Report from Honduras: How migration hurts the families and faith communities left behind
The tidy town square of Mercedes de Oriente this sunny morning in March is shaded by palm and pine trees. Macuelizo trees are ablaze in lavender. The plaza in this small mountain village in Honduras’s Department of La Paz is flanked on one side by Our Lady of Mercies chapel and on the other by a row of small aqua- and pink-pastel shops.
Children in neat white and navy uniforms shout and laugh at the entrance to the primary school next to the church. A few older men and women stroll into the square from the village’s narrow intersecting lanes.
A light breeze offers respite from temperatures that are quickly rising into the mid-80s. The bright plaza and market offer a postcard-perfect image of what a visitor might suppose small-town life in Honduras’s mountain-clinging villages is like.
A lost crop represents a double, even a triple loss; nothing grown to eat, nothing to sell—the only harvest a debt that threatens their small holdings.
But outside the plaza, first impressions fade and a harder reality about life in this isolated community becomes evident. Subsistence farmers on the small parcels around the village struggle with erratic growing conditions because of climate change; the people are pressed by poverty and hunger. For many in small towns just like this across Honduras, there is only one option.
The young people do not leave “just because they want to,” Gabriela Morales says, but because they have no other choice if drought or mishaps deprive them of a good harvest. Ms. Morales is an elder in this Lenca Indigenous community and vice president of the village’s Community Organization of Faith and Hope.
“Our families, our people, they want to get ahead,” she says. “They want to live a comfortable life, and they’re willing to risk their lives to get that.” She knows that migration, primarily to the United States, will mean many sacrifices both for the people who leave and for the ones left behind.
“Sometimes they never get to see their families again; they never get to see their mothers or their fathers again, but they have to do it…. There are no more opportunities to be had here.”
Worse, some come back in coffins or are badly injured while working in the United States or even before that during the perilous trek to get there. “It’s sad when you see it’s your kids who are going to leave,” Ms. Morales says. “Their lives are in danger. Sometimes they make it; sometimes they don’t.
“There are people who return with severed limbs or missing arms, and that’s a disgrace. That hurts us a lot.”
“There are men who leave for 20 years and by the time they return their woman has already remarried or their kids are all over the place and they don’t recognize them.”
Hours after Ms. Morales shares these concerns, two men are discovered dead and 15 others near suffocation in two freight cars near Uvalde, Tex., on March 24. The migrants concealed on the train were from Honduras. On March 27, 39 migrants died, and scores were injured after fire broke out in an overcrowded detention facility in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, near the border city of El Paso, Tex.
Concepción Velázquez, president of Faith and Hope, allows that migration offers some benefits. Some success stories can be told by those who return from the United States with money to invest in land, start a small business or build a new home. And remittances, the money flowing back home from laborers in the United States to families in Honduras, represent more than 25 percent of the gross national product.
But the decrepit, abandoned homes of people who have never returned tell another story. For many here, migration has come to mean only sorrow and regret. Undocumented Honduran immigrants, once in, often have no safe means by which to return home. They live each day with the threat of deportation, knowing they will miss weddings and baptisms and the formative experiences of their children because of their status.
Marriages have failed, Mr. Velázquez says. Families have fallen apart. “There are men who leave for 20 years and by the time they return their woman has already remarried or their kids are all over the place and they don’t recognize them.”
“Sometimes there are families where both parents migrate,” Ms. Morales says, “and they leave their kids here with their grandparents.” Their care will never be the same as they could expect from parents, she says.
Parentless kids just “don’t grow up the same,” Concepción Velázquez says. “Some become criminals; others don’t work. They don’t care about anything; they’re just waiting for the remittance.”
“As catechists, we’ve had to sometimes attend to children like these…and you see how much they miss their parents.”
Parentless kids just “don’t grow up the same,” Mr. Velázquez agrees. “Some become criminals; others don’t work. They don’t care about anything; they’re just waiting for the remittance.”
