By: Claudia Ana Rodriguez, Witness for Peace – Mexico Team This October, Witness for Peace will be hosting Leonila Romero Gonzalez, part of Catholic Migrant Ministry and volunteer of Las Patronas on a speaker’s tour through out the Mid Atlantic Region. Read below to find out about her job, community, and the valiant work they do, and how to see her present at an event near you!
It is pretty unbelievable when you think about it. A group of 15 women giving food to people as they ride a speeding train through their rural community? And doing it completely out of the goodness of their heart. Not for monetary gain, some type of competition or new ridiculous reality television series. But that is exactly the daily reality for one group of women known as Las Patronas in Veracruz, Mexico.
This last May, I met a woman name Leonila Romero Gonzalez. She originally comes from the La Patrona community, and currently works with a national level Catholic Migrant Ministry in Mexico City. Her work consists of coordinating national level workshops and trainings for the migrant shelters located throughout Mexico, helping Mexican families locate missing loved ones who migrated or disappeared in the process of migrating, and helping coordinate the delivery of bodies of Mexican migrants who have died in the USA back to their families.
While this is her day to day job, she also spends a lot of time with her family on the weekends and holidays in Veracruz, about 2-3 hours from Mexico City.
I was already familiar with Las Patronas when I met Leonila. I’d seen countless videos, photos, and read many stories. Being part of the Witness for Peace Mexico Team for the last two years has given me the opportunity to understand the migrant’s journey, the dangers and the U.S. policies that push the migration to begin with. I’ve talked with many migrants, visited different shelters, and worked alongside organizations that not only analyze the issue, but also groups providing support to migrants on the journey, families and sending communities, and organizations and communities looking for alternatives to migration. So, I would say, I was pretty knowledgeable about all of this going to Veracruz. But nothing in the world could have prepared me for what I saw, heard, and talked about with the women that weekend.
I visited Veracruz with Leonila in August. When we arrived, I was greeted by the roaring of the train. Yes, the train roars. I began to truly understand why so many migrants call it La Bestia, or the Beast. It is quite literally a beast. It is huge, loud, and plows its way down the train tracks as it makes its journey. The first time I saw the train, it was moving southward, with maybe 5 migrants on it. Later it was explained to me that those riding the train southward are migrants who had been deported.
Throughout my time with them, I had the opportunity to pack lunches, sort through donations of food and clothing, and talk with the women about the soup kitchen, the work they do and the community they live in.
They first started in 1995, when two sisters, Bernarda Romero Vázquez and Rosa Romero Vázquez were walking home from the corner store, having just bought some bread and tortillas. The train was passing by and they were waiting to cross the tracks and go home and eat. There were people on top of the train, whom they thought were Mexicans, calling out to them, asking for food. They said they were hungry. The women were confused, but by the time the last car of the train passed, they decided to throw the bags of food they had up to them. As they returned home and recounted the story to their family, they all decided they should make lunches for them as they pass. And so began their work.
Over fifteen years have passed, and the women keep up their work (along with a couple of men as well). They receive donations of bread, rice, beans, pasta, pastries, and tuna from international donors and local super markets. They fill plastic bags with these donated items, tie a knot with the handles, and hold the bag upside down so that migrants can grab the handles of the bag as the train passes. They fill donated plastic bottles with clean water. They also sort through donated clothing, taking out the warmer clothing to give to the migrants. They donate the rest to nearby communities. Mostly women form their group, and its members have fluctuated over the years. Sometimes people have family responsibilities that do not allow them the time to commit to working in the soup kitchen, which was built thanks to donations sent to the women. They now also have a dormitory area to host migrants and volunteers who spend time with them.
While they originally thought the people on the train were Mexican, they have come to understand that they are actually mostly from Central America. During my weekend with them, I met migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. One man was injured on the train while I was there. As another explained to me, there is a lot of trash and debris that fly off the train. A piece of wood had gotten stuck in his eye. His friends helped him off the train, and Leonila left the town and went to Cordoba (a city about 30 minutes away) with him to seek out medical attention. Because it was Sunday, not many places were open and the doctors that did attend to him said he needed to see an ophthalmologist. He wanted to get back on the train and keep traveling, even though it was clear he was in a lot of pain. Leo convinced him to spend the night in the shelter, get the attention he needed the next day, rest, and in a few days time he continued on his journey. She commented to me, with a laugh “even when I’m not at work I’m still working!”
My time with them left me speechless, but filled with emotion. Seeing the train filled with migrants of all ages and backgrounds was painful, but the juxtaposition of this with the dedication and work of Las Patronas leaves one filled with hope and inspiration.
Not everyone may have the opportunity to visit Las Patronas, but Leonila is coming to the Mid Atlantic Region for a Witness for Peace Speaker’s tour! Over the next few weeks there will be events in Pennsylvania and New York including, Philadelphia, Bethlehem, Syracuse, NYC, and Long Island among other places. Check the schedule here: http://www.witnessforpeace.org/article.php?id=1202 The Witness for Peace – Mexico Team would like to thank Javier Garcia for letting us use his photos!