SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras – There was cake at little Brithani Lizeth’s third birthday party, and also tears.
Though her grandmother and aunt tried to make their simple cinder block home festive, the little girl could not be consoled. She missed her parents.
Orbelina Orellana and Elmer Alberto Cardona were hundreds of miles and two countries away in a small town in southern Mexico, making their way toward the United States with thousands of others in a desperate caravan, leaving their loved ones behind.
Despite the distance, Orellana was able to get a picture and audio recording from her daughter’s birthday party in Honduras via WhatsApp and hear the little girl sob: “I love you, Mommy,” words that left the mother crushed.
“I didn’t even want to get up,” she said of the bittersweet moment.
Like thousands of others, Orellana and her husband have relied on social media, text messages and brief cellphone calls to connect with worried loved ones back home as they traverse a country that can often be deadly for migrants.
The birthday recording gave her comfort and courage to continue the difficult journey of nearly 3,000 miles (nearly 5,000 kilometers) by foot, bus and hitchhiking as they head toward the Mexican border city of Tijuana.
At the frontier with San Diego, many in the caravan hope to ask for asylum in the United States, though it could take weeks or months as they take their places at the end of a line of thousands of others in the slow-moving application process.
Years ago the migration trail north could be something of a black box. People might set out and not be heard from again until months later after reaching the U.S. and phoning from a relative’s house, or suddenly showing up back home after being caught at the border and deported.
Technology has changed that.
Not everyone in the caravan has a smartphone, and for those who do, coverage can be spotty in the Mexican countryside. At times it’s hard to find a hotspot or a charge. But for those who do, they’re precious cargo. Many share them with fellow migrants who eagerly log in to Facebook and other apps to send or receive a quick message.
Some NGOs also facilitated free calls home for migrants, with the Red Cross organizing more than 4,000 of them.
Orellana, 26, and Cardona, 27, have tried to call Brithani and her two siblings each evening when the caravan stops for the night, usually to sleep outdoors in public squares.
“I tell her I will always love her … and she tells me not to miss her, that she is going to send for me,” said Janeisy Nicolle, the couple’s 5-year-old middle daughter.
Often, in these brief conversations, neither side tells the whole truth for fear of causing worry.
Orellana and Cardona, for example, didn’t get into the fact that he had been stranded for a while on a desert highway in a dangerous part of Mexico, where migrants often fall prey to robbery, extortion, kidnapping and murder. Their loved ones didn’t mention that some days they were low on rice and beans because the family’s small pineapple farm wasn’t producing anything to sell.
“Life is hard here,” said Orellana’s 29-year-old sister Deysi, now responsible for raising Brithani, Janeisy and their 9-year-old brother, Kenner Alberto. “But it’s hard up there too.”
Many in the caravan are traveling in family units; among them are at least 300 children below age 5, according to a count conducted when they paused for several days to rest in Mexico City. Many more children have been left with relatives so as not to expose them to the dangers of the trip.
Orellana and Cardona are convinced they made the right choice in leaving their children behind and hope to reunite with their little ones if they make it to the United States and find work.
Violent political protests in Honduras last year closed many of the stores where they used to buy small electronics goods to sell on the street. Ultimately they were spending almost everything they made on transportation, with little left for food.
So they borrowed money from the only people who lend to the poor in Honduras — gang members, who charge exorbitant interest. When they were unable to repay the $250, their debt suddenly became $700. Then the death threats started to come.
“If there is no way to pay it, they look for other ways,” Orellana said. “That’s why I was afraid.”
On top of it all, their small wooden home collapsed.
“They suffered a lot,” said Orellana’s mother, 69-year-old Evangelina Murillo.
Murillo, who has cancer, lives with her daughter and son-in-law, two sons and now her three grandchildren in the two-room home donated by a local church in the rural outskirts of San Pedro Sula. It’s a dangerous place: Another son was killed by a thief who was trying to steal his pig.
That kind of violence and poverty are the reasons cited again and again by migrants who joined the caravan.
Orellana and Cardona had tried four years ago to emigrate from Honduras, only to be deported from Mexico. When they heard about the caravan on the TV news in October, they figured they didn’t have anything to lose.
The hardest part was when Brithani held onto her mother and begged to come with them, crying, “Don’t leave me, mommy, don’t leave me!”
“I couldn’t take her, the risk was too great,” Orellana said, clutching at two Virgin of Guadalupe medals hanging around her neck, one of them engraved with the initials of her three kids.
The daily phone calls from Mexico stopped for a while when the couple’s cellphone was stolen, until they started traveling with someone else who had one. During that time the only news their anxious family back home received was from the TV — scenes of tear gas and border clashes between migrants and Mexican police, and unfounded rumors that a child had died in those disturbances at a bridge between Guatemala and Mexico.
“When we see those images, we worry and I just ask God to take care of them for me,” Murillo said.
Thinking about their children is the only thing that helped the couple when life got tough with the caravan. Like when they lost their IDs on the border bridge amid the clashes. Or clambering aboard foul-smelling garbage trucks to travel more quickly and keep up with the rest of the group. And the days of slogging dozens of miles (kilometers) underneath a baking sun, and falling sick when colder temperatures set in.
“Whenever I felt like returning, I told myself, ‘Damn, I’d be going home to the same misery as always,'” Orellana said. “If I’ve come this far, I have to face whatever comes to provide a better life for my children.”
Nearing Tijuana, the couple said they were still undecided whether they would try to cross into the United States or ask for refuge in Mexico.
And on Sunday their thoughts will again be back home, this time with Janeisy: It’s her sixth birthday.