But problems can begin “when the remittances stop coming in; then they start doing bad things like stealing.”
“If there is no parent, then there is no model to follow in a home,” he says. “They’ve lost the love of a mother or a father.” They lose respect for the community, he adds, for their families and for themselves.
“It has affected us a lot,” Mr. Velázquez says, “because not everyone makes it big up there. Some only come back with vices and addictions, and they are even poorer than when they left.
“I had the opportunity to travel [to the United States], but I did not want to,” he says. “I said, ‘If I am going to be blessed by God, I’ll be blessed here in my church,’ and he has blessed me because God is the one who blesses us all.”
The Rev. Luis Melquiades Suazo, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua parish in the nearby municipality of San Antonio del Norte, notes that the sacramental life of the community and its families—baptisms, marriages and funerals—pass by without the presence of those who have immigrated. Sometimes the only funerals they attend are for the migrants themselves when they die in the north or while trying to get there, and “they come home in a coffin.”
The young people do not leave “just because they want to,” Gabriela Morales says, but because they have no other choice if drought or mishaps deprive them of a good harvest.
Of course some are lost in lonely places in Mexico or in U.S. deserts, and they have no funerals at all. Their families will never learn their fate, he says.
Father Melquiades knows only too well migration’s impact on family life in these small communities. His own father left when Father Melquiades was 14 and did not return for 16 years. His younger brothers and sisters barely remembered their father; one was only an infant when he left their home. What he remembers is anger and sorrow because of his father’s absence, “judging and blaming him” for it.
“We were raised by our mother,” Father Melquiades says.
When his father finally returned, it was difficult for him to “reintegrate” with the family.
He sees the pattern repeat itself today as drier conditions prevail and the once dependable rains come in fits and starts, deluges that flood fields of beans or corn or rainy seasons that are interrupted by days or weeks of untimely hot and dry conditions that will mean much lower yields or a ruined growing season altogether.
The young men leave after such lost seasons.
“Older brothers leave; the fathers leave,” Father Melquiades says. “Some never return.”
After widespread drought in 2018, thousands were forced off the land. According to the Border Patrol, the number of Hondurans apprehended at the border leaped five-fold, from about 50,000 in 2017 to 250,000 in 2019.
These subsistence farmers have little choice but to seek work as laborers in the United States. Many have borrowed from local loan sharks or mortgaged their small parcels to pay for the season’s “inputs”—fertilizer and mulch, seeds, and pesticides. A lost crop represents a double, even a triple loss; nothing grown to eat, nothing to sell—the only harvest a debt that threatens their small holdings.
They will have to make it to the United States to feed their families and save their farms or cattle. Their departure leaves a gaping hole in families and the community.
Mr. Velázquez often feels the practical pinch of immigration when he polls the community for help with a civic improvement or new agricultural project. Mercedes de Oriente is home to a little over 1,000 people. It does not take the loss of many residents to create a significant social vacuum. Because of migration, there is no “young muscle” left in Mercedes de Oriente, Mr. Velázquez complains, only older people or mothers who cannot help him do the work.
Deputy Mayor Darwin Nain Turcios Martínez cannot say whether the rains will come as they are supposed to in mid-May this year, but he knows previous droughts have badly hurt corn and bean producers on the mountainside parcels around the village. Dry conditions also mean less food can be raised for grazing cattle, assets that have to be sold off by smallholders who cannot afford cattle feed at the market.
Mr. Turcios has been turning to the local Caritas office for help. Technicians there offer training to help farmers adapt to water scarcity or to build out an irrigation system. He hopes Caritas can also offer “seedlings of opportunity” to help this small town official develop alternative income streams for its young people.
“Those who stay behind…constantly lament their loved ones’ leaving,” he says. “It is something that they can never overcome.” He would like to put an end to it.
“We have to keep looking for the possibility to generate local opportunities,” he says. At least enough to convince more young people that they have a future in Mercedes de Oriente regardless of growing conditions—better options than “forgetting everything they leave behind and those who stay behind.”