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‘The Other Side of the American Dream': Powerful Portraits Document the Abuse of Migrants Passing Through Mexico

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Mariana, 29 years old, Honduras. She was assaulted during her crossing as an undocumented person through mexico, with the intent to arrive in the United States. She was pushed by the assailants into a ravine, and was able to avoid an attempted rape. Mariana’s travel companion was beaten when she attempted to defend her. She was moved to a hospital in Tenosique, Tabasco, and then three others where they did not perform the necessary operation. Fifteen days had passed (8 days were in a Hospital in Villahermosa, Tabasco) and the operation became urgent. The last doctor that saw her only requested a new splint and a call to immigration. – Tapachula, Chiapas, 2010.

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Teofilo Santos Rivera, 42, Panamá. He was the victim of an attempted mass assault by gang members during the crossing through Mexico. He jumped off the roof of the train, hurting his feet. Also suffers from liver cirrhosis and a cancerous sore on the back. In January 2014, the doctor gave him only 40 days to live. His idea is to reach his children and grandchildren in the U.S. to say goodbye. – Tapachula, Chiapas, 2014.

For Al Otro Lado del Sueño, or The Other Side of the American Dream, photographer Nicola “Ókin” Frioli catalogues the heartbreak and devastation suffered by migrant families and individuals seeking security and stability in the United States. Having left El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, or Nicaragua in hopes of escaping from the gang violence that pervades much of Central America and delivering their families from the brink of economic collapse, a great number of men, women, and children pass through Mexico.

Through this treacherous passage, many are subjected to violent beatings, sexual abuse, kidnappings, and murder at the hands of the country’s gangs, including the Maras Salvatruchas, and corrupt officials operating within the system. Migrants often lose limbs under the heavy wagons of a vehicle known simply as “the beast,” a cargo train that transports them across the country in hopes of reaching the US.

Frioli began his project in 2008 by visiting the Shelter Jesus Buen Pastor in Tapachula, Chiapas, one of the Mexico’s Catholic shelters offering aid and medical care to injured migrants. Years later, he photographed in the Shelter of the Padre Solalinde, an Oaxaca-based shelter that provides short-term care for migrants. Here, Frioli gives a potent voice to these persons whose struggles remain largely invisible to the global public. In his stark images, the injured stand alone, confronting the fact that their bodies are irrevocably altered; for some, the loss of limbs has made it nearly impossible to work and provide for their families. Under Frioli’s dignified spotlight, they appear wounded but resilient, imbued with a palpable desire to endure. As their wounds fade to scars, their personal possessions remain alone against blackness, becoming lasting reminders of a shared humanity that transcends all borders.

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Wheelchair, adapted from a plastic garden seat. It is a work donated by the International Organization – Free Wheelchair Mission – (www.freewheelchair.org) to to the shelter “Jesus el Buen Pastor” in Tapachula. – Tapachula, Chiapas, 2008.

Al Otro Lado del Sueño has been exhibited by Spain’s Instituto Cervantes de Madrid as part of Resilencia from 2009 to 2011 and in the Expo Fotoperiodismo the following year. In 2013, Frioli was chosen by the Bancomer BBVA Foundation as a grant recipient of the Fund to Support the Promotion of Cultural Arts.

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Gonzalo, turned 22 during his trip as an undocumented person in Mexico. His family in Honduras hopes that he’ll make it to the U.S. He left a message on this board for his wife and 9 month old daughter: “Lorena, Rafaela, I miss you a lot. Back soon ” – Ixtepec, Oaxaca, 2011.

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The Backpack of Salvador Santo. Salvador Santo, 21, has written inside the phone number of a relative in Honduras. The need to hide information to prevent abductions and extortion of family while he crosses Mexico. According to the National System of Public Security (SNSP), abductions reported to the Attorney General in 2013 were more than 3,600 cases compared to 1,259 in 2012. – D.F., Mexico, 2014.

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Wendy fled from Honduras with her three children (Jared of 18 months, Jazmin of 3 years, and Eduardo of 8) because of the attempted murder she suffered by her husband, a member of the Mara Salvatrucha 18, one of two of the largest gangs in Central America. The complaint filed against her husband for domestic and sexual violence towards her and their three children had no solution in Honduras due to corruption. – Tapachula, Chiapas, 2014.

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Armando, El Salvador. His destination was the United States, but he was deported in Baja California while riding in the cargo train crossing Mexico. He wanted to retry the trip as undocumented via Tenosique, Tabasco. This time, while trying to get on the train, he fell and the very train amputated his arm. He awaits the document certifying him as a refugee. – Tapachula, Chiapas, 2014.

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Water bottle with loop, owned by Benjamin Chavarrie, 40, originally from El Salvador. The loop serves to carry water while traveling on the roof of the Beast. – D.F., Mexico, 2014.

