Some call it "el tren de la muerte" (the train of death). Others refer to the rattling death trap as "la bestia" (the beast). Countless migrants from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and other Central American countries risk their lives boarding cargo trains each year on their way north for a piece of the American Dream.

Every couple of days, hundreds of the region's poorest souls descend on the city of Arriaga in southern Mexico to make the perilous journey to the United States, where they hope to find jobs picking vegetables, mowing lawns, washing cars, or cleaning hotel rooms for minimum wage.

The journey from Arriaga to Los Angeles spans about 2,000 miles. It's thousands more miles to Miami or New York. Between 2007 and 2010, Spanish photographer Isabel Muñoz made three harrowing trips between Arriaga (Chiapas) and Ixtepec (Oaxaca) to document the travails of travelers on the infamous freight train.

Anti-Castro Cuban patriots in the '60s.
Jim Nickless
Anti-Castro Cuban patriots in the '60s.

Location Info

Map

Centro Cultural Espanol

1490 Biscayne Blvd.
Miami, FL 33132

Category: Community Venues

Region: Coral Gables/South Miami

Freedom Tower

600 Biscayne Blvd.
Miami, FL 33132

Category: Art Galleries

Region: Downtown/Overtown

Details

"La Bestia: Photography by Isabel Muñoz": Through August 30 at Centro Cultural Español Miami, 1490 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-448-9677; ccemiami.org. Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

"Embedded: A Photojournalist Captures Conflict and Resistance": Through August 11. Opening Reception May 24 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Freedom Tower, 600 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-237-7700; mdc.edu/ags. Tuesday through Saturday noon to 5 p.m.

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She was accompanied by Salvadoran journalist Oscar Martinez. Together they told the stories of the men, women, and children who, on average, hop about a dozen different trains to cover the distance. "We rode the train for eight hours at a time, and the heat and speed were incredible," says Martinez, who reports frequently on the topic in the online publication El Faro. "There is no food and little water, and the trains reach speeds upward of 75 kilometers per hour [50 mph], so it's impossible to sleep. Some try latching themselves down with a belt or rope, but more often than not, they fall off."

Riding is particularly terrifying for women, many of whom are raped or forced to trade sexual favors for protection. "Women start taking the pill before starting the trip, the American Dream," Muñoz observes.

The pair's experiences are on view at Centro Cultural Español Miami (CCEM) in "La Bestia: Photography by Isabel Muñoz," a sprawling exhibit featuring 76 medium- and large-format color and black-and-white portraits of the passengers they encountered aboard the trains. It is one of two shows downtown along Biscayne Boulevard that explore issues of immigration and displacement. The other exhibit, opening next week at the Freedom Tower, chronicles a photojournalist's experiences with a militant group of anti-Castro resistance fighters trying to topple Fidel and return to their homeland in the early '60s. Together the shows peel back the curtain on two disparate periods of history relating to economic and political refugees.

At CCEM, Muñoz's arresting suite of photos is complemented with video projections by Mexican artists Andrew Olivera and Eduardo Villalobos, who accompanied Muñoz on the last leg of her journey.

The videos offer a rhythmic perspective of the experience and give spectators a notion of the threat confronting the train passengers. The exhibit also includes documents and data informing viewers of the migration phenomenon.

On display are gripping images, including one of a young bearded man wearing a ­T-shirt emblazoned with a hammer and sickle. Like others who have fallen under the train, he is missing both legs. Each year dozens of migrants tumble beneath the rumbling beast while running to grab a box car ladder. Like something out of a Stephen King horror movie, lucky survivors in the photos tell stories of the train trying to eat them alive as it sucked them under its grinding wheels.

"Another big problem we encountered and actually had to jump off the train once is that the Zetas [one of the most powerful drug cartels in Mexico] have crooks we call 'falcons,' who hide among the groups of immigrants to study their habits and movements," Martinez says. "If one of these falcons spies someone using a public phone often between stops, then they know they might have relatives waiting for them in the U.S. This marks them to the Zetas as easy targets. Then they wait for the right moment to snatch them and ransom them for a few thousand dollars. For them it is easy money."

There are shots of men skipping from box car to box car as the train chugs through a sweltering jungle. And there are photos of mass humanity swarmed atop several box cars. The picture not only reflects the severity of the immigration issue but also reminds viewers that for many of these people, it's not their first trek north aboard the death trains.

The photos of hollow-eyed, shirtless men carrying their few possessions in grimy backpacks, and pregnant mothers surrounded by hungry broods of shoeless children waiting to board the trains leave an unforgettable impression. But at times, many of Muñoz's untitled closeups of listless kids, lovers holding hands, and solitary men riding at night atop box cars seem out of place. It's as if the artist is more concerned with putting a human face on the issue rather than capturing their anguish.

