Of burros and chocolate

•April 27, 2012 • 3 Comments

I sat in a doctor’s office yesterday half-listening to the TV which was tuned into Fox News. This is the week that the infamous anti-immigration Arizona bill, SB1070, is up for debate in the Supreme Court. Arizona is big news again. Flashing across the screen was a poll stating that 68% of the people in the United States favor the Arizona bill and think that anyone in this country without proper documentation should be deported. Period. The rest feel that comprehensive immigration reform is needed. Maybe 10% are simply undecided about the matter.

So 68% of Americans want to kick out the “illegals.”

Them and us

And so I entered the exam room of my doctor, a Mexican American man raised in a suburb of Laredo, Texas. He is competent, gregarious, and has asked me now and then about what it is I do at el comedor in Nogales, Sonora. So today I ask him how he decided to be a doctor. He was raised in a family of many children and not enough money. His schooling was mediocre at best. Working in a gas station throughout high school he would do his homework in between gassing up the cars. He was always marked down on his papers because they were dirty and full of oil stains and grease. This still rankles him. His math papers were perfect, but he was docked 10% because of the grease stains.

He tells me about seeing migrants pass through their yard when he was a little boy. His mother would tell the weary travelers to drink from the garden hose, and then would run inside to prepare food for them. And she would ask her son, who is about eight years old at this point, to take the food outside to the waiting migrants. My doctor spoke of how he hated this chore.

Lennon's words of peace (Nogales graffiti)

There is not enough food to feed everyone in our own family! Why should we give these strangers our food when we don’t have enough ourselves? I hate doing this!”

And his mother would put her hand on his head and say in Spanish, an old Mexican proverb:

How can a burro know about fine chocolate, mi hijito?

How can a little boy so young really understand what is going on here? How can a little boy understand that when you see someone who is hungry and tired and thirsty, you give them water and food and a bit of shade. You share what you have. You help those in dire need.

Harsh lessons in the desert

She told him that someday he would understand.

My doctor told me that it took him many years to understand. He points to a photo on the wall of his mother, a beautiful Mexican woman with a classic profile and long black hair. It is obvious to me that he reveres her as a saint. His mother taught him well the lessons of compassion and how we treat those in need. His skill as a doctor reflects the gentle spirit and tenderness of his mother. I’m lucky to have him as my doctor.

the Virgin and the squash

And I think about the august body of Supreme Court Justices sitting in their black robes making decisions about literally millions of undocumented people living in this country, and those crossers trying to get here. Add to this the Arizona State Legislature, so firm in their belief that more prisons, more Homeland Security, and a bigger wall is going to make Arizona safe and prosperous.

I would like them all to spend one hour in the presence of the migrants I see weekly at el comedor.  How can you criminalize the migrants if you have never met them?  If you have never looked them in the eye?  If you have never swapped stories about their children, their wives, their hopes and dreams?  And then I would like them to re-think the pat answers I get from the 68% about being “illegal.” The laws and policies concerning immigration are wrong, inhumane, and they don’t work. It is the burro trying to understand the nuances of fine chocolate.

Caring for the woman from Chiapas

The answers are not simple. And the wall is one expensive boondoggle which will never work. What is missing from the equation has to do with the compassion and kindness I have been taught to expect from the United States. We are better than these endless arguments about states’ rights and Arizona law superseding Federal law, or vice versa. We have somehow gotten on the wrong track here. It reminds me of that essay from college days by Thomas Aquinas about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It is an endless debate leading nowhere.

We are wasting time. People are dying, probably today, not far from my home. Mass migration has been happening for more than a decade from our neighbors to the South. Probably 99% of migrating people are in desperate economic straits. They are not smugglers hauling a load of marijuana. Most of the illicit drug trade comes through the major ports of entry in trucks. Not on the backs of immigrants.

They want to work. We owe them the decency of humane treatment. Mexico needs to step up to the plate, and so do we. We’re in this together. God knows there is a lot of work to be done, both here and in Mexico. Just look at our highways, our bridges, and the rotting crops in the fields. Perhaps the lesson here is to work together in the best interests of the suffering people at our borders.

kitchen clean-up at the comedor

Forget the wall. Try and understand the nuances of fine chocolate. Even if at times we seem to act like a bunch of asses.

It’s all pretty basic, really. My mother taught me the same lessons as my good doctor’s mother from Laredo.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

Please check out the Green Valley Samaritan website at:  www.gvsamaritans.org There are many ways to support the Samaritans, and the website will give an overview of our various activities.


If the Shoe Fits

•April 14, 2012 • 2 Comments

Several years ago I did the rim to rim hike across the Grand Canyon, a 26 mile hike from the North to South Rim taking four days. Each night our guide, who does this hike several times a year, would inspect our feet for reddened areas (hot spots) and blisters. The nightly ritual seemed bizarre at first, as I never paid much attention to my feet. But I gradually realized that if I couldn’t walk, I was in deep trouble. My feet were my life-giving instruments that were going to get me out of this canyon. If there were hot spots appearing on our feet (and all eight of us experienced this at some point) we applied antibiotic ointment and duct tape. Yes, duct tape. The stuff that keeps the universe from unraveling. Duct tape stays on in the desert heat. Mole skin and every other kind of adhesive tape is useless. It slides right off.

lining up at the comedor

And so it is that I remember this bit of Grand Canyon wisdom when I look at the migrants at el comedor limping into the shelter this morning. Many wear shoes that are torn and rotting. Some are in flip-flops. One woman is in her stocking feet. She tells me her shoes were taken from her in a detention center. Toes stick out of torn canvas. Shoe soles are separated from leather. I see blood and dirt on socks.

flip flops in the desert

After days in the desert or weeks traveling on foot from Central America to this border city, most of the people need shoes. The Samaritans have written a grant to a charitable organization in Nashville, Tennessee called Soles4Souls. Their mission is simple: to collect new shoes for “victims of abject suffering.” This week our group arrived at el comedor with over one hundred pairs of new shoes plus boxes of new socks. It was a joyous day. We had every size and style, and the smell of new leather filled the air.


the gift of new shoes

Looking across the room today at the group of travelers, it occurs to me that many have not ventured more than ten miles from their villages during the course of their life. But economic hard times have driven them to el norte into Nogales, Sonora, a city they have never heard of. After spending days in a detention center, some were deported at 3 AM this morning. They look tired, with vacant eyes and worn clothes hanging on their thin bodies.

boots for a working man

But trying on these shoes changes things. I see a couple of high fives. One fellow tells me these are the best shoes he has ever worn. He walked in wearing rubber thongs over dusty socks. He will walk out with workmen’s boots. I see him carefully put the new shoe tags into his jeans.

