Mexico awards top rights prize to women who feed northbound migrants

By David Agren

Catholic News Service

12/13/2013

Norma Romero Vasquez receives applause from Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto, right, and Raul Plascencia, president of the National Human Rights Commission, after she was presented the 2013 National Human Rights Award in Mexico City Dec. 12. Romero leads a group of women known as Las Patronas, who feed Central American migrants traveling through Mexico atop northbound trains. (CNS photo) (Dec. 13, 2013)
Norma Romero Vasquez receives applause from Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto, right, and Raul Plascencia, president of the National Human Rights Commission, after she was presented the 2013 National Human Rights Award in Mexico City Dec. 12. Romero leads a group of women known as Las Patronas, who feed Central American migrants traveling through Mexico atop northbound trains. (CNS photo) 

MEXICO CITY (CNS) -- Mexico awarded its top human rights to Norma Romero Vasquez, the leader of a group of women known as Las Patronas, who feed Central American migrants traveling through the country atop northbound trains.

She collected the award Dec. 12, feast day for Our Lady of Guadalupe, often referred to as "La Patrona," or "Patroness," namesake of the women's group and of their village of coffee and cane farmers in Veracruz state.

"Our labor of humanitarian help started as something simple: feeding migrants, which we never thought or even imagined would bring us to this point," Romero said in remarks at the president's residence. "We thank God and Our Lady of Guadalupe, who have guided us in the work and for keeping us on our feet."

The award, presented by President Enrique Pena Nieto, highlighted the efforts of 14 self-described "women of faith," whose work started in 1995, a time when offering assistance to those without the proper papers was considered a crime and people were imprisoned for doing so.

Those rules have since been discarded, but other difficulties emerged as migrants are regularly robbed, kidnapped and extorted as they move through Mexico, often fleeing violence in Central America. Criminals now collect steep fees for allowing them to climb aboard the freight train known as "La Bestia" (The Beast) for its legacy of leaving migrants dismembered.

Migrants pay $100 to board "La Bestia" and continue paying criminal gangs as they roll northward toward the United States, said Franciscan Father Tomas Gonzalez Castillo, director of a migrant shelter on the Guatemalan border. "We notice an increase in violence toward migrants," he told Mexico's Reforma newspaper.

Las Patronas never set out to serve migrants, and Romero confessed she knew nothing about Central America until starting her humanitarian work. But she noticed people riding atop the trains passing by their property in La Patrona, some 185 miles southeast of Mexico City. A few arrived on foot and asked for food.

The women began bagging lunches of rice, beans, bread or whatever they could find — sometimes freshly picked fruit, when money was tight — and say they've never missed a day, not even Christmas. Trains started slowing down when passing La Patrona, allowing the women to lob the lunches to migrants on top.

As their notoriety increased, so did donations. Universities now collect food and clothes. Romero regularly speaks at events around the country, but said she would be fine if it were no longer necessary.

"While we love the work that God has called us to, we don't want to spend all our lives giving out food," she said. "We want that one day we're not needed. Then, we will know that we're advancing."

In 2012, the National Human Rights Commission awarded its human rights prize to Father Alejandro Solalinde for sheltering migrants in Oaxaca state.

The commission reported more than 11,300 migrants were kidnapped over a six-month period in 2010, the last time such figures were released.

Copyright (c) 2013 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops  

MEXICO CITY (CNS) -- Mexico awarded its top human rights to Norma Romero Vasquez, the leader of a group of women known as Las Patronas, who feed Central American migrants traveling through the country atop northbound trains.

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