Jeremy Schwartz, Austin-American Statesman, August 23, 2006
Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo — On a misty, moonless night, the group scurried down the canyon wall, their feet slipping in the ankle-high mud. The sirens grew louder as their guide, clad in a ski mask and known only as Poncho, urged them to run faster. “Hurry up! The Border Patrol is coming!”
A couple in matching designer tennis outfits loped awkwardly along, the boyfriend clutching a digital video camera and struggling to keep the pop-out screen steady.
The 20 or so people fleeing the fictional Border Patrol weren’t undocumented immigrants; they were tourists about 700 miles from the border. Most are well-heeled professionals more likely to travel to the United States in an airplane than on foot.
They’ve each paid 150 pesos — about $15 — for what is perhaps Mexico’s strangest tourist attraction: a night as an illegal immigrant crossing the Rio Grande.
Advertising for the mock journey, which takes place at a nature park in the central state of Hidalgo, tells the pretend immigrants to “Make fun of the Border Patrol!” and to “Cross the Border as an Extreme Sport!”
As craven as the advertising sounds, the organizers say they are trying to build empathy for migrants by putting people in their shoes.
And the organizers, members of a Hnahnu (pronounced nyah-nyoo) indigenous community, speak from experience. Leaders estimate that as many as 90 percent of the 2,500-person community have made the journey to the United States, most ending up in Las Vegas.
“We do this to show the people what it’s like, to make them more conscious,” said Hnahnu elder Luis Santiago Hernandez, who has crossed the genuine border more than five times.
Hernandez said that although they try to make the experience authentic, “It’s not even 10 percent of the real thing.”
Word of the tourist attraction has provoked much head-scratching among real immigrants and advocates in the United States.
Some called the risk-free adrenaline rush insulting. Others said it could improve the often-conflicted attitudes of Mexicans toward their compatriots who migrate.
“Anything that raises awareness in Mexico of the plight of undocumented immigrants is welcome,” said Jorge Bustamante, special Mexican representative to the United Nations for human rights of migrants. “The indifference is very strong, and it’s greater as you ascend in social class.”
Maria Garcia, a Mexican immigrant who founded the Hispanic Community Support Center in Duluth, Ga., said the mock crossing could be perceived as exploitative.
“Someone crossing the border knows they could die,” she said. “Someone going on this tour knows they will have fun.”
The trip starts with a rousing rendition of the Mexican national anthem and a meandering speech by Poncho, who bears an uncanny resemblance to masked Mexican Zapatista rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos.
Poncho tells his charges that they will not only be retracing the steps of migrants but also embarking on a personal spiritual journey.
“Through this, we are going to create the bonds of brotherhood that we’ve forgotten as a people,” he says.