Comfort for the feet

A little boy cannot decide if he wants to try on shoes or play with the resident cat. The men look over the shoes and boots carefully and the benches are lined with people trying on the footwear.  I tell them to make sure the shoes fit.  No more blisters, OK?

A woman who is from a village in Oaxaca hangs on the sidelines. She speaks no Spanish or English, and instead communicates in an indigenous language from her region that no one at the shelter understands. She is wearing a lovely skirt and patent leather maryjanes on her feet. She picks up a hand-knit blanket and hugs it to herself and watches the group trying on the shoes. Her hair hangs below her waist, and she rocks back and forth with her blanket.

the woman and the knitted blanket

Being here is always a mixed bag. I feel like perhaps our Samaritan group has done a good thing today. We have given the gift of decent shoes to people in desperate need. And then there are others that our good intentions cannot impact. All I can do is sit with this peasant woman with her blanket.

And pat her arm.

I try to imagine what it would be like to be one thousand miles from home with no money, no resources, and unable to communicate with anyone around me. How did this woman get here? What was she thinking? What now?

Compassion comes in many forms. Today it is a pat on the arm and a colorful blanket.

And boxes of boots that are made for walkin’.

For more information about the Samaritans, we have a great website.  Address is:  www.gvsamaritans.org   Check it out for ideas about how you can help.

Waste not

•April 3, 2012 • 6 Comments

A few weeks ago I had my day in court. I witnessed “Operation Streamline”, the court system that speeds up “due process” for the thousands of immigrants who have entered the United States illegally. Operation Streamline first began back in 2005, and was instituted during George W. Bush’s Presidency. Any American can sit in the courtroom in Tucson and observe what happens to approximately 70 undocumented migrants every day, Monday through Friday. It is an eye-opener.

It all happens in the Evo A. Deconcini U.S. Federal Courthouse in Tucson, Arizona. Just getting into the Courthouse is a sobering experience. Think airline security measures, and multiply by 10. I had a camera and iPhone in my purse and was not allowed past the security checkpoint in the lobby. I knew no photos were allowed but thought I could carry a camera or iPhone into the building. Wrong. Running across the front courtyard of the Federal Building I found a cafe that held my camera and cell phone for several hours while I hurried back just in time for court proceedings to begin.

Long may she wave

The courtroom is large. The benches look like church pews. As I enter the space, I notice that the left side of the room is filled with brown faces all seated on the hard benches, and on the right side are small groups of predominately white men in uniform milling about. Fifty-seven migrants sit quietly and stoically on those benches. All are Latino. They are dressed in t-shirts and dusty jeans and look like they have been in the desert for days. Their belts and shoelaces have been removed. There are two female migrants who sit separately from the men. All are in shackles—their hands attached to a chain around their waist, with feet manacled at the ankles. I watch as a migrant tries to drink water from a paper cup. It is impossible to drink without bending over at the waist and precariously ingesting the water against gravity. The water spills down the young man’s t-shirt as he tries to take a sip. When they stand, some of them have difficulty keeping their pants up without a belt. I am embarrassed to watch this and quickly look away.

All eyes are on our little group of six as we enter the courtroom and are told where to sit, which is on the far right side of the room. The looks from the migrants are beseeching, searching, as if we might be family or a friend? There are a few smiles from the migrants. I smile back, tentatively, not quite knowing how to behave in this setting where justice presides.

One fellow has on baggy “skater” shorts and a silky soccer t-shirt. He looks like a California dude, and is heavier and larger than any other migrant. He grins at our group and gives us a little wave.

The men in uniform on the right side of the room are Border Patrol officers and U.S. Marshals. The atmosphere is one of laughing, joking, a feeling of business as usual and easy camaraderie. Several are playing with their Blackberries.

view from the courthouse

On the left there is silence as the migrant defendants stare into their lap or vacantly straight ahead. I notice that one of the lawyers and a Border Patrol officer are also Latino, and it occurs to me that they are the only Hispanics in the room that are not in shackles. The majority of migrants look young—in their teens, 20’s or early 30’s. All have earphones which are translation devices so they can understand the court proceedings which are in English. They each have a federal public defender who has spent the morning with their assigned cases—usually about six migrants per lawyer. An attorney friend who works a day each week doing Operation Streamline cases has told me that these are perhaps “the nicest people that I defend. Their only crime is crossing the border to find work.” My friend is supportive of the migrant’s plight, and gives me insight into the proceedings of this streamlined form of justice. He doesn’t approve of the cookie-cutter approach to Streamline, but is as supportive and informative to the migrants as he can be. It is a tough job. I have to say that I am impressed with all of the attorneys that day. They take their job seriously and do their best to be fair and just and supportive of their clients.

Walking the Wall to the comedor

When the judge enters, we all stand.  The judge is a woman, the Honorable Jacqueline Marshall. As she takes roll call with each migrant, she pronounces every name correctly in Spanish. She is patient and empathetic with each person. I am impressed with her demeanor and her caring, coupled with her objectivity as a judge.

One fellow does not know his birth date, and she speaks with him about his best guess regarding his age. He decides he is “maybe nineteen.” Another fellow states his birthplace as Guatemala, when it is actually in Chiapas, Mexico. It turns out that Chiapas was part of Guatemala 180 years ago, and was annexed by Mexico. This man’s family has never accepted the change. This business of borders exists far beyond our own.

The migrants are called to the bench in groups of six. Their bony frames are hunched over from the weight of the leg irons and manacles. The clanging of the metal irons and the shuffling to the front of the room is a sight I will never forget. I think about drawings of African slaves in this country two hundred years ago.

Considering the next step at the comedor

Each migrant is asked:

Are you a citizen of Mexico (or Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras) and did you enter into the U.S. illegally?”


Are you being forced to plead guilty?”


Have you spent time discussing your situation with your lawyer?”


