Day 4: Border Awareness Experience, Nov. 2, 2017
by Kathy Sevig
“What does the Lord require of us, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.” Micah 6: 8
Visit with Sister Betty and Father Peter at “Casa Tabor”
Betty and Peter live in a four-room adobe house in Juarez. The tiny kitchen reminds me of my Grandma Laura’s kitchen on the farm in Donnelly, MN, in the 1950’s. Pots and pans hang from pegs above the counters; a small gas stove sits in the corner. The adobe walls and wood plank ceilings are painted white. The furniture is mismatched and outdated. Home-sewn curtains frame the sitting room window.
Betty’s white hair sits atop her head in a bun; she wears a long sleeve shirt and denim trousers. A beautiful smile and sparkling eyes adorn her face; her voice is kind. She is 85. Peter also has white hair; he wears a plaid shirt and denim jeans. His dancing eyes radiate a buoyant spirit; he is curious and eager to meet each one of us. He is 94.
To get here, our van drove over deep potholes (I was sitting in the back seat of the van so I FELT them), then up a gravel road so steep I was afraid our van would slide backwards!
Beautiful simplicity describes their physical surroundings. America’s materialism seems sinful as I sit in this humble place, listening to Betty, a Sister of Mercy, and Peter, a Carmelite, share their stories. They are not a couple but have shared a home and worked together ministering to the poor since they met in Peru on a Carmelite mission in 1962.
They met with people of the village eager to tell them of the wonderful plans they had to make their lives better. The village people began to ask them questions. “Why did you foreigners come here? When we visit others, we are invited into their homes to share food and friendship. But you came into our house without permission and started rearranging the furniture.”
Betty and Peter were startled and gradually realized they had no idea what they were doing. “We went into this foreign place to fix it, not realizing God has already been working in this place.” This encounter changed their ministry; they were to be servants of the people, not tell them how to make their lives better.
After they left Peru, Peter started CRISPAZ, Christians for Peace. They went on many trips to observe for themselves what our foreign policies were doing to the poor and ministered in the US to educate people about foreign policy and how it affects people in Latin America. As I write this, they are on a plane bound for El Salvador.
In 1995, Betty and Peter moved to Juarez. One day Betty saw a woman beaten up across the road from her house. She went downtown to ask what services existed for domestic violence. There were none. In 1993 young girls were disappearing and being raped and murdered in Juarez, victims of domestic violence. Families of the disappeared began organizing and a woman asked Betty to open up her home and talk to women about domestic violence. This became her mission in Juarez.
Families in Juarez were poor; the family across the street had three children and to support them, both parents worked in the maquilas and made about 2,000 dollars a year. It took 10,000 dollars a year to raise a family of three children, feed and clothe them, and educate them. The parents had only a 2nd grade education.
One of their sons decided he wanted to go to school, so he worked in a maquila during the day and went to high school at night. He came home with perfect grades and wanted to go on to college. Betty and Peter gave him a scholarship as well as his two sisters. They later received scholarships from their college. All three of the children have now graduated from college; their son is an engineer, one daughter is a social worker, and the other daughter is an engineer. Although the people living in the colonia are tremendously poor, many take the opportunity to go to school, study hard, and transform their lives just as these three neighbor children did.
In 2007 to 2012 Juarez became a terribly violent place because of drugs. Since 2006, 215,000 people have been murdered in Mexico with impunity. The government, politicians, and policemen are corrupt and there are no consequences for the perpetrators. Despite the violence, women in Juarez still had to take the bus to work at 5:00 in the morning and come home at 11:00 at night. They had no choice.
Peter talks about NAFTA and its effect on the economy of Juarez. “In order to join NAFTA, Mexico had to privatize industry. A wealthy man bought the government-run phone company for three billion dollars; in ten years the company was worth thirty billion. Just as in the United States, all the wealth is going to the top. You can see the drastic effects in Latin America. Private industries must grow the economy to make a profit and hand out dividends to their investors.”
