Season 2, Episode 4: Transcript

Hayley Bowman: If you were following the news or on social media in November of 2018, you probably saw the photo. Taken outside of the Tijuana border checkpoint, it depicts a grizzly scene. Walls of metal and barbed wire stretch across the background, glimmering in the sun. Crowds flee in the distance, attempting to outrun white smoke billowing from a canister in the midground: tear gas. At the center of the image is a figure in desperate motion—a mother flees the clouds of oppressive gas, dragging along her two young children, still in diapers, by their elbows. One child is barefoot, while the other’s tiny pink flip flops threaten to dislodge themselves in the fleeting motion of their escape. 

The subject of the photo is María Meza Castro, a 39-year-old mother from Honduras. She had been camped for a week outside of the border checkpoint, waiting—like so many others—to submit claims for asylum for herself and her children. Instead, they found themselves amidst violent chaos when border agents fired three canisters of tear gas over the wall and into the crowd of asylum-seekers. 

The photo quickly went viral, sparking outrage and becoming a visual representation of Trump-era border policy, which quickly elicited criticism for the way it treated children. From the New York Times to USA Today, headlines about the thousands of children separated from their parents on the U.S. border shocked the American public.

Though the maltreatment of children in border detention centers has become but one of the scandals associated with Trump’s presidency, violence against parents and children migrating from Central and South America is neither new nor partisan. Like supporters of Trump’s detention centers in 2018, efforts by the Obama administration in 2014 —spearheaded by Joe Biden —directed blame for such atrocities on mothers like Castro. After the Border Patrol apprehended nearly 70,000 unaccompanied minors at the height of the so-called “migrant crisis,” the Obama administration financed a million-dollar “dissuasion” advertising campaign across Central America and Mexico. The message of the billboards, radio, and television commercials was clear: good parents don’t let their children immigrate to the United States.

What does it mean to place the responsibility of a migration crisis on individuals rather than the systems of government that create the violence in the first place? How does it obscure the efforts by parents of people in transit—the very subjects such policies blame—to protect their children? What would these families say, if we just stopped to listen? 

Welcome to Season 2, Episode 4 of Reverb Effect, a podcast brought to you by the University of Michigan Department of History. I’m your host, Hayley Bowman. This episode features Arielle Gordon, a joint PhD student in the Departments History and Womens and Gender Studies. Her work moves transnationally between Latin America and the Middle East, focusing on social movements and women’s representation in them. She is the author of the article “From Guerrilla Girls to Zainabs: Reassessing the Figure of the Militant Woman in the Iranian  [ee-Rah-nian] Revolution.” [1] 

Arielle Gordon: “There are thousands of mothers weeping every day. Our children leave and disappear.” – Guadalupe Mendoza, 2016 [2]

The classic myth of La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, is one of infanticide. 

The legend goes something like this: During the time of Spanish conquest, a Nahua woman is seduced by a handsome conquistador, to whom she bears two children. Not long after, he leaves her for a noble woman of Spain. Overcome with anguish, she drowns their children in the nearby river. Once she realizes what she has done, she kills herself. 

Suspended in grief and remorse, the woman is consigned to an eternal state of searching. Clad in white, eyes red from weeping, La Llorona – the weeping woman – is the phantom of Mexico’s past, haunting riverbanks and alleyways in the hopes of finding her dead children. 

The archetypal Weeping Woman is a specter of horror and desperation. Singularly motivated by grief. Guilty, culpable, eternally damned. Her pain makes her stronger, more fearsome, more lethal. She has mastered the art of apparition. By the time you’ve heard her cries, she has already vanished. 

In five centuries of its various retellings, seldom has the tale implicated the colonial conquest itself in the death of La Llorona’s children. That implication, however routinely unmentioned, is where this story begins.

This is a story about mothers searching for their children. It takes place along the so-called migrant trail, a series of clandestine routes from Central America through Mexico to the southern border of the United States, made up of shelters, freight trains, deserts, and jungles. It is a story about a collective struggle to recover vulnerable people and expose violent processes that have been hidden or rendered invisible in today’s global-political economy and transnational border regime. It is a story about culpability, and how it is both denied and laid bare. This story revolves around an age-old trick: that of the disappearing act, and the fight to pull back the illusionist’s curtain and to force that which has been made unseeable into sight. [3]

Soon after her daughter left Honduras in 1989, Emeteria Martínez stopped receiving phone calls. At seventeen years old, Ada Marlen Martinez had planned to make her way to the United States, in order to send money back to her mother and two young children. Once in Mexico, Ada lost all contact with her mother. Years passed, and Emiteria heard nothing from her missing daughter. When, ten years later, in 1999, a local Jesuit radio station in the northern city of El Progreso announced that it would share information about missing relatives after a hurricane wreaked havoc on the area, Emeteria walked to the station and asked them to broadcast information about her long-lost daughter. 