After several more questions, the judge asks:

How do you plea?”

Culpable,” or “guilty,” rings out in the room, one by one.

The California skater dude says, “Guilty”, and tells the judge that he was visiting extended family in Mexico and was trying to get back home to Tucson when he was detained in Nogales. He speaks perfect English. He looks like a high school kid.

Each migrant is given the opportunity to speak. The day I was in court, no one did. All know that by pleading guilty, they will get back to Mexico quicker. They have been advised by their lawyers well. The migrants have the right to a trial by jury if they wish to plead “not guilty”, but this means weeks in a prison or detention center awaiting trial, and the probability that they will be deported anyway. Not much of a choice.

Arriving at the comedor

If this is a first time offender, the sentence is 15-30 days, with time served counted as part of the sentence. If the migrant has other charges (a theft, driving without a license, for example), the sentence is longer (30-180 days), but by pleading guilty, the lesser offense is what is considered when a judgment is made. Sometimes the sentencing seems arbitrary, but it appears that the judge has more information about each migrant than is evident to all of us in the gallery.

So, the question that occurs to me is, does this work? Does this conveyor belt approach to justice deter illegal entry into the United States?

The newspapers and media tell me that the numbers of migrants are down.  The Border Patrol apprehend 1000 migrants/day along the Arizona border, and seem to cherry-pick seventy of them for Streamline.  The rest are quickly deported into Nogales, now the busiest exit point in the state.  The comedor in Nogales, Sonora, is seeing record numbers these past months—two hundred or more per day.

In the past six months (October, 2011-March, 2012), there have been 71 dead bodies found in the Sonoran desert. That is more than ten per month. Most of the migrants I see in Nogales, Sonora, tell me that the only things that deter them from crossing are poor economic conditions in the U.S. and the harsh dangers of the desert journey. And even these deterrents do not dissuade many from seeking to reunite with families and loved ones.  They will cross regardless of Streamline or incarceration.

And here’s something to ponder. The numbers of Border Patrol apprehensions began to decline in the year 2000, five years before Operation Streamline. When I look at graphs with numbers of immigrants, they seem to reflect the ups and downs of our economy. So what is Operation Streamline really accomplishing?

And what about the cost? As I sit in the air-conditioned chambers of the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Tucson, sitting on these hard Presbyterian type benches watching judgments come down from on high (and the judge is up on a platform), I wonder about the dollars spent on Operation Streamline. It is hard to pin down an accurate monetary figure. As usual, there is no easy answer. First there is Homeland Security (which includes the Border Patrol and ICE). Their budget in 2010 was 3.6 billion dollars. Obama increased this budget by 600 million in a special supplemental package for even more border security. Then there is the Wall at the U.S./Mexico border, which is presently a 42 billion dollar project, and growing. Add to this the incarceration facilities and the growing private prison system which is headed up by the Corrections Corporation of America. The privitization of the prison system is a controversial topic in itself. A monthly check of 13 million dollars is paid to this corporation by the U.S. Marshal in Arizona. The private prison system is Arizona’s growth industry. We’re talking a major job stimulus program here, folks. If you have a penchant for emotional detachment, disengagement from people, and like to wield some power, well, there are jobs for you with Corrections Corporation of America.

"I have the right to work"

If this is all a bit complicated and confusing, you are correct.  I read recently that a number of migrants are picked up by the Border Patrol heading south, back to Mexico. What??!! Why would this be happening? One explanation is that the Border Patrol must beef up their numbers in order to keep this financial boondoggle going.  You know the drill—spend the money or it won’t be in the budget next year.  If their numbers drop, there is less money, less jobs. So if a vehicle is heading back to Mexico and is 5 miles from the border, it is easy pickings. Detain the vehicle and process the migrants through the system. The courts, the prisons, the law enforcement agencies all prosper.

And the taxpayers foot the bill.

Forgive me for getting carried away with this travesty.  To me the biggest cost is the humanitarian one–criminalizing people who have not committed a crime.  Watching fifty-seven people in chains and manacles shuffling through the courtroom with the American flag in full display is unnerving. Watching this spectacle knowing that their crime is crossing the U.S. Border looking for work touches me at a visceral level. This is what my own ancestors did when they crossed the pond just three or four generations ago. We are criminalizing people who want to work.

Most of the people I witness in that courtroom are going to make it, either here or back in their country of origin. This is their odyssey, not unlike Homer’s tale of The Odyssey. There are monsters to slay, sirens that will offer temptations, cyclops to tackle, and a journey of danger and daring.  The myth of The Odyssey has come to life a few miles from my home.  The migrants in this courtroom may leave the room shuffling in chains with their head down, but they will not give up. Neither did Odysseus.

As I watch one of the migrants leave the courtroom in chains, he tries to cross himself. His chains restrict his movement.  Watching this simple, eloquent gesture stays with me the rest of the day.

So here’s what I take away from this profound day in court.  If there is a chance for a better life, be it here or somewhere else, these people in chains are going to take it. And probably succeed.

I really believe that.


Research for this posting is from the following:

Tucson Citizen, Oct. 21, 2010,Operation Streamline, SB1070, CCA, immigration and private prisons, and how it all connects”

Operation Streamline Watch, grassrootsleadership.org/operationstreamline, Sept. 7, 2011

Operation Streamline Fact Sheet, July 21, 2009

Sonoran Chronicle: sonoranchronicle.com/tag/operation-streamline/


If you wish to read more about this topic,  Google “Operation Streamline Tucson.” A list of references will come up for your perusal.

Be sure and check out the Green Valley Samaritan website at: www.gvsamaritans.org    Many readers have asked how they can support the Samaritans.  The website is the place to learn of our activities, mission, and how you can support the work.

Hope Springs Eternal

•March 21, 2012 • 6 Comments

The Spanish word, esperar, means two things in Spanish—“to wait” and “to hope.” It is a word that perfectly expresses what I see each week as migrants wait with dignity for a nourishing meal, for some warm clothes on this chilly morning, and for the prayers of Father Martin as they contemplate the next step in their journey.

