Border of Death, Valley of Life: An Immigrant Journey of Heart and Spirit
by Daniel G. Groody
Introduction: Corazon Destrozado—The Crushed Heart and the Dynamics of Mexican Emigration and Immigration
"The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."
The Mexican Immigrant in the United States
The subject of immigration is not new, but the issue is as important now as ever. Especially as the United States grapples with how to fight terrorist threats from foreign fanatics, the pressure to seal off our American borders is tremendous. While there is a legitimate need to control these borders in the interests of national security, my fear is that many people will never hear the other side of the immigration story. This book presents the human face of immigration. The people I write about are not terrorists or drug dealers. Nor are they criminals or enemies. The vast majority of Mexican immigrants who enter the United States illegally are simply hardworking people, willing to work in menial jobs so they can provide for their families back home in Mexico. Mexican immigration presents the United States with terrible ironies: Mexicans are prevented from coming across, yet they are needed to sustain the American economy; they are often denied jobs, yet often they do the work that no one else wants to do; many fear them, yet they can enrich American culture.
While much has been written in recent years about immigration, nothing has been written about Mexican immigrants and their spiritual lives. This book seeks to respond to such a need. Through it I hope to address some of the profound, human, spiritual hungers of immigrants in this country. While many come to the United States with a strong faith, in many places, Mexican immigrants find themselves dying of spiritual famine. They hunger for a deeper spirituality than they find in many of their local Catholic parishes. Even though many Hispanics have cultural roots that are lie deep at the heart of Catholicism, many are leaving the Catholic Church. Andrew Greeley estimates that one fifth of the Hispanics who were raised Catholic have left the Church. Because part of this problematic is spiritual in nature, I chose to focus my energies on one place where some important, spiritual movement was happening, in the hopes that this model might serve as a guide for further pastoral development and intellectual reflection.
As I looked around the country to find places where Mexican Hispanics were flourishing in their spirituality, I discovered the Valley Missionary Program. The people of this organization had the most committed spirituality of any community I had ever seen. These immigrants were not simply playing around in their own self-actualization sandbox (in contrast to some spirituality currents in U.S. American society), but they were living out a central value that profoundly transformed their lives and led them to commit themselves to the needs of their neighbors. Because the program enabled many of them to undergo some real changes in the way they understood God, their world, and their very lives, I quickly became intrigued and enamored with the program. One of its compelling features was that the people reached out not only to those who came to Church but also, and especially, to those who had left the Church or had no contact with it at all. In many ways, great and small, the program embodied God's mercy.
A priest of my own religious community, the Congregation of Holy Cross, founded the program. Even within the community, however, the program had received little attention until recent years. One of the reasons for the protracted appreciation was because this priest—as holy, committed and generous as he was— had the reputation of being eccentric, stubborn, and idiosyncratic. For these reason and a few others, he was sent far away to the forsaken town of Coachella, California, because, it was thought, in the words of a former provincial, that "there he could do the least amount of damage." To everyone's surprise, he started one of the most innovative spiritual renewal programs in the country and became a beloved figure for many of these immigrants. Rejected from the mainstream currents of the Church, this founder became the cornerstone of a great renewal movement in the Church. The program became so successful that these immigrants themselves started bringing it back to many of their villages and cities where they came from in Mexico. Currently, the organization has "associations" or chapters throughout Mexico, and it continues to grow exponentially. I argue that the program thrives because it touches something deep within them; it brings their spirituality to life and it transforms their lives into something new.
At the same time that I developed a pastoral fascination with the program, I also began doctoral studies in Christian spirituality. For five years I was able to carry on a rich dialogue between scholars in Berkeley and these immigrant farm workers in the Coachella Valley. Eventually, I bought the two worlds together in a doctoral dissertation entitled "Corazon y Conversion: The Dynamics of Mexican Immigration, Christian Spirituality, and Human Transformation." This work was my first attempt to understand the spirituality of Mexican immigrants, and it led me to understand better the social location, culture, and spiritual experience of the people. I also wanted to probe how their encounter with Christ in faith led to the restructuring of their core values, beliefs, and priorities. In other words, I wanted to explore how their experience of God led to integral conversion. Since then I have developed this work further and tried to refine my insights into a systematic reflection on the spirituality of these people. This book, then, is the result of sustained reflection over a period of years on the faith experience of a people. It has become an opportunity to weave together the best of scholarship in spirituality with my own insights and experiences of Mexican culture and pastoral ministry.
From an academic perspective, this work in theology is a disciplined reflection on spiritual experience. One of the initial challenges of embarking on such a work in spirituality is that of methodology. By nature, methodology in spirituality is interdisciplinary; it is a bridge discipline. In this particular case, the primary discipline is theology, but this work also draws on sociology and cultural anthropology. Spirituality, as an academic discipline, seeks to weave these different disciplines together into a coherent conversation about the complex experience of human beings in relationship to God.
This work, then, is done at the crossroads of Mexico and the United States, the rich point of intersection between the two countries. It is also a work done at the crossroads between spirituality and theology, culture and theology, fieldwork and theology, sociology and theology, and the grassroots and the academy. Especially for this study, the border has been a fertile place of reflection and inquiry for examining the spirituality of these immigrants.
