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 

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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.

Show Your Goodness

•November 14, 2013 • 10 Comments

In a few weeks I will be a migrant. Flying to Los Angeles to join with our children and grandchildren, my husband and I will migrate to California for a Thanksgiving holiday. It is an American rite that we take for granted: we move about freely and travel once or twice a year to be with family and friends. There will be feasting around a dinner table with four different conversations going at once. Then games and more talk will follow in the living room. We will return home exhausted, yet satisfied that the kids are OK.

Migrant wearing "Show Your Goodness" t-shirt with Samaritan Sharon

Migrant wearing “Show Your Goodness” t-shirt with Samaritan Sharon

This week at the comedor I spotted a man in a bright red t-shirt which said, “Show Your Goodness.” The man was on the move. He needed shoes and jeans, and thankfully we had just the right sizes for this fellow. His plan is to travel to Jalisco to be with his family after the death of a brother. After living in the U.S. and not seeing his family for several years, it is important for him to grieve with his siblings about this loss. Funerals and illnesses are common reasons why Latinos travel to Mexico. Many are aware that it will be difficult to return to the U.S., but family ties trump the dangers of crossing our borders.

Samaritans gather clothing at the comedor

Samaritans gather with bags of clothing at the comedor       ( photo:  John Toso)

Another man, whom I will call Eduardo, is wearing shoes with flopping soles and no socks. He is a short man with a round, open face, and he wants to talk.

I take a 9 ½ size shoe. Can you help me out?”

Around his neck is a lovely blue rosary which he has fashioned out of recycled plastic bags.

“I learned how to do this in the detention center in El Centro,” he tells me. The craftsmanship of the rosary is impressive. I examine it closely and cannot believe that this is made of plastic throwaway bags.

Silence and reflection

Silence and reflection        (photo:  John Toso)

He is from Modesto, California, and for four months has been struggling to get back to his family and workplace.  Eduardo shows me his business card; he is a small business owner and manufactures granite counter tops, a lucrative enterprise. Living in Modesto for twenty-two years, Eduardo was brought to this country when he was six years old. He is married and has four children, all American citizens.

A collage of family memories

A collage of family memories

Reaching into his pocket, he pulls out a carefully folded photograph of his family taken on a poolside holiday. Eduardo’s eyes are wet with tears as he explains how he got here. Four months ago he headed to the grocery store to buy milk and forgot his wallet.

He was stopped by a police officer because the tail light on his car was not functioning. Of course he didn’t have his identification or driver’s license with him and was taken to the local police station. When his identity and records came up in their system, it was discovered that he was undocumented. He was immediately deported back to Mexico and has tried several times to cross and return home.

His life changed because of a burned out tail light.

Breakfast time

Breakfast time

As an entrepreneur with several employees, he is desperate to return to his business and his family. We talk about his girls, his work, and the abrupt end to the routines and comforts of his life in California. He has had phone calls with his wife and children throughout this ordeal, but the challenges he faces are daunting.

Lupita creates magic in the kitchen

Lupita creates magic in the kitchen

As he leaves the comedor, he faces me and says, “Gracias for all of your help. I may never see you again. But I know what I have to do, and I’ll be OK.” He tells me he will cross without a guide, as he doesn’t trust them. He gives me a hug, crosses himself, kisses his rosary, and is out the door.

“Cuidado! You are a good man and I wish for you a good life with your family,”  I call out to him as he leaves.

Samaritans assisting a lost migrant on a desert search

Samaritans assisting a lost migrant on a desert search    (photo:  John Toso)


I ask God to keep him safe and give him strength to get back to Modesto.  My prayers these days are like those of a child. I ask God to protect people from my government. During these moments at the comedor, I don’t know what else to do.

 

My family, my life

My family, my life

So here is what I take away from this day at the comedor:

1) When families are separated, people are torn apart at a deep, primal level. Grown men cry. I see it happen every week.

2) If we pass only one thing in Congress regarding immigration reform, let it be family reunification. We must end national policies which separate families. It is tearing at the moral core of this nation. Our children’s children will ask us one day how we could allow such tragedy to occur as a matter of national public policy.

3) We need a legal employment structure that allows for workers to move back and forth to Mexico and Central America, protecting both migrants and American employees.

4) Our esteemed U.S. Congress has 10 days left between now and the New Year to pass any kind of immigration legislation. It is a long shot that anything meaningful will come out of this legislative session. We all must vote during the next election and change the face of our dysfunctional Congress. Better yet, some of us must run for office and bring some light and hope to the disenfranchised and vulnerable peoples peering through the border wall.

Vultures at a water tank

Vultures at a water tank

 

5) The deaths in the Tucson sector of the Sonoran desert continue unabated in spite of the drop in numbers of deported Latinos. It is a blight on our collective conscience. The Samaritans continue to find people lost in the vastness of our desert. We find them walking in circles. Many are dying. The numbers are up from 2012, with 146 bodies recovered since January, 2013. There are more bodies out there; they just haven’t been found, and may never be discovered.

Alfonso, Samaritan Tracy, Lorena, and Samaritan Linda

Alfonso, Samaritan Tracy, Lorena, and Samaritan Linda

As I enjoy a sumptuous Thanksgiving feast in the coming weeks, I will remember the man in the “Show Your Goodness” t-shirt, and Eduardo, who is heading to Modesto.

Our beloved country, a country of hospitality and a tradition of empathy towards the tired and the poor, needs a good wake-up shake at the shoulders. We accept the labors of immigrants, but deny them their humanity.

These people are literally my neighbors, just on the other side of the fence.

Please direct your comments and thoughts to Peg Bowden at pegbowden@yahoo.com.

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.

 

Basta! Enough!

•October 18, 2013 • 8 Comments

It has been one year since the death of José Antonio Elena Rodriguez, the 16 year old teenager shot and killed on Calle Internacional by one or more Border Patrol agents on the night of October 10, 2012. On this somber first anniversary, Oct. 10, 2013, the drum beats echoed across Ambos Nogales (both Nogaleses) as a Mexican/Aztec dance group in full feathered headdress and costume summoned the people to the wall for reflection and remembrance. The beat of the drums was primal and hypnotic, and incense filled the air.

Basta!  Enough!

Basta!  Enough!

Across the wall on the Mexican side, a second group gathered, first at the killing site, and then at a point on the border fence where both groups, the Americans and the Mexicans, could speak and touch and sing songs about this tragic event. Hands reached through the fence slats, as flickering candles and healing touch tried to lessen the pain of this senseless violence.

Aztec dancers drumming for justice

Aztec dancers drumming for justice

José Antonio was walking home one year ago when an alleged drug-smuggling and rock throwing incident occurred a few blocks away. At least one Border Patrol agent aimed a gun through the border fence slats and shot him several times in the back.  Reports vary.  Some say there were eight bullets in his body:  one in the arm, two in the head, and five in the back.  The agent claimed to be shooting in self-defense, stating that the teen posed a deadly threat and was throwing rocks over the wall.

Surveillance cameras have recorded the incident, and presently the video footage is in the hands of the FBI, who refuse to release the film. No charges have been filed.

Surveillance camera near killing site

Surveillance camera near killing site     Photo:  Marty Ethington

On the 10th day of each month this past year, family and community members meet at the site where José Antonio died. They talk and weep and remember this young man. A small shrine has been erected on the sidewalk where he fell after being shot in the back and neck. A forensic report states that José was face down on the sidewalk when five of the bullets shot him in the back. Most of the bullets entered from behind at an angle suggesting he was prone on the sidewalk during the barrage of shots to his back.

Jose Antonio's family at sidewalk shrine

Jose Antonio’s family at sidewalk shrine

Fourteen shell casings were found in the immediate area of the border wall on the U.S. side. There were no shell casings found on the Mexican side of the fence. Eleven casings were above the killing site, and three casings were located 28 feet away, suggesting that two agents may have fired bullets through the fence. A ballistics expert states that the bullets used were fired from a Heckler and Koch 2000P handgun, a standard issue Border Patrol sidearm.

On October 10, 2012, a witness, Isidro Alvarado, was walking 20 feet behind José Antonio when two other young men ran up beside him, veering off into a side street. Suddenly there was gunfire coming from two different directions on the U.S. side of the border wall. Alvarado saw José Antonio fall to the ground in front of him. He took cover on a side street, called the equivalent of 911 in Mexico, and reported the shooting. The witness reports he did not see José Antonio throw any rocks.

The family—his mother, aunt, nephew, grandmother—speak fondly of José. He loved chocolate. He had a great sense of humor and liked to tease his nephew.

Ariceli Rodriguez, mother of Jose Antonio, speaks through fence to Guadalupe Guerrero, another mother of U.S. citizen, Carlos Madrid--both shot by U.S. Border Patrol

Ariceli Rodriguez, mother of Jose Antonio, speaks through fence to Guadalupe Guerrero, another mother of U.S. citizen, Carlos Madrid.  Both boys were shot by U.S. Border Patrol.   Photo:  Murphy Woodhouse

During this first anniversary, there is passion and anger that the case remains open with no real progress. The Danza Mexica Cuauhtemoc dancers shout, “What do we want?”

