Like Joseph in the Christmas story, the men at Casa Tochán in Mexico City left their homes looking for shelter. But unlike him, these Central American men left their wives and children behind. “For them, to be without a home, to be without their children, it is very similar to what Mary and Joseph experienced,” said Gabriela Hernandez, the director of Casa Tochán, a shelter for immigrants. Before Trump’s brutal anti-immigrant policies, most Central Americans dreamed of going to the United States, but many are now resigned to living in Mexico, a country they know little about. Because of that, Hernandez and her staff decided to hold a posada, a traditional Mexican Christmas celebration. “It is for them to know a part of Mexican culture,” she continued.
Most of the men living in Casa Tochán are fleeing from violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—the so-called Northern Triangle Countries, which consistently rank as some of the most dangerous in the world. It’s the first time many of these men will be celebrating Christmas without their families.
The shelter has thirty beds crammed into small rooms spread over three floors. A few simple Christmas decorations are taped to the walls. Late in the afternoon of the posada, volunteers and residents work feverishly to finish the piñatas in one room, while in the kitchen Hernandez and other volunteers and residents prepare the food and ponche, a traditional hot drink made with fruit, cinnamon, and piloncillo (brown sugar). “This is something they may not have in their home country,” said Hernandez as she watched over the ponche.
The atmosphere becomes festive as more guests and volunteers arrive, but there’s also a sadness just below the surface.
Fredy fled Honduras after he was threatened by Mara 18, one of the most vicious gangs in the world. He left behind his wife and son. “This is my second Christmas in Tochán,” he said. “My son is two years old. I last saw him when he was only a few months old. I missed two birthdays, two Christmases.” Santiago, another Honduran, also finds it difficult to be away from loved ones at Christmas. “In one way, it’s good to be here. It’s safe. But it’s also sad because you’re without family.”
When the piñatas are finally finished, everyone piles into the street. Candles are lit and traditional Christmas songs are sung. At first, neighbors watch from doorways but once the piñatas are hung, children rush out to join in the fun, their parents following. After the last piñata is broken open and the candy it held frantically picked up from the asphalt by a scrum of children, the food and ponche are served. Residents and volunteers mingle with neighbors. The men talk, laugh, and balance plates of food, appearing to forget, for a few brief hours, why they are here.
Joseph Sorrentino is a freelance writer and photographer who has made San Gregorio Atlapulco his home for the last year and a half.