THE WOMAN OF WHETSTONE

•March 6, 2016 • 21 Comments

We are a motley crew of ten as we set out on a sunny February morning, walking north toward the Whetstone Mountains of Arizona. Our leader, Sister Judy, carries her cell phone and her eyes are glued to the GPS, keeping us on track. She is our tracking bloodhound, nose to the ground, and we are the trusting sheep, silently hoping she knows what she is doing. The sun and temperature are rising, and we don’t want to get lost.

We are searching for the exact spot where a young woman’s remains were found in 2012, a woman who has never been identified by the Medical Examiner’s office. She is “no identificada.”

Walking along a migrant trail

Walking in the steps of a Latina woman

More than 2,000 human remains have been found in the Sonoran desert over the past 15 years. The actual number of bodies is much higher, as many of the lost will never be found.

I think about the official policy of the US Armed Forces, and their “no soldier left behind” code of conduct. This action by our military always seems heroic and somehow holy to me. No soldier’s body will be left on a battlefield. We will find them and bring them home. It is a sacred rule.

The cross with the tuna can sunflower

   Tom Flemming creates a cross with a tuna can sunflower

And yet here we are on this starkly beautiful desert landscape, where thousands of bodies have been left to rot, their bones torn asunder by the wild creatures of this land. Because they didn’t have the correct papers. It is a killing field.

On this journey we are a group of many faiths, many beliefs: an Episcopal priest, a Yaqui holy man, two nuns, a few lapsed Catholics, a non-believer or two, and some social activists. One man carries a cross he has created with the words, “No Identificada” carefully painted on the cross bar. A rusted tuna can painted a colorful yellow looks like a sunflower.  The can was most likely dropped by a migrant. It is nailed to the pristine white cross. The tuna can is a talisman of spring.

The mood is upbeat. We are on a mission. We are going to plant this beautiful cross in the desert and acknowledge that this unidentified woman had a life full of meaning, and it tragically ended here on this sacred spot.

Digging into the earth

Digging into the earth

The conversation bounces from topic to topic. Gabriel, our Yaqui friend, carries a backpack with items to use in the desert ceremony. He asks no one in particular, “I wonder where she came from? I wonder where she was heading?”

We trudge along through the dry grasses dodging cholla and prickly pear cactus. The day is warming up, and I keep my eyes and ears attuned to rattlesnakes coming out of hibernation.

My friend, Trudy, from Buffalo, New York, is slowing down in the desert heat. We stop for a drink of water. She asks, “I wonder how she kept going?”

A prickly pear cactus in bloom

A prickly pear cactus in bloom

In my conversations with migrants at el comedor in Nogales, they have shared with me how they kept going. This is what they tell me:

“I was lying on the ground and couldn’t go one more step. My water was gone, and so was my last chocolate bar. I looked up and saw a woman beckoning me to get up and keep walking. I think it was the Virgen de Guadalupe.  Or maybe an angel.”

Some have said, “I heard my young daughter’s voice. She shouted at me to get up and come home.”

One man told me that when he rose from the desert floor, he saw the Border Patrol in the distance. The vision or angel or whomever it was by his side told him not to worry.

The angel said, “You are invisible to the Border Patrol. You can see them; they cannot see you.”

A desert monument

A desert monument

Gabriel listens with interest. He said that when he was a child, his mother taught him to “disappear.”

“This is called shifting,” he said, “and it is something that parents teach their children in my culture.” He chuckled, and told me, “When my mother would call us kids in for supper, we would become stones and rocks. She couldn’t find us. We would disappear. We would shift to a different level of reality. We became invisible.”

“Well, maybe you just remained very still, and your mother couldn’t see you.”

“No,” my Yaqui friend responded. “It was more than that.”

Hiking to a sacred place

Hiking to a sacred place

When we reach the spot where the unknown woman died, we drop our backpacks and set to work. First digging a hole with a post-hole digger, we then collect small rocks and drop them into the cavity along with some cement and water. We carefully place the cross in the shallow pit of cement facing east toward the rising sun.

Standing in a circle around this spot, Gabriel leads us in a simple, profound ceremony of remembrance and hope. He smudges each of us with the smoke of the sweet-smelling sage. We try to focus our thoughts on this moment, and as the blue smoke rises upward enveloping our bodies, we send our prayers to this woman. I have already silently named her the Woman of Whetstone.

Smudging for purification, the Yaqui way

Smudging for purification, the Yaqui way

I try to imagine what she looked like. She was probably wearing jeans and ill-fitting shoes, and perhaps a jacket from one of the aid stations in Naco or Agua Prieta. Maybe I had handed this woman some shampoo and soap at el comedor in Nogales. We are less than a mile from Kartchner Caverns, and I wonder if this woman was trying to make it to the parking lot where there were people. You can see the trucks and cars moving along a highway from where we stand. There is civilization nearby. What was going on in her mind?

The Woman of Whetstone was probably a mother trying to earn enough money for her family. She risked her life to come to this country so she could feed her kids. Dreaming of a steady salary from Burger King or a housekeeping job, she wanted a warm safe bed for her children and food on the table. I would bet my life on it.

Gabriel leads us in a beautiful meditation to focus our intentions. First we face east; this is where the sun rises along with the birth of a new day and new life. Then we face south; this is where the sun warms the earth and seeds grow. This is where life unfolds and emerges. Next we turn to the west;  here the sun sets and old age creeps upon us. Lastly we face the north, where our bodies become cold and life ceases. Here we move on to the next dimension. We raise our faces to the sky and gaze at the heavens;  we kneel on the earth and hold the red desert dust.

Setting the cross near the Whetstone mountains

Setting the cross near the Whetstone mountains

The moment was emotional and transcendent. I think we all felt the presence of the Woman of Whetstone beside us. She was our desert vision, and in a strange way, I felt invisible. No one intruded on our pilgrimage. There were no Border Patrol agents checking us out, no helicopters, no one. We had all entered a different reality out here. The desert will do that.

Just when I felt a bit dizzy from the heat, a small breeze stirred and brought me back to this sacred place.  It was the Woman of Whetstone.

Hiking back to our cars, we were all silent.

Our government has failed us; immigration reform has been a dream just beyond our grasp. But this unknown migrant woman taught us humanitarian compassion. She brought a group of ten strangers together in fellowship and mystery.

She was not left behind.

Woman of Whetstone.  Presente! 

The Whetstone group

The Whetstone group

 

Alvaro Enciso is an artist in Tucson who has made it his mission to construct a cross for every body found in the Sonoran desert. That means he is creating over 2000 crosses. Thank you Alvaro for your dedication and for your beautiful crosses.  Tom Smelling lives near Douglas, Arizona, and is also constructing crosses for those bodies found in Cochise County.  http://www.gvnews.com/news/at-the-cross-fallen-migrants-remembered-in-the-desert/article_5c930818-db15-11e4-9c42-fb923c8c0ca0.html

Peg Bowden has written a book, A Land of Hard Edges, available in most bookstores in southern Arizona, your local library, or Amazon.com.

Please direct comments and thoughts to the “Comments” section of this blog. Peg Bowden can be reached at:  pegbowden1942@gmail.com

If you wish to receive regular postings to this blog, register in the Announcement List space in the right-hand column, and you are automatically on the email blog list.

The Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans is a non-profit organization; the mission is to prevent deaths in the desert.  Information and contributions can be directed to:  www.gvsamaritans.org

Kino Border Initiative directs the activities of the comedor in Nogales, Mexico. The mission is to help create a just, humane immigration policy between the United States and Mexico. The website is:  www.kinoborderinitiative.org

The Border Community Alliance is an exciting new organization in southern Arizona focusing on the economic, cultural and humanitarian needs of the Arizona borderlands. BCA is now a 501 3(c) nonprofit entity. The website is: www.bordercommunityalliance.com

Guatemala: The Color and Passion

•April 22, 2015 • 9 Comments
A woman with her textiles

A woman with her textiles

It is 3 AM and I roll over, fumbling in the dark for my iPhone alarm as it erupts with incongruous church bell sounds—a clanging that awakens me from my dream. For a moment, I don’t know where I am. It is Good Friday, and I remind myself that I am in Antigua, Guatemala, with my friend, Sister Judy Bourg. We are here to participate in the festivities of semana santa (Holy Week), and the action starts in the middle of the night.  The last time I awoke at 3 AM was to nurse an infant, and that was a long time ago.

Judy and Peg in the garden, Antigua, Guatemala

Judy and Peg in the garden, Antigua, Guatemala

My first fuzzy thoughts this early morning are that arising at 3 AM is a little crazy, given that we are two women traveling in one of the most dangerous countries in the world (according to US State Department warnings). It is pitch black outside, and we will be sitting ducks walking the streets at this hour.

Good Friday and the women of Antigua

Good Friday and the women of Antigua

I throw some clothes on, and take a lot of deep breaths. Our humble hostel does not provide coffee until 7 AM.

I. Must. Wake. Up.

We both enter the street and are met by Roman soldiers on horseback, equine hooves clattering on the cobblestones.  The costumed soldiers juggle their spears as they text on their cell phones. Groups of men dressed in purple satin robes line up in preparation for their part in this Passion Play, while thousands of the faithful head toward the main plaza to view the processions of Holy Week. Immediately my fears subside. I feel no danger here. Instead, I am swept up in the throng of children, parents, and travelers who have come to witness this spectacle of color, drama, music, and art.

The streets are filled with copal, the incense of Holy Week

The streets are filled with copal, the incense of Holy Week

I see artists on their hands and knees constructing the alfombras—the carpets of exuberant color and design created on the cobblestone streets.  Brightly hued sawdust, flowers, grasses, and vegetables make up the palette. All city traffic stops for the next 18 hours while people create tapestries of beauty in these climactic days of semana santa. The art is transient.  It will disappear when the processions slowly trample over the intricate designs later in the day.

Alfombras with birds

Alfombras with birds

Judy and I spot an espresso shop and we both sip the miracle of caffeine. I never had a bad cup of coffee anywhere in Guatemala—from the tiniest outdoor vendor to the barista preparing the cappuccinos and mochas. A woman sells me a delicious empañada, filled with pineapple, warm from the oven. We munch on this goodness while waiting for the procession, listening for the mournful dirge of the timpani and the slow ponderous music of the band. It is 3:45 AM, and there is nowhere else on earth I would rather be than standing in this crowd on Good Friday.  I feel safe, nurtured, warm, and alive.  And very awake.

Watching the creation of the alfombras, the street tapestries of Antigua.