The crowd answers, “Justice!”

When do we want it?”

Now!”

Posters and placards denouncing this act of violence bobbed and swayed on both sides of the fence. I wondered what our country’s response would be if a Mexican police authority shot an American teenager through the fence. 

In the back.

A child in Mexico holds a candle for Jose

A child in Mexico holds a candle for Jose

I have visited the killing site several times with Samaritans. Two things become obvious when you observe the place where the shooting took place:

First, there are no rocks. For three or four blocks up and down Calle Internacional, a street which parallels the border wall, there are no rocks in evidence. In fact it would be difficult to pick up a clod of dirt.

Secondly, the wall, which is 18 feet tall, sits on an embankment which is approximately 28 feet high. Lobbing a heavy rock on a dark night over 46 feet of embankment and fence, and taking aim at a person on the other side, would be very difficult. Maybe impossible. Especially if a Border Patrol agent was standing next to the wall taking aim with a semi-automatic weapon.

Procession beside the wall

Procession beside the wall

There are bullet holes sprayed across the building facade where José was walking that fateful night. Whoever fired the shots was shooting blindly at the building.  The shots which were fatal to the teen, however, were specific.

José Antonio was caught in the crossfire of an incident that went terribly wrong.

Memorial candles for Jose Antonio

Memorial candles for Jose Antonio

 

A few weeks ago I attended an educational tour of the Nogales Border Patrol Station, along with a small group of local citizens.  Several agents (five total) gave a professional and detailed picture of the various activities and procedures of the Nogales office, the busiest station of all eight Sectors in Arizona. Our citizen group had strong opinions and biases, and the discussion was often lively and intense.  The officers handled controversial questions with competence and experience.

Samaritans Nancy and Ted at the wall

Samaritans Nancy and Ted at the wall

There was one exception: when the questions centered on the death of José Antonio, the discussion was halted abruptly.  The Border Patrol agents stated flatly that the case was “out of their hands,” and the FBI was now in charge of this incident. Training in use-of-force policy was outlined for our group, and the agents emphasized that they never “shoot blindly.” Always they “aim for body mass.” (a chilling concept) That is, the shooter aims for the torso of the victim and never sprays bullets randomly.

The agents were unable to answer questions about the spray of bullet holes across the building, or the five shots in the back of José Antonio. There were no answers about the lack of rocks at the killing site, and the difficulty in lobbing a rock over such a high embankment.  One agent suggested that we did not understand the strength and athleticism of the young Mexican youth, and stated that it was possible to throw a rock with deadly force over the wall at the killing site.

Ricardo Osburn and the bullet holes

Ricardo Osburn and the bullet holes

The people of Ambos Nogales will not let this situation fade. The issue of border violence is too close. There have been twenty deaths since 2010 caused by Border Patrol agents; 17 cases remain open and unsolved. The FBI, the Border Patrol, and the Department of Homeland Security have not released information or the names of the agents involved in these cases.

Candles and prayers for Jose Antonio

Candles and prayers for Jose Antonio

During the tour of the Nogales Border Patrol office, our group observed the large amounts of data and video footage from numerous surveillance cameras positioned along the border. On one of the screens, the building and killing site of José Antonio is focused.   Somewhere in an FBI file is a video tape of José Antonio walking along Calle Internacional on October 10, 2012.  

Therein lies the answer to this tragedy.

Pablo sings his song for Jose Antonio

Pablo Peregrina  sings his song for Jose Antonio at the vigil

References for this posting:

“Questions Linger Over Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez’ Death,” Bob Ortega, The Arizona Republic, Oct. 10, 2013.

“Frustration Mounts Over Unsolved Border Patrol Shootings,” Ted Robbins, NPR News, April 11, 2013.

“The Killings of Ramses Barron Torres and Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez:  Background and Resources,” No More Deaths website:  nomoredeaths.org/nomasmatanzas

 

The Green Valley Samaritans is a non-profit organization whose mission is to save lives in the southern Arizona desert.  Their website is:  www,gvsamaritans.org

The Santa Cruz Community Foundation is a non-profit organization focusing on the economic, cultural and philanthropic needs of southern Arizona and the borderlands.  Bob Phillips, Director, can be reached at:  rtp9@earthlink.net

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

I endorse the activities of all of these organizations.

Peg Bowden can be reached at pegbowden@yahoo.com    Please direct comments to my email.   I will post your comments on the blog as they come in.  I love your input, so don’t hesitate to respond.  –Peg

 

Bombs and Dreams

•September 16, 2013 • 13 Comments

I’ve spent a good deal of my life pondering the bomb and devastation by war. Growing up in Chicago in the 1950s I remember air raid drills, kneeling in a damp basement at my elementary school, my face touching the floor, hands over my head. As restless third graders, my classmates and I would peek at each other, wondering how long we had to remain still and quiet on the musty tiles. I would wait for a bomb to drop, not sure if this was the real deal.

Chicago skyline

Chicago skyline

My older brother, George, would reassure me that there were stockpiles of Nike missiles and atomic bombs buried underneath the city in huge tunnels.  There was nothing to worry about.

We are the strongest, safest nation in the world,” my teachers would tell me.

Somehow the vision of living in a city astride tons of weaponry didn’t subdue my anxiety much.

State Street, Chicago

State Street, Chicago

After moving to Tucson I remember well the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, and I imagined a mushroom cloud hovering over the city.  A friend and I had an escape plan, a cave in some nearby mountains that we had explored. We decided to have a box of food and supplies ready in case the Russians attacked the U.S.

I remember not being able to study that week in October, the week of the stand-off between the Russian submarines near Cuba and our own military arsenal.

Blue desert

Blue desert   (photo:  Marty Ethington)

Then came the assassinations: President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy. It felt like the fabric of democracy was coming undone. There were the Kent State killings, the Vietnam War demonstrations, the Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, and the worst domestic terrorist act of my lifetime, the toppling of the World Trade Center Towers on September 11, 2001.

All of these events have at their core a violent means to an end–the use of weaponry to kill people.

This past week has been another drama of nerves:  Syria is gassing its own people, killing innocent women and children. President Obama’s initial response is a call for a limited air strike. Then Russia’s Vladimir Putin writes an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, with a plea to the American people for negotiations with Syria’s President Assad and a supervised dismantling of chemical weapon stockpiles.

The world is left dizzy and perplexed. The Russian bear is telling the U.S. to slow down and talk things over.

Unbelievable.

a morning prayer at the comedor

a morning prayer at the comedor

I applaud President Obama’s deliberations and restraint at this crisis point. I am dubious of Putin’s motives, but I welcome the clarity of his thoughts in the New York Times editorial.  One can only guess at the future, but we are taking a breather.

As a person growing up during the 50s and 60s, I’ve watched and been moved by the power of non-violent confrontation. Gandhi and Martin Luther King stand out as leaders who changed the course of history without firing a weapon. It is tragic that their own lives ended with the shots of bullets. They paid the ultimate price, but they succeeded in making sweeping cultural and political changes by simply standing up to the empire, the ruling class, the politicos.

New shoes for Max at the comedor

New shoes for Max at the comedor

There are times when military force is necessary. But only as a last resort. First you try diplomacy, negotiations, and anything else that doesn’t involve a Tomahawk missile or a baseball bat.

 

Give me your tired, your poor

Give me your tired, your poor

In late July, 2013, I had the pleasure of meeting three of the DREAMers who were instrumental in orchestrating a non-violent demonstration in Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico. This is the story of the DREAM 9. (DREAM is an acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors.)

These nine DREAM students have lived virtually their entire lives in the U.S.  As infants or small children, they were brought into our country without documents. This is the only country they have ever known. The United States is their home.

DREAMers walking toward the border

DREAMers walking toward the border  (photo:  Mary Ethington)

All nine DREAMers voluntarily went back to Mexico to visit family and relatives. Some had not seen their relatives for many years. Then on July 22, 2013, they linked arms and attempted to walk back into the United States through the Nogales port of entry. They were dressed in graduation caps and gowns, and paraded through the streets of Mexico with a large crowd of supporters behind them before attempting to cross back into the United States.

 

Reject racism

Reject racism  (photo:  Marty Ethington)

 

Bring them home!” was heard on both sides of the border. The crowds were growing and feelings were passionate as the DREAMers marched through the Nogales streets of Mexico.

 

If you won't let us DREAM

If you don’t let us DREAM

The Santa Cruz Community Foundation (SCCF), the Kino Border Initiative, and the Samaritans joined this DREAM 9 demonstration on the U.S. side, along with our two SCCF summer interns, Marty and Catie. The mayor of Nogales, Arizona, and his wife were among the crowd of demonstrators, as several hundred others carried signs and shouted slogans.

Bob Phillips (SCCF Director), Mayor Guarino of Nogales, AZ., and his wife

Bob Phillips (SCCF Director), Mayor Garino of Nogales, AZ., and his wife

 

We arrived at the border wall at the same time as the DREAM demonstrators in Mexico.  With energy and emotions running high, the Mexicans put their hands on the mesh metal wall trying to touch the Americans on the other side.

