Casa Vides, El Paso 10/19/19
One of the Sisters sets out coffee and bread for toast, eggs if anybody wants to cook them. One of our group, a sweet young man named Alex who is here to understand what his immigrant parents went through, took it upon himself to make eggs for everyone.
My brother-in-law, Frank was here doing his story telling when I came down. People were chatting, getting to know one another.
Eventually we got into the white van again and drove through the city to tour the border fence, an 18 foot slatted steel barrier, with an extra five feet of “anti climb” on top, numbered in sections. It was strange to see the freeway on the other side, looking very similar with the same kind of cars on it, but technically another country and separated by this forbidding fence.
Chris talked to us about border history, the effects of NAFTA on the people south of the border; how they lost family lands and were driven to work in the factories built along the border (for $2 per day) in places where there was nowhere for them to stay, nothing around, and no one they knew they could stay with, so they built these carton homes. Eventually these shanty towns formed along the border. He was taking us to one of these called Anapra.
We got out of the van a few feet from the border fence, section 357. The woman with us who is originally from Chile, Maria, wept when she saw it. Both of us went to the fence and touched the cold steel, praying.
I spent many a Wednesday afternoon praying in front of the abortion clinic in my town, even before it was built. Like other people who stood on the sidewalk with rosaries in shifts in front of the fence. The border wall too is a place of death and tragedy. People jump in desperation and die or are terribly injured here. It is a place of injustice, people driven into poverty or fleeing violence then forced back, denied relief, and in many cases, denied their lives and the lives of their children.
Similar to the abortion clinic, this place of desperation and death is somehow also sacred. It is the place of the suffering of God’s children. God cherishes all of their tears, sacred to him. We could do no less.
Some of the women were taking pictures of a baby doll lying in the dirt with its head smashed. I had purposely left my phone behind so I didn’t do that. I didn’t have to. I will never forget it.
With another glance at all the trash and the shanty town on the other side, with Mexican National guards walking in pairs along the fence on the Mexican side, we gathered to read an op-ed about various administrations’ history of border policy and what has been the catalyst for this, the point being that Trump did not start this, He is just more expressive and bold faced about it, and more extreme.
Then each of us talked about our impressions of the border. I remember that most of us felt sorrow and pain about the injustice of it, the sadness, the strange unreality of the place.
Fr. Jose talked about how he had always thought he couldn’t be racist because he himself is Hispanic but reading the Bishops’ recent pastoral letter on racism, he realized that there is racism and class-ism among his own community, and how they look down on those who are lower class or darker skin.
He added that he was conscious of his sin of looking away from all this. He said his main reason for being here was to continue his process of conversion.
Frank said he had been with some of his Jewish friends to a protest about the child separation policy where the chant had been “Don’t look away.”
Chris listened thoughtfully. He is always doing that.
I talked about how this place felt similar to the abortion clinic and all the time I spent praying there. I told how in my home town the abortion clinic did finally close and the site is now the offices of Coalition for Life.
I said we can have hope that some day this wall would come down and this site became a symbol of the victory of the spirit of friendship, cooperation, acceptance and love. It could happen!
Some cannot understand the visceral reaction of many in the borderlands to the wall. It is not just a tool of national security. More than that, the wall is a symbol of exclusion, especially when allied to an overt politics of xenophobia. It is an open wound through the middle of our sister cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. The wall deepens racially charged perceptions of how we understand the border as well as Mexicans and migrants. It extends racist talk of an ‘invasion’. It perpetuates the racist myth that the area south of the border is dangerous and foreign and that we are merely passive observers in the growth of narco-violence and the trafficking of human beings and drugs. The wall is a physical reminder of the failure of two friendly nations to resolve their internal and bi-national issues in just and peaceful way. It validates James Baldwin’s fear that Americans are addicted to innocence. It is a destructive force on the environment. The wall kills families and children. There will be a day when after this wall has come crumbling down we will look back and remember the wall as a monument to hate.
– Night Will Be No More, Pastoral Letter on Racism by Bishop Seitz of El Paso
After that we voted about what to do next. We decided to go to an art exhibit called Un-caged Hearts; art left behind by the separated children in detention at the Tornillo camp.
Some of the art was truly stunning. The symbol of the questzel figured heavily. The saying we were told, is “you can’t cage the questzel or it will die.” It is a treasured bird in Central America, no one is allowed to hunt it. It is a symbol of the soul.
Birds flying in transcendent freedom were a theme that showed up as well.
Pictures of their homeland, models of their churches at home, and pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe, were incredibly well done in great detail.
There were native costumes made from plastic wrap, and a soccer ball signed by the children that they had “kicked to freedom” over the fence. There was a note that explained this, along with the fact that art and soccer wee discontinued by the current administration. That soccer ball really got to us, especially the young man among us, Alex.
A beautiful pencil drawing of Our Lady of Guadalupe spoke to me. The child had written, “God is here.” I imagined this kid saying to himself or herself, in the midst of suffering, “God is here,” just as I have done in my darkest hours.
After this we went to a Mexican bakery and burrito shop for lunch. Some of the group, most of them from Milwaukee were unfamiliar with authentic Tex Mex food so for them so it was a real treat. I sat with Sister Anne Catherine. She asked questions about what she was eating because she had told her server to just give her whatever she thought was good. I said it looked like carne guisada to me.
We were taken to Mt. Cristo Rey, considered to be “sufficient barrier” and therefore the wall does not come near. This mountain is a convergence of Texas, New Mexico and Mexico.
