Earlier this year, Lourdes*, a 25-year-old woman from Mexico, posted a selfie of herself on Facebook, along with camping gear.
“Ready for the road friends,” her status said.
She wasn’t leaving for a weekend holiday, though. She planned to cross into the U.S. without authorization and join her girlfriend. This was the first time she’d ever tried crossing.
Just a few days after posting her selfie, Lourdes checked into Facebook from Mexicali, the town that borders Calexico, California.
“Friends and family say a prayer for me, and my three friends - in a few minutes we are going to try (to cross).” she wrote. “Please, give me your best wishes and prayers, I will thank you with my heart, and thank you God for letting me make it this far, and I ask that you don’t forget me, guide us.”
Comments from friends back home flooded in. “Lord...accompany them in this voyage. Let them make it to their destination...Let them soon reunite with family and friends!!”
Some of the most compelling stories about illegal immigration are not in a book, a movie, or even told by a reporter: they are captured by young immigrants themselves, in Facebook posts, photographs, and yes, selfies.
Facebook, in particular, stands out as a popular way to keep in touch. Even back in 2011, 30 million Mexicans were online and nearly all had Facebook profiles.
The trend extends beyond Mexican migrants. Increasingly, more people are making the journey north from Central America, documenting the trip as they go.
It’s fitting that migrants are using Facebook. The company's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has been a vocal advocate of immigration reform and co-founded an advocacy group to promote the cause. While Zuckerberg may know more about immigration in the tech world, his platform serves as a vital way for travelers to communicate as they head north.
“Walking down the tracks to catch the Beast -- Feeling Blessed,” reads a Facebook status by Wilmer, from El Salvador.
Unlike Lourdes, this is not Wilmer’s first try. It’s his seventh. We met him in Villahermosa, near the Mexico-Guatemala border. He’s made many trips on “the beast,” the freight train that carries thousands of Central Americans as stowaways en route to the U.S. border. He says as a youth he refused to be recruited by gangs in his village.
He’s now 30, and has spent the last decade or so in the revolving door that is the U.S.-Mexico border. Every time he tried to go to the U.S., he’d get caught by immigration, or mugged by gangs that terrify travelers, and then have to return home.
Not everyone travels with a cellphone. After all, many migrants are escaping poverty in their own native countries. We met Jorge, for instance, in early May. He was a 22-year-old migrant heading from Honduras to Houston, and he occasionally stopped in Internet cafes to post updates along the way.
Jorge’s Facebook is wallpapered with selfies of himself riding on top of the beast. Like any other young guy, Jorge is flexing: he rocks a tight-fitting graphic tee, gelled hair, and makes a peace sign at the camera. The difference is, unlike most other young guys looking their best on Facebook, he’s sitting atop a freight train that is routinely assaulted by drug cartels and kidnappers.
Just as social media can capture the hopefulness of the trip, it can also serve as an outlet for despair.
We met with Lourdes two months after she arrived in Mexicali. Her enthusiasm had turned into frenetic frustration. She was chain smoking anxiously, and often got choked up when talking about how she’d tried to cross about three times, and had gotten lost in the mountainous terrain, or just got too exhausted and had to turn back. In a video she gave us permission to publish, she films herself, limping in the desert, talking to her girlfriend. “We’re heading back,” she tells her, pointing out the terrain that the group had crossed overnight at the direction of a pollero, or guide. She says they’ve lost their way, and one of her companions got scared.
“My love I felt something,” she says in the video. “You know I never give up. But I had this premonition… I didn’t feel right… One person scared us. He was really scared, and he scared us… and I hurt my foot. So I’ve decided to head back. I’m sorry, but this is not the end. I’m just telling you, these guys aren’t going to make it. We still have four more nights to go. My love, I’m sorry, I love you. I love you. Look, look at all this.“
When we met Lourdes, she was at a shelter in Mexicali that houses migrants. She was talking about crossing alone through La Rumorosa, a mountainous terrain where migrants are frequently assaulted. She felt that the large groups she’d been attempting to cross with were easily detected by immigration police, and she was tired of getting lost using other people’s directions. A local activist warned her crassly: If you go alone, the least that will happen to you is a gang rape.
She kept trying to cross in a group, and failing. A Facebook post addressed to her girlfriend in the U.S. was downright despondent.
“Today was a new challenge,” she wrote. “After four hours just waiting for the right moment, with gusts of wind and so much cold; and I had no sweater, just a shirt and sandals. And I couldn’t even open my eyes because of the sand, oh man, I even had sand in my ears. But we couldn’t make it, and I had to turn back. They told me to rest my body, because we’re going to try and make it again today. I only want to be with you, and I feel sad about the freezing night, and so tense even my head ached. I hurt so much, and I love you so much, that is all I know. I am sorry. -- Feeling sad.”
Not all of the posts are dramatic. For every shot atop a train, there are also more mundane pictures you would expect: the silly memes, duck face pictures, shots of sexy girls. Lourdes took stoic selfies in the middle of the desert, and more on the bed of a shelter on the border. Jorge marvelled at Mexico City’s architecture as he passed through. Lourdes celebrated her birthday in a migrant shelter with fellow travelers.
After we leave Mexicali, Lourdes doesn’t post about crossing for months.
We had heard stories about that happening. An activist told us about David, a 13-year-old Honduran migrant she befriended. David started getting involved with a rough crowd on the journey up north, and then one day his Facebook status updates ended. That was two years ago. The young man’s Facebook page is now packed with messages from friends asking him where he is. “Hey buddy, happy birthday...please let me know you’re ok?” writes a friend in 2013, a year after David’s last post.
We left Mexicali in March, wondering if Lourdes had decided to cross alone after all, and gotten hurt. Or maybe, like so many others, she figured it was difficult, and gave up on crossing, but was too embarrassed to say so.
A few months later, she posts to let her family know she made it safely to the US.
We ask her what happened in those months that she was silent on Facebook. She told me she tried to cross four more times. “On one of those tries, I fainted,” she said. “I’d tried too many times, and I wasn’t eating well.”
On the seventh try, she made it through.
We ask if she minds sharing the video of her becoming upset during her aborted crossing in the desert. She says yes, but asks that we publish a statement: she says she wants people to know the motivations for crossing.
“It’s not a crime to try and get ahead,” she says. “It’s not a crime to work to give your children something better. I don’t know why people don’t understand our poverty, our sadness. We deserve respect, we deserve a chance to work, and to live well, and to study.”
Later on, she adds a “life event” to her wall: She finally quit smoking.
*Editors Note: All names in this story have been changed to protect the subjects. All photographs have been used with permission, and some images have been altered to protect identities.