Mexico/US Borderlands

Healing a Community in Fear

by Elizabeth Bukey:

Yesterday afternoon we met two women who both work on healing in the Brownsville community: one a curandera and the other a medical doctor. An outsider, particularly an Anglo Seattleite outsider like me, might think that Maria and Marsha would be very different: a faith healer and an MD, a trance medium and a pediatrician. Instead, I was struck by the similar themes in our two visits.

Both women have a deep love for the community in which they work: the poor, Mexican-American, often undocumented population in this borderland. Both women connect spirit and health: Maria, deeply rooted in Catholic religion, is a medium for the spirit of a 19th-century healer; Marsha brings her background in theology to her work as a doctor. Both are affected by interacting with the illness affecting this community: Maria is exhausted after working and has to expel the bad energy she has received; Marsha spoke several times of the deep rage she feels over the injustice of the border, and needing an outlet for this rage “besides four-letter words.”

Most strikingly, though, was the way both women address the fear of the people here. People often come to Maria and other curanderas to heal illnesses which to me sound like symptoms of a community under enormous stress: overwhelming fright, panic, nervousness, upset stomachs, and many others. Marsha told us of the high level of fear affecting this community, affecting people who are effectively trapped here between the U.S.-Mexico border and the border patrol checkpoints 70 miles north of it. Wouldn’t you get sick if you were afraid to drive, afraid of being separated from your family, afraid of losing your job, afraid your children will have no future?

Jesus was Crucified…a Borderlands Interpretation

This morning the Borderlands group walked the stations of the cross on the lawn of the Basilica Cathedral de San Juan del Valle. Each of us chose a different station to reflect upon and incorporate how that station relates to our experiences so far on this trip. We were then assigned to give a short meditation to the group relating this. The station I chose was titled, “Jesus was Crucified.”

In preparation for this reflection, I was shown a scriptural stations of the cross. This was a resource which coordinated particular Bible verses with each station. After meditating on the verse assigned, I decided to re-translate the verse in a way that fits my experience so far. So, below is Luke 23:33-34, a Borderlands translation.

When the soldiers of evil came to the place called “maquilladora park” they nailed the women to the cross. Transnational corporations were the nails in their feet, keeping them from running toward what God created them to be. Western consumption put nails in their hands to keep them from working for any other purpose then their own happiness. Gang, drug, and gender violence put the final spear in their side to more rapidly bring about their death.

The evil ones also nailed two criminals to crosses, one on each side of the women.

But in the midst of all this, these brave and strong women say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

While the world watches these women suffer the pain of crucifixion, the evil ones take one last moment of advantage and use what’s left of these women to find a last mode of profit off of them by taking their last possessions and gambling them away.


The Crack of the Third Space

The Liberty Bell has been cracked since the birth of the United States

Next time you go to Philadelphia, make sure to stop by the Liberty Bell.  It’s been cracked since the birth of this nation.  It is the crack that symbolizes the fact that our founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence and then went home to their slave-owning homes.  It is the crack that haunts us in memory of the lynching tree, segregation and detention centers, and a racist and out of control prison-industrial complex that maintains white American privilege and power.  It is the crack that hires undocumented immigrants to build a wall to keep out undocumented immigrants.  It is the crack of the “third space,” along our nation’s arbitrary Mexican border that allows continued myths of American Exceptionalism to have no memory of the bloody war that stole this land in the first place.  It is the crack between checkpoints in which thousands of mothers and children await deported husbands in the colonias with very little means of securing employment, denied the dignity of driver’s license, furiously learning English and taking classes in continued pursuit of the “American Dream” of freedom that history shows to have been built on the backs of those living the American Nightmare.  It is the crack in our “pursuit of happiness” that leaves a single man running a homeless shelter for immigrants and refugees with the help of three cooks and two social workers, where the reality is that the mostly undocumented men from that shelter wait outside the fence to be picked up for construction, farm, or any other manual labor by employers who know of their desperation and more often than not never honor their promised payments.  If the men are fortunate enough to find work from the shelter, a woman with children at that shelter has no childcare, no transportation, and very little hope of pulling herself and her family out of that living environment which is supposed to be a temporary respite.  It is the women, children, and men that occupy this “third space” within a country that repeatedly prides itself on its founding notions of liberty that continue to fall through the cracks of our dominant national memory.  As is clearly symbolized for us in the building of a wall that does not fool anyone in its uselessness and yet intimidates in its armed patrol, the consequences for asserting oneself as a full human being with a right to dignity, respect, and opportunity in the Texas-Mexico Borderlands are deadly.

The despair of this situation can be overwhelming.  A retired minister named Joe, who’s organization, Pax Christi, has as its goals nothing short of ending the death penalty in Texas, disbanding nuclear armament, and obtaining world peace, quietly shared with us as we met in Methodist Church in Brownsville that despair was his biggest cross.  And yet, when I begin my own spiral into despair, I have to remember the faith that was so unquestionably expressed by the women workers of the maquiladoras who are organizing to learn and spread knowledge of the labor law and rights for the members of their community, for their fellow workers.  I have to remember that, after hearing about what a battle it has been to just get public lights for the colonias in the Rio Grande Valley region (still not accomplished), Martha, the seemingly fearless leader of the colonias’ community organizing union—LUPE—finds her motivation and inspiration to get up and go to work every day in the determination, resilience, and beauty of her Latino immigrant community.  There is a great potential in the people, she says.  And what does the liberty bell stand for, if not the realization of the potential of human beings to freely become who we might be?

