The Q

Snakes in the Grass

Tamara and I attended the Pharr Literacy Project Festival on Saturday, July 17, 2010. We were happy to meet another seminarian, Yvette Murrain. Yvette is a 3rd year MDIV Student at Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, NJ. Yvette will be working here in the Valley for 10 weeks as a part of the Communities of Shalom program. It is funny how we came so “far” to meet each other! This is one of the reasons why I am certain that the Valley is a special place.

We are happy that Yvette offered to share one of her blog postings with us. Enjoy!

The Pharr Literacy Project has just recently collaborated with a local group called “Los Caminos Del Rio” by inviting this organization’s Ameri-Corps Vistas to work at the center. According to loscaminos.org, “Los Caminos Del Rio offers kayak trips virtually every weekend at Anzalduas Park. Participants will explore sections of the Rio Grande, and can experience a safe and exciting introduction to kayaking along the Rio Grande River savoring historical and environmental details with the assisance of friendly and trained adventure guides.”

My day with Los Caminos Del Rio personally introduced me to the “historical details” of immigrant women crossing into the United States.

On Saturday, June 26, 2010, I journeyed with my coworkers Chuy and Reyna (*who speaks little English*) to the Anzalduas Park which extends to the Rio Grande River. As we came closer to the river, near the edge of the park the family friendly atmosphere abruptly ended. The armed border patrol station, barbed wire, and yellow (government access) gates signified that everyone is not welcome. Especially not illegal immigrants crossing the Rio Grande River into the United States.

While we waited for our turn to kayak down the Rio Grande, Chuy, Reyna and I decided to find our own adventure and walk along the grassy river bank in hopes of getting close to the dam. Reyna and I were afraid of the snakes that Frank our guide warned of. We tip toes along the rocks in the high grass holding hands. Soon we would grasp hands in recognition of a more sinister fear, something that rocked us to our cores. Just a few steps in front of us I noticed a pile of black “stuff.” “Snaaaake Skinnnnnn!” I screamed. Reyna and I jumped back squealing like little girls. Chuy the grave man stepped forward and picked up the “snake skin.” Reyna yelled at him not to as he flung the skin towards us.

All at once we realized this “snake skin” was not what it appeared. The “snake skin” was actually a torn pair of black women’s panties. Reyna and I weren’t scared anymore, WE were safe. No snake skin to signify the impending approach of danger. No snake skin. Chuy held the underwear up and said “Ooooh someone couldn’t wait to get things going” with a laugh.

It was as if some light bulb went off in Reyna’s face because it lit up and then darkened. The same light bulb went off in my head too. We looked at one another and said “No Rape.” And then I remembered where I really was. The Rio Grande River isn’t just some adventure zone. It’s a place where the sweat and tears of an oppressed people rage between two worlds.

I was on the banks of the Rio Grande River where thousands of poor immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries a month cross in the United States. Many of these travelers are poor defenseless women depending on coyotes to make their way across the river into the United States. Those torn black underwear belonged to a woman, someone’s daughter, mother, sister, cousin  - a child of God. I didn’t know if her left behind undergarments signified that she had been abused. I didn’t know if she was an immigrant coming to the United States to find work to feed her children. I don’t know if she was a young pretty girl manipulated by the Mexican Drug Cartel to carry drugs inside her body across the border. I didn’t know anything about her except for what she left behind.

I thought of all this as Reyna whispered the word “rape” in an erie echo. She knew just as  I did what those underwear meant. We had a “sister moment” that defied out language barriers. My grasp on her hand got a little tighter as we walked further up the bank. Chuy didn’t make nay more comments as he walked ahead of us. A group of adventurers joined us in our “nature walk” and we all jumped in the river and free floated with the current until we reached the shore again. A few people remarked that they felt they were “doing what their ancestors did years ago.” They laughed as they said these things. It wasn’t funny to me in light of finding Blank Panties.

After stumbling upon the Blank Panties, the Rio Grande River didn’t look the same. The sand on the bank near the dam looked scattered as if a struggle had just taken place. The water looked cloudy, murky, and dangerous. I got in it anyway. I kayaked. All for adventure, right? No, I was in sacred water and will thus act accordingly from now on.

Watching news coverage of the new immigration law in Arizona hit home.

I’ve been on the border. I’ve seen and felt some things. It’s real here. There are snakes in the grass in the Arizona state senate.

