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?

Buying Into the Alamo

What’s the big deal with the Alamo? Walking through the “shrine” and museum on Thursday was interesting enough, but I found myself puzzled at the depth of feeling this small site seemed to arouse in the dominant Texas psyche. A handful of men died in a failed attempt to hold the old mission, and…? I felt like I was missing something. So yesterday I went back.

When I entered the gift shop, it all started to make sense.

Playing in the corner was a trailer for Alamo: The Price of Freedom, an IMAX movie which reenacts the battle of the “heroic commander” against the “arrogant dictator.” In case, like me, you are not familiar with the dominant narrative of the Alamo, this trailer is a helpful overview. (Mexican Texans who supported the rebellion, only to be killed and robbed of their lands by their Anglo “countrymen” are unsurprisingly absent.) You can certainly buy pretty much anything with “Remember the Alamo” on it. You can also buy replica guns, knives, and other “hero” gear, including, of course, toy guns and knives for the kids.

My favorite thing, though, was the fundraising brochure:

Alamo fundraising brochure

“When Travis called for reinforcements, you were who he had in mind.” That was it: “buying” the Alamo is creating identity. Not only does visiting the Alamo rehearse the dominant narrative of Texas independence, it sells the opportunity to become part of the narrative. By revering the “shrine,” and by literally “buying into” the heroism of the Alamo defenders, people not only justify the past, but use the past to build an identity. Specifically, the Alamo reinforces an identity that glorifies violence, rebellion, and, of course, the victory of “freedom-loving” Anglo Texans over “tyrannical” Mexicans.

I’m from Seattle: I didn’t grow up with the narrative of the heroic Alamo defense. But Washington is, of course, another border. Now I wonder: what other one-sided narratives of history I have been sold, and what I have bought  into?

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.

“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.

Re: Good Intentions and the Kidnapping of Haitian Children!

Dr. Cruz,

I appreciate the concerns and questions you raise in trying to understand what these missionaries were thinking when they took these 33 children and tried to cross the Haitian/Dominican border. I too really have been trying to wrap my head around what would drive a person or group of people to think that such an action was in any way acceptable. In addition to this, what is really drawing me to this story is the ways that, in light of studying the history of the Christian church in the Americas, it is simply the latest example of a dynamic between Europe, then the United States, and Latin America, that can be traced all the way back to 1492.

I cannot help but see these ten people as the newest generation of American missionaries that have historically rendered invisible entire communities and cultures throughout the Americas in the name of Christianization and Americanization (the U.S. brand). How conscious these particular missionaries are of the legacy that goes before them is unclear. A look back, however, shows that they are not straying far from their foremothers and fathers.

Historically, the missionary project in the Americas has functioned largely in this way – from the earliest days of frontier and borderlands missions in what is now Texas and the southwest to denominational participation in colonizing territories, as in the case with Puerto Rico. In the spirit of manifest destiny, missionaries have ventured out “into the wilderness” of our historical imaginations to play their part in the settling of lands. What is left out of this historical imagination is the communities of people, people who had been living throughout the americas for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. And yet, they were rendered invisible in this missionary imagination.

This dynamic has existed throughout the americas, including Haiti. Another example is in southern Texas, along the border, where a group of students traveled with Dr. Machado in January to study the borderlands region. One of the most striking parts of this history of the borderlands is the way in which European and Euro-american settlers and missionaries disregarded the Mexican and tejano peoples titles to their land despite it being in their families for generations. As evidenced in our visit to the Institute of Texan Culture, these people are absent in the history we tell of Texas. We also met with Catholic priest and theologian Virgilio Elizondo, who shared his struggle as part of the Mexican American community against invisibility and shame in the church. Dr. Machado’s work exposes the protestant denominations neglect of the Mexican American community and culture as well.

So, in a sense, the fact that these people didn’t take into account the families of these children, nor Haitian laws, is nothing new. It is the result of a dangerous mix of good intentions, missionary zeal and American exceptionalism. In my opinion, this makes it all the more reprehensible and dangerous. Given the post-earthquake influx of missionaries of different denominations into Haiti, we must be mindful of how this dynamic could manifest itself, in actions as extreme as the smuggling of children over borders, or in more subtile ways that could result as undermining community organization or culture. If our good intentions render invisible the community in which we are serving, it is all for naught.

To see more on the Borderlands immersion class, visit our class blog.