November 30th, 2019
“I keep reminding the young people that come to work with us (at the Catholic Worker House) that they are not naturalized citizens. They cannot get away from their privileged background. They are not really poor. We are always foreigners to the poor. So we have to make up for it by ‘renouncing all compensations.’ Simone Weil does not talk of penance, she does not cry out against self-indulgence. She says, ‘Renounce’.”
from Dorothy Day
It’s been over six weeks since I made I made the road trip to the southern border at El Paso. Distance, whether it be in terms of space or time, can give a person more perspective. It is possible to see more of the bigger picture. However, that is not without loss. Seeing the bigger picture means that a person sees less of the details. The details are what wake me up in the middle of the night.
I am have been looking at a postcard that I sent to Karin while I was on the trip. I love to send postcards. I was fascinated by them even as a kid. I know that it is a totally retro kind of thing. Most modern people send selfies, or post some crap on Facebook. I like to send things by snail mail. I like to give a person something that they can touch. It seems more real that way.
I am looking at the postcard now. In a way, it s a truly wretched picture. It shows part of Ciudad Juarez, with El Paso looming in the distance. It shows the border crossing. The card appears to be an antique. The cars on the street look old even by Juarez standards. Most postcards show something marvelous, something to attract other wanderers. A postcard from Paris might show the Eiffel Tower. I remember sending a postcard from Cairo that showed the Pyramids of Giza. This card shows a desolate neighborhood in Juarez that borders other desolate neighborhoods in El Paso. It is a scene that is very real, but not inviting, not at all.
I remember when I bought the postcard. The fourteen of us were in Juarez, and it was after we had a meeting with a some kind of official of the Mexican government. The meeting was in a building right at the edge of the border. We met in a room that was way too small, and we listened to people who talked way too much shit. I’m not saying that everything they said was nonsense, but at least some of it was. The official spoke about the migrants who were stuck at the U.S. border, and he said that Juarez welcomed them, because they needed the labor force. He insisted that there were jobs available for these refugees from Central America, and that the city was eager to have them stay. Yeah. Maybe.
While in Juarez, our group saw the tent city on the street near to the border. It was not a pretty sight. There were women and kids living in hovels. The men were either trying to hustle some money to survive, or they were sitting on the curb with empty eyes and empty hearts. All of the people in this conclave were in limbo. They couldn’t go back home, and they couldn’t go to the one country where they might feel safe. They were utterly lost. Anyway, that is how they appeared to me.
I cannot know much about these migrants. I did not speak to them. I don’t know Spanish well enough to converse with these people, and why would they want to talk to me anyway? The fact is that I don’t know any of their stories. Even if I did hear about their experiences, I would never really understand. There are some things that cannot be learned vicariously.
These people, these migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, are destitute. They have nothing. They left what little they had behind. They left their homes in desperation and fear, and now they linger on the edge of the Promised Land. Most of them, because of the cruelty and callousness of our government, will eventually leave the border and fade away. That is the stated goal of the U.S. government, that these hopeless and harmless people just go away. They will. A few of them will find a home in Mexico. A few of them will try to make their way back to their homelands, where the gangs are actively trying to kill them. Some will die.
We don’t care. We just don’t care.
After the meeting with the Mexican official, we all wandered along a main street in Juarez for a while. We stopped at a mom-and-pop restaurant for some lunch. I think it was called “Sabor a Cuba”/ “Burritos Meny”. We stood in line to order. I asked our guide, Chris, if I could go back a block and buy some postcards at a small shop.
He said, “Yeah, go ahead, but take somebody with you.”
I yelled to Alex, a member of our motley crew, “Hey, Alex, I need you to hold my hand for a while! I want to go to the store down the block and buy some postcards!”
Alex was a good sport. He agreed to walk with me. We went into the shop. I thought about trying out my Spanish with the owner, and decided that it was too much of an effort.
I asked Alex, “Can you ask the guy something for me?”
“Ask him if he takes dollars or pesos. I got no pesos.”
Alex, being a a truly good guy, did what I asked.
He turned to me and said, “He takes dollars.”
I sighed and said, “Okay, I want ten cards.”
Alex translated for me.
I bought the postcards. We walked out and went back to the burrito shop.
Chris greeted us when we returned.
He said, “Let me know what you order, so that I can pay.”
I got in line and ordered a Coke, in terrible Spanish. I finally made it clear that I only wanted the soda.
Chris came up to me and asked, “Did you only get a Coke?”
“I’m not hungry.”
There is a point there.
I was not hungry. The truth is that I have never been really hungry.
I do not know what is like to be truly poor. I grew up in a struggling, working class family, but that doesn’t mean anything. We ate enough. When raising my own family, I laid awake at night worrying about how to pay the mortgage. I never laid awake wondering how I would feed my kids.
I cannot completely understand the suffering of these people on the border. I don’t want to experience what they have gone through. I don’t want to know all that they know. Maybe that is wrong, but I have my own stuff to handle, and I often am overwhelmed by that.
As Dorothy Day said, I will always be a foreigner to the truly poor.
I can understand them a little bit. That’s all.
That will have to be good enough.