AMATLAN, Mexico – “How can you let your wife cohabit with so many men?” was one of the questions the husbands of this group of 12 Mexican women had to deal with, women who today enjoy international esteem for the compassionate care they give migrants.
The story of these 12 women, known as the Patronas (Protectors) and who since 1995 have provided food and drink for migrants riding atop the railroad cars of a freight train known as La Bestia (The Beast), has now spread from their town of Guadalupe, Veracruz state, around the world, to such an extent that it’s hard to imagine they ever aroused suspicion among their own neighbors.
At first there were people who thought they were getting paid for their work, called them “crazy” and tried to convince their husbands that the men who came through their shelter could seduce and steal them, the Patronas spokeswoman Norma Romero told EFE.
One day, Norma’s mother Leonila Vazquez realized that people were hitching a ride on top of the train that ran through the municipality of Amatlan de los Reyes. She didn’t know who they were, and at first called them “flies.”
Later she learned they were migrants trying to get to the United States. When some of them begged for food, those 12 women started helping them, and from then on the Patronas waited every day to hear the train whistle.
Maria Guadalupe Gonzalez, one of the Patronas, told EFE that at first she cooked meals at her mother-in-law’s home, but thanks to the support received, they organized a shelter that provides travelers with food and lodging for a few days if they need it.
Hospitality, in one form or another, is always there: “Even if no adequate room is available... we will put down a mattress or put them somewhere they can rest for the night,” Guadalupe said, who had to get up early Monday because it was her day to prepare the meals at the shelter.
The Patronas have been honored for their service with such awards as the National Human Rights Prize, have traveled abroad presenting their project – which has been duplicated elsewhere in the country – and were nominated for the 2015 Prince of Asturias Award for Concord.
The national and international recognition, however, has found little echo in their own community, where the locals don’t join with the Patronas in their work.
Many migrants reach the Patronas’ doorstep with some medical problem, and thanks to being in the international spotlight, doctors no longer hesitate to attend migrants needing care.
Something similar occurred with the police, who previously patrolled constantly around the shelter. Since officers may not enter homes without a court order, “we tell migrants not to go out in the street so the cops don’t see them,” Guadalupe said.
For her part, Norma added that “they talk about how often they might have to go through this town, and we say we’ll be there as often as necessary with the food and help they need to achieve their dream, which right now is a nightmare.”