Watching the creation of the alfombras, the street tapestries of Antigua

Children help create the alfombras

Children help create the alfombras

In most of Latin America, the big day during semana santa is Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion. The focus seems to be on the trial and suffering of Jesus during the last days of his life. Easter Sunday and the message of the risen Christ are almost an afterthought. There are no Easter bunnies and colored eggs in Guatemala. Holy Week builds toward the drama of Good Friday.

Timpani set the cadence

Timpani set the cadence

Warming our hands around hot cups of coffee, Judy and I wait in the darkness for the dramatic procession to begin. Men and boys in their purple hooded robes fill the streets swinging incense holders of copal, and a pungent smoke fills the air. It is a purple haze of people scurrying in preparation for the processions.  A faint distant drum beat penetrates the early morning darkness, and soon I hear a funereal march played by a band of musicians dressed in black. The timpani sets the tempo, and the two copper drums are pulled on a cart as the timpanist walks behind, keeping a slow, steady cadence.

Christ and the cross

Christ and the cross

Then come the andas—the floats carrying Christ, followed by his mother, Mary. Eighty or more men struggle carrying an anda weighing over 1000 pounds.  The float sways back and forth precariously.  The faces of the men grimace under the weight. Women dressed in black carry the anda of Mary, Christ’s mother. Their faces are solemn, devoted, and focused.  They are in another world.

Women carry the Blessed Mother

Women carry the Blessed Mother

The whole spectacle creates an emotional impact that takes me totally by surprise. The expressions of the men struggling to carry the anda seem to reflect the suffering Christ as he carries the cross. It doesn’t matter if you believe this Christian story of pain and redemption. The drama of the music, the andas, and the faces of the suffering touch a deep chord. The audience is hushed. People are in tears.

Peg and the alfombra in Antigua

Peg and the alfombra in Antigua

I am not a person to dwell on the suffering and agony of Christ’s death on the cross. My idea of Easter Week is more in line with the “Hallelujah, He is Risen” spectrum of things. But I was dumbstruck by the intense emotion of the semana santa procession. The facial countenance of the men and women carrying the andas says it all. Life is damn hard. And suffering is a part of it. We won’t sugar coat this. We will persevere.

Woman of Antigua   (photo:  Judy Bourg)

A face of Guatemala       (photo: Judy Bourg)

I have no answers to the suffering I see in the world. Witnessing the trauma each week at the comedor often silences me. I have no words. The images stay with me. The migrants are frightened and often alone.

And yet, their sheer doggedness and oftentimes blundering attempts to cross the border wall and get to a better place humble me. Many people make it.  Many don’t.  Their anguish somehow makes them stronger. Even time spent in US detention centers builds strength and determination. People change when faced with danger and suffering. The courage of the migrants transcends their suffering.

Procession through the market of Chichicastenango

Procession through the market of Chichicastenango

 

A monk and his iPad

A monk and his iPad

The people of Guatemala and all of Latin America understand the dynamic of suffering and strength far better than I. Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, explores the idea that there is meaning in suffering.  He makes the point that suffering is a part of life, as is love and death. Life is not complete without these things.

"More poetry, less police"--graffiti in Guatemala City

“More poetry, less police”–graffiti in Guatemala City

I think of Frankl, and his survival of the Nazi death camps.  I think of the passion and creative expression of the people of Guatemala. But most of all, I think of my migrant friends crossing the desert of Arizona, doing their best to survive and preserve their human dignity.

Women in the market

Women in the market

They are all my heroes on this Good Friday.

Children of Chichi

Children of Chichi

My book, A Land of Hard Edges, is now available in most bookstores in southern Arizona, your local library, or Amazon.com.

Please direct comments and thoughts to the “Comments” section of this blog.  Peg Bowden can be reached at:  pegbowden1942@gmail.com

If you wish to receive regular postings to this blog, register in the Announcement List space in the right-hand column, and you are automatically on the email blog list.

The Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans is a non-profit organization; the mission is to prevent deaths in the desert.  Information and contributions can be directed to:  www.gvsamaritans.org

Kino Border Initiative directs the activities of the comedor in Nogales, Mexico.  The mission is to help create a just, humane immigration policy between the United States and Mexico.  The website is:  www.kinoborderinitiative.org

The Border Community Alliance is an exciting new organization in southern Arizona focusing on the economic, cultural and humanitarian needs of the Arizona borderlands.  BCA is now a 501 3(c) nonprofit entity.  The website is: www.bordercommunityalliance.com

 

Free Speech and The Man From Guerrero

•January 20, 2015 • 11 Comments

I met a man at the comedor in Nogales, Sonora, a few weeks ago—a student from Guerrero, Mexico, the state where 43 missing students at a teacher’s college are presumed dead. The young man was gaunt, malnourished, exhausted, and he knew no one in the United States. He was preparing himself for the journey northward, fleeing for his life. He was traveling alone. When I asked him why he was on the run, he looked at me with fear in his eyes.

“I saw things,” was his answer.

"Sassy," a little girl looking for a place to be.

“Sassy,” a little girl looking for a place to be.

I pressed him for more information. He just shook his head and stared into the room of bustling activity as the Samaritans were clearing the breakfast tables. He looked like he was afraid to speak. My young acquaintance needed a shower, clean jeans, and some decent shoes. I told him about the dangers of crossing our desert—the extreme cold temperatures, the federal agents that would be hunting for him, the fear and loathing that so many Americans have toward migrants heading north. He spoke very little English, but somehow we connected. He asked for a clean pair of socks.

I asked him what kind of work he did in Guerrero. He told me he was a college student studying to be an engineer, but could do construction work.  I told him, “Cuidado.” Be careful. The desert is a dangerous place. He replied, “It will be better than Guerrero.”

He crossed himself several times, picked up a packet of soap and a toothbrush, and was out the door.

Victoria and the wall

Victoria and the wall

And I have to confess that this kind of experience with a migrant both moves me and terrifies me. As much as I love Mexico, I cannot ignore the fact that hundreds of thousands of people in Mexico and Central America do not trust the police, their government, or the renegade lawlessness of the drug cartels. In fact, many believe that they are one and the same. This young college student believes that he may lose his life if he reports the things he saw in Guerrero.

I think about him each day, and whisper little half-prayers to the winds and to God. He is closer to my idea of a decent human being than most of the members of Congress.

He prefers taking his chances in the Sonoran desert. Free speech has a price in Mexico.

Samaritans stirring the pot

Samaritans stirring the pot

I’ve been thinking a lot about free speech and its implications since the recent massacre of journalists and cartoonists in the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris. I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo or seen any of the cartoons before this incident. To be honest, I was repulsed and shocked by some of the drawings; most of them I simply didn’t understand. Finding the caricatures crude and puzzling, I decided that the humor was a cultural anomaly–a French thing–and France was diving into areas that some Americans would label as hateful, racist and anti-religious. Charlie Hebdo reminded me of Mad Magazine, the radical rag of my youth.

Clean clothes and hope

Clean clothes and hope

Free speech in a democratic society is often messy and provocative. Frequently things get dirty and uncomfortable. We try to organize our complex world, but the best we can do is sketch out a crude map of life from our own particular vantage point. Cartoons, if they are good, often distill this complexity into a few simple drawings, a few words, that deliver deeper truths.

I applaud satire and artists who push the envelope and make me think. They peel away the comfortable layers of my civilized world, often exposing the very things that hold my life together. In a perfect world, artists should be able to create freely and not be restrained by social mores. They should give you a punch in the gut.  I would like to say that I defend the right of free speech and the expression of all ideas, no matter how uncomfortable.  But this is probably not altogether true.  I draw the line at child pornography, incitement to violence, libelous statements, and probably a few other things I haven’t thought of.

As much as I crave order and simplicity and truth, the politics of free speech are murky.

Shoes that fit

Shoes that fit

This is not a perfect world. If a cartoon or article is provocative and offensive to some, it is impossible to predict what will happen. This is the unfortunate state of the world today. Artists and journalists were martyred in Paris for their expression of free speech. They took a risk and they died.

No one should die for a cartoon. No one should die for writing a book. Violence toward another human should not be part of the equation.

But it is.

I honor and respect the artists’ right to express whatever they choose, even if I find the art odious and offensive. Artists and writers must make a choice; there may be freedom of speech, but unfortunately, there may also be consequences.  We take our chances.

Luis, my unstoppable newspaper vendor

Luis, my unstoppable newspaper vendor

So here is my truth: The world has always been embroiled in some destructive crisis somewhere. What keeps it from caving in is our desire not to die, and the miracle of being alive in the midst of it all. In fact, it is a miracle we keep things going at all.  We muddle through, in spite of the massacres, the graft, and the economic disparity.

So if you need to pick a side in this debate about immigration, or Islamic extremism, or free speech, or Republicans and Democrats, pick the side of respect and connection. And if you can’t respect those on the other side, at least try to listen and see them as a human being, and not an abstract idea.  Let robust dialogue and a free exchange of ideas be loud and fierce, no matter how repugnant. Keep your mind open to the views you hate to hear. Try and understand people you least relate to. Let the cartoons open your mind; feel free to close the page on some.

It is never easy, but it is better than murder.

Squash for dinner

Squash for dinner

********************************************************

My book, A Land of Hard Edges, is now available in most bookstores in southern Arizona, your local library, or Amazon.com. I will be doing presentations and book signings at the following venues:

Feb. 5, 2015, the Tumacacori Mission, Tumacacori, Arizona, 12:30-2 PM

Feb. 13, 2015, Green Valley League of Women Voters, La Posada at Park Center, Green Valley, AZ., Madera Room, 12 noon.

Feb. 21, 2015, Lutheran Church of the Foothills, 5102 N. Craycroft Rd., Tucson, AZ., 10 AM

March 8, 2015, Global Arts Gallery, Patagonia, AZ., 12-5 PM. Open house with refreshments, book reading and signing at 2 PM.

March 15, 2015, Tucson Festival of Books, University of Arizona campus, Modern Languages Building, Room 350, 1-2 PM

March 19, 2015, Democratic Club, Sedona, AZ. Breakfast meeting.

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Please direct comments and thoughts to the “Comments” section of this blog.  Peg Bowden can be reached at:  pegbowden1942@gmail.com

If you wish to receive regular postings to this blog, register in the Announcement List space in the right-hand column, and you are automatically on the email blog list.

The Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans is a non-profit organization; the mission is to prevent deaths in the desert.  Information and contributions can be directed to:  www.gvsamaritans.org

Kino Border Initiative directs the activities of the comedor in Nogales, Mexico.  The mission is to help create a just, humane immigration policy between the United States and Mexico.  Their website is:  www.kinoborderinitiative.org

The Border Community Alliance is an exciting new organization in southern Arizona focusing on the economic, cultural and humanitarian needs of the Arizona borderlands.  BCA is now a 501 3(c) nonprofit entity.  The website is: www.bordercommunityalliance.com

Continue reading ‘Free Speech and The Man From Guerrero’

Chuck, mi hermano

•September 14, 2014 • 10 Comments

Charles Bowden, my sweet, irascible, intense, tender, brilliant brother died unexpectedly on August 30, 2014, at 5 PM while taking a nap. He had not been feeling well for a few weeks, claiming he had a touch of the flu. His partner and co-author, Molly Molloy, found him in his bed not breathing. Chuck was living in Las Cruces, New Mexico, after spending most of his adult life in Tucson. He wrote books—lots of them—and his words are his legacy.

This is my song to Chuck.

CB_2012_big_tree (1)

                                             Chuck and a giant tree     (photo:  Molly Molloy)

The Bowden family moved to Arizona from Chicago in 1957. My Dad, a retired attorney, told the neighbors that he had discovered buckets of gold in the Arizona mountains: He was a private person and didn’t want his Chicago friends to know his reasons for uprooting the family. My mother told neighbors that the move was due to my childhood asthma. Truth be told, the asthma was improving before the move; the real reason was that Dad had a lifelong interest in the West, and actually pushed to move to Tombstone. Thankfully, my mother insisted on Tucson, and we found a house close to the University of Arizona. After a childhood in Chicago, climbing the mountains by day and seeing the Arizona sky at night was right out of a Zane Grey novel. I remember swimming in a motel pool our first Christmas in Tucson, and mailing photos back to the relatives in Iowa and Minnesota. (We were freezing in the pool but did it anyway.) There were three of us kids–George, Peggy, and Chuckie, the youngest. Now there are only two.

trio

                                          Peggy, George and Chuck, 1949

A lot has been written about Chuck in major newspapers throughout the country these past days. The Chuck our family knew was quick-witted, exasperating at times, a precocious reader, and passionate about what interested him. We were all good kids: We did the chores, respected our parents, and grabbed onto this new life in the Arizona desert. In our house there was never any back talk. Our parents’ word was law. We argued, yes, about politics, religion, and who could drive the car on a certain night.

Chuck and I went to elementary school in Chicago. In Tucson, Chuck attended Mansfeld Junior High, Tucson High, and the University of Arizona. He drove his teachers crazy. Rarely reading the assignments, he delved instead into the literature and history that interested him. Our father, an agnostic, was a scholar of the Bible and Shakespeare, and he tutored us in the elegant words and poetry of both. Dad would sit at the kitchen table with tears in his eyes as he read the soliloquies of Shakespeare to us. We tried our best to understand.

Chuck Bowden, Tucson High graduation, 1963

Chuck Bowden, Tucson High graduation, 1963

When we were children in Chicago (Chuck was 9, I was 11), we pooled our allowance and enrolled in a classical music mail-order program; we got two vinyl records each month for $10, or $5 apiece. This was a big commitment for us, and we both had to work around the house to earn the money. Chuck and I would lie on the floor by the speakers and turn up the stereo full bore, listening to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Pictures at an Exhibition and the symphonies of Beethoven, trying to comprehend what made them great. Later, Chuck’s love of all musical genres was often a focus of conversation between us. Who was the better poet/songwriter—Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen? (We agreed that Cohen nailed it.)

Chuck with our children, Sage and Cheyenne Weil, 1984

Chuck with my children, Sage and Cheyenne Weil, 1984

Chuck loved to cook, and Italian cuisine was a favorite. He taught me to prepare risotto, making sure I never put the cover on the pan. “Always stir the rice, adding the broth little by little. Trust the Italians. They know food.” Dinners with Chuck were always an event—a decent red wine, maybe something off the grill, and talk far into the night. When I was recovering from a serious illness, Chuck drove up to Oregon with his dog, Sam, and cooked for me. My freezer was full of osso bucco and special soups. He was working on an article about photographs, and we had long conversations about how images affect us in deep ways, sometimes forever.

Chuck, Peg and George in 1967

Chuck, Peg and George in 1967

Chuck became involved in the civil rights movement during the 1960s, and was a member of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was on fire about the people he met and sat in Fannie Lou Hamer’s living room in 1967 discussing voter registration and nonviolent protest. Hamer impressed upon Chuck the relationship of racism, sexism, violence and economic injustice, and how all of these factors intersect to keep poor people down. She called him a “white cracker boy,” and he was highly amused by her teasing. Chuck wrote me a letter at that time, pleading with me to join him, as there was a clinic that needed nurses and I was a recent graduate RN from the University of Arizona. I always regretted not jumping in my car and driving to Mississippi.

I believe that Chuck’s life-long interest in those who are trapped behind the walls of racism, poverty, and our fears about who is getting a piece of the pie began in the living room of Fannie Lou Hamer. He told me she was almost totally blind from being beaten by the police while registering people to vote, and yet she saw this country more clearly than any other person he knew.

My children, Cheyenne and Sage Weil, and Chuck explaining god knows what

My children, Cheyenne and Sage Weil, and Chuck explaining god knows what.  “You follow?”

For the record, Chuck hated NAFTA, the maquiladora program, and the wall that separates us from Mexico. He was unequivocal about this, firmly believing that NAFTA protects the property rights and coffers of corporations, while workers’ rights are ignored. The war on drugs is really the war FOR drugs, and he wrote about these things years before the public listened. I will quote him: “I am tired of people saying they demand a solution. They are lying. What they demand is that nothing change in their lives; that when the sky goes black from smokestacks, someone whip up a witches brew of nuclear magic; that when the rivers go dry, someone suck salt from sea water and ship the pure flow to their house.”

Chuck found solace in birds and spent many months in Patagonia, Arizona watching the swoops and dives of hummingbirds. He told me once, “There is a whole universe out there that is invisible to 99% of the people on earth. It is a layer of reality that people ignore. No one notices the birds.” He went on, “You look at a bird, identify it, and feel like you’re a better person.”

Chuck birding near the border fence

Chuck birding near the border fence  (photo:  Molly Molloy)

As an adult, Chuck was an avid bicyclist and hiker, at times embarking on death marches across the Arizona desert. He chronicled these experiences in several books, and the family worried about him when he would disappear for weeks. I think he figured that if he was going to write about mass migration of peoples coming north, he needed to feel what this desperation was. He told me he felt guilty when he finished a trek with a steak dinner and a cold beer in some roadside cafe, adding that he had seen people who probably wouldn’t make it out of the desert inferno.

Chuck has a son, Jesse, who is a lot like his Dad–curious about things he doesn’t understand, articulate, and reflective. We are all reeling in the aftermath of this sudden loss to our family. As Jesse told me, “Everyone thinks that Dad is this great iconic literary giant. To me, he was just my Dad.

Chuck and Molly (center) as desert angels at a fundraiser for Pastor Galvan

Chuck and Molly (center) as desert angels at a fundraiser for Pastor Galvan

My brother’s relationship with our family was strained for many years. He simply quit communicating. The last few years, however, Chuck and I had resumed email contact about his fascination with birds, about my own involvement in border issues, and always about his latest writing project. He and his companion, Molly, planned to speak at the annual Samaritan Border Issues Conference in January, and they were going to stay with my husband and me on our ranch. We were going to have a great dinner, probably risotto, and a special red wine. But mostly we were going to talk and talk far into the night.

He left me far too soon.

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This tribute appeared in the Green Valley News, Sept. 14, 2014.
Other tributes to Charles Bowden have appeared in the following links:

No Words

•August 22, 2014 • 10 Comments

For two months I have struggled with what to write on this blog. I kept waiting for the world to look better. I needed some light in what seemed like a perpetual storm of blackness.

It started with the Central American children coming by the thousands to the US border asking for shelter and refuge. So we built holding centers that looked like cages in order to house them while we figured out what to do. Many of these little ones are being deported back to their home country as I write this. We are scolding them for making a harrowing 2000 mile trip on a train known as “The Beast,” and then returning them to the hell they are fleeing.

Little helper at the comedor

Little helper at the comedor

Then there was an assault on a shelter for Central American migrants in Nogales, Sonora, by masked gunmen wearing police uniforms. At 11 PM in mid-summer, the migrants were awakened from their beds, their cell phones and money were stolen at gunpoint, and they were stripped of their clothes. They were forced to lie on the floor face down. Six children were terrorized by the police with guns raised to their faces. The assault is under investigation, and the Kino Border Initiative is pushing for answers.

Morning greetings at the comedor

Morning greetings

The drama in Ferguson, Missouri, continues today, with the police wielding weapons more suited for war than peace-keeping. An unarmed African American teenager was shot by a white police officer in a black community, and tensions are high. There is rioting and protest demonstrations on the streets of Ferguson. The photos look like we are back in 1967 again.

Gaza extremists and Israel continue to communicate with rockets and gunfire. Thousands are dead and wounded. Neither are ready to talk. Madness reigns.

The US journalist, James Foley, missing almost two years, was recently beheaded in Syria by the Islamic State (ISIS) adding to the carnage that is on every front page in the country.  Killing journalists who are printing the truth of what they see is not new.  This has been happening in Mexico for years.  A special prosecutor in Mexico admits to 67 journalist deaths since 2006.

Samaritan nurse Diane and a pilgrim

Samaritan nurse Diane and a pilgrim

And then there was the tragic suicide of Robin Williams, which has nothing to do with the political and humanitarian events of the planet.  But it just hit me in the gut.  I loved the guy, and marveled at his speed and irreverence and kindness and complexity.  He was a whirling dervish onstage, and left me breathless with laughter.

World events are definitely out of my control. I cannot read about it anymore. Maybe this is what burnout feels like—that feeling of being pummeled by hot ash from some volcano in my own backyard.

There is something to be said about walking every Tuesday to the comedor in Nogales and serving up the kitchen miracles of chef Lupita to a roomful of hungry migrants. The food is good, the smells are intoxicating, and the migrants are appreciative. The Samaritans are doing something concrete and useful.

Samaritan Julie, Lupita, and the Mexican lasagna

Samaritan Julie, Lupita, and the Mexican lasagna

Eat, drink, pray, and dance. Today there is dance, and a man from Hawaii with a bright red kerchief on his head does a fancy 2-step with Samaritan Shura. Padre Samuel strums his guitar and the room is alive with song and clapping. The man from Hawaii has lived on the islands for 16 years, was picked up for a minor violation, and deported. He will return to his home in Mexico for now and figure out what is next for him.