There is a mixture of despair, hope, and always, they wait.

a warm jacket for someone's Grandma

Today is the first day of spring, March 20. The mountains are covered in snow surrounding my home and my hands are frozen and clumsy as I scrape the ice off the windshield of the car. I stop by my neighbor’s house for a sack of warm clothes. She is amazed I’m going to el comedor. Frost is everywhere. And of course we are desert dwellers and wimp out when the temperatures plunge. Global warming does have its peculiarities.

Lines of shivering immigrants are waiting for us in front of el comedor. A woman has no socks, and her shoes are coming apart at the soles. Our group of Samaritans begin handing out blankets and fleecy shirts before we enter the shelter to help serve breakfast.

making do

One fellow, Jesus, asks for a blanket, and speaks English clearly and fluently. I ask where he lives?

South Dakota, for the past 20 years.”

Jesus is a painter, specializing in barns, grain silos, and farm buildings. He has a wife and three children, and drops his backpack on the sidewalk to show me a photo of his little girl, age 3. The photo is well creased and it is hard for me to see her little face behind the cracked and worn plastic sleeve. His story is the usual—-picked up for driving without a license and deported to Nogales.

Jesus, man of hope

What is your plan?”

Jesus lights up and tells me excitedly that he has a job, and has found a place to rent. He will paint cars here in Nogales, the sort of fancy detail work that young men love on their machines. Maybe he will paint houses. He shows me his fingernails, which are stained with paint.

This town could use a good paint job, and I’m the man to do it.” I like his upbeat optimism.

Woman with the cap

So, will your family join you here?”

Jesus explains that his family is traveling to California and will wait.

Wait for what?”

I’m not sure. But God will let me know when the moment is right.”

I ask, “Right for what?”

Jesus looks off in the distance, smiles, and tells me he crossed into the U.S. “maybe 10 years ago” after visiting relatives in Guerrero. He walked miles, hopped trains, traveled by bus, and hitchhiked his way back to South Dakota. He knows traveling to California is no piece of cake.

So he will wait until he “knows when the moment is right.”

the Virgin, the migrant, and a sack of sugar

But for now, he is happy to have a job in Nogales and a place to live. There is fire in his eyes and a spring in his step as he walks up the street, a blanket under one arm. He is full of hope.

It is spring in the Arizona desert. Snow flurries were flying yesterday at el comedor. The wildflowers that blanket our desert are in a bit of shock today. But spring teaches us to wait and to hope for the bloom of tomorrow.

I think about the world today. There are vastly more poor people than rich people. The numbers of poor seem to grow. I see the poor each week in this humble little shelter.

It gets to me.

Samaritans on a cold spring day

But once again there is a profound lesson to be learned here. The lesson hits me today during the prayers before breakfast. Every head is bowed in humility and the moment is intense with a feeling of enduring hope and faith.  The place seems to levitate 2 feet off the ground.

Life will get better.

You cannot stop masses of people who wish to work, love, and be with their families. Their faith in a better tomorrow lights up this shelter on a chilly morning in March.

For the first time, I feel warm.

the Virgin and the jacket

The Green Valley Samaritans have a new website. My reflections on el comedor are just a small part of Samaritan activities.  There is much more to the story.  If you wish to support or contribute to this worthy group I encourage you to check out their beautiful new site at:    www.gvsamaritans.org   

The elephant in the living room

•March 11, 2012 • 7 Comments

As a child of the ’60’s, I often heard the phrase, “the personal is political.”  I never quite understood what this meant.  It has taken me fifty plus years to finally “get it.” How I live in the social structure of the border is both personal and political. So if this posting strikes you as overtly political, well it is.

I live on the border of two countries, Mexico and the United States. It is like living in a third country—the borderlands. I shop for groceries, fresh tortillas, and cowboy boots in Nogales, Arizona, and feel very much the international traveler when I cross into Nogales, Mexico for my dental care (which is excellent, by the way), a special lunch at La Roca,  prescription drugs and even medicines for our dogs. Stepping through the customs gate and the infamous Wall is stepping into another world. It looks and feels like another country. The sidewalks are uneven and a bit precarious to navigate.  There are shops and food venues on side streets and alleyways, and music and life is everywhere. Yaqui Indians are dancing in the plaza and kids are playing soccer in the park. There is so much to see, it is difficult to keep from tripping over the curbs or getting run down by a taxi. You know you are in Mexico immediately.


Mexican folk dancers

Living on the border can be a schizophrenic experience with two different realities happening at once.  Most people speak two languages. Restaurants serve an interesting mix of Mexican and American cuisine.  Chips and salsa are automatically placed on your table.  Chilis are roasted in front of my local grocery store each autumn. I dodge cattle and cowboys on horses when I drive to town. Children selling Girl Scout cookies approach me in both Spanish and English hoping for a sale, the youngsters being fluent in both languages.


street food for hungry tourists

And then there is the dark side.

Newspapers and TV broadcasts are full of catastrophic tales of mayhem and violence on both sides of the fence. Arizona lives with the fall-out from Senate Bill 1070, a tough anti-immigration law which allows State law enforcement to stop and question the legal citizenship of anyone that looks suspicious. Sheriff Arpaio of Phoenix receives media attention every time he opens his mouth, bragging about his attempts to humiliate prisoners who have crossed the border without proper papers. A few weeks ago while driving to Nogales I spotted two Border Patrol officers with weapons drawn running across the desert, easily visible from the freeway. Who were they chasing? My guess is that they had spotted some weary migrant travelers heading toward el norte with hopes of a job and a safe harbor.  Things do get a bit dicey out there.

I venture to say that a high percentage of our esteemed State Legislators have not been to the border of Mexico for twenty or more years.  They believe what they hear and read, and fear what they have never experienced. Many fan the flames of crime and violence on the border. They have drunk the Kool-aid.  And of course no one wants to talk about the crime and violence in the State capitol, Phoenix.


University of Arizona Journalism students visit el comedor in Nogales, Sonora

Now, I am fully aware that Mexico has problems—the global economy has created a wave of poverty that has swept both urban and agricultural areas.  The insatiable appetite for illicit drugs in this country (U.S.) has created a system of crime and lawlessness in the trafficking of drugs across the border.  People who cannot survive economically in Mexico attempt to cross our borders without visas or documentation looking for work. And on and on.  Mexico’s problems are inextricably bound to the U.S. 

We have met the enemy, Pogo, and he is us.

