TIJUANA, Mexico — Mexican authorities are preparing to close the largest Central American migrant shelter, known as El Barretal, located on the eastern outskirts of Tijuana.
The closure signals a somewhat bittersweet end to the Caravana Migrante 2018 that became a national obsession with impacts still untold.
Slated for next week, the closure is happening just as another caravan plans to follow in its footsteps, leaving Honduras with the safety of thousands bound for Mexico.
Life inside El Barretal for the 700 or so remaining Central American migrants who arrived in Tijuana in November as part of a caravan of about 6,000 has settled into comfortable daily and weekly rhythms.
Kids go to school. Men wake before dawn and catch buses outside for work in construction or other odd jobs throughout Tijuana. Women wash and hang laundry by hand in sinks to the far right of the facility.
On Thursday, a bachata blasted from a stereo into the large open-air courtyard, the heartbeat of the sprawling event space and concert hall where more than 3,000 Central Americans once took shelter in pitched tents and on cots in recent months.
The large event space with a capacity for 7,000 was opened when the original shelter in Tijuana’s Zona Norte near the U.S.-Mexico border became overcrowded and flooded in deplorable conditions.
Since those early, difficult days, many have moved on and gotten jobs and apartments in Tijuana. Only 700 or so remain inside and the number is decreasing every day, shelter volunteers said.
“The temporary shelter has worked and accomplished what we set out to do, and now we are winding down operations as these last remaining people find more permanent places,” said Leonardo Neri, a federal volunteer and shelter coordinator.
Volunteers said they expect to close the shelter on Jan. 15, the very same day another large caravan is planning to set out from Honduras.
Several families said they pray their number is called to present their asylum case to U.S. immigration authorities on Monday or Tuesday before the shelter closes. Beyond that, they said they have no plans on where else they may go.
“We are getting very close,” said Victoria Rodriguez. “We think maybe Monday our number will come up. We are packed and ready to go.”
Rodriguez has two young children, both battling respiratory infections and coughs. She said she has considered no other options besides her number getting called to present her case for asylum to U.S. immigration authorities.
“Soap! Soap here! Soap has arrived!” shouted a vendor into the nearly empty courtyard.
The Barretal courtyard became like a town plaza — home to dance nights, painting lessons, and religious ceremonies. Its perimeter is lined with migrant-run businesses like cigarette vendors and barber shops.
“We’ve become a community,” said Christian Lara from Honduras. “We’re always going to be friends with the people of the caravan. Look at what we’ve done. The truth is we will always talk with each other and keep in touch how we can.”
On Thursday, two boys goofed off giving each other rides through the courtyard on a gurney used to bring supplies into the shelter.
“We’re actually going to miss it here in El Barretal,” one said, laughing.
A man playing the music on a portable boombox collects coins inside El Barretal and at bus stops throughout Tijuana. He also sings and he said he plays music that reminds people of home.
“I make a little money for food. I don’t know about all these people or what they’re going to do,” said Jose Gonzalez of Nicaragua who was leaving the shelter Thursday in search of a cheap room to rent. “I have no idea because I have no where to go after here.”
San Diegan Leticia Guzman with Border Angels has been bringing donations like tents, sleeping bags, shoes, and clothing to El Barretal every week. She has also been trying to convince the federal agency running the shelter not to close it down while families are still without a place to go.
“There are children still in El Barretal whose families have no other place,” she said. “Where are they going to go? It’s going to be an issue for the residents of Tijuana, for nearby businesses, for everyone, if these families are not at least placed in another shelter.”
Last week, Mexican authorities closed Contra Viento y Marea, a warehouse shelter closer to the border. They relocated some 40 migrants to a church shelter in the Las Playas neighborhood of Tijuana, near the beach.
Jose Alexander Cherris said Thursday he was on his way to Padre Chava, another migrant shelter in Tijuana where he hoped to secure a place for himself and his 4-year-old son once El Barretal closed.
“I think they have room for us there,” he said.
Cherris was among a group that tried to breach the border Jan. 1 but he said he and his son stayed further back among the crowd and they retreated at the first sign of tear gas.
He said he still holds out hope of one day getting into the United States.
“I have faith. Besides, we’ve made it this far,” he said.
“We are thankful for however they have been able to help us so far,” he added about those who have been running the El Barretal shelter.