Living in the moment

Living in the moment

Many of the pilgrims this week are from Central America. They will either stay in Nogales or attempt to cross into the US to find their families. There are children and babies and mothers and fathers and teenagers looking for a better life than the one they have left in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. They are scared, hopeful and determined. The children need a bath. I want to brush their tangled hair. I want to take them home with me. They are adorable as they squeal and chase the resident cat around the tables and chairs. Everyone’s spirits are lifted when the toddlers are running about.

Sister Alicia, Father Samuel, and Sister Engracia sing for joy

Sister Alicia, Father Samuel, and Sister Engracia sing for joy

I’m also pleased to announce that my book is in the marketplace, at last. The book, A Land of Hard Edges, is available on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. It is the story of my experiences at el comedor over a one year period—my reflections on the power of love and family that drives people into the treacherous landscapes of southern Arizona.

A Land of Hard Edges

A Land of Hard Edges

So I’ll keep walking the mile to el comedor each Tuesday with my Samaritan colleagues. We will pass out the breakfast, tend to the blistered feet of the pilgrims, and listen to their stories.

Just keep moving

Just keep moving

I think the secret to a life of fulfillment is just putting one foot in front of the other. Just keep moving. No matter how crappy you feel.  Do something you believe in, and your life will matter.

Or as Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

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Locally in Arizona I will be doing some book readings and signings.  On Sept. 13, at 2 PM, I will be at the Tubac Presidio in Tubac, AZ.  On Nov. 14 I will be at Antigone’s Bookstore in Tucson at 7 PM.  On Nov. 16 I will be at Hozhoni’s Bookstore in Tubac, AZ. at 1 PM.

I’ll be on a book tour in the Pacific Northwest, stopping in Olympia and Tacoma, Washington, and finally Ashland, Oregon, my home for over two decades. So if you’re in the neighborhood, I’ll be at Pacific Lutheran University (1 PM)  and Immanuel Presbyterian Church (7 PM) in Tacoma on Sept. 16; then King’s Bookstore in Tacoma, Sept. 17. (7 PM)

Bloomsbury Bookstore in Ashland, Oregon, will host a signing and reading on Sept. 23 at 7 PM.

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Please direct comments and thoughts to the “Comments” section of this blog.  Peg Bowden can be reached at:  pegbowden1942@gmail.com

If you wish to receive regular postings (usually once/month) to this blog, register in the Announcement List space in the right-hand column, and you are automatically on the email blog list.

The Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans is a non-profit organization; the mission is to prevent deaths in the desert.  Information and contributions can be directed to:  www.gvsamaritans.org

Kino Border Initiative directs the activities of the comedor in Nogales, Mexico.  The mission is to help create a just, humane immigration policy between the United States and Mexico.  Their website is:  www.kinoborderinitiative.org

The Border Community Alliance is an exciting new organization in southern Arizona focusing on the economic, cultural and humanitarian needs of the Arizona borderlands.  Non-profit status is pending. Their website is: www.bordercommunityalliance.com

The Children

•June 19, 2014 • 17 Comments

I took a walk in the desert this morning and saw my first mal mujer, or wicked woman—a flower that blooms in the hottest days of summer shortly before the welcoming monsoon rains. It is a curious flower, with lush green leaves and a beautiful pristine white flower. If you touch the leaves your fingers are full of nettles which can sting for hours. Mal mujer is a fitting metaphor for the events of the past weeks.

Mal mujer, a flower of the desert

Mal mujer, a flower of the desert

There is a stinging pain which touches the hearts of the people of the borderlands as they watch the drama of thousands of children fleeing for their lives from Central America. The children are young, innocent and pure.  Just like the white flower of the mal mujer flower.  An unprecedented surge of unaccompanied minors are crossing into the US;  most are from Central America.  An old storage facility in Nogales, Arizona is presently the temporary home for over 1000 children.

And we tell ourselves, well, it is better that they are sheltered and safe in a warehouse. Perhaps.

And we convince ourselves that better days are coming for these children. Perhaps.

They will be reunited with their parents.  They will be safe in loving arms. Perhaps.

Father and son

Father and son

The Samaritans volunteer weekly at the aid station in Nogales, Sonora, known as el comedor. We have a good sense of the numbers and population patterns that pass through this shelter. Since the federal agencies (Health and Human Services, FEMA, and Homeland Security) do not want local community humanitarian groups to be directly involved in the care of the children, I cannot give a first-hand account about what these kids are experiencing.  It has been both perplexing and confounding to be shut out of the warehouse which holds the children.

Yesterday, June 18, a group of journalists were allowed access to the compound at the Border Patrol station for the first time. Their reports were sobering. This is not summer camp for these youngsters. This is a tragedy. The place looks like a prison—another detention center—and the prisoners are over 1000 children. Their physical needs are being taken care of;  their emotional, spiritual and recreational needs are not. I am told the children look tired, sad, and depressed. Many are in tears.

Two young men from Honduras

Two young men from Honduras at el comedor

I’ve been naïve and trusting before about too many things: the Iraq war, the surge in Afghanistan, Wall Street bailouts, even Lance Armstrong. So forgive me if my gut tells me that there are too many secrets within the walls of the warehouse in Nogales. My mind wants to believe that DHS, FEMA and HHS are handling things just fine; but my gut is telling me to be wary. I get emotional about all of those children.

A more objective historic account of the migration of Central Americans to el norte is accurately reported by a friend and colleague, Joanna Foote. Her factual explanations are worth reading. Check out: http://fromlafrontera.wordpress.com/2014/06/15/beyond-the-sound-bites-unaccompanied-minors-on-the-usmexico-border/

I also highly recommend Juanita Molina’s account of her visit to the warehouse on June 18. See:  http://borderaction.org/border-action-networks-tour-of-the-nogales-national-placement-center/

My account is probably less nuanced and more emotional. It’s personal.

a father looking for his son

a father looking for his son

In southern Arizona there are local humanitarian aid groups that have been working effectively with issues of immigration for years. They have trained personnel that are trusted members of the community. Their track record is exemplary, and far superior to the Department of Homeland Security, the Border Patrol, and FEMA in terms of violence toward migrants and responsiveness to humanitarian crises.  Reports of abuse toward women and children from Border Patrol agents and ICE have been well documented in the past.  I have personally seen and experienced rude, impersonal and sometimes shocking behavior from both ICE and Border Patrol agents over the past several years. So why has the government placed these agencies in charge of 1000 vulnerable children in a warehouse in Nogales?

I understand the need for security and protection toward displaced children. However the secretiveness and black-out of information of these federal agencies breed suspicion and rumors when you are on the outside. There is no collaboration or networking with the locals who have lived for years with immigration issues involving children.

 

Picking out some clothes at el comedor

Picking out some clothes at el comedor with Samaritan Ray

Father Sean Carroll, the Executive Director of Kino Border Initiative, was allowed into the Border Patrol compound last week. He saw many of the children, but was not allowed the opportunity to speak with them and assess their situation in any depth. Physically they look pretty good, he reports, and have their basic needs met. They are receiving three meals a day and snacks in between. There is a playground and tent area set up for recreation, (45 minutes of playtime each day) and the children have television access and telephones if they know how to reach family members.

The federal agencies have responded quickly to the situation. I applaud them for their efforts. I know there are some real heroes working with these kids. And most likely there are some agents who have no business being around children. The children will be processed through the Nogales warehouse facility, and then moved to another location. Where they go next is unknown to the public.

I don’t know what “processed” means. Will the children be reunited with family members here in the US? Or will they be deported back to their home country from which they fled? Will they be left at a bus station in some city and left to fend for themselves, as I have read in numerous media accounts?  If no one can find a close relative, will they be held indefinitely?

Children drawing at el comedor

Children drawing at el comedor

Here is what I do know:

The numbers of men, women and children fleeing Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador) have been increasing at the comedor.  This is nothing new.

Children as young as twelve years old are often seen getting ready to cross into the desert without an adult or parent. They tell us that they are fleeing for their lives. They speak of gangs, poverty and violence. Sometimes they are fiercely resolute and brave; often they are crying quietly off in a corner. A young man from El Salvador told me that he had seen friends killed by gangs in his home village.

Many are planning to cross into the US in order to reunite with a parent or family member. They have a plan. They are not wandering aimlessly. They have a destination. Children want to see their mothers, their fathers. Their sense of miles and direction are hopeless. They tell me that they have no choice.

Supplies for the journey

Supplies for the journey

Juanita Molina, of the Border Action Network, was allowed access into the compound in Nogales yesterday, June 18. She writes of a little girl from Guatemala, age 7, who was crying, standing apart from the other children. She told Juanita, “I am lost and no one knows I am here. My mother will never find me.” The child was inconsolable. Juanita told this child that she will not forget her and will do everything she can to help find her mother.  I cannot get the words of this child out of my mind.

The children are traumatized and many have traveled via the infamous train, la bestia (the beast), which runs through Mexico to the US border. Many have been robbed, beaten and raped. They sit quietly at the comedor, eat their breakfast, and stare into space. A young man from Honduras, age 15, told me that he had been traveling for one month in order to reach the US border. He wants to reach Los Angeles where his family lives.

Several weeks ago, one child at the comedor, maybe age 12, drew a picture of his capture in the desert by the Border Patrol. His crayon drawing showed a bush where his uncle was hiding; it showed helicopters and cactus and mountains. In the middle of the drawing the child drew himself with a “soldier who put his boot on my head.” The child was pinned to the ground by a Border Patrol agent who held him in place with his boot, digging his face into the dirt.

Baby at el comedor

Baby at el comedor

One 14 year old from Honduras had not seen his mother in six years. He was on his way to Kansas, traveling alone through Mexico to reach the US border. He was strong, resolved, and determined when I spoke with him. Samaritans warned him of the desert in summer and the miles he must walk to reach the nearest town. He shrugged and gave a shy smile. Connecting with several other young men, he planned to continue his journey with them. He just might make it. Many do.

The news media give conflicting reports about the increased numbers of children crossing. Some news articles suggest there is a conspiracy. The US policy makers are somehow encouraging the children to come in order to create chaos and disruption at the border. (http://news.investors.com/ibd-editorials/061314-704725-texas-border-immigration-wave-may-well-be-orchestrated.htm)

a child's story

A child’s story

The media and talk show pundits are taking a humanitarian disaster and using it for political advantage. There are the anti-Obama rants claiming that a lax immigration policy is the reason for this tragedy. (even though Obama has deported more undocumented migrants than any President in the past.) This whole scenario disgusts me.

