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?

The Galilean Journey Today- Meeting with Fr. Virgilio Elizondo

Fr. Virgilio Elizondo opened our day proclaiming that theology “is a critical faith reflection done by the people. Faith is not an abstraction.” It involves questions about a community of individuals concerning truth, goodness, and beauty; alternatively, it also approaches those items that are debilitating a community. In the first full day of our immersion, our conversation with Fr. Elizondo set the stage – for me – of the trip: There is much power in a theology that can be created by listening to our lives, our neighbors and to the histories out of which we create our identities. It becomes extremely important to me, then, that theology is a practice done in relation with others, based in stories and utilizes a discourse lending dignity to individuals’ lives.

A story that I want to lift up, highlighting the importance of Fr. Elizondo’s words, occurred during a discussion we had with a local pastor and two leaders in a small San Antonio congregation. In the Westside of San Antonio, a heavily marginalized and oppressed Hispanic neighborhood, we discussed how a church reaches out to its community’s needs. The two leaders shared stories from their lives, touching on job loses and student debt; immigration issues and local drug and gang problems. Yet, the women and the pastor shared a faith that paired their political, social, cultural, identities with a theological commitment to justice. Fr. Elizondo’s words rung true throughout the day: Theology is done when listening to stories like those shared by the pastor and those women; theology is a practice, a confrontation with history’s identity making materials and emptying them of the violence that segregates and marginalizes communities. One of the women shared how her life has been transformed through participating in the church. After immigrating to the states in 1996, and after learning English, she joined the church, and saw the importance of advocating for other women who were in similar situations as her own. Without a community of faith bolstering and supporting her– as she is in her own identity – she would not have developed her leadership roles in the community. This faith is gained through confronting authorities like city council and the mayor, where she feels authorized by the church to speak out concerning immigration issues impacting her and her neighbors.

Borderland Bloggers

(from January 5 )

Over Christmas break in the mountains of North Carolina, waiting in the car for my mom to come out of the post office, a headline of a newspaper in one of those sidewalk newspaper boxes caught my eye:  “Shogun Raid: 12 Deported.”  If you know me, you know that “raid” and “deported” would have caught my eyes, but only North Carolina mountain locals will know the significance of “Shogun:” a Chinese buffet restaurant, a local favorite.  Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had shown up one day in December to Shogun, and 12 men and women never made it back home to their families like normal after a workday; instead they were arrested and deported.

The headline and the local news article broke the ice for a powerful conversation among family members when we reached that day’s destination: our family’s favorite Mexican restaurant.  We touched on everything from immigration, to capitalism, to neocolonialism, to justice, to community organizations, to taxation, yada yada.

As our conversation came to a close, my family member offered me an important suggestion:  “Ya know, Jenn, you’re really passionate about all this, and you’re gaining some specialized knowledge, but what about the rest of us?  Why should I care? Make it concrete for me.  How does this relate to me what and where I am in my life?”

Well, as 10 of us from Union Theological Seminary traveled yesterday to San Antonio, TX and will travel to the Texas-Mexico border in the next few days, we’ve taken this advice and request to heart.  On this “Bodies, Borders, and a Blog” site, we will share stories, experiences, analysis, reflections, and images that give the Borderlands a concrete story, shape, faces, and reality.  Out of this, the importance of the Borderlands can begin to emerge for each of us, given our individual conditions and commitments.

Union Theological Seminary Borderlands Trip 2012 Group

We understand the “Borderlands” in at least two ways: The Borderlands as a geographical region with an important history, geopolitical context, and ongoing crisis. And the Borderlands as an experience of individuals and communities with their identities threatened and in flux.

Like you, we don’t know what to expect in the 10 days ahead, as we journey in these Borderlands. We’ve read some books, even taken a related class within the confines of a Union Theological Seminary classroom, and all of us come with experiences and interests relating to the border, human rights, identity, justice, and faith communities. We travel with open eyes, ears, hearts, and minds, and we invite you to join us, this January 4-14, to see what might connect with you and emerge for you given how, what, and where you are.