But come Tuesdays, I cross the line along with my Samaritan colleagues, casually waving at ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement), the Border Patrol, and U.S. Marshals as I walk to el comedor. They give me a cursory nod and gaze into the distant hills of Mexico. The migrants greet us with a soft “ buenos dias,” gratefully accepting whatever help we can offer. Danger? Well, it just doesn’t enter my mind when I am helping serve breakfast to 200 hungry souls.

Sister Rosalba prepares for a meal

And then there is the other side of the picture.

The bright side.

There is the work of the Santa Cruz Community Foundation (SCCF) which does a variety of cross-border tours and projects on both sides of the line helping to dispel the negative press and media sensation for which Arizona has become famous. I am a new member of this group and am still on a learning curve here. Driving to Nogales, Sonora, I attended an exciting meeting along with SCCF Board members a few days ago as guests of prominent Mexican businessmen and women to discuss some of the issues our border community faces. We met in a lovely home a few miles across the border in Nogales, Sonora in a residential neighborhood of beauty and graciousness. This group of businessmen (Fundacion del Empresariado Sonorense, A. C., or FESAC) wishes to collaborate with SCCF to dispel the constant barrage of negative press hoping to increase trade, business and tourism in Ambos Nogales. Ambos Nogales refers to both Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales Sonora—sister cities that have thrived and survived quite nicely next to each other for 200 or more years. The town motto, Juntos por amor a Nogales, means “United by the love of Nogales”. This lovely motto has been irreparably challenged by the shadow of the Wall which now divides Nogales, Mexico from the U.S. 

Looking at that Wall, it feels like I live in a gated community for rich white folks.

the elephant in the living room, Nogales, Sonora

So there we were, our seven-member entourage of SCCF members seated with ten prestigious businessmen from Nogales, Sonora. Their earnestness in discussing the dreams and hopes for this struggling city was both touching and infectious. The proverbial elephant in the living room— the violence of Mexico—was openly discussed and confronted.  The border looks like a military war zone, with State and Federal troops patrolling as cars and pedestrians do their best to ignore the weaponry.  The fears of Americans to visit Mexico were placed in this forum of ideas for everyone to see. This was a committed group of businessmen who own and operate maquilas, (factories in Mexico) the hospitals, a shelter for abused children, a brand new day care center, and housing developments.

day care center in Nogales, Sonora

And how can FESAC and SCCF collaborate? Our Mexican friends are most interested in supporting violence prevention programs in Mexico through state-of-the-art pre-schools for youngsters, and after school activities for young men and women. They were honest and candid about the issues of Sonora and the need for programs and interventions to increase the safety and liveability of Nogales. Passionate about ending the violence, they believe that reaching young people is an important step in curbing drug trafficking and crime. It is also the way to promote business in Ambos Nogales and recreate the charm of this border town.

And by the way, Nogales, Arizona has one of the lowest crime rates in Arizona.  Jeffrey Scott Kirkham, the police chief in Nogales, the busiest legal port of entry in Arizona, said his city’s crime rate was very low, with two homicides in the last seven years.

Frankly, I love Arizona and I love Mexico. Living on the border feeds into my love of both cultures. I have never had a bad time in Mexico. What’s not to like? The food is full of color and heat, the margaritas are simply the best, and the people—well, their generosity and spirit and love of family are what a good life is all about. I am often embarrassed, ashamed and astounded at what comes out of the Arizona State Legislature. Feeling more at home in the borderlands with its delightful mesh of customs and culture, I could not live anywhere else.

a shrine on the border

So here’s the deal. The Santa Cruz Community Foundation will soon be presenting its signature event of the year, Folklorico ’12, on April 28. It will be a celebration of life on the border, complete with an elegant dinner, a ballet troupe from Mexico, and dancing the evening away to live music from our historic past. The event is a step back in time and will be held on a lovely desert evening at the Tubac Presidio State Park, in Tubac, Arizona– one of the oldest European settlements in America. I will be there decked out in some sort of regional dress celebrating 400 years of our colorful history. Usually I don’t advertise an event on this blog, but this one is worth touting. This is a major fund-raising event for the betterment of life in the borderlands. Monies collected will be ear-marked toward projects which address the quality of life on both sides of the border.

Call SCCF at: 520-761-4531 for tickets and information about Folklorico ’12.  Become a sponsor!  Reserve a table!

I look forward to celebrating the cultural richness of this special place with a toast to our borderland heritage. I guarantee that the margaritas will be deliciosas! We all must create a dialogue about our common interests and love of Mexico and the border. We have a LOT to talk about.

See you at Folklorico ’12!

“Where is Love”, from “Oliver”, a musical

•March 3, 2012 • 3 Comments

Every migrant I meet at el comedor in Nogales, Sonora, has someone they love either in Mexico, or the U.S., or most often in both places. The comedor is a place filled with passionate, tragic love stories of people seeking their children, their spouses, their lovers.

"No one is illegal", a sign on the comedor fridge

Today I meet Eric, a roofing contractor from California. He is standing in front of the comedor in a t-shirt this cold February morning. It is 40 degrees. Eric has been in a U.S. detention center for weeks and was deported to Nogales at 4 AM this morning. His jacket was confiscated during his detention time and so he is hoping that the Samaritans have some warm jackets this morning.

Eric and the Virgen de Guadalupe

And we do. Shoes, too. I watch him try on an almost new pair of Adidas shoes and look over the pile of men’s clothing. He is a big man—bigger than most of the other men. He finds a well insulated jacket and squeezes into it. The sleeves are too short and the zipper doesn’t really work, but he takes the jacket and looks for some clean socks.

I ask him where home is. Instead of answering, he asks, “Can I show you pictures of my family?”

He pulls a zip-loc bag out of his beat-up duffel bag and carefully removes Christmas cards with photographs tucked inside. And I meet his family. Three sons. The youngest is graduating from high school in California and is decked out in his school uniform. The middle son has on an ROTC uniform full of medals and stripes, and Eric tells me this boy is a Sophomore in college. The third son is dressed in camouflage fatigues and is stationed at Fort Benning.

Baby Amor, traveling with her Grandma

I ask Eric, “Why are you here.”

I was driving without a license.” He shrugs.

So what is your plan.”