 

Catie Born, Ruby Firecat Dean, Bob Phillips of SCCF

Catie Born, Ruby Firecat Dean, Bob Phillips of SCCF

For several minutes there was heightened intensity as Mexicans and Americans reached out to each other. Both sides began pounding on the wall, and the streets rang with the din of the metal fence reverberating and vibrating. Slogans and shouts of “Unafraid and Unashamed!” filled the air.

One of the organizers, Muhammad, a young man from Iran who has lived in the U.S. since he was a small child, wore a t-shirt displayed with “I Am Undocumented.” This was a demonstration organized and fueled by young people in their 20s, mostly college graduates, and many were undocumented themselves.

DREAM demonstration at the wall

DREAM demonstration at the wall  (photo:  Marty Ethington)

We were surrounded by Federal agents and U.S. Marshals, all of them armed. I thought of the 1970 Kent State confrontation with police and realized that we were sitting ducks. To be honest, I was frightened, exhilarated and running on adrenalin, wondering what I was doing here in this mass of people.

Meeting Mexico at the wall

Meeting Mexico at the wall

There was a line of U.S. Federal officers and agents standing at attention in front of the wall, and a line of clergy facing them. Behind the clergy were the demonstrators. After several frenzied moments of shouts and slogans, things miraculously seemed to calm down.

The presence of Fr. Sean Carroll, director of Kino Border Initiative, and John Fife, retired minister and social activist, added order and gravitas to the potential chaos.  Other members of the clergy were there as well, all dressed in their clerical clothes—a line of peace which quieted the stirring emotions on both sides of the fence.

The power of non-violent activism felt courageous and powerful. And tenuous.

Father Sean Carroll prays with DREAMers

Father Sean Carroll prays with DREAMers  (photo:  Marty Ethington)

When the DREAMers attempted to cross back into the United States at the port of entry, they carried letters petitioning the U.S. government for humanitarian parole. They were immediately arrested and taken to a private detention center in Eloy, Arizona. After 17 days of incarceration, which included a hunger strike and the mobilizing of many of their fellow migrant inmates, the DREAM 9 were released on parole.  A few had been placed in solitary confinement.

Their legal struggles are just beginning. They must argue their case for asylum in an immigration court, and this process could take years.

Unafraid and unashamed

Unafraid and unashamed

What these brave young men and women did was challenge an inhumane policy that prevents them from living and working in this country—a result of circumstances they did not create. Their parents brought them here because they wanted to feed them and provide a better life. This is not a crime. It is never a crime to feed your children and create a safe home for them. Never.

It is instead an act of heroism.

The demonstration was well organized, and most importantly, non-violent. The media coverage was impressive. The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the LA Times, and Al Jazeera were all there with microphones and cameras.

Bring Them Home

Bring Them Home

The DREAMers showed us that human needs must take precedence over borders and archaic laws. When laws are not relevant, they must change. We cannot make criminals of people who simply want to eat, and are willing to work hard for their sustenance. We cannot criminalize their children either.

 

More frijoles?

Lorena offering more frijoles at the comedor    (photo:  John Toso)

I applaud the courage of the DREAM 9 and I still smile when I think of the day we reached out toward Mexico touching the hands of those on the other side of the wall.

These young people pushed the envelope.

The voices of the people were heard on July 22, 2013. Let us not forget their message.

The DREAM 9 are: Lulu Martinez-Valdez, Marco Saavedra, Lizbeth Mateo Jimenez, Claudia Amaro, Adriana Gil Diaz, Mario Felix Garcia, Luis Leon-Lopez, Maria Peniche-Vargas and Ceferino Santiago.

a moment of joy at the comedor

a moment of joy at the comedor

The Green Valley Samaritans is a non-profit organization whose mission is to save lives in the southern Arizona desert.  Their website is:  www,gvsamaritans.org

The Santa Cruz Community Foundation is a non-profit organization focusing on the economic, cultural and philanthropic needs of southern Arizona and the borderlands.  Bob Phillips, Director, can be reached at:  rtp9@earthlink.net

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

I endorse the activities of all of these organizations.

Peg Bowden can be reached at pegbowden@yahoo.com    Please direct comments to my email.   I will post your comments on the blog as they come in.  I love your input, so don’t hesitate to respond.  –Peg

 

Dashed Hopes

•July 1, 2013 • 17 Comments

I live in the borderlands or Arizona and Mexico, a wonderful amalgamation of cultures, ideas, and languages. I love it here—even the 100+ degree temperatures these past days. My neighbors and I contemplate when the monsoon rains will come, giving us green grasses, summer flowers and a blessed coolness to our afternoons after a fierce storm. We look to the skies for cumulus clouds in the south, and scan the weather reports for the dewpoint and humidity. People around here are obsessed with the weather these hot late spring days.

 

monsoon clouds in the desert

monsoon clouds in the desert

We call the borderlands the third nation: there is the United States, Mexico, and us—the people of the border, the in-between folks. I confess that I’ve had my hopes up these past weeks about comprehensive immigration reform. My dreams were of immigrant workers with guest worker visas passing back and forth from Mexico into the U.S.  I had fantasies of fewer Border Patrol agents, because if temporary guest workers could enter the U.S. legally, who needs the military at the border? I thought about families reunited both in Mexico and the U.S.  I dreamed of walking into Mexico without seeing armed guards milling about, weaponry slung over their shoulders, furtively talking into their Smartphones. Shoppers from Tucson and Phoenix would return to the twin Nogales cities and enjoy a day in a country that is truly different than their own suburbs and shopping malls.

Virgen de Guadalupe keeps watch on the wall

Virgen de Guadalupe keeps watch on the wall  (photo:  Marty Ethington, SCCF intern)

The wall that separates this country from Mexico is an abomination—a shameful symbol of national superiority and exclusivity. It says we’re better than you, stay out, you are not welcome here. I pass by the wall several times per week and often see Mexican children peering through the slats of steel. I want to take their hand and walk them through the militarized barriers. We will have an ice cream cone together. We will wave at the U.S. Marshals and ICE agents.

I am a dreamer.

Peg at immigration rally, flanked by Fr. Sean Carroll, Director of el comedor

Peg at immigration rally, flanked by Fr. Sean Carroll, Executive Director of Kino Border Initiative                       (photo:  Marty Ethington, SCCF intern)

The so-called immigration reform legislation passed by the Senate a few days ago, and now before the House of Representatives, creates a bigger mess than the one we have. It will fill the coffers of Halliburton and Boeing with huge government contracts. Since we’re pulling out of Afghanistan and Iraq, we must keep our military-industrial efforts juiced up with a new war—the war on our neighbors to the south.

 

Singing for immigration reform

Singing for compassionate  immigration reform    (photo:  Marty Ethington, SCCF intern)

Last April a group of Congressional Senators, four members of the “Gang of 8”, visited the U.S./Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona.  Unfortunately they did not cross the border. They did not step into Mexico and observe the effects of the border wall on the people across the line. Visiting the Border Patrol and ICE offices in Nogales, Arizona, the Gang of 8 gathered their information and took their notes.

It is akin to learning about your own town or neighborhood by only reading the police reports. Impressions and information are skewed. They got a very narrow slice of the pie. I’m sorry they didn’t take a stroll into Nogales, Mexico, and enjoy a special margarita and gourmet meal at La Roca, one of several classy restaurants on the other side of the wall. A trip to the comedor and some time to look into the faces of the hard-working immigrants might have softened a few hearts.  Instead they surveyed the wall and barbed wire fences, getting their information from officials of Homeland Security.

family unity

Immigration should be based on family unity

Somewhere the immigration reform movement took a wrong turn. Here’s what we have:  the Senate has passed an 844 page bill with 350+ pages of amendments tacked on.  Both Democrat and Republican politicos are full of praise for this bi-partisan effort.

I shake my head in disbelief.

 

The hallmark elements of the immigration bill are these:

More military personnel on the border. 

The number of military agents will be doubled from 21,000 to almost 40,000. The length of the wall will also be doubled, with 700 miles of new fence. There will be more drones, more high tech surveillance, and more deaths in the desert. Seven bodies were found in the Sonoran desert yesterday. With more militarization along the border, desperate migrants will attempt to cross deeper into the remote parts of southern Arizona. Trust me on this.

 

A path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

The path is long and circuitous, will take approximately 13 years, and has enough blocks and security checks to stymie all but the most tenacious. And it won’t start until the military build-up is completed.

 

Operation Streamline proceedings will triple.

Instead of processing 70 migrants each day through the Federal court system, the bill will increase the numbers to 121 undocumented migrants.

 

  • Samaritans leave water in the desert

    Samaritans leave water in the desert   (photo: Marty Ethington, SCCF intern)

    The winners in this “reform” are the huge military contracts tasked with increasing the length of the wall, expanding the numbers of Homeland Security personnel, and developing highly sophisticated surveillance technology to track down and capture the migrants. The court system, detention centers, judges, and attorneys also stand to benefit. It is like an horrific video game come to life. The migrants are hunted down like animals and tossed into the behemoth of our broken immigration system.

