IOAN GRILLO / PARQUE ALBERTO
Men in border-patrol caps tackle a young Mexican to the ground amid jagged rocks and cacti. "You need papers to come to this country. This is not a game!" shouts one agent as he yanks the man's arms behind his back, almost tearing them from his shoulders. It looks like a scene on the U.S. border that would get human rights groups yelling. But actually, it is a game, and it takes place in the mountains of central Mexico. All of the participants are Mexicans, many of whom have paid to be part of the re-enactment of the arrest, part of a border-crossing experience for Saturday-night revelers. (See pictures of the fence between the U.S. and Mexico.)
The so-called night hike in the highlands of Hidalgo state is a curious testimony to Mexico's identity as an emigrant nation, in which enormous numbers of young men and women continue to risk their lives sneaking into "El Norte" for a perceived better life. Every weekend, dozens of participants pay about $20 apiece to scramble up hills, slide down ravines and run through tunnels pursued by siren-blaring pickup trucks and pumped-up border-patrol agents shouting in accented English.
To many outsiders, this seems an odd way to enjoy a night out. But the participants and organizers all say it is both a great deal of fun and an important way to raise consciousness about the migrant experience. "It was fantastic. It totally exceeded my expectations," says medical saleswoman Araceli Hernandez, nursing a bite from a giant ant and brushing off dust after the five-hour slog. "But it makes me feel sad thinking about what the real migrants go through."
The hike was started four years ago by a group of Hnahnu Indians on their ancestral lands. Some of the poorest people in Mexico, the Hnahnu first began crossing into the U.S. in the late 1980s, and within a decade most of their young had left their ramshackle villages in search of dollars. While the fruits of the exodus transformed the Hnahnu's home landscape, allowing migrants to build walled mansions and paved roads, it also divided the community, separating families by thousands of miles and an ever more fortified border. The Hnahnu of the Parque Alberto community then began an eco-tourism project as a local jobs program so more of their people could stay home. The border-crossing simulation soon became their most famous attraction.
"We wanted to have a type of tourism that really raised people's understanding," says founder Alfonso Martinez, who dresses in a ski mask and goes by the name Poncho. "So we decided to turn the painful experience all of us here have gone through into a kind of game that teaches something to our fellow Mexicans." Poncho and other ski-masked comrades play polleros, or chicken herders - the human smugglers who guide wannabe migrants over the deserts and rivers into the U.S. Having made the real journey dozens of times to work as a gardener in Nevada, Poncho is well versed in mimicking the polleros' tactics closely. He moves swiftly over the side of the mountain, commanding participants with authority and ordering them to hold tight in the brambles for long periods and then suddenly sprint for miles.
In hot pursuit are the migra, or border-patrol agents, played by other Hnahnu. Most migrants have been nabbed at least once and know well what it feels like to get a pair of handcuffs slapped on after days of exhausting travel. The actors play their nemeses with energy and zest, tearing across fields to get the migrants and insulting them in a colorful language: "Don't you speak Spanish. You are not in Mexico now, my friend. Tell me who the boss is."
The participants are mostly middle-class professionals and students from Mexico City and other urban areas. While many have friends or family who have crossed illegally into the U.S., they all say they will not do it themselves: the simulated border-crossing is adventure enough for them. At one point the group walks through a nest of giant ants that bite people's legs. One girl starts screaming after injuring herself on the trip and has to be supported by friends as she hops along. The group slides down a steep ravine, a particularly hard task in the middle of the night, and many come through with cuts and bruises. But by the time the group arrives at the base camp and sings a lively rendition of the Mexican national anthem, no one complains that it was too hard.
Poncho hopes the experience will be life-changing for the participants. With the night-hike tours, he envisions himself as a revolutionary fighting for a better world. In a final pep talk, he drills the group about their class differences and how they can overcome them. "What do you call our ethnic group?" he asks in a booming voice. "You call us Indians, and say we are lazy and ignorant. Don't worry, I'm used to it. This experience is about showing we are human beings."
6 months ago