The 2008 AltWeekly Award winner for Feature talks about her work.
Albuquerque native Megan Feldman, 29, claims she’s always liked writing. But as a freshman at the University of Denver, she worried that journalism would be “really boring.” Feldman, who spent time writing and freelancing in Guatemala before working for the Dallas Observer, began pursuing investigative pieces on predatory employers and other immigrant stories in Texas.
For “El Tren de La Muerte,” she traveled to Mexico to talk to illegal immigrants making 1,500-mile trips through the country to the Mexican-American border, riding freight trains, dealing with hunger, bandits, Mexican officials, and the constant danger of being crushed beneath the train. So much for boredom.
Where did you get the idea for this story?
I came across a couple of stories about the increase in the number of immigrants getting hurt riding trains in southern Mexico. I thought that was interesting because in the last three to five years we’ve had a constriction on the Mexican-American border, and its become increasingly difficult to cross there. But it’s also getting harder and harder to cross further south, from Guatemala to Mexico. I became really fascinated with this notion that not only would people risk their lives to cross our border, but they would ride trains 1,500 miles just to get to our border.
Why did you choose to write about immigrant issues?
When you cover stories in Latin America, inevitably you write about immigration. When I came back to the states, speaking Spanish, and having connected with that culture, I felt compelled to write about it on this side of the border, to look at the push-and-pull factors affecting immigration.
Many of your pieces involve talking to undocumented aliens who you admit are wary of talking to reporters. How do you find your sources and get them to trust you?
You would think many of these people would not want to talk, but I’ve found that people who don’t have much of a say in the way their lives go, who are rarely listened to, those people really want to be heard.
What was the most challenging part of this story?
It was finding a person who actually felt comfortable talking about this. In Dallas, there’s a particularly harsh backlash against immigrants, and on the other side of that, there’s a very high level of fear among the immigrants, so it took a long time to find someone who’d be willing to tell their story.
What was it like traveling south to follow the train?
So first of all, safety was a concern. One of the major problems is that there are bandits along the tracks who prowl and attack migrants. I have a close friend who lives in Mexico City, and he worked for Reuters for years and his girlfriend is a photographer, so she basically did the legwork, talking to the Mexican government, getting special journalism visas. Secondly, there’s Grupos Beta, [Mexican border officials] and they’re all law enforcement agents, but people do respect them, so we didn’t have any problems. The trains only came once a day, and you never knew when, so we’d wait until people started yelling, and we’d all drive down to the tracks. The second day was a bust, but we got a lot of reporting done with people by the tracks. The last day in Tenosique, since we had to catch a bus the next morning, we decided to get up early and hope a train came before 10. Then, Gloria [from Grupos Beta] called us, saying, “The train is coming!” We ended up chasing it for about a mile, until it stopped.
What was the most thrilling point in the reporting?
It was that moment — running sprinting over the train tracks over a river with a bunch of Honduran teenagers trying to get the train.
How did you report this story? Some of it seems recreated; some of it obviously came from your trip down to Mexico. How did you approach assembling your information and then writing this piece?
I knew I had to find a person who had completed the journey — it took three months to find someone who’d ridden the trains most of the way through, and was already living in Dallas, and who was willing to talk. I found Elias through a Latino-community organizer. I probably did 20 hours of interviews with him about the trip, then I basically chose two of the most pivotal points of the 1,500-mile trip — the first was the town where he first got on the train, and then where he switched trains in the suburbs of Mexico City.
What was the fallout from this story?
I heard from people on both sides of the immigration debate. I think people were really moved by what Elias and all these people go through, and other people wrote it off as more liberal, who said, “We don’t want to hear any more sympathetic stories about lawbreakers.” They called me an “accessory to lawbreakers.” There I go again, aiding and abetting criminals and lawbreakers.
Read the story that garnered Feldman a first-place finish in Feature (circulation 55,000 and over):
“El Tren de la Muerte”
Part of the 2008 “How I Got That Story” series, in which Academy for Alternative Journalism fellows reveal the processes of the writers and editors who won first-place AltWeekly Awards. These interviews also appear in Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2008.