    And let’s not forget that the GOP will win some points in wooing the Latino vote in the coming elections.

  • An unsolved death of a teen at the border wall

    An unsolved death of a teen at the border wall

    I remember a fairy tale from my childhood, a story by Hans Christian Anderson, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” It tells of a vain emperor and his conniving tailor who fashioned a new outfit that was invisible, and in fact didn’t exist. The tailor told the emperor that only those that were competent and worthy could see his new clothes. To everyone else who was unfit and unworthy, the new clothes were invisible. So the people of the kingdom rhapsodized about the beauty of the emperor’s new clothes. They didn’t want to appear incompetent or disloyal, and so praised the new fashion on their naked emperor. Only a small child cried out that the emperor was not wearing anything at all. The child spoke the truth, seeing through the pretense and delusions.

    And here is my truth. The comprehensive immigration reform bill is not true reform at all. Congress is parading naked before us telling us that this is a step forward.

    Socks hanging on a tree, No More Deaths camp, Sonoran desert

    Socks hanging on a tree, No More Deaths medical camp, Sonoran desert  (photo:  Marty Ethington, intern)

    It is a step backward. Things will be worse for the migrant population.  And things will be worse for the people living on the border.  The borderlands will feel like the DMZ of North and South Korea. In point of fact, there are 40,000 troops stationed along the DMZ, the same number that the immigration reform bill plans to place on the U.S./Mexico border. The struggling economy of both Nogaleses will continue to hang on and put on a happy face in spite of the wall and the beefed up militarization.

    The naked emperor of the Hans Christian Anderson tale would feel right at home in our present Congress, where power rests in the hands of politicians and lobbyists who refuse to look at the truth. Especially if there is money to be made.

    A view of Nogales

    A view of Nogales   (photo:  Marty Ethington, SCCF intern)

    Immigrants are human beings affected by a law that is so huge and complex, the legislators themselves don’t understand it. We are playing with real people’s lives. They are being knocked around like ping-pong balls. They have goals, families, employers and communities that depend on them.

    Never forget that America is a nation of immigrants. The present immigration reform before Congress is based on the politics of fear. Border communities will be doomed to living in a virtual war zone. It is an assault on the civil liberties and human rights of the border residents. The compromises in the present bill do not represent the people who live on the border. We owe it to the residents of the borderlands and our Latino neighbors to fight for the best immigration legislation possible.

    Morning at el comedor

    Morning at el comedor    (photo:  John Toso)

    I cannot support the present immigration reform bill. It is not worthy of the American promise and the American dream. I will continue to work toward a common sense pathway to citizenship for the millions that are already here, and a demilitarization of the borderlands community. Most importantly, the Samaritans will continue to prevent deaths in the desert.

    I support several border organizations that may not agree with my politics. As we approach July 4, I am grateful to live in a place where I can express my views and will continue to try and change immigration policies that truly serve the interests of the people on the border.

  • The Green Valley Samaritans are a group of activists who volunteer their services in both Mexico and the United States striving to create a more humane immigration policy. Their website is: www.gvsamaritans.org

    The Kino Border Initiative directs the activities of the comedor in Nogales, Mexico. The vision is to help make a humane, just system of migration a reality between the United States and Mexico. Their website is: www.kinoborderinitiative.org

    The Santa Cruz Community Foundation is a non-profit organization focusing on the economic, cultural and philanthropic needs of southern Arizona. Bob Phillips, director of SCCF, can be reached at rtp9@earthlink.net. Phone is: 520-761-4531

    I endorse and am proud of the accomplishments of all of these organizations.

AMAZING GRACE

•June 4, 2013 • 13 Comments

He was sitting at the breakfast table at el comedor, eyes cast down on his plate, quietly finishing the rice and beans and scrambled eggs. There was something not quite right about this man, dressed in a frayed cowboy shirt and jeans. It took me a few minutes to recognize what was unusual: he had only one leg. As I glanced beneath the table, I noticed the left pant leg was neatly pinned up below his stump. The man had jumped from the roof of a boxcar coupled to a train the migrants call the “train of death,” speeding from southern Mexico toward el norte. His left foot was severed under the wheels.

Mariana serving the bread

Mariana serving the bread    (photo:  by John Toso)

I will call this man Ernesto, and he is here at the shelter trying to figure out a survival strategy as a disabled migrant in Nogales, Mexico. No easy task. He maneuvers around the comedor with ease and agility on his crutches. He has learned to live without a leg and moves expertly amid the queues of waiting migrants.

Lorena, Samaritan Ruby and Mariana in the kitchen

Lorena, Samaritan Ruby and Mariana in the kitchen

Ernesto tells us his story of migration and trauma with great emotion and detail. He was traveling on the roof of a train, also known as “the beast,” and was accosted by bandits in Mexico. During the struggle the thugs threatened to kill Ernesto, grabbing his throat and choking him. Leaping from the train in order to save his life, the terrorized migrant was sucked under the wheels of the boxcar and his left foot was severed.

Guidance from the Virgin

A migrant receives guidance from the Virgin

He lay on the ground for a long time–maybe two days. Several people passed by and ran away, frightened by what they saw, possibly believing he was dead. Finally a woman with a cell phone stopped and called the local police. Ernesto was taken to a Mexican hospital and his leg was surgically amputated below the knee.

Eventually Ernesto made his way to Nogales and today he is trying to figure out how to survive safely and economically. He sleeps in a nearby bus station. He eats at the comedor.

The man with the severed leg

Caught by the train of death

Marla, the volunteer coordinator with Kino Border Initiative, asks Ernesto if he would like to go to a wheelchair factory in Nogales, a facility that is starting to branch out into the manufacture of prostheses as well as wheelchairs. The Wheelchair Shop employs two skilled technicians who are both wheelchair riders.  So off we go with Ernesto–two other Samaritans, Marla, and myself.

The Shop is a 10 minute ride from the comedor in an industrial park. The two employees, Beto and Gabriel, have a personal and intimate understanding of the specific needs of people without legs. They each have lost a leg themselves.

Marla talks with Beto in the Wheelchair Shop

Marla talks with Beto in the Wheelchair Shop

The wheelchairs exemplify the ingenuity and tenacity of its creators. Mexican entrepreneurs are masters at recycling parts and making do. For starters, the wheelchairs are all-terrain vehicles, designed to navigate the rough terrain of uneven sidewalks, gravel, and small holes. These chairs are virtually indestructible, built with parts that can be purchased in a local bicycle shop or hardware store. The tires are the same as you see on mountain bikes.

Feeding the hungry

Feeding the hungry    (photo:  by John Toso)

 

The first thing that strikes me about this workshop is that it is organized and immaculate, with tools hung on the walls and the floor neatly swept. A photograph of Pancho Villa hangs on the wall. The two technicians show us around and proudly explain their wheelchair creations. They are custom built for each rider, depending on their needs. Does the person live on a dirt road? Well, then the front wheels must be separated so the chair can move through soft dirt without tipping forward. Does the client live in the city? There are special adjustments for uneven sidewalks, curbs, and potholes.

Fresh socks for blistered feet

Fresh socks for blistered feet    (photo:  by John Toso)

Ernesto is here today to discuss a prosthetic fitting for his left amputated leg. And here is the surprise ending to this tale: not only will Ernesto be outfitted with a new prosthetic device, but he was offered a chance to learn the skills needed to build wheelchairs and prosthetic devices. This unique enterprise only wants to hire those individuals who are themselves without a limb. There are smiles and high-fives all around.

New shoes for a new day

New shoes for a new day

No one knows how many amputees and disabled people are in Mexico as a result of their dangerous journey to el norte. I see many on my walks around Nogales. There are no wheelchair or prosthetic manufacturers north of Hermosillo. It is a niche market, and these two enterprising fellows are developing a product to meet this need in Nogales, Mexico. I salute them for their expertise and ingenuity.

Standing by the wall

Standing by the wall    (photo: by John Toso)

Let us not forget that we are all children of immigrants, unless you are an American Indian. How quickly we discount this fact. When I look around the room at the 120 migrants sitting at the breakfast table, each one has a story of hardship and suffering that is as dramatic as Ernesto’s. He lost a foot and and almost lost his life trying to get to our country in order to pick the strawberries I placed on my morning cereal this morning.

Sister Alma lights up the comedor

Sister Alma lights up the comedor   (photo:  by John Toso)

My mother was a child of German immigrants. She did not speak English until she started elementary school at age 6. My father was a child of immigrants from Scotland and England. Their parents (my grandparents) lived in rural poverty in Iowa. There were many reasons to wonder if these families would assimilate and thrive. But they did.

They followed the classic pattern of immigrants. They arrived in large numbers, mostly poor, often uneducated. Their children and grandchildren and great-grand children became economically stable, contributing to their communities; they were better educated than their parents, and spoke English. The fears in the past about whether the Germans or the Italians or the Chinese or the Irish would ever assimilate into American culture are unfounded. They are the financial and cultural backbone of this country. Every aspect of Latino migration points to a very typical pattern of integration into American culture in one or two generations. They will be a major positive force in this society, and we will be richer for it.

