Lessons from Rio Bravo and the Border
Delegates from the May 2010 Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera delegation to the Mexico/U.S. border.Photo: AFSC
by Pamela Brouker
I was in Mexico, Reynosa, when the time changed; It sprang forward. Like so many other things, time can get lost. And I definitely lost track of time, on this visit. The border is so compelling and challenging to process. I began to write this, on my third day back, in Austin, and I am just now beginning to come out of my own kind of fog and awaken. I wrote today, in my journal. I had many emotions. I remembered family and parts of my life I'd filed away.
Personally, I am in a transition phase, seeking and discerning a call, with the Lutheran Church. I am an ordained pastor, working at a local Hospice agency, substitute teaching, scoring, childcare, catering, and working, on my own film project, all part time. I went on the weekend trip, with Austin Tan Cerca, because I wanted to remember what spoke to me, so deeply, when I went to the border, several years ago, with my seminary. My alma mater is the Lutheran Seminary Program, in the Southwest. This unique Master's of Divinity, focused on Hispanic Ministry and used Texas and the border, as context. We visited cities, along the border, and maquiladores, colonias, churches, and missions, with a focus of accompaniment, walking with others, for a transformative community. I was changed, by the realities of poverty, on the border, and especially, by hospitality and genuine openess, to our visits, and friendship. My world was shifted, as I was met, fed and welcomed, by 'the other'. And we, as seminarians, processed our trips, through theology and transformative mission.
This visit, with Austin Tan Cerca, used a model called, 'solidarity'. We were to witness, to listen, to learn, and to hear stories. We were encouraged to ask questions of workers and organizers, in Mexico. Our job was to be present. Challenging, because to be present meant not being more powerful. There were no opportunities to fix anything, to give anything materially, to solve the problems. Our purpose was to continue, in the relationship, that began 10 or so years ago, between organizations and people. A relationship that is mutually beneficial, in and through, the process of walking, with people. We heard stories of worker situations and were caught up, with their current circumstances and recent past. They have been deeply influenced, by the economic down turn, and stories revolved, around tensions this has caused. We were invited, into this relationship, of listening and sharing; relative strangers, now community. Speaking two different languages and living on two sides of the border. Something shifted for me, again.
Friday night, our first night. We were to visit their office space and then to eat dinner, at the nearby home, of an organizer. Driving down the roads of the neighborhood and city, it really hit me... 'Oh yeah, this is why... here.... I remember... I feel the buzz and tension.' I look and I am struck again, by the rough dirt roads, that raise the dust, filtering the lights, from the cars. I encounter the people, children, and youth, and holes that are very deep. It is on this side, of the border, teeming with people, with fewer resources, for the sole purpose, of a better life, for their families that clarity can arrise. They build their own dwellings, because pay is low and rent is too high. They live and petition for city services, sewage, electricity, roads. People reside here because they are glad to work. And.... so... it is teeming, with life; hopeful, intense, real, painful, and close. The spaces are a must see, for yourself. There is no comparison. It is your nose that needs to contain the dirt, at the end of the day, into morning. And we stop to eat and be welcomed, in their low rise hacienda, for a fabulous meal. People living under extreem conditions, for their right to live.
Quietly, I wonder, in my own mind, ' How do our hostesses get to work, by 7am, using these roads, in clean clothes and shoes?' For me, this is one of the biggest questions. And I do not know why. Perhaps passages are important for me? And I am anxious, usually about getting to work on time. Here, on foot, in the dust, in the holes, with busses, I wonder how they do it, with a family, at home, getting up at 5am, out the door, to work, unable to return, in order to pick up a sick child, from school. It's these little details, we take for granted, that are not all in place here, in this border town. People want jobs. People also want lives to live, and I wonder how I could live here? And make it. I am doubtful. I am too used to what I am too used to. And the women and men share their homes, with us, we eat, for a wonderful dinner. By the light of electricity, gained by petition, by a dirt road opened and ready to receive a street. And then, what happens when it rains?
Perhaps this is my destiny, somehow, to seek? I am supposed to be here, yet it is difficult for me to completely take it in, so I look up. The stars shine brightly down, over our van. We dismount to enter a house, roughed up, by the ride. 'Yup, they seem brighter, on this side of the border' I say to my fellow delegate. I am clearer now. Why I find, at the border, a kind of answer. Because here, you cannot pretend and hide behind what you have, what you make, or even your title, ie our priviledge. Things don't mean it, because people live and survive, without them. They live and are strong. They share their lives and compell us to ask questions and to think.
And, personally, I am reminded, of my grandmother. Her self an immigrant to America. She came, with her mother, and was a child. This mother and child, followed the husband, only one year, after he arrived. Marggiorino 'Nunu' was his name Magdelena or Francesca, 'Nuna' was hers and he'd been doing well enough to send for her and my grandmother, Ortensia Edda. As immigrants, from Italy, they learned to adapt to the culture and language, food and people. Then, my grandmother married a man whose grandparents were, from Germany and the Netherlands. And though his family did not like Italians, they formed a union that was unique, German and Italian. Together they spoke English. Families, from very different places. This kind of story echoes, on my father's side, generations back, originating from countries such as France, Germany, and even Spain. Yes, I am a descendent of immigrants. I am a European American, whose ancestors came looking for their dream; A better life. And here, on the border, is another kind of country. A shared country of Mexico and the United States. My grandfather remembered the prejudice of his father and mother for his wife. Their judgements hurt my grandfather all his life, even up till his death, in 2005.
The focus of the workers who organized were, all the others, the workers. They worked and chose to give their precious energy to educate. They had laser beam focus of educating workers of their rights, under the law, and worked hard to imagine how they could empower, each person. Essential is the confidence, for each worker, to stand up for herself, for himself, under the auspices of the law. Underlying all the work was the premise of human dignity. They were fluent in knowing that a person is important and their work is important.
In our current culture we often think we are only 'an important someone', if we have money, a job/title, healthcare, etc. We have forgotten the value of the human being. And the value of sharing with others, for others. Personally, I believe that faith is about understanding the value that is inherent in every human being. That every person is sacred, found in and through humanity, the Christ, and together we form community and together we breathe, with the power, of the Holy Spirit. Human beings, in all our brokenness and struggle, bleeding, and laughter, are to be celebrated.
Here, at the border, with few resources, the organizers were focused. They supported each other. And they are a witness to us. That we also must have each other, to know and remember, the goodness and dignity therein, inside each one of us. We are meant for community identity, not just individual identity.
It is difficult for us, in the USA to imagine community identity. Do we not usually look at each other, and even ourselves, with disdain and judgement, rather than a focus to empower? Do we actually educate each other, of our rights, under the law, uplift, and encourage the other? Our current culture of competition and fear, internal insecurity and having more for ourselves and taking so others don't take from us. All this usually leaves us running for home and closing our doors, especially, to the other. When will we realize we are all the same in value and need to share. I needed this reminder. It seems the people here have so many lessons to share. Lessons of compassion and focus when we need it most. Right on time. Right now!
Yes, I remember the reasons why I was transformed by the border. I have been crossed. My borders of separation and priviledge have been demolished. I can not imagine how these folks do this everyday. And we are still invited, into the relationship, to listen and learn. In order to be transformed and never the same. We cannot cross the same river twice. For once crossed, by the river, we are changed. We grow. We are opened to all the other realities of the human being; sacred, vital, imaginative, brave, and honorable. I've been crossed, by the border. The terrain is new, rocky, dusty, and cleansing. I wonder if you will allow the border to cross you and your idea of who you are so that you may see the true connections we share with Mexico and the people that live.
Pamela Marie Brouker, Pastor