In the pages that follow, I describe four dimensions of Mexican immigrant spiritual experience: context, revelation, transformation, and interpretation. In chapter 1, I do an extensive description of the immigrant context. The purpose of this description is to bring out the difficulties and struggles of the undocumented immigrant and to name the pains they experience in the process of breaking from Mexico, crossing the border and entering the United States. I argue that we cannot adequately understand a Mexican immigrant spirituality without better understanding their social location, the trails they endure and the wounds they bear.
A Hunger For Freedom, A Wall Of Separation
Overwhelming joy went through the Western world as it witnessed the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The great Wall had long stood as the symbol of separation between the material abundance of the West and the economic scarcity of the East. It represented the dividing line between freedom and slavery, opportunity and oppression, prosperity and poverty. The crumbling of the Berlin Wall gave a breath of fresh air to the world, and it gave hope for a new era of freedom for humankind. Especially in the United States, the news of the falling of the Wall reinforced the deep U.S. American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Ironically, as the great wall of separation was coming down in Europe, an even greater and more dangerous wall of separation was being fortified along the 1,952-mile border between the United States and Mexico. Though not a wall of concrete, it is a wall of separation between the citizens of the United States and the poor of Latin America. As doors were opening to those who escaped the tyrannies of communism, doors were closing to those who were trying to escape the tyrannies of the unjust economic, political, and social structures of their own countries.
Between 1961 and 1989, in the hope of finding a better life and a more promising future on the other side of the Berlin Wall, eighty people were killed; fifty-nine of them were shot dead by East German guards who protected the border. Between 1995 and 2002, in the hope of finding a better life and a more promising future in the United States, more than 2,000 immigrants have died trying to cross the U.S.-Mexican border. This means that more than one human life has been lost for each mile along the border since 1995. Those who lost their lives attempting to cross from East to West Germany were considered heroes in the United States, yet those who attempted to cross from Latin America to North America are often considered criminals. While many of the deaths along the Berlin Wall were noted internationally, many of the people who die along the U.S.-Mexican border remain unpublicized, unrecognized, unidentified, unburied, and unmourned. In the public eye, the Mexican immigrants who die often seemed like nothing in life, and, in the end, they appear as nothing in death, without even a simple cross to mark their graves.
The newspapers are full of reports of the horrible conditions that undocumented immigrants have to endure in order to cross the border from Mexico into the United States: "At least seven Mexican immigrants died and more than fifty others were rescued in rural San Diego County canyons . . . after a freak spring storm dropped a foot of snow on (the) mountains"; "Six illegal immigrants sleeping on railroad tracks in south Texas, possibly to avoid snakebites, were killed when a Union Pacific freight train ran over them"; "Six suspected illegal immigrants trying to escape Border Patrol agents plunged 120 feet into a ravine near San Diego . . ., leaving one dead"; "Twelve illegal immigrants who crossed the Mexican border perished as they tried to traverse the barren Arizona desert in 115-degree heat and reach a highway... ."
The dynamics of Mexican immigration are full of stories like these, about people who drown in rivers, freeze in the mountains, dehydrate in the deserts, and get hit by cars or trains. Given all these painful stories of horror, we are forced to ask: What kind of conditions, circumstances, and pressures lead people to take such risks, expose themselves to such dangers, and face the prospect of even torturous deaths?
In order to provide a foundation for understanding the Mexican immigrants' spirituality and their journey, it is important to look more closely at the social, political, cultural, and economic context in order to understand their lives more adequately. Christian spirituality seeks to understand God, human life, and the relationship between the two. As we try to understand the human experience of Mexican immigrants, we must consider why they leave Mexico, what they endure when they cross the border, and what they experience when they come to the United States. Attention to their wounds as well as their aspirations will increase our appreciation for how their spirituality heals and transforms them. On the surface, we will speak about the story of Mexican immigrants, but at the core, their stories touch and dig into some of the most fundamental dynamics of human existence: the will to survive, the desire for connectedness to others, the hunger to make a meaningful contribution to the world, and the search for God in the midst of daily life and its trials. In the particular story of the Mexican immigrants, we discover aspects of the universal human story and the struggle to live with dignity, friendship, and purpose.
Breaking From Home In Mexico
The dynamics of immigration are as old as humanity, but the extraordinary numbers of immigrants today are symptomatic of the ills of our age. Immigration is a global malady that needs to be analyzed in relationship to the political, social, and economic context that precipitates it. Today more than 100 million people are migrating around the world. The effects of globalization on the poor, in particular, increase these numbers daily.
Virtually all immigrants leave their country because of an urgent need, whether social, political, economic, or religious. Chief among these is the widening gap between the rich and the poor of the world. Poverty, hunger, violence, war, the abuse of human rights, religious and racial prejudice, oppressive intellectual conditions, or a deteriorating economic climate all contribute to the flight of these people to a new and foreign land where, often, a different language is spoken. Migration is a traumatic undertaking. Such a separation leaves an indelible mark on the heart of the immigrant.