Emeteria was not the only one with the idea. Rosa Nelly Santos connected with the radio station in the same month in search of her nephew, who went missing after he fled a local gang, and Edita Maldonado arrived a few months later to submit the documents of her daughter, who disappeared in 1995. In partnership with Radio Progreso, the three women formed the Comite de Familiares de Migrantes Desaparecidos del Progreso (The Committee of Relatives of Disappeared Migrants of El Progreso; COFAMIPRO) to find their children who had gone missing not in the natural disaster, but in an incipient international disaster of migrant disappearance.

In 2000, the mothers organized their first expedition to the capital of Tegucigalpa, located about 250 kilometers south of their hometown. Forty-two mothers attended. They brought with them laminated portraits of their missing children, and marched through the streets of the capital to the Office of External Relations “in order to get their attention,” as Santos described it. The following year, they traveled to Tecun Uman, a well-frequented migrant shelter at the northern border of Guatemala, and stopped at embassies, government ministries, and churches along the way. Santos recalled,

Stefania Gonzalez [for Rosa Nelly Santos]: “We would shout ‘Where are they? Where are my children? Where are they?’ We would  tell the Mexican embassy: ‘Give us answers. We want to know about our children. Give us the opportunity to look for them in the desert…’ The marches started because they needed to know who we were. God didn’t create borders. They were created by humans because of their greed.” [4]

Arielle Gordon: By their third expedition, the group of women, who relied solely on small, local donations to fund their search, made it all the way to Tapachula, a border city in southern Mexico, traveling a distance of more than 700 kilometers. There, they visited several cemeteries, in the hopes of recognizing a familiar name among the gravestones. In one, they found only milk carton cans marked with X’s at the far perimeter, where four unidentified individuals had been hastily buried. In the words of Maldonado,

Stefania Gonzalez [for Edita Maldonado]: “They could only be migrants because their graves were unmarked. That hurts us the most, to ask ‘Are these the children of the mothers here with us?’ … For me, Mexico is a grave, it will sink with so many clandestine graves.” [5]

Arielle Gordon: The mothers of El Progreso were the first of several local mothers groups that formed in Central America during a period when disappearances skyrocketed after northbound migration became far riskier, far more expensive, and far more dangerous. In 1994, the same year that the United States opened its economic borders with the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Clinton administration doubled down on efforts at sealing off another. 

Bill Clinton [recorded]: “Americans in every place in this country are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country. That’s why our administration has moved aggressively to secure our borders more by hiring a record number of new border guards, by deporting twice as many criminal aliens as ever before.” [6]

Arielle Gordon: That was Bill Clinton, at his 1995 State of the Union address. Unprecedented reforms to U.S. asylum laws coincided with a new militarized approach to border enforcement dubbed “Prevention Through Deterrence,” which drastically increased the surveillance technology, security infrastructure, and patrol agents at the border’s most populated cities, an aim to reroute migrates to such inhospitable areas that they would be deterred from even attempting to cross. [7]

Wendy Vogt: What we see when we look at the metrics and numbers of deaths along the border, we see a really correlated spike of migrant death related to those border militarization policies… and how that hasn’t actually stopped flows of people. 

Arielle Gordon: That was Wendy Vogt, and anthropologist and professor at Indiana University, who conducts ethnography on the intimate lives of individuals in transit throughout Mexico. [8] The effects of climate gave the U.S. border apparatus plausible deniability in its own lethal policy. In the two decades that followed, the United States funding and arming of Mexican security forces as part of its “war on drugs” and “narcotraffickers” turned the entire span of Mexico into a hazardous borderland for those in transit. 