Lupita and Lorena scour the pots

Lupita and Lorena scour the pots   (photo: by John Toso)

Ernesto, my migrant friend, is now learning to create prostheses and wheelchairs for others, and he will remain in Mexico. There is hope on the other side of the border, with jobs and educational opportunities strengthening the middle class. You can feel it as you walk the streets of Nogales, Mexico. Shops are opening again, and there is music in the plaza.

Many others will be risking their life on the “train of death” to fulfill their sueño americano, their American dream. They are coming to the United States. The premise of sueño americano is simple: social mobility can be achieved through hard work, regardless of social class or origin of birth. Each person should be able to attain the fullest potential of which they are innately capable.

Piles of clothing collected by the Samaritans

Piles of clothing collected by the Samaritans   (photo:  by John Toso)

We must put out a welcome mat instead of funding more Border Patrol agents. Let’s design an immigration policy based on what we believe in, not what we’re afraid of. I believe that every country has a right to control its borders. However the strategy of walls and blockades has created an underground world of smuggling and mayhem, exploiting its most vulnerable victims and encouraging vigilante activities. There is an answer to this–a process of immigration that honors the dignity and humanity of each person.

The journey of the migrant comes at a high price–a piece of their soul. There have been trials and tribulations in this search for a better life. Thousands have died dreaming the sueño americano.

And it has cost me a piece of my soul as well. It is difficult to sleep in peace when people are dying in the desert a few short miles from my home. This is something our Congressional leaders need to ponder in their policy debates. The current dialogue relating to the immigration debate makes no mention of the most important element in this whole complicated mess—the loss of human life in the desert due to an inhumane border policy.

Jaime and Sister Lorena serving breakfast

Jaime and Sister Alma serving breakfast   (photo:  by John Toso)

Behind those numbers and statistics are human beings, much like our own ancestors.

They made it. And so can my migrant friends at el comedor.

As I left the comedor today, a few migrants who were washing the breakfast dishes were humming the wonderful old anthem, “Amazing Grace.”

 “I once was lost,

But now am found.”

Works for me.

Washing dishes, cleansing souls

Washing dishes, cleansing souls   (photo:  by John Toso)

Amazing Grace, by John Newton, written in 1779.

The Wheelchair Shop is a non-governmental and not-for-profit organization under the direction of ARSOBO. Contact Kiko Trujillo in Mexico at: kiko1022@prodigy.net.mx or Dr. Burris “Duke” Duncan in Tucson at: bduncan@peds.arizona.edu for more information if you are interested in sponsoring a child or adult and assisting the family in purchasing a wheelchair or prosthesis. 

The Green Valley Samaritans are a group of activists who volunteer their services in both Mexico and the United States striving to create a more humane immigration policy. Their website is: www.gvsamaritans.org

The Kino Border Initiative directs the activities of the comedor in Nogales, Mexico. The vision is to help make a humane, just system of migration a reality between the United States and Mexico. Their website is: www.kinoborderinitiative.org

The Santa Cruz Community Foundation is a non-profit organization focusing on the economic, cultural and philanthropic needs of southern Arizona. Bob Phillips, director of SCCF, can be reached at rtp9@earthlink.net. Phone is: 520-761-4531

I endorse and am proud of the accomplishments of all of these organizations.

 

The Many Faces of Mexico

•May 6, 2013 • 7 Comments

City of Oaxaca, April, 2013

Walking and waving a branch of rosemary in an Easter procession while visiting the city of Oaxaca, I was surrounded by people singing Cielito Lindo, the unofficial Mexican anthem. It was 10 PM and I was swept along with the Easter crowd following a group of troubadours in festive costumes. Their lusty voices echoed through the narrow cobblestone streets. A band playing folk songs marched behind us, the two musical groups competing for attention with their continuous clashing melodies. People were in a jubilant mood.

I felt a million miles from my home in the borderlands of Arizona. This was one happy parade. The scent of the rosemary, the pageantry on this Easter night with a statue of the risen Christ carried on a dais of flowers, and the grand finale of elaborate fireworks that punctuated the darkening skies—all were a part of Semana Santa, or Holy Week in historic Oaxaca.

Easter procession In Oaxaca

Easter procession In Oaxaca

For a month I lived in a small village outside of Oaxaca studying Spanish and immersing myself in the traditions of Mexico at Casa Linda, an inn owned by my friend, Linda Hanna. Linda and I were neighbors back in the early 1970’s in Northern California, and for the past sixteen years she has lived in the village of San Andres Huayapam, a rural pueblo about 15 minutes from downtown Oaxaca. My host conducts folk art tours in the surrounding villages and is a passionate patron of the crafts of this region. She takes you to villages and markets where tourists are never seen.

Antonino, Linda and Peg in new rebozos

Antonino, a traditional weaver,  with Linda and Peg in new rebozos

I decided to create my own language school while spending time at Casa Linda, as I preferred the privacy of having a quiet room and place to relax, rather than living with a host family as is the custom with most language schools. Linda introduced me to a local village resident who is fluent in both English and Spanish. Each morning I took a ten minute walk to Francisco Gandara’s home, a young man who lives on a dusty country road a short distance from Casa Linda. We sit in his lovely garden, drink cedron tea (for any and all digestive ailments) and have a conversation in Spanish for 1 ½ hours.

Garden at Casa Linda

Garden at Casa Linda

We talk about our lives, our plans, our families, our pets, and the neighbor’s sheep whose incessant cries interrupt our morning lessons. Francisco acts as my teacher for a month, and our lessons are totally in Spanish. When I stumble on a word or conjugation, my teacher is able to correct my blunders in Spanish. No English. He has the patience of Job. He uses hand gestures and facial expressions, and miraculously, I understand what he is trying to say. After a few weeks I am thinking in Spanish, reading the signs and advertisements more easily, and comprehending most of what I hear. Plunging into the language is challenging and humbling, but I slowly attempt the verb tenses and idioms in the stores, the restaurants, the taxis, and on my walks around the village.

Tiny, Francisco, and Peg in Spanish conversation lesson (with Millie, the dog)

Tiny, Francisco, and Peg in Spanish conversation lesson (with Millie, the dog)

During the last week of April, Tiny Read, a long-time friend from Tucson, joined me in Huayapam. Together we met with Francisco each morning and had a 3-way Spanish conversation, which was even more stimulating and gratifying.

Antonino and the backstrap loom

Antonino and the backstrap loom

Afternoons were spent touring outlying villages with our host, Linda, observing the artists in their homes as they created rugs, ceramics, jewelry, and pottery. We took a cooking class in the Zapotec village of Teotitlán, the rug weaving pueblo. Preparing a mole negro enchilada dish with chicken, we began our feast with a taste of local mescal “for digestion.”

Tasting the culinary efforts

Tasting our culinary efforts

Shopping in the village market in the morning, we purchased the necessary ingredients with our master chef teacher, Reyna, pausing to inspect the cheeses, the tomatillos, the Oaxaca chocolate. Then we returned to her outdoor kitchen to pulverize the chilis, the spices, and the chocolate on a stone metate. The afternoon luncheon was perfection.

Preparing the mole negro

Preparing the mole negro

As I took in the traditions and richness of village life, I felt very far away from the issues of migration on the U.S./Mexican border. Most of the Mexican people I met had only a vague awareness of the lives lost in the Sonoran desert. When I spoke of the work of the Samaritans on the border, they were surprised to learn of the deaths, the military presence, and the detention centers in Arizona. It reminded me of the people in Iowa or Wisconsin who have only a nebulous understanding of what goes on in the borderlands.

Tiny and "Frida" at Frida Kahlo's Cafe

Tiny and “Frida” at Frida Kahlo’s Cocina

Indeed, I wondered why anyone would leave the tranquil rhythms of village life or the hustle and bustle of the city of Oaxaca. I felt safe on crowded city streets, in the Easter processions with thousands of others, and walking alone in the mountainous villages surrounding Oaxaca. Walking the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles and Tucson I observe more homeless poor begging for money and assistance than I saw in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Peg attempting to spin wool in the rug weaving village of Teotitlan

Peg attempting to spin wool in the rug weaving village of Teotitlan

I was always treated with utmost courtesy and respect, often receiving small gifts and tokens from people both in the city and the countryside. The Mexican people were generous and warm, curious about my presence in their villages.

A slo tango in the Zocalo, Oaxaca

A slow tango in the Zocalo, Oaxaca

During my immersion experience in Mexico I read of the Boston Marathon bombing and the panic and terror during this iconic American race. My Mexican friends were stunned about this tragedy as well, and worried about my safety when returning to Arizona. They were puzzled about the proliferation of guns and the politics of war in the U.S. How ironic that Mexicans view us as a culture of guns and violence, and we view Mexico as a culture of mayhem and turbulence as well. Truth be told, both countries have a history of violence, and explaining and justifying our actions is difficult and complex. We agreed that change must occur, as our countries are inextricably tied with a common border and billions of dollars in commerce.

