Inside Siglo XXI

LOCKED UP IN MEXICO'S LARGEST IMMIGRATION DETENTION CENTER


BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ


“I doubt there’s another journalist quite like her… Fernández’s prose is so incisive, pithy, powerful, and often funny.” —Counterpunch

“A dangerously enchanting siren.” —Francisco Goldman

“A searing indictment of the violence of the U.S. funded de facto border in southern Mexico, and the transformation of Tapachula, Mexico into a jail-city. This page-turner will leave you not knowing whether to laugh or to cry, but certain that Siglo XXI and all other cages must be burned to the ground." —Tanya Maria Golash-Boza, author of Deported

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About the Book

Much has been written about the experiences and treatment of immigrants from south of the Rio Grande once they have entered the United States. But this account, by the itinerant, effervescent and highly original journalist Belén Fernández, offers a quite different take.

In this concise, vivid account Fernández shows us what life is like for would-be migrants, not just from the Mexican side of the border but inside Siglo XXI, the notorious migrant detention center in the south of the country.

Journalists are prohibited from entering Siglo XXI; Fernández only gained access because she herself was detained as a result of faulty travel documents. Once inside the facility, Fernández was able to speak with detained women from Honduras, Cuba, Haiti, Bangladesh, and beyond. Their stories, detailing the hardships that prompted them to leave their homes, and the dangers they have experienced on an often-tortuous journey north, form the core of this unique book. The companionship and support they offer to Fernández, whose antipathy to returning to the United States, the country they are desperate to enter, is a source of bemusement and perplexity, displays a generosity that is deeply moving.

In the end, the Siglo XXI center emerges as a strikingly precise metaphor for a 21st century in which poor people, effectively imprisoned by punitive US immigration policies, nevertheless display astonishing resilience and camaraderie.

160 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-355-6​ • E-book ISBN 978-1-68219-356-3

 

About the Author

Belen Fernandez author photo

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Belén Fernández, is a contributing editor at Jacobin, and has written for The New York Times, Al Jazeera, and Middle East Eye. She is the author of Checkpoint Zipolite: Quarantine in a Small Place, Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World and The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work.

 

Read an Excerpt

ENTERING SIGLO XXI

The layout of the place [the detention center, Siglo XXI] is as follows: the door opens into a large room full of concrete tables, which are used for eating, sleeping, and slumping over in despair. Hanging from the ceiling is a television set, from which it is sometimes possible to glean the hour of the day—otherwise, you have to ask the guards. During the daytime, mattresses and blankets line the walls; at night, they proliferate across the floor, rendering the room impassable. Also lining the walls are posters with instructions in several languages as to how to—allegedly—go about requesting asylum and other rights, although the lack of cooperativeness on the part of the jailkeepers to every query from inmates means that the signage ultimately serves more of a decorative function. “Más tarde” (later) is the preferred response by Inami (National Migration Institue) officials to existential and mundane questions alike: “When can I meet with someone to discuss my case?”; “When will I know if I’m being deported?”; “When can I have a book to read?” In the event that an Inami official does not feel like pronouncing the words “más tarde,” a shrug also suffices, as does silence.

To your right as you enter is the counter where the lists for food and toiletries are placed and the wall to which a pen is attached. This is also where meals are served, through a gap in the slatted screen dividing the counter from a small office that can only be entered from the hallway outside the metal jail door. The screen appears specially designed to induce vertigo—at least in my own experience of spending extended periods of time staring at it while waiting for Inami or other officials to wander into the office such that they might be imploringly appealed to via the gap and have more opportunities to say “más tarde.”

To your left as you enter, meanwhile, is a corridor lined with more mattresses, blankets, and women atop them in assorted physical manifestations of limbo. Off of the corridor are various rooms with more of the same plus toilets with no doors, and at the end is a room with curtainless showers and a laundry area. The door to the prison yard, finally, is located just opposite the entrance, and is locked at night. In the morning, a line forms in front of the door in anticipation of it being unlocked—by which time the line has become a teeming throng of flesh against flesh that bursts forth into the yard in a momentary approximation of liberation, accompanied by cheers. After the race to collect the mangoes that have fallen from the mango tree, you can sit in the flea-infested grass or on the sports court with single deflated ball and revel in the feeling of being monitored by police from beyond the towering fence. The grass also serves as a laundry-drying venue, and the tree an apparent source of empowerment and/or consolation to the detainees who can be seen embracing its trunk.

It was in the prison yard that I had my first human interaction in Siglo XXI. Migra 4 had interrupted my fruitless search for a spot to place my mattress by threateningly notifying me that I had best line up for dinner while there was dinner to be had. I folded my mattress with belongings inside, as everyone else had done, and placed it on top of another one for the time being. I admit that I cannot actually recall any of the food I consumed in the detention center aside from the Walmart bread (the Manchego cheese ended up in the trash due to lack of refrigeration), but my notes state that the meals consisted of tortillas, rice and beans, and chicken with vegetables. According to many detainees, vomiting was a regular side effect of eating in Siglo XXI; according to the Cubans, the chicken should have been fried and not boiled. And it was a contingent of Cubans who made up my welcoming committee of sorts, approaching me under the concrete overhang outside where my tray of food and I had sought refuge from the incipient rain as women scrambled to collect their laundry from the grass.

Gathering around, the Cubans announced that they did not want me to feel alone, and asked me to identify my national origins. Once the riotous laughter at my response had subsided, I volunteered that I had relatives on my father’s side in Cuba, as though this somehow made me less ridiculous. The relatives lived in the town of Jiguaní in the province of Granma, I babbled, and I had visited them in 2006. One of the Cuban detainees nodded in confirmation of Jiguaní’s existence; another one wanted to know, based on my perennial sunburn, if the migra had been picking up people on the beach, and yet another opined that, as it was Sunday, the migra had been bored and just wanted to fuck with people. The Cubans were thoroughly offended on my behalf that the Mexicans had dared to apprehend an American, to whom borders were not meant to apply—even as some of them told me how they had traversed no fewer than 14 countries to reach Mexico from Cuba, as well as the notorious corpse-ridden Darién Gap between Panama and Colombia.

The Cubans and I were, you might say, in exactly opposite boats. While they were trying desperately to reach my hated homeland—a land that was nonetheless to thank for the passport that had until now enabled me to gallivant about the world with minimal difficulty—my own chief preoccupations at the moment included that my detention and/or deportation would disrupt my upcoming trip to none other than Havana. For months, I had been determined to be injected with one of Cuba’s homegrown coronavirus vaccines. However, flights to the island from Mexico had been temporarily suspended due to the pandemic, requiring Cuba-bound travelers to make rounds of assorted European, South American, and other airports. In my case, I was scheduled to fly in August to Istanbul, my first transatlantic trip since 2019, where I would then catch a plane to Havana—a circuitous route, no doubt, but nothing compared to trekking through 14 countries and encountering corpses in the Darién. Call it first world travel problems.

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