I have to get to California. I must see my son graduate from high school.” There are tears as he tells me this.

I take out my camera and take his photo by the Virgen de Guadalupe, a popular photo-op spot, and I tell Eric to be careful. The desert is dangerous, and he is vulnerable if he travels alone. He is still staring at the photos of his sons, and fingers the images as we speak. He is really not listening to me.

He tells me his parents and family live in Guerrero, but he has lived in Estados Unidos for 19 years and has steady work as a roofer. He gives me a hug, thanks me for the clothes, crosses himself, and heads out the door.

Grandmother looking for her family (photo: Jay Rochlin)

I think about the numbers of people I have met at el comedor who have children in one country, and a spouse or family or sweetheart in another. Risking their life to cross the desert, they live under the radar to be with family in the U.S. And yet having parents or children back in Mexico, my migrant friends are torn and conflicted and often desperate to see loved ones.

Traveling to see family is a fact of life for most Americans. We hop on a plane or gas up the car and off we go, usually several times per year if our family lives at a distance. We Skype, we email, we talk on the telephone.

sad goodbyes and hope for tomorrow

Many of the migrants have not seen their wives or husbands or children for years. They are truly stuck in the complexities and legal labyrinth of a broken immigration system. They have been living in the U.S. often sending money back to Mexico, or quietly supporting their families in California, Nebraska, Texas. Now they are stuck in Nogales. For many, they will attempt to cross and cross and cross again and again in order to reach their loved ones.

There is no wall that will stop them.


Trust me on this.

first we must eat

I remember the film, “Sophie’s Choice”, with Meryl Streep. The film, set in Nazi Poland during World War II, tells of the unimaginable choice Sophie had to make, giving up one of her children in order to save the other. It is a film that still haunts me.

a moment of peace

I see that same haunted look in the eyes of the men and women today. They are driven by love. Logic has nothing to do with it. It is a drive beyond reason. I often watch my Samaritan colleagues doing their best to talk the migrants out of crossing the desert.

Go back to your villages. We will help with bus money and food. The journey is too long and difficult.”

And I know that these brave and lost souls will follow their heart and walk as many miles as it takes, sleep in as many thorny arroyos as they must, in order to reach California or Tennessee or New York.

So they patiently go through the piles of clothes, pick out some clean socks, and gratefully accept a packet of toiletries to make their life a bit more bearable.

I watch the children and teenagers at the comedor today. Kids are so much more in the moment. Their presence always lightens the mood somehow. Little Rosalia shows me her pink backpack and feeds the resident kitty.

Rosalia and her pink backpack

Adriana, age 13, introduces me to her big brother and her mother. They are from Vera Cruz and have been walking in the desert for 7 days. I ask where they were heading. Adriana tells me Houston, and then on to New York. We must see our Papa again.

And so it is that I learn about the power of love. It can make us a bit crazy and irrational and obsessed, and these travelers teach me powerful lessons about all of this once again. I see the love that emanates from the Jesuit priests and the good Sisters of the Eucharist who serve the migrants. I see the love shining in the eyes of the migrants as they tell me about their wives, their husbands, and their children whom they miss and dream of today.

Adriana, age 13

There is a sweet song from the musical, “Oliver”, that comes to mind:

Where is love?

Does it fall from skies above?”


Love is alive and well and permeates every inch of el comedor on this cold February morning. It is a force more powerful than any wall or fence that divides us.

Loaves and Fishes

•February 16, 2012 • 7 Comments

So many things I encounter at the comedor in Nogales, Sonora, remind me of Bible stories. Today is no exception. As the Samaritans approach the humble comedor shelter, there is a large crowd assembled in front. One hundred or more are inside having breakfast. Outside another one hundred migrants gather on this windy cold February morning waiting for some warmth and nourishment.

the multitude

I just read this very morning in the New York Times that the numbers of immigrants at the US/Mexico border are down. I don’t get it. This is the largest crowd I have seen this past year.  Two hundred hungry cold travelers.  Maybe it is the full moon and the mild winter we have been experiencing? The desert is aglow in the moonlight making it easier to hike and the temperatures have been reasonable these past few weeks. And of course the moonlight makes it easier for Border Patrol (la migra) to spot these desert travelers.

a prayer for guidance

Our Samaritan group hurries inside the comedor and forms an assembly line of breakfast servers. And the kitchen is running out of food—the stew, the beans, the eggs are down to the last dregs in the cooking pans. What to do?

Ask and ye shall receive

Suddenly from out of nowhere a truck pulls up and men begin carrying in boxes of tomatoes, eggplants and potatoes. As the first shift of migrants finish their meal, I see several of them hanging back and washing dishes, wiping down tables, and peeling potatoes and eggplant for the next group of 100 hungry travelers. We all pitch in and quickly peel and chop and soon the glorious smell of frying potatoes and chilis and vegetables fills the air.

eggplant choppers

And I remember the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes with 2 fishes and a couple of loaves of bread. Wasn’t it 3,000 in that throng? 4,000 maybe? It is a story I loved as a child, because I have always believed in miracles and this was one I could understand.

Not like some of those Biblical parables that I still struggle to comprehend. Not like our immigration policies which are incomprehensible to me. Not like a Congress that rewards the rich and stomps on the poor. Not like the politics of Arizona that make it a crime to cross the line in order to survive and work. Not like…

But I digress.

sorting the beans and making a miracle

Food is tangible. You wash it, peel it, cook it, and nourish the body and soul. Perhaps I am a simple person that enjoys this sort of instant gratification. The Samaritans may not be saving the world and making huge dents in our broken immigration policy, but we are helping to feed 200 people this morning and putting warm clothes on their back. And we are making friends in the process as we listen to their stories and work together peeling a bushel of potatoes.

serving breakfast

Soon we are handing out warm clothes to the weary travelers. Underneath the piles of jackets and flannel shirts there is an expensive pin-stripe suit, fit for a banker or Wall Street broker. Perfect for a stroll across the Sonoran desert in February. Right.

zoot suit for the desert

Shura, who has no fear or inhibitions it seems, grabs that suit and puts it on, strutting about like a racketeer from the 1940’s. She is a zoot-suiter. Or Rupert Murdoch. Whatever. It is another classic moment of laughter and pain.  Despair and joy run side by side this morning. The migrants are laughing as much as we are. Sometimes it is all you can do when the chips are down and you are truly stuck in a place that stops you cold.