By the mid-2000s, mothers collectives across the region organized under the umbrella of the Mexico City-based Movimiento Migrantes Mesoamericano (MMM), [9] the Mesoamerian Migrant Movement,  founded by sociologist Marta Sanchez Soler, which provided the financial and administrative backing to organize an annual expedition along the migrant routes, bringing together local organizations in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and elsewhere into the “Caravana de Madres de Migrantes Desaparecidos,” a Caravan of Mothers of Disappeared Migrants. Soler recalls, 

Stefania Gonzalez [for Marta Sanchez Soler]: “At first, no one paid attention. Little by little we developed more social support. It has taken a long time, but the caravan has its own life now, it’s own life.. The caravans are recognized. And now, we have been working not only with Central American mothers, but we have been in communication with mothers from the Mediterranean, mothers from Algeria, mothers from Tunisia, mothers from Morocco.” [10]

Arielle Gordon: Since the 1970s, during the period of the military dictatorships, the loudest voices against enforced disappearance have largely been those of mothers.  In order to understand how it was that mothers’ movements emerged as such dominant forces of opposition during the period of the dictatorships, I spoke with Diana Taylor, an NYU professor of performance studies and Guggenheim fellow, who has written extensively on disappearance during Argentina’s Dirty War and the politics of mothers’ movements across Latin America. [11]

Diana Taylor: “One of the reasons I think that they’ve been so powerful in Latin America is that women have traditionally had very little power in Latin America, and the only power they’ve been able to have, or secure, has been through the institution of motherhood. Some of them were not mothers, and some of them did not identify primarily as mothers, but they understood very early on that the only way they could have any impact would be by organizing as mothers because they were the only ones who could. The fathers were wanting to look for their kids, they knew that if they went on the street, they would all be killed. It was the privileging of the mothers role in Latin America that allowed for that tiny bit of safety.” 

Arielle Gordon: The first known of these mothers’ collectives began in April 1977 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when more than a dozen women marched into the city’s central plaza demanding information about what the military junta had done with their children. [12]

What became known as las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, the Mothers of the Plaza, began to congregate weekly on Thursdays, marching along the periphery of the public square, holding up the government ID photos of their missing children. 

Over the next two decades, collectives of mothers and widows formed in El Salvador and Guatemala, where they organized hunger strikes in Red Cross offices, assembled investigative search parties to locate and exhume mass graves, and demanded access to judicial courts. Separated by political and geographic contexts, these groups shared a critical strategy in common: photographs. Worn around their necks, or held up above their heads, or printed in the newspaper, the mothers used photography as evidence of the missing bodies. The mothers thrust the missing into public sight against the military’s desires to disappear them. 

Diana Taylor: “There was something about the self-blinding, the requirement not to see, and not to hear… I think that the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo knew, early on, that their children were dead. But they continued, because they said that until the government had taken responsibility for these deaths, had said who had killed them, and brought those people to trial, they were still disappeared.” 

Arielle Gordon: For the mothers of the Caravana, looking for their children along the migrant trail, there is no single entity to which they can target the question “Donde estan?”, no single governing body whom they can hold causally responsible, like the madres of Argentina did with the military junta. The ladder of violence wrought against migrants has so many rungs that it is difficult to single out state policies and actions as uniquely culpable. 

Diana Taylor: “So they know there are several things that might have happened to them. One is they may have been killed on the way, by narco people, by military, police—I mean there’s a lot of people capable of a lot of violence on the migrant route. Or, they could have been sold into sexual slavery, which happened to a fair number of people, or they could be in jail. The thing that makes it complicated, is that because these kids did not want to be returned, they changed their names when they went into Mexico.” 

Wendy Vogt: “Mexico is a militarized country. It’s not that we can’t see the border apparatus, it’s that we see it everywhere.” 

Arielle Gordon: Again, this is Professor Wendy Vogt, an anthropologist of migration at Indiana University.

Wendy Vogt: “Policing of everyday life is a normalized reality in Mexico. And in that sense, it’s invisible, because it’s not just at the border. Those realities create the need for people to travel more clandestine journeys and, if you will, make themselves invisible in order to bypass some of those checkpoints. And that’s actually a strategy of mobility: to make yourself blend in, or to not stand out.” 

Arielle Gordon: Conversely, parents on the search for their missing children confront a pervasive rhetoric that displaces responsibility for migrant death onto the individuals themselves (who should have understood the consequences that come with choosing to migrant) and on their parents (who should have stopped their children from leaving in the first place).

Brian Kilmeade [recorded 2018]: “We just can’t let everybody in that wants to be here. And, like it or not, these aren’t our kids.” [13]

Cecelia Muñoz [recorded, 2014]: “We need to send a strong deterrent message, as we have, in Central America as well as in the United States that what the smugglers are telling people, which is that if you get to the united states you get to stay, that it’s a free pass, is not true. And that that’s creating an incredibly dangerous dynamic in which parents are putting their children in the hands of smugglers to bring them to the United States.” [14]

Joe Biden [recorded, 2014]: “You know, don’t put your kids in these coyotes’ hands.” [15]

Arielle Gordon: How then, can families contest these conditions of mobility that render their children disappeared? How do they make visible the camouflage role of state institutions and transnational border apparatuses, and hold them accountable? 

