It was a cold, rainy day and it seemed like the muddy road I was on would never lead me to La Patrona, a tiny community that was lost in the heart of the Mexican state of Veracruz.

After a number of missed turns and a hopeless misreading of my map I decided to try an approach that I should have used from the beginning – open my car window and ask passers-by for directions.

“Excuse me, where do I find a group of women who throw food to migrants traveling on ‘La Bestia’?”

It was obvious that Las Patronas were well known because, in a matter of minutes, I was directed to a simple house with a courtyard where the smell of frying onion filled the surrounding air. A woman with a big smile in a colorful apron invited me in. As she sat behind the table to continue cleaning the beans, she explained that the cargo train with more than a hundred people traveling to the Mexican-U.S. border would pass by in the afternoon, so it was necessary to hurry up with her work.

So I joined her and five other women, who were busy with chopping tomatoes, making tortillas and cleaning plastic bottles, to listen about that February morning in 1995 that led to the creation of Las Patronas — a charitable organization of 12 women and two men — that, for more than two decades, has helped undocumented Central American migrants on their quest for a better life.

“One morning, when Romero Vasquez sisters were returning home from the store where they had bought some bread and milk for breakfast, a train crossed their path. As the first wagon was slowly sliding by, a group of people on board shouted: ‘Mother, we’re hungry.’ Then the second wagon passed by and the passengers repeated the request. Without having any idea who these people were, the sisters threw them the food and returned home empty-handed,” tells Guadalupe Gonzales, one of the group members.

After hearing the story, their mother, Leonida Vazquez, decided: if these people were hungry they needed to be fed. The whole family reunited to make a plan on how to distribute the food to the passengers who “obviously weren’t Mexicans since they had a strange accent.”

The next morning they made the very first 30 portions of rice, beans, eggs, tacos and water and delivered them to the migrants while the train was passing by.

Since then there hasn’t been a day that Las Patronas has stored their pots away. In fact, the pots have grown bigger and bigger over the course of the last 20 years. There were days when more than 700 portions were prepared daily, but when the Mexican National Migration Institute reinforced the control over the south Mexican border in 2014, the migrants changed their route, so now there are “only” a hundred of them passing by in La Patrona.

While at the beginning women had been buying food with their own money, the reputation about their arduous and altruistic work crossed the borders of their small community and brought them donations from educational institutions, companies, private organizations and individuals. They became active in the promotion of migrant’s human rights by lecturing on universities all over the republic. The biggest recognition from the Mexican state came in 2013 when the National Commission of Human Rights awarded Norma Romero Vazquez, the group leader, with the most prestigious human rights prize.

With the arrival of foreign journalists and movie makers, Las Patronas became internationally famous. More financial help poured in until the group was finally able to build a shelter for migrants who wanted to rest for a day or two before continuing their journey to the North.

As doña Guadalupe finished cleaning the beans and headed out to check the pots, I took a look around the place. When I entered the shelter I spotted a shy 15-year old boy named Jorge. He was one of the more than 400,000 Central American migrants, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, who flee yearly from the increasing gang- and drug-related violence that has spread extortion and death throughout their native countries.

Jorge, like the numerous other migrants, couldn’t afford to book a bus ticket or pay a “pollero” — a trafficker who organizes transportation for migrants — to get to the North. His only option for crossing Mexico was trying his luck on the cargo train, La Bestia (The Beast) that has gained a reputation for being highly dangerous. It’s not unusual for a migrant to fall off of it, ending up mutilated or even killed.

But La Bestia isn’t the only danger migrants face while crossing Mexican territory. According to Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano, a network of civil organizations fighting for migrant’s human rights, the least that an undocumented Central American can expect is a robbery, whether from organized crime or corrupt policemen and migration officers. The worst is death. And somewhere in between there are extortions, forced labor and violations. The Mexican cartel Zeta is in collaboration with Central American ‘maras,’ who kidnap about 20,000 migrants every year. Women are sold into prostitution and adolescents are most often forced to do drug-related work. As many of these migrants already have relatives living in the United States, the kidnappers often demand high ransom in exchange for the migrant’s freedom.

Jorge was peacefully lying on the bed, recuperating from a flu that had separated him from his fellow travelers. He was planning to leave the refuge the next day in order to reunite with them in the near town of Cordoba, where they could continue their trip to the border together. His gentle smile and serene look revealed no fear, just faith — a faith that because of groups like Las Patronas, despite all the atrocities awaiting him on the road, he would eventually reach his American Dream.

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