La Bestia — the Beast — is a Mexican cargo train that runs from Chiapas, near the Guatemalan border, north to the U.S. It’s the last resort for an estimated half-million migrants from the “Northern Triangle” of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Riders jump onto the train and try holding onto its top and sides for a 1,450-mile journey. Many fall off, and are dismembered or killed.
So when the cover of Mexican daily Tiempo Real implied last September that the Salvadoran soccer team should ride that train out of the country, complete with an image of its star photoshopped onto the train, a flurry of disgust rippled across Latin American Twitter networks.
“Not even Donald Trump has sunk so low as to wish migrants death and dismemberment,” tweeted a Salvadoran-American in L.A., under the handle @DichosdeunBicho. “Remember that.” Tiempo Real editor-in-chief Omar Barona offered a tepid apology later the same day, suggesting that the lingering disgrace of Trump’s visit two days prior had left some readers unable to appreciate what he characterized as his paper’s harmless, if tasteless, dose of black humor.
Tiempo Real’s xenophobic slap still stung, but Barona was right about exceptionally poor timing. Trump was still campaigning at the time, and his visit that week had concerned his fixation on a U.S.-Mexico border wall that would, implicitly, choke the flow of Central American migration south of the Rio Grande.
Wall talk aside, Mexico is a false target.
The outrage brought home a point that American media mostly ignores: The uproar about Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall isn’t about really about Mexicans, or Mexico itself. An estimated 80,000 Central Americans from the Northern Triangle applied for asylum, mostly in the U.S., in 2016, a 658 percent increase since 2011. Amnesty International calls it a refugee crisis; Donald Trump calls its victims “bad hombres.” “They come from Central America,” he told Time magazine in December. “They’re killing and raping everybody out there. They’re illegal. And they are finished.”
The Trump administration’s aggressive immigrant arrests (and those by the Obama administration, before it) are specifically targeting Central Americans. Wall talk aside, Mexico is a false target. And so Central Americans in the U.S. and abroad are using Twitter to amplify the context too often omitted from the conversation: their own.
Members of the Central American diaspora have found each other on Tumblr and Twitter for as long as the platforms have existed. But those informal networks have taken on new salience in the present age of border wall fetishism and ICE raids — policy agendas that disproportionately strike at Central American communities, both within the U.S. and back home in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
“Part of the growth of Central American Twitter has been the need in this political moment to reclaim our own narratives,” Daniel Alvarenga, a Los Angeles-born Salvadoran-American who regularly blogs and tweets about Central America, told me via Twitter DM. “Our communities in the States and the homeland are literally on the line, and we need to speak out more.”
Alvarenga estimates that he’s been engaged in what can loosely be described as Central American Twitter since 2012 or 2013. At first, his network was largely comprised of Salvi and Chapín people — respectively, Twitter users from the Salvadoran and Guatamalan diasporas, which are especially visible in his home state of California. Eventually, he came upon other U.S.-based people of Central American origin who looked to one another to exchange cultural ephemera online.
“Different groups share cultural aspects, but we’re not a monolith,” said Alvarenga. “We’re always learning from each other — ‘you have this food too? or ‘you use the same word?’”
In the U.S., where the Latinx population itself comprises a warily eyed minority, first and second-generation Central American immigrants often face a second layer of marginalization at the hands of the Mexican-American, or Chicanx, majority. And so the interactions that take place within the Central American diasporic Twittersphere can serve as basic reclamations of space.
In an article for Remezcla, Alvarenga described how some Californians are tentatively reclaiming the Central American “voseo,” or the regionally contained use of “vos” instead of “tú,” in the face of cultural suppression. “The Central American Spanish I grew up with was so marginalized, stigmatized, that I still have a visceral gut reaction to not use it in spaces of mixed Spanish-speakers,” Leisy J. Abrego, Salvadoran-American UCLA professor and prominent voice in Central American Twitter, told Alvarenga for his piece.
“[Central Americans] suffer crossing Mexico, we face xenophobia in Mexican American communities here, and many of us are also war refugees.” — Daniel Alvarenga
Chicanx hegemony can be attributed largely to sheer numbers: Mexico has a population of 127 million people, approximately three times the total of Central America’s seven countries combined. The Chicanx community in the U.S. is vast, diverse, and well-established. Mexican media, Alvarenga reminded me, penetrates the whole of Latin America and the U.S. The dual streams of assimilationist pressures from Mexico and the U.S. that slam Central American immigrants are only magnified by geopolitical realities.
Central Americans bear comparably fresher wounds from American imperialist intervention, too. The Northern Triangle’s refugee crisis can be traced directly to U.S. funded military conflicts of the Cold War era, a connection that Trump’s “bad hombre” parables tend to leave out.
“Central American identity and migration issues in the U.S. [are] often collapsed with how Chicanos/Mexicans experience it, but there's key differences we bring light to [in Central American Twitter],” said Alvarenga. “We suffer crossing Mexico, we face xenophobia in Mexican American communities here, and many of us are also war refugees.”
Among members of the Central American diaspora on Twitter, the hashtag #CentAmStudies handily flags stories of interest. One recent tweet under the tag linked to an Intercept profile of a Houston man contesting the legality of his March 2 deportation to El Salvador after 17 years in the U.S. Another pointed to a snapshot of Mother’s Day at an ICE detention center. Another highlighted 2016 stats on unaccompanied Salvadoran minors detained at the U.S. border (17,512 — a 54 percent increase from the year before); yet another on a campaign launched May 31 by the UN Refugee Agency to address these child refugees’ plight.
The pupusa y yucca frita situation is unfolding with the fam 😍😋💙 pic.twitter.com/oqD7V1laYg— Juancachimbón 🇸🇻 (@TwitNumeroUno) June 3, 2017
But it isn’t all grim news items. I lost a solid five minutes flipping through a thread inviting Garifuna women — Hondurans of Afro-Indigenous descent — to share videos of themselves dancing to punta music. Someone else’s photo uploads, starring an array of Salvadoran comfort foods, made me nostalgic for family meals of fried beige treats. Within this online community, the broadcast of selfhood is a political gesture unto itself.
For minorities within a minority, there’s a lot to be said for sheer representation. Amid a human rights panic with transnational implications, it’s also necessary to be reminded that migrants aren’t a problem, but are people — individuals with families, stories, and distinct cultures. Reading Alvarenga’s dispatch on voseo, I was reminded of a childhood visit to El Salvador, where my mother was born and lived until war displaced her in her twenties. I’d been chatting with a much older and cooler cousin when she stopped me mid-sentence. A momentous occasion, she said: After two weeks, I’d finally squeaked out a puchica. The word, whose usage spans the Central American isthmus, resists translation. It’s basically an expression of astonishment or surprise.
“You’re Salvadoran now!” my cousin cheered, wrapping me in a hug the smell of Mennen baby cologne — the olfactory signpost of so many Latin American childhoods. “Welcome home.”