The Pressure to Immigrate
The mass exodus of people from Mexico to the United States is indicative of a country in crisis. Many Mexicans emigrate in the hope of relieving some of the intense pressure caused by unemployment, hunger, disease, poverty, and early death. The majority of Mexican immigrants come to the United States primarily for economic reasons.11 Mexico's 40 percent unemployment rate and low paying jobs, contrasted with the high demand for labor and comparatively high wages of the United States, draws Mexicans into the United States like a magnet.12 More than 40 million Mexicans live in poverty and dream of making more than the national wage of 35 cents an hour, or 200 pesos (about $20) every two weeks.13 In brief, foreign debt, a declining Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, and diminishing "real wages" are some of the primary reasons why Mexicans migrate to the United States.14 In the words of one immigrant named Mario, "I left a wife and three kids at home not because I wanted to get rich but because I wanted us to survive. When we got to the point where we did not have enough to buy even necessary things like tortillas, eggs, and sugar, I had to immigrate." Many are forced to choose between a dehumanizing poverty at home and the perilous crossing of the border into the United States.
People enter or live in the United States illegally when they do not pass through designated border inspection stations, when they present false papers at these stations, or when they enter legally and then overstay their visas. When they do this, they become classified as "illegal aliens." (Because the term "illegal alien" is a dehumanizing term, I will refer to these immigrants as "undocumented" throughout this book.)
Between 6 million and 12 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States, and the majority of these are from Mexico. Every day, some 4,600 immigrants jump fences, swim across canals, and traverse deserts along the U.S-Mexican border.16 They come in search of low-paying jobs in agriculture, landscaping, construction, and other areas. Statistics show that, despite increasing attempts to control the border, the number of people trying to enter the country illegally is increasing. And while, paradoxically, market liberalization strategies like NAFTA and other free market policies give the impression of a borderless North American economy, U.S. immigration policies and stricter border controls reveal the high walls between the two countries. While new and bold initiatives have been proposed by Mexican President Vicente Fox and have met with some support from President George W. Bush and congressional leaders, the suffering of immigrants will continue in the years ahead, whether immigrants enter with guest visas or enter illegally.
The economic problems that immigrants face affect multiple levels of their identity. Many of those condemned to a life of poverty and destitution often think of themselves as inferior and incompetent. They often begin to blame themselves for their inability to better their lot in life. With fewer opportunities, many people have less incentive to create, innovate, or try new things; they feel quite powerless, even over their own lives. Young people often see no future at all as long as they stay in Mexico. "The most difficult thing," said Jaime, "is feeling the impotence of not being able to do anything." With poor wages, high expenses, unemployment, and underemployment, many immigrate to the United States just so they can support the family. Ironically, the move to come to the United States to support the family often breaks up the family.
Breaking from Family
Mexican immigrants who come to the United States looking for better lives leave behind much of the world they love. While they feel attracted to many of the jobs, opportunities, and material comforts of the United States, the immigration experience exacts a major price on the families and relatives at home. One of the most immediate human costs of immigration is saying goodbye. Only rarely do families emigrate together. Most often, the man is the one who breaks from home, leaving his wife and children behind for eight months, a year, or longer. "The most painful thing," said Juan, "is leaving the family behind, especially the children, but we do it in the hopes that some day we will have something in Mexico."
As the family breaks up, the husband and wife face double burdens. While the husband often faces a future of dangerous border crossings, economic exploitation, and difficult work, the wife suddenly becomes farmer, rancher, parent, provider, and protector of the household. Most Mexicans immigrants do not want to leave home. The majority are not drug dealers. Nor are they terrorists. Often they say that they leave home not because of inordinate ambition but because of the pressing need to survive. "We don't want to steal," said Adan. "We come here to save some money so that later we can return home to take care of our children."
Breaking from the Familiar
Emigrating to the United States also means leaving behind a familiar environment. Because culture permeates every level of a person, Mexicans find it easier to leave Mexico than for Mexico to leave them. Mexicans love Mexico and are extremely proud of their -x country. It remains their birthplace, their homeland, and their culture: "Como Mexico, no hay dos" ("There is no place like Mexico"). Mexico runs through the blood of the Mexicans, and it never leaves them. It remains as much a part of them as their own family. Mexico is a very festive and distinctive place. Fiestas patrias (national holidays), Dias de los santos (saints' days), and posadas (Christmas rituals) shape the psychological and spiritual consciousness of the Mexican, alongside the smell of tortillas (bread), maiz (corn), frijoles (beans), and other aspects of their culture. The relationships, music, drink, dress, and culture all contribute to the life they enjoy in Mexico. However, poverty puts many strains on their lives. Struggling Mexicans spend so much of their energy surviving that many have little leisure time, making it difficult to nurture significant relationships and develop more of their personal lives. Long hours of work and economic scarcity rob many of them of time for intimacy that would allow them to develop more capacities for human connectedness.
Crossing the great border exacts an enormous toll on Mexican immigrants and their families. Leaving home creates many emotional and practical difficulties. In the midst the process of emigration, immigrants often face a terrible irony: they leave Mexico to escape the insecurity of life, only to come to the United States where they experience an even greater insecurity. They give up their homes, their language, and their customs for an uncertain and pre carious future. For many immigrants, crossing the border of death means leaving behind much of what ultimately gives meaning, value, and cohesion to their lives.
