Mexico – November 5 2018

Supporting families in a migrant community in Mexico

SOS Children's Villages helps to improve the lives of children near the border with Guatemala

Margarita recalls the night decades ago when she and her family fled from the civil war in Guatemala.

“Many people we knew died in the war. My parents, my sister, my brother and I had to walk in the night to escape, with mud up to our knees in some places,” Margarita recalls of that night in the 1980s, when she was ten-years-old.

Today, Margarita is not sure of her real age so she estimates – almost 40. She feels trapped between two countries, never quite at home, and she is struggling to raise her children. But it is still better than the images she remembers from that night they had to flee, she says.

“The soldiers were very close to our house and we had to run. There were paths, but they were in the middle of the jungle and always going up and down the mountains. Finally we arrived in Mexico and we stayed,” she says.

Margarita and her sister Angelina did not speak Spanish. They grew up speaking Chuj, a language ​​spoken in the northern forest region of Guatemala. Although the sisters eventually learned Spanish in school, Chuj remains the language they speak from the heart. The sisters spoke it with their family in the 20 years they lived in Mexico. They spoke it when they returned to Guatemala and they continued speaking it when they again came to live in Mexico.

Settling in a makeshift community

Margarita, her husband and seven children have settled in El Refugio (Spanish for “The Shelter”), a community in the Mexican state of Chiapas, a few kilometres from the border with Guatemala. Surrounded by tropical jungle, mountains and beautiful landscapes, this area is one of Mexico’s tourist attractions.

El Refugio is a makeshift community where resources are scarce. Margarita and her sister Angelina have settled here with their families.


But work in the area is scarce, which forces men to seek jobs in Comitán, almost two hours away by car, in Mexico City, or at resorts in Cancún or Playa del Carmen.

In a very patriarchal social structure and with low levels of education, life for women in this community is not easy. They are alone for long periods of time, trying to feed and educate their children. But despite all obstacles, they never give up on the desire to find a better future for their families.

Support tailored to families’ needs

Over the last two years, SOS Children´s Villages has been working with the community to improve the lives of the children.

“At first it was difficult to gain their confidence,” says Graciela Aguilar, community facilitator at SOS Children’s Villages Mexico. “Most of the community are part of the same family and an outsider has to earn their trust and their place in their lives. However, slowly but firmly, they have started to work with us.”

The goal of the SOS family strengthening programme is to create stronger bonds between parents and children, to improve parenting abilities, and to help adults so they can find better jobs. The SOS team also helps families access services to ensure their rights.

Margarita, for example, already managed to get birth certificates for several of her seven children. Now the children have identity documents that grant them access to governmental services.

Margarita's sister Angelina helps her children learn how to read. It is important for her that her children become fluent in Spanish. She and her sister spoke one of Guatemala's native languages when they first arrived in Mexico and had to learn Spanish in school.


Additionally, the SOS team has organised workshops focused on the families’ needs. In the last two years, the 35 children of the community have attended workshops with their mothers on human rights. The mothers then asked for classes on how to avoid domestic violence, how to control anger and other topics they can work on to improve their quality of life.

“We look for solutions together”

The families can reach out to the SOS team whenever they face difficulties.

“We listen to the problems they encounter, and then we look for solutions together,” Graciela says.  

With the support of SOS Children’s Villages, Margarita and her sister Angelina, who also lives in El Refugio with her husband and seven children, advocated for safe drinking water in the community – and succeeded a few months ago.

Women like Margarita have begun to share and discuss what they have learned in the workshops with their husbands. They hope that their children will have better tools than they did when they left Guatemala in the middle of the night.

Photos by José Gallo

Top image: Margarita and her son in front of their home.

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