However, Peter says that withdrawing from NAFTA would cause immediate disaster to the thousands of poor in Juarez who work in the factories and would lose their only means of support, paltry as their salaries are. He adds, “The world cannot afford another United States (or China) when over half of the world’s population is excluded. Pope Francis came to Mexico with the message of economic justice. We must heed his words.”
Peter and Betty maintain a memorial with the names of the thousands who have been killed in Mexico since 1993. Reading the list of names is overwhelming: 293 journalists for speaking the truth, 52 priests for activism, 1300 women whose bodies were found, thousands of disappeared whose bodies were never found, 43 students killed because they were raising the consciousness of the people, 450 migrants dying every year in the desert.
Each name is printed reverently on the wall so each life taken will be remembered. We leave these two gentle, humble souls with tears and appreciation for their dedication to serving “the least of us” and with joy for the opportunity of visiting their home—truly a sacred place.
Meeting at Human-rights Organization “Derechos Humanos Integrelas en Accion, with Liz Martinez
Our second stop is the DHIA, a center that advocates for the human rights of the most vulnerable—migrants, the LGBT community, and foreign and Mexican nationals deported from the US. Liz, a human rights lawyer, meets with us to discuss issues facing the LGBT community. She is a lesbian, married, with a 2 ½ year old daughter, Abigail, whose name means “the happiness of our Father God.” Since 2009 gay marriage has been legal in Mexico. Right now the struggle is for children of gay couples to have the names of both parents on their birth certificates; presently only the name of the birth mother is allowed.
Liz is fighting against the new government, the conservative National Action Party, which is taking Mexico backward to a world-wide tendency towards racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Conservatives and Catholics see the advance of human rights of women and LGBT people as a threat to the family.
Congress is launching a misogynistic and homophobic book supporting discrimination against women and the LGBT community. In Mexico the law is the Constitution, and Article One establishes protections against discrimination: any authority in Mexico has the obligation to select international law or legal principles that defend human dignity. Churches in Juarez do not welcome the LGBT community; however, since 2013, one priest has taken the revolutionary step of supporting their community and they go to him for advice. “We love him,” Liz says.
What keeps Liz going is her faith in God and in Jesus Christ. We see the weariness on her face and in her voice; she knows her cause is on the right side of history. “They will win the legal battle,” Liz believes, “but changing the mentality of the people will take a very long time.”
Liz thanks us, "My invitation to meet with you came from God. That you care and came from so far away to support our fight for equality gives me great hope.” She hugs each one of us, we thank her for her dedication to the fight for human dignity and equality, and we leave with tears in our eyes once again.
Visit to cemetery on the “Dia de los Muertos”
Our third stop is a cemetery in Juarez where people congregate to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos, The Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday celebrating the lives of loved ones who have passed away. Thousands of people gather in cemeteries all over Juarez on this festive holiday to remember the dead and support them on their spiritual journey.
Graves are lovingly decorated with brightly colored paper flowers as well as freshly cut flowers. Items that represent the lives of the dead are placed on the gravestone; mariachi bands play; people eat, laugh, visit, and sing together around the grave. Dan Mahli, a member of our group, commented, “I saw only great joy and happiness as the people of Juarez came together as neighbors in community with one another, so different from the quiet, somber way we remember our loved ones.”
As I stand in the cemetery, I recall the words of Ultima, a curandera in Rudolfo Anaya’s novel, “Bless me Ultima. As Ultima is dying, she speaks to a young boy who is grieving her death:
“I bless you in the name of all that is good and strong and beautiful, Antonio. Always have the strength to live, love life, and if despair enters your heart, look for me in the evenings when the wind is gentle and the owls sing in the hills. I will be with you.”
Talk by Dr. Mendoza at Columban House
We return to our home for the week, Columban House, and listen to Dr. Mendoza--Vicki’s Mother Theresa--speak about her clinic in Juarez where she ministers to the poor. She is a surgeon, general practitioner, and midwife.
She tells of her work with the indigenous population in the mountains. The people did not trust her at first and would not allow her to be present at births because they said, “You are not married and do not know about women’s problems.” One day she was called to an orphanage because a twelve-year-old girl was in terrible pain. She explained that the child was pregnant and giving birth and so they must allow her to touch the child. She safely delivered the baby, improvised an incubator (oven) for the premature baby, and applied medication and an IV.