One drawback to the exhibit is the somewhat sterile nature of the presentation. It doesn't convey the chaos that the subjects encountered on their turbulent trek. It would have been much more visceral had it included some of the passengers' belongings and ephemera typically left behind on the train tracks.

The bigger problem is that CCEM operates on banker's hours, so the type of folks depicted in the exhibit, some of whom might even work as housekeepers or servers in nearby hotels and restaurants, will likely never see the show. That's a crying shame.

A few blocks south at the Freedom Tower, photography is also the focus of a summer exhibit organized by the Miami Dade College Art Gallery System."Embedded: A Photojournalist Captures Conflict and Resistance" opens May 24 with a reception from 7 to 9 p.m. and features more than 60 pictures taken during the height of the Cold War era.

The photos were snapped by Jim Nickless over nine months in the early '60s. Nickless, a native of Silver City, New Mexico, had been operating a photography business in El Paso, Texas, before moving to Miami and finding himself in the thick of anti-Castro intrigue following the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

Nickless, a freelance cameraman for NBC News at the time, was working with a group of Cuban patriots attempting to overthrow Fidel Castro. "It was back in February of 1964," he explains." I flew to Costa Rica to meet with the exile group, which was called MRR (Movement of Revolutionary Recovery), and later accompanied them during five clandestine missions into Cuba."

Funded by the CIA, the freedom fighters were headed by Manuel Artime and operated from a 180-foot mother ship with two 50-foot attack boats and training camps in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

At the Freedom Tower, where countless thousands of Cuban exiles were processed after arriving on freedom flights from the island, the images reflect the determined spirit of many of the fighters, who never gave up the hope of liberating their homeland.

For example, pictures portray Bay of Pigs veterans preparing an assault on Cuba by loading ammunition into 50-caliber machine guns on a Swift Boat. Other images depict a dozen men aboard one of the Swift Boats as they depart the mother ship for a mission.

"A lot of that equipment was new and had never been used by the U.S. Army before, and it was sort of like a testing ground for what was soon to happen in Vietnam," Nickless observes. "My last mission with the group came in February of 1965, when we tried to recover some infiltrators from a small harbor in Pinar del Río. But it turned out to be a trap by the Cuban military, who were lying in an ambush for us. We ended up having to travel the 720 miles to Nicaragua for fear their air force would bomb the mother ship if we led them there."

He says that following President John F. Kennedy's assassination, covert funds for the clandestine operations ended.

"Much later, around 1974, I interviewed Manuel Artime for NBC. I remember him telling me that 'when they killed Kennedy, they killed us.' Artime died of cancer in 1978," Nickless says.

The exhibit was organized and curated by Nickless's children, Lea and Chris, who wanted to share their father's legacy with the public.

"The word embedded wasn't part of our vocabulary back then," Nickless mentions. "But that's what the experience was for me. I didn't seek special treatment in the training camps and would sleep on the same army cots as the resistance fighters, get up and have breakfast, and do calisthenics with them before taking my photos. You can say I learned more about Cuban food than I wanted to."

It's a historical moment of enduring impact for many South Floridians whose scars from that period have yet to heal.

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Dave Francis
Dave Francis

THE LIES KEEP COMING? SPEAK-UP!

The mandated E-Verify law is being exposed to the public eye once again, with increased resistance from GOP House speaker, John Boehner of Ohio and Dave Camp of Michigan, who is Chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Americans must insist these lawmakers stop blocking the 50-state H.R.2885 - Chairman Smith's 'Legal Workforce Act’. The E-Verify bill, should concern every jobless citizens and legal residents, as if implemented on a national scale would reject illegal foreign workers.

On the topic of E-Verify, Sen. Sessions recalled something that a Border Patrol agent told GOP Presidential Hopeful Mitt Romney: “The administration has also been resistant to the popular E-Verify program, never once including it in any of its jobs or economic plans. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, has effectively ended worksite enforcement operations, meaning employers can continue to hire illegal workers rather than out-of-work Americans. . . .”

They [Border Patrol agents] said “when employers are willing to hire people who are here illegally, that's a magnet, and it draws them in. And sanctuary cities, giving tuition breaks to the kids of illegal aliens..... Those things also have to be stopped. If we want to secure the border, we have to make sure we have a fence, determining where people are, enough agents to oversee it, and turn off that magnet. We can't talk about amnesty; we cannot give amnesty to those who have come here illegally”.

Beforehand Sen. Sessions delivered a speech on the Senate floor calling for an end to the Child Tax Care loophole that allows illegal aliens to collect thousands of dollars in tax refunds by filing with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). This has been going on for years. This cannot continue. It must be stopped, and fixing it can't be delayed. The Treasury Department's own inspector general for Tax Administration, who analyzes problems within the agency and issues reports, reported that in 2010 the Internal Revenue Service paid illegal aliens a staggering $4.2 billion in child tax credits for dependents, a great deal of whom don't even live in the country. This has been going on for years. This cannot continue. It must be stopped, and fixing it can't be delayed.

