When crossing the border is a walk in the park.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Dec. 29 2006 7:11 AM

Flight Simulator

When crossing the Mexican border—or pretending to—is a walk in the park.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

EL ALBERTO, Mexico—With Border Patrol sirens blaring behind them, Ceferino Mejía and Diana Guillén picked up their two small children and plunged into the ankle-deep mud. They had to get moving; La Migra had already detected their trail. Ceferino trudged ahead with little José Ángel, but Diana stopped short when the muck swallowed her left shoe. She struggled to hand over 6-year-old Carlos. "Hurry, mommy!" he squealed. The patrol car's blinding spotlight passed just overhead. Balancing on one submerged foot, Diana fished out her sneaker and pushed forward, running along the river to the rest of the group. At this rate, they'd never make it across.

But the Mexico City couple didn't bring their children to El Alberto, hundreds of miles from the nearest entry point into the United States, to head to Texas or California. Like the other middle-class urbanites in the group, they had paid $14 to have the migrant experience without the three days in the desert, without the fear, and, well, without the border. They were in the Mezquital Valley for a local eco-park's Caminata Nocturna, a faux crossing that is two parts haunted hayride, one part nature walk, and one part team-building activity, with a sprinkle of indigenous folklore thrown in for good measure. And after a brief moonlit respite on the bank of the Río Tula, they had to jump into the brambles when the sirens and flashing lights came down on them.

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"Think of your family, your kids!" yelled the Border Patrol officer in accented English. "Go back to Mexico!"

No one moved. It could've been the irony of being three hours north of the capital, smack-dab in the middle of the Mexican countryside. It could've been fear—of getting caught, or perhaps of ruining the experience for the rest of the tourists. It could've been the fact that the officer spoke in a foreign language. Everyone stayed flat on the ground, silent.

These simulations started two years ago as a way to generate jobs and income for the 2,800 residents of El Alberto, an indigenous community that has been decimated by migration in recent years. The lure of the dollar has sapped the community of its men and its traditional Hñahñu customs. Fewer children speak Hñahñu than in the past, and the town looks like many other places in Mexico and Central America supported by remittances; everywhere you go, you see stickers for the popular Los Angeles morning radio show Piolín por la Mañana (hosted by migrant Eduardo Sotelo), new pickup trucks with Nevada and Arizona license plates, and newly constructed and still unoccupied cinder-block homes, some three stories high.

"The idea of the park is that people see that … they can make money without going to the States," said Pury Álvarez, who works at the park, known as Parque EcoAlberto. "El Alberto hopes to be a model Hñahñu community and to convince people to not migrate."

To that end, the community has tapped into the bourgeois interest in the illegal journey north. While the park also offers eco-attractions like rappelling and zip-lines in a nearby canyon and three pools fed by hot springs, it's obvious that the Caminata Nocturna is the big draw to those coming from afar. Some have said that the park could serve as a training ground for future migrants, but the park's visitors are overwhelmingly capitalinos who need a weekend away. A few want to taste a little danger, but others just want to be out in the country. Some parents even bring their teenage children to deter them from thinking of heading to El Norte.