In the Eyes of a Dreamer: One family’s struggle to educate their children in the United States


Ramona directs the van driver, Martin, through the pot-holed streets of Colonia Muniz in south Texas, guiding us to a bright pink building at the community’s center.  ARISE (A Resource in Serving Equality) is painted in bold letters on a sign outside, signifying the presence of the 23 year old non-profit. In their own words:

“ARISE is a grassroots organization of women for women. It is about building on strengths and respecting the dignity of each individual. It’s about spirituality, cultural values and personal growth. It’s about connecting women with each other and strengthening the fabric of their communities. It’s about teamwork and putting personal ambition aside in favor of common goals. It’s about inspiring hope and a sense of a possibility.”

Ramona, who has been involved with ARISE since its inception, leads our group into the building to show us where the magic takes place.  The humble, un-airconditioned converted house has colorful inspirational posters, a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, photos of neighborhood residents, shelves filled with children’s books and arts supplies for classes with area children, and the crowning jewel—a huge patio with tables for hosting community events, neighborhood birthday parties, dances and BBQs.  As Ramona and her co-worker Andrea tell us about the organization, hard rain begins to pour down and the patio feels like it has curtains of water enclosing us in as we learn about this sacred work.

Ramona explains that when families arrive to this country they come with big dreams.  After a few years of struggling to make ends meet, of scraping for work, of being treated like a nobody, those dreams begin to dissolve.  For many depression sets in and they forget, or are unable to raise their children with any dreams.  Ramona thinks that many of the community’s problems are born from young people who have no sense of hope.  Frustrated, stuck, unable to imagine a better future, they get involved in gangs, drop out of school, and at worst, begin to see themselves as nobody. Ramona says that the biggest job of ARISE is to give  the community hope—to remind them to dream and  raise their children as dreamers.

Ramona Casas at ARISE Office in Colonia La Muniz

When the sky clears we begin to walk toward the house of a local family whose story we have been invited to hear.  Their yard has only this week been emptied from the water left by last month’s hurricane. Today’s rain makes the yard refill with mud, further burying the cans, wrappers, and fruit strewn across the “lawn”.  The heat and humidity are stifling as we make our way into the small living room area, crowding around the single air conditioning unit as the family gathers to talk.

The mother, “Maria Louisa” stands against the wall, with her muscular arms folded across her chest.  She is a powerful woman with a strong square jaw line and deep, almost black, eyes. She and her husband make a living harvesting grapefruit for $7.25 a case.  On a good day, if they work together, they can fill 2 cases an hour.  Using this money they have put a $5,000 down payment on their house and are working to pay the remaining mortgage. They had saved up $3,000 over the last few years to pay for their daughters’ college education.  But that money is gone now, after what the family went through last month…

Maria Louisa proudly introduces her two eldest daughters, Elizabeth (19) and Veronica (17), who are as striking as their mother and both studying at the local University.  Elizabeth is studying to be an RN but one day hopes to be a doctor.  Veronica will be starting college this fall and plans to become a teacher, a vocation inspired by the wonderful teacher who taught her English when she first arrived to this country.  Both of these young women immigrated with Maria Louisa and her husband to the U.S. 10 years ago and are un-documented.  The family’s younger daughters and son who are 5, 7, and 9 years old respectively, were all born here in the United States.  The 7 year-old daughter wanted to become a border patrol agent, but that too changed after last month…

Last month, while driving her mother to work, Elizabeth saw the flashing lights of the border patrol in her rear-view mirror.  When the agent approached the car Elizabeth asked him why she had been pulled over.  The officer did not answer.  Elizabeth repeated the question and the border patrol agent responded (I am paraphrasing) that he knew what to do when he saw a car full of people who looked like them.  He told them to get out of the car.  He did not wait for Maria Louisa to grab her younger daughter’s papers from her bag.  Maria Louisa and her four daughters were taken in for “processing” by the border patrol.

