Los Retornados, back in their home countries, are mere phantoms of themselves after having been deported from the United States (or México); once they decided to leave or were forced to leave their home, family, friends, and memories, they had their minds made up never to return.
May 5, 2019
Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Taxi driver turned unofficial tour guide, Freny Piñeda Murillo, opened my eyes to a world in this city that is not readily accessible to outsiders. Freny seemed the perfect guide: ex-military, ex-police (27 years until he declared it too violent), construction worker in the US as undocumented immigrant, natural-born world traveler (at least in Central America, Mexico and the U.S.); a small and thin-stature man in his sixties that had built a solid reputation in his community as a clean, honest, peace-loving man, (his descriptors); a likeable person that can get along with anyone, including gang members of any affiliation. But Freny wanted to demonstrate his social skills by not just driving through the toughest, gang-inflicted areas of city life in the Honduran capital, but by also stopping the car on the side of the road, getting off and talking to people, some, he cautioned, were hard-core gang members. Through his interactions with neighborhood friends, and his obvious dedication to the profound and insightful truth, he effectively turned a violent face of existence in a country known as the “murder capital of the world” into a heartfelt story of human dignity and respect.
I learned from Freny’s insights and perspectives; his stories from decades ago about the spoils that Hurricane Mitch left behind, including the floating coffins that the turbulence unearthed from the cemetery (look for the photo with the above ground burials behind the graffiti-written on brick wall, “Pink Floyd,”) the wealth of the rich, much of it stolen from the government, as greed and corruption surfaced and expanded amongst the privileged mix of the oligarch society, military, and the political establishment, thereby fomenting an unprecedented new norm; and how the poor people survive in the most dire circumstances. Freny offers substantial explanations for an array of questions about the migrants that travel to the US, a topic that he knows from personal experience. But the view of the youth migrating to the United States is filtered through his own recollections of himself, making the journey north via the “Beast,” the dangerous train ride in México, that claimed the lives of many migrants that dared to risk it all. The overwhelming hardship he endured as an undocumented worker living in the shadows and under harsh and stressful circumstances in the United States for several years, eventually compelled him to return to his home country. He overgeneralizes the reasons why young Hondurans migrate to the United States today, criticizing their beliefs and naiveté in thinking that their lives will improve once they settle down as undocumented workers. The unfortunate life of a migrant in the U.S. was hard and unrewarding, he says, and he would not repeat the experience for himself nor recommend it to others. Freny doesn’t give credence to the “forced” migration notion used by policy experts to explain why thousands of families feel as though they have to leave their country in order to survive, and the only place to live is in the United States. He says, “aquí nadie le va dar el bocado en la boca sin trabajar; la gente está probre porque no tiene la materia gris para pensar y poner a trabajar el cerebro; la gente tiene que ser inteligente.” (“Here, no one will put food in your mouth without working; the people are poor because they don’t apply themselves and think well; people have to be intelligent.”) But, at the same time, he acknowledges the deterioration of society in his country that has grossly, unconsciously, and consistently neglected its governing responsibilities, causing an increasingly widened rift between a minority but immensely rich and wealthy, and the poor, struggling, oppressed masses. Although the stark social and economic inequalities are evident in the country’s capital city, even to the undiscerning eye, the modern façade in the downtown, “trendy” area, the playground for the wealthy, possesses a resounding similarity to major capital U.S. cities. The United States’ vast influence on Honduran life is clearly a stable indicator of the extent to which the Honduran rulers identify with the capitalistic ideals of societies that reward the rich and disparage the poor. Interestingly but not surprising, Freny’s quick response was a clear negative to my question on whether he thought the Honduran government was a democracy.
“No se puede vivir en este paíz,” (“ no one can live in this country”) quipped Freny in a philosophical side remark to his description on how the poor are exploited; the powerful and wealthy have gradually pilfered the natural resources of the country by partnering with foreign entities to extract gold and other valuable metals, rendering the land useless to the people whose lives depend on living off the land. Instead of investing in the country, greed and corruption have driven politicians and the wealthy members of the oligarchy to enrich themselves, and completely turning a blind eye, even to the extreme poverty conditions of the poor. He particularly admonishes the familias “pícaras,” (the “rogue” family members of the oligarchy) that have accumulated their wealth by stealing from the less fortunate, and the corrupt politicians that have engaged in high profile narco trafficking and money laundering without fear of prosecution. “Todos son narcos,” (“they are all involved in narco-trafficking”), proclaims Freny. Because they have the power of control and suppression, the wealthy and powerful set the rules and establish laws that favor their agenda.
Freny’s perspectives on the government’s responsibilities or lack thereof, is summarized in a brief video of life along the Choluteca River where poverty stricken residents rely on its water source for their essential needs.
The photograph (see related video) of the bridge that divides the twin cities of Tegucigalpa and Comayaguela, poses in the foreground of the city’s formidable panorama, and in the background, the downtown high-rise buildings stand defiantly erect, bringing into focus the stark differences, indeed, the inequalities that exist between the extravagant wealthy and the extreme poor. When Hurricane Mitch, struck Tegucigalpa in 1998, the Río Choluteca, also known as the Río Grande, brought swollen river currents right up to the edge of the bridge, causing expansive devastation never seen before in loss of lives and property. Morilica, a community along the river’s edge, was completely destroyed and every resident was killed. As a result of the most deadliest hurricane in recorded history, 11,000 people perished (7,000 in Honduras), leaving behind an astronomical loss and destruction of property; some reports give estimates of four billion dollars. Clearly, the devastation couldn’t have been worst on a country’s most vulnerable population, especially among poor families that were already struggling with high poverty and unemployment rates.
To my comment that Honduras is different from El Salvador and Guatemala in that the country has not lived under the specter of an armed conflict, Freny replied that “maybe that is the problem, we need a revolution.”
See related photo gallery: Lens: City Life in Tegucigalpa.
See next article: The Politics of Making Drinking Water Accessible.