by Tim Wilson, Social Justice Coordinator
From October 30 to November 4, I participated in the New York State Labor Religion Coalition's Border Witness Delegation (www.labor-religion.org) trip to the U.S.-Mexico border. They invited me because of my role in the trip taking place in February 2007 in which I will be traveling with others from First Unitarian, including youth. We traveled to El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. The group consisted of twelve people, including myself, our leader, Maureen Casey of NYSLRC, college students, educators, social workers, a retiree and a Presbyterian minister.
We saw and heard first hand of the human side of the many issues related to immigration policies, NAFTA (www.ratical.org/co-globalize/NAFTA@7/mx.html and several other sources), corruption, binational families and corruption. Included were many heroic stories of faith, commitment and determination. A few of these I will briefly highlight below. The experience was unforgettable. Although I had visited this area many times and was certainly aware of the poverty and environment, I learned a great deal from this program's focus on economic issues and how they play out in the lives of people on both sides of the border.
Fly from Albany after staying overnight with friends from my EAGLES experience this summer. Arrive at El Paso. Orientation, getting acquainted and talking about the week ahead.
More orientation. Get debriefing from our local host, West Cosgrove of Maryknoll, the Catholic Mission Movement (www.maryknoll.org). Highlight: Tour border area on U.S. side and cross border go to Anapra, a colonia (impoverished suburb) of Juarez to visit an afterschool program run by Cristina (see my story in November newsletter for details). Cristina started her afterschool and scholarship program because of the tremendous need she saw. She had worked in a maquiladora as a youth but was burned in an accident. While she awaited medical attention in the factory, company officials tried to get her to sign a waiver exempting them from fault in her accident. This was rather difficult for her, as her accident caused her rubber gloves to literally melt onto the burnt skin of her fingers. She declined their invitation and eventually the company paid for her medical expenses. She enjoys running her programs a lot more than working in the maquiladora.
Cristina in her afterschool classroom. Delegation members admire the children's artwork.
Cristina with some of the children who attend her program.
We traveled in the morning to one of the bridges that spans the trickle of water that constitutes the Rio Grande River. We were anticipating a rally and speech by Subcomandante "Marcos" the masked leader of the Zapatista (EZLN) movement in southern Mexico. The Zapatistas may be the ultimate grass roots movement, building a following village by village that seeks to regain power for peasants by working around government rather than taking it over. (see www.mexconnect.com/mex_/zapat1.html and others) The atmosphere was that of anticipation for a movie star or other celebrity, despite the lack of interest in the Zapatista movement in Mexico's more European north. The indigenous population is much more prevalent in southern Mexico, and that is the core of Zapatista support.
We visited the Annunciation House (www.annunciationhouse.org), a three story Catholic-run building in El Paso that serves undocumented and refugee populations. They house forty or so people, including families. Other shelters in El Paso require documentation. The place is run by Jacquline, a petite 23-year old New Jersey native and Villanova University graduate. She served on a volunteer basis for her first year and now receives a small stipend in addition to living quarters in the house, making her the only paid staff. She plans to go to graduate school in social work sometime next year. I think she'll have a pretty impressive application. We ate dinner with the families and helped clean up afterwards.
The masked Zapatista leader Marcos (center) is surrounded on a bridge between the U.S. and Mexico by photographers, journalists, admirers, and the curious. I am in the left foreground in a white hat. I wore my nametag on my hat so the U.S. Customs helicopter circling above could more easily identify me.
This is a typical room for a family staying at Annunciation House. Families stay here while awaiting a job or family farther north.
Because discussion of the U.S.-Mexico border invariably focuses on keeping Mexicans out of the U.S., it was a curious delight to meet Bill Morton, priest who has the interesting distinction of being a U.S. citizen who is banned from Mexico. He earned that honor by leading residents in a fight against appropriation of their land by government-supported developers. We met in an El Paso house recently purchased by Maryknoll to house volunteers. It is currently occupied mostly by a group of students from Midwestern colleges who participate in a border study/volunteer experience through Earlham College, a Quaker institution in Indiana (www.earlham.edu/~borders/about/index.html). We saw these students/volunteers everywhere during our trip. One of them rides for an hour and a half on what passes for public transit in Juarez to help Cristina with her preschool program.
Mexico celebrates "the Day of the Dead" on November 2nd and we attended a unique religious event - a binational Catholic mass. Bishops, priests, lay leaders, the faithful and curious gather under the watchful eyes of the U.S. Border Patrol. The dioceses of El Paso, southern New Mexico and Juarez plan and conduct an annual mass at the fence, alternating prayers and sacraments from one side to the other. In the afternoon we went to Juarez for lunch and shopping.
Bishops and priests of two nations celebrate mass on the Day of the Dead. This view is from the U.S. side.
Catholic and non-Catholic alike attend the service. One monk I met was from Saskatchewan. Each of the white crosses is marked with the name and date of death of an individual who died crossing the desert.
We met with Catholic Migrant and Refugee Services in El Paso to learn more about the processes involved in gaining legal status. Then we went on a shopping assignment to a Juarez grocery story to see what food we could buy with the typical daily wages of a maquiladora employee (about $5). After purchasing our meager rations, we went to the home of Betty Campbell and Peter Hinde, a nun and priest who are U.S citizens but who have traveled and lived throughout Latin America doing God's work, mostly around social and economic justice issues. They have been doing this together for 32 years. They were working in El Salvador in 1980 with the four U.S. nuns who were raped and murdered in a government-led reign of terror during which tens of thousands of Salvadorians were "disappeared." While we spoke with Betty and Peter in their modest home, Maureen and West prepared lunch with the rice, beans and other items we had purchased. They had also invited a woman to join us who founded an organization to support families of those who have lost a loved one in an ongoing wave of mysterious and brutal murders of about 400 women in the Juarez since 1993 (www.amnestyusa.org/women/juarez/). She suspects powerful families and government coverup; there is certainly no indication that the police are any closer to solving the crimes than was the case a decade ago.
We closed out the day with a visit to the Border Farmworker Center in El Paso (www.farmworkers.org/centreng.html). Upon entry, we saw a room full of about sixty men laying out on blankets or sleeping bags. They were trying to catch some rest or even sleep before the trucks arrive, starting around 2:00 a.m., to take them to various farms for a day's work. There are showers, a kitchen where meals are served for a couple of dollars and some recreation areas. We met Jose, a robust 67-year old who is still spending his days bending over picking peppers in the hot sun. He showed us a bucket and told us how many of these he'd have to fill in the course of a day to reach minimum wage. I don't remember the details but none of us wanted to sign up. He told us he is worried about being able to collect the social security taxes that have been withheld from his pay over the course of his fifty years of working under Uncle Sam's protection.
The group's leader, Maureen Casey, is in front. She is co-director of NYSLRC. Father Peter Hinde is the white haired man in the first row. Sister Betty Campbell is in the next row (standing) on the far right. I am standing next to my roommate, Alex, a student at Skidmore College.
Another NYSLRC staff member expresses amazement as Jose, a 68-year-old farmworker, tells us how many buckets like the one in the foreground he has to fill with peppers to equal minimum wage. Picking peppers, like most farmwork in the U.S., is paid as piecework.
Wrap up and fly home with lots of information and ideas and a passel of new friends!
After this trip, I am looking forward even more to our group's travel in February, when we will visit a different part of the border but which experiences many similar economic circumstances. My hope is that we can find an organization, clinic, school or other entity there that feels like a good match for church's our passions, skills and talents so that we might build an ongoing relationship.