AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
This summer's been hot - like, really scorchingly hot, not just in the U.S. but around the globe. In fact, in early July, the Earth reached the highest temperature ever recorded. It's another sign of a change in climate. Sometimes that change is felt as extreme heat and drought, and sometimes it comes as unrelenting rainfall and flooding. The Central American country of Honduras is experiencing all of it. This is The Sunday Story. I'm Ayesha Rascoe, and today we're going on a journey to Honduras. Migration has been on the rise in Honduras as people flee the extreme violence and poverty. But my colleagues, correspondent Joel Rose and producer Marisa Penaloza, wondered if climate change is also affecting the decisions people make about whether to leave. To try to answer that question, they got on a plane and flew to San Pedro Sula, the second-largest city in the country.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: My memory of landing in San Pedro Sula is that everything was really green, 'cause it was January and, you know, everything in North America is wintry and brown. And then you land in San Pedro Sula, and suddenly, it's, like, sunshine and plants everywhere, and it's humid, and it's - you know, the sun is hot on your skin. And from the second you step off the plane, you know, you're in a different climate.
MARISA PENALOZA, BYLINE: San Pedro Sula is the second-largest city in Honduras, and it sits in the lowlands on the Caribbean side. But our destination was actually way up in the mountains in the Copan region. That's near the Mayan ruins in western Honduras. Then we headed to a small town called Lagunas La Iguala to visit a family there. We got a driver, a rental car and a photographer, and we started heading up early in the morning.
ROSE: And then the roads - oh, my God, the roads. We could talk about the roads for a long time.
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PENALOZA: You see a lot of people walking along the roads or on motorcycles or...
ROSE: Really junky cars.
ROSE: Yeah, cars that are barely running.
PENALOZA: You know, heading off the road was narrow, muddy, slippery. It was raining, remember?
ROSE: Yeah. There was a lot of conversation about whether we should even try to go to that village 'cause it was so far from any main road. And our fixer and our photographer, who were more familiar with the country than we were, were like, I don't know. If it rains, we may not be able to get there, or if we get there, we may not be able to get back 'cause the road is going to turn to mud.
PENALOZA: So we headed to Lagunas La Iguala to meet the Perezes. The son is Francis. Anabel and Roberto are the parents. They own a small finca, or coffee farm, that was badly damaged in 2020 when hurricanes hit back to back, and the family has had a hard time recovering the losses. And that's why Francis is planning to migrate to the United States to work and save money to help his family. It took us 2 1/2 hours to get there.
ROSE: Lagunas La Iguala - it's not a big place. There's the church, and there's houses kind of...
PENALOZA: Spread out.
ROSE: Yeah, with little yards all around.
PENALOZA: The dad and Francis came out, and they greeted us, and they welcomed us. And then we - they invited us to come in.
ROSE: Yeah, we sat on their porch.
PENALOZA: So it's an open porch, and they pulled out a bench, and Francis and his dad sat down there.
ROSE: So Francis - he's 19. He's kind of tall, lanky, skinny. He's got, like, a light mustache, big eyes. The father is Roberto Perez, and he's been working that land his whole life.
PENALOZA: He's 64.
ROSE: And he's kind of a small, wiry guy wearing a big cream-colored cowboy hat that he says he never takes off - feels naked without it. And he's got kind of a leathery face of a guy who's worked outside his whole life.
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ROSE: They have a pig. They have birds that are - a couple of parakeets right up in the trees. They have a tilapia pond where they're farming tilapia. They've just got a lot of life happening right in their yard. And their house is modest, but, you know, it's well kept. It's freshly painted.
PENALOZA: It's cement.
ROSE: Yeah. It's made of cement, which not every house in Honduras is.
PENALOZA: They also have coffee plants scattered in the backyard. I mean, they're a pretty enterprising family.
ROSE: You know, for all this enterprising activity in their yard, I mean, they're trying to diversify at root because their coffee farm was devastated by the big hurricanes in 2020. They also used to have, like, a small business selling stationery and other, you know, sundry stuff in town. That was destroyed in flooding from the hurricanes. So they're trying to recover from this terrible blow from the hurricanes. And at the same time, they're really dealing with the drought as well. With the erratic rainfall, that's cost them crops.
