The days that we don’t see the suffering of others are few. We have learned to let our feelings of helplessness wipe our conscience and we move on, forgetting that we are not required to heal the suffering of all mankind, but to do the best we can, every day, with what we have available to us. In the case of Norma Romero Vásquez, the decision not to remain indifferent saved hundreds, perhaps thousands of people from death.
Norma’s story began in 1995, next to a railway track. She was waiting with her sister, with whom she had gone to buy milk and bread for breakfast, for the Beast to pass. That was the name given to the fast trains that passed two or three times a day through their village in a mountainous area of Mexico. They had seen people clinging to freight trains or getting on wagons several times, but they thought they were adventurers who travelled without paying. That morning, however, they would discover a little more of such people’s shocking story.
“Madre, we’re hungry!” From each rail car came the same shout. Without thinking, they took the boxes of milk and bread and threw them on the train, which rapidly receded into the distance. They could pass now, only they had nothing left to eat. They feared their mother’s reaction, but instead of admonishing them, she helped them come up with a plan.
They would prepare 30 simple servings a day with rice, beans, and tortillas—the traditional Mexican corn pies. They would then pour water in bottles, which they tied with a string two by two. They would wait for the train and throw food and water to those they had discovered to be Central American immigrants trying to enter the United States illegally through Mexico.
Because some trains stopped near their village, they also went there with food. This time, they could listen to their stories. Most came from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. They were leaving because they had lost hope that they could do something back home to support their families. Many had gone through civil wars; others had their houses devastated by hurricanes.
They travelled for 20 days or more, some perched on freight cars they could not enter, through pouring rain or scorching sun. They knew they were in danger of not even reaching the US border; they had heard of the guards beating up those who boarded the trains, of the gangs of organ traffickers who controlled the railways, of the thefts, rapes, and abductions, of the mutilated or those who were dying crushed by trains from which they had fallen due to carelessness or exhaustion.
Among the immigrants were an increasing number of women, even children. Norma, her sister, and mother were joined by other women from the village, so they could prepare more portions. Some of them were the spouses of immigrants settled in Mexico, so they knew how important their help was. They called themselves Las Patronas, after the name of their village, Guadalupe la Patrona.
One of the oldest women remembered the years when trains did not come with people. “Then more and more people started climbing on them. They looked like flies stuck to wagons. I believe that what we are doing now is what our parents have taught us: to respect people and, above all, to love them. Love costs nothing.”
But not everyone in the village agreed. Some even complained to the local authorities, but the authorities could not stop them. In the end, they gave away their food, and didn’t steal from anyone. Las Patronas often housed immigrants who were in poor health due to travel. They then built a kitchen on an inherited piece of land to make room for the women who joined them. Among them was also Norma’s sister-in-law, Guadalupe Gonzalez, who had doubts at first.
“I used to think, ‘Why would I do that?’ Until one day more than 500 people got off a train and surrounded my car. I thought they wanted to beat me, but they were asking for help. I will never forget that woman who knelt in front of my house. We should only kneel before God, but despair pushes these people to beg for our help.”
For ten years, not a day went by that Las Patronas did not cook for immigrants, without receiving any help and without being known by anyone—no one except the hundreds of people for whom the few seconds they saw them from the train offering them food were a proof of humanity and a cause for hope. It was not easy for the women, since some of them had problems with their husbands at home, but the thought that those on the trains had bigger problems and needs than theirs helped them to move on. In 2005, a Mexican documentary about immigrants, De Nadie, made their story known, so small donations began to support their efforts.
From a humanitarian action, their effort has also turned into an activist movement, symbolizing resistance in the face of a system in which the only ones held responsible are immigrants. In 2013, Las Patronas received the National Award for Human Rights, the most important distinction in Mexico in this field. In front of all the politicians present, fearlessly, directly, and plainly, Norma reproached them for not getting involved. They then lost some of their state aid, but if they had managed for almost 20 years without the help of the authorities, they could move on knowing they had done their duty to tell the truth.
Twenty years of helping the immigrants has left Norma—considered the leader of the group and the one who put the most soul and enthusiasm in Las Patronas—with a single conclusion: “The need to believe that there is more out there than baseness and abandonment is stronger than any wall, any river, any mafia, any crisis. It is the power of those who have nothing to lose.” Nothing but hope. In addition to the portion of food, what Las Patronas does is throw from the edge of a railway track a piece of hope that immigrants can believe that, at the end of their journey, they will find the same kind of people.