Crossing the US-Mexican border
In southern California, there are three main ways of trying to cross the border without passing through designated points of entry: through a fence along the border (those who do so are known as alambristas), across the border canals (known as mojados or braveros), or through the rugged terrain of the desert mountains and valleys. The immigrants make a dangerous crossing with few or no resources. No matter what the method, the three biggest threats come from immigration officials, smugglers (or coyotes), and the perils of the natural environment.
Noted journalist John Annerino brings out just how radical and precarious a journey it is for them: [The immigrants] will be wearing cheap rubber shower sandals and ill-fitting baseball cleats to protect their feet from rocks, thorns, hot sand, and lava, not form-fitting one hundred dollar hiking boots; they will carry their meager rations of tortillas, beans, sardines, and chilis in flimsy white plastic bags, not freeze-dried gourmet meals cooked over shiny white gas stoves carried in expensive gortex backpacks. And they will sleep on the scorched bare earth in thin cotton t-shirts, not in cozy two hundred dollar, down sleeping bags. They will follow vague routes, passed down from one desperate generation to the next, across a horizonless no-man's land, not well-manicured trails. Their signposts will be sun-bleached bones, empty plastic water jugs, a distant mountain, not hand-painted fluorescent signs with arrows pointing the trail every quarter mile. They will cross a merciless desert for jobs, not for scenic vistas. And nothing will stop these honest people in their quest for a better life, not the killing desert, and not the transformation of the "tortilla curtain" into the Iron Curtain.
The journey across the U.S.-Mexican border means journeying to the very margins of life. Mexican immigrants experience vulnerabilities from every side and dangers every step of the way.
The Border Patrol: La Migra
Guarding the door of entry into the United States is the Border Patrol, popularly known as La Migra. The Border Patrol, as part of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), is the largest federal police agency in the country with about 10,000 agents.24 While the United States has had border control policies throughout its history, these policies have become more restrictive in recent years. Since 1986, federal and state legislatures in the United States have sought to control the nation's borders more aggressively through reforms in immigration policy.25 Currently, the U.S. government spends more than $6 billion dollars employing agents to protect the border.26 Although the U.S. Border Patrol currently functions to keep out criminals, drug traffickers, and terrorists, it also keeps out other immigrants who come across the border simply to work and provide for their families. These reforms, coupled with anti-immigrant sentiments, have made it both more difficult and inhumane for the illegal Mexican immigrant to enter and stay in the United States. Beginning in October 1994, the INS launched Operation Gatekeeper near San Diego, California, Operation Safeguard near No-gales, Arizona, and Operation Rio Grande in east Texas and other initiatives near the major urban areas along the border, all of which were directed toward further deterrence of illegal Mexican immigration. Increased federal investment in border control has driven up costs demanded by illegal smugglers, and it forces immigrants, now more than ever, to cross along ever more difficult routes. While the border strategists have adopted a "prevention through deterrence" philosophy to deter immigrants from crossing, there is no indication that immigration flows have diminished in any way; in fact they have actually increased since these reforms' were initiated. Restricting the border has not diminished the migration flows; it has merely redirected them and pushed immigrants more and more into dangerous and life-threatening territory. "It's like pressing a plastic bubble," said Richard Lopez of the busy El Centro sector, "if you press one side of the bubble, the air inside simply shifts to the other side." The U.S. policy has dealt more with the symptoms of immigration than the causes, and, until the government implements more Shortly after the Border Patrol apprehended Marcos, he said, Last night was incredibly difficult. After walking so much, my whole body ached, especially my legs, and I was exhausted. You don't get any sleep and the cold penetrates you. We had to sleep for awhile in the mountains, but it was cold, incredibly cold . . . and then we ran out of water. We let ourselves be captured by the immigration officials just so we could get something to drink. It's dangerous and disorienting out there.”
For the undocumented immigrant, the perils are greater now than ever. The stronger the force of the Border Patrol, the greater the risks that the immigrants take. Because many deaths go unreported and undiscovered, the number of those who die trying to cross the border is presumably even more.33 Until the U.S. dedicates comparable resources to addressing the human costs of migration as it does to the economic costs, many immigrants will continue to die in the process of crossing the U.S.-Mexican border.
Those who do make it across the border still face difficulties as they try to move northward. Shortly after Maria and Pepe crossed over, they said "our coyote (smuggler) told us that we had to hit the ground because an (immigration) helicopter was coming overhead, and we threw ourselves on the desert floor. When we got up, my wife was covered in cactus spines, and for eight days I removed them from her body." In some cases, vigilante groups in Arizona have taken extreme measures to deter immigrants. Some ranchers have even threatened to kill immigrants that trespass on their property.
Some immigrants who are apprehended spend days, weeks, and even years in detention centers and INS facilities. Maria said she was terrified when immigration officials apprehended her: "I spent two months in the detention center feeling traumatized ... all I wanted to do was come over and see my children and husband, but when they apprehended me, they put my hands and feet in chains, as if I was a criminal or had murdered someone." She is now living in the United States illegally, and she fears leaving her house because she does not want officials to send her back to an immigration detention center.