To answer these questions, we turn to the experiences of two mothers, Alejandra (a pseudonym) and Ana.

On September 5, 2010, Alejandra arrived at the El Salvador International Airport to collect a box that officials from the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed carried her daughter’s remains. Two weeks earlier, Alejandra was told that her daughter had been one of the 72 victims found in an abandoned ranch in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, Mexico, after being kidnapped from a city bus and murdered by members of the Los Zetas cartel, an event that made international headlines. Over the course of the next few years, declassified Mexican state documents would reveal that municipal police had conspired with the crime syndicate to target Central American migrants, and that both local and federal agencies had made every effort to cover it up.

The afternoon after Alejandra received news of her daughter’s death, she was driven four hours to San Salvador for genetic testing. The process was extremely  hasty, Alejandra recalled, it took less than an afternoon to yield results. Even though the forensic lab supposedly confirmed that one of the cadavers matched Alenjandra’s DNA,  she was not provided with any administrative record to indicate that a test was actually processed. When Alejandra finally went to retrieve her daughter’s corpse from the airport, the agents warned her not to open the casket, “because of disease,” they said. She opened the box anyway. 

Stefania Gonzalez [for “Alejandra” (Anonymous)]: “I opened the box, and I could not recognize her. Yes, it was a corpse, but I could not recognize her because I had no evidence, no clothing, no photos, nothing. They told me they had some molars from the corpse I had received but I asked them how they could have those molars. I didn’t even know which body they belonged to.” [16]

Arielle Gordon: The case of Alejandra is standard and exceedingly common: in the rare event that remains are delivered, most families receive caskets they are told not to open. Pictures and indistinct body parts become stand-ins for actual bureaucratic oversight or transparent procedure. 

Diana Taylor: “Sometimes they’d have dogs, or stones, or other things in them. So that’s where it becomes so transparent that this is disappearance. This is explicit obfuscation on the part of the state at all levels. Which is ‘We will not collect evidence, we’re not going to open up reports. We’re not going to examine. We’re not going to prosecute. We’re not going to do any of those things. On the contrary, we’re going to lose the evidence.’”

Arielle Gordon: We are hearing again from Professor Diana Taylor, an expert on mother’s movements and disappearance in Latin America.

Diana Taylor: “This is an intentional act of obfuscating what’s happening to these populations, and how these state entities are moving migrants into these traps where they are almost certain to be killed.” 

Arielle Gordon: For Ana Enamorado, a mother from Honduras, her refusal to accept the version of events presented to her by the Mexcian police regarding her son’s corpse presented to her had threatening consequences. In 2015, the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Mexico called up Enamorado to tell her that they had in their possession the ashes of a body they had found under a bridge in the state of Jalisco, where her son Oscar was thought to have disappeared. After following up on the case details provided, Enamorado concluded that the body found could not have been Oscar’s because the location that she traced the phone numbers to did not match up. When, during a meeting at the prosecutor’s office, she insinuated that she did not believe the authorities and that she herself would continue to investigate until she discovered who really was responsible for her son’s death, the case officer pulled out his gun, and placed it on the table.

Stefania Gonzalez [for Ana Enamorado]: “They pressured me to accept the ashes of a body… This guy threatened me. He told me that by being brave, I was walking myself into a grave. This is what they’ve done with me and many others. The government has to acknowledge that families disappear here, and that they are responsible for all of this. The authorities should do their job, they should watch over the people traveling through this country but they don’t. They are the ones disappearing migrants, the ones detaining them. Instead of deporting them, they hand them over to organized crime. Obviously, the Mexican government knows what’s going on. But we have to do it, we as mothers, as relatives have to investigate.” [17]

Arielle Gordon: Why is it that corpses, and their veracity, have become such a fraught site of contestation? By rejecting state agents’ ostensible findings regarding their children’s bodies, the mothers beat them at their own game. They refuse to play along with the abdication of government responsibility for migrant death and the willful denial of state’s direct roles in the conditions of violence that make up the everyday norm for displaced peoples. The mothers of the missing make clear that they will get their children back in one form or another, they will recover the bodies as material proof that they did not, cannot, simply disappear. 