ROBERTO PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
PENALOZA: The dad, Roberto, says he doesn't recognize the weather patterns and the environment he's living in now. It's completely different from what he remembers growing up.
ROSE: He can't predict what's going to happen, and it seems hugely frustrating for him because he's a farmer, and he wants - you know, wants to be good at it. And I think he can see that his coffee farm is not succeeding. It's failing, and it's not - it was the hurricanes and the damage from the hurricanes, but it's also this erratic rainfall that is really preventing him from getting the kind of yields that he used to get.
R PEREZ: (Through interpreter) It's uncertain - when you expect winter, summer sets in, and the other way around. It really affects the crops.
ROSE: So the family is trying really hard to make a living off the land. But it's just not working as well as it used to. And all of this is weighing really heavily on their son, Francis.
PENALOZA: And one of the things that Francis told us is that he really doesn't see a future in Honduras in farming...
FRANCIS PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
PENALOZA: ...Which is what he loves doing. You know, just like - his parents are farmers. His grandparents farmed. So that's what they do. They work the land. He dreams also to have cattle. But it's expensive.
And you have to understand that farmers in Honduras are largely small-scale farmers, just like the Perezes, right? They grow things for self-consumption and then they sell whatever is not consumed by the family. But they don't have irrigation. So they 100% historically have relied on rain patterns - right? - on the very, very set rain season, drought and then rain season again. But now that's all turned upside down.
F PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
ROSE: And so Francis told us he feels stuck. He feels like he can't build the future that he wants in Honduras.
F PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
ROSE: And that's what's driving him to think about migrating. And certainly he has seen lots of other people around him do that. I mean, he at one point pointed to all the other houses in the little town around us, and all the fancy ones were built with money that came back from the U.S.
F PEREZ: (Through interpreter) The nice homes near the church - all the children are working in the U.S. Our next-door neighbor's son is also in the U.S. The one across the street did the same thing. Practically every household around here has someone working in the U.S.
ROSE: So it's clear that that is how you get a leg up if you're from this part of Honduras. He doesn't want to leave forever. Like, I think he told us his plan was, I want to go for a couple of years. I want to save money. And then I want to come back and live my life here with my family on my land, with my parents. And that's the plan he's been, you know, working on for a while.
PENALOZA: He's a very thoughtful, methodic young man. And so he's been talking to a family friend in Houston who is sort of guiding him about how to make the journey, how to find a smuggler, if you will.
ROSE: A good smuggler. Yeah, right? One you can trust. No, for real. I mean, it's - it sounds like an oxymoron, but, I mean, it's - you got to - it's a huge investment. It's - I've heard up to $10,000 now for the trip.
PENALOZA: So as we said, we sat down with Francis and his dad, and then at some point the mom showed up.
ANABEL PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
PENALOZA: And the minute she joined in, and we asked, you know, do you have anything to add to what we've been talking about? And all of a sudden all of this emotion builds up on her, and it's visible because her eyes were - you know, welled up, and her voice was shaky.
A PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
PENALOZA: She started talking about how their farm has been heavily destroyed by floodings and how she lost her little business and how hard it's been to recover.
ROSE: And she really has mixed feelings about Francis' plan. I mean, on the one hand, she wants him to succeed. She wants him to be happy. And she can tell that he's ambitious and that he wants more than what they can give him right now in their village. But, like, she's hugely apprehensive about him making this trip.
I mean, this struck me about their family and really about almost everyone we talked to in Honduras is they're very aware of the danger of the journey to the United States and of trying to migrate. Like, they are not naive about the risks of that journey. They know that people die, that coyotes rip you off, that - you know, that there's no guarantee at all that you will succeed in going. You know, this is their youngest son, and part of them doesn't want him to leave. And it really just makes you realize how emotional this decision is.
PENALOZA: That was very hard and eye-opening to watch. You know, we see the images - migrants at the border. They're here. You know, they want to take our jobs. But we don't see what happens on the ground before they begin the journey.