The presence of the immigration officials extends beyond the border into secondary checkpoints sixty miles north of the national boundary. On highways, at crossroads, and under bridges, Border comprehensive strategies that deal with the economic, political and social ills of both countries, Mexicans will continue to migrate to the United States.
Patrol agents use various techniques to detect undocumented immigrants. Such watchfulness leaves many immigrants on a constant state of alert and anxiety. As Guillermo said, "we're tired of living like rats, jumping from one rat hole to another."
The Smuggler: El Coyote
In addition to fearing la migra, the immigrant also worries about el coyote, the smuggler. The term itself has evolved over the years, and people often use it in the negative sense. Generally, the coyote belongs to the culture of the immigrant underground railroad, which has an extensive network of people who help immigrants seek safe passage—when they have the money to pay. Sometimes they are called polleros or, the most benign, traficantes de personas. Most often, the coyote smuggles not drugs but people, though in some places they rival, or collaborate with, drug traffickers. According to Rita Vargas of the Mexican Consulate in Calexico, California, coyotes work together with a series of guides to help shuttle immigrants across the border. The coyote coordinates the overall plan of the immigrant, but the guides are the ones who lead them across the border. Both act as intermediaries in the immigration process, and they know the most about safe passages across the border and the routes which best evade detection by the immigration officials.
Coyote fees are directly proportional to the size of the Border Patrol. The stricter the control at the border, the more immigrants pay for a coyote. Currently, a coyote costs anywhere from $800 to $1,800, nearly double the cost of one in 1994. The poorest of the poor, however, come across the border alone. They have no money to hire a coyote and they are often the ones who get lost and die in the barren desert borderlands.
The immigrants must entrust themselves to the coyote; sometimes this is a fatal mistake. Sometimes the coyote will lead people over the border only to rob them on the other side. Other times, coyotes will leave immigrants stranded in the middle of the desert, to become disoriented and die of dehydration. Still other times, they will have unsuspecting immigrants carry the coyote's backpack, which may have drugs in it. If officials apprehend a group, sometimes these same immigrants can be the ones sent to jail. Women are particularly vulnerable, as coyotes sometimes demand sex as payment, or take it by force. "In our group," said Jose, "our coyote grabbed one of the young women, took her behind one of the mountains and raped her, even though she was screaming and yelling as he abused her." Those immigrants who enter the country illegally face vulnerabilities every step of the way.
The Life-Threatening Elements: La Muerte
One of the largest and deadliest areas along the border is the Imperial Valley of Southern California. It is one of the last great, uninhabited areas of the lower forty-eight states. It has a stark and deadly beauty about it. Almost totally uninhabited and uninhabitable, it is home to bobcats, rattlesnakes (sidewinders), raccoons, coyotes, badgers, skunks, rats, scorpions, and illegal immigrants. Temperatures get as high as 120 degrees in the summer, and there are virtually no water sources in the desert north of the border. Many immigrants travel this route as they try to make it into the United States, and it is the area where the most immigrants die each year. On average, an immigrant a day dies trying to cross the border here.
Those who cross the border know they are entering a life-threatening situation. Because of the constant vigilance of the immigration officials, extreme measures are taken to avoid being seen. For those who lack experience, the possibility of death is very real. The canal-crossing method is the most dangerous. People use ropes, inner tubes, rafts, or plastic bags filled with air or they swim the 120-foot body of water. Some who try to cross the canals don't know how to swim—and they drown. Powerful hydroelectric turbines that feed the electric needs of the valley cause strong unexpected currents, which cause many to lose their footing on muddy river floors. For others, the cold water of the canal freezes and cramps their muscles and paralyzes them from making it safely to the other side. Some will seek refuge in a railroad car, a truckload of carrots, or a truck full of flour. In increasing numbers, many are dying in the desert of hyperthermia caused by extreme temperatures. When people die along the barren trails, birds circle the corpses like carrion, animals prey on the carcasses for food, and the cadavers are often left to decompose in the extreme heat of the sun until they slowly disappear in desert sands. These deserts are long, lonely, desolate, and dry. When asked how immigrants felt about crossing the desert, given the fact that many die along the way, Julio said, "We are aware of the dangers, but our need is greater. There's always the risk of dying in the desert, but the desire to survive and keep going is even more important. It's a gamble."
For food, immigrants bring along a can of beans, tuna fish, a few tortillas, and water. Said one coyote named Alejandro, "The food is so bad you won't even want to eat it." When they cross the desert floor, many wear knee-high, tough leather boots, so the biting rattlesnakes cannot penetrate them. Some people get blisters or swollen limbs from the physical demands. Some get tired and worn out in the intense journey through the desert, but those who cannot make it, or find themselves too tired to continue, are often left behind. They travel at night so as not to be seen. As food reserves get low, survival becomes an issue. Immigrants often have to suppress and/or repress deep emotions of loss, grief, loneliness, and isolation in order to make it. Many have no time or leisure to reflect on their lives or process their experiences because of the demands of survival.
