“Because I was there. And just like I needed a letter or needed to hear someone tell me ‘Don’t worry, you’re not alone,” Veronica begins to explain. “The fact that I’m here is thanks to the organizations and the people who donated without knowing me, without knowing who I was, and they were there for me. So, in that same way I’m here to support other people.”
Speaking by phone from her home in Northern California, Veronica explains the motivation behind her decision to begin writing letters and receive calls from people who are locked up in detention centers across the country just as she once was. Veronica spent seven months detained at the James A. Musick Facility in Orange County before being released on a $15,000 bond that was paid for through donations that organizations received in fundraising campaigns.
Veronica first presented herself at the U.S.-Mexico border in November 2017 to seek asylum after traveling for more than a month through Mexico as part of a caravan of 300-400 mostly Central American migrants and refugees. The trip consisted of long stretches on foot as well as riding on La Bestia, or The Beast. La Bestia refers to the dangerous freight trains migrants use to make their way north through Mexico, and where they face the possibility of being robbed or kidnapped.
In the first month after her arrival in Tapachula in southern Mexico, she did not know about migrant caravans. Most people outside of the immigrant rights movement in Mexico had not yet heard about such caravans. For Veronica, who fled her home in El Salvador after local gangs threatened her, traveling with the caravan was the only option to find a new life away from her beloved but dangerous El Salvador.
It was in her travels with the caravan, on board the freight trains and on the arduous walks, where she says she first learned to organize, to lead, to discover new horizons and to fight for not only her own rights, but for those of her immigrant brothers and sisters.
Q: When did you first arrive in Tapachula?
A: It was like the sixth or seventh of October because I remember Oct. 9 was when the caravan left Tapachula.
Q: So you left Tapachula and traveled by caravan?
A: Yes, I traveled in the 2017 caravan — Vía Crucis Guadalupano.
Q: Why did you decide to travel like that, in the caravan?
A: “Believe me, really, that I didn’t know that the caravans existed. Because if I would have known at that time I would have come with my two kids and I’d have my two kids with me. For me, it was like a surprise and a blessing to have found the caravan. And well, people would join since there is a lot of crime (in Tapachula), both from people in the streets and the corrupt police. And so people began to realize that if they joined, it was an easier way to reach our goal, which was the United States.
Q: So, it’s safer?
A: That’s right. There’s more security. Look, a lot of people, like me, don’t have money. They travel on trains and on the trains there’s also gangs, thieves, they rape women, they rob them, it’s a complete disaster. And on the contrary, coming by caravan, well there’s more of us. We take care of each other, we help each other and this way we manage to stay safe.
Q: A lot of people in the U.S. first learned about migrant caravans in 2018 with one in the spring, but perhaps even more so after the large Central American Exodus in the fall, but you were part of a caravan in 2017. So obviously caravans existed before the two in 2018?
A: Yes, actually they did. I think there were two, or one before mine. I don’t remember. But even before that there have been (caravans). The thing about the caravans is they go back a while because there have also been caravans of mothers who are searching for their children.
Q: So you traveled for almost a month?
A: Yes, almost a month. It’s because we also stayed almost a week in Mexico City because the caravan I was in split up. So we had to wait. But yes, it was very ... I think it was one of the most important experiences of my life.
Veronica purchases paper to write letters of solidarity to people who are detained. (Photo courtesy of Alex Mensing)
Q: The caravan?
A: The act of the caravan. I mean, everything about the caravan. Because for me the caravan was like a life saver.
Imagine, a woman fleeing her country, trying to survive with no money, no financial support, without really anything to do, just looking for a place to take refuge and continue on in this life. And suddenly they tell me about the caravan and I said “what’s that?” I mean, I had no idea. They said “Well, it’s a group of people who are walking all the way to the border” and who knows what. In my mind I said, “They’re going to walk all the way to the border?” But they’re not going to last, I would say. Then I started thinking about my options and I realized that I had nothing, that that was my best option. They were going to arrive somewhere and I was going to be there. So I joined them without much thought. I just saw my opportunity and I walked. I walked with them.
Q: What was your goal or plan when you finally arrived at the border? Or did you have a goal?