Both mother and baby survived, people now trusted her, and she traveled by mule to other villages. Sometimes the baby died, but the father said, “Do not worry; it is only a girl.” She realized the best way to empower women is with education, because the women were fatalistic and superstitious and believed evil spirits were taking their babies.
After 18 months she returned to Juarez and worked in an emergency hospital. She quit when she fell in love with medical missionaries who wanted to help the whole person. She established a small clinic called House of Mercy in Anapra and gives medical services to the poor including dental care. Young girls often have all their teeth pulled because of decay, so the clinic teaches them how to care for their teeth and gives the girls root canals, crowns, and other dental care to save their teeth.
She helps women who are unmarried get birth certificates for their children which are issued by the government not the hospitals. Without birth certificates, people cannot get an education, health care, or health insurance from the government. Even with health insurance, people can only get preventative care. If a person has cancer, diabetes, or any other illness, government health insurance does not cover it.
The most prevalent disease in Juarez is diabetes because of poor nutrition and lack of exercise. The poor used to have a healthy diet of beans and corn, but they work long hours in the maquilas—they leave at 4 AM and get home at 7 PM. They are exhausted, so they prepare food such as pasta which is all carbohydrates but easy to prepare. She once had a four-year-old patient with a blood sugar level of 560!
She strongly advocates for universal health care in Mexico. “It is a human right,” she declares, “not a privilege.” She is also trying to do hospice care; in many homes the elderly are neglected because they are going to die anyway, so families think it is not worth the time and effort to give them care.
Dr. Mendoza declares, “I will serve the poor until the last day of my life,” and we fully understand why Vicki calls her “my Mother Theresa.”
Columban Mission Center “Dia de los Muertos” celebration and talk by Omar
In the evening we have an open house celebration of Day of the Dead. Many people have come to celebrate with us and bring food to share. They build an altar outside and celebrate the lives of their loved ones just as we witnessed in the cemetery.
After the celebration, a young man, Omar, who survived the massacre of 43 male students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teacher’s College in Mexico in 2013, speaks to us. “I am a survivor of what happened 4 years ago, and I and relatives of the disappeared are still insisting their bodies be found. The official version given January of 2015 is that the remains of the 43 disappeared were burned. We know that not just 43 have disappeared in Mexico but thousands and thousands, and we insist that the government’s version is false.”
Omar goes on to explain that they asked the OAS to conduct an independent investigation. The investigators refuted the official version and found irregularities in the government’s investigation. So now there are two versions, the government version and the OAS version.
Omar continues, “This atrocity has pointed out the problems of the government not recognizing human rights in Mexico. This problem must be faced. It is the most physical case of the last few years. Imagine what happens if this case has no solution. This is why the impunity is so great: there are no consequences for the perpetrators of this crime. The system does not protect the rights of the most vulnerable. Justice in Mexico is covering up injustice and allows impunity to go on.”
He explains that the families are trying to get cooperation between groups fighting for human rights. “We have meeting after meeting with activists and NGOs, but for three years they have been fighting among themselves and can’t agree on a unified method to fight the problem. They are using methods from 50 years ago. We ask them to get rid of ideologies and simply put themselves in the position of the suffering mothers and fathers.”
Finally his frustration boils over. “We are tired of giving conference after conference to audiences who do nothing! At this point we feel like circus animals that go on exhibit day after day. We want action. We want solidarity of purpose. We want to connect all the activists in Texas instead of going to city after city with no results. In this month alone we have visited 10 cities in Texas. We ask you not just to listen but to do something!”
It has been a long, exhausting, but amazing day for all of us. We reflect on all the people who have spoken to us today--Betty, Peter, Liz, Dr. Mendoza, and Omar—all working to help the poor and disenfranchised of Mexico. I am reminded of the following words of Jesus:
“Truly I say unto you, Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brothers and my sisters, you have done it unto me.” Mathew 25: 40.