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Anonymous with daughters hidden behind the cardboard to protect their identity. The message says “I have worked with drug traffickers (in Honduras) to support my family, until I fled for the safety of my children.” In Central America, one of the few jobs available is drug trafficking. – Tapachula, Mexico, 2014.

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The husband’s hat. The husband of Lydia (Honduras) died two years ago from brain trauma during an impact against the train. It was the only item returned to Lydia when they delivered the body. She is traveling on foot with a caravan of undocumented migrants headed by Father Solalinde from the shelter “Brothers on the way.” D.F., Mexico, 2014

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The Rosary. It was given to Elsa Santos Mateo (28, Honduras) by her employer in Guatemala to protect her during her journey. -D.F., Mexico, 2014.

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Grandma’s House. Drawing done by a 6 year old Honduran girl. Her greatest desire is to return there with her grandmother. – D.F., Mexico, 2014.

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“I’m 14 years old and I travel with my brother. I want to arrive to the border line. During the trip on top of the (beast) I had a wasp attack. My name is Yimi” – Ixtepec, Oaxaca, 2011.

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Yenifer, 8, Guatemala. She suffered, along with her 12 year old sister and 11 other migrants, an automobile accident in Chiapas. The accident was caused by a flat front tire of the truck they boarded. The only person who died was the driver. They wanted to reach the U.S. – Tapachula, Chiapas, 2014.

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 “I’m 21, from Guatemala; while in the U.S. my brother, Danilo, and I were deported, and my brother Medardo was killed. In the end, I lost everything and I keep trying. ” – Ixtepec, Oaxaca, 2011.

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Brian Francisco of Honduran origin, born in Canada. Although he and his sister have a Canadian passport, they travel with their undocumented mother in the same conditions. While in Honduras he was assaulted with a gun to his head by a friend’s trafficker father. On his board he wrote, “My mother was deported and they returned us to Honduras. I am 15 and do not want to suffer anymore. “- Tapachula, Chiapas, 2014.

Images © Nicola “Ókin” Frioli 2014

  • LP1989

    Framing the desire to live safely away from violence, surrounded by opportunities for growth, and within a positive, nurturing environment as “The American Dream” is very unsettling. Even if it’s “the other side” of it we’re looking at, safety is actually a basic human right, and I can’t help but feel conflicted by the use of this analogy…

  • HardWorkPays

    Yes. And there is abuse and poverty across the Pacific, and in the former Soviet Union, and in Africa. This is fact and tragedy far beyond the US’s ability to address, much less solve.

    There are many who feel otherwise. They think we should be doing something. I suggest those who feel that way take the resources they have to any number of charitable organizations working to improve the lives of people living in those countries while they are still in those countries. Our government exists to serve our country’s interests and, as cruel as it may seem, it is not in our interests to let all these people in. We could not even do it in the interest of fairness, otherwise we would have to open all our borders to anyone who could make it across the Atlantic or the Pacific.

  • Jennifer Esperanza

    Blessings & Love to all who struggle & suffer in this harsh world. Thank You for this powerful project . for these images. May the hearts & minds open that need to. May there be more Kindness on this earth.

  • LP1989

    If this is in response to the previous; that is definitely not where I was going with my comment… I was implying that basic rights should not be likened to “the american dream” because they are EVERYONE’s dream… and in fact, the american dream analogy most often refers to a complacent, consumerist lifestyle, (get a job, marry, buy a car, buy house, have 2 kids and a dog) which is why I found it kind of inappropriate in this context.

    To further comment on your statements; from simple observation one can easily see that “our government” exists to serve the interests of no one but the owners of big money corporations. The same interests that have wreaked environmental, social and economic havoc virtually everywhere south of the border (and even within it), creating unlivable situations for entire communities, reason why so many risk their lives to leave!

    We’re all in real deep trouble… that’s the bottom line.

  • HardWorkPays

    My comment was not in response to yours, but in response to the article. I find it interesting, however, the disdain in which you hold the owners of “big money corporations”. Have you ever looked at the ownership structure of most of these “big money corporations” – particularly the ones that trade on the stock market? You will be amazed to find so many institutional holders, like Franklin Templeton and Janus and AllianceBernstein. When one looks further into the ownership, on realizes that the people who have invested in these funds are regular folk, putting their money away for the future, looking for returns higher than CD rates. These are the big owners. Even Walmart is only 50% owned by the Waltons.

    I also like your reference to how big business is supposedly weakening environmental regulations to the detriment of the common man. Have you seen how government regulations to preserve what I personally think is a pretty insignificant fish – the smelt – are causing the authorities to dump so much water into the San Francisco Bay?

    You know why we are in real trouble? Because we have given up rational thought. We jump on the popular idea, believing that, because it is popular, it must be right. Like how corporations and individuals are actually very different, and how people aren’t responsible for their actions and the consequences – someone else is.

