TAPACHULA, Mexico — The coolest dive bar in southern Mexico — or at least the coolest one founded by migrants from Cameroon — was hidden in a mostly residential neighborhood in Tapachula, a city near the border with Guatemala.
It was hard to find, tucked behind an unmarked yellow metal gate and down a grimy passageway. But it offered solace and camaraderie for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who found themselves stuck in a place far from home and far from where they wanted to go.
“We are suffering stress,” said Banks, a 25-year-old bar customer who had been a high school physics and chemistry teacher in Uganda but fled because he was persecuted by the government for being gay.
He said government forces had killed his lover and were coming after him. “That’s why I’m drinking,” Banks said, asking to be identified by only by his last name for fear the Ugandan government would find him even here.
On a February night, he was one of about a dozen patrons, all African migrants, who were drinking beer at the bar and tucking into plates of spaghetti and plantains prepared in a makeshift kitchen. Afropop played on a portable speaker.
The bar, and its customer base, were an indirect consequence of Mexico’s recent crackdown on undocumented immigration.
Under pressure from the Trump administration, Mexico’s authorities last spring began strengthening border security, stepping up enforcement of its immigration laws and increasing detentions throughout the country.
Because of the policy shift, many migrants — faced with the possibility of deportation and no easy route to the United States — are now seeking asylum or some other legal status in Mexico. And new migrant communities are popping up as people from around the world put down roots in Mexico.
In Tapachula, a gateway for travelers arriving from Guatemala, the demographic makeup has shifted, slightly but noticeably, as migrants from Central America — the source of the overwhelming majority of immigrants — have been joined by others from around the hemisphere and further afield. Among the arrivals are Haitians, Cubans, Venezuelans, South Asians and sub-Saharan Africans.
As they wait here for their applications to be reviewed, some make a few pesos through day labor. But others have opened businesses, each endeavor an expression of the ambition, creativity and courage that drive so many of the world’s migrants to leave home in pursuit of better lives.
A Ghanaian restaurant has for months been dishing out fufu and other African dishes, Cuban barbers work the chairs at barbershops around town, and Haitian women braid hair on the edge of the city’s central square.
As the migrant populations ebb and flow, these businesses, too, come and go, like a restaurant serving South Asian cuisine and a Cuban-run gay bar that thrived, then closed.
Kwende Pekings, an asylum-seeker from Cameroon and a co-founder of the bar, said he wanted to create “a place made by Africans, for Africans.”
“It was to create a gathering,” he explained, “a place where Africans can meet and talk.”
We were standing in the bar on a hot night in early February. But little did Pekings know, the business had entered its final days. As with other immigrant businesses that have flourished and faded, most of the bar’s patrons would soon be moving on, new immigration documents in hand, and the business would close before the month ended.
Set in the far corner of a rubble-strewn lot, the bar was an open-sided shack with a corrugated metal roof, white plastic tables and chairs, a cheap speaker and a single strobe light.
It might not have looked like much, but it was the fulfillment of an idea Pekings had: to offer fellow migrants a place where they could exchange information, especially those who had just arrived in Mexico or had just been released from migrant detention centers.
Pekings, 29, who had been studying computer sciences in Cameroon, arrived in Mexico in June. Like most of the hundreds of Cameroonians who have made it to Mexico recently, he was fleeing political violence in his home country, where separatists in the English-speaking regions have been waging a battle to break away from the predominantly French-speaking nation.
“Lebialem,” the name of his bar, rendered on hand-painted signs, came from the English-speaking province in Cameroon that is home to many of the Cameroonians who have ended up in Mexico.
Pekings had hoped to gain asylum in the United States. But unable to see a clear path to the U.S. border, he stopped in Tapachula and moved into a house where it cost $2 a night to sleep on the floor.
One day, he climbed onto the roof of the house, spotted a trash-filled shack in the corner of the back lot and had a vision of Lebialem.
“I was able to imagine this space as it is now,” recalled Pekings, who has applied for a humanitarian visa in Mexico.
After receiving permission from the landlord, Pekings and his friends quickly got to work, clearing debris and painting the walls. The landlord installed a television, fronted the money for the first cases of beer, and in September, Lebialem opened for business.
“The idea was not to make money,” said Ngwo Diddas Elad, 26, a Cameroonian asylum-seeker who became Pekings’ partner in the venture. “The idea was to keep the people together.”
The place quickly became popular, drawing not only African migrants but also the occasional local drinker, too. On big nights, the crowd numbered more than 100 people.
“Everyone came to the bar because it was the most animated bar in the center of town,” said Elad, who worked as a sound engineer in Cameroon.
But the size of the sub-Saharan population in Tapachula fell sharply in the past few months as migrants received asylum or other forms of relief and left the city. And the number of regulars at Lebialem also dropped. Pekings and Elad ceded control of the bar in December, and since then a succession of other Cameroonians kept the place alive.
“It’s still happening, but small-scale,” Elad said proudly, standing in the bar that night earlier this month.
Several African migrants were celebrating a friend’s birthday. Another group around a second table was debating the best way to get to the United States legally, weighing the merits of first getting asylum in Mexico.
Chris Boris Tchinda Kuete, 29, a Cameroonian fashion designer, scrolled through photos and videos on his phone showing what he said were acts of violence committed by the Cameroonian security forces against his family.
In one photo, two charred corpses lay on the ground: his cousin and her 3-year-old daughter.
“I can’t go back there,” he said.
In Tapachula, he had been unable to find a job. So he bought a sewing machine to make bespoke clothes. He also helped manage the bar.
“That’s what I like doing: I like making people happy,” he said. “And that’s what America likes, too: give people new life.”
Each migrant at the bar had a harrowing story of persecution and an arduous flight from a country once loved. Most had flown to Ecuador — until last August they could enter without a visa — then made the perilous overland trip to Mexico.
“Many people think we are going to America to look for a good job,” said Bertrand, 29, a Cameroonian asylum-seeker and offshore welder who only gave his first name for fear of being located by Cameroonian authorities. “I had a good job in my country. I never had any intention of leaving.”
After a while, someone set off some crude fireworks as part of the birthday celebration. People finished their beers. Soon everyone had drifted away, headed to their cheap hotel rooms or patch of rented floor to seek sleep in a strange town that had become their sort-of home, for now.