Mariana Serrano Reyes knows what it’s like to be separated from her husband and children. She knows what it’s like to try to cross the rugged deserts of Arizona. She also knows what it’s like to be hungry. Originally from the Central Mexican state of Puebla, Reyes and her husband crossed the United States-Mexico border close to Naco in January of 2011, and were later apprehended by the Border Patrol. She spent a night in a detention center, was separated from her husband, and was deported the next day. Fortunately, she was deported with another Mexican woman who knew about an eating hall close to the border in Nogales, Sonora, known simply as the comedor, where migrants are given free meals twice a day.
“I didn’t have any money. Didn’t have a phone. Didn’t remember my parents’ numbers,” Reyes recalls. If she hadn’t been offered food at the comedor, she suspects she would have been “begging on the streets.” Instead, she found a safe space and a warm meal. Now, and for the last three years, Reyes has been cooking breakfast and working at the comedor six days a week. Her husband, with whom she was reunited a week after her deportation, runs security and helps with maintenance. They’ve since brought their children from Puebla to live with them.
In 2008, Sister Noemí Peregrino González, from the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, led a small group of women to hand out basic meals close to where many migrants were being deported to Mexico. They set up under an overpass on the street and dished out quick meals there and at a small government-funded tent close to the border—but soon found that many migrants were preyed upon by thieves and smugglers. Engracia Robles, a Jesuit sister, described the area around the tent as a “nest of coyotes.” Witnessing what amounted to a humanitarian crisis, the Jesuit Refugee Service founded the Kino Border Initiative, which runs Casa Nazareth, a shelter for migrant women, and the comedor, officially CAMDEP (Centro de Ayuda al Migrante Deportado, or Aid Center for Deported Migrants)—a space to provide a meal and a few moments of respite for migrants.
Men and women were being deported—sometimes as many as 200 a day—so famished and worn out that handing out food was the priority. “We have a slogan,” Robles told me. “You have to eat before you are Christian … In our experience we have come to know that you need to eat first. It’s not all there is, but it’s the first thing.”
The comedor serves principally recently deported migrants, but also those still trekking north, and occasionally the needy or homeless from Nogales. At two meals a day, cooks and volunteers at the comedor have served 27,097 meals in 2015 (as of early September). That’s on pace for more than 40,000 meals this year. Despite what sounds like a monumental effort, the Rev. Sean Carroll, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative since 2009, stresses the importance of collaboration: the Green Valley Samaritans, No More Deaths, and San Toribio Romo Migrante, among other migrant aid groups, all collaborate to provide medical aid, distribute used clothing, conduct Know Your Rights presentations, engage in advocacy, receive wired money, sometimes sing a few songs, and serve up hot and typically delicious meals twice a day. The comedor has become a community center—and sometimes much more—for many who have left or been torn from their communities. David Hill, longtime No More Deaths volunteer and a member of San Toribio Romo Migrante, said that “safe spaces are few and far between in [migrants’] journeys.” Which is what the comedor offers: a place where, as Reyes explains, migrants feel good. “It’s a home for them.”
Though I go regularly to the comedor as a No More Deaths volunteer, the day I visit to report this story, Sept. 8, is Mexico’s Migrant Day, and Reyes is cooking up a special meal: barbacoa in a terra-cotta-colored red sauce, white rice, and creamy refried beans. On the side is a chunky, tomato-heavy salsa and fresh tortillas. With strung balloons occasionally popping like fireworks above the migrants’ heads, the air in the comedor is festive. The Rev. Samuel Lozano, KBI’s director of programs, plays the guitar and belts out traditional Mexican ballads as migrants settle into the bench seats. Before the meal is served, a thin, older migrant from El Salvador stands up and, refusing the microphone, sings a powerful (and powerfully gesticulated) version of Joan Manuel Serrat’s song “Caminante No Hay Camino”:
Wanderer, your footsteps are the path, and nothing else…
As a group of Green Valley Samaritans helps pass out the steaming plates, I sit down to speak with Horacio (who preferred I not use his last name), a man who lived for 28 years in the United States, between Tucson and Los Angeles. (His favorite Tucson restaurant was Las Cazuelitas on South Sixth, which is now closed.) Originally from Hermosillo, Sonora, Horacio talked to me about typical Sonoran fare, as well as what he ate in prison (he served time before being deported) and how he likes the food at the comedor. While he tells me that he’d be “fine eating nothing but beans,” he became so tired of the prison fare that he learned to cook, training himself to be, as he termed it, “a microwave chef.” The food in the commissary was too expensive, he explains, and so he would improvise to make his own dishes. He soaked potato chips in hot water to make masa to form into tamales, and even MacGyvered prison cell-made cheese: Microwave-boiling milk in a bowl and adding, little by little, Italian dressing, which slowly curdles the milk into a block. I ask if the cheese was any good. He shrugs, smiling. He says the food in the comedor is much better, and takes a bite of barbacoa-soaked tortilla.