    The people south of the border have chosen a form of government that has led to this crisis. Other countries, faced with similar problems, have taken action and gotten better (Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, even Indonesia…certainly Chile and Korea and Taiwan). Other countries have gotten much worse (most of Africa). But they took action, because it was their responsibility, not someone else’s.

  • David Goddard

    I think the main point in the debate over the desperation of the people is that they live in a world they can not fix. That’s a reality. They are not stupid or uneducated. They are trapped by people much more powerful and dangerous. One can’t just say let’s have a democracy and fix things – how easy is that!? The other countries you mention are bastions of capitalism and have been for decades – over half a century for all of them. Singapore? WTF? There is no analogy here. Why don’t you try Sudan or Palestine or even Mexico. If you believe you are in some way superior to other life forms and their human caused declines are not important then you are not listening to your world. No smelt, no salmon. No salmon, no… Get it? And finally if you’d like to go at it over the market – have at it – I’m a former trader turned furniture maker due in part to disgust over the insane world of our economic system – Our government’s blind eye or complacency over unpaid taxes or migration to offshore tax shelters and cheap labor which means child laborers, 16, 17 , 18 hour days 7 days a week unsafe conditions for the workers and environment, Ceo and Hedge Fund managers making millions and even billions of dollars a year. It’s all insider trading
    ….. And finally, if you think “regular folk” like the Waltons who made more money than the bottom 30% of American workers are the heart beat of the market, get over it. The era of the “regular” investor – really an upper middle to upper class individual actually in some way effecting a corporation is ridiculous. Are you fricking kidding me? The Waltons?

  • HardWorkPays

    If you are going to argue with me, would you please make the effort to at least understand what I am saying, and the facts? Singapore was, for the longest time, a dictatorship – as were Korea and Taiwan (read up on the history of Park Chung Hee and the Kuomintang, if you like).

    No smelt, no salmon…yeah – but the stupidity of that comment is how it (and the liberals who advocate it) is the inability to recognize there may be two sides to the argument…sort of like “no water, no crops…no crops, no food…no food” – you with me so far?

    If you are a former trader, I will give you the benefit of the doubt and hope that you went into furniture making because you loved furniture, not because you were incompetent at what you did (which, since I do not know you, is entirely possible). A blind eye to the migration to offshore tax shelters? What do you think the settlements with Switzerland and the various private banks around the world has resulted from? And child labor? Seriously, let’s talk about China…those people did not have jobs, for crying out loud…and many of them (myself included) – millions, in fact, if you look at India as well – are prepared, willing, even wanting to work those long hours because they make our lives materially better.

    And if you have proof that all these CEOs and hedge fund managers are all trading on inside information, then put up – or shut up. I’d like to know how many CEOs you actually know, how many hedge fund managers you actually hung out with on a regular basis as to make such a sweeping generalization such as that. I know quite a few, and have worked with them, and they are as honest as the day is long.
    Your problem is you think everyone deserves to be as wealthy as the Waltons. Seriously – get over it. This is the land of equal opportunity, not equal outcome.

    Are you fricking kidding me, bashing a family that has for generations worked hard to build what they have, and employ more people than you ever will in 30 of your communist – leaning lifetimes?

    The world you want exists in Cuba or North Korea, where capitalism and individual initiative are rejected in favor of the collective. Why don’t you go over there and see how well your furniture making business works out?

  • David Goddard

    The first rule in debate is not to insult your opponent. Once you do that you devalue your argument and there is no point in continuing. Like many people, I left one career to follow my heart and my head. I owned a design firm for over twenty years, and yes, between my clients and my background I have met and worked with some incredible people. My materials, product and people were all American – I like that made in America idea. I’m hardly incompetent – I have degrees in political theory as well as philosophy and design – and I’m not a communist, although we live in a country where that possibility is one of my freedoms. It’s obvious our worlds and world view are polar opposites. Peace

  • Timothy Moody

    This is so sad my Heart goes out to these people .

  • SC

    Amazing photos! However, it would be interesting to see a photo documentary of why these people want to leave their country and make the dangerous trip to the US. Expose the harsh conditions and corrupt governments in their home countries and maybe things will start to change. Better living and working conditions in their home countries could ebb the flow of people taking the very dangerous journey to the US. Just a thought!

  • Veronica Aleman

    @HardWorkPays:disqus

    You’re seriously defending the WALTONS?? Have you ever been inside a Wal-Mart? Do you know how their employees are treated?

    “They employee so many people, that makes them good, alright folks!” You know who else employed a lot of people? Hitler. What a fucken stupid argument.

  • HardWorkPays

    Yes, I am defending the Waltons, as should everyone else who is able to buy things there that they might not afford elsewhere. I am defending the Waltons because their business model provides jobs for a staggering 1% of the US working population, and 2.4MM people overall.

    When you can provide employment for all those people, providing them with a job and a salary they might not have otherwise, then perhaps you might be correct – it would be a silly argument to make. But until you can create a company that provides some form of employment and puts at least some food on that many tables, then I suggest you reconsider your position.