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In solidarity with our neighbors


Members of our parish group leaned forward to catch the English translation of the words spoken to us by Magdalena, a Mexican villager: “Our sons and husbands have gone to the U.S. with the hope of a better life, because you just can’t survive here. We worry a lot when they leave for the border. Some of them have died along the way. At times they send back money to build a house, but the people here are left with sadness. We are mostly women here, because the men have gone north. We’re left to take care of the sheep and the cows and the children.”

At first the villagers, unaccustomed to U.S. visitors, were reluctant to speak. Gradually, more came forward. Two women became tearful as they tell us of their father, gone north 30 years ago to support the family but afraid to come back for visits because of the danger of crossing the border again.

Others pleaded for dignity for their family members when they are in a strange land: “If you know of Mexicans in your country, ask people to treat them with respect. Receive them well. We are not there to rob you. Please pay us what we deserve.”

Listening to the 20 or so women, we were standing in front of a chapel in Refugio de Gamboa, a village of about 200 people in the state of Guanajuato, several hours north of Mexico City. We had heard about the hardships of Mexican immigrants in the United States for years, but for the first time their reality is coming alive for us in the families and villages they have left behind. In two days we visited four villages near Apaseo el Alto, a city of 30,000, to hear directly from the people about la lucha -- the struggle for life, for dignity, for victory over oppressive conditions -- and about the hope they find in their scripturally grounded communities of faith.

We visited the animals the villagers take such pride in -- the sheep and cows of pure stock given to them by the nonprofit Heifer Project, with the understanding that they will pass on the offspring to their neighbors, continuing the “chain of life.” We were treated to a banquet-like lunch in one village; a concert by local musicians in another; a tour of a natural medicine greenhouse, and a corn grinder, tortilleria, and bakery run by groups of women in another. Sampling the bakery products and talking with the people about their lives and accomplishments, we can hardly believe the richness of hospitality we have found in the midst of these poor Mexican villages.

Encounters like these do not “just happen” when U.S. travelers like ourselves visit a poor country. We were 10 members of St. Mary’s, a parish in the peaceful southeastern Minnesota town of Winona. We wanted to reach out in a relationship of solidarity with the everyday people of Mexico, our neighbor to the south that is increasingly tied to our own country.

Our intent was to go as pilgrims, not tourists. Although we wanted to see some of the major sights in and around Mexico City -- for example, the pyramids of Teotihuacan and the National Museum of Anthropology -- our focus was personal and faith-filled. In our own overwhelmingly Anglo-American community, we have witnessed an increasing number of immigrants from Mexico, and by visiting there we hoped to understand better the kind of life they had left behind.

How could we go to Mexico and meet local people in a meaningful way, rather than merely view the sights? The key to our experience was the GATE immersion program, which indeed did give us a gateway into the ordinary life of Mexicans. GATE (“Global Awareness Through Experience”) is more than 20 years old, and for the past 11 years has been staffed by two members of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration of La Crosse, Wis.

During that time, Srs. Marie Des Jarlais and Cecilia (Cecy) Corcoran have lived in Mexico City, developing the grassroots contacts throughout Mexico and Central America that make it possible for people of the United States and Canada to have encounters such as we had. In recent years they have expanded their programs beyond Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala to include Eastern Europe, and also added programs in feminine spirituality.

The programs can be custom-designed to the needs and interests of a group. Typical programs in Mexico and Central America cost $850, which covers lodging, all meals but one evening meal, entry fees and transportation to programmed events. Each participant pays for plane fare to Mexico City.

The 10-day program Marie and Cecy designed for us this January left us marveling at how it all came together, with one experience building on another. First, we were joined by students and faculty from a Protestant seminary in Montreal, making a total of 19 in our group. We got acquainted with the facility that would be home base for us, a simple but comfortable retreat center run by the Mexican Anglican church in a neighborhood of Mexico City.

In the world’s largest city

We discovered that part of our solidarity experience would be to take buses and subways everywhere in the world’s largest city, and we rural Minnesotans prided ourselves on getting the hang of it pretty well. We got used to the precautions about food and water, and we learned the hazards of trying to flush toilet paper down the toilets. Mexico’s deteriorated plumbing systems generally cannot handle any paper!

Each morning we began with a prayer service that anticipated what would be happening that day. We got a grasp of pre-Conquest indigenous Mexico at both the Anthropology Museum and the ancient pyramids near Mexico City. An economist from Chiapas told us about Mexico’s history since the Conquest, giving insight into the roots of Mexico’s current economic problems. Some of us were well aware of the devastating impact of free-trade agreements like NAFTA on the Mexican people, but we all learned more about the challenges that globalization and international debt present them.