kitty on the speaker

And I think to myself as I walk back to the U.S. with my Samaritan friends that being witness to the dignity and strength of the Latino migrants is a miracle—a miracle of human endurance.

warm blankets for February nights

I am a person who no longer attends church or buys into organized religion, and yet I am continually reminded of how the Spirit resides and lives on this border. The migrants I meet are truly children of God. Being with them here today stops me cold. And fills me with warmth and awe.

water at the well--an image at the comedor

Border Wars

•February 3, 2012 • 3 Comments

I’ve always liked living on the edge of things. My home in the desert is on the edge of a cliff. I’ve lived on the edges of this country—on the West coast in San Francisco, spent time in New York City, walked the beaches of the Oregon Coast, and now I live on the edge of the U.S./Mexican border. It always felt to me that ideas and life were, well, edgier on the edge.  Not always stable and comfortable, necessarily, but vital and dynamic and creative and alive. I like the cultural mix, the fusion of foods and customs, the different languages, and the challenges to my own comfort zone.


the line that divides

Approaching the comedor in Nogales, Sonora, today I see a couple of people with a large video camera and a microphone—the kind used by film-makers. They are speaking French to each other, and struggling with their Spanish while talking to a line of migrants in front of the shelter. They are creating a documentary, they tell me, about border wars.

making movies at the comedor

Border wars? Here?

Yes….we are interested in how a border in conflict affects people. We are filming North Korea and South Korea, Israel and Palestine, Pakistan and India, and today, Mexico and the United States.”

But”, I reply, “we are not at war with Mexico.  Border wars?”


peace at the breakfast table

Well, maybe not officially”, they counter. “You are turning away refugees fleeing their homes in Mexico because of drug cartels and the breakdown of law and order. Your country is clearly not interested in helping hundreds of thousands of people in need—people who are economic refugees looking for a way to survive. People who are fleeing the violence of their villages.”

And, you are deporting truckloads of Latinos daily to this shelter—people who have lived in the U.S. since they were children. Many of these people here today do not consider Mexico their home. They live in the United States.”

The French film-makers tell me that they are interested in how border conflicts affect the people who live on the border. They are looking for common threads that run through all border conflicts, threads that rise above the politics and the rhetoric. They want to know how the Wall has changed things for me and for my Mexican neighbors.

And so today I meet Pedro Luis, a young man who was deported from Tucson. He looks to be about 25 years old, and has lived in the United States since he was three months old. He graduated from Tucson High School, my own alma mater, and is a student at Pima Community College. Pedro has been stuck in limbo in Nogales for almost two years, and has a young daughter whom he hasn’t seen in over a year.  And here is something to ponder:

Pedro Luis did not know he was undocumented growing up in Tucson. His parents never told him.  Pedro thought he was a citizen.

Pedro tells me with great emotion,  “I feel more illegal in Mexico than I do in the States. The United States is my homeland.”

Pedro and Peg

He has been told by our government to get a life in Mexico—get a Driver’s License, become involved in the country of his birth. He flunked the written Driver’s Test in Mexico because he doesn’t read or comprehend Spanish very well. He signed up for a Spanish class in Nogales so he could pass his Driver’s test. (which he eventually passed)

I ask, “How are you surviving here?”

Pedro presently works part-time at a tattoo parlor on one of the seedy back streets in Nogales. Today he is applying at a fancy Nogales restaurant, hopefully as a waiter or bus boy. The Samaritans are working with lawyers to try and get this young man a visa so he can cross freely back and forth.

All I want to do is return to Tucson, finish my degree at Pima College, and be a good citizen. I was a Boy Scout growing up, and in my heart I’m still a Boy Scout.” Indeed, Pedro volunteers each day here at the comedor, and I see him scrubbing out the sinks, washing the dishes, emptying the garbage.

And so, once again, I have this feeling of immobilized inertia. And THAT is one of the results of living in this so-called “border war.”  I am stuck.  I hate being stuck. I hate listening to this sort of crazy injustice and not knowing how to impact the immigration policies of my country.

I really like this kid, (and the comedor is full of them today) and so I tell him, “You will get through this. You are smart, you are patient, and you will succeed.” And I make a mental note to email Obama and our Congressman, Raul Grijalva today.

We both get a bit teary at this point. Another Samaritan asks to take our photo, and Pedro is delighted. I tell him I will spread his story to others. We will keep in touch.

a moment of reflection at the Wall

So today is one of those days when I wish I had a law degree and some hot shot lawyers standing next to me. And maybe a few politicians who lead with their heart and head instead of their poll numbers and their campaign coffers. Pedro could be a poster child for the Dream Act. Where is this fast track to citizenship for youngsters who have lived here most of their lives and want desperately to work hard for their own American dream?

Listen up, America. We are losing some fine young men and women, all because of a Congress that gets hung up on some idea of what a real American ought to be. Hey, this country was built by immigrants. Read your history.

Pedro Luis is far more patient and sane and grounded than I could ever be in this situation. And I tell him that I have the utmost respect for how he is handling this tragic event.

But it doesn’t seem like enough.

Make a Joyful Noise

•January 20, 2012 • 8 Comments

When I was a child growing up on Chicago’s South Side I attended the local Baptist church. My earliest memory of Sunday School was memorizing the 100th Psalm:

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord

All ye lands…”

As a small child the verse brought up visions of dancing, clanging cymbals, bells, singing, and in general just having a good time. I couldn’t figure out why the Baptists didn’t dance and their parties were pretty staid affairs.

It was punch and cookies in the church basement.

Where was the joyful noise? Perhaps it is no coincidence that I took up percussion later as a teen in high school and still play timpani in a band today. I have always liked to bang on things. Music and celebration are an important part of my life. Sitting in hard pews listening to long sermons is not.

And so when our Samaritan group arrives a bit early at the comedor in Nogales, Sonora, breakfast has not yet been served. After a very personal and moving prayer by Fr. Martin speaking to the experience of migration and the separation from family and children, we all pitch in and help serve the 90+ group of migrants present today.

