The three empty bird cages are stacked forlornly against the wall of the house on the small concrete paved patio, one with a dead parakeet still in its nesting box. Many Mexican families enjoy caged birds, but since the birth of her grandson Angel four months ago, Elodia has been too overwhelmed with other responsibilities to care for songbirds. Elodia and Fidel were my hosts in Ciudad Juarez, December 1-4, 2005, when I participated in a border immersion trip. Juarez is a city of 2,000,000 people in Chihuahua, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.
Like many Friends, I am concerned about our neighbors to the south. At the clinic where I work in Santa Fe, New Mexico, about 90 percent of our patients are from Latin America, mainly from the state of Chihuahua. When we hear and read about the hardships endured by poor people as a result of U.S. government policies and big U.S.-based corporations, it is easy to despair of having any impact on the situation. How can we respond to the tremendous inequalities and injustices of our world? What can we as Friends, or I as an individual, do to alleviate the suffering of our Mexican neighbors? For me the trip was a chance to learn more about conditions along the border and to try to answer my most pressing question: How can I as a privileged U.S. citizen feel more at peace about being part of a society where greed and fear seem to prevail over compassion and understanding?
The leader of our group of ten middle-class New Mexicans was Chuck O’Herron-Alex, a caring and creative man. He has developed a simple, self-contained box garden that makes it easy for families to grow fresh organic vegetables in harsh environments. Our group participated in his Home Grown Nutrition program, assisting families in a colonia (outlying neighborhood) of Juarez to set up and plant these small gardens.
We also had the opportunity to meet three amazing people who have given up many comforts and privileges to live with and serve the poor in the El Paso-Juarez area. Ruben Garcia is one of the founders of Annunciation House, a shelter run by live-in volunteers in El Paso for immigrants and victims of torture from all over the world. Frank Alarcon gave up his job as a mail carrier in El Paso to start a clinic, daycare center, community dining hall, and other services for residents of one of the poorest areas of Juarez. And Sister Donna Kustusch is a Dominican nun who has spent the last 14 years with women who live on the site of the former Juarez garbage dump. About 75 families are being helped by the Centro Santa Catalina, a remarkable project which grew out of Sister Donna’s conversations with the women about their needs, hopes, and dreams. These three individuals exemplify what it means to "live in solidarity with the poor." Their lives are inspiring but very difficult to emulate. How many of us could give up our homes and families in order to serve the poor? As guilty as I feel about being a rich American, I don’t think I could.
We stayed with Centro Santa Catalina families for three nights. Most of them migrated to the colonia from central and southern Mexico in search of jobs. Life has become very difficult for small farmers in Mexico since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect a decade ago. Mexican farmers cannot compete with U.S. agribusiness (neither can small U.S. farmers, of course). The former garbage dump is dusty, with few trees and toxic soil. Trash is continually making its way to the surface of the unpaved streets. Many of the houses are built of scrounged materials—cardboard, scraps of wood, Styrofoam and tar paper—and have dirt floors. Gradually some of the families have managed to build small cement block houses, and everyone now has electricity, a propane cook stove, and at least one water tap somewhere on their tiny lot. We were hosted in pairs, and family members shared their lives with us.
As a result, we were able to talk directly and openly with our hosts. My Spanish isn’t fluent—it takes me a while to remember the words I want to use—but it was good enough to understand most of what I heard. We were encouraged to ask the families questions about their lives, their finances, their feelings and hopes—questions that ordinarily wouldn’t be considered polite. For three days we had a chance to experience a little bit of what it means to live in solidarity with the poor.
In the Annunciation House newsletter I had read the story of Dianna Ortiz, a nun from the U.S. who was kidnapped and tortured while working as a missionary in Guatemala. Ruben Garcia of Annunciation House told us that for those who are victims of torture and for those whose lives are a continual struggle, such as our hosts, being able to share the realities of their lives with people who care is a real comfort. We were fairly nonjudgmental listeners, so taken aback by what we heard and saw that we could only respond with sympathetic looks and murmurs.
Elodia and Fidel have six children, ranging in age from 17-year-old Patricia to 4-year-old Hector. Patricia and Angel gave up their room and bed for my friend Sheila and me. Only one of the family’s four rooms is heated—with a small metal stove that looks like it was made out of a tin can. Five of the nine members of the family sleep on two beds in this room. Elodia does the laundry at an outdoor sink and hangs it on lines to dry. The family’s animals (two dogs, a cat, two roosters who begin their wake-up calls at 4 or 5 am, two hens, and four chicks), live on table and kitchen scraps that are dumped onto the patio. There is an indoor flush toilet but no running water in the bathroom sink. The family, especially Elodia, has been stressed by the birth of Patricia’s baby, Angel. Elodia feels it is very important for Patricia to stay in school, so Elodia cares for four-month-old Angel five days a week.
