The Patronas don't know who is on the trains, not usually. They don't know their names, their birthdays, their brothers or sisters or cousins; don't know whether they are mean or nice, quick to anger or cool and collected, whether they tend to remember birthdays, whether they've gotten in trouble back home. The Patronas don't know where their homes are, or why they've left.
You can make less assumptions about the people on the trains than one might at first think. You can't assume, for instance, that you're looking at undocumented migrants—not only do some Central Americans on the train have papers to work in Mexico (even, at times, in the US), but there are also Mexicans who take the trains in search of better opportunities, because they are poor and can't afford a bus, or because they are running from something. The Patronas are particularly bad at picking up accents, and often can't tell if someone they talk to is from southern Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras. (I am not skilled enough a Spanish speaker for close accents.)
But even more, some of the people on the trains are not labor migrants at all. There are the "drogaditos" (in proper Spanish that would be "drogadictos," but I have never heard anyone from La Patrona use the c), who ride the train for kicks. I've seen a kid huffing glue on the southbound train as it rumbles south—the opposite direction that the migrants usually go. But "drogaditos" isn't used only to signify addicts, but others as well: sex workers, effeminate gay men, the homeless, runaways, the transgendered. 1 Likewise the trains sometimes carry wealthier people, Mexican and foreign, looking to have an adventure. Farther south, famously in the yards of Tierra Blanca and around the depots in the state of Chiapas, the trains carry gang members, especially MS-13, looking to steal from and exploit Central American migrants any way they can, most often by threatening to throw the migrants from the moving train. And more dangerous are the agents of the drug cartels, whose modus operandi is to gain the trust of migrants so that when migrants are later kidnapped, the cartels know exactly who in the U.S. the migrants know and ergo how much money they can extort.2
They all get food. Everyday the women of La Patrona wait for the sound of the train, the tickle and whisper at their ears, to go out to the train tracks. When the train comes they are ready, plastic bags of comida first, bags of pan dolce after, water passed from a wheelbarrow at the crossing with the dirt road.
Sometimes the train is put on a siding up the track, and the Patronas will drive out to meet it, putting all that food and water in a white pickup truck, having the migrants hop down from the hoppers and boxcars. Often the migrants have already gone door-to-door begging for food, and these will come jogging back to meet the truck.
I don't mean to beatify the Patronas, though obviously that is what this sounds like: an encomium. The Patronas are as much flesh and blood as everyone else. When a Japanese reporter visited from Mexico City, they kept referring to her as Chinese and talking about her eyes. They can get moody and irascible. They feud and bicker and pick on each other.
At the train, the trainhoppers are tired and hungry. Sometimes they are sick; sometimes they are scared. Usually, if they are not scared when they are in La Patrona, they have been scared earlier, not only of the cartels and the gangs but of the police as well. They have heard stories. The Central Americans have all heard that Mexicans are mean, heartless, ruthless. They are often touched by the hospitality. Part of forcing them to hide has meant that they are being seen as objects, as potential sites of exploitation and wealth. More important, in order to not be victimized they have to learn to see themselves this way. That is, as things, as always potential victims.
Nearly everyone thanks the Patronas with a “te bendiga” or “Dios te bendiga,” meaning “God bless you.” They say it even to me, the gringo, the güero. La Patrona, the town, becomes for a moment a little oasis, a minute pause, where they can be calm again, not worried, with a temporary family. The trainhoppers often call the Patronas “mamacita” or “madrecita.” I can only tell you this as a person, but what the scene does—the food, the giving, the advice, the sharing—is, for a little while, recognize them as human again. They are back to being people, and the Patronas are just people helping other people. No more than that.
Just for a moment.
1 These are not exclusive categories.
2 Here's how this works, with a lot of variation on the theme: The cartel will pull all the migrants off a train and take them to a safe house. There, they will beat and eventually torture them for the most valuable information the migrants have: the phone numbers of their relatives in the US.
When the migrants give up the phone numbers, the relatives will receive a call saying that if a large and specific amount of money is not deposited or wired within a short period, the migrant will be killed.
From what people in La Patrona have told me—where there is no cartel activity—the sum is usually $3,000 USD and the time is usually 48 hours. And the cartels will kill the migrant if the money is not paid.