The migrants I have seen the past few weeks have no idea that there is a surge of children crossing the border into the US through south Texas. The notion that these children are aware of US policies regarding the possibility of leniency and asylum if they are caught by the authorities is ludicrous. When I mention the large numbers of children in a Nogales warehouse, the migrants at the comedor do not know what I am talking about.

And yet it is plausible that migrants talk to each other and compare notes. Who did you cross with? How much did it cost? Where is the easiest place to get over the wall? If you’re caught, what happens?

People ask me why I continue going down to Mexico each week to serve breakfast to the migrants at el comedor. I think it comes down to this. We have eye contact and often share a hug. We look at each other. We physically and emotionally touch each other. We shake hands and share a laugh. We don’t look away when we talk about life experiences. I feel connected with these people at this crossroads to their journey. For once I am waiting on them, serving food, and looking at their wounds, instead of them waiting on me.

Peg and a chef from Bakersfield

Peg and a chef from Bakersfield

Latinos in the US often live in the shadows and are invisible in this country. They care for our children, pull the weeds in our gardens, clean our houses, scrub out the toilets in our hotel rooms, and stand on the fringes of our fancy fund-raising events making sure we are happy and comfortable. They do this quietly and graciously.

And we never have eye contact. They are on the outside, on the fringes. They have learned to be invisible.

I need a connection with people before I can truly be of any assistance. We all do. And this is why it is so frustrating to be kept on the outside of this human tragedy at the Nogales warehouse.

A traveling pilgrim receives first aid from Samaritan Diane and KBI volunteer, Leslie.

A traveling pilgrim receives first aid from Samaritan Diane and KBI volunteer, Leslie.

 

Americans like to help. I receive calls and emails about where to send boxes of clothes for the children. Where is the best place to send a check?

I suggest sending cash donations to the following humanitarian organizations. The money will go directly to the issues facing migrants both in the US and at the aid station in Mexico where I volunteer. Send checks to:

Kino Border Initiative, P.O. Box 159, Nogales, Arizona, 85628

Green Valley Samaritans. Make check out to: Good Shepherd United Church of Christ, 17750 S. La Canada, Sahuarita, AZ. 85629. In the memo, put “GV Samaritans.”

The plight of the children trying to cross into the US is not going away soon. The media will tire of it and move on to the next world crisis. The question is whether we can mobilize as a country and commit to a profound change in US immigration policy, respecting the dignity and humanity of children fleeing for their lives.

 

Please direct your comments to the “Comments” section of this blog.

Peg can be reached at:  pegbowden1942@gmail.com

The photos of children in this posting are several years old and were taken at el comedor in Nogales, Sonora.  They are not photos of children presently held in the warehouse in Nogales, Arizona.

The Folks Across the Fence

•May 8, 2014 • 7 Comments

I’ve had a fantasy about living in a small Mexican town and immersing myself in the daily rhythms and rituals. Would I feel safe? Would I have fun? Would I hide out in my rented apartment? Or would I venture out into the plaza and get to know the people? Would I make friends? Would I finally master something beyond the present tense verbs of the Spanish language?

Dawn in San Carlos

Dawn in San Carlos

I love Mexico, and want to feel safe as a woman traveling beyond the border. I want to check out those incredible beaches along the Sea of Cortez; I want to sit in a cantina overlooking a plaza and listen to soft guitars strumming the old love ballads, sipping a tequila.

But, it’s complicated. As a country, we are caught in a warm, but menacing embrace with our neighbors to the south. We love the food of Mexico. Oh my god, do we love the smells of real Mexican cuisine with a chaser of ice cold Mexican beer. We love the drugs, and spend billions smuggling them into our country. Then we spend billions on a wall and on law enforcement keeping them out. We are crazed with the militarization and polemic of keeping our borders secure. And yet dope is cheaper and easier to obtain in US cities than twenty years ago (or so I’m told). The collateral damage of the war on drugs has done more harm than the drugs themselves. 80,000 are dead in Mexico as a direct result of the drug wars.  I see the collateral damage weekly at el comedor when I talk with migrants heading north, or recovering from a stint in the Florence Detention Center.

Our films and music have a strong Latino flavor. Our homes are decorated with images of the Virgen de Guadalupe and colorful rebozos and serapes. We spend a fortune on remodeling our bathrooms and kitchens with Mexican tiles and marble. We are so connected with Mexico, and so hypocritical in our actions.

Looking inward

Looking inward

My family and friends employ Latinos to care for their children, clean their houses, tend their gardens, and wash their dishes. I have personally hired housekeepers to help with the clean up of our ranch house. Always they were hard-working Mexican women. I have a friend in the restaurant industry in New York City. He tells me that the industry would collapse overnight if the Mexican workers were to walk out. Especially the undocumented. He cannot afford to hire workers with a Green Card, and is only able to keep his three restaurants alive by hiring the undocumented, paying them slightly above the minimum wage. Often he has sponsored them on the long and arduous path toward citizenship.

The same goes for the hospital industry. Latinos care for our sick and elderly, and we are lucky to have them at our bedside. They pray for us and care for us as if we were their own family.

If I have a flat tire at the side of the road, it is invariably a Mexican family in a dented pickup truck that stops, offers to change my tires, and shares some warm tortillas and water with me.

Kitty and the wall in Mexico

Kitty and a wall in Mexico

So why don’t we embrace this exotic, fascinating, nuanced, multifaceted Mexico?  Why are we hell-bent on kicking out the “illegals?”

I plunged into a journey into Mexico during the month of April with a woman friend, Trudy, from Buffalo, New York. Oh my, how she wanted to get out of the cold and sleet of Buffalo. I wanted to dig deeper into Mexican culture and get away from the border. We drove down to Alamos, Sonora, Mexico, an old silver mining pueblo about nine hours from the Arizona border city of Nogales. As a teenager I had visited Alamos with a church group from Tucson. I never forgot the charm of this city, and decided to return. My Buffalo friend was up for the adventure, not quite sure what she was getting into. But she was sure the temperatures would be warmer than Buffalo.

Church of La Purisma de la Concepcion, Alamos

Church of La Purisma de Concepcion,  Alamos

We drove to San Carlos, the first leg of the journey, and stayed in the home of a friend who has a lovely getaway residence on the Sea of Cortez. San Carlos is an easy 4 1/2 hour drive from the Nogales border. The highways are well maintained and the scenery is quite beautiful. The beaches and coastline of Mexico rival anywhere in the world. The water was blue, the dolphins were jumping, and our time in San Carlos was idyllic and peaceful.

Then we headed off to Alamos and our rental house that I found online. On the way we passed up the immigration car registration office (poor signage) outside of the small town of Empalme and had to stop, ask where the office was, and were graciously redirected to the correct office, doubling back 20 miles. We needed a sticker for the car because we would be in Sonora for a month. Occasionally we misread road signs and got lost, but again, were kindly pointed in the right direction. We were two female septuagenarians wending our way through cities and countryside in a foreign land, and we never felt afraid. Confused, yes. Exasperated at times, yes. But never afraid.

Mountain top view of Alamos

Mountain top view of Alamos

Arriving in Alamos we were delighted and amazed with our accommodations. Our house was built in 1720 and was lovingly restored, with adobe walls that were two feet thick. The interior was twenty degrees cooler than the outside temperatures, which some days topped 100 degrees. There was a substantial library, comfortable beds, a colorful, well-stocked kitchen, and wooden shutters on the windows that blocked out the heat of the day. All rooms (and there were a lot of them) led to the central courtyard where we were dazzled with a lush garden and bubbling fountain. We took our afternoon siestas in the courtyard and ate our meals at the patio table.  We invited friends from Arizona to join us, Samaritan Jaime and his wife, Barb.

Peg, Jaime and Barb enjoying the Alamos courtyard

Peg, Jaime and Barb enjoying the Alamos courtyard

Our new home was one block from the central plaza, the social center of Alamos. A beautiful stone church graced the plaza gardens, and bells pealed each day for morning and evening mass. Easter was a four day religious festival, with processions, flowers, music, and vendors on the plaza. Thousands came from out of town for this celebration. Good Friday brought parades of silence and solemnity, and an enactment of the crucifixion on the plaza (in front of a sushi restaurant and cantina). Fake blood, Roman soldiers, and a young man portraying Christ nailed (make-believe nails) to the cross completed the scene. The silence and respect among the spectators was impressive. Merry making and loud music were juxtaposed with absolute silence when the passion of Christ was portrayed.

Good Friday in Alamos

Good Friday in Alamos

In fact, during our four weeks in Alamos, we never witnessed loud, drunken, obnoxious behavior. The cantinas and bars were places for families, with children and dogs running about. Music was everywhere. Men were out on the street in the early morning hours sweeping, and picking up trash and dog poop. The streets were immaculate in spite of the large throngs of people during semana santa.(Holy Week)  The middle class is strong and thriving in Alamos.

One night we were strolling home from the plaza. An old man with his walking stick slowly approached us on a narrow side street. His cowboy hat, jeans and sandals were silhouetted in the moonlight. He was hunched over his walking stick, moving with a slight limp. Singing in full voice an old Mexican ballad, he passed us by, never missing a beat as he meandered home, savoring the softness of the night. It was like a sweet dream of Mexico. And it was real.

Alamos arches

Alamos arches

On another walk through town we saw a woman sitting on the curb with her husband beside a ancient, beat-up truck. It was late in the evening, and their CD player was cranked up high echoing through the narrow street. Luciano Pavarotti was singing a classic aria from the opera, La Boheme. Tears were streaming down the woman’s face. She was a Mayo Indian, an indigenous person of this region, and was an excellent potter. I stopped to listen to the music, and she looked at me and exclaimed, “Isn’t this the most beautiful music you have ever heard?” She wiped her eyes self-consciously, and invited us to join her in listening to opera.

Mayo woman who loves opera and creating pottery

Mayo woman, a potter who loves opera

Alamos is known for its expatriate population, and many Americans have settled here restoring some of the old colonial architecture. We rarely saw them. My friend and I were the only gringas at the mercado shopping for our food, and Americans were conspicuously absent on the plaza and the surrounding streets. After a week everyone knew where we lived, where we shopped, and noticed that we loved to frequent a certain restaurant for an afternoon cafe latte and pastry. Our white hair was a flag that stuck out like a sore thumb. We discovered a special shop that sold only pork, raised and cured by the proprietor. I gestured with my fingers how thick I would like the bacon, and the butcher sliced the pork, always throwing in an extra slice or two. We feasted on the best bacon I have ever eaten. No chemicals or preservatives. The real deal.  And I don’t particularly like bacon, but this was a whole new genre.