Fidel works six days a week, at least ten hours a day, selling snacks and soft drinks to workers in the maquiladoras, factories owned by big multinational corporations. He earns about four dollars a day. The factory employees work 10- to 12-hour shifts making many products that can be sold cheaply to U.S. consumers at stores like WalMart and J.C. Penney. Why are the prices in "big box" stores so low? Low wages, lack of enforcement of environmental regulations, and few export duties (thanks to NAFTA) make Mexico an attractive location for corporations to build factories. The workers earn up to $5.50 per day, about 50 cents an hour. Yet prices for food, water, propane, and electricity are about the same as on the U.S. side of the border. One of the few advantages of working at a maquiladora is that health insurance is provided.
Attending public school costs money in Mexico. For the family’s three oldest children, two in a technical school learning bookkeeping and one in high school, Elodia and Fidel have to pay for uniforms, books, entrance fees, bus fare, and supplies. Their five-year-old, a bright, affectionate, and lively girl named Luna, attends the kindergarten at Centro Santa Catalina. It costs two dollars a month, much less than the public kindergarten. Her elementary-school-age brother benefits from the after-school tutoring and recreation program at the Centro, and all the children get small scholarships since Elodia is a member of the Centro Santa Catalina sewing cooperative and participates in the weekly Faith and Values classes taught by Sister Donna.
Participating in the activities of the Centro gives the 23 women in the cooperative extra income, increases their self-esteem, and helps them become more assertive in a macho society. They are becoming more able to stand up to their husbands and advocate for their children, and the group offers spiritual and social support as they struggle for better lives. They meet at the Centro to sew four afternoons a week, making beautiful bags, tablecloths, napkins, shawls, and other items that are sold at church bazaars in the U.S. and via the Internet (www.centrosantacatalina.org). They each make at least $100 a month for 16 hours of work a week. Sister Donna, who has a PhD in Theology, developed the four-year-long Faith and Values course. The weekly meetings include singing, games to get everyone laughing, prayer, meditation, discussion, and sharing. We participated in these activities with the women, who obviously give each other lots of support by holding each other’s babies, praying for each other’s sick children, and preparing meals together when visitors come. In one-to-one sharing time a 40-year-old grandmother told me of her deep faith in the Virgin of Guadalupe and how that sustains her.
We met a small girl who could not return to school because her parents lacked $20 for medicine to control her asthma, and talked with the mother of a two-year-old boy who is always sick because the cardboard roof of their one-room home leaks. (Our group came up with $20 for medicine, but singling out one family for a larger monetary gift would not have been a good idea, even if we could have made such a donation.)
The mothers of those two children are part of the garden group at Centro Santa Catalina. Through the Home Grown Nutrition program they are learning not only how to grow some of their own food, but how to prepare healthier meals, collect seeds for future plantings, and turn vegetable scraps into compost.
The most moving moment of the weekend was on Sunday morning when we all gathered at the Centro to say goodbye. Each of our group of ten was given a blessing by every member of Centro Santa Catalina, the blessing she would give to her husband or children if they were leaving on a journey. We were also given small gifts of colorful paper flowers from the sewing co-op, and Elodia gave Sheila and me the pottery mugs we had drunk our tea from at each meal in her house. These women, who had so little in the way of material comforts, were giving freely to us of their spiritual riches.
When we asked what we could give them, the answer was, "Tell others about us and our sewing products, send money for scholarships so our children can finish school, come back to visit, and pray for us."
The trip brought up many emotions for our group. As we rode back to Albuquerque in our rented van we reflected on what we had learned. Though we were still pondering many questions, we now had answers. What can we do to alleviate some of the suffering we saw? We now have personal experience of some very positive projects that are making a big difference in the lives of the people we met. We can support them financially and tell other people about them. What does it mean to live in solidarity with the poor? We can examine our own lives and look at how we contribute, through our purchases, investments, and lifestyles, to the misery of those less fortunate. We can try to live more simply. When we become irritated at some little glitch, such as a family member forgetting to get something from the grocery store, a class being canceled, or the computer malfunctioning, we can stop, put our problems into perspective, and be grateful for all we have.
As for my dilemma of feeling at peace living in a wasteful and callous society, the most rewarding result of the trip was my close personal connection with Elodia. Although our burdens are different, we share the same love and concern for our children, we have similar daily household chores, and we each have a husband who has his faults but is a good man. We face the same challenges each day: to be a cheerful giver, to do the tasks assigned to us with care and attention, not to give in to discouragement, and to let love and good humor shine through us to brighten our little worlds. This is a comfort to me, to know that Elodia, with her chickens and dogs in Juarez, is my "sister" in the struggle to stay sane, serene, and unafraid in this world.