ROSE: And we also think it's easy and quick, like one day there's, like, some act of violence or there's some dramatic spark that one day, like, your farm is destroyed and you leave. But I don't think that's really how it works for a lot of people. It seems like it's just, like, this slow accumulation of watching your farm gradually fail. You know, it doesn't happen all at once. And even if it doesn't fail, even if you just see the trajectory of where it's going - you know? That's the other thing, is that, like, the Perezes - they're OK for now, but Francis can see where this is trending. He can see that it's not going back to the way agriculture used to be. And he has to make decisions about his future, not just about right now. When we first met Francis up at Lagunas La Iguala, we felt like he was serious about migrating to the U.S., but the months kept going by, and he didn't migrate. And then his father, Roberto, got very ill.
PENALOZA: And when I spoke with Francis several weeks ago...
PENALOZA: ...That's when he told me that he was very conflicted because he was making this plan so he could help his family. And yet the idea of migrating was agonizing for the parents. And so Francis started feeling like, I'm doing this for my family and for me, but I'm also inflicting pain to my parents.
F PEREZ: (Through interpreter) I'd be migrating looking for a better future, but I fear they'll be lonely and even depressed. I'm evaluating the economic gain versus my parents' feelings and health. I think and ponder about it constantly.
ROSE: He's really trying to get it right, and it's really hard. And you can just see he's tied up in knots about it.
PENALOZA: I agree.
RASCOE: You're listening to The Sunday Story. We'll be right back.
We're back with The Sunday Story.
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PENALOZA: We also met Jesus Santiago and her mother, Vitalina de Jesus. They live in a small village called Los Ranchos in the Copan region in western Honduras, close to the border with Guatemala, actually, and a little more than three hours west from the Perezes' home.
ROSE: We'd learned about her through our colleague Carrie Kahn, because Carrie had met Jesus in southern Mexico a few years ago when she tried to migrate to the U.S. another time. And that first trip did not succeed. Jesus was deported back to Honduras, and it was a really terrible experience, clearly, for her and for her brother that she was with. But so she went back to Honduras, to this little village called Los Ranchos.
PENALOZA: So it was, you know, very rural roads going up to their house, and we really did not have an address because there is none. And I kept asking Jesus before we got to Honduras, so how will I find you? Can you give me the address? And she would just sort of describe the area. And then finally she gave up and said, I'm going to come down and meet you at the church. You can't miss the church. We go to the church, and there is Jesus. And then - so we parked there, and then we walked the last stretch up to their house. So it's a small village, and their house is built, really, on the mountain, on the side of the mountain. It kind of slopes down, and it's just - it's two rooms.
ROSE: Jesus's mother, she comes out to greet us right when we walk up to the house. She's wearing her apron.
VITALINA DE JESUS: (Speaking Spanish).
ROSE: She's clearly, you know, been preparing this meal that she's going to feed us, but she comes out and hugs us. She's already out, like, in the road greeting us and, you know, bringing us into the house.
PENALOZA: So Joel and I sort of went through that little room, and then we went to the yard - right? - which was...
ROSE: Yeah, the yard...
ROSE: Yeah, the yard is basically just, like, raw dirt kind of sloping away down behind the house. And it's crisscrossed with clotheslines. There's a bunch of dogs wandering around, too. There's one rooster.
PENALOZA: And Jesus works in agriculture, but she left school when she was 7. She's 23 now. But she talked about how the erratic rains make it very hard for consistent employment in agriculture - right? - because, yes, coffee harvest time sets in, but then it pours one day, so people cannot pick the fruit. And so there are days when she doesn't work.
ROSE: And she gets paid by weight. She gets paid by what she picks. And she was showing us the big, you know, plastic bucket.
JESUS SANTIAGO: (Speaking Spanish).
ROSE: On a good day, she can fill 10 of these buckets, but, you know, on a bad day she might fill only a couple. And that's just a hard way to support herself. And so she also cleans houses. She does other kinds of work if she can find it. But, you know, she said something very similar to Francis.
SANTIAGO: (Speaking Spanish).
ROSE: She said, you know, I don't want to live like this forever. I want to grow. I want to, you know, get a full-time job, and I want a future that's not this. You know? I want a better future.
