A Guided Art Tour of La 72

For background on La 72 Hogar, and a look at the lives of some of the people who’ve passed through there, click here.

La 72 Hogar could potentially be a bleak place.

Many of those staying there have suffered robbery, assault, or rape. Among the migrants at La 72 are ex-gang members, extortion victims, kidnappees, and people who have seen their families murdered.

This is exactly why the men and women running the shelter feel it’s so critical to provide a dignified space for migrants, somewhere they can be treated as human. To this end, migrants are entrusted with myriad responsibilities – they’re in charge of the communications center, they run the kitchens, they guard the gates. It’s also why La 72 is called Hogar or “Home,” rather than Albergue, shelter.

And the artwork, contributed by volunteers and migrants, goes a long way toward making it feel like a home. The brick buildings, if left plain, could easily resemble a prison camp. Instead, they give the feeling of a vibrant community building its own future.

The artwork frequently includes quotes and imagery from the Latin American left, and can be taken as a kind of crash course in Global South revolutionary thought. For example:


“Te quiero,” a poem by Uruguayan leftist Mario Benedetti, is inscribed on the wall of the infirmary alongside a painting of the power of the “caracol.”

Prominently displayed on the wall of La 72’s infirmary is a poem by Mario Benedetti, a Uruguayan leftist forced to flee the country after the military coup in 1973. This poem in particular, called te quiero, or “I love you,” is a touchstone for the Latin American left. Expressing hope and defiance at the same time, Benedetti declares his love for a woman symbolizing revolution and resistance. “I love you because your mouth/knows how to scream rebellion,” Benedetti writes, ending with a kind of “fuck off” to oppressive power: “The people live happily, even though they don’t have permission.” A full translation of the poem can be found here.

Significantly, the marchers in the painting next to the poem are coming from a shell, or caracol. This is the name the Zapatistas give to their autonomous communities in Southern Mexico’s Chiapas state. It’s an appropriate term, because the caracoles really are a world-within-a-world. They’re mostly self-sufficient, subsisting as they have for hundreds of years primarily on crops grown themselves, and Mexican government police and functionaries are completely barred from entering.

On the other side of the infirmary, a famous quote from El Che.

On the other side of the infirmary, a famous quote from El Che.

Continuing the love theme, the other side of the infirmary features a famous-to-the-point-of-cliché quote by Ernesto “Che” Guevara: “Let me say to you, at the risk of seeming ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by a feeling of love.” El Che, obviously, is a major figure in revolutionary thought, and his quotes are found frequently on the walls of La 72. Joined together at the end of the quote are the flags of Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, representing Central American unity.

A basketball hoop at La 72 displays a revolutionary message.

Even the basketball hoops at La 72 are revolutionaries.

The words on this basketball hoop can’t really be translated without a little bit of explanation. Both are slogans integral to the movement for social justice for migrants in Latin America.

The first, tránsito digno, literally means “dignified transit.” This contrasts with the current situation in which millions of migrants undergo a very harsh and dehumanizing journey. Running along beside a moving train and jumping on to ride on the roof, as many people crossing Mexico without papers do, is “undignified transit.” Dignified would be riding inside the train, with a seat in a passenger car.

The second part, migración no forzada means “no forced migration.” The operative word here is “forced.” The slogan isn’t denouncing migration or freedom of movement, it’s denouncing forcing people to leave their home countries against their will. Many of the migrants passing through La 72 were subjected to extreme physical violence before migrating. Many suffered death threats and lost family members before they decided the only way to survive was to go north. That’s what we mean by “forced migration.” Another example is the hundreds of thousands travelling to Europe by “death boat,” an incredibly dangerous journey that very few would make if they had any other option at all.

