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He’s been deported twice and survived bandits, trains and swamps, but this Honduran immigrant remains hopeful about reaching the U.S.

Besser Geovanny Zelaya Ortiz, left, with brother Jose Fernando Zelaya Ortiz, 22, right, and friend Juan de Dios Cervantes, 18, hope to hop a train early one morning after an all-night wait. (Credit:Liliana Nieto del Rio / For The Times)

LA Times

As a cold rain pelted the Mexican border town of Nogales, a young Honduran man and his two companions gathered outside a Catholic charity kitchen with other marooned deportees and would-be border-jumpers.

The mood was generally disconsolate, and with good reason: Most were broke, cold and hungry, and, more significantly, had little hope of rejoining loved ones and friends on the other side. Just across the way stood the imposing metal fence blocking off Arizona, USA.

a cold rain pelted the Mexican border town of Nogales, a young Honduran man and his two companions gathered outside a Catholic charity kitchen with other marooned deportees and would-be border-jumpers.

The mood was generally disconsolate, and with good reason: Most were broke, cold and hungry, and, more significantly, had little hope of rejoining loved ones and friends on the other side. Just across the way stood the imposing metal fence blocking off Arizona, USA.

“We plan to make it to Gilroy, California,” he said, referring to the self-proclaimed Garlic Capital of the World. “A compañero of ours is there.”

This was his third trip on La Bestia (The Beast), the sprawling network of freight trains that transports cargo and U.S.-bound Central American migrants from deep in Mexico to the northern borderlands. His earlier expeditions ended in deportation back to Honduras last year, once from the United States in April, and once from Mexico in October.

Still, Zelaya seemed to embody a facet of the migrant trek — the sense of adventure and possibility — that is inevitably lost in the polemics and sense of desperation surrounding illegal immigration. Anyone who is an immigrant or refugee, or a child of one, absorbs the significance of this momentous journey, of leaving one’s homeland for another life.

Immigrants, legal or not, tend to be risk-takers, opportunity-seekers. Zelaya traveled with two companions — his older brother, Jose Fernando, 22, and a new friend from Mexico, Juan de Dios Cervantes, 18.

Zelaya and his brother — rock ’n’ roll devotees who are among seven children of a widow who works at a chicken-processing factory in the ranching hub of Juticalpa, Honduras — lack functioning phones, but occasionally find an Internet connection to fire back home a simple message: “We’re alive.”

That they were headed to a country where migrants like them are reviled by many as interlopers to be jailed and deported didn’t especially faze him.

“I understand how someone who has never experienced poverty would never understand me, and would think I was an evildoer and a vagrant,” Zelaya said. “I understand certain points that Donald Trump makes, though I don’t agree with him.… A wall won’t stop anyone. Yes, there will be more deportations, but more people will try to get in. It will be the same.”

Bestia-hoppers making their way through Mexico face a Dickensian gantlet of gang enforcers, extortion-minded cops, immigration checkpoints and occasionally crazed and drugged-out fellow travelers.

The Zelaya brothers recounted disturbing episodes from their separate journeys, like the day a fellow Honduran was thrown to the tracks from a train when it braked suddenly, resulting in a severed arm. “He was already dead when he arrived at the hospital,” recalled Zelaya, who was sleeping in a boxcar when the locomotive jolted. “We continued on the train.”

But Zelaya also recalled moments of kindness and sacrifice during his railroad journeys.

Honduran bandits manning the railroad tracks in southern Mexico stopped and searched Zelaya and another traveler, but when the bandits discovered Zelaya had only 4 pesos, the equivalent of 20 U.S. cents, the tattooed heavies turned into unlikely good Samaritans: They handed Zelaya a bag with roasted chicken and tortillas — grub recently purloined from other migrants.

“We were very hungry, but too afraid to eat there,” Zelaya recalled, “so we kept walking along the tracks and eating on the go.”

Despite the discomforts and dangers, a sense of comradeship prevails among the Bestia regulars, many of whom know one another from previous rail voyages and interludes in jails, shelters and flophouse hotels, and bump into one another anew along the convoluted route.

“We are very unified, very loyal to each other,” Zelaya said of fellow train riders, many of who are christened with colorful monikers.

In Veracruz, Zelaya hooked up with some friends, including a fellow Honduran he had met at a U.S. immigration detention center in Arizona; he’s known as El Platano (The Banana) for his blond, curly hair, tied up in a pony tail.

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