The desert heat is the second leading cause of death during border crossings. Each year the Border Patrol combs the desert searching for undocumented immigrants. Even though the Border Patrol, the Mexican government, and volunteer organizations like Humane Borders have initiated various search, rescue, and emergency aid initiatives, the number of rescues is arguably low in proportion to the number of immigrants who are crossing. As human rights advocate Claudia Smith noted, "No amount of search and rescue is enough in the vast expanses of hell to which migrants have been rerouted." Others die from various other causes: hypothermia during cold desert nights, suffocation from within confined spaces in trucks and trains, and fatal injuries from vehicle accidents. Put simply, illegal entry across the U.S.-Mexican border is extremely dangerous and potentially fatal. Some songs in popular culture capture the price that the border crossing exacts on families. The following song is called Un noble engano, "A Noble Deception."
A Noble Deception
Joaquin was only fifteen Pedro was sixteen
They were coming to the United States
They left from Monterrey.
They had great dreams
From hearing so much talk.
They wanted to go to Houston, Texas,
And begin working there.
Joaquin thought it was easy to cross the Rio Grande.
But the river was full And he could not make it.
Pedro cried at the failure He almost went insane
Upon seeing his brother drown in that treacherous river.
It was one year since my brother was called back to heaven.
My poor parents don't know he never reached Houston.
I take my brother's name when I write my parents.
I don't tell them the truth. They think he's still alive.
After a long absence I returned ready to tell all,
All that is locked up in my heart.
My poor mother crying hugged and kissed me.
"You have returned at last, my son!"
And her tears did fall.
And when she asked for Joaquin
I forced myself to smile.
I had to continue to pretend
So as not to see her suffer.
I pretend I am him When I write to my parents.
I do not tell them the truth. They think he is still alive.
When immigrants cross the U.S.-Mexican border, they enter into a strange and foreign land. They move into unknown territory—socially, culturally, linguistically, economically, politically, legally, and even spiritually. They move from the bottom rung of their home culture in Mexico to the bottom rung of a foreign culture in the United States. They arrive not as tourists but as strangers and outsiders. As a result, immigrants receive a double blow: They are forced to leave the homeland they love and belong to, yet often they feel unwelcome and unwanted when they finally come to the United States. For the undocumented Mexican immigrant, such messages of cultural nonacceptance produce a deep sense of alienation that reaches into every level of the immigrant's life.
Political-Cultural Alienation: Mexican in an American Land
Above all, the immigrants move from a world where they belonged to a world where they are labeled as "illegal aliens." This deepens their sense of estrangement. Even people with green cards are called "resident aliens." They experience acute alienation from home, church, culture, and even themselves. When many Mexican immigrants come to the United States they often experience cultural displacement. The cultural differences often cause immigrants to isolate and insulate themselves from the outside world. Oscar said, "I spent three years alone when I came here, and for the first month I was closed up in my house. I had no friends and I did not want to leave because I thought people were going to look at me as different."
The most immediate experience of alienation is the language. The inability to speak or understand English intensifies their feeling of distance from home. Limited educational backgrounds and illiteracy make it even harder to learn the language. Some cannot communicate about even the most basic aspects of life. "When I was separated from my wife at the border," Miguel said, "I spent weeks worrying about her. I did not even know where she was. She could not even call us because she couldn't read the numbers on the telephone."
For other immigrants, the demands of survival leave little free time to do anything but work. Many labor all day in agricultural jobs, rising sometimes as early as 2:30 A.M. When they arrive home they are often exhausted. In addition, few immigrants have cars, so transportation to classes, even if available, is in many instances very difficult.
Besides language problems, they find it difficult to express the deeper experiences of the heart: fears of being rejected, useless, unimportant, used, abused, mistreated, disregarded, and oppressed. As a result, many immigrants building up high psychological walls between themselves and the outside world: many become strangers even to themselves.
Another form of alienation is cultural. The movement from Mexican culture to an American culture is a dramatic shift. Many Mexicans go through painful moments of disorientation when they enter into U.S. American society. The customs, values, and attitudes are often dramatically different. Even the social geography is quite dissimilar. For example, in Mexico the social life often centers on the town square. More often than not, in suburban United States the center is the shopping mall. The cultural values of the U.S. American and the Mexican are often inverted. As Mexicans enter into the U.S. American world, they often find themselves caught in the crossfire of conflicting value systems. They experience the economic pressures of survival and, at the same time, the constant pressures of a materialistic culture.
When they go back to Mexico, many immigrants often are not accepted in the same way as before they left. Mexicans describe this experience as feeling ni de aqui, ni de alia [neither from here (the United States) nor there (Mexico)], and with good reason: it is difficult to survive in one's hometown, yet it is difficult to find a true home in the United States. Living in the United States leaves many Mexican immigrants with the feeling of absolute non-belonging.
Socio-Economic Alienation: Poor in a Prosperous Land
Virtually all undocumented Mexican immigrants have no security, no benefits, no health care, and no guarantee of long-term work. They pay taxes but get few, if any, benefits. Although undocumented workers pay over $7 billion dollars annually in taxes and social security, many are not eligible for most benefits. They are often abused by their boss (or contratista), and, through various types of trickery, sometimes are denied their just wages. Even recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have decided that federal immigration law takes precedence over labor law, which makes immigrants even more vulnerable. Whereas previous court decisions used to protect immigrant rights and the right to compensation for work rendered, newer legislation has ruled against them, further opening the undocumented immigrant up to labor exploitation.