The youth on the wall could be Sergio Adrián Hernández Güereca, the 15-year-old murdered by the US Border Patrol on the El Paso-Juárez border in 2010. In April of this year, an appeals court ruled that the Hernández family cannot sue Border Patrol Agent Jesus Mesa, Jr. because the youth was not in the US when he died (though Mesa was when he shot him) and had “no significant connection” to the United States. Therefore, Sergio had no rights whatsoever under the US Constitution. The inscription on the painting reads “Our demand is minimal: justice.”

Trombon copia

A local band plays music for migrants at La 72.

Besides acting as a political messaging tool, art also plays a social role at La 72. People gather around a painting in progress, chatting and calling out suggestions to the painter.

And arts’s not confined to the walls. About once a week, a local band plays live music and teaches traditional Mexican dances to migrants at La 72. Despite the harsh conditions of the migrants’ journey, the musicians are able to create a festival atmosphere. Providing a social atmosphere that allows migrants to forget their suffering and remember their humanity is a primary goal of La 72.

The mural behind the musicians, on the wall of the comedor where migrants eat their meals, depicts migrants sitting in a circle, sharing a meal. Outside the circle are symbols of the difficulties of migration – a youth climbing a barbed-wire fence, and the train known as La Bestia that has claimed so many lives. It’s an apt metaphor for La 72 itself – a space apart from the world, where migrants can eat and rest, removed from the dangers ahead and behind.

Oh, and that’s not the only social activity the comedor is used for – La 72 also knows how to throw a wild party:

Paola copia

At center, two migrants, a man and a transgender woman, dance reggaetón in La 72.

Every Saturday night, they turn up the Reggaetón and the whole place gets their funk on. Breakfast is served an hour late Sunday morning, to give people a chance to sleep off the previous night’s party. Alcohol is prohibited at La 72, but between the late-night party and the intoxicating rhythms, everyone’s glad to have an extra hour to recover.

Bestia copia

La Bestia

On La 72’s outer walls, a large mural of La Bestia, otherwise known as el Tren de la Muerte. Tens of thousands of migrants a year, at least, ride on top of trains. They often run beside a train and grab on while it’s moving. The Train of Death has earned its name – people die by falling off, by getting caught under the wheels while jumping on, by decapitation when they fail to duck an electric wire while riding it. Cartels and drug gangs frequently attack the train, robbing migrants of everything they have, killing anyone who resists and sometimes even those who don’t.

Since those riding La Bestia generally aren’t registered as having entered Mexico, it’s impossible to tell how many die each year on it. In 2013, a train carrying hundreds of migrants derailed, killing at least five and injuring many others. People continue losing legs, arms and their lives to La Bestia on a continual basis.

Furia copia

La 72’s women’s dorm: “Indignation… tender fury.”

The sign outside the women’s dormitory in La 72 proclaims “Indignation…tender fury.” Tierna furia, “tender fury,” is a slogan associated with the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas. The Zapatistas, who have held autonomous territory in Southern Mexico for more than 20 years, popularized the slogan to convey that their anger is fueled by love (a theme close to El Che’s heart as well). It’s often coupled with another Zapatista slogan, digna rabia, or “dignified rage.”

As noted, this is the women’s dormitory at La 72. Sleeping arrangements pose some unique challenges: transgender women are one of the groups hit hardest by violence in Central America, meaning they’re overrepresented in the migrant population. La 72 doesn’t have the resources to build a separate dormitory for transgender people, so transgender women sleep in the women’s dorm. There’s also a high rate of unaccompanied minors. Volunteers at La 72 recently completed construction on a dormitory for children and minors traveling alone.

Oir copia

The communications module at La 72: “Because hearing, everyone hears. But to listen means to discover the meaning of each sound.”

This is a sign hanging outside the communications module, where migrants can use the internet for 15 minutes a day. There’s also a telephone, but it can only receive calls, not make them, due to the high cost of international calling. Each new arrival at La 72 can send one text message, however, allowing them to alert their family to their whereabouts and giving a number where they can call their loved ones staying at the shelter.

