Biscayne Blvd Photos Show Immigrants and Freedom Fighters

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

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.

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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Freedom Tower

600 Biscayne Blvd.
Miami, FL 33132


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