National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  February 6, 2004

U.S.-Mexico border called 'place of possibilities'


The monumental two-story building overlooking the Pacific Ocean was the brainchild of Jesuit Fr. David Ungerleider, assistant to the president at Universidad Iberoamericana. Perhaps a library on the campus of a Jesuit university would not constitute a brainchild in most circles, but this is in Tijuana, Mexico, border town, a place of exploitation, violence and lost dreams.

But some, including Ungerleider, see it differently. And that different view was easy to see the night of the inauguration of the university’s new Loyola Library. Luis Alberto Urrea, one of five Latino authors and activists invited for the ceremony, was born in Tijuana and spent most of his life in the United States. “We are a united region,” he said of the Californias. “The border is a place of possibilities.” Urrea’s forthcoming book, The Devil’s Highway, examines the lives and deaths of 14 migrants who attempted to cross into the United States through the Arizona desert.

Ruben Martinez, author of Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail, agreed. Most of the 1.8 million people who inhabit Tijuana, Mexico, are not natives, he said. The city is “a great laboratory for Mexico and the United States” because of its diversity and artistic energy, he said.

That the U.S.-Mexico border can be a place of creativity and healing was apparent from the presentations by the writers, including poet and novelist Benjamin Alire Saenz, as well as this reporter.

Moderating the panel, sponsored by the Mexico-based Lannan Foundation, was Mexico’s most famous female novelist and journalist, Elena Poniatowska, who made an impassioned plea on behalf of the nearly 400 women, many of them maquiladora workers, who have disappeared and died in Juarez. The Mexican government has ignored their plight, she said.

Ungerleider first dreamed up the idea of a library in 1996. Thanks to benefactors on both sides of the border, including the Lannan Foundation, it is nearing completion.

“This is history in the making,” said Denise Chavez, whose novels include Loving Pedro Infante. Indeed, it is the first time in the history of the Republic of Mexico that a private university has built a library facility for the public. “It offers a chance for the people of Tijuana to get ahead in life,” said Ungerleider, who has tirelessly accompanied poor people in their struggles since his ordination in 1977.

Ungerleider, 52, was born into a family of 12 children (his parents later took in four more children) in upstate New York. After ordination he worked in Philadelphia with Puerto Rican gang members suffering from drug addiction. He founded a recreation center and later a social service and housing center.

He has spent more than 20 years in Mexico. During this time he has taught throughout the country. His degrees include a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and letters from St. Louis University and a master’s degree in social anthropology from the Escuela Nacional de Antropologia e Historia in Mexico City. He teaches once a year at the University of Havana.

Three years ago, Ungerleider established a mission-style church, built of straw and plaster, for the residents of the colonia near the university. He says Mass there beneath a beautiful white dome that rises up in earthy splendor. Ungerleider also spends a week of every month at a hospital he directs that serves Tarahumara Indians in the Copper Canyon area. And he is constantly raising money for the library.

I wanted him to share his secret: “How do you balance action and contemplation?” I asked.

We were momentarily interrupted. He dashed off to explain something about cisterns beneath the library and compressors for the air conditioning. Earlier he had waxed enthusiastic over its elevators. He had ended up ordering one from France because it was better made and cheaper -- “globalization in action,” he said.

Action and contemplation? He told me that people often asked his mother how she remained calm with so many children. “If it doesn’t draw blood, I don’t worry about it” was her response, Ungerleider said.

The church -- La Capilla del Corazón Sagrado -- The Chapel of the Sacred Heart -- is made of 711 bales of hay. The coat of white plaster gives the walls the flowing look of ancient adobe. From the altar to the last pew, the rest of the church is made of leftovers, rejects, donations. The stained glass windows, made by a Tijuana artisan, give a “mini-history of salvation for those who cannot read,” Ungerleider said.

Ungerleider brought in fiberglass statues of Guadalupe and Joseph from Mexico City. He feared they would be seized by customs officials at the Tijuana airport. They suspected the priest might be smuggling drugs in the statues. They looked up St. Joseph’s nose for drugs, Ungerleider said with a laugh.

The priest holds Masses early in the evening because on Sunday, colonia residents must work, going out to the beach to sell whatever they can. He refuses to take up a collection during Mass. “I don’t want any money in the church,” he said. Instead, parishioners fill a basket with rice, beans and the like. The offering provides a week’s sustenance for four families who help out around the church.

Ungerleider downplays his gifts for founding institutions. At best, he is the dreamer. It’s the people who offer the know-how and the donations. “When people have a chance to follow up on an idea, they’ll do it,” he said.

For the priest -- and the authors who shared their work -- borders can bring people together if they remember their common history.

Demetria Martinez, author of three collections of poetry and a novel, Mother Tongue, lives in Albuquerque, N.M.

National Catholic Reporter, February 6, 2004

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