A trail winds around the mountain, leading to the top. Along the way are stations of the cross. At the top of this mountain of rock and brush, is a giant white crown topped by a giant white crucifix. There is also an altar for mass there.
On the way up our group prayed a migrant themed Stations of the Cross with Gospel readings and reflections and the traditional prayers. We took turns reading and leading the prayers.
The terrain around El Paso is so severe, almost all rock, with brush in some places. How in the world do people cross in this stuff without getting hurt? How do they do it carrying wiggly toddlers, or tiny babies or trying to guide exhausted little children? I don’t know. No one creates a path for them through the wilderness. And they are treated abominably when they finally reach their goal. Unwelcome, mistreated, held suspect, arrested, interrogated, stripped of dignity.
Sister A.C. and I talked about how it it would seem they deserve their feet washed, a hug, a hot meal and a soft bed after their heroic journey.
When we finally reached the top, everyone hot and sweaty and dusty, some men were working repainting the monument. They let some of our group help a little bit and take pictures with them. They said their fathers and grandfathers had helped build it and this work was passed down and done by their descendants as family tradition. They were getting ready for the 80th anniversary celebration when the bishop of El Paso would be there and a border mass would be celebrated.
They gave us water on the way down. They showed me the crosses with the names of the 22 shooting victims from the El Paso Wal -mart mass shooting.
On the way down, we talked with each other about our lives and about our thoughts. There were little shrines along the path for saints important in the region, Chris had said. I remember St. Anthony, St. Joseph, St. Francis, St. Martin de Porres.
I got to talking to him too. He asked about the tattoo on my arm and I told him the story about my consecration to Mary and that my tattoo is the North Indian design for a rose. I told him about my other tattoos too. We also began talking about our lives. He didn’t talk a whole lot, mostly asking me questions and keeping his own answers fairly brief. He is a kindly young man with a listening heart. He seems to possess a lot of wisdom too.
We went to dinner at one of the other houses, Casa Romero. The sister who serves there is a Mary Knoll sister. She showed us around. Then we listened to a presentation by Brinkley, one of the volunteers, about what migrant detention is like. It basically sounded like prison. She talked about how the migrants feel about this: “I didn’t do anything wrong. I am here to claim asylum. I am trying to do it legally. Why do they punish me like a criminal? “ Or “I just need to work and feed my family!”
We learned about the hunger strikes that had been going on at the detention center next door. Some of the men had been force fed which damaged their esophagus and internal organs with the feeding tubes, inserted with larger than necessary tubing, the procedure done rather violently and without local anesthetic. One of the med had fainted and stopped breathing at one point.
Brinkley got us to write prayers and messages to those in detention next door that she likes to ritually tie to the fence even though they can’t see them. I thought Franks’ was really good. “Love wins in the end.”
I left my Immaculate Heart of Mary medal hanging there on the fence too so that a part of me will always be there. We prayed in a circle for all of these people imprisoned in the big building next door with that barbed wire along the top of it’s high fence.
Soberly we went in for dinner: spaghetti and french bread and salad served by a retired couple who spends a month a year at this shelter. They were very kind. After dinner we all helped clean up. I was on mopping duty while others did dishes and so on. The women helping with dishes talked and laughed with a woman from our group, Maria.
One of the men staying in the shelter who had fled violence in his home country became very ill on the journey through the mountains. He now knows his kidneys shut down and he had a collapsed lung. He had lain in the desert praying that the police or border patrol or someone like that would find him and he said, “God heard me!”
Some of the women guests helping with dishes turned out to be “Social Security women.” These are widows whose husbands worked legally in the U.S. and who are entitled to their husbands’ social security. For some bizarre reason our government requires them to travel to the U.S. and remain there one month before they can claim their money. One of the women had become ill on the journey and was a day late and they wouldn’t give her her money. They said to stay yet another month. Widows of husbands who worked in our country from Europe and Canada and elsewhere in the world have their checks mailed to them.
I don’t understand the reasoning for this. It just seems unjust. The travel and one month stay is a serious hardship for these women. The travel is an expense for them, and taxing for the older ones. They have to put a hold on work, figure out what to do with the children or how to bring them along and they miss school. Sometimes the money isn’t enough to make it worth it and the government just keeps it. This seems wrong, the whole thing. One of our group said, “But that is unjust!” The women said yes it is but who can defend us. No one cares. Someone in our group sympathized about the journey. They said “God travels with us, God is with us.”
A young black man walked around listening to music. He was from Kiwa,(?) Brinkley said. She said they get refugees from all over the world, people who have been through jungles, crossed dangerous rivers, and braved danger to get here to safety.
In the chapel some of the women were praying the rosary. Father Jose went in and blessed each one. They cried. He said later he knew that it was not him doing that that caused them to cry, but what he represented to them as a priest.
One of the women asked us to pray for her sons. One of them is stuck in Juarez, and the other one was in detention next door.
We went back to Casa Vides for reflection and bed. Father Jose asked us where we encountered God that day. Everyone had a moment and we talked about that: the soccer ball, the art that seemed like a miracle in itself, the deep faith of the migrants, in the workmen on the mountain, in Chris himself. Everyone smiled at that. He is such a steady, patient, kind and wise young man.
Everyone went up to bed. Sister Anne hugged me goodnight. I remembered the blanket this time and therefore I slept much better, praying the rosary in my mind for the sons of that mother we met.