“El Mara”: The Stereotyping of Central Americans in Mexico and the United States

In the Summer of 2015, I headed to Tijuana to do some field work for my dissertation. I took a taxi from the hotel where I was staying to the first migrant shelter I would be visiting there.  That shelter served all types of migrants who were arriving in Tijuana. Chatting with the taxi driver on the way, I told the taxi driver about my research on Central American migrants. His response: “Esos no tienen solución.” (“Those [Central Americans] can’t be fixed.”) He then set into a discourse about Central Americans’ irresolvable (and, as he saw them) natural tendencies toward crime. 

I have found this discourse about the violence of Central Americans more or less intact wherever I go in Mexico. From grocery store clerks, to business owners, to restaurant workers, I have heard Mexicans from many different backgrounds voice their concerns that Central American migrants are violent and bad for their communities. When I ask these people how they know that Central Americans are violent, they tell me second-hand stories about Central Americans murdering people or robbing houses. Some liken all Central Americans to the “Maras,” the extremely violent Central American gang. Others describe Central Americans as poor people with different accents who are often begging at traffic lights and seeing what they can get from you (“a ver que te pueden sacar”). While many Mexicans are aware of the struggle that Central Americans face while crossing Mexico, and various individuals and organizations proffer them aid, I have found the amount of negative sentiment aimed at Central Americans in Mexico to be astonishing.

So, how do those sentiments affect the day-to-day lives of Central American migrants?  My research suggests that they certainly feel the prejudice. Many migrants tell stories of discrimination. They describe knocking on doors along their journeys and asking for water, only to be denied water once a would-be benefactor discovers they are Central American.  Others describe being treated as dangerous or threatening.   

One adult migrant from Honduras, “Josue,” recalls working construction in central Mexico. He was trying to make enough money to live while he and his son waited for their Mexican asylum applications to be processed.  His co-workers called him “El Mara,” even though Josue left Honduras fleeing the Maras.

“Desde el Primer día [de trabajo] me pusieron el Mara, por ser centroamericano.  Está bien por que es broma, pero también me enoja, por que me traje a mi hijo de Honduras por que las Maras lo querían reclutar, nunca pense que a mi me llamarían Marero.” (“Since my first day [at work], they called me ‘el Mara,’ because I’m Central American.  Which is fine, because they’re joking, but it also makes me mad, because I brought my son [here] from Honduras because the Maras wanted to recruit him.  I never thought I’d be called a Mara.”)

Josue described being the target of many jokes while in Mexico—about being a gang member, a murderer, a kidnapper, or a drug addict, all very far from his true past as a plumber from a small town. 

While Josue was picked on mostly in jest, stereotyping is a real problem for Central American migrants both in Mexico and in the U.S. For example, in 2017, Republican Jack Martins ran for County Executive in Nassau County, New York. In the midst of Donald Trump’s anti-Central American migrant rhetoric, Martins released a campaign poster showing three shirtless men covered face-to-waist in tattoos, standing in front of graffiti. The poster associates the men with the MS-13, a Mara group. The top of the poster read: “Meet your new neighbors!” To the side, the poster states that his opponent’s campaign is supported by “special interst groups” that “want to make Nassau County a sanctuary county for illegal immigrants and protect those convicted of violent crimes from deportation.” Similar to Josue’s treatment in Mexico, this poster closely links Central American migrants and violent gangs, when, in reality, many migrants are fleeing from the havoc wreaked by those gangs. Martins eventually lost to his opponent, but the sentiment reflected in his campaign ads continues to pervade anti-migrant politics.

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Both, Josue’s experience in Mexico and Martins’ local campaign ad in New York demonstrate how Central American migrants are stereotyped in both Mexico and the U.S.  Those stereotypes affect Central Americans as individuals; they also have the dangerous ability to wrongly influence public opinion more widely.     

Not all migrants are “bad,” and not all migrants are “good.” But migration is a social issue, and a person’s migrant status says nothing inherent about them. Generalizations about migrants’ behaviors, physical appearances, or capacities is little more than badly-masked discrimination.


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