Stefania Gonzalez [for Edita Maldonado]: “We don’t ever quit the battle, we need to continue. If they don’t appear alive, they’ll appear dead. And if they don’t appear dead, then, they’ll have to appear alive.” [18]

Arielle Gordon: In her book Ghostly Matters, Avery Gordon writes: “the exercise of state power through disappearance involves controlling the imagination, controlling the meaning of death, involves creating new identities, involves haunting the population into submission to its will.” [19] Every step of the way, the mother caravan refuses to let the exercise of state power control the imagination, the meaning of death, or the identities of their children. They resist the processes of erasure that make up the experience of migration, the fake names that individuals in transit adopt for themselves on Greyhound busses to hide their identity, graves marked only by milk cans, bodies charred by the desert sun, dog bones delivered in coffins to pacify the relatives. As Professor Wendy Vogt described it,

Wendy Vogt: “What the Caravans are doing is making visible impunity, the fact that these abuses and violences are so commonplace and so systemic, and taking place regularly, along these journeys, with impunity.”

Arielle Gordon: Through their marches, their photo exhibits, their chanting through the streets, they compel onlookers to witness what so often goes unseen. With portraits of their loved ones hanging like amulets from their necks, strung up by clothespins on laundry lines in migrant shelters, printed on group banners, posted on leaflet advertisements, filed along sidewalks and at the steps of churches and government buildings, the mothers insist that even conditions of invisibility leave material traces, that the dead, though unfound and unburied, exist, have faces, and could very well appear once more. 

This has been a foray into mourning mothers, states of searching, and mythologies of infanticide. But in this version of the La Llorona tale, the weeping woman is not a phantom of Mexico’s past but a powerful political force of the present, challenging the sprawling structures of control and security that vanish people and erase the evidence. Holding state powers accountable for the violence that courses through these structures, the weeping women refuse to take the blame. Imagining different futures against the terror of present-day border regimes, the mothers raise the dead and perform the work of apparition. [20]

In 2010, Emeteria Martinez, the woman whose story we began with, was reunited with her daughter Ada, in Mexico City, after twenty-one years of searching. Since its inception in 1999, as a small group of mothers who met each other at their local radio station, until now, as part of a board coalition demanding political change, COFAMIPRO has located more than 200 from its case files of those disappeared. In the words of Rosa Nelly Santos, one of COFAMIPRO’s founding members:

Stefania Gonzalez [for Rosa Nelly Santos]: “Anybody that doesn’t like people protesting on the streets could call us crazy ladies, they call us locas, no? And I’ve always said this. [Our organization] is full of crazy people. We were born scuffed up. No one would give me a single peso to come here with the other women. So, as women, we started this fight in 1999. And we’ve told the government: ‘We’re here and we’re not going anywhere. If you kick us out, we will come back.’” [21]

Hayley Bowman: Thank you so much for joining us, and a special thank you to our segment producer for this episode, Arielle Gordon. Another special thank you to our contributors for this episode, Professor Wendy Vogt and Professor Diana Taylor. And another thank you to voice actor Stefania Gonzalez. Our editorial board is Professor Melanie Tenelien, Taylor Sims, Christopher DeCou, and Arielle Gordon. Our production team is executive producer Gregory Parker, and I’m your season producer, Hayley Bowman. I hope you’ll join us for our next episode, for more stories on how the past reverberates in the present. This is Reverb Effect.


[1] Introduction co-written by Arielle Gordon.

[2]  Interview with Guadalupe Mendoza, 2016. Ecologies of Migrant Care (EMC), Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, New York University.

[3] Audio montage: ; ;

[4] Interview with Rosa Nelly Santos, 2016. EMC. 

[5] Interview with Edita Maldonad, 2016. EMC. 

[6] “Did Bill Clinton sound like Trump in 1995?” CNN. 

[7] Scholarship on the policy of PTD and its consequences is indebted to the pioneering work of Jason de León, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016).

[8] Wendy Vogt, Lives In Transit: Violence and Intimacy on the Migrant Journey (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018)

[9] Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano website.

[10] Interview with Marta Sanchez Soler, 2016. EMC.

[11] Some select works include: Diana Taylor, Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina’s “Dirty War” (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997); The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).

[12] “Madres de la Plaza de Mayo: Fragmento Documental TV Holandesa, 1978.” 

[13] Brian Kilmeade on Fox and Friends, June 22, 2018.

[14] Cecelia Muñoz, press conference. August 6, 2014. C-SPAN.

[15] Joe Biden, press conference with legal advocacy groups, August 6, 2014. 

[16] Interview with Anonymous (COFAMIDE), 2016. EMC.

[17] Interview with Ana Enamorado, 2016. EMC.

[18] Edita Maldonado. 

[19] Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 124.

[20] “Una Madre nunca se cansa de buscar: XI Caravana de Madres de Migrantes Desaparecidos 2015.” Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano.

[21] Rosa Nelly Santos.