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Migrants on the northward trail face much danger and wear many scars, both physical and emotional. One guy had a massive scar from his ear down to the bottom of his throat, a reminder of the gang violence that encircled his daily life in Honduras. How do I know? Well, I asked him as much as I held a sharp object to his neck! “What barbarity, Andrew!” you’d say. “No,” I’d respond, “what barber-ity!”
As part of a group of Jesuits in formation immersing ourselves in the gritty reality of Latin American migration, I had the privilege of encountering migrants at different stages of their respective journeys toward a new life. One such stage was at La 72, a migrant shelter just across the Guatemala-Mexico border in Tenosique, Tabasco. Heavily dependent on volunteers to assist with the daily routine of the shelter, our band of 7 Jesuits pitched in however we could. Looking for an excuse to freshen up my summer “mohawk” and stir up conversation about the ongoing Copa America, I busted out my barber tools.
Ever since I started cutting hair, I’ve had a theory that people divulge much of their personal lives to their barbers/hairdressers because making oneself physically vulnerable to a blade-wielding barber simultaneously generates an emotional vulnerability. While sharing meals and playing soccer with migrants were also opportunities to connect, those 20-ish minutes in the barber chair gave me privileged access to their stories and dreams.
Daniel, who had a thick head of hair that my subpar tools could barely get through, got a clean buzz so he would not have to withstand the heat on his way to Monterrey, Mexico. He moved there a couple years ago from Honduras because he decided to leave a gang to which he had belonged for over 10 years. It is not possible to retire peacefully from a gang so he was forced to flee. He made a brief return to Honduras from Monterrey to pick up his wife and two young children so that they could join him where he had found dignified work.
Inspired by the “mohawk” I was sporting, Freddy requested one that would make him look like Chilean soccer star Arturo Vidal. He thought it might boost his skills on the concrete court the migrants play on every day to pass the time. Barely 20 years old, Freddy journeyed from El Salvador in search of hope and work. His plan was to get to the US, but due to the difficulties that he’s heard migrants face on the route, he thinks he’ll settle for a job in the tourism industry in Mexico. Either way, it will be difficult for him to find good work as an irregular migrant.
Yeison, age 7, received a routine trim. His mom wanted me to give him a “bowl cut” but I convinced her otherwise while recalling an image of myself rocking that regrettable style in elementary school. Yeison and his family had traveled from Honduras. It was hard to finish the job on Yeison because the battery powered trimmer tickled his neck and he couldn’t sit still. He giggled while telling me that he wants to be a pilot when he grows up. When I asked him if he was afraid of heights, he almost fell out of the chair laughing as he shook his head affirmatively.
As you might imagine, the migrants arrive at the shelters tired, dirty and with few possessions. They might have one change of clothes. “Why do they worry about their hairstyle when they have so many other things to worry about?” you might ask. Because they are also people with dignity. They have desires and dreams, like you and me. They want dignified work like you and me. They worry about simple things – such as their appearance – like you and me and they worry about serious matters – such as the well-being of their family – like you and me. They recognize their own dignity and therefore take advantage of the free services of a barber.
And I provided these services with much humility because their stories are sacred, as all human stories are. Whether or not I had noticed, their stories still would have been sacred. Thankfully for me, the encounter helped me notice their divine spark.
The original blog over the experience in summer of 2015