School children in Oaxaca

School children in Oaxaca

Back to Arizona, April 24, 2013

During my trip back through U.S. Customs and airport security, I was stopped and detained for a short time because I had a candle in my suitcase. The candle, encased in glass like the sacred candles sold everywhere in the Southwest, was a special token from a memorial service of a dear friend who had recently died.  Removing the candle, the Customs official examined it carefully and had it analyzed. I was informed that investigators were searching for possible explosives and hidden drugs. The incident was a sharp reminder that the U.S. was on high alert for terrorists following the Boston Marathon bombing. The entire security procedure took about twenty minutes, and the officials were polite, but officious and stern in their mission as they carefully searched everything in my carry-on bag.

Welcome home to the USA!

Breakfast at the comedor

Breakfast at the comedor

This past week I returned to el comedor to once again participate in helping the recently deported migrants in Nogales, Mexico on the U.S./Mexico border. The tragic stories and despair that I saw were difficult to integrate intellectually and emotionally after a month in Oaxaca. There were 130 migrants, maybe more. Many were women and children, including a seventeen year old mother and her six month old baby. A nine year old boy drew a picture of what he expects might be waiting for him in the U.S.—-a picture of the border wall and a dragon with fire shooting out of its mouth.

Bread for the hungry

Bread for the hungry

My Mexican friends in Oaxaca tell me that solving the immigration debacle is quite simple from their perspective:  decriminalize the drugs on both sides of the border, stop the trafficking of guns from the U.S. into Mexico, and create guest worker visas so people can pass back and forth freely. “Most of the problems will disappear,” they tell me.

Michaela, Samaritan visitor, helps in the kitchen

Michaela, Samaritan visitor, helps in the kitchen

They also tell me that this will never happen. There is too much money and corruption involved for anything meaningful to occur between our countries.

I was a stranger in a strange land for a month in Mexico and felt welcomed and embraced in the mountain village of Huayapam. The people of Mexico were unfailingly kind to me when I was lost on a street corner or unable to explain my needs in Spanish. They demonstrated what it means to love your neighbor.

Young Madonna and child

Young Madonna and child

If we continue to live with the immigration policies as they are, we will continue to tear families apart and ignore the numbers of deaths in the desert. Indeed, the present immigration bill in Congress does not address the deaths in the Arizona desert, which continue unabated at 12-15 bodies per month.

We will miss out on a culture that enriches us with its food, music, art and hospitality. When I hear our politicians talk about Latino immigrants, I wonder if they realize they are talking about living, breathing human beings, with families, goals and aspirations. So many of the undocumented in this country are hiding more than their bodies in our cities and towns; they are hiding their dreams, their potential, their talents. They are students, farm workers, factory workers, and domestic workers, and are capable of much more if given the chance to develop their potential.

A comedor breakfast

A comedor breakfast

I feel shame about the way this country imprisons vulnerable people–people who do not deserve such punishment. The “crime” of crossing our border to find a better life is not deserving of months and years in detention centers. It is an unjust system of social control and one of the more profitable business enterprises in Arizona. I meet people at the comedor who have spent months in detention centers, only to be deported in the end. They then spend a few days in Nogales, Mexico, gather some necessary supplies, and once again cross into the United States trying to reunite with their families, risking everything. Some make it back to their loved ones;  some don’t. Many never make it out of the desert alive.

Let’s end this thing.

Quinceanero celebration (15th birthday) in small village of Mexico

Quinceanera celebration (15th birthday) in small village of Mexico

 

We are a better country than this. The migrants of Latin America have suffered enough.

There was a Good Friday parade in Oaxaca—a silent parade, with only the slow cadence of the drum as thousands walked silently through the streets. Even the spectators were quiet and prayerful, remembering the suffering of Christ on this important day of Holy Week.  In contrast, Sunday’s Easter evening parade was full of noise, song and fireworks—a celebration of life, with dancing and festivities.

I am ready for a celebration on the border. I am ready for a compassionate legislative immigration policy that respects the family, a work ethic, and the dignity of all peoples.

Getting ready for the parade

Getting ready for the parade

 

 

Casa Linda is a beautiful B and B in a rural village 15 minutes from downtown Oaxaca. Linda Hanna, innkeeper, will introduce you to a Mexico that few tourists see. Her website is: www.folkartfantasy.com

Her home is a quiet retreat from the noise and bustle of downtown Oaxaca. She will arrange for Spanish lessons with Francisco Gandara if this interests you. For lessons in Spanish conversation, a beginning knowledge of Spanish is necessary. Lessons are not structured with textbooks and assignments, but are purely conversation.

When making reservations, please tell Linda that you heard about her B and B from Peg Bowden, and you will receive a “friends of Linda” discount.

The Green Valley Samaritans are a non-profit group located in Southern Arizona made up primarily of retirees who are passionate about a humanitarian immigration policy in the borderlands. Their website is: www.gvsamaritans.org

Kino Border Initiative directs the operations at the comedor, a place of refuge for migrants from Latin America. The mission is to help make humane, just, workable migration between the U.S. and Mexico a reality. The website is: www.kinoborderinitiative.org

The Santa Cruz Community Foundation is a non-profit organization focused on encouraging economic, cultural, and philanthropic projects in the borderlands of southern Arizona. Bob Phillips, director of SCCF, can be reached at: rtp9@earthlink.net. Phone is: 520-761-4531

After Winter, the Spring

•March 20, 2013 • 7 Comments

Carpets of yellow and purple wildflowers color the landscape as spring envelops the Sonoran desert. I leave the windows open these mild March nights and lie awake listening to the yipping of coyotes. Three coyotes can sound like a dozen, as their howls echo and multiply up and down the canyons. I visualize little pups following coyote mothers, their high pitched yelps piercing the darkness.

 

Carpets of spring wildflowers

Carpets of spring wildflowers

Our ranch is host to open range cattle that freely wander about the countryside picking at the new clumps of green grass and tender mesquite leaves. There are babies everywhere—little calves kicking up their heels and running for cover whenever I approach them on my walks. They race for their maternal protector, startled by my presence, hiding behind their mothers’ bulky bodies and grabbing an udder for comfort. The baby calves bawl when frightened and separated from their mothers, racing to them for assurance and a safe harbor.  I am always wary of mothers and babies in the desert and keep my distance.

Mother and child

Mother and child

I think about the bonding rituals of parents and children when I visit the comedor each week. The migrants have been through so much—time in detention centers, days walking in the desert, injuries sustained while hopping trains or being beaten or assaulted along the way.

But nothing touches the deepest core feeling of pain like the separation of families.

Nothing.

Mother and child at the comedor

Mother and child at the comedor

 

Every week I am asked the same question: “Can I use your cell phone to call my family?” Often my American friends ask why a mother or father would leave their children and migrate north to the U.S.  A loving, caring family cannot flourish without economic support and a safe environment. These are the reasons that parents leave their homes and migrate north.

I witness fathers in tears because they are afraid that their children do not remember them. Mothers express great distress about trying to maintain connections with children who are very young. I hear them talking on the phone to their children: “We will be together soon. You must be strong.” Sometimes these are just dreams.  Reunification with families are just that—dreams. Still, the dreams offer hope.

High school students help serve breakfast

High school students help serve breakfast

On a recent visit to el comedor I met a young man, a teenager, from Honduras. He approached me speaking rapid-fire Spanish with a look of panic on his face. He was separated from his brother and deported the night before; his brother and another friend are in a detention center somewhere in Arizona. The adolescent was on the verge of tears, trying very hard to control his emotions.  His voice was cracking; his eyes were brimming.  I directed him to Grupos Beta and No More Deaths, two agencies that assist in reuniting migrants with families and friends. During my day in Nogales I saw this teenager in various locations, and each time he approached me with that look of panic in his eyes asking for help. I cannot forget his face.

Xavier and Samaritan Sharon discuss his family

Xavier and Samaritan Sharon discuss his family

Another woman sat eating breakfast with her three year old son, Julio. She arrived from Oaxaca after eight days of traveling and is looking for her husband. This morning she found out that her husband has been sentenced to 180 days in a detention center in Arizona. She sits staring off into space, rocking back and forth immobilized while her little boy races around the comedor with a toy car. She will stay in Nogales and try to find work. After awhile she smiles at her son as he draws and scribbles with some crayons and paper. They are together. They will get through this.

Julio and his toy car

Julio and his toy car

Several months ago another little boy, age nine, told me that he plans to cross the border and go to New York, along with his sister (age 12) and aunt (age 19).  His father, his “Papa,” lives in New York City and he has not seen him for three years. The Samaritans try and dissuade this vulnerable trio, telling them about the dangers of the journey—the desert, the extreme temperatures, the federal agents that will look for them, and the wall.

When I ask the boy why he wants to travel all the way to New York, he tells me, “…to see my Papa. I just want to know him.”  The child breaks my heart.

The boy draws a picture of what he has experienced these past weeks. He draws himself, a wall, mountains, and up in the corner is his Papa surrounded by tall buildings. It is New York City, and this is a great adventure. We try and call his father in New York, and cannot reach him.

