When crossing the border is a walk in the park.

When crossing the border is a walk in the park.

When crossing the border is a walk in the park.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Dec. 29 2006 7:11 AM

Flight Simulator

When crossing the Mexican border—or pretending to—is a walk in the park.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

EL ALBERTO, Mexico—With Border Patrol sirens blaring behind them, Ceferino Mejía and Diana Guillén picked up their two small children and plunged into the ankle-deep mud. They had to get moving; La Migra had already detected their trail. Ceferino trudged ahead with little José Ángel, but Diana stopped short when the muck swallowed her left shoe. She struggled to hand over 6-year-old Carlos. "Hurry, mommy!" he squealed. The patrol car's blinding spotlight passed just overhead. Balancing on one submerged foot, Diana fished out her sneaker and pushed forward, running along the river to the rest of the group. At this rate, they'd never make it across.

But the Mexico City couple didn't bring their children to El Alberto, hundreds of miles from the nearest entry point into the United States, to head to Texas or California. Like the other middle-class urbanites in the group, they had paid $14 to have the migrant experience without the three days in the desert, without the fear, and, well, without the border. They were in the Mezquital Valley for a local eco-park's Caminata Nocturna, a faux crossing that is two parts haunted hayride, one part nature walk, and one part team-building activity, with a sprinkle of indigenous folklore thrown in for good measure. And after a brief moonlit respite on the bank of the Río Tula, they had to jump into the brambles when the sirens and flashing lights came down on them.

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"Think of your family, your kids!" yelled the Border Patrol officer in accented English. "Go back to Mexico!"

No one moved. It could've been the irony of being three hours north of the capital, smack-dab in the middle of the Mexican countryside. It could've been fear—of getting caught, or perhaps of ruining the experience for the rest of the tourists. It could've been the fact that the officer spoke in a foreign language. Everyone stayed flat on the ground, silent.

These simulations started two years ago as a way to generate jobs and income for the 2,800 residents of El Alberto, an indigenous community that has been decimated by migration in recent years. The lure of the dollar has sapped the community of its men and its traditional Hñahñu customs. Fewer children speak Hñahñu than in the past, and the town looks like many other places in Mexico and Central America supported by remittances; everywhere you go, you see stickers for the popular Los Angeles morning radio show Piolín por la Mañana (hosted by migrant Eduardo Sotelo), new pickup trucks with Nevada and Arizona license plates, and newly constructed and still unoccupied cinder-block homes, some three stories high.

"The idea of the park is that people see that … they can make money without going to the States," said Pury Álvarez, who works at the park, known as Parque EcoAlberto. "El Alberto hopes to be a model Hñahñu community and to convince people to not migrate."

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To that end, the community has tapped into the bourgeois interest in the illegal journey north. While the park also offers eco-attractions like rappelling and zip-lines in a nearby canyon and three pools fed by hot springs, it's obvious that the Caminata Nocturna is the big draw to those coming from afar. Some have said that the park could serve as a training ground for future migrants, but the park's visitors are overwhelmingly capitalinos who need a weekend away. A few want to taste a little danger, but others just want to be out in the country. Some parents even bring their teenage children to deter them from thinking of heading to El Norte.

Many aren't ready to roll in the mud on a tour that's supposed to be a diversion. Delfino Bravo, who's working in the park after living in Phoenix for the last eight years, said the younger tourists can be downright fussy. "Sometimes, kids come and say, 'Why do you make us walk through water and mud and get all filthy?' " Álvarez adds, "If it were walking through gardens and beautiful pastures, everyone would say, 'I'm migrating tomorrow.' "

The Caminata might not be gardens and pastures, but it's hardly an extreme experience. The night starts in front of church ruins, where the smugglers (known as polleros, or chicken farmers, for the way they lead around their migrants), dressed in black and wearing ski masks, talk about the journey north and the history of the Hñahñu. Soon the group high-tails it for the riverbed, which they follow for most of the journey. Two hours in, they pile into waiting pickups to zip farther down the road with La Migra in hot pursuit a quarter-mile behind them. Throughout the trip, there are breaks in the action, during which the smugglers lead reflections on Hñahñu spirituality and the beauty of the arid valley. Finally, after lying in a cornfield for 15 minutes, during which gunshots ring out from the road ahead, the group is anticlimactically told that it has made it across the border. No pomp, no circumstance.

For all its thrills, the Caminata can't instill in the tourist the desperation and hope that keeps men like Federico Oliva looking toward the States. The 22-year-old first crossed when he was 13, and he lived in Las Vegas for nine years, working mostly in landscaping. Like many of the men currently working at EcoAlberto, he's back because he was selected to serve a year of unpaid service, a duty each community member must fulfill every eight years. He's headed back to Vegas when his service is done, though. "If there's a wall, I'll go over it. I'll go under it," Oliva said. "But I'm going back."

When he does, he likely won't bring a digital camera to snap quick photos of corn stalks and fellow migrants, as Ceferino Mejía did throughout the four-hour Caminata. At the end of the journey, after the group enjoyed a torch-lit snack deep in the canyon, he showed some of his better shots to Sandra Pérez, principal at the Westhill Institute in Mexico City. This was the second time she'd been on the Caminata; she'd come with her boyfriend, graphic designer Gregorio Cervantes, to share the experience with his three daughters.

With her husband chatting away, Diana Guillén sat down to sip her steaming coffee. "I don't even walk up the stairs of my house that often," admitted Guillén, her face flushed. "This was a big deal. I guess you really see what it'd be like to cross the border."