The longer we stayed in Alamos, the more we peeled back the layers of this magical city. The town is self-sustaining. Few people leave or migrate north. There is poverty in Alamos, to be sure, but it is not readily visible. I noticed that several nonprofits gathered and prepared Easter baskets for the poor, with cans of food, diapers, toilet paper, and other essentials. I saw no one begging in the streets. The children played endlessly in the plaza with parents watching and snapping pictures with cell phones. The kids played circle games and stick ball. There were no video games or fancy battery toys. They played until they dropped, reminding me of my own childhood when I played outside with friends well after dark.

An Easter breakfast

An Easter breakfast

I attended a spring talent show for elementary school children, with a line-up of judges much like the TV show, American Idol. The children danced, sang songs of spring and true love, and the auditorium was packed with proud parents. Toddlers crawled beneath the folding chairs; dogs wandered in and out; mothers sold cups of papaya, pineapple and jicama with lime and chile powder sprinkled on top for the hungry audience.

The children of Alamos

The children of Alamos

I wanted to study Spanish during my Alamos visit. Dropping in at the local Tourist Office, I asked the receptionist about local Spanish teachers. She said, “If you like, you can just drop in here for an hour or two every day, and I’ll talk with you in Spanish and be your teacher.” So I did. Danitza was an excellent teacher; she assigned homework, pushed me into conversations using past tense verbs, and took me to community events where there were lots of people ready to converse. I met her six year old son, Ricardo, and learned of the school system and quality of education. I still struggle with future and past tense verbs, and those reflexive verbs still stop me cold. But by the end of the month my Spanish improved dramatically.

Easter eve in Alamos

Easter eve in Alamos

On our last night in Alamos, we discovered a restaurant, Doña Lola’s, that rivaled all the food we enjoyed during our month long stay. Finding this place was a challenge. It was at the end of a small narrow alley, and it was dark. With no street lights, we followed the sounds of music, mincing along on the cobblestone street. Sitting on a streetside curb, a group of men and women were singing in the moonlight, strumming a couple of guitars.  Children were playing stick ball although no one could see the ball. A couple of dogs were nosing around looking for scraps. The restaurant had one small sign barely visible to us, as there was only a dim light bulb announcing this establishment. We saw ladies chopping vegetables in a small kitchen area, and figured this must be the place.

We climbed up a steep cobblestone staircase and entered a faintly lit room with long tables covered in brightly colored oilcloth. The place was empty, as 7 PM is early for a Mexican supper. Ushered to a table, we were treated to fresh tortilla chips and the best salsa we had anywhere. And then came the most outstanding Mexican food of our Alamos visit—perfect fluffy chile rellenos, enchiladas, herbed rice, pinto beans, and a chicken soup. The ladies bustled around us in flowered aprons as we inhaled their offerings. Some meals you don’t forget. This was one of them. The ladies packed us a special bag of chips and salsa for our trip home. I think both meals plus chips and salsa came to $12 total, mas o menos.

Peg, Trudy, Jaime and Barb in the plaza

Peg, Trudy, Jaime and Barb in the plaza

Once again I settled back, sipped my drink, and marveled at what a wonderful country Mexico is. The soft music, the kids playing stick ball way after dark, and the Alamos hounds quietly prowling the streets minding their own business—all of it evoked a simple, deeply restful way to live a life.

I wanted to take a piece of this special night and plant it back in southern Arizona. I wanted to stay in Alamos and write a great novel (in Spanish–yeah, right), and paint some watercolors worthy of this beautiful place. I wanted to take the parts of Mexico that I love and somehow integrate them into my life in Arizona.

I am a dreamer. And I can hope.

Porches of Mexico

Porches of Mexico

Rental homes in Alamos are furnished, inexpensive, and often come with a housekeeper(!).  I found our home by Googling “Alamos Mexico rentals.” An excellent resource is:  suzie@alamosmexico.com

Thank you Bill and Jeannie for the respite in your beautiful San Carlos home.

Please direct comments and thoughts to the “Comments” section of this blog.  Peg Bowden can be reached at:  pegbowden1942@gmail.com

If you wish to receive regular postings (usually once/month) to this blog, register in the Announcement List space in the right-hand column, and you are automatically on the email blog list.

The Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans is a non-profit organization; the mission is to prevent deaths in the desert.  Information and contributions can be directed to:  www.gvsamaritans.org

Kino Border Initiative directs the activities of the comedor in Nogales, Mexico.  The mission is to help create a just, humane immigration policy between the United States and Mexico.  Their website is:  www.kinoborderinitiative.org

The Border Community Alliance is an exciting new organization in southern Arizona focusing on the economic, cultural and humanitarian needs of the Arizona borderlands.  Non-profit status is pending. Their website is: www.bordercommunityalliance.com

Dining With the Enemy

•March 22, 2014 • 12 Comments

How we say things makes a difference.

In my conversations about the issues that matter to me, I tend to gravitate toward people who share my views. I massage their egos and mindset, and they massage mine. We smile, nod our heads in agreement, and offer variations on the same theme.

Marylyn, Max and Jaime organizing supplies at the comedor

Marylyn, Max and Jaime organizing supplies at the comedor

Seven months ago I received a call from Montreal, Canada. A TV series focusing on contentious borders throughout the world was being developed, and the Arizona/Mexico borderlands was of interest to the Canadians. The premise was intriguing and creative: Interview people who hold strong views about Latino immigration on all sides of the spectrum—those favoring comprehensive immigration reform, and those preferring closed borders and increased deportations. Then sit them down to a gourmet dinner prepared by a French-Canadian chef, and have a dialogue about these issues. The series will be called: “Dining With the Enemy.” The Canadian crew wanted to learn about Arizona and its evolving relationship with Mexico.

Canadian crew interviewing a migrant at the comedor

Canadian crew interviewing a migrant at the comedor

The Canadians planned to film borders in Gaza, Colombia, Chiapas, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Korea and Pakistan. They were young, adventurous, focused, and professional. And, I might add, they were fearless. We met at a local cantina the day after their arrival, and we mutually checked each other out. They spoke French, English, and a smattering of Spanish, often in the same sentence. I couldn’t understand half of what they said. I liked them immediately, as they were open to the varied politics and viewpoints of the people of the borderlands. They were fiercely passionate about their French-Canadian roots in Montreal.

Walking the streets of Nogales with the Canadian crew and Marla, Kino Border Initiative staff

Walking the streets of Nogales with the Canadian crew and Marla, Kino Border Initiative staff

Plus, they were interested in regional cuisine. I am a foodie, a person who enjoys and cares about food. Listening to the culinary dreams and plans of Charles, the chef, I was immediately hooked into the idea of sitting down to a delicious meal and having a civilized conversation. Charles rhapsodized about the organic farm where our dinner would take place at the end of the week. The organic meat, the lush greens and vegetables, cooking and presenting good food as a way of breaking down political barriers–it was an intriguing idea.

I told them that I was in. I couldn’t wait for the dinner.

Frederick and Charles share a space with a Nogales dog

Frederick and Charles share a space with a Nogales dog

Martin, the director and shepherd who herded this motley crew, did his best to keep everyone together. Their van was full of cameras, lenses and various batteries and microphones. The travails of getting them back and forth through Homeland Security would take up another blog posting. There were issues, but we all persevered.

We met for several days doing walkabouts in Nogales, Sonora, and setting up interviews with key people. Included was the mother of José Antonio Elena Rodriguez, the 16 year old Mexican boy who was shot in the back seven times by a Border Patrol agent in 2012. The case has never been resolved. The crew attended the monthly vigil at the killing site on March 10, and interviewed many of the participants. They also set up interviews with a minuteman vigilante, a retired Border Patrol agent, a local farmer who sees a lot of migrant traffic through his property, and a DREAMer who is from North Carolina and has applied for DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. We spent a morning at the comedor where the crew filmed migrants and aid workers, and also walked to the cemetery where many of the migrants sleep. Hours of film were shot over five days.

Vigil in Mexico for Jose Antonio, March 10, 2013

Vigil in Mexico for Jose Antonio, March 10, 2014

On the last night of the TV shoot, Charles, the French chef, hovered over the grill at the Walking J Farm located near Amado, Arizona. He was grilling herb encrusted pork chops that were an inch thick, procured from the black hogs I saw grazing in a nearby grassy field. I could smell the sizzling meat one hundred yards away. Roasted baby turnips and carrots, a “flower salad” made of flowering broccoli plants, and oven-cooked kale with hard-boiled eggs completed the elegant dinner. Dessert was a special cake with whipped cream from the farm’s dairy cows. The dinner was topped off with a very good wine, a chardonnay from the Pacific Northwest.

Roasted goodness from the garden

Roasted goodness from the garden

Before dinner, we walked around the farm and looked at the spring lettuces, smelled the thousands of green onions poking through the loamy soil, and admired the resident peacock strutting his stuff with plumage on full display. The weather was a perfect 75 degrees with a slight breeze; the sunset was spectacular. All of the food was grown on the Walking J Farm, a diverse, self-sustaining farm that feeds local families and communities in the area.

The bounty at the Walking J Farm

The bounty at the Walking J Farm

The guests included a retired Border Patrol agent, the owner of the Walking J Farm, a DREAMer, and myself. The minuteman vigilante refused to participate in the dinner and was not present at the table. I confess I was secretly relieved at this news. In fact, stepping into this dinner, I felt like I was stepping into Afghanistan. It was a minefield of the unexpected.

Dave, a retired Border Patrol officer, enjoys dessert

Dave, a retired Border Patrol officer, enjoys dessert

Frédérick, the moderator of the series, sat at one end of the table, and Charles sat at the opposite end. None of the invited guests had ever met before the dinner, and so there was a fair amount of nerves and anxiety prior to this savory experiment in diplomacy and dialogue. We chatted it up prior to the supper, and I discovered that one of the guests, Dave, is an active leader in the Tea Party. Cinthia, the DREAMer, entered the US nine years ago through a tunnel with her family. She lives in North Carolina. Jim, the Walking J Farm owner, frequently encounters migrants crossing through his land.

Jim, owner of the Walking J, gives me a tour of his organic farm

Jim, owner of the Walking J, gives me a tour of his organic farm

By the time we sat down on hay bales at the log table under some shady trees, we were hungry and already engaged in an animated conversation about living in the borderlands. Here are some of my reflections on my dinner with the enemy.

