Northwards across social geographies of race

By Luis Escobedo

‘I’m in distress. Los Zetas kidnapped some of my friends,’ said the first message I ever received from El Sirio on 2nd October, 2015.* Fear and uncertainty had haunted him across Mexico from his natal town of La Paz in Honduras, where death threats in connection to gang violence had finally triggered his journey northwards. Almost five years later, when I asked him whether these feelings persisted after he settled in the United States, he said, ‘It’s for that very reason I am armed.’ However, he also stated that where he lives ‘there are many police officers of Latin origin… They are Latinos [sic]. They respect that area a lot… There is a lot of compassion.’

The people who tormented El Sirio (Spanish for ‘The Syrian’ – a pseudonym allegedly given him after growing a long black beard on arrival in the US) in Mexico and Honduras, including members of cartels, gangs and the police, were also, of course, of Latin American origin. This range of contact he has had with different people of Latin American descent reminds us that how he identifies himself and how others identify him have been delimited by interactions and transactions across time and space (as analysed in Fredrik Barth’s seminal text). That is, they depend on context and are subject to change. Having grown up and migrated in vulnerable conditions, he has navigated physical spaces shaped by social inequalities, nationalist discourses and racism. In the context of these ‘social geographies of race’ and his related vulnerability, El Sirio’s journey has become that of a racialised young man claiming his individuality.

When he reached out to me, El Sirio was spending his last days at a migrant shelter in the north of Mexico before crossing the border into the United States. His message found me in my office, at the Queretaro-based campus of a private Mexican university, getting ready to close a series of academic and cultural activities commemorating individual victims of ascriptive violence. This series of events had been organised to begin on 26th September to honour the victims of the 2014 Iguala mass kidnapping and murders and to end on 2nd October, in memory of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. It was an incredible coincidence that this was the day El Sirio had chosen to write to me about the kidnapping of his travelling companions. That evening, after mentioning the disappearance of his companions, I reminded the audience that the main idea of this series of events had been that identificatory practices of the everyday, especially those that stigmatise individuals, can in themselves be violent and escalate into brutality. El Sirio’s journey through Mexico embodied this idea well.

Looking out from the migrant shelter in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, where the author first met El Sirio (image: author’s own)

Many of the racialised social geographies I navigated during the years I spent in Mexico reminded me of those of my natal Peru. Legally, there were no physical spaces that were segregated. Even where an unacknowledged segregation did take place, on an informal level, the boundaries between who was and who was not accepted were often blurred. However, these spaces had been historically, socially and politically constructed as hierarchically differentiated ones, where people of lighter complexion and/or other physical and behavioural characteristics associated with whiteness were generally more present towards the top, and those who were physically, or symbolically, darker had more presence towards the bottom. This differentiation involved informal forms of surveillance, control, punishment and violence, and was extended to foreigners like El Sirio, his travelling companions and myself.

El Sirio’s story across and beyond Mexico is loaded with terminology referring to groups and categories. However, this terminology is also contextualised according to how racism, inequality and other longstanding and structural issues have shaped the particular geographies that he navigated. He recalls that he ‘decided to go by bus with a group of friends. A lot of Hondurans, as they were blacker than me (más negritos que yo), decided to follow the route of the train.’ Although he identifies himself as ‘black’, the fact that El Sirio had lighter skin than some of his companions allowed him, to some extent, to avoid migration officers and enjoy parts of his trip more comfortably.

However, he was generally still a racialised and criminalised migrant. He did not spend his days at a beach resort, in a gated community, or as part of a private university department. His story, as that of many others, is one of moving across rivers, forests and deserts, migrant shelters, established routes, train rooftops, street corners and the like. While his racial identification in these spaces has occasionally led some people to randomly offer him money, food, shelter, clothing, transport and religious objects, being identifiable as a particular type of Central American migrant has also contributed to his vulnerability, in a similar way as being ‘black’ and ‘poor’ had done in Honduras, and ‘black’, ‘Latino’ and ‘immigrant’ currently does in the United States.

The first and only time El Sirio and I crossed paths was some time in August or September 2015 during my visit to a migrant shelter next to a railway on the outskirts of San Luis Potosí, Mexico. I was first struck by the kind-hearted and innocent look on his face; it was almost childlike. His words, and the way he spoke, however, later contrasted with my first impression. ‘Why did you come here today?’ was his first question.

Five years later, our conversations have started feeding the chapters of a work based on El Sirio’s story that combines elements of narrative and participatory research, discourse and visual analysis, and storytelling. He was the one who proposed I write something based on his life that could ‘help others’ with similar histories – this in itself speaks directly to the importance that claiming his and other people’s individuality and humanity in the face of racial categories has for him. Even when we currently stand in distant continents and times zones due to strict measures in connection to COVID-19, our endeavour reminds us that borders can and should be disputed.

* El Sirio’s words are translated from Spanish by the author.

Luis Escobedo is a postdoctoral researcher at the Unit for Institutional Change and Social Justice, University of the Free State, South Africa. He is the co-editor of Migrants, Thinkers, Storytellers (HSRC Press, 2021).

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