April 24 through May 1, 2015
The Border Witness Program was one of the most extraordinary weeks of my life, full of learning and surprises and wonderful new friends. I had expected to learn about the experiences of some of the immigrant people on the border of Texas and Mexico. I did not expect to feel much like an “immigrant” myself, venturing into not just one but several “new worlds.”
For one thing, when I left New York, the temperature was 28̊; when I got off the plane in Texas, it was high in the 80s and next morning in the 90s, with the humidity at 97%. Also, I was the only member of our group who did not speak Spanish; although the others were generous in translating for me, not having the language was a great shock to my English-teacher-poet system! The landscape – flat, open Texas fields and small clusters of low houses – was a far cry from even the Westchester town I live in, never mind New York’s tall buildings. And the food, while delicious, varied and plentiful, was very different from my usual menus.
The first “world” we entered on Saturday morning, when we met Ramona Casas, current Director of ARISE, the group that offers the Border Witness Program, and Eva Soto, who served as our van driver and guide.
ARISE is a community of women – immigrants and daughters of immigrants – in the colonias of South Texas, transforming themselves and their communities. Founded by Irish Mercy Sister Gerrie Naughton in 1987, the women of ARISE invite other women of the colonias “to create a better future and to mobilize themselves to become contributing members of society,” as their leaflet explains. Using a “popular education”model, they invite each woman to identify her dreams and hopes for herself and her family and to develop the skills to achieve them. They collaborate for personal development, education for themselves and their children, and action for the needs of their communities. See pictures of ARISE.
Each day, as we visited each of the four ARISE centers, two women told their stories, and my admiration for them grew. From stories of poverty, families being kidnapped and threatened, struggles with immigration officials, and their fears in this new country, these women have become outstanding leaders and motivators of others, collaborating with each other, elected officials, and other groups working for justice in South Texas and better lives for their children.
Again and again, we heard the persistence of the ARISE staff and volunteers, knocking on doors and asking, “What are your dreams? What do you want for your life?” “No one ever asked me that before,” marveled Eva Soto, who drove our van all week. ARISE invites the women to dream and then to figure out how to make it happen. Absolutely amazing!
As soon as our introductions and brief orientation were complete, we began opening packages of hot dogs and soft drinks to help set up for El Dia del Nino (The Day of the Child), a traditional Mexican celebration, in the park two lots down the road.
El Día del Niño was a huge field day, full of games for the children and a program of Mexican dancers, and speakers, including Bishop Daniel Flores and Stewart, an animated caterpillar who engaged the children in listing ways they can help improve the Earth and their own communities. Punctuating the talks were raffling off the large prizes such as bicycles, donated by local sheriff and other local officials. See Pictures of El Dia Del Nino.
Hundreds of adults and children swarmed through the tents, hopped on the slide and merry-go-round, competed in games from magnetic “fishing” to the final pinata (a star with the ARISE logo) smashing, and ate nachos and hot dogs (my job was peeling off single paper hot dog boats, impossible with rubber gloves on). Bishop Daniel Flores addressed the crowd and blessed the children – then joined us at the serving table, spooning out jalapenos!
The second world we encountered is the colonias themselves, stretches of land that do not appear on official maps, and for the most part without streetlights, mail delivery, police stations, garbage pickup, drinkable water, or health care facilities. I had no idea there were portions of the United States, other than in a few remote rural areas, without these basic services. Ramona told us of a recent move by the county to eliminate even the central garbage pickup; ARISE organized and presented their case to county officials: ending pickup would mean the people would have to pay huge fees to commercial firms. The officials relented.
We entered a third “world” on Sunday, by attending mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle. This pilgrimage shrine is magnificent, huge and light-filled, and packed with worshipers. Mass was said and sung – by a Mariachi band – in English and Spanish; words and translations were projected above the altar. The homily was delivered with great gusto in both English and Spanish, seemingly at random, according to the priest’s enthusiasm. After Mass, we walked behind the altar, to see the centerpiece up close, and through the Miracle Room, which had testimonies of answered prayers, with pictures of babies safely delivered, etc. This room also had a small golden model of the new statue of Our Lady of San Juan now being cast in Germany, as well as a very different and regal statue of Our Lady of Sorrows. In the gift shop, we posed with a larger-than-life-size model of the statue and also with the cardboard picture of Pope Francis. We stayed in the pilgrim hotel on the basilica grounds.
Detention and Slightly After
The fourth “world” we encountered is that of immigrants in the process of entering the United States. Some, like the unaccompanied children at Hope Center shelter/Centro de Albegue Hope and the families at La Posada Providente, were awaiting court decisions on whether they will be allowed to stay in the U.S. or be deported. Others, like those we met at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas, were just released to join family or friends on this side of the border; some of these were still awaiting court appointments, too.
When a family is released by the immigration services – ICE, the Border Patrol, or Homeland Security – they are on their own as they wait for the person sponsoring them in the United States to pick them up or send money or tickets to join them. Sacred Heart, a Catholic parish near the bus station, has reached out in extraordinary ways to help these families. We were invited by the Catholic Charities organizer to meet three families on their release, to applaud as they entered the room and tell them how welcome they were. The amazement on their faces told how different a greeting this was from anything they had yet encountered.
