As we walked through the encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, I noticed a makeshift cafe constructed with assorted poles and blankets printed with the word "hope."
Inside the cafe, a woman stood at a stove surrounded by an eclectic array of kitchenware, cooking arepas, a typical South-American food of ground maize dough stuffed with a filling. A meat broth stewed in a separate pot, enveloping the air in an aroma of spices and heat, instantly comforting me. When iACT’s Global Program Manager Felicia Lee and I approached her, the woman introduced herself as Maria and eagerly shared her story.
Maria traveled primarily by foot from Venezuela to the US-Mexico border, crossing nearly 3,000 miles of harsh terrain before settling at the Matamoros encampment. Like millions of others in the past decade, Maria and her family fled Venezuela due to severe economic and political instability. She noted how she could hardly earn a living wage to survive in her hometown, and eventually, the lack of security pushed her and her family north. She now awaits an appointment to cross the border alongside her teenage son, niece, and her niece's two young children.
Upon arriving at Matamoros, with the help of her son and niece, Maria gathered whatever extra cash and donations she could scavenge to assemble a basic kitchen. The blankets she used as the walls of the cafe had been donations from a humanitarian NGO that had previously visited the encampment in the weeks prior. When we asked Maria what had prompted her to open a cafe, she explained how she had run fast-food restaurants in Venezuela for many years, so opening one in the encampment only felt natural. And, more importantly, she added:
"Me da un propósito." It gives me a purpose.
With the regulations to cross the border constantly evolving, days may quickly become weeks or months before she and her family can get an appointment with Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Maria emphasized that maintaining her sense of self and purpose allowed her the energy to keep going, even in the bleakest of situations. Within the encampment, that meant cooking - not only for her family but also for the surrounding community of migrants.
What stood out to me the most about Maria throughout our conversation was her positive spirit, her smile an inviting contradiction to our harsh surroundings. When I asked her how she remained so joyful, her smile grew wider as she pointed to the blankets surrounding the cafe: "Esperanza."
*Maria's name was changed for her privacy and safety.