Julliana Essengue arrived in Tapachula, Mexico, from São Paulo, Brazil, in March 2020. She was broke but determined to reach the United States. After nearly two months traversing rain forests, borders and rivers by bus, car, boat, and foot, she needed money. At first, Essengue and her travel companions squatted. “We slept on the floor for two weeks in a hallway,” she told me. “There were Africans, Haitians – everybody was sleeping on the floor.”
This story was published with the support of a fellowship from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Centre for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights.
In Tapachula, near the Guatemala border, the United States operates what is effectively an open-air immigration prison by forcing migrants to wait to be granted refugee status in Mexico. When Essengue presented her documents to Mexican immigration officials, the conditions were grim.
“Some people were sleeping in front of the immigration [building] in tents,” she said, “because they did not have money to rent a house.”
Essengue began working on a mango plantation, where she collected and selected fruit to be packaged and sent to the United States. She called it “horrible,” shaking her head as the memories returned. In addition to the intense sun, she faced discrimination in pay; Black workers like her would get less. “They’ll tell you that they will pay you this, and when the time reaches to pay, they will not pay you the amount,” she said.
Essengue resigned herself to staying in Tapachula for however long it took to wait for the necessary documents. But when she realised, she was pregnant, reaching the safety of the US before the birth of her child took on a new urgency.
For many years, most published images of migrants making the journey across the Americas were of brown-skinned people of diverse Central American origins, but the reality is far more varied. Essengue is Cameroonian, one of the many thousands of Black migrants from Africa and the Caribbean whose plight across the Americas has been invisible for years.
An immigration lawyer who introduced me to Essengue called their path to the US “the Black Immigrant Trail of Tears.” Out of respect for the Native American history from which that phrase is derived, I think of it as the Black Migrant Trail of Tragedies.
As of 2019, there were about 4.6 million Black immigrants in the United States, 88 per cent of whom were born in African or Caribbean countries. Of the approximately one million migrants who arrive in the United States annually, less than nine per cent arrive from Africa and the Caribbean.
US Customs and Border Protection, however, tracks only a limited number of nationalities in real time—none of which are African or Caribbean – at the southwestern land border, which means there is no data on exactly how many Black migrants from those regions are arriving at the southern border. But over the last year, the number is estimated to be in the thousands.
The migration stories of people like Essengue are characterised by anti-Blackness in policy and practice that persists from country to country. Working on plantations for less pay than their non-Black counterparts is just one example of the racism they endure. And even when they make it to the imagined promised land of the United States, the indignities don’t end.
Since 2020, Essengue has been romantically involved with a man, Emerson Dalmacy, from Haiti, one of the companions she met early in her journey. For the couple, there was no returning to Brazil – they had neither the money nor the desire. And as far as they were concerned, leaving for their home countries was out of the question, especially for Essengue, whose Black migration story begins in Cameroon in 2019.
Essengue is from the city of Kumba in an English-speaking region of Cameroon, a country that was largely controlled by France until 1960. But Great Britain had held a territory between French Cameroun and Nigeria known as British Cameroons.
In 1961, when the United Nations held a referendum on whether British Cameroonians should join neighbouring Nigeria or reunify with Cameroon, Northern British Cameroonians favoured Nigeria, while Southern British Cameroonians favoured reunification. Both groups got their wish, and the territory was split.
For Anglophone Cameroonians who have been alienated from the country’s political systems and want their own independent state—which wasn’t an option in the 1961 referendum—the area is known as Ambazonia.
In October 2016 through 2017, English-speaking Cameroonians began protesting inequalities perpetuated by the state. The government responded with arrests and teargas. By October 2017, separatists proclaimed Ambazonia an independent state, and the Cameroonian government declared war. The conflict, sometimes called the Anglophone Crisis or the Ambazonian War, has resulted in more than 4,000 civilian deaths and 700,000 people being displaced.
Essengue was only 21 when the protests began, and she did not participate. “I’m not in a political group, so I was just looking at what was happening,” she told me.
In 2019, Essengue, then a mother of two young boys, worked as a tailor. So, when the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), a nonviolent political organisation that seeks independence for the Anglophone regions, asked her to sew some of their paraphernalia, she thought of it as a business transaction. But, she said, “when I got finished with the material, that is when I saw the military coming to my shop.”
Military officials accused her of being a member of the SCNC. She tried to explain that she was simply sewing materials for money and had no political motive. “When the military comes to you, they don’t give you the opportunity to say anything,” she said. “They beat me at the shop and put me inside their truck.”
The details of what happened next are painful and, in some respects, still uncertain. Essengue remembers arriving at a camp. She was there for almost a week, she said, and during that time she saw many people die: “They were shooting…. There was a lot of blood through death. A lot, a lot of blood.”
- Adopted from The Nation, USA