A sign displayed by a woman whose property has been fenced between the Border Wall and the Rio Grande River

Cynical Joe

Theology needs to be recast if it is to be truly powerful again today for all of us.

In the middle of a Methodist church hall in Brownsville, Tx the ten of us from Union Theological Seminary conversed with activists as they recounted stories and their opinions on various issues.  Joe, a catholic priest who left his parish twenty years ago spoke with cynicism and authority while touting messianic arrogance.  Yet in his eyes there was the pain of his despair of being unable to change things in his world that he deemed wrong. Joe pounded his fingers on the table as he channeled Gandhi, “Christianity has yet to be truly lived.”  His disparaging claims of the church as an institution unable to uphold its claims and as largely hypocritical sounded off the Methodist walls.  I asked him why work through the church, why not simply work through another social service organization that might leave all the hypocrisy behind?  He told me I was preaching to the choir.  Now, I have tried to process what he meant by that final phrase, and still I am left chewing my cheeks in confusion.

After a morning with La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), a local Union started by the United Farm Workers in San Juan, Texas, we had traveled to Brownsville to meet with Joe and the others.  LUPE’s real work occurs as they work in development of people.  They work heavily in the colonias in Texas on infrastructure issues, flooding, school bus access to the colonias, and other simple, basic right issues quickly denied to the colonias. It was in the drive, however, from San Juan to Brownsville that I was able to place all of this current work in its historical background.  I remember reading about the history of this land as stolen from Mexico through loop holes found in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo; about how frontiersmen came to San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Brownsville; I remember how this dirt was looked upon with lustful westward eyes where bodies and people – Mexican and Native American bodies and peoples – were tossed and pushed aside.

But now, all that reading fades away in light of stories from Cristina and Maria, of Ed and Joe, of Rev. Fereira.  New histories are being written constantly.  The invisible are being made visible daily.  The poor are being liberated from chains of oppression telling them they can’t advocate for themselves; these chains tell these women they cannot advocate for themselves, that they are not smart enough to confront their supervisors about why they’re getting fired.  New histories are being written every day as LUPE workers are advocating and fighting for those families in the colonias for better lighting and drainage, for different bus routes that actually go into their neighborhoods.  Even Joe, oh cynical Joe, even he writes new histories as he works hand in glove with lawyers for undocumented friends and speaks with those who often are not given the voice necessary to use their voice in vote, occupation or education.

But why are we not hearing this?  Why do maquila workers continue to have their arms cut off, and why do their children continue to live in fear of their own backyard as violent strangers pass by their homes at night?

There is no magic answer.  It seems this is the reality in which we live.  This pain is real and cannot be solved in the next year, I doubt, or the next two.  In old western movies, to draw from the manifest history-books, the hero is often seen defeating the bad guys while standing on two horses at once:  when he over-takes their carriage or makes a get away from their hideout.  To our own peril, we have tried to ride the horse of human progress and exceptionality for too long in our history.  The Mexico-US border might be one fine example of the violence this horse trick causes.  One foot firmly in beliefs of progress and profit, and of new Edens.  While the other foot planted on a horse whose insignia reeks of chemical solvents leeched from the maquila plants potentially causing cancer in thousands of women workers with no other options.  No longer can I proclaim a theology that upholds this hypocritical get away:  its violence is found boiling up in every city of our nation.

Joe looked me in the eyes as he told me I was preaching to the choir and I knew we weren’t signing the same tune.  For as our nation continues to ride toward sunset with a foot on the horse of progress and another on American Exceptionalism, I know, soon, we must all wake up from our Hollywood Western dreams.  Our Empire is violent:  I heard it yesterday as one women recounted to me a baby’s finger had been chewed off by rats in the colonias.  Our Empire is violent:  I heard it today as colonias in Texas fill with sewage water every time it rains and children can not leave their homes for school.

But our churches are good, or at least can be.  As house meetings occur weekly through LUPE’s work where women speak about their dreams becoming a reality.  Where new lights bring clarity to a dangerous night darkness.  Our faith gives us power to write new histories as Ed Krueger speaks of 32 years of organizing with Mexican women and their powerful stories of confronting such an absurd reality.  Our faith tells us to continue writing new histories, histories that continue to always speak raw truth to absurd power.

(some names are changed )

Problems in the Maquiladoras

In the workers’ words:

  • Elimination of shifts
  • list of worker abusesSolvent contamination
  • Unjustified firings
  • Refusal to hire women who are pregnant
  • Screaming and other examples of domination
  • Other errors in pay
  • Lack of democracy in the union
  • Insufficient training of workers
  • Lack of unity/solidarity between male and female workers
  • Companies don’t pay profit-sharing
  • Lack of lawyers who seek justice
  • Accidents aren’t reported
  • Chairs have been taken away
  • No time is given to feed babies
  • Too much pressure to increase production
  • And many, many other abuses not listed here. There were three more posters like this one.