Members of our group chatted with them as they waited to be checked in (I once again lamented my lack of Spanish). A phone was available so they could call their home country to say they had arrived and to alert their sponsors that they were free to travel. Then they washed their hands and were served breakfast. While they ate, we (well, the rest of the group, who could speak Spanish) chatted and scoured the auditorium full of clothes for suitable changes. With much consulting on sizes, color and other needs and preferences (heavy or light, jeans or more formal, longing for a Batman t-shirt), each family went off to the showers with a clean change of clothes. Each family also received a backpack with changes of underwear and socks, toiletries and, if needed, baby supplies. By the end of our stay, the children had emerged from their parents’ shadows and were playing happily in the play area or dragging clicking toys around the tables.
Working for Justice in South Texas
A fifth “world” is that of various organizations working for justice for the people of the area, mostly though not exclusively immigrant women and children. ARISE collaborates with these and other groups. We visited or were visited by several of these, including Equal Voice (part of a national network of support), the Young Center for Unaccompanied Children (legal aid for those seeking residence in the U.S.), United Women/Mujeres Unidas (for victims of domestic violence), Projecto Azteca (housing and other civic issues), and South Texas Human and Civil Rights (worker compensation, wage theft, among other issues).
A sixth “world” we entered by way of a video, The Forgotten Immigrants of Deer Canyon. This introduced us to mostly Mexican migrant men working in tomato fields and private estates in San Diego, which has no low income housing. About 100 men lived in improvised tents or small shacks in the brush of the canyon. To accommodate expanding development of the canyon, police would periodically bulldoze the homes of these men. Individual stories told of the men’s radical loss of income after NAFTA, loss of jobs and lands at home. One man said he had been able to earn 25 pesos per kilo of coffee beans before NAFTA; this dropped to 5 pesos after the treaty. All the men spoke longingly of the families they left in Mexico and their desire to return when they could support them. This made me very aware of the damage the proposed Pacific Trade treaty could cause.
Their faith in God and their view of their situation stunned us: in spite of all the difficulties of their lives, one man said, “I am very grateful to God because nothing bad has ever happened to me.” This faith was made tangible in the chapel the men built in the canyon; members of a local Catholic parish came each Sunday to offer Mass, as well as hot meals and clothing donated by parishioners. (The chapel was later bulldozed, too.)
Still another “world” that we entered briefly is that of the Border Wall. We hiked the sun-seared trail though a park near Hidalgo, Texas, to the Wall, a huge series of steel columns set inches apart. One Border Patrol truck sat near the Wall, and another drove by while we were there. As we walked back to the van, helicopters hovered over us. The beating rotors gave us a taste of what the surveillance might feel like to someone trying to steal across the border. In spite of the surveillance, two ladders lay on the ground, one at the foot of the wall, the other at the opposite edge of the concrete path; at least two people had made it over. All the way, we thought of and prayed for those who made it over the world, and especially those who were captured trying, as well as the journeys our own family members had made to the United States.
Stories of the colonias
Each day we visited a different ARISE center and toured the area around it, as Ramona and Eva told of the particular struggles of that neighborhood, pointed out houses that had been constructed from very little and others built with Habitat For Humanity, and praised work done by residents. At each center, the women plied us with homemade specialties and stories of the programs they ran.
On Wednesday night, we were invited to a Golden Jubilee celebration for Mercy Sister Cathy Field, who has been volunteering for many years. We were treated to a feast, learned of all that Sr. Cathy had done, and then joined in festive dancing, all in the outdoor patio built by the men of the colonia.
Our (little) Crowd of Witnesses
Besides all that we saw with ARISE, I found just being with our group a great gift. Most of the Sacred Heart Sisters and lay members have worked for many years among the immigrants in various part of the United States and in other countries, including Mexico, Haiti and Brazil. Their dedication, love for the people, and thirst for justice fill me with hope and admiration.
Looking back on the week, I have admiration and hope because of the truly communal way the women of ARISE work with, encourage, and draw previously unknown strengths from each other. This is truly not only the work but also the way of the Holy Spirit! The work of the other members of our group also give me great hope, knowing there are people working to better the lives of immigrant people, with love and compassion.
Reflecting on the Week
The courage of the immigrant parents and children that we met in the shelters is immense. My heart is divided between astonishment at their love and courage in enduring all they have for the sake of their children and horror at the conditions that led them to make such arduous journeys.
One woman we met stays close to my heart. She had been traveling for two years, taking her three small children the length of one continent, on a plane to Central America and then overland up through Mexico, where she had been detained (imprisoned) for a couple of months; she loves Texas and hopes to be allowed to stay. Imagine what must have impelled her to make this trek!
At the same time, I am filled with anger and frustration that human beings – including the real live people whom we met – are subjected to such situations. The United States’ complicity or worse in the violence and increasing poverty in the immigrants’ homelands, and the de-humanizing process that Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement our laws require violate every principle I believe in from Christian compassion to the “American Dream.” Trying to look at all this through the eyes of compassion is a continuing challenge for me.
I come away from the experience with increased faith that change is possible and determination to do what I can to make others aware of what is going on and to advocate for the needed changes in our inhuman systems. My prayer list has grown to include all the people we met, those we were unable to meet (in detention), and the men and women who make and enforce the policies that trap the immigrant people in more tragedy and hardship.
I am extremely grateful to Imma and Reyna of the Stuart Center, and to the Society of the Sacred Heart for organizing this Border Witness Program and allowing me to be part of it!