“Jesus be a lawnmower, in the Rio Grande Valley Everyday”

to be sung to the tune of the Fred Hammond’s “Jesus Be a Fence All Around Me Everday”

Rio Grande River

Rio Grande River

Tamales and Gratitude

In January when we visited the Rio Grande Valley, one of the highlights was meeting local families from an area “colonia” (see previous post for definition of colonia) and spending an evening sharing stories and dinner. On that evening I was paired with a young girl, about 11 years old, who was vivacious, smart, curious, and incredibly endearing.  At the end of the visit she asked for my phone number to keep in touch, and I gave it not expecting much contact after the first few days of excitement had worn off.  She proved me wrong, and has since called or texted me almost every week for short updates on her life. These updates include funny pictures of her and her siblings, an invitation to her First Communion and simple “how are you doings?” She was very excited to find out I would be in the area again this summer and I promised to visit.

This Friday morning her mother phoned to let me know that she would be making tamales all day and that we were invited for dinner.  At 5:30pm we set off with directions, a watermelon, cheesecake, and a few butterflies in my stomach—expectations (even the good ones) make me nervous.  We arrived to their home 20 minutes later and my friend (we will call her “Jenny”) and her two siblings came out to greet us.  Jenny’s family lives in a home that they helped build in conjunction with Proyecto Azteca (www.proyectoazteca.com), a local non-profit that works with families to build affordable housing in the colonias.  Jenny’s father is a construction worker and has has added beautiful detail work inside, like crown molding separating brightly painted walls and a huge lit-up plaster star adorning the girl’s ceiling. The cozy kitchen was busy with two massive steamer pots cooking 60+ tamales and the living room was filled with kids ranging from 5 months to 10 years old, the big ones holding the littler ones on laps and keeping them entertained.  It was a truly bilingual event—all of the adults are Spanish speakers, while the children switched fluidly between English and Spanish as they played.

Jenny shyly brought me gifts from her room, a big conch shell from the beach, a felted heart that she had spent days sewing sequins to, and a school picture.  She also brought out the family video camera which provided an opportunity for Jenny to talk about her First Communion: her fancy white princess dress and the huge multi-generational party given in her honor at her home including dinner and plenty of dancing. I was playfully warned that while the family forgave me for missing the festivities, they would not be so lenient for her Quinceañera and I should start preparing now!

Before long dinner was served. Huge tamales on banana leaves filled with chicken or pork and a spicy chipotle sauce, topped with shredded cabbage and more chilis for the brave.  I love tamales, in fact I make great tamales, but these outshone my best attempts with the rich adobo flavor of the chilis and the hearty corn masa (after asking for the recipe it became apparent that my use of butter instead of  pork lard is where I go wrong!).  After two massive tamales I was stuffed but a half an hour later when it was time for dessert, I opted out of cake and went for a third tamale, provoking laughter and boasting from the cooks. Upon learning about my love of food and cooking, Jenny’s dad began to tell me about the most unique dishes from the region of Mexico he is from.  He spoke of the Maguey cactus that is hollowed out and left to sit until the sap/juice drains into the center; that juice is then scooped out and fermented making a favorite regional drink.  When it rains, from that same cactus emerge bright red worms that are a delicacy in the region.  He laughingly explained how people try to take small earthworms and feed them food coloring to sell to the unsuspecting, but that the real thing, though pricey, are something he really misses from home.

After dinner Jenny took me to look at pictures on her parents’ bed.  She brought out photos from her parents’ wedding, her birth, her early baths in a sink and later ones in a 5 gallon bucket, her birthday parties and photos of her grandmother who is still living in Veracruz.  As we looked through pictures other kids came in to climb in our laps and giggle at pictures of when Jenny was smaller than them.  Eventually Jenny’s mom came in and started explaining the stories behind the photos.  Over the course of our conversation I learned that she and I are the same age (30 years old).  We talked about the different places life had brought us since our high school graduations. I was humbled by her story.

