by Nathan Watts
The wind grates specks of dirt deeper into my skin as I sip my morning coffee and survey the devastation. I force my eyes away from the maquilas (maquiladoras?) directly in front of me and further into the horizon. The deep blues and reds comfort me that this is still a beautiful world despite humanity’s tendency toward depravity. I’m standing on top of one of Tijuana’s many hills with my back toward a playground where the laughter of children redirects my energy from hopelessness to love.
This scene was my every morning during one week this past January. I was part of a group of seminary students taking a winter term course studying immigration and violence in the Southwestern U.S. and Northern Mexico. While books on politics and theology, which included the Bible, were some of the learning tools, what really had the most impact was the immersion dimension of the course. There is really no other way to understand the drastic changes that have occurred along this border in the last twenty years than to see it with your own eyes, smell it with your own nose, hear it with your own ears. And there may not be another town that so encapsulates the negative dimensions of these changes than the former town-now-city of Tijuana.
Our guides for the week were American Baptist missionaries Ray and Adalia Gutierrez-Lee. Ray and Adalia help run a place known as Deborah’s House, a shelter for women and children who are survivors of domestic abuse. Ray’s preaching is his story telling. His worship planning takes the form of blue prints. Adalia brings a wealth of knowledge of the body and medicine as a medical doctor and helps with both physical and mental ailments. When the foundation of the largest building of what is now almost a fully-functioning campus was laid, this location was on the outskirts of the city. That is no longer the case. As factories were being built and looking to benefit from the newly inked North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), there began a mass migration to the north of Mexico. People moved North in hopes of better economic opportunity and a higher standard of living. These hopes remain unfulfilled. Instead, temporary houses are pulled together from whatever materials are around so the factory workers can live within walking distance to work. Sadly, this is what capitalistic impulses have grounded down of the once resilient and still creative peoples, minds and hearts of Mexico.
The location of Deborah’s House was a great place to begin analyzing the violence by which we were surrounded. But this violence is not an immediate threat to our lives. Rather, it is sustained and perpetuated by U.S. interest in capital and goods no matter the costs. Our study began by touring the borderlands and seeing first-hand the militarization of the border wall at Friendship Park. It was difficult for me to think of this wall as anything but a festering wound, one that infected the lives of anyone who came into contact with it. And the symptoms are many: sadness, anger, hurt, fear, intimidation, motivation. We walked along the Mexican beach starring waywardly at San Diego, puzzled by how far from home we felt, jealous of the air and water that has no other authority than its own inertia.
We met with people recently deported at Casa del Migrante, a shelter for migrants run by Catholics and established 100 years before immigration along the US southern border became as messy and deadly as it is today. We ate and prayed and lamented with these men—some of whom had not been to Mexico since their birth. I met one man in particular whose equation of ministry I’ll carry with me. When learning that we are planning on pursuing a future in ministry, Jason shared these thoughts. “It’s great to preach the word. I love hearing stories of God and hope. But I like a full belly better. This place gets that.” Preach the word + full bellies= gospel. Thank you, Jason.
The most powerful day of our trip was our only Sunday in the borderlands. We decided the night before, on the way home from our tourist day of wine sampling and lobster dinners, that a worship service at Deborah’s House would be some great church. We pulled together a service of prayer, song, preaching and celebration. By this time we had come together as a family around meals and tears and tv and smiles. The more we learned about the women there and the impact Deborah’s House has had in their lives—ranging from mental health and recovery support, education, job skills, and child rearing—the closer we felt to the holy, that this place is a heaven in a sea of hell, a hell caused in large part by the nation we’ve always called home.
With our emotions already raw we headed back to Friendship Park for a bi-national, ecumenical communion service. The potency of this weekly service has a myriad of sources. The story of this place begins, rather oddly, with Pat Nixon christening the park to represent peace between the two countries. And it did. For a while. Until this portion of California was sold to the federal government for the sake of the Border Patrol’s Enforcement Zone. Now it literally exists as a no-man’s-land. The park can only be accessed on the U.S. side for a few hours on Saturday and Sunday, and you must have the blessing of the Border Patrol (aka- ‘papers’) to enter to see relatives and loved ones and neighbors through the wall made of scrapped landing pads and barrack roofs and walls and other things the military no longer has a need for. It’s a tough way to get a cup of sugar—which if you did pass over the wall would be a federal offense.
The absurdity of this calamity was heightened when Adalia and her daughter met us for the service—them on the U.S. side, us in Tijuana. Even with the knowledge that we’d be seeing them the next day, the wall performed its duty admirably and created crippling senses of helplessness and fear and isolation. It was gut wrenching. The service itself was difficult to make it through. We witnessed a father talking to his wife and daughter with no knowledge of when they could be together again. We heard a mother weep for her children whom she hasn’t seen in years. She wonders if they are alive. We were asked to lay our hands on the wall and offer a blessing for healing and peace between the two nations. The political, economic, physical and emotional violence we had been analyzing all week hit a new peak when we went delving into the spiritual in search of reprise. We are still searching.
The next day was Martin Luther King Jr day and we celebrated in a way that would have had Martin smiling and laughing at its simplicity. We spent the night at a Baptist seminary in Mexicali. The school is a simple campus where the students work to have their fingerprints on the construction of the space and dorms as much as their professors work to have their fingerprints on their student’s interpretations and ethics. After a breakfast of menudo, we sat together and talked about what life is like as a seminary student in our two countries. It was an excellent conversation, ranging from machismo and violence, to women’s ordination, to queer inclusivity, to how the U.S. influences Mexican ministries on the other side of the wall. It was during this meeting that a slogan I had previously read on the wall in Tijuana came to life for me here: este lado tambien hay sueños. This side also has dreams.
We ended our time along the border utilizing a framework of interpretation coined by MLK known as the triumvirate of evil. MLK claimed that the triumvirate of evil—racism, militarism and capitalism—is responsible for the majority of human suffering. We reflected on our week, each sharing a moment when the triumvirate made itself evident to us during our time in the borderlands. There was a crescendo of responses, shocking us at how alive and well, and indeed thriving, the triumvirate is along this binational lesion. As the sun set we joined hands for a round of We Shall Overcome. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I stared down the border wall wondering ‘How long Lord?’ and singing the lines
We shall overcome… someday
We’ll walk hand in hand… someday
We are not afraid… TODAY!
Yes, Mexico, tus lado tambien hay sueños. Please keep sending them this way.