Widows and Orphans

Each evening, as the sun settles behind the western mountains, a group of five to seven older women gather on a park bench in downtown El Paso. They are guests of a shelter sponsored by the Catholic Diocese. They will spend a month in this shelter, a clean, though simple place. There will be very little privacy, lots of noise (there are families with children here, too), and, mostly, more free time than is good for the heart or soul.

In the main, they are widows, formerly married to American citizens or legal permanent residents. As such, they are the beneficiaries of the social security system that their spouses had paid into, with each pay check, over many years.

They are also Mexican nationals who, as they live in Mexico, must establish a “lawful presence” to satisfy a bizarre Social Security Administration requirement that denies benefits to non-citizen survivors living outside the USA (read “widows and orphans”). To establish a lawful presence, they must spend 30 days, every six months, in the USA—or report, once a month, to a Social Security Administration office.

All of this for a $200 check, which would seem not worth the trouble, unless, of course, you are a poor widow or orphan.

They are good-natured women; the evening is brightened by their laughter. All the same, this latest silliness of the government confounds them. One of them, with all 75 years of her dignity gathered around her like a glorious robe, wonders if she will be able to continue to come here. “It is only $ 200; but it was what my husband had left for me.”

Another woman comes north with her grandchildren, orphaned by the early death of their father and their mother. She herself is slowly losing her sight, and is not sure that she can make this trip many more times. “We live too far away from the SSA office, so every six months I have to come to El Paso for a month. The children live from these funds, but I just don’t know if I can do this trip once I am blind.”

The conversation shifts from the serious silliness of governments to that of the evening’s soap opera. The characters in the soap opera play out ridiculous scenarios that are offensive in their vulgarity. But the women laugh at the characters, and listen carefully to see how this episode will turn out. The silliness on the television makes some sense. The silliness of those responsible for managing the common good of all—our government—is harder to parse.

(John Boucher does a fine job of plumbing the hardships that this requirement causes survivors at http://www.annunciationhouse.org/news_winter2005_lawful_en.html)



Lunch hour, downtown El Paso.

The business is thick and quick.

I squeeze in at the diner counter next to a tall, strikingly handsome man. He is eating the stew of the day with a delight that invites conversation and so I fall right into the trap.

We exchange pleasantries, “My name is Melchizedek, like one of the kings of the Bible!” he exclaimed.

“And I am Michael, like one of the Archangels of Heaven,” I responded.

He considers that for a moment and then laughs like hell.

“Where you from, oh king?” I asked him, and he told me, with another huge smile, “The African country of Somalia.”

I asked him what he did in Somalia, and, after chewing on his bread, responded, “I dug graves for the government.”

I chose that as a good moment to chew on my own bread for a while.

After a bit, he told me that he also raised cattle on the side, “For the meat, not the milk,” he assured me, man to man.

His most recent history spilled out over the next half hour. He had fled Somalia after escaping assassination attempts and had made it to New York City, where he was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. For some strange, impractical, and cruel reason, the government decided to detain him (incarcerate him) in a prison outside of El Paso, far from anywhere.

“But there are angels everywhere,” he assured me, “Most especially in desert places like this.” An attorney working overtime as an angel took his asylum case, and Melchizedek was now freed from his cell, owning what he carried on his back and a few dollars in his pocket. He was patiently awaiting the means to get to Minnesota, where he has distant relatives, “too many to count.”

We head outside, and part ways. As the king headed jauntily headed down the street, I recalled an old Jesuit once remarking, “What if a person were so oriented that the loss of no material thing could cause disorganization in his spirit, in his way of being? In my mind, that person would be truly free.”

I turned and watched Melchizedek move out of sight, feeling a bit lighter myself, for it seems in the end that sort of freedom is indeed contagious.


As a border city, El Paso is a crossing point, and also a meeting place, where individuals with their own hopes and destinies share bread, shelter, and a brief safe space before they move on up the road.

Perhaps they will meet at one of the local guest houses, where they can find a meal and some rest.

On this evening, in one such place, the men begin to settle down for the night. A volunteer, a young woman charged with the care of the house for the evening, sits in the darkness of the living room, which is adjacent to the men’s sleeping quarters. She listens to them as they talk and laugh; as one makes a silly joke and another reproaches him; as one man asks, “Please, for God’s sake, let me sleep,” while another begins singing, softly, a well-known ballad.

And then there is silence. In the regular breathing of the sleeping, quiet reins.

The volunteer, too, takes her rest in the darkness of the living room. She thinks of the stories that she has heard from these men—the nearly immobilizing homesickness, the terror of tomorrow, and the stories of anguish that drove them to leave their families.

She smiles, knowing that, at least for now, for this night they may know peace.

As does she.

My Neighbors

I sit on my front porch and look south. My gaze crosses a street, the interstate highway, a railroad line, at least four sets of border walls, and the Rio Grande river. It settles upon a neighborhood in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, the Mexican border city that shares geography, politics and karma with El Paso, Texas.
The view does not lend itself to postcards. Survival, and not architectural sensibilities, drove the construction of the homes. They lie close together; there are no parks, there is very little green.
They do have their own Peter Piper Pizza place, and all sorts of small shops seem to do a lively business, with much coming and going of men and women and children.
I suppose that they are less than a quarter of a mile from my stoop, and I would argue that in some sense they are my neighbors. We can see each other; we could wave at each other.
A little further down the road, I notice several border patrol officers getting out of their vehicles.

They have drawn their weapons; they are approaching
some fellow who is walking along the highway. He has his hands in the air and looks frightened, as do the officers.
I look up and across the way and watch as a Mexican armored vehicle rattles down its highway, on the other
side of the border wall.
I wonder how many guns are running around in my (“our”) neighborhood.
I also notice the children on the other side of the border, for there are many, some walking hand-in-hand with their friends, others skipping down the sidewalk. I am thinking about them because next door to my apartment is an elementary school, and classes will begin soon. Our neighborhood will be filled with children, coming and going.
I am unsure what to think about this mix, armed men and small children. I see it all and I have a vague recollection of a Jewish mystic speaking on the ethics of seeing, something along the lines of being responsible for what it is that you notice as you wander through life.
I am thinking that I would like to close my eyes for a while, and then, perhaps magically, it would all sort itself out.
That trick never worked for me, even as a child, so I get up from my seat and go back inside the apartment, intent on finding that Jewish mystic’s line of argument, a little nervous about seeing where it might take me.