PENALOZA: And so Jesus Santiago, she's planning to make the journey again. What she doesn't have is someone in the United States who can help her, unlike Francis. So that's a big detriment because we were told by people we spoke with that you really need someone in the United States who's going to be your lifeline in the journey, right? If you need money along the way, that person can send you money. You'll need a place to stay in the United States. So you need to have someone, and Jesus Santiago does not have that person.
ROSE: Vitalina has has also worked in agriculture for most of her life. She was - her husband died young, and she had to work to support the family. And I mean, they don't - she doesn't own a farm. She does own that house on the side of the hill, but they don't have their own farm. They have far less - even less of a cushion, I would say, than Francis and the Perez family. I mean, Vitalina, Jesus's mother, is again, like, deeply conflicted about her plan.
PENALOZA: Especially because she has seen the impact that this very harsh journey has had on her daughter. They both talked about how broken she felt last time she tried to migrate, when she was arrested and deported in Mexico. So I think her mom has seen the effects of migration and the effects of not succeeding, but she also understands why her daughter wants to try again.
DE JESUS: (Speaking Spanish).
PENALOZA: So Vitalina, she told us she was proud of the fact that Jesus wanted a better future for herself, but was also sad that as her mother, she couldn't provide that for her. And she said that she was hopeful her daughter would leave because there was no hope for her there. And as she talked, tears were rolling down her cheeks.
DE JESUS: And I don't think we knew this at the time, but we later found out about what's called the feminization of migration, which is basically a word scholars use to describe the fact that more women - women and girls are migrating in greater numbers than they used to. You know, globally, the numbers are roughly even now. I mean, when you talk about the number of people coming to the U.S. border from Central America, it's - there are more women than there used to be. It's roughly a third now, whereas it used to be almost all men, used to be only 14% women. Over the last decade, that's changed. Now you're seeing many more women and girls like Jesus making this journey. And Jesus really illustrates, I think, what's happening.
PENALOZA: The change.
ROSE: The change. So we were trying to understand what we were seeing, and so we talked to a woman at the Organization of American States named Betilde Munoz-Pogossian.
BETILDE MUNOZ-POGOSSIAN: I would argue that it's mostly women and girls affected by climate change, extreme climate events.
ROSE: You think of agriculture and farming, especially in Central America, being, you know - I had thought of it as being a male-dominated way of life. The crews that we saw were men and women, very much, like, all out there doing the picking. And that's the kind of work that Jesus and her mother have been doing, too.
PENALOZA: Another thing to keep in mind is the high levels of violence against women in Honduras. It has one of the highest rates of femicide in the world, and it's the highest rate in Latin America and one of the reasons women in Honduras migrate.
MUNOZ-POGOSSIAN: Climate change kind of adds up to a series of other factors that are present there that have to do with poverty, with inequality, violence. I think climate change adds up to the cocktail of reasons of why people migrate.
ROSE: You know, I think the point that Munoz-Pogossian and other experts would make is that climate change is sort of exacerbating the existing problems that were already there. And violence against women is an example. You know, there's also obviously poverty and lack of economic opportunity. Anyway, I think climate change is - the way we're seeing it is climate change is sort of an accelerant, something that takes all of those existing problems and makes them a little worse.
You know, one thing about Jesus's story that I think is also typical is that often people don't go straight to the United States. Like, they do try to migrate inside of Honduras looking for work. And Jesus did that. She went to El Progresso, which is a city in the north kind of near San Pedro Sula, and she worked in a banana packing plant there. And the idea was that she was going to try to save money and send some back to her mother and also maybe save a little bit for her trip next attempt to move north. But it really didn't work out because the job didn't pay well and the rent was more than she expected.
SANTIAGO: (Through interpreter) It was a struggle because I had a lot of expenses - meals, housing, transportation - and pay wasn't great. I was breaking even.
ROSE: So she ended up back in the mountains in Los Ranchos with her mother.
SANTIAGO: (Speaking Spanish).
ROSE: But she told us she wants to try again to get to the U.S.
SANTIAGO: (Through interpreter) Yes, I want to try again. I'd miss home. I'd miss it terribly, but I also want to get ahead.
ROSE: From there, we went a few miles down the road, where we met the last person that we want to introduce you to. And it was just could not - it was just a few miles, and it - but it felt like a different planet.