We got another view of Mexico’s history at the National Palace, where the amazing murals of Diego Rivera passionately tell the story of the Mexican people from ancient times to the post-revolution Mexico of the 1920s. We heard from an organizer of unions that are alternatives to the government-sponsored unions. We met a woman who has started hundreds of women’s dialogue groups across Mexico to empower women in the midst of a machismo culture. A Lutheran theologian activist inspired us with his own story of transformation as he worked among poor Mexicans.

For our two days and nights in the countryside near Apaseo el Alto, we were guided by Eusebio Hernandez, a former priest, now married with two grown sons and a daughter, who has labored for decades to bring about the “conscientization” of people in the villages we visited. We saw liberation theology at work in the people who gather in groups to reflect on the Word of God and take collective action, rooted in faith, to improve their own communities and living conditions. After two days with them, we understood the source of their hope in the midst of la lucha.

Celebration of Three Kings

Eusebio, a magnificent community-builder, had us serenading each group we visited in response to their welcome of us. “We Three Kings” became our specialty, since we were in the midst of the celebration of Three Kings, a grand series of festival days in Mexico. Our evenings in Apaseo el Alto gave us the chance to take in the town’s festivities, with live music and dancing in the plaza, balloons, fireworks and a colorful procession from the church into the neighborhood.

One evening back in Mexico City we took buses and subways to La Mancha, a dense settlement on one of the mountainsides that encircle the city. Over decades, squatters’ shacks have been replaced by tiny concrete-block houses, and electricity and water have come to the area. Here we split our large group in two to visit with two base Christian communities for their weekly gathering. In the group I went with, after some time spent on the scripture reading, we asked the Mexicans what their hopes and dreams are. In turn, they reply thoughtfully: “To see my children grow up good and healthy.” “To become a priest” (this from a 13-year-old boy). “To be a human rights lawyer” (from two sisters, high school girls). “To become a whole man” (from a man in his 30s, father of the boy who wants to be a priest). Later they served us delicious rolls and hot drinks. We can hardly pull ourselves away from conversations in fractured Spanish with the people who welcome us so warmly.

Another day we venture out high in the mountains beyond the urban area to visit Casa Nazareth, a treatment facility for young men from the city who are drug addicts. Fr. Fritz Loos, of the Saginaw, Mich., diocese, runs this small center for healing, a simple farm with the structure and discipline of farm chores, healthy recreation and group therapy infused with a sense of God’s power and love as an antidote to the harsh lives these men have had. We meet four of the men, and they share their struggles with us frankly, with our translator, Marie’s, help. It is a deep conversation, the kind we realize we don’t ordinarily have with people in our own country. The men are especially eager to hear from our youngest members. One of our group, a woman of 20, chokes back tears as she assures them, “I know what you’re going through. I have friends who’ve been through this. Just know that you can do it. I’ve seen it happen.” Traveling back to the city, once again, we ended a day aware that we had been in God’s presence.

The great Visitation

Before going to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we hear from Sr. Marie the story of the Indian campesino Juan Diego and of the Virgin Mary, appearing to him as a young indigenous woman four and a half centuries ago. We are all familiar with the story, but in the context of the history we have learned and the poor people we have met, it speaks to us powerfully. Later at the basilica, with the image of Guadalupe on Juan Diego’s cloak in the background, we celebrate Mass with our pastor, Fr. Joe Keefe. Our gospel is that of the Visitation. Fr. Joe reminds us that the visit of Mary with Elizabeth, and of the Virgin with Juan Diego, are sacred moments, instances of the great Visitation of God with us human beings. Our encounters with each other and with the people of Mexico are all of one piece with that great Visitation -- God with us.

What we as a parish community will do, or what we will become as a result of our pilgrimage to Mexico, is emerging gradually now that we are back home in Minnesota. Our understanding of the Mexican people has flesh and bones on it now. Our sense is not merely theoretical but alive with real relationships. First, we must tell the story of what we experienced to the whole parish at weekend Masses. The 10 of us, ranging in age from 20 to 70, and including our pastor and our liturgy director, are a good cross-section of our parish. All of us were affected personally by the GATE trip. Each of us anticipates changes in how we live because of it.

The pastoral council commissioned us to go on the GATE trip and report to them what kind of follow-up we suggest. We will be taking them a proposal to start a sister community relationship with one of the villages we visited. But the impact of our pilgrimage may be even more significant in Winona.

We will begin having a monthly Spanish Mass for Latinos in our area, with welcome receptions hosted by our group. We have discovered that many of the Mexican immigrants in our area come from villages in Guanajuato, the state we visited when we went out to the countryside. We can see, feel and smell the places they call home. We remember the faces and stories of people who could be their family members. That will make all the difference in how we connect with our new neighbors. We have a new realization of the body of Christ in our world.

Barbara Allaire lives in Winona, Minn., with her husband, Jim. She teaches English as a second language and volunteers with a local Catholic Worker community.

National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2002