Once in custody Maria Louisa and her elder daughters were asked to sign “voluntary departure” forms stating that they were being “voluntarily” deported to Mexico.  Maria Louisa instead signed the part of the form that said she could request a hearing with a judge.  This was taken as an act of defiance—an affront to the arresting officer who began to yell at Maria Louisa. “Do you think you are special because you have been here for 10 years, do you think the judge cares?  Do you think you are special because your little girls are citizens?  Do you think you are special because your older girls are in college?  Do you think owning a house makes you special? None of this matters to the judge.”  In the retelling of the story she said that his tone was “muy golpeada” or abrupt—literally like being hit with words. He asked Elizabeth to help him convince the mother to sign but she instead told her mother not to sign the form—to hold out for a judge.  Maria Louisa continued to insist that she could not leave her young daughters, who are citizens, alone in this country—she wanted a chance to talk to the judge.

Maria Louisa held out for four more hours without signing the form, until they took her to a separate room without her daughters.  There the agent told her that if she didn’t sign the form he would call child protective services to pick up her youngest daughters.  He promised that she would never find them again.  He told her that Elizabeth would go to a women’s prison and that Victoria would end up in a juvenile detention center.  He told her that she would spend months in an immigration center awaiting processing and that in the mean time her family would be separated and it would take forever to find them all again. He told her again to sign the form and out of fear she finally complied.  Even then, after the form was signed, another officer saw the paper with her original request to see a judge along with the “voluntary departure” waiver.  This officer spoke to Maria Louisa’s detaining officer and told him that the form was no good if it had her request for a judge on it.  He tore the paper up and told her to do a new one.  She signed the form again.

The officer now asked Maria Louisa again if she had anyone for the little kids to go home with.  She knew she could not call her husband and risk his arrest too, so she decided to call ARISE to pick up her daughters.  Once the little girls had left tearfully, Maria Louisa and her daughters were deported to Mexico.  There, through a contact from ARISE, the family found a place to stay for a few days as they formulated a plan to come back.  Elizabeth recalls that she was not afraid, she knew they would get back “home”—she was pissed that it would set the family back financially, but this would not ruin her chances to become a doctor.  Maria Louisa felt more fear as she imagined crossing the border with her two beautiful teenage daughters.  She had heard stories of what happens to young women crossing the border in the hands of corrupt coyotes or at the hands of border bandits.  With this in mind she found a reputable coyote to cross the three back to the United States.  The midnight trip across the river in a little raft cost the family $2,700– almost everything she had saved for her daughters’ education.

Although this all took place six weeks ago, the after shocks are still wearing off. Maria Louisa says that her younger daughters cry each time she tries to leave the house, even to buy groceries, “They grab my legs and tell me ‘no mami, no te vayas, te agaran la migra’”(no mommy, don’t go, border patrol will get you).   The youngest, who sleeps with Victoria, wakes up almost every night with nightmares that her family is being taken away.  The 7 year-old no longer wants to become a border patrol agent.  When we asked her why she shyly answers, “hablan muy feo” (they speak in a very ugly way).  The family will have to work for years to rebuild their savings, and everyone wonders what they will do if they are caught again—but Elizabeth and Victoria must continue to take classes and Maria Louisa and her husband must take whatever work they can find.  Whenever anyone is running late, they are all thinking of the worst possible scenario, that they may not see that person again.

We ask the girls about their involvement with ARISE.  How has the organization affected their lives.  Elizabeth and Victoria have both spent dozens, possibly hundreds, of hours volunteering.   They teach classes for the little kids and help to put on events in the community.  They have participated in the myriad trainings  offered by ARISE and this connection has helped them to dream big.  These young women have no doubt that they will succeed—no matter the obstacles set before them.  Maria Louisa says that her children “van a ser alguien” (are going to be somebody).  It is clear that they already are, and that they take after their mother.

There is a hope that the family clings to, that the “Dream Act” will become law.  Both Elizabeth and Victoria are the “dreamers” that the act would cover.  They arrived here young, they were schooled in this system (this country invested many years in their education and they excelled), they have great career potential, and they want an opportunity to work, live and serve this country.  They are the embodiment of the American Dream—hard working, persistent, eyes set on a brighter future for themselves and for their family—all they need is a chance.

As we leave the house I lift my eyes to the clouded sky above Colonia Muniz.  The sun is pressing against the clouds and giving the sky a hazy brightness.  I begin to pray—for these women, for this country, for ARISE and the inspiring work they are doing here. I pray that God will continue  to bless us each with the ability to continue dreaming—imagining something better—transforming our world with grace and hope against the greatest of odds.

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.