It was intense. We all definitely had our agendas. Listening to opposing views without interruptions is very difficult. We were all debating, giving voice to our own ideas. Some members talked more than others. Frédérick, our moderator, did his best to rein in the verbosity, asking some good questions.

Cinthia at the dinner table

Cinthia at the dinner table

“What about comprehensive immigration reform? Can you agree that the US needs this?”

“What about decriminalizing illegal drugs?”

“If you had the power, would you deport Cinthia, who is sitting at this table?”

“Would you be willing to pay more for foods and other products from Mexico and equalize the economic disparity between the two countries?”

We tried to find some common ground that we could agree on.

Feasting with the enemy

Feasting with the enemy

Alas, we could not unanimously reach an agreement on any of these questions. I was discouraged and frustrated with my dinner mates. I very much wanted to have a dialogue that would reduce stereotypes and increase mutual understanding. But the longer the dinner continued, the more entrenched and intense the conversation became.

And yet I learned something. Even though I had spent several hours with three strangers, with some of whom I was intractably opposed, I changed the way I viewed them and related to them. We each maintained our commitments that underlie our views. We didn’t waver much. But we respected each other as the dinner came to a close.  I saw the goodness in each of my dinner mates.  Maybe that is a first step.

Chef Charles firing up the grill

Chef Charles firing up the grill

I was hoping that we might come up with some collaborative actions that would really lead to some sort of breakthrough.

That didn’t happen.

We did discover a few shared values: All human beings need to be treated with respect and dignity; there are too many deaths in the desert; we need to dialogue (not argue) with people who do not agree with us.

Resident peacock in full display

Resident peacock in full display

So I ended up liking my dinner mates, and would probably sit down with them again. Dave, the Tea Party activist/retired Border Patrol agent, gave me a hug at the end of the evening. Jim, the organic farmer, told me he keeps a stash of granola bars and bottled water for passing migrants. I plan to buy some of the Walking J’s farm produce at local outdoor markets in the area. Cinthia and I will probably cross paths at future events for DREAM activists.

I learned that life in a democracy suffers when we only listen to people who share our views. We become selectively informed, and thus, selectively ignorant, becoming increasingly blind to our own ignorance. We need to listen to opposing ideas and try to find a place of connection. We need to quit trashing the other side and stop competing. We need to dialogue rather than debate.

Eddie, a Jesuit novice priest, treats a wounded migrant

Eddie, a Jesuit novice priest, treats a wounded migrant

We need to shut up and listen. All of us. We need to try harder.

“Dining With the Enemy” will be aired sometime this autumn. I will post the link when the series is released in Canada.

**********************************************************************************************************************************

I want to thank the Canadians, Martin, Charles, Frederick, Van, and also Oscar, a Tucsonan, for a marvelous week of adventure and conversation.

The Walking J Farm is an oasis of organic abundance, located in Amado, Arizona.  Their website is: www.walkingjfarm.com

Please direct your comments and thoughts to Peg Bowden in the “Comments” section of the blog.  I can also be reached at pegbowden1942@gmail.com

If you wish to receive regular postings (usually once/month) to this blog, register in the Announcement List space in the right-hand column, and you are automatically on the email blog list.

The Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans is a non-profit organization whose mission is to prevent deaths in the desert.  Information and contributions can be directed to:  www.gvsamaritans.org

Kino Border Initiative directs the activities of the comedor in Nogales, Mexico.  The mission is to help create a just, humane immigration policy between the United States and Mexico.  Their website is:  www.kinoborderinitiative.org

The Border Community Alliance is an exciting new organization in southern Arizona focusing on the economic, cultural and humanitarian needs of the Arizona borderlands.  Non-profit status is pending. Their website is: www.bordercommunityalliance.com

Horns Across the Border

•January 28, 2014 • 9 Comments

Every once in awhile, things happen that were just meant to be. In spite of the obstacles, the light shines through. Miracles abound. Such was the miracle of music-making in Nogales, Sonora on January 23, 2014.

For the past three years I have walked across the border each week to Mexico, heading to the aid station called el comedor, the place of refuge for migrants traveling both south and north. Dodging machines that kick up the dust of the desert, and watching contractors build the infrastructure for a more secure port of entry at the border, I’ve pondered the humanitarian cost of this billion dollar project—this fortress in the desert. Last week I saw fractured limbs and deep gashes from missteps climbing over the wall and stumbles in the desert. A few weeks ago I held an eight day old infant, his mother stunned and immobilized, as she picked over the clothes and shoes the Samaritans carried to the comedor.

Peg and baby Santiago

Peg and baby Santiago

Hidden beneath our lofty ideals of security and sovereignty lies a grim truth: We’ve designed walls that hurt people. It is a serious trade-off. We attempt to control the movement of people across sensitive geography thereby inflicting suffering upon the bodies of the most vulnerable. Tons of tomatoes and chilis pass through the new port of entry on huge trucks, bringing Americans affordable food. The people, however, the ones who pick the fruit and harvest the crops, are cast aside and forgotten. They sit inside the comedor, dreaming of ways to breach the wall, trying to figure out how to earn enough money to survive today and tomorrow.

Feeding the hungry at the comedor

Feeding the hungry at the comedor     (photo: John Toso)

There has to be a better way to resolve this problem of borders and the violence we inflict on each other. People ought to be able to move from one area to another and retain their dignity as human beings.

Last summer, as my hopes for national comprehensive immigration reform and legislative action dried up like the parched earth of the desert floor, the germ of an idea began to develop.

I have another life, a life of making music. I thought about creating music with our Mexican neighbors to the south.

View of Nogales, Sonora

View of Nogales, Sonora    (photo: Marty Ethington)

 

I pound the timpani in an excellent concert band in Green Valley, Arizona. Playing in orchestras and bands has been a lifelong avocation for me, keeping me sane when my work life as a nurse seemed overwhelming. Together with Tim Welch, Green Valley Concert Band President, we hatched a plan about performing a concert in Nogales, Mexico. We would call it “Horns Across the Border.”

The goal was to collaborate in a performance with the Nogales Municipal Band, but I learned that the band no longer met regularly, and so had disbanded. The question was, how do I get in contact with Mexican musicians so we can make music together? How can we rehearse together? Can they come to Green Valley? Should we travel to Mexico? Can the Mexican musicians cross the border? Is there any interest in Nogales?

Miriam, Lance and Sandy getting ready for a Nogales concert

Miriam, Lance and Sandy getting ready for a Nogales concert

Logistics were an issue. Should we stage a concert at the wall, with the Mexican musicians on one side, and our Green Valley Band on the other? We’ve built a wall that physically and psychologically hurts people. The wall acts upon the soul; it acts upon the flesh as well. People get hurt. It is not a warm and fuzzy welcome mat.

Can music transcend some of the divisiveness and fear that the wall represents?

Pat Trulock and Susannah Castro pass out pamphlets for the Border Community Alliance

Pat Trulock and Susannah Castro pass out pamphlets for the Border Community Alliance

With the help of Bob Phillips, CEO of the Border Community Alliance, and Alma Cota de Yanez, of the Fundación del Empresario Sonorense, A.C., I contacted the U.S. Consulate in Nogales, Sonora, and was delighted to learn that they were interested in this idea of a bi-national concert with our band. Christina Almeida, Diplomacy Officer with the United States Consulate, immediately set up a date, October 17, 2013, and we began making plans.

I quickly called John Snavely, our conductor, and Tim Welch, Band President, and they enthusiastically said, “Yes, let’s do this!” The Teatro Auditorio de Nogales was reserved on the appointed date. We rehearsed in mid-September; band members quickly applied for passports. We rented a bus and van. Arrangements were made for a light supper for band members before the concert. We would reach out to the musicians in Mexico and invite them to our concert.

A flash mob band performance in the Safeway grocery store

A flash mob band performance in the Safeway grocery store

And then, the U.S. government shut down. On October 16, 2013. It was the sequester, and our concert debut was canceled. We were stopped in our tracks. Boom. End of story.

I was furious. Furious with the Republicans, the Democrats, the Tea Party, Obama, all of them. Profoundly discouraged, we licked our wounds for a few weeks, grumbling about the dysfunction of our government.

We lived through the closure of Federal offices and facilities. I wondered how Congress could allow this to happen.

Picking ourselves up, we scheduled another date, January 23, 2014. I crossed my fingers that the government could keep on task and act like grown-ups.

And then the light shined upon our band of merry music-makers.

Debbie Gurocak performs "Carnival of Venice" on her golden flute

Debbie Gurocak performs “Carnival of Venice” on her golden flute

Rescheduling a performance on January 23, 2014, we planned the band’s first international tour. In fact the seventy-four band members and guests that traveled to Nogales, Sonora was the largest group that the U.S. Consulate has sponsored, ever. As Dan Shearer, editor of the Green Valley News, stated:

A bus full of musicians from Green Valley managed to do in two hours what it takes diplomats and politicians years to pull off: They reached across the border Thursday night and made a nation smile.”

Chatting backstage with Alejandro Encinas of Imfoculta, Chad Cummins, U.S. Consulate General, and Dr. John Snavely, band conductor

Chatting backstage with Alejandro Encinas of Imfoculta, Chad Cummins, U.S. Consulate General, and Dr. John Snavely, band conductor

Gazing out into the audience at the Teatro Auditorio de Nogales, the house looked like a sell-out. More than 800 people turned out for our concert. We played classic American jazz, a medley of Elvis Presley tunes, a Mexican march and even a sexy tango, with dancers performing some sensuous kicks and bends. I watched heads bobbing to the music, and people clapping in rhythm to our marches. There were shouts of “bravo,” and a couple of standing ovations.

Bev and Chuck do a steamy tango

Bev and Chuck do a steamy tango

 

Dr. John Snavely, our conductor, donned festive hats and jackets to match the music–a Russian fur hat for “Pictures at an Exhibition,” and a scarf glittering with sequins for the Elvis medley. Of course he wore a huge sombrero and colorful poncho for “Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass,” and the audience erupted in laughter and cheers. One patron laughingly told him afterwards that he was wearing the sombrero backwards. But no matter. This was a cultural love-fest, and both the band and audience reveled in the light-hearted fun.

Rehearsing "Buglers' Holiday"

Rehearsing “Buglers’ Holiday”

Honored with the presence of Mayor Ramon Guzman of Nogales, Sonora, Chad Cummins, U.S. Consulate General, and Alejandro Encinas, Director of Imfoculta (Cultural Center), as well as Arizona State Senator, Andrea Dalessandro, the VIP section of the auditorium was well represented with borderland stars.