According to a WTHR Indianapolis TV station there were four illegal alien workers living in the same Trailer park. Between the four of them, they claimed 20 children as dependents, but while investigating the story, only one child was seen living at the home. "We found, in many cases, they're getting these tax credits for nieces and nephews and children who aren't even in the United States," All these people have to do is possess a not from the school, which in itself is open to large areas of fraud. Claimed on a federal form 8812, this credit is for specific taxpayers who get lesser than full amount of the child tax credit. Prior to this outcry by Sen. Sessions, the bill to close the loophole has gone nowhere, but now H.R. 1956 has passed the house and need your voice to add to the anger and utter frustration. Call the Washington central switchboard at 202-224-3121 and inundate your U.S. Senators and demand this law passes, along with mandatory E-Verify and the Birthright Citizenship amendment.

The child tax reimbursement is not some kind of loophole for illegal alien workers to use to grow their refunds. The IRS rules for eligible children still apply and the law is very clear that the credit is limited to those children who are classified as “a U.S. citizen, a U.S. national, or a U.S. resident alien.” All others are committing fraud; as was previously discovered years back, when prison detainees were caught in the act. This is why we must seriously rethink the “Birthright Citizenship” law on the books now. This policy needs to be amended,--immediately so no foreign mother who slips past the U.S. border Patrol, or lies on their entry form prior to arriving on an international flight cannot use the U.S. taxpayers, as their own personal bank account?

This law is ridiculously out of date with global travel, as any pregnant female can arrive on U.S. soil and claim American citizenship for their new born baby. No change in the law is required, just an amendment, so babies born in the jurisdiction of the United States--at least one parent must be a citizen. Otherwise the annual estimated number of 400.000 newborns entering this country will add up in the billions. Once status is claimed, these mothers with babies are eligible for food, housing, medical and schooling until the age of 18 including their mother. Reported by the Center for Immigration Studies an average annual cost per child K-12 is $7,161.00 and exceeds $109 billion annually per cycle of ‘Foothold’ babies. That’s your taxes given out to the 400,000 mothers and their kids annually, gaining a nice little inheritance from Americans.

Is there so much money just lying around, as the Solar panel manufacturer “Solyndra’ with 535 million worth of loan guarantees or the General Service Administration (GSA) debacle in Las Vegas and whatever else is out there? How much more money are taxpayers supposed to conjure up, without accountability? Illegal Immigration unfortunately has adverse consequences on all our lives, but mainly the cost of supporting them. $113 billion dollars a year and climbing is a very unhealthy situation, when we cannot cater to our own poor.

As I see it and millions of Americans, no matter their race, color or faith should join up with the TEA PARTY? The outcome is to rid the Congress of those politicians’ that are obstacles in changing laws detrimental to the welfare, security and health of all citizens and residents. Gone already is Richard Lugar, who deliberation was no other politician could unseat him, when as a Republican he was siding with the Liberals to pass another Amnesty for illegal aliens. Who is next to clock out and which state is to be hounded by the Department of Justice for protecting their citizens? First it was Arizona, Then Sheriff Joe Arpaio’and then Alabama was intimidated? Yet these Liberal czars condoned by Obama, has done nothing to stop the emergence of Sanctuary States like California and Nevada?

But even so we must be on our guard against all future elections, even down to the municipal level, as non citizens in large numbers have been discovered in the voter rolls in Florida. Democrats no matter the future consequences of the citizen’s right to vote have shown indifferent to any new measure to stop any ineligible person voting. In fact they have shown no desire to strengthen election laws, by insisting that every person who appears to vote has an official picture ID? Just by this reluctance for a fair and respect for our voting laws, illustrates they don’t care who votes, especially by illegal aliens for the left? Read everything you wanted to know about illegal immigration, true statistics and more at NumbersUSA and American Patrol.

In addition the National Liberal media had reported nationwide, the dwindling of numbers of illegal aliens crossing the Southern border. The source was coming from the Pew Hispanic Research Center? But the Washington Examiner press negates this as a lie; the original data was coming from the Obama Administration. When conducting interviews with Border Patrol officials the numbers are not slowing down.

A Border Patrol official working along the Texas border said administration officials are deliberately failing to document what is actually happening on the border. “In many cases my supervisors make it clear that they don’t want increased apprehension numbers, which means no arrests,” he said.

Saying, “Security is being compromised as the government seeks to keep a lid on the border as a campaign issue during the presidential election cycle. Department of Homeland Security’s Border Patrol agents and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers are being told not to make arrests of noncriminal illegal immigrants and not to patrol areas of high traffic along the roughly 2,000-mile Southwest border”.

 
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