The Mexican immigrant typically labors in jobs that most U.S. workers do not want. Some are dangerous and precarious. They plow fields in temperatures above 110 degrees, fumigate crops with poisonous chemicals, prune vines amid rattlesnakes and scorpions, pick strawberries with their backs bent over, and tend citrus groves from the break of day. In many ways, the California economy is built on the backs of migrant workers like these. Typically, Mexican immigrants are more willing than U.S.-born workers to take jobs that are boring, dirty, dangerous, and low paying. California's shaky economy in recent years also has created a difficult environment for them. Immigrants are often the scapegoat for social and economic problems. Negative social messages deepen the experience of alienation for these people.
The jobs the immigrants get often are unstable. When workers begin to protest their conditions, they can easily be dismissed. "For every person working in this valley," said Esteban, "there are five more behind them waiting to take your job."57 Because of the large numbers of immigrants looking for jobs in southern California, there is a super-abundance of unskilled laborers. Corporations maintain the upper hand. This creates conditions in which workers are often exploited and manipulated. "We live in a new era of the plantation-estates," said Mario, "but the only difference is that [our slavery] is more disguised now." Even though he is a college graduate, Mario spends his days working in the agricultural fields of California. "We work like slaves for the multinational corporations, but they have no regard for us. We break our backs in the sun, but for little money."58 Those who hire the immigrants often they see them just as arms and limbs without hearts or souls, unrecognized bodies viewed in terms of their economic usefulness rather then their human and spiritual potential.
Psycho-Spiritual Alienation: Lonely in an Unfamiliar Land
In leaving Mexico, many immigrants enter a world of social poverty and become disconnected from family, culture, and homeland. "The most painful thing is separating from the family and leaving behind your loved ones as you search for a more dignified life," said Gustavo.59 Loneliness is a heavy burden and one of the most unrecognized aspects of the immigrant's pain.
In the midst of their separation from home, many of these immigrants long to know that they have a place in someone's life, and especially in someone's heart, to know that someone cares, to know that it makes a difference to someone if they are not around. Without the feeling of connectedness, the agony and emptiness can easily give rise to deviant behavior in drugs, sex, gambling, and alcohol, all of which can lead to various psychological and physical sicknesses. Their loneliness becomes all the more acute when they come to the one place they expect to feel at home, namely the Catholic Church. Often, even there, they do not feel welcome.
Many Mexican immigrants live in isolated and rural areas. Because their experience of the institutional Church is often limited, some see priests infrequently, so they have little contact with the sacramental life of the Church. They often have a negative or neutral understanding of the God and the institutional Church. In general, they are accustomed to few liturgical services, and they often have to pay for those they do request. Many have very limited instruction in catechism as well, except from many of their grandmothers. As a result, many immigrants come with a notion of a punitive God who scrutinizes their behaviors and watches them with a punishing vigilance. Nonetheless, many immigrants have a deep sense of the sacred in their daily lives and a deep sense of the providence of God.
The pressure to work prevents immigrants from addressing their loneliness and other inner pains. After he left his wife in Mexico, Miguel stated, "I would just cover up my pain by working, working, and working."60 Despite busying himself with constant activity, the loneliness continued to afflict him. He continued, "I used to just try to keep myself busy in the fields because the pain was so intense. It used to drive me crazy, and I used to do almost anything to distract myself so as to numb the pain I was feeling."61
Immigrants often feel tremendous longing for their families back in Mexico. Many Mexican children grow up not seeing their father for months or years, lacking even the simplest gestures of touch and affection that are part of a loving relationship.
For those who have no family contacts in the United States, the loneliness is even greater. They have no one to hold or share with on deeper levels. They often experience a deep feeling of rejection. In their isolation and abandonment, they often ask, "Will anyone be there for me?" "Does anyone care?" "Does my life have any significance?" "Can I trust my co-workers?" "Will they call immigration officials?" The fear of being deported is one degree of the immigrant's loneliness, but beneath this is another: The fear that one is nobody to anybody.
Since many of the immigrants leave immediate family behind, they have a deep need to connect to other people. Even when they are around others, however, they often feel incomplete while their family is far away in Mexico. This deep longing to connect is what drives them to take incredibly high risks to return to visit, or to encourage their family to return with them, even with the dangers involved.
For some, their problems worsen as they try to bring their families with them. Jesus Jimenez, a Mexican national who had worked in Fresno, California, is one example. At the age of seventeen, he returned to Mexico to marry the woman he loved. In the perilous crossing over the border, he and his wife hit a snowstorm, and the coyote who was guiding them abandoned them to die in the cold. Having been married only two weeks, Jimenez's bride, Osveia Tepee Jimenez, only twenty years old, died in his arms amid the freezing temperatures of the mountains. While recuperating in the hospital, he said, "I've loved her all my life . . . we were going to make a new life here, so much better than the one we had. We had so many dreams, but we will never live them now. It's all my fault for bringing her."62 Of all the burdens they carry, guilt is one of heaviest.
