Fifteen or more years ago I had a dream that is still vivid to me now. I was in a small, dimly lit church where the early arrivals were just sitting down before mass. Near the altar there was a large terra cotta colored relief of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I was standing in the aisle gazing at this rendering of Our Lady and it started to become beautifully colorful. A man in the pews to my right started complaining about the image and saying there were too many (*racial slur*) around here already and the image should be removed. He continued to complain about dark skinned people being in the church and “taking over.” I was extremely upset of course and started begging him not to say things like that especially in the church. As I continued to try to persuade him, the corner of Mary’s dress began to darken as if it were burning and smoke started rising. I was alarmed as I saw the disfiguring burn spread across the image.
I was in El Paso staying in a migrant shelter, attending what is called “The Border Awareness Experience,” to learn about Immigration issues. Everyone had been in Juarez that morning, we had met at a section of the iron border fence with Border Patrol and now we were getting out of the van at the Walmart in El Paso to visit the memorial for the victims of the shooting that had happened eight weeks before on August 3, 2019.
It was a very hot October afternoon. The sunlight was golden and slanting in beams when we got out of the van.
We had all seen makeshift memorials that spring up after tragic events on the news. I knew this would be a sad experience.
I was not prepared. The emotional impact of being on the spot was immense.
The memorial stretched into probably about three city blocks. There was an army of religious candles stretching as far as I could make out. There were stuffed animals, pictures of the dead, messages to the dead, messages of encouragement to the community, poems, letters, prayers. There were flags from other countries, a big poster of a fused Mexican and American flag that said, “Together against all odds.” There was a letter to the president pleading for understanding, mercy toward immigrants, and change. It was in Spanish so I asked Maria from our group to translate for me.
A big red poster near the middle said,
“PAIN…. but I will not let it turn to hate.”
There was a large picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, banners with Bible verses, a message of solidarity from the city of San Antonio, more messages, more prayers, toys of the little child who was killed. I remember a most the toy train draped in rosaries. A massive number of flowers and rosaries populated the entire area. There were numerous statues and pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I thought about my dream.
A young white supremacist drove 11 hours from Dallas to El Paso to “kill Mexicans.” I can only guess he chose El Paso because of the spirit of friendship and community between the sister cities. Maybe he hated what El Paso represents. Maybe he wanted to do this at the border where people from both sides shop together. I don’t know. His manifesto had talked about “an invasion” referring to migrants and refugees and Hispanics in general I suppose. I had not read it. No need. I had been seeing the results of its ideology for days.
Actually I wasn’t thinking about any of these things at the time. I was overwhelmed with the emotional impact of the place. We all were. It was riveting. It was devastating. I think we were all in shock.
Eventually I sat down near a bank of flowers to pray. In my dream of Our Lady the loud racist man perhaps couldn’t see the destruction of her image he was causing. People get so upset about sacrilege of religious images. I understand that. But what about the people at the Border who are images of God, treated without dignity or compassion, let alone the scores of them who have died because of our indifference? Isn’t that a much more serious desecration? I had seen only some of what our country has done to migrants. I had only been at Casa Vides a couple days and I felt inundated with the suffering and injustice so many people back home justified and even applauded.
In the presence of this great outcry of shock and pain that was this memorial, I could only sit with God and hold my rosary. No words of prayer came to me. It could only be a prayer of presence and solidarity.
A woman I thought seemed like recently bereaved family thanked us for coming. I recognized the deep pain in her eyes and that aura of grief around her shoulders like a heavy black shawl that weighed her down.
When we got back into the van some of our group were crying. Nobody wanted to talk.
Chris, our leader during the Border Awareness Experience, a volunteer at the shelter, said he knew we were feeling upset but we were running a little late for our last meeting of the day at Hope Border Institute so we just had a few minutes while we drove to get ourselves regathered. So we tried.
I think seeing this place would have hurt deeply no matter what. But after what we had been learning about Border issues, having met the migrants Casa Vides was serving and having heard their stories, the experience hit us particularly hard. As we pulled away I thought of Jesus saying that when we hate our brothers and sisters, we have already committed murder in our hearts. That scene of physical mass murder was the result of collectively harbored hate, fear and resentment and anti-immigrant sentiment in our country. Something like that shooting was bound to happen. And if we don’t change, it will keep happening.
We pulled up at Hope Border Institute with the Diocese of El Paso. Their work centers around applying Catholic Social teaching to Immigration Issues.
Toward the end of various presentations, one man on staff named Dylan gave us an extemporaneous discourse on what Our Lady of Guadalupe means to migrants. Her image is ubiquitous in El Paso, in every place you go, there she is. I remember him saying that she came for and represented the Spanish and the Indigenous of Mexico, not either/or, herself a bridge between two cultures, similar to the migrants who have had to leave their home countries but don’t yet belong to their new one.
She appeared to St. Juan Diego, an indigenous Catholic convert. She was brown skinned as he was, (probably close to what she looked like during her historical life) and dressed like an Aztec maiden. Specifically, she looked Mestiza, a combination of Spanish and Native. She gave the gift of miraculous Castilian roses for the Spanish Bishop, the roses he missed from home, miraculously growing in the snow when she spoke to St. Juan. She said, “I am the perfect and ever-virgin Mary, Mother of God.” the name Guadalupe itself would have mean something to the Native people and the Spanish. “She who treads on the snake” to the Aztecs and a reference to another image of her in Spain. She wanted to comfort her children and hear their cries in the new church she asked for. Her image appeared instantaneously on the cloak of St. Juan Diego in the Bishop’s presence. Hundreds of years later it is still fresh, new and relevant. A microscope shows that in the pupils of her eyes, a reflection of the people in the room at the time her image appeared. We are all in her sight, she is here with us and she loves us.
Dylan pointed out that in the impression, her knee is out to show she is dancing. She is pregnant. She is praying.
She is about presence, compassion, hope and new life, about the coming together of two peoples as one in Christ.