MEXICO CITY – It is the first time that Hilda has held a paintbrush, but she’s happy with the result. She painted herself, her three daughters and her husband all smiling on a mural on a school in central Mexico City.
The smiles and the brilliant colours, however, mask the pain of assaults and rapes on her journey north from Guatemala.
This mural is part of a project meant to help bring Central American migrants and their stories out of the shadows in Mexico, a country that is hosting an increasing number of them at a time when the Trump administration in the U.S. has become more vocally hostile to their migration.
“You can’t live in my country anymore,” she said. “Right now I’m scared … because in June my oldest daughter was raped and I’m just waiting for them to finish school to bring them here.” Hilda said she was raped as well and her husband nearly killed when they crossed the border to Mexico. The Associated Press withheld her full name because it does not identify victims of sexual assault.
Hilda said she will apply for refugee status in Mexico when her daughters arrive, and hoped that the mural sharing the thoughts and feelings of migrants would help society look on them more kindly.
The project launched by local nonprofits is supported by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The idea “is to break down stereotypes, leave accounts of the passage of migrants and pull them out of invisibility,” said Luis Nava, member of the Tres Gatos collective and an organizer of the program that started two years ago at a migrant shelter in the central state of San Luis Potosi.
Mexico has hosted large numbers of Central American refugees in the past, especially during the region’s civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s. But in recent years it has been better known as a perilous passageway to the United States in which northbound migrants often have been preyed upon by criminal gangs who rape, rob, kidnap and kill.
From January through May, Mexico saw 5,464 applications for refugee status compared to 3,424 in all of 2015. The U.N. refugee agency said there could be 20,000 applications this year, nearly all coming from citizens of the so-called Northern Triangle countries — Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — driven by gang violence.
Before the migrants started painting, the organizers held workshops where they sketched their hopes and dreams. A muralist helped transfer them to the wall, said Emmanuel Enriquez from the organization Habitajes.
“It’s nice,” said Marvin Gutierrez of El Salvador. “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be in Mexico,” he painted on the wall.
In addition to being therapeutic for the migrants, the murals have created a sense of community.
The first in San Luis Potosi converted the shelter from a place associated with violence to a gathering place, Nava said. “That’s why we know this project works.”