I am horrified.

Bits of fashion at the comedor

Bits of fashion at the comedor

The increased militarization efforts to secure the border have made reunification with families more difficult. Migrants who cross the border into the United States without papers literally risk their lives in the desert. The dangers involved in getting here mean they are more likely to settle in the U.S. for long periods of time, if not permanently, and will not risk a visit back “home” to Mexico or Central America. So the militarization and increased security on the border have actually encouraged undocumented workers to stay under cover in communities in the U.S.

Family separation is becoming a norm in Latin America. When designing a compassionate comprehensive immigration policy, we must make travel back and forth from the U.S. to Mexico an easier process. The separation of families for long periods because of our immigration laws is a moral travesty. Many of the migrants I meet at the comedor whose homes are in Mexico do not want to become U.S. citizens. They want a legal path which allows them to travel back and forth across our borders, working in the U.S. for short periods, and then returning home to their villages and cities. Creating a system of guest work visas would help keep families together.

Peg and Scott Ainslie, traveling troubadour

Peg and Scott Ainslie, traveling troubadour

What I witness at the comedor are casualties of our free trade agreements and a perverse, unworkable policy about whom we allow into this country and whom we decide to kick out. Politics and economics have separated thousands of families. Their stories need to be told.

Witnessing the pain of men, women and children separated for long periods brings up my own feelings about living far from children and grandchildren. I will call my kids tonight and listen to the stories of their day. I urge you to call your own families, and make plans for a visit soon. We all live such privileged lives. We can travel, email, Skype, and telephone loved ones when we choose. Most of us are middle-class Americans. We have the right papers.

We have very few human ties that touch us deeply—our children, our mates, our family of origin, our dearest friends. Let us nurture those bonds with our own loved ones, and help heal the broken family ties of our neighbors to the south.

Spring has returned. Spring brings me hope.

 

(I will be traveling during the month of April, attending a language school in Mexico. My best wishes for a spring of hope and promise, with some precious moments with family and friends. I will resume the blog in May when I return to volunteer at the comedor.)

The Green Valley Samaritans have a wonderful website that describes the activities which touch the lives of migrants in the borderlands.  Check out:  www.gvsamaritans.org

The Santa Cruz Community Foundation (Nogales, AZ.) and its sister organization, FESAC (Nogales, Mexico) have a unique international partnership that identifies emerging issues and strengthens community resources to solve those issues.  Contact Bob Phillips, Director, at (520)761-4531

The Kino Border Initiative is a binational organization that provides direct humanitarian assistance at el comedor to migrants. KBI participates in research and advocacy to transform contemporary immigration policy.  Their website is:  www.kinoborderinitiative.org

I am proud to be involved with these organizations and endorse their activities.

Magical Realism

•February 15, 2013 • 12 Comments

It’s Tuesday morning, my day with the Samaritans at el comedor. I look out the window and there are a couple of inches of snow on the ground. Big fluffy flakes are falling, and the desert is transformed into a surreal fairyland of silver and icy blue in the early morning hours. The day is fraught with the usual mayhem, as I rush around looking for my passport, scraping snow off the windshield, and rummaging through drawers searching for gloves and a warm hat. It is so quiet outside. Even the birds are silent with their feathers all puffed out to twice the size. They look like fluffy marshmallows sitting in the branches of the palo verde tree. Facing east on this crystal morning, they wait for the sun.

snowfall at the ranch

snowfall at the ranch

Driving out the gate of our ranch I spy two coyotes just meandering through the desert mesquite. They appear healthy and fat, their furry coats thick with a reddish cast. These wild creatures stop, give me eye contact, and just stand there twenty feet away. I roll down the window and we spend a moment gazing at one another until they silently stroll off into an arroyo and disappear.

I think about what draws me to living in the Sonoran desert. There is a mystical feeling to life here. Today I am seeing the world as if in a dream. The mundane and commonplace seem awesome and inexplicable. There is no logical or psychological explanation for this awareness, but my connection to the coyotes and to the beauty of the snow-covered desert this morning feels as tangible as the frozen ground beneath my feet. Reality has taken on a supernatural keenness. There is an element of surprise in the air.

Hot breakfast on a cold morning

Hot breakfast on a cold morning

 

Walking to the comedor today with my Samaritan colleagues is a cautious, circuitous trek through ice and mud. Construction workers are bundled up continuing their work on the expanded port of entry and the ongoing building of the wall. The digging and building and disruption is endless. Carefully making our way through the maze of temporary pedestrian paths, we hang on to each other and the barricades that are sporadically placed along the way.

When we reach the comedor, there are space heaters cranking out as much heat as they can muster, and a group of migrants are huddling inside the shelter looking cold, wet, and hungry. Many have blankets draped around them. Sister Lorena plays a short video film projected on the wall–a snow scene with Bambi and some deer frolicking in the snow. Everyone laughs at the incongruous scene of snow and deer, and it feels good to be in this room of people making the best of an uncomfortable situation. The mood is upbeat as we pass out the plates of beans, eggs, and a chicken pasta dish.

Clean up after breakfast

Clean up after breakfast

Then Sister Lorena turns on the CD player and “Ode to Joy,” the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, fills the room. To my surprise, most of the migrants hum along with the melody. The whole room seems elevated as we work alongside the migrants cleaning up the breakfast dishes. The comforting smell of coffee permeates the damp cold. The migrants leave the shelter wearing the gloves, socks and jackets that we have brought this week. The sun is beginning to peek through the grey of this frigid morning. There is magic in the air. My ordinary life today seems extraordinary.

Mexican, Not Hispanic!

Mexican!  Not Hispanic!

I think about a man I met a few weeks ago. His story was one that transcended the normal boundaries of reality. I first noticed his t-shirt which boldly stated “Mexican! Not Hispanic.” In tiny letters the t-shirt read: “Hispanics are the people of Spain—European.” My migrant friend was eager to discuss the politics of Spain and Mexico and how he views these differences. He was affable and wanted to talk about his near death crisis in the desert.

His name was Alan, and he told me he was “pure Mexican” from Veracruz. I asked him how he came to be at the comedor, and his story exceeded the boundaries of my normal, everyday world. He took my Samaritan colleague, Ricardo, and me aside to a quiet corner and with great emotion began to tell us about his experience while lost in the desert. He was abandoned by his coyote guide after four days because he could not keep up with the group. One member of the party had died a few days before, and he tremulously spoke of passing by the body laying on the ground. The weather was freezing at night, and Alan had run out of water and food. Things were not looking good as he stumbled alone through the desert looking for help.

Alan, the man from Veracruz

Alan, the man from Veracruz

Alan was no longer able to walk and fell to the ground. He woke up in the early morning and saw the migrant who had died “running in shorts and a t-shirt” beside him along the migrant trail. There was a dusting of snow on the ground. He saw the dead migrant’s footprints. The spirit migrant told Alan to “go home to your family.” Alan did not heed these words, and continued on. Soon “an angel appeared to me and told me to turn back and return to my home in Veracruz where my family awaits.” When he looked ahead, he saw a road and “la migra,” the Border Patrol. The angel stood beside him and the Border Patrol did not see him. He was invisible to the agents and was protected by this guardian angel. Alan ignored the angel’s commands to return home, and continued on the migrant trail alone.

After several hours he spotted the coyote guide that had abandoned him, standing beside a waiting van. The angel appeared at this moment with his arms folded, disappointed that Alan was not paying attention to his directives. The angel told him, “Your service is now to God and your family. Go home!” Again, Alan ignored the angel’s command and joined the coyote and migrant group, getting in the van.  Alan tells me this with certainty and punctuates each word with his fist.  I got the feeling that Alan knew this was a wild tale and difficult for us to believe, but he was absolutely grounded in the reality of his experience.  He described his ordeal in detail.  This was his truth, and the truth penetrates to the heart.

Looking for jeans

Looking for jeans

Eventually, Alan, the coyote guide and the migrant group were picked up by the Border Patrol and taken to a detention center. He was deported to Nogales and sought shelter and counsel at the comedor.

Posing as the angel, he balanced on one foot to show me how the angel stood on a rock. Then he physically assumed the posture of the running spirit migrant who died. It was a magic tableau which came to life over in the corner of the hectic, busy shelter. The drama of the event was reenacted for Ricardo and me, as Alan showed us how he touched the wings of the celestial being out in the middle of the desert just a few days before.  Alan was trying his best to put into words the spiritual essence of his experience.

We helped Alan purchase a bus ticket back to Veracruz.  He finally acknowledged that the angel was right.  He must go home to his family.  Our migrant friend was tearful and emotional when we wished him a safe journey. I took a photo of him in his political t-shirt.

Ricardo and the street peddlers

Ricardo and the street peddlers

So I looked at Ricardo, and asked, “What do you think happened out there?”

Ricardo, an avowed non-believer in such things as angels and spirits, answered, “Well, he was probably hallucinating from no food or water and the freezing temperatures. I think he almost died. But something must have happened that helped this man survive certain death.”  We were both quietly shaken with Alan’s story.

