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What it's like to migrate from Central America as a 15-year-old girl

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

What is it like to migrate to the U.S. when you're a woman or a girl and undocumented? What role does the female body take in transit? These are the questions Latino USA editor Marta Martinez and reporter Alejandra Sanchez Inzunza set out to answer when they traveled to Chiapas in southern Mexico. There they came upon a group of what they thought were boys, sitting on the sidewalk, crammed under the shade of a small tree. All were from Honduras and wanted to get to the U.S. One had a fresh new haircut, shaved sides and a bun on top. On closer examination, it turned out that boy was a girl, a 15-year-old girl named Amaya. Marta Martinez picks up the story from here.

MARTA MARTINEZ: Amaya had her hair cut for free at the migrant shelter in Palenque the day before we met her.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

AMAYA: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTINEZ: The short hair is an advantage, Amaya says, because she doesn't stand out. On the road, she wears a gray hat, leaving only the shaven half of her head exposed. Her black T-shirt is actually more revealing. It has a Minnie Mouse bow printed on her chest, and a pink bra strap peeks out from her T-shirt neck. On the migrant roads, being a young woman is an added risk, and Amaya knows it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

AMAYA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

AMAYA: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTINEZ: Amaya knows that men prey on girls like her and that she must stay alert at all times. She feels safe with this group of boys, though. She says she trusts they won't abandon her. When they walk together, she always walks in the middle. On their long treks across southern Mexico, migrants try to walk in big groups to avoid getting mugged, kidnapped or worse. Women and girls are also overwhelmingly exposed to sexual abuse and targeted by traffickers. It's hard to find reliable data on sexual violence against migrant women because they don't usually talk about it, and they're often too scared to file police reports. According to Mexico's National Health Institute, almost half of women migrating through the country have been sexually abused or have exchanged sex for food, shelter and anything else that would help them along their journey.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: When Amaya left Honduras, she had already dropped out of school. She says that it took her half an hour to get there, and she didn't like her classes very much either. She enjoyed babysitting, though - especially taking care of her niece, who still calls her mom.

AMAYA: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTINEZ: Amaya says she'd like to have children one day, but not until she's 25 because it's a lot of hard work.

AMAYA: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: In Honduras, 1 in 4 girls has been pregnant at least once before turning 19.

The morning after, we meet Amaya and her group at 4:30 in the morning.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTINEZ: It's still pitch dark outside, but they want to get going before the sun is too harsh. Their goal for the day is getting to Salto de Agua, which is 35 miles away, because that's where the next migrant shelter is.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTINEZ: Their ultimate goal is to jump on La Bestia, or The Beast, the train heading to northern Mexico. Part of the train route in Chiapas has been discontinued to give way to El Tren Maya, a big federal infrastructure project. So now migrants have to walk an additional 220 miles to the first train station in Coatzacoalcos.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE DRIVING)

MARTINEZ: The group walks following the train tracks, increasingly covered by weeds and stones due to the lack of use. Several of them, including Amaya, hold thick wood sticks the size of baseball bats to protect themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: You rarely see women walking on the train tracks by themselves, let alone teenage girls like Amaya. And when they do, they hide their gender.

GRETCHEN KUHNER: As people grow, especially in adolescence, women are so, so vulnerable.

MARTINEZ: This is Gretchen Kuhner, director of the Institute for Women in Migration based in Mexico.

KUHNER: And we've seen all different kinds of violence, you know, starting with extortion, which is just the highest. And then women also have the extra vulnerability of sexual violence.

MARTINEZ: Many times, though, women don't realize when they're victims of sexual violence.

KUHNER: Some women are so accustomed to being touched, other women will say, well, the truck driver gave me a ride from Tapachula to Saltillo. And so of course, in exchange for that, I had to sleep with him.

MARTINEZ: A recent change in Mexico's immigration law has directly impacted girls and boys traveling alone. Since January of this year, minors cannot be held in immigration detention centers. Now they must remain under the supervision of Mexico's Child Protective Services, known as DIF. Because child protective services are overwhelmed, they sent many of these children to private shelters for immigrants, which are also overcrowded, and where living conditions might not be up to standards, especially for unaccompanied children. During our reporting in Chiapas, two shelter coordinators said that they had stopped accepting unaccompanied minors from DIF because they were, quote, "too hard to deal with."

KUHNER: Some of them, they receive a cursory interview, and then they're turned back over to the National Immigration Institute, and they're returned to their countries of origin.

MARTINEZ: Still, Gretchen thinks keeping minors out of detention centers was the right thing to do.

KUHNER: So we have the right framework now, but we don't have the right resources. And there's also, you know, the larger issue, which is that we have to think regionally. A lot of parents and family members of children in our region are in the United States, and if it's in their best interest to be reunited with those family members, we need to accept that as a region.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: After a few days together, the group Amaya traveled with dissolved. Eventually, Amaya made it to Monterrey in northern Mexico, where she's staying with her cousins. She's saving some money to continue her journey to the United States. She works at a cardboard factory for 12 hours a day and makes $50 a week. She dyed her hair blue for a while, and now she wears it down to her shoulders. On Facebook, she posts photos of herself wearing short dresses and T-shirts knotted high up on her waist, her belly button on view. She can't wait to cross into the United States, she says. But no one will welcome her on the other side of the border. She has some distant family there, but Amaya told me they're not in touch. So once again, she'll be a girl on her own.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: Amaya's story is part of a radio documentary called "She Migrates" from Latino USA editor Marta Martinez and reporter Alejandra Sanchez Inzunza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.