Note the use of the caracol imagery again. The text says “Because hearing, everyone hears. But to listen means to discover the meaning of each sound.” This is a quote from Zapatista leader Comandante David. Zapatista leaders love to speak in parables, and David’s no different. It’s from a brief story about hunting with a man named viejo Antonio, who tells Comandante David: “The good hunter isn’t the one who’s good at shooting, it’s the one who’s good at listening.”

Mapa copia

La 72’s map of Mexico, showing albergues (shelters) and danger zones along the route North to the United States.

This is a map of Mexico showing common routes migrants take north to the US. The houses represent albergues (shelters) where migrants can stay. Bread represents comedores, basically soup kitchens that provide free, simple meals. Railroad lines where people can jump on La Bestia are also outlined.

The map also warns of dangers on the route: gang-run checkpoints where migrants are forced to pay a fee to cross, high-violence “risk zones” and areas with high incidences of assaults and kidnappings. Maps like this are a critical resource for migrants making the journey through Mexico.

If you look closely at the map, you might notice something: there isn’t really a good route. Tenosique, and La 72, are located at the very bottom right, just out of frame actually, where the train line starts. This line is the only possibility for many folks hoping to reach Mexico City (where crime is relatively low and salaries are relatively high) or the US. Migrants riding La Bestia from Tenosique to Mexico City pass through three “risk zones” before reaching the capital city.

Ferrocarril copia

La Bestia and La 72

This painting most obviously represents La Bestia, but the crosses have an added significance: besides representing the migrants that have lost their lives on the train, they also represent the 72 undocumented migrants massacred in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas in 2010. La 72’s name is a reference to the massacre and a statement of protest against border policies that leave people vulnerable to exploitation, kidnapping, rape, and murder. A chapel at the albergue has 72 full-sized wooden crosses hanging on the wall. When I first arrived, they told me “Here, crosses don’t represent Jesus. They represent people that lost their lives in Tamaulipas.”

On the fifth anniversary of the massacre, Mexican NGO Periodistas de a Pie (Reporters Standing Up) released a massive investigation into the killing. Based on official documents as well as interviews with survivors of the massacre and accused perpetrators of the killings, the group determined that the Mexican government engaged in a cover-up, purposefully failing to fully investigate the crime. Although the triggermen were arrested, the Mexican government made no effort whatsoever to bring the intellectual authors of the crime to justice. They also consistently denied the families of the victims access to information about their loved ones, and in one case misidentified a body before giving it to the wrong family for repatriation, and they prevented the media from interviewing a key witness and survivor of the attack, going so far as to deny his existence.

La 72 exists because of these injustices. The albergue‘s founder, Fray Tomás, told me that the migrants are revolutionaries, though they might not realize it. Through the act of migrating, they’re raising their voices against unjust policies and unjust governments. They may not articulate it this way, but their actions prove that they don’t agree with their leader’s policies. And by moving, they are changing the makeup of communities across the world, a change which will necessarily lead to a significant political shift in the areas where they arrive.

And with that we conclude our tour of La 72 itself. Now it’s time to take a quick look at the city it’s in.

Random Tenosique weirdness

Submission copia

Don’t ask me wtf. I really don’t know wtf.

This statue greets visitors as they arrive to Tenosique. As if the scene itself weren’t odd enough, it’s stationed directly next to the migration office in the city. So the border guards hang around with a weird Jaguar demigod and his human overlords or whatever while they check people’s documents and arrest anyone who doesn’t have the right piece of paper.

I don’t know what the hell this statue is supposed to be. The only guess I could come up with is that it’s celebrating the Spanish conquest and subjugation of the indigenous population. I really hope that’s not it, but it actually could be. After all, the Mexican government – which presumably paid for the statue – is really, really fuckin’ racist.

Dinosaur copia

Yep. This thing.

And then there’s this thing. Again, I have no idea. It just appeared one day near La 72.

Maybe it’s migrating.

To learn more about La 72, click here (Spanish)

To read about the people passing through La 72, click here (English)

One response to “A Guided Art Tour of La 72”

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