump-administrations-remain-mexico-program [20] ‘ ‘Only we know what we’ve seen': migrants re-enter US after Biden lifts Remain in Mexico’. The Guardian. Valerie Gonzalez, March 5 2021 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/mar/05/us-immigration-biden-remain-in-mexico-asylum-seekers