While some feel noble in their attempts to provide for their families, many experience a burden of culpability, which comes in various forms: the guilt of not being able to return for the funeral of a loved one, the guilt of not being able to raise a family and be a father to one's children, the guilt of infidelity, and even the guilt of not sending enough money home. Amidst this loneliness, the temptations increase. Looking for someone to touch or hold often drives one to search for a prostitute or a passing affair, someone to connect with and alleviate the pain of the loneliness. Afterwards, some immigrants experience a double burden: the burden of loneliness has not lifted, and the burden of guilt remains, a guilt that comes from the feeling of having betrayed the ones they love and have left behind. Some even begin new families on the American border while maintaining a family in Mexico.
Many immigrants experience a complex, overlapping feeling of alienation from home, family, culture, and even God. Drugs and alcohol help alleviate the pain yet drag them into the vicious cycles of poverty, depression, and failure. Loneliness often leads them to shut down emotionally. Many immigrants become all the more in need of love but all the more unable to find it or express it, resulting in a deep feeling of emptiness.
The Immigrant Predicament: A Stranger in a Foreign Land
Some immigrants who come to the United States experience new prosperity and tremendous opportunities. For many, however, their situation gets worse before it gets better. The physical demands of border crossing are arduous enough, but unfortunately they are only the beginning of the difficulties that they experience. While many Mexicans come to the United States looking for a better job, or at least some money to help them survive in Mexico, they often go from bad to worse, from guate-mala to guate-peor, as some say. Their struggles to survive are as difficult on the U.S. side of the border as on the Mexican side, sometimes more so.
After it is all said and done, after the immigrant has broken from family, gone through the trials of the border crossing, and worked under harsh conditions, many of them ask themselves, "Am I better off now than I was in Mexico?" "Have I really advanced at all?" While they follow the ripening of the crops, many immigrants, humanly speaking, are unable to ripen themselves.63 Slowly there creeps into the immigrant's consciousness a painful realization that one is in an even more miserable condition than in Mexico.
The Immigrant Journey As A Way Of The Cross
For the immigrant, the road across the scorching temperatures of the desert is a devil's highway. In the process of leaving Mexico, crossing the border, and entering into the United States, undocumented Mexican immigrants experience nothing short of a walk across a border of death. Even when they do not die physically, they under go a death culturally, psychologically, socially, and emotionally. Their journey involves an economic sentencing, whereby they have to shoulder the difficult responsibilities of leaving family, home, and culture for an unknown future in the United States and the search for a job with meager wages. The Mexican immigrant experiences an agonizing movement from belonging to non belonging, from relational connectedness to family separation, from being to non-being, from life to death. When these immigrants arrive in the United States, they are often tired, burdened, and wounded. Not all Mexican immigrants experience such extremes of the immigration process, but many of them do.
As we look more closely at the lives of these immigrants and the suffering they experience, we see the many forces that affect their lives. The suffering they experience is an important starting point for a discussion about their spirituality. Spirituality pertains to the totality of life, including the social, economic, cultural, political, and economic dimensions that shape it. No serious discussion of the topic can ignore these elements that affect the lives of these immigrants so dramatically. Any credible discussion of a Mexican immigrant spirituality must have reference to the pains and trials of their lives, as well the hopes and desires they have for a better future.
Within the particular stories of their lives, we see echoes of the universal experience of suffering. The poor often bring forth truths that are the most basic to human life. They penetrate the superficialities of a cosmetic culture and reveal the naked truth of human existence. Through them we can glimpse hints of the hidden presence of God who lives with them on the margins of society. These immigrants are willing to descend into the depths of hell in the desert for the people they love so that they may have better lives. Within their particular stories of hunger, thirst, estrangement, nakedness, sickness, and imprisonment we can begin to see the face of a crucified Christ (Matthew 25:31-26:2). In their suffering, the immigrants reveal the hidden mystery of Christ today.
At the same time, the life of Jesus as revealed through the Scriptures gives these immigrants a new way of understanding their own lives. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ are foundational to their spirituality. The naked truth of human life is also revealed in the person of Jesus, who also makes known the truth about God. Like Jesus, many of these immigrants sacrifice their comfort and risk their lives for the good of others (John 15:13). For these immigrants, the life of Jesus reveals the truth about God and the truth about their human experience.
The journey across the border of death is a very real way of the cross for many immigrants, and the entrance to the United States is an experience of crucifixion. Overall, this journey to the United States resembles Jesus' own journey to Jerusalem, a land of great promise but also great suffering. Economically, the undocumented Mexican immigrant experiences a movement from poverty in Mexico to poverty and exploitation in the United States. Politically, they experience oppression. Legally, they are accused of trespassing. Socially, they feel marginalized. Psychologically, they undergo intense loneliness. And spiritually, they experience the agony of separation and displacement. "That's the way it is," affirmed Carlos, "but it doesn't matter, we still have to keep going." Life in the United States is the place where many Mexican immigrants experience a contemporary Golgotha, but it is also the place where some experience the rising to a new way of life.