This event was community organizing at its best. Several non-profit organizations in both Mexico and the U.S. worked together to transport the band, reserve the theater, gather enough chairs for band members, feed seventy-four hungry musicians after a long rehearsal, carry instruments and music stands back and forth from bus to stage, and deliver the group safely through checkpoints and customs officials. Many band members were dubious and nervous about traveling into Nogales for this musical adventure, but were delighted with the teamwork and camaraderie of our Mexican brothers and sisters. There were smiles all around.

Tim, Karen and Frank in the with posters in the lobby of the Teatro de Nogales

Tim, Karen and Frank with posters in the lobby of the Teatro de Nogales

So we’ll be back, Nogales!

And the Green Valley Concert Band accomplished this miracle of music with very little cash. The U.S. Consulate granted the band a modest stipend to defray the cost of the bus plus a few miscellaneous expenses. It doesn’t cost much to share good music and good will. Barriers were torn down in China with a ping-pong game. Leonard Bernstein helped crumble the Berlin Wall with his “Ode to Joy” and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. And the Green Valley Concert Band brought smiles and a few nostalgic tears to a crowded theater playing “Heartbreak Hotel” and the “Zacatecas March.”

Our own government could take a lesson from all of this. Billions of dollars do not build friendships and trust. Sharing artistic and cultural dreams succeed where walls and guns fail.

Val Roehl (right side) shares a laugh with concert goer in Nogales

Val Roehl (right side) shares a laugh with concert goer in Nogales

Viva Mexico!

Viva La Banda de Valle Verde!

Special thanks to Alma Cota de Yanez (FESAC), Bob Phillips (Border Community Alliance), Christina Almeida (U.S. Consulate), Tim Welch (Green Valley Concert Band President), Bill and Sue Krinke (Green Valley Band Managers), and the many organizations in Mexico responsible for the food, the security, the movement across the border, and the hospitality at the theater.

Please direct your comments and thoughts to Peg Bowden in the “Comments” section of the blog.  I can also be reached at pegbowden1942@gmail.com

If you wish to receive regular postings (usually once/month) to this blog, register in the Announcement List space in the right-hand column, and you are automatically on the email blog list.  This is a new system.  Many of you have already registered.

The Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans is a non-profit organization whose mission is to prevent deaths in the desert.  Information and contributions can be directed to:  www.gvsamaritans.org

The Green Valley Concert Band is an all volunteer community band that stages some of the best band music in southern Arizona.  Their website is:  www.greenvalleyconcertband.org

Kino Border Initiative directs the activities of the comedor in Nogales, Mexico.  The mission is to help create a just, humane immigration policy between the United States and Mexico.  Their website is:  www.kinoborderinitiative.org

The Border Community Alliance is an exciting new organization in southern Arizona focusing on the economic, cultural and humanitarian needs of the Arizona borderlands.  Non-profit status is pending.  Contact Bob Phillips at: rtp9@earthlink.net   for more information.

The Gift of a Stranger

•December 18, 2013 • 10 Comments

I’m padding around the house at midnight unable to sleep. The full moon lights up the living room with a ghostly sheen, but I turn on the twinkling Christmas lights anyway.  They dangle and twist around the agave plant spire that acts as our Christmas tree. The desert is glowing with a silvery patina; the night owls are hooting. While the dogs are softly snoring (along with my husband), I look out at the glittering stars and frost blanketing the surrounding mountains.  It is the most magical time of the year.

And I wonder who is out there.

Samaritan Jaime and baby Angel

Samaritan Jaime and baby Angel

I met at least a dozen men last Tuesday at the comedor who told me they plan to cross the border into the Sonoran desert and head for Utah, Washington, Florida. Did they find a little cave to sleep in on this freezing night? Did they build a fire to ward off the freezing temperatures? Are there children out there? Maybe they are taking advantage of the moonlight and covering some miles on foot tonight. Are they crouching in fear as helicopters hover overhead?  How can people survive this frigid December weather?

Samaritan Linda and baby Eveline

Samaritan Linda and baby Eveline

A few days ago driving to town, I saw a man and woman walking along the side of the road, crossing a bridge heading toward the freeway. They looked Latino, or perhaps Native American; the woman appeared elderly, wrapped in a shawl. The man was assisting her as they walked.

I was late for a doctor appointment, had my mind on a long list of things to do, and needed to drive 60 miles more to Tucson. Slowing my car down, the couple looked at me. I looked at them. The woman waved her hand and looked me in the eye, trying to get my attention.

I kept on going.

Driving about a hundred yards I pulled over, trying to decide if I should go back. I was alone and it was still dark, before dawn. I could not let this couple into my life. My mind was too full of appointments and Christmas lists.

Volunteer Abby and baby Eveline

Volunteer Abby and baby Eveline

Feeling both fear and guilt, I looked behind me in the rear view mirror. I saw the car in back of me slow down and stop to talk to this couple. It looked like they were giving assistance, as the two climbed into the car.

I haven’t been able to get this incident out of my mind. It was a reminder to me that I need to pay attention to the stranger in my midst. I need to slow down and face my fears. Here I live in the wealthiest and most heavily armed country in the world, and I feel fear about people walking along the side of the road asking for help. I need to get a grip.

I’m also just too damn busy.

The Holy Family and the wall

The Holy Family and the wall

This week I participated in the annual posada in Nogales, Mexico—an event sponsored by the Kino Border Initiative and the Diocese Without Borders. The posada is the reenactment of a pregnant Mary and Joseph searching for a place to stay in an inhospitable land. There is no room for them in Bethlehem. No one is welcoming, and the exhausted pair end up in a stable with the animals. Mary gives birth in a manger, a feeding trough full of hay. It is difficult to imagine a more humble birthplace. 

They are the strangers at the side of the road.

Walking with several Samaritans from Arizona into Nogales, Mexico to the appointed meeting place for the posada, we wended our way through the aisles and gates of the port of entry with shoppers, honking cars and children running about.

Let the posada begin!

Let the posada begin!

Is this going to be super religious? What happens during this parade,” asked one of the Samaritans, a newcomer to this work.

Well,” I answered, “ it IS the Christmas story. And the sisters and Jesuits will be running the show. So, yes, it will probably be religious.”

Fr. Pete Neeley, Joseph, Mary and the burro.

Fr. Pete Neeley, Joseph, Mary and the burro.

When we reached the plaza there were people from the comedor in Mexico, with participants from Tucson and many surrounding villages and towns of the borderlands. Mary was fussing with her blue veil, and the angel’s wings were askew. Joseph, a hunky teen from a local high school, looked nervous.

When the burro arrived, Mary suddenly realized she had to ride this animal. She looked to her mother and expressed her fears about falling off. In fact, riding astride the donkey was a challenge, as she hiked up her gown and tried to figure out how to stay on the beast and look serene, composed and Biblical.

 

Mary at the wall

Mary at the wall

The street hawkers were out imploring me to stock up on their low priced pharmaceuticals, Viagra, bottles of tequila, and anti-depressants.

K-Mart prices,” they shout. “Almost free!”

The day was dazzling and warm, and the sun shone fiercely on our motley group as we began our posada procession winding through the streets of Nogales, Sonora.  Shopkeepers watched silently as we slowly walked along the wall toward the comedor. A chorus of dogs created an opera of barks and howls as we walked by their yards.  Sirens wailed, and motorcycles revved up their engines. We quietly marched along the bumpy streets, watching out for the potholes and pavement cracks.

Marla Conrad at the wall

Marla Conrad at the wall

Stopping at the wall for singing and reflection, there were posada singers on the American side and on the Mexican side. Peering through the slats of the metal fence, the singers expressed the sordid truth about the plight of thousands of Latino people.

The songs did not mince words:

On the Mexican side of the wall the women sang out:

 “Dehydrated and hungry

I crossed this desert.

As we jumped the wall

Our life was uncertain.”

Songs of injustice at the wall

Songs of injustice at the wall

On the American side of the wall the words pierced my heart:

I don’t care if you die.

If you come to take advantage

And if you continue to interfere

We will shoot you.”

The refrains flowed back and forth. There were many verses which made me flinch. As an American, it was difficult to listen to these words. Unfortunately, the songs spoke of truths that my fellow Americans do not want to hear. The U.S. government has turned its back on a humanitarian crisis of huge proportions.

Passing by the killing site of teenager, Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez

Passing by the killing site of teenager, Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez

This was more than a religious procession about Mary and Joseph. The political and spiritual soul of Christmas was profoundly explored during our parade through Nogales.

I walked beside a couple of migrants who carried a banner proclaiming that “Laws are Unjust That Separate Families.” As we stopped along the way and heard the stories of men and women who were lost in the desert or locked up in detention centers for months, the migrants listened attentively.  There were silent tears as many stared into the distance contemplating what lies ahead.

The Holy Family in the streets of Nogales

The Holy Family in the streets of Nogales

At last we reached the comedor where a feast and music greeted our procession. I thought about how my life is enriched when I let people in—poor people, rich people, people of color, white people, gay and straight people, Republicans, Democrats, agnostics, atheists, Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Sitting down to eat with the diversity of this posada crowd, I felt connected to my brothers and sisters south of the border.

It was good to get away from the rampant consumerism of the Christmas season and just break bread with strangers and friends. We have so much in this beloved country of ours, and yet we are so involved in the frenzy of gift giving and receiving, we do not let the people in who matter.

May the spirit of this Christmas holiday give you a deeper connection with family, friends and the strangers among us.

May we open the doors of our hearts to the outcasts.

May we stop and help the stranger on the side of the road.

Arriving at la frontera, the border

Arriving at la frontera, the border

 

Please direct your comments and thoughts to Peg Bowden in the “Comments” section of the blog.  I can also be reached at pegbowden@yahoo.com 

If you wish to receive regular postings (usually once/month) to this blog, register in the Announcement List space in the right-hand column, and you are automatically on the email blog list.  This is a new system.  Many of you have already registered.

The Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans is a non-profit organization whose mission is to prevent deaths in the desert.  Information and contributions can be directed to:  www.gvsamaritans.org

Kino Border Initiative directs the activities of the comedor in Nogales, Mexico.  The mission is to help create a just, humane immigration policy between the United States and Mexico.  Their website is:  www.kinoborderinitiative.org

The Border Community Alliance is an exciting new organization in southern Arizona focusing on the economic, cultural and humanitarian needs of the Arizona borderlands.  Non-profit status is pending.  Contact Bob Phillips at: rtp9@earthlink.net   for more information.