May 26, 2000


Environmental Refugees Still Fleeing Hurricane Mitch

EDITOR'S NOTE: Thousands of environmental refugees continue to flee to the U.S. some 18 months after Hurricane Mitch struck Honduras. Isabel Alvarado, who sells socks in the Fifth Street Market in Tegucigalpa, sees the dangerous and illegal journey north as her only escape route from the hurricane's devastation. Mary Jo McConahay transcribed and edited her account as a first-person essay.

By Isabel Alvarado
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE

TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS — The idea of migrating came at the end of November when I was left without a job, and began selling socks and other clothes in this market. I have a high school education, far more than what most women in this country can say. And I am an independent woman. I have never been pregnant. It occurred to me that, with the economic situation the way it is here, the only way to survive was to leave.



Isabel Alvarado at Fifth Street Market, with children of market women.

Before, I never considered going — there is so much uncertainty on the way, especially for women. But this man from Guatemala has taken up a girl from another market family, and that makes you feel more secure. I'm going with a niece of the woman who sells at the next booth over there.

The man said we would be eight at the most, men and women. It's costing each of us $2500. Some, like my neighbor's niece, got the money from family in the United States, but others like me had to borrow. We're supposed to wear comfortable shoes and bring a sweater, but only carry one change of clothes. We can't take a backpack or suitcase. They say the journey is all by land but there is a part between Guatemala and Mexico where you have to go on some kind of boat; that is the part that makes me afraid — I don't know how to swim.

My mother has been a market vendor all my life. Her mother was too, in a small village far from here, until she died in childbirth when my mother was 17. That's why my mother first came to the city, to support her brothers and sisters at home because she was the oldest. There was no man around that house — it was a typical case here, where the man abandons the woman.

Seven years ago, when my brother Juan Carlos was 20, he left for the States too, to Santa Ana, California, and worked in a furniture moving company. After about a year he stopped writing, and we don't know what happened to him. He left for the same reason I am leaving, to make our situation better. Here he worked for a company that milled flour, hauling the bags from the truck into the bakeries, and earned $75 a month. That is alright if you are single, but if you want to raise a family it is not enough.

Now me — I never imagined that I would be planning to migrate to the United States, because I have some political understandings. Twenty years ago, when I was just 11, I took advantage of an electronics workshop given by a women's improvement group. In the l980s, it was one of the groups that protested the policies of the United States in Honduras, and I liked the sit-ins, the protests, because even though I was young, I knew the policies didn't work for us, that they were the root of problems. I didn't like it that the Americans occupied the base at Palmerola. So now I'm going to America. It's difficult for me to assimilate this fact, but if you look at it from an economic point of view, you can understand it.

Before, when I had a salary I could pay rent on an apartment which cost $70 a month. Now I'm renting a small room for $35 a month, which is still too expensive. I can't go back to living with my mother, because in these years I have become an independent person.

But I have to find a way to construct someplace safe for my mother and the rest of the family to live. My father died of a heart attack in December, and our house is in a landslide area, one of those they call "high risk" since Hurricane Mitch (l998). It's a small wood plank house, and we don't fit. My twin sister who also sells here in the market lives in the house, too, with her daughter, who is 14, and so does a younger niece, the daughter of another sister who died last year of meningitis. She was 23.

My mother likes the idea of me migrating because it might be a chance — you never know — to make things better. But she doesn't like it because of the danger. There is violence in the streets and cities through which one must go, and when you get there.

Most women my age only leave their own homes to live with their husbands, or a man they have children with. But I've thought about this: What value does it have to be independent if you can't earn a living in your own country? It's helpful emotionally, not to have to live through what my mother or other women have lived, bearing up under violence, or with alcoholism, wondering how to keep children in school, how to continue going forward. Of course I want to have children, but I've always thought of it as an idea for two people, not one, and here most women who have children don't have the support of the father.

Now I'm going to the United States to work, but there is no way for someone like me, unmarried with no property, to get a visa, to go legally. The idea is to pick onions in Florida. I can pick other crops when the onions are finished.

Many women who travel north to make money become prostitutes, which earns them a lot. I don't think I have the emotional capacity to do this, although other women don't start out to be sex workers either — it seems to be something learned. I respect the women who do this because they have to, but I don't want to because I don't want to lose all I've accomplished so far, my way of respecting myself, all the learning I've done about being an independent woman. And now with AIDS, well, I know about it — you have to take care of yourself. The condoms are 90 percent sure, they say, but I am not considering this kind of work.

I'm not very religious, but I believe in God. I don't know where it comes from, but I have a kind of bravery about this going north, a faith it will work. I will miss my family, and the food and the habits will be strange where I'm going. It's incredible — this is the first time in my life I am going to be doing something illegal. But one has to adapt.

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