Before the Lópezes left Managua, they had heard the counsel repeated now in certain poor neighborhoods of Central America: If you are leaving for El Norte, find Padre Flor Maria Rigoni in the city of Tapachula, 20 miles north of the border, because the first dangerous crossing you will make is not the one that takes you into the United States. It is at the southern Mexican border where the perils begin—the thugs, the drug runners, the extortionists in official uniforms, the police and migration agents who pack undocumented migrants into detention facilities before forcing them onto buses to be deported. The Tapachula migration station was recently rebuilt, to hold 960 migrants and process them more quickly; the southward-bound buses roll out every morning before dawn.
The Lópezes rode for hours in the 90-degree heat, Jessenia standing on blocks attached to both sides of the bicycle’s rear wheel. She carried her shopping bag in the crook of her arm and kept her hands on Armando’s shoulders as he pedaled, avoiding migration checkpoints by veering at intervals off the pavement and onto dirt paths. They had remarkably good luck. No one assaulted them with machetes or rifles or handmade pistols fashioned from PVC pipes stuffed with gunpowder; no one beat Armando and dragged Jessenia into the weeds; no one forced them to undress so that their body cavities and secret sewn-in clothing pockets could be examined for hidden money. No passing taxi driver decided to collect a payoff that day by alerting muggers or immigration officials that a vulnerable-looking couple was approaching on the road.
Toward the end of the afternoon Armando pedaled into the outskirts of Tapachula, rounded a curving downhill past an untended field of banana trees, and came to a stop at the wide red doors of the Casa del Migrante, where Padre Rigoni took them in.
Flor Maria Rigoni is a wiry 64-year-old Italian priest who speaks six languages, has a cascading gray beard, uses a thin mattress on the floor for a bed, and wears a wooden cross jammed like a holstered weapon into the belt of his cotton vestments. His Casa del Migrante is a nerve center, an improvised message and transit depot, and an international sanctuary. He first arrived in Mexico more than 20 years ago, dispatched from his previous posting among Italian migrants in Germany.