As Horacio and I are talking, the man sitting to my left, who had been deported two days before, offers me his own slapdash recipe. Originally from Tabasco, Ezequiel Montejo had lived 15 years in California working in the pea fields, which, he explains, grew peas mostly for Chinese food restaurants. Montejo tells us his recipe for mole sauce: Mix sesame seeds, animal crackers, and Doña Maria chocolate in a bowl. “That’s it.” Serve the sauce over rice cooked in chicken stock for a simple, sweet, and, according to him, delicious mole. “Está bastante bueno,” he assures us. “It’s pretty good.”
Montejo had just gone a full day—during his deportation—with nothing to eat but a small package of crackers and a juice box. Perhaps his charitable palate gives credence to what the famed itinerant knight Don Quixote once claimed: “Hunger is the best sauce in the world.” Montejo mops up the last of the barbacoa juice on his plate with a corn tortilla, wolfs it down, and excuses himself.
After the meal I pull aside Guillermo Guerra, the man who sang “Caminante No Hay Camino,” and ask him what he’s eaten so far on his trip. Guillermo is a thin, rope-muscled raconteur in his 50s, with leathery skin, a thin, gray-speckled moustache, and lively eyes. He worked as a mechanic and maintenance man in San Salvador, and is fleeing the gangs, who extorted him and, he candidly reports, murdered his wife. Taking buses and riding the cargo trains (commonly known as The Beast) through Mexico to Nogales (a trip that lasted nearly a month) he spent a three-day period on the train, in which “nothing but water” passed his lips. He shows me the cuts and golf-ball size bump on his left forearm he earned from falling off the train. After talking about Central American politics and the difficulty of life in El Salvador for a few minutes, he reminds me that I had originally asked him about food.
His favorite dish, and what he most misses from El Salvador, is red beans. Any way you want to prepare them, he’ll eat them. I ask him what he expects of American food if he crosses successfully into the United States. He’s heard that Americans eat bacon and eggs, along with toast and jam, every morning for breakfast. “That’s good enough for me,” he says, adding that he doesn’t usually eat very much.
Carroll says he notices the difference in the migrants’ postures before and after they eat in the comedor: “They have been reminded of their human dignity.” As the migrants stream back into the bright streets, I feel that I can see their heads held a little higher. Guerra himself stands ramrod straight, cowboy hat slightly cocked, and chest puffed out as he poses for a photograph.
After the dishes are cleared from the long tables, KBI and Samaritan volunteers lay out the clothes and basic hygiene products offered to the migrants, and David Hill sets up to help people cash checks and receive money. I sit down with Erminia Hernandez Velasco, originally from Baja California, who finds a used pair of New Balance sneakers to replace the cracked and dirty shoes she walked in for days during her desert crossing. Velasco had lived eight years in Florida, working the tomato and strawberry harvests. Though she didn’t have papers in the United States, she returned to Mexico voluntarily, taking her kids, who are U.S. citizens, with her to her brother’s funeral. Knowing that they would have few opportunities for decent education or future employment in the small town in rural Baja, she wanted to get back into the United States and then send for her kids. After she crossed the border with a coyote, however, her group spent 15 days in the desert. They ate very little and drank dirty water collected from cow tanks and filtered with their T-shirts. After she was apprehended, the food the Border Patrol gave her—some crackers and a juice box—didn’t satisfy, and she had had little to eat for days. She was deported without a dollar in her pocket and suspects she would be begging for food if it weren’t for the comedor. I asked what her plans were. “To try [to cross] again,” she told me. “It’s the only option.” Erminia told me that chilaquiles is her go-to meal for her kids. “I’m a single mother. It’s hard … But my kids will always eat my chilaquiles.”
After most of the migrants have left, I sit down with Reyes to enjoy our own plates of her barbacoa and rice, and she tells me another of her motivations for feeding migrants. Her sister-in-law went missing while crossing the desert in 2012. The family never heard from her again and believe her to be dead. “I know what the desert is like,” she says, starting to tear up. “I know how hard it is … I know all they have been through. That’s why I want to cook well for them. We want to make it delicious. I always try to put love and flavor into the food.”
For the length of a meal, sitting shoulder to shoulder, passing the tortilla basket and the salsa bowl, the migrants in the comedor seem to taste and feel that love. Perhaps their travails haven’t ceased, but for a few minutes, at least, they have a safe place to sit and a warm bowl in front of them. For some, it seems a luxury. ✜
Visit KinoBorderInitiative.org for updated reports about migrant abuse and family separation during detention and deportation at the United States-Mexico border.
John Washington is a novelist, teacher, and translator. His translation of Sandra Rodriguez Nieto’s The Story of Vicente, Who Murdered His Mother, His Father, and His Sister: Life and Death in Juarez (Verso Books) was published in November. Visit jblackburnwashington.com or find him on Twitter at @EndDeportations.