Jenny’s mom first traveled to the U.S. 8 months pregnant laying in a raft.  She and her new husband knew they wanted their daughter to have the opportunities that come of being born in the United States.  At 18 she wasn’t even sure what the journey across the border would mean but she was newly married, crazy in love, and willing to take a big risk for a chance at a better life.  Now with three kids, a home, a couple of dogs, and a community of neighbors carrying similar stories, this place has become her new home.  I asked when she and her husband would become citizens and she explained that they will have to wait until their children are adults and can apply on their behalf.  In the mean time they work, pay taxes (with a TIN number) and social security they will never see.  They own a home, raise a family, and try to go about the business of living despite the constant fear of deportation and separation from their family.  She told me about her mother living in Mexico and of the dangerous and expensive trips across the border to visit her childhood home.  She explained that the journey is becoming more expensive and more dangerous with the drug wars and that her neighbor’s husband had been kidnapped 7 weeks ago while crossing and hasn’t been heard from since. She told me that she used to dream of saving enough money to go back to Mexico and buy a small farm, but that now Mexico is becoming so dangerous she doesn’t think she will ever return to live there.  We talked about her job, cleaning the home of a local school teacher whose husband is a local police officer.  She chuckled at my raised eyebrow, saying that the police officer has bigger things to worry about than her.  She told me that 11 years into her marriage she and her husband are still very much in love and trying to find joy in the constant adventure of living in this country.  She described herself as very lucky.

When it was time to leave I was sent with a stack of tamales for the road and was made to promise that we would be back the following Friday for nopales (cactus).  The family has decided that Carolyn and I should come every week so we can sample a different regional dish and spend time listening and sharing in their stories.

I left full of tamales and gratitude—gratitude for the families who are living, struggling, surviving and raising a new generation full of dreams, and like their parents, hope for a better life.  Children whom I pray might one day become leaders changing the way we think about the border, immigration and ultimately what it means to truly love our neighbor.

“It’s not about winning, it’s about being faithful…”

So I am here in South Texas ~ in the Valley of Texas ~ in the borderlands between the United States and Mexico. Many have asked why are you going? What will you be doing? How will this impact your work as a seminarian? These are all valid questions and I honestly don’t think I will ever have a “full” answer to them. HOWEVER, this trip to the border is important to witness and be of service to the people, organizations and communities that seek to bear witness that “no matter who and what you are” you deserve the opportunity to live, survive, dream – be acknowledged and recognized.

Texas is an interesting place. My brother even before I left New Jersey said, “Everything is big in Texas.” He is right, but Texas is also a place where particular groups have been written off and denoted as “invisible.” This is a problem for me! How can I as a Christian, a preacher, a seminarian sit back and just “watch, hear, witness” the profane treatment of what I consider G-d’s creation? We are all G-d’s creation right? With papers or without papers? Spanish or English speakers? Passport or no passport? Male or female? Young or old? Rich or poor? Aren’t we all a part of the kin-dom of G-d?

Over the past few days, my colleague, Tamara and I have been getting acclimated to our new home, work station for the next 6 weeks. Of course, we have to adjust our temperatures, but also realize how close to home separation, invisibility, supremacy mark the world that we are a part of.

It’s been uplifting over these first few days to reconnect with Rev. Ed Krueger and his wife, Ninfa, long time activists and justice workers who have put their lives on the line in order to serve women factory workers (maquiladoras) in Mexico and women here in the Valley who desire to be recognized by the US government as “citizens.”

There is a lot of hope being spread through the work of Proyecto Azteca and their Executive Director, Ann Cass, who is out in the field, in the Valley, helping families build homes with access to running water, a bathroom, electricity in the colonias. Things are happening here in the Valley perhaps not at the speed of a New York minute. But, something is happening to break open the reality of injustice and discrimination that has plagued the Valley for so long.

The first of many lessons that I have learned is that there is something about sticking with it, keeping the course, demonstrating fortitude even when conditions, government, friends and family say otherwise. “It’s not about winning, it’s about being faithful” are kernels of wisdom that Ann Cass shared with Tamara and me on Friday. These words have been haunting me over the past few days … they even came up indirectly during Mass yesterday at Holy Spirit Roman Catholic Church in McAllen. How can I not be so concerned about crossing the finishing line but rather more concerned about the progress made along the journey? How can I accept the fact that standing up for those considered “less than” may mean no glory or honor but perhaps shame and shun? How can I endure the journey knowing that I maybe alone in this work to speak truth to power? How can I be satisfied in working through my call to be a justice worker? How do I remain faithful to what is right even when it hurts?

We have been called to be faithful … to be faithful to our resources that G-d has given us … to be faithful to the call of Jesus to do unto others as you would do for Jesus … to be faithful to the commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves … to be faithful to our founding document as a nation that declares that all men (women) are created equal .

We have been called to be faithful to the call, standard and expectation set for us by Jesus even in desperate and dire conditions and situations. The next few weeks that are before me provide me … Carolyn … an opportunity to demonstrate my faithfulness to the call of justice, mercy, understanding but also join with others who have made FAITHFULNESS their order of the day.