I surveyed the room taking in the 100 or more migrants shivering in the morning air, and thought about all of the stories of survival and miracles that every one of them could tell us. There are 100 books in this room waiting to be written.

Kitty on a sack of beans

Kitty on a sack of beans

I am witness to tragedy and miracles each time I come to the comedor. There are so many stories, I don’t know what to do with them all. I will remember Alan’s energy and vitality when telling me his tale of survival. His is a world that promises not only joy, but a fair share of misery as well. He has taught me to look at the world with new eyes. It is the world of Mexico and the borderlands.  It is magical realism.

And I love being privy to the magic of it all.

Find out more about the Green Valley Samaritans on their website:  www.gvsamaritans.org

The Kino Border Initiative is the binational organization which directs the humanitarian activities at the comedor.  Their website is:  www.kinoborderinitiative.org

The Santa Cruz Community Foundation supports the cultural, humanitarian and economic programs of the U.S./Mexico borderlands.  Bob Phillips, the director, can be reached at: (520) 761-4531

I endorse the activities of these organizations.  They are all angels.   Peg can be reached at: Pegbowden@yahoo.com

 

BEARING GIFTS, WE TRAVERSE AFAR

•December 27, 2012 • 12 Comments

On Christmas morning I put on my red Samaritan sweatshirt and headed toward the border, along with eight other Samaritans. We were a merry band of die-hard do-gooders on this sunny morn, and for once, the border crossing was empty of people and vehicles. Most Americans were at home enjoying the revelry of brightly wrapped presents, excited children and good times around the Christmas tree. A few Border Patrol agents were casually milling around the checkpoint, their weaponry reflected in the sun. We waved and shouted a greeting.

bearing gifts           Chris with gifts for the comedor

Approaching the comedor was a different story. Over the course of the next hour we were busy serving 150 migrants a breakfast of menudo (a hearty traditional Mexican soup) and bread. Everyone got a plastic bag of lunch treats today—fruit, a sandwich, some candies. I helped serve the hungry migrants, washed a hundred glasses, then served more migrants, and washed the dishes again. It felt good to be doing something on this special morning.

Bette helps serve breakfast

Bette helps serve breakfast

Shura, a Samaritan founder, was decked out in her bright red velvet Christmas lingerie, wearing this bit of nonsensical seasonal confection over her jeans and jacket. She looked liked a provocative Mrs. Santa Claus. Her husband, Rich, sported a Christmas elf hat that lit up and played a silly song. The migrants applauded our little show of jollity as we entered the shelter, and for a moment there was a festive rhythm to the busy morning. Fr. Sean gave a Christmas blessing, and the multitude was fed.

Mrs. Santa Claus

Mrs. Santa Claus

The crèche in the corner was aglow with tiny lights, and all the characters were in place in the traditional stable—Mary, Joseph, the manger, the angels and all the animals. But there was no baby Jesus just yet. The manger was empty, save for the resident cat who was curled up next to a cow and a camel. The cat knew the warmest place in the comedor, and he slept soundly under the Christmas lights on his bed of wood shavings with his head on the manger.

Room for everyone at the manger

Room for everyone at the manger

As breakfast ended a migrant approached me with his empty soup bowl, not sure where to line up with his dirty dishes. His face was heavily lined with dust and fatigue, and his eyes glittered with a wetness—from the cold, from pain, from tears? I didn’t know what was happening with this gentleman.

A migrant, Santa's elf, and the shoes

A migrant, Santa’s elf, and the shoes

He wore a dirty khaki jacket, his shoes were worn through at the soles, and his jeans were ripped. Looking at me through his teary eyes, I could see my red sweatshirt reflected in his gaze. His eyes looked red; then they looked like all the reflected colors of the Christmas lights on the manger scene. I couldn’t see his irises, but only the lights of the room reflected through his tears. His eyes were barely open as they locked onto mine, and we both looked at each other awkwardly.  I thought he was going to cry.

A Christmas moment

A Christmas moment

I asked him where his home was.

San Luis Potosi,” was his reply, a city in the central part of Mexico. He was more than a thousand miles from home.

He went on to explain that he had walked in the desert in the U.S. for nine days. He had slept in the Nogales cemetery on Christmas Eve, and was still very cold after a night of freezing temperatures. I asked if he was hurt. He didn’t answer. When I asked if he was OK, he stared at the floor and just shook his head back and forth. We stood there for what seemed like an eternity, and I had a thousand questions I wanted to ask him, but my inadequate Spanish couldn’t come up with the words. He looked so beaten and despairing, I was immobilized. In fact there were no words in either English or Spanish that wouldn’t seem cheap and superficial. So there we stood, our masks removed, truthfully and transparently trying to make a human connection. I couldn’t get past his eyes; they were full of tears, and yet they would not spill over down his worn, weary face.

A moment of warmth

A moment of warmth

And I wondered on this Christmas morning how we can celebrate the birth of Jesus, when God doesn’t help this man through perhaps the lowest point in his life. Where was the love? Where was the mercy? Why wasn’t God more of a lifeline for this wonderful person in front of me who kept staring at me?  His world was chaos, and I was having trouble entering his world and being with him. I realized that no matter what I said to this man, it would fall short. The room was probably full of 100 more stories as sorrowful and dramatic as this man’s narrative. It was overwhelming, and I wondered what I was doing here on this traditional morning of Christmas joy.

We are all migrants (sign on refrigerator)

We are all migrants (sign on refrigerator)

So, not knowing what to do, I took his empty soup bowl. It was a gesture of busy-ness, of trying to fill the self-conscious moment. He put his hand on my shoulder and quietly said, “Gracias.” I told him to be careful. I said I would say a prayer for his safety. I wished him “Feliz Navidad.” And he disappeared out the door. I wondered if I really knew how to pray for anything, much less the well-being of this lost soul.

After serving breakfast and distributing the clothes to the traveling pilgrims, one of the sisters asked our group of Samaritans if we would like to stay and witness the placing of the baby Jesus in the manger. The manger had been empty for weeks, and now it was Christmas Day and time for Jesus to sleep in his manger of straw.

Rocking baby Jesus

Rocking baby Jesus

And so we did. A lovely pageant of Christmas unfolded before our group. We watched two young women place the little statue of the infant Jesus in a small dish towel and swing the baby like a hammock, to and fro, while a group of migrants, sisters and kitchen helpers sang a song about the Christmas story. (a very long song) Then the baby Jesus was placed on a kitchen tray filled with candy and was slowly passed around the group. We were told that this was a time to ask Jesus for our own personal Christmas miracle, and take a piece of candy, a gift of His love. Each person was invited to kiss the infant statue and whisper a Christmas wish as the tray was passed around the circle.

Cradled in sweets

Cradled in sweets

Our group of Samaritans—this motley crew of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, and all the in-betweens—all stood there nervously and watched as the ritual evolved. It was a sweet moment of vulnerability for all of us, as we entered the tableau and each planted a kiss on the little Jesus statue. We bent down to whisper whatever we wished–our prayer for ourselves, our family, a sick friend, or the world of pain we had just witnessed with the traumatized migrants. The question of whether we believed the story of Christmas didn’t matter. It was a powerful moment for each of us.

The meek and the mild

The meek and the mild

It struck me at that moment, as I kissed the baby Jesus’ forehead, how vulnerable a newborn baby is, and how vulnerable I was in the presence of the suffering and despair of the migrants. I thought about my own children when they were babies—their illnesses, their traumas, their defenseless nakedness. My emotions were right on the surface. Perhaps His message isn’t experienced in our strongest moments, but in our honest weakness. I have never found it easy to be with people who are suffering. I do not want to enter the chaos and feel helpless.  And yet today I simply stood with a man who had been living an horrific drama, and I forgot about myself and my own discomfort, and just stood with him, connecting as best I could. Being in his presence was a profound gift to me in ways I haven’t quite figured out. He touched my life, and perhaps I touched his.

Peg and the newspaper lady

Peg and the newspaper lady

Our group was oddly quiet walking back to our waiting cars in the U.S. I believe that God was with us today in the unpretentious, simple surroundings of the comedor. I smile when I picture each individual bending over the little statue of Jesus on the bed of candy, and whispering hopes for the future.

And that was the best Christmas gift of all.

(Photo of “Peg and the newspaper lady” by David Zweig, a fellow Samaritan.)

Peg Bowden can be reached at pegbowden1942@gmail.com

The Green Valley Samaritans are volunteers whose mission is to save lives in the southern Arizona desert.  To find out more about the Green Valley Samaritans, check their website:  www.gvsamaritans.org

The Kino Border Initiative (KBI) is a bi-national organization that works in the area of migration, and is located in both Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico.  The KBI’s vision is to help make humane, just, workable migration between the U.S. and Mexico a reality.  Their website is:  www.kinoborderinitiative.org

The Santa Cruz Community Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting economic development and cross-border issues, can be accessed by emailing the Director, Bob Phillips, at:  rtp9@earthlink.net

I  endorse the activities of these organizations.  Financial contributions to these groups are especially welcome to help support the work in the borderlands.