Breakfast at the comedor

Passing the steaming plates of scrambled eggs with chilis, onions and pork, pinto beans, and a cheesy pasta, along with the hot coffee and atole de canela (a hot milk/cinnamon drink) the migrants once again bow their heads with gratitude and whispers of “gracias”.

A moment of grace

And then the whole mood of the place suddenly changes. Sister Lorena, the nun in charge today, cranks up a boom box with some pretty wild salsa music and begins to dance up and down the crowded aisles.


Sister Lorena and Jaime

The Kitchen Queen, Lorena, (yes, another Lorena) joins her in some amazing hip shimmies. Soon Shura, Samaritan founder, is sashaying across the crowded room as well. It is hard to stand still—the beat is infectious.


Gettin' down at the comedor

Suddenly one of the migrants leaps up before finishing his breakfast, executes some complicated dance steps toward the front of the room, and begins twirling Shura around in a wild and raucous salsa, complete with dips and dizzying turns. It is spontaneous combustion. There is clapping and swaying and yes, most definitely a joyful noise. (wish the Baptists from my youth could have seen this!)

Dancing for joy

After the revelry of this breakfast dance, the young migrant who has performed his salsa of uninhibited joy tells me he is from Ocotlan, Jalisco, a city near Guadalajara. He is a young man perhaps in his early twenties, and he has not seen his mother for five years. His eyes, sparkling with energy during his impromptu dance, now suddenly become clouded and sad. His hair is long and curly and is fastened in a ponytail. I remark on his long hair, and he tells me he made a promise to God that he would not cut his hair until he sees his mother once again. She lives in San Francisco and cannot visit him in Mexico due to “the laws of Estados Unidos.” Our dancing friend is determined to “cross” and see his mother once more.

A hug for the road

A Samaritan offers to call his mother and tell her about this young man’s journey. We talk with him about the dangers of the desert and the long trek to California. He is adamant about this odyssey. He will attempt the journey. He reminds me of young men everywhere who do risky things and ignore the dangers and consequences.

And I will not forget the dance of joy that emanated from this young man, and his vow to see his mother again. The laws that entrap people on different sides of the fence are just plain wrong. Our dancing friend does not want to reside in the United States, nor does he  want citizenship in the United States. He has a life in Ocotlan, Mexico.

He wants to see his mother.

And I want desperately to fix this.

Hope in the New Year

•January 12, 2012 • 3 Comments

The Samaritans gather these wintry Tuesday mornings in a small deli in Tubac, Arizona before heading down to Nogales, Sonora, and the challenges of the comedor. The deli personnel know us well and so do many of the customers, as they give us a wide berth. The talk is spirited and loud, fueled by the caffeine and sugary pastries. I check in and out of three different conversations in the space of five minutes. Several tables are shoved together this morning as there are thirteen of us, with several visitors from Idaho and Wisconsin. A pair of teenagers are among the group, and there is some anticipation and nervousness about the whole venture. I tell the teens that they may see young people their own age who have been walking or hopping trains for thousands of miles. After priming ourselves with coffee and tales of past trips to Nogales, we head out the door.

One answer to the immigration issue

The building area for the Wall that divides Mexico from the U.S.A. is a beehive of machinery, dust, and men shouting out orders. Someone comments that the Wall may be a futile attempt at security, but at least it is putting a lot of people to work. The peddlers, the windshield washers, the street people all greet us with friendly shouts and newspapers for sale. One fellow trying to sell his wares has a fever. It is January, and everyone seems to have a cold. We promise him some aspirin on the trip back for his fever and discomfort.

Three women from Oaxaca

We reach the comedor and see the lineup of migrants outside the door—perhaps fifty, maybe more. Breakfast has been served and they are waiting for us with our donations of clothes, toiletries, and talk. Several people have hands and feet wrapped in gauze and bandages. One fellow tells me that his thumb was severed while riding a train from Guatemala. He has been traveling a month, and was walking in the desert four days. Three young women wrapped in colorful ponchos ask if we have warm jackets. Their hair hangs to their waist in long thick braids. Seeing my camera, they ask me to take their photograph.


"We will open an auto repair shop in Nogales"

I see a little boy and a group of young men, all from Honduras. They have been walking or riding on a train for twenty-one days. The young child is nine years old, and his father tells me in English that he is happy to be here and has no intention of trying to cross into the United States. To my amazement, the father has a Brooklyn accent. What??!! It turns out that he lived in Brooklyn for ten years, was deported in 2004, and returned to Honduras where he was born. I ask why he has taken his young son and made this long and dangerous journey to the U.S./Mexico border?

He tells me this:

Honduras is full of soldiers with guns everywhere. There are no jobs and I am a skilled automotive repairman. I do body work. I do not want my son to grow up where he is not safe going to school because of the violence. And then there are the drugs….”

I ask, “So what are your plans?”

He tells me he will find work as a car repair person in Nogales, Sonora, and eventually open his own shop. He acquired his skills in New York and believes he can do well in Nogales. The man is positive, upbeat, and anxious to get his dreams into action.

“Gringos will bring their cars to me from the U.S. because I am good, I am honest, and I’ll give them a good price.” You could smell hope on this guy.

His son, Kevin, is holding a bundle of clothes and a blanket from the comedor. Looking tired, he gives me a grin. When I take a photo of father and son, several other men from Honduras crowd into the picture—they are together, and I get the sense that these folks are going to make it.  One fellow holds up two fingers, giving me the peace sign.

There is more hope here than despair. It is a good feeling to be in this crowd today.

Some merry-making with the potatoes

Our visitors from Wisconsin and Idaho are overwhelmed with the happy confusion and activity. They pitch in and help sort the bags of clothes and are helpful in distributing the shoes, the hats, the jackets and blankets.

Jackets, gloves and hats for January

And on the long walk back to the U.S. Border and my warm, safe life in Arizona, I wonder what it would take for me to travel thousands of miles with a child on trains, on foot, with no money or credit cards or a waiting family. I try to wrap my brain around this thought. It is practically impossible for me to imagine. And yet I have spent the last several hours with people who have taken this risk.

As we approach the U.S. Border I see the street peddler with the fever and give him a baggie of aspirin. He whispers “gracias”, and we are on our way.

I would rather be in the presence of these people than almost anywhere today.  When I am surrounded by people with hope for their future, what right have I to feel hopeless?