Jessenia and Armando López crossed the Suchiate River from Guatemala into Mexico on a hired raft of wood planks lashed to giant inner tubes.
The raftsman pegged them immediately as undocumented migrants and charged them ten times the usual fare, even though Jessenia thought she had disguised herself as a local lady by wearing platform shoes and carrying all her belongings in a homemaker’s plastic shopping bag. She had managed to bathe and wash her clothes daily since they had left Nicaragua—in Mexico, Jessenia reminded her husband, thieves and officials identify migrants not only by their packs and caps and dirty walking sneakers, but also by the smell of their bodies on crowded buses. She put on makeup and perfume every morning, and dangling earrings. These were the rituals that gave her momentum, a certain degree of calm: launder, improve appearance, pray.
When they reached the Mexican side of the river, Armando unloaded the used mountain bicycle they had bought in Guatemala, and they waited while a uniformed soldier on the riverbank rifled indifferently through Jessenia’s bag, explaining that he was looking for weapons or drugs. Then the soldier assessed them a ten-dollar bribe, and the Lópezes got on the bicycle and began to ride north.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of Central Americans cross illegally into Mexico—400,235, to cite one oddly precise estimate from the Mexican National Institute of Migration—along the country’s southern border, which angles over 750 miles of river and volcanic slope and jungle at the top of Central America. Nobody knows exactly how many of those migrants are headed to the United States, but most put that figure at 150,000 or more a year, and the pace of illegal migration north has picked up dramatically over the past decade, propelled in part by the lingering aftermath of the 1970s and ’80s civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. In depictions of this modern Latin American migration into the United States, the image of a great wave is often invoked, and Mexico’s southern border today feels like the place in distant water where the wave first rises and swells and gathers uncontainable propulsive force.