Life Riding the Freight Trains

Learn an untold history about traveling the freight trains through the eyes of those trying to find a better life across the U.S.-Mexico border.

| May 2013

  • Maps to the Other Side by Sascha Altman DuBrul
    “Maps to the Other Side” is a document of one person’s journey to transform his experiences navigating the psychiatric system by building community in the face of adversity; a set of maps for how rebels and dreamers can survive and thrive in a crazy world.
    Cover Courtesy Microcosm Publishing
  • Freight trains at night
    Riding trains, there are no signs to tell you where you are. You have to seek out the clues on a license plate or billboard, a water tower or a famous monument. I like the blithe freedom, my head full of places and faces.
    Photo By Fotolia/jorn buchheim

  • Maps to the Other Side by Sascha Altman DuBrul
  • Freight trains at night

Part mad manifesto and part revolutionary love letter, Maps to the Other Side (Microcosm Publishing, 2013) by Sascha Altman DuBrul paints an illuminated trail through the lives of undocumented migrants, anarchist community organizers, revolutionary seeds savers and more. This punk rock travel narrative searches for authenticity and connection in the lives of strangers. Freight trains were a main form of travel—and still are—for those looking for work or searching for a better life in the United States. Learn more about their stories in this excerpt from part 1, “Golden Thread.” 

Juan Carlos’ Grandfather

Juan Carlos’ grandfather had fought in the Mexican Revolution, and as our boxcar swayed back and forth, the rumbling sound of the train grinding along track like the ocean or the rain coming down hard, Juan Carlos told me stories his grandfather had told him of Emiliano Zapata’s soldiers riding from town to town on the same freight lines, gathering troops, spreading the word and supplies. He spoke of the peasant uprisings and fought against the Federales with the battle cry of land and liberty, the re-appropriation of land from the wealthy haciendas by the poor armies, the traditional indigenous ejido system of communal land ownership, and visionaries like Ricardo Flores Magón who dreamed of a future free from the tyranny of corrupt leaders and brutal authority.

It was nearly a century later, in post-NAFTA Mexico that the two of us rode on a north-bound freight train filled with desperate men fleeing the poverty of their hometowns, risking their lives to make the long journey to the border of the U.S. As the creaky old train carried us through small pueblos with thatched roof houses and corn fields, we stared into the hot sun and made a pact of eternal friendship, swearing that we’d spend the rest of our lives fighting for justice and breaking down walls put up by our governments and the societies that had raised us.

Juan Carlos was from the state of Aguascalientes and was a fiery young anarchist punk on his way north to find work in a hotel and send money to his seven brothers and sisters. I was a gringo from New York City, traveling alone and slowly making my way back after working as a human rights observer in the Lacandon Jungle in Chiapas with the Zapatistas. We’d met at the anarchist library in Mexico City and traded good stories and the T-shirts off each others’ backs. After half a year of traveling and working volunteer jobs down in rural areas, I was suddenly back in the city, the fast paced slang-filled chilango Spanish much more akin to my native urban tongue, full of swears and cuss words. There was a whole crew of punks from Guadalajara that Juan Carlos had hooked up with, and they were leaving that night to head home after a weekend of playing a big show with their band. We traveled together up north on passenger trains as Juan Carlos and his friend rode freight, and we all met up in a punk house on the outskirts of Guadalajara a couple days later.



Just like most of my anarchist friends back home, I’d ridden a few freight trains in the U.S. I knew how to dodge a bull and read a train map and use a crew-change guide. I knew how to get on and off a moving hopper car or 48 well, hoist myself onto an open boxcar, hide between strings of track and tell which trains to ride by the number of units and what cargo they carried. I’d heard a few stories about the freight trains in Mexico and how dangerous they were, how they were full of bandits and thieves ready to knife you for a dollar and leave you dying in the desert sun. When Juan Carlos offered to take me on the freight lines in Mexico, I had no idea what I was getting myself into and how the short trip would change the course of my life forever.

It was a magical ride. After a loud and beautiful farewell party from the crew of punks, the two of us caught a train of empty boxcars out of the yard in Guadalajara and rode it up the coast to Mázatlan. By the time we had passed through all the yards. The train was full of people; it took us two nights and a day. The car we rode was full of corn scraps and as the train sped along the track, Juan Carlos and I threw handfuls of the grain off the sides on to the earth around us, laughing and singing to each other about sowing the seeds of the revolution. It was the middle of spring, and when our train sided amidst acres of mango orchards, hundreds of us jumped off the train and filled our pockets with handfuls of the huge red and green fruits. At night we watched shooting stars from the door of the boxcar and during the day we watched the huge jagged mountains fly by in the distance.