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Note: I returned from advising an alternative spring break group, and I’m just getting around to writing about it.  I’ll probably have a lot of posts about it, because it was an exhilarating, sobering event deserving of written description.  This is a journal entry I wrote shortly before leaving. 

view from my window at CSJ House

People don’t think El Paso is a beautiful city, but I disagree.  I I took this photo at mid-day. I used my phone to do so. I was only supposed to have a phone for emergencies.  I cheated.

The first rule of the Border Experience trip is that you aren’t actually allowed to cross the border.  Though the cartel violence has diminished significantly in recent years, the US State Department continues to advise against visiting Ciudad Juarez, which the American media would have you believe is a real-life, earthbound Mos Eisley, a quick place to go to avoid the law in the desert, and, if you want to continue the Star Wars comparison, a wretched hive of scum and villainy.

We came closest to the city on the other side of the river on a tour a few days prior.  We rode on a Border Patrol PR tour that took us between the imposing, 18 foot tall border fence and the Rio Grande, which is more like a cement canal with minimal water flowing through it.  We were in the US, but I could have thrown a football into Ciudad Juarez (that means we were REALLY close).  Our air conditioned Border Patrol tour bus  was normally trotted out for visiting officials, explained our guide, Officer George, as he flipped past some detailed, technical power-point slides on the giant tv located above the driver’s seat.

I looked out at the colonias by the river, and they did seem hivelike.  I’m sure they hold their share of scum and villainy, but they also hold G and J, and thousands of women like them.  I met G and J in their capacity as representatives of Centro Santa Catalina, a school, women’s spirituality center, and sewing cooperative.  G and J visited us in El Paso to tell us about the experiences of everyday women in the city deemed too dangerous for precious Americans to visit.  Though these women have very different life stories from me, I felt strong empathy for their stories about how they learned to appreciate themselves as people.  We have more in common once you peel away those outer layers, I believe.

J’s story resonated strongly with me.  She used to work in a maquiladora, or factory.  You hear a lot about how maquiladoras are dangerous places in El Paso.  Women are snatched from bus routes on the way home from work and found dead on the outskirts of town.  J did not talk about this.  She said that her job wasn’t bad, but there was something missing.  She said she found the center because her godchild began attending school there, and she started taking women’s spirituality classes while the child was in school.  Eventually, she became credentialed to teach in the women’s program, and then she quit her factory job to teach and participate in the sewing cooperative.  “My husband and I have been married for 15 years, but we have not been able to have children,” an interpreter translated for us.  “It was so important to me to learn that I had worth that came from myself as a woman.  I’m more than just a potential wife and mother.  The women’s spirituality program at Centro Santa Catalina taught me that, and I’m so happy to be able to share this with other women,” she explained.

Back in Austin, with my full keyboard and wifi, J’s story reminds me so strongly of this, that my mind is slightly boggled.

From my current view of the Ciudad, in my room on the second floor of the Sisters of St. Joseph House, I see a sign, constructed in white rocks on the side of a mountain on the Mexican side of the border: “La Biblia es la Verdad.  Leela.” (“The Bible is the Truth.  Read it.”). The text is small, and it took me a while to figure out what it said.  When the sun goes down, lights flicker on the side of the text-covered mountain.  I’m curious about the lights, but also a little scared.  We have been told not to hike Mt. Christo Rey, which straddles the border and which is active territory for drug-related violence.  Those twinkling lights nestled on the mountain top could be anything.  They are probably tv antennas or communications equipment, but I reserve the right to look out and wonder at them.

Down the hill and back in the United States, I-10 whirs and buzzes. Constant motion is laid out in full view just a few blocks down the hillside.  This house has been here since before “the ten” was built, and we think it has ghosts to show for it.  R is the social worker/paranormal investigator who lives in the basement.  She says she conducted research while the sisters were away from home.  “I can’t confirm anything,” she said, “but there are three spirits (two women and a man).”  Though her sentence was contradictory, I like to imagine that there are strong forces who watch this place with a hazy, benevolent gaze.

Trains clang on the tracks past the freeway.  Sister C, one of the sisters who so kindly offered us hospitality, says the loud whistles are engineers telling their wives “I’m comin’ home!  Have dinner on the table!”  I quietly suspect it’s more likely they are warning people in or near the tracks to get out of the way.  The day after we visited the Border Patrol, we visited a place called Annunciation House, where volunteers live with and work to support homeless and refugee populations.  We went there to volunteer for a few hours, but the full-time volunteers opted to give us a tour and answer any questions we had about their long-term experience volunteering in the community.  While we were there, we met a man who had lost a leg.  Our tour was rushed, so we didn’t get a chance to talk to him, but our guide told us about how their guests frequently attempt to hitch a freight train into the interior of the country to look for work.  These people frequently lose lives and limbs attempting to board or jump from trains.  When I hear the train siren, I think about that person, and I wonder if that noise was the last thing he heard before losing his leg.

I learned so much on this trip, but the sun sets on it and this day, and all there is left to do is reflect, contemplate and wonder what is on the other side of the distant Mexican mountains as the adobe pink surrounding them slowly turns to twilight purple and fades away in the maquiladora smog.

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