The Steepest Hill

In One Image The Steepest Hill By Federico Rios

They were a tiny part of a ceaseless surge: Venezuelans bound for the U.S. in the hope, however illusory, of a new life. But Luis Miguel Arias could not go on.

It was Sept. 23, 2022, and he was only two days into the notoriously brutal Darién Gap. Already he was so spent he could not even speak.

His daughter, Melissa Arias, 4, was making the journey with him. She had eyes only for her father as he faltered.

Their boots told a tale of peril: For years, few dared cross the Gap, which links Colombia to Panama. The mud is so deep it can swallow a person whole.

Behind them was the trail of debris migrants leave behind as they go through their provisions — or just try to lighten their load.

The sleeping mat was bought in Colombia, as the family was about to enter the Gap. Many migrants bring them. Many end up abandoning them.

The Steepest Hill

When I first met Mr. Arias, something extraordinary was happening.

Venezuelans in never-before-seen numbers had given up on their country, an economic basket case, and were heading north. By the end of that year, more than 150,000 of them had arrived at the border between Mexico and the United States.

Mr. Arias, 27, was traveling not just with his daughter, who was on his shoulders much of the time, but with his wife, Desyree, and 7-year-old son, Luis Breyner. His mother-in-law and brother-in-law were also with them.

It was still early in the morning when I took this photo. A long day of travel lay ahead of the family, and more long days after that. A strong hiker might make the end of the Gap in four or five days. For travelers with young children, it could easily be double that.

But Mr. Arias had a more immediate problem: a hill. When he came to it, he just stopped, put down his pack, and sat. It was not clear if he could go on, but after about 15 minutes, he did.

Later, he told me that back in Venezuela, he studied industrial mechanics and worked at his father’s auto repair shop. He and his wife also had a food stall. But struggling to feed their family, they decided to try their luck elsewhere.

In 2019, they went to Colombia, where they opened another food stall and Mr. Arias also drove a motorcycle taxi and did some construction. But again it was not enough. It was time to move again.

As we made our way through the Gap, I saw the family from time to time, but eventually our ways parted. Later, as they crossed Central America, we kept in touch through social media. In mid-March,I heard from them again: They had just made into the U.S., applying for asylum as they crossed through border control in Texas in March.

Their journey had taken months more after I last saw them in September. At one point, bandits took everything from them, even the children’s candy. Melissa celebrated her fifth birthday in Guatemala, where they were stuck for months.

Nearly a year later, Mr. Arias remembers the day he came to a halt on the Darién Gap.

“It was all very sudden,” he recalled. He said: “I felt like my stomach was empty. I started to vomit, and I felt very bad. Because those hills are very bad.”

The family is living in Palo Alto, Calif., now. Mr. Arias is waiting for a work permit, and his wife is occasionally doing manicures. Their son will enter fourth grade in the fall, and their daughter will start kindergarten. Young Luis is learning baseball, and Melissa is taking dance lessons.

Mr. Arias remembers something else about the moment the photo was taken: how ashamed he felt of his weakness, with his children looking on. But that feeling seems lost to the past now.

“I took a risk but I made it,” he says. “I risked it for them. For me it’s an achievement because of that, because I managed to bring my whole family.”

The family, which also includes Melissa’s brother Luis Breyner Arias, 8, and mother Desyree Martinez, 31, eventually made it to California.
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