PENALOZA: It's a happy story.
ROSE: It's a much happier story. So we went to meet this farmer named Edwin Guillen (ph), who I guess the only way I can describe it is an agriculture success story in Honduras.
PENALOZA: Yeah. Edwin Guillen is 40 years old, and as elders in Honduras, his parents and grandparents were farmers. They grew coffee, tobacco and cattle. And he - Edwin told us that he remembers working the land as a kid.
ROSE: I mean, he has built these very large, very North American-looking greenhouses that look nothing like any of the other farms or any of the other ranches we saw.
EDWIN GUILLEN: (Through interpreter) It's protected from rains, winds, hurricanes and bugs. We also have a drip irrigation system, and we use less chemicals here.
ROSE: Inside, there are just rows and rows and rows of tomato plants in various stages of development, and he's harvesting them all year round in his greenhouses and selling them to local grocery stores. And it's working. But so Edwin does not farm at all the way his parents did. He has basically a lot of advantages that most of the farmers in Honduras don't have. He has this steady source of water from a spring up the hill from his greenhouses. So that's one. That's a big one. And then he was able to get a loan to pay for the greenhouses and the rest of the irrigation system. And then lastly, his last advantage is that he has some money of his own that he made in the U.S. when he came here to work when he was younger.
PENALOZA: That was in 2002.
ROSE: So - and his family actually has a pretty complicated migration story as well. His father left to come work in the U.S. when Edwin Guillen was only 5. And so he grew up, really, without his father here. His father is in the U.S. and I think supporting the family but absent. And when Edwin came of age, he decided he wanted to go to the U.S.
PENALOZA: Yeah. He told us that he wanted to come to the U.S to look for his father. He told us that the dad basically stayed in touch for a few years after he left Honduras, and then he disappeared. And so Edwin told us that his family was broken by migration, and that he felt abandoned and he felt sort of, like, not whole without a dad. And so that's why in 2002, he came to Baltimore in Maryland to look for his dad.
ROSE: And he found him.
PENALOZA: Yeah, he did.
ROSE: But it was not exactly what he expected.
GUILLEN: (Through interpreter) I found him, but he didn't want to come back. I'm the oldest of three brothers and knew I had to come back to help my brothers and to work our land.
PENALOZA: The other advantage that Edwin has is that his family owns the land. Many farmers in Honduras have to rent land.
ROSE: Yeah, which would limit what you can do. But so Edwin came back, and he - you know, now he is this successful farmer and he's got a big house, the biggest house we saw while we were in Honduras, and a shiny truck that he uses to drive his produce to market. And he's an employer, right? I mean, he has, I think, a dozen workers working in his greenhouse.
I think Edwin's story shows us that agriculture is viable in Honduras, but it's expensive. It requires investment and infrastructure and knowhow. And Edwin clearly has put all that together, but that's not available to the vast majority of farmers in Honduras. And, you know, I don't think that's going to be an option for - certainly for people like Jesus and her mother, maybe not even for Francis and the Perez family.
My sense is that there - like, there will be people like Edwin Guillen who will continue to find ways to do agriculture, even on a small scale or on a medium scale. But I have the feeling that, like, the direction this is heading is that more people are going to be leaving these rural areas because they won't be able to support themselves doing the agriculture the way they have. It just isn't going to be an option.
PENALOZA: And I think that we were able to see that climate change is real and it's having an impact on farming.
ROSE: Yeah. And I guess those people are going to go somewhere, you know, whether it's internally in Honduras, whether it's to the U.S. or somewhere in between. You know, if they can't make a living doing agriculture, I don't think they're going to stay in these little towns. So, I mean, I think the pressures on people to migrate are only going to get more intense, I think.
PENALOZA: I agree.
RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe, and you've been listening to The Sunday Story. This episode was produced by Andrew Mambo and Emily Silver and edited by Jenny Schmidt. It was engineered by Margaret Luthar. Our team also includes Henry Hodde and Justine Yan. Our supervising producer is Liana Simstrom, and our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. We love to hear from you. Send us an email at email@example.com.
I'm Ayesha Rascoe. UP FIRST will be back tomorrow with all the news you need to start your week. Until then, have a great rest of your weekend.
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