Daily Picture Show

Atop A Train To America: Documenting The Epic Journey

  • Undocumented Central American migrants ride a freight train through the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca during the first leg of the journey by rail to the U.S. border. July 2010.
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    Undocumented Central American migrants ride a freight train through the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca during the first leg of the journey by rail to the U.S. border. July 2010.
    Michelle Frankfurter
  • A frightened Honduran migrant who became separated from her husband when he was apprehended and detained by Mexican immigration officials seeks refuge at the Home of Mercy migrant shelter in the town of Arriaga. June 2009.
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    A frightened Honduran migrant who became separated from her husband when he was apprehended and detained by Mexican immigration officials seeks refuge at the Home of Mercy migrant shelter in the town of Arriaga. June 2009.
    Michelle Frankfurter
  • A Salvadoran migrant hangs on to the back of a boxcar in the Arriaga rail yard. Located approximately 150 miles from Mexico's southern border with Guatemala, the small town of Arriaga is one point of origin for the network of northbound freight trains headed for the U.S. border. July 2010.
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    A Salvadoran migrant hangs on to the back of a boxcar in the Arriaga rail yard. Located approximately 150 miles from Mexico's southern border with Guatemala, the small town of Arriaga is one point of origin for the network of northbound freight trains headed for the U.S. border. July 2010.
    Michelle Frankfurter
  • A Salvadoran migrant feeds her 18-month-old son at the Home of Mercy migrant shelter in Arriaga. July 2010.
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    A Salvadoran migrant feeds her 18-month-old son at the Home of Mercy migrant shelter in Arriaga. July 2010.
    Michelle Frankfurter
  • A Salvadoran migrant hangs onto a rail between two boxcars in a rail yard. Some travel approximately 150 miles by foot to Arriaga in Chiapas, Mexico, in order to avoid Mexican immigration checkpoints. July 2010.
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    A Salvadoran migrant hangs onto a rail between two boxcars in a rail yard. Some travel approximately 150 miles by foot to Arriaga in Chiapas, Mexico, in order to avoid Mexican immigration checkpoints. July 2010.
    Michelle Frankfurter
  • A Salvadoran migrant, whose foot was cut in half when it got caught between two boxcars, recuperates from his injuries at the San Juan Diego migrant shelter on the outskirts of an industrial neighborhood called Lecheria in Mexico City. July 2010.
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    A Salvadoran migrant, whose foot was cut in half when it got caught between two boxcars, recuperates from his injuries at the San Juan Diego migrant shelter on the outskirts of an industrial neighborhood called Lecheria in Mexico City. July 2010.
    Michelle Frankfurter
  • Migrants wait for a train by the tracks in the city of Orizaba in the Mexican state of Veracruz. There is no migrant shelter in Orizaba, and migrants wait out in the open, often for days, to catch moving freight trains. July 2010.
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    Migrants wait for a train by the tracks in the city of Orizaba in the Mexican state of Veracruz. There is no migrant shelter in Orizaba, and migrants wait out in the open, often for days, to catch moving freight trains. July 2010.
    Michelle Frankfurter
  • A 9-year-old Guatemalan boy traveling with his mother waits for a train with other migrants seeking shelter from the elements under the tin roof of a concession stand near the tracks in Orizaba. July 2010.
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    A 9-year-old Guatemalan boy traveling with his mother waits for a train with other migrants seeking shelter from the elements under the tin roof of a concession stand near the tracks in Orizaba. July 2010.
    Michelle Frankfurter
  • Weary migrants rest in the makeshift chapel of the Hermanos en El Camino migrant shelter in the small town of Ixtepec, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. June 2009.
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    Weary migrants rest in the makeshift chapel of the Hermanos en El Camino migrant shelter in the small town of Ixtepec, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. June 2009.
    Michelle Frankfurter
  • A Salvadoran migrant at the Hermanos en El Camino migrant shelter, Ixtepec. June 2009.
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    A Salvadoran migrant at the Hermanos en El Camino migrant shelter, Ixtepec. June 2009.
    Michelle Frankfurter
  • A Salvadoran man, his wife and his 18-month-old son ride a train through Oaxaca. July 2010.
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    A Salvadoran man, his wife and his 18-month-old son ride a train through Oaxaca. July 2010.
    Michelle Frankfurter
  • Migrants ride atop a freight train through Oaxaca. February 2011.
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    Migrants ride atop a freight train through Oaxaca. February 2011.
    Michelle Frankfurter
  • Rafts made of tractor tires ferry contraband goods and undocumented migrants across the Suchiate River running between the Guatemalan border town of Tecun Uman and the Mexican town of Hidalgo, in the state of Chiapas. June 2009.
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    Rafts made of tractor tires ferry contraband goods and undocumented migrants across the Suchiate River running between the Guatemalan border town of Tecun Uman and the Mexican town of Hidalgo, in the state of Chiapas. June 2009.
    Michelle Frankfurter

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Documentary photographer Michelle Frankfurter grew up reading adventure tales. And after spending more than 10 years traveling and photographing along the U.S.-Mexico border, she decided to create an adventure narrative of her own.

Using frequent flier miles, a credit card and 23 rolls of black-and-white film, she produced Destino (both "destination" and "destiny" in Spanish). The documentary project chronicles the Central American migrant journey through Mexico to the United States, which Frankfurter says she considers one of the most overlooked global issues of our time.

Inspired by Sonya Nazario's book Enrique's Journey — a true tale of a young man's trek from Honduras to the U.S. — Frankfurter found herself admiring the "youthful, cheeky migrants and their purpose and determination," she tells The Picture Show.

A Guatemalan migrant couple embraces on top of a northbound freight train while traveling through the Mexican state of Chiapas. June 2009. i i

hide captionA Guatemalan migrant couple embraces on top of a northbound freight train while traveling through the Mexican state of Chiapas. June 2009.

Michelle Frankfurter
A Guatemalan migrant couple embraces on top of a northbound freight train while traveling through the Mexican state of Chiapas. June 2009.

A Guatemalan migrant couple embraces on top of a northbound freight train while traveling through the Mexican state of Chiapas. June 2009.

Michelle Frankfurter

Because she speaks fluent Spanish, Frankfurter could work alone — showing up at migrant shelters and introducing herself. She took three separate trips on the cargo train La Bestia (The Beast), riding on top with the migrants through rain and blistering heat.

"For me, it was definitely an exercise in perseverance," she says. "A long-term project is a lot like a relationship. Initially, there is the thrill of discovery. You are infatuated. Everything is new and exciting. Later on, it can feel tedious."

Frankfurter encountered the same challenges as those who make this trip out of necessity — and the term "adventure" thus took on new meaning.

Faced with robberies, kidnappings, even death, many Central Americans see the journey as a last resort — but also the trade-off for a better future. Frankfurter says the trip has become increasingly more dangerous, especially in the northern Mexican states, which are heavily militarized and full of warring drug cartels.

After a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise money to hire a fixer/bodyguard for the last part of the journey, Frankfurter has planned for one more trip, sometime in 2013.

"It's changed me," she says. "They — the migrants — have changed me."

Lauren Rock is an intern in NPR's multimedia department.

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