A: Well, you see, I really didn’t have the idea of being over here in the United States because I thought that the only people who could come here were the people with money to pay for a “coyote,” families or marry an American. And well, I didn’t have any of those options. I didn’t have money, I didn’t have family, I didn’t have family over here, or any support. So my idea was to stay somewhere along the border. So as we got to Tijuana I thought of staying there.
Tijuana is a very beautiful place, but at the same time it’s very violent. I started to look around and I said it’s too dangerous here. That’s when I decided to enter the United States to ask for asylum.
Q: How long were detained after you presented yourself at the port of entry?
A: Seven months.
Q: Where was that?
A: (James A.) Musick, in California.
Q: The last time we spoke you were reflecting back on when you were released from the detention center. Can you share a bit about what that was like for you?
A: It’s, it’s nostalgia, but at the same time painful. They’re like mixed feelings because the day I left that place, I left that place, but many didn’t get out. Many were deported back to their countries. Others are here and we still keep in contact with some. We say hi and remember those moments, which were very difficult for all of us at the time.
Q: Were you released on bond?
A: Yes, that's right. With a $15,000 bond and an ankle monitor on my foot.
Veronica spends her evening writing letters of support for people who are detained in immigrant detention centers across the United States. (Photo courtesy of Alex Mensing)
A flier for an event where Veronica spoke about her experience seeking asylum, and also led a letter-writing workshop to support others who were detained. (Photo courtesy of Alex Mensing)
Q: After being released, how was it that you began writing letters to people still detained? Where did that idea come from?
A: Being in a detention (center) is really difficult because even if people have family here it’s not easy to visit. On the other hand, writing letters and receiving a letter is a beautiful feeling. It’s like they give you hope. You are there inside and you don’t really know what’s happening on the outside or how your family is doing, how are your friends or what’s going to happen, you know?
So that confinement stresses you out, it makes you sad. It gives you a thousand feelings at the same time, but when the mail arrives and many receive their letters and you don’t even receive one, I mean, it's sad. On the contrary, when you receive a letter, it doesn’t matter that you don’t know that person. The important thing is knowing that someone took the time to send you a letter, to write a couple of words and say that they support you, that they are there with you and that, God willing, everything will be fine. It was because of this experience that I went through for seven months, since I didn't have family here, I decided that when I got out the first thing I wanted to do was write letters and make the girls (inside) feel that they were not alone, that there was a world out here fighting to make things better.
Q: How did you start having these events where people could write letters to people in detention?
A: Because when I left, I began speaking with Pueblo Sin Fronteras and other other organizations here in San Francisco, to think about trying to make change in a different way. To work differently than what was already being done and that a letter was very important and receiving calls from people who are detained was very important. That’s how we began organizing with other groups over here and we began to have events where we would raise money and the people who came would take the time to write a letter to any of the names we had (for people) who were detained.
Q: What have been some of the most important moments in the last, more than, two years?
A: One of the most important accomplishments is having my son with me. Those moments (apart) were difficult because of the agony and the worrying. The fact that the journey is so dangerous, and after, when he was detained, it was really difficult. But now he’s with me and that keeps me calm and happy. The other accomplishment we’ve had as a family, and a great blessing, is that my sister won her asylum and that gives me tranquility and happiness. Economically, we’re not doing as well as we’d like to be, but as long as we have enough to cover basic necessities we’re OK.
The biggest problem that affects us all, even if some of us are better off economically than others, is the loneliness. The fact that your family is so far away, the time, the distance, not being able to share with your family is what I think hurts us the most.
(Photo courtesy of Alex Mensing)
Q: What has it been like for you throughout this pandemic?
A: Very hard. Remember, I don’t have a work permit and because of that, I can’t get unemployment to have some kind of support. Believe me, these have been really difficult times, to the point I even got sick.
Q: From COVID-19?
A: Yes, I was sick with COVID-19 for almost a month. I even went to the hospital. You realize that you’re alone here. It’s not easy being far from your family. And this pandemic came and ruined the lives for a lot of people — economically and emotionally since so many people have lost family members.
And I think some of the hardest blows were taken by immigrants because we can’t get unemployment or anything because every job requires you to have your papers. I think we’ve been some of the most impacted.
Well, it’s essential that we work, but they don’t want to give us any type of support or stability, which is what we want. Because we don’t want handouts, we also don’t expect to get paid for doing nothing. We just want work permits to be able to work freely and keep striving for what we want.