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Caravan Artist Tattoos Loved Ones' Names for Fellow Migrants

by Sonia Perez D.
Monday Nov 5, 2018
Honduran migrant Gerson Noel Rivas shows the tattoo made by fellow migrant Jose Manuel de Jesus Sandoval.
Honduran migrant Gerson Noel Rivas shows the tattoo made by fellow migrant Jose Manuel de Jesus Sandoval.  (Source:AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

As he traveled with several thousand other migrants through southern Mexico this week with dreams of making it to the U.S. border, Gerson Rivas didn't want the memory of the mother he left behind in Honduras to be carried only in his heart.

So he had her name, Esperanza, tattooed in rudimentary, flowing black script on his left forearm. The name in Spanish means "hope."

Rivas had the work done in the Mexican city of Juchitan by Jose Manuel de Jesus Sandoval, a 20-year-old Honduran who has done similar rudimentary tattoos for several other fellow migrants in the caravan that set out about three weeks ago.

It's hardly what you'd see at a standard tattoo parlor. Sandoval works at night by the glow of cellphones, when the migrants are camped out, or by day with everyone crowded around to watch, his tattoo machine connected to a shared extension cord.

He said he has the basics — the machine, ink, gloves, alcohol and gel. Needles can be hard to come by, though, and Sandoval was adamant that he discards each one after a single use. One evening this week, he had run out of clean needles and had a line of clients waiting.

Clad in a blue tank top, with his unruly mop of hair dyed the color of straw sticking up from the top of his head, Sandoval has come to be known in the caravan as "the tattooist."

He charges the equivalent of about $5 per letter. That has helped him stay fed — even though locals along the route have sometimes donated food and water to the travelers.


Honduran migrant Jose Manuel de Jesus Sandoval tattoos the hand of a fellow migrant.  (Source:AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Sandoval's informal know-how comes from eight months he spent in jail in the U.S ., after he was in a car accident and was discovered to be in the country illegally.

He joined the caravan in Tapachula, in southern Mexico, where he'd been living for several years after being deported.

"I've tried 12 times to make it (to the United States). I only made it once, when I was 17, but they put me in prison because of the accident," Sandoval said. "That's where I learned to draw and tattoo."

His clients in the caravan are the first people he's ever done tattoos for.

Sandoval said he knows his criminal record will make it tough for him to enter the U.S., but he intends to try anyway because he has a daughter in Honduras he wants to support.

Another man in the caravan showed off his forearm with the name of his daughter, Yulisa, written in a rough but flowery cursive. Yet another got a small cross done on his hand. And a young woman had Rivas inscribe the name of her boyfriend, who was accompanying her in the caravan.

Taking proper care of the tender skin around new tattoos is difficult on the journey, where the migrants often walk dozens of miles each day and bed down for the night outdoors.

The 19-year-old Rivas, who had the name of his mother, Esperanza, inked on his arm, said he only finished the sixth grade but has worked as a masonry assistant. Once he gets to the U.S., he hopes to be able to send money back home to his mother and the rest of the family in Honduras, where nearly two-thirds of the population of almost 5.5 million lives in poverty.

"Family is the most sacred thing we have. That's why I tattooed the name of my mother — to remember her," he said. "I am going in order to look for work to help them. We needed food. I got tired of looking for work and not finding anything."


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