A Guest

He is a tiny man, thin, with bad teeth. He has probably one hundred words that he knows in English. From what I can understand, he came from Vietnam at the end of the war, and has been living in Dallas for more than twenty-five years. At some point he decided to accept a ride with an acquaintance to “see the country.” The fellow who was driving decided to detour along the border. The thin fellow with bad teeth has no immigration papers, and so was arrested at a border checkpoint.

His name is Ut.

Ut was ordered into deportation proceedings, but since Vietnam is not receiving people the USA deports, he languished in detention for a long while. He was released, but has no where to go, so the Immigration Service, now known as ICE, brings him to a migrant shelter.

Sarah and I have been asked to explain the rules of the house to him. Sarah has the manner and the face of an angel; from the smile on his face, the poor man looks like he has arrived in heaven.

And Ut is one of the poorest people I have ever met. All he owns are the clothes on his back, a few papers that fit into a small bag, and, his pride and joy, a cheap wristwatch with an overlarge face that looks strange sitting on his thin wrist.

We start with the house rules. “No smoking inside the house, please.” The house is one hundred years old and there are fifty other people living here. No smoking inside the house.

He smiles and says he understands. Actually, he writes that down on a piece of paper. He doesn’t speak the few English words he knows, he prints them out. (Click on the photo).

We tell him that he will be expected to help out with the chores, to which he agrees with a big smile. He writes on his paper “Hair cut,” and “car wash” using up four of his one hundred words, but also showing that he can be useful. He smiles some more. He writes “9am to 7pm” which I suppose means that he can work a ten hour day. I wonder for a while if he was paid overtime by those who enjoyed a hard working employee.

He also wrote “food stamps” and “four months.” Sarah and I have no idea what that means. Was he arrested for food stamp fraud? Was he offering to share four months of food stamps with us?

Then he indicates that he would like a cigarette. One of the Somalian guests walks him over to the small corner store. They return after a bit, and Ut borrows a book of matches from one of the Cuban guests. He lights up his cigarette with more joy than can be captured in a poem. I don’t smoke myself, but as I watch this man’s delight, it occurs to me that I might be tempted to try it.

He finishes his cigarette, and Sarah and I take him on a tour of the house.

We reach the top floor, and open the door to the roof. As Ut steps out on the roof, he gasps, for from up here the view is celestial–the skies open up, the mountains rise behind you and the lights of the city lie at your feet.

I watch him. I know that he has been in detention, holed up, alone, for a long time. Apparently he has no family; I am not sure how he will make friends, since he knows none of the languages that are spoken here.

Despite all of that, I realize that I am in the presence of one very happy individual. He continues to look up at the stars. He murmurs what must be the Vietnamese equivalent of “Wow.”

Sarah and I stand there as well, realizing that we were both blessed. We had been witnesses to unbridled joy, even if only brought on by a cigarette and a night sky.

We take him back downstairs. I read over his papers and realize that he is my age. We share the same number of years; I cannot guess how differently we have lived those years, or, more accurately, how those years have lived us.

I take my leave from the shelter, heading home. The Vietnamese man is sitting on the couch. He waves merrily at me. He says “Have a good night!” I will.

Fear is like a chill breath down my neck. . ..

(Click on the photo for a better view)
Each morning as I open my front door, I am greeted with a panoramic view of Ciudad Juarez. I am separated from my neighbors in the Colonia Popular by a frontage road, the I-10, the Union Pacific rail line, the Border Wall, the Rio Grande, and a state highway in Juarez. There are also a number of Border Patrol units, a helicopter that ceaselessly roams the skies over my apartment complex, and, on occasion, Mexican soldiers driving past in troop transport trucks.

All the same, in between the parade of highway busyness and national security apparatus, I can see children playing on a see-saw and folks lined up to catch a bus. Ciudad Juarez is very close to me.

Each morning, when I open my computer, I am greeted by the front page of El Diario, one of Ciudad Juarez’s newspapers. Today’s photo is accompanied by an explanation: “As a policy, we do not publish offensive photographs, but things have gotten so bad here that we are making an exception. By publishing this photo, we are sending out an urgent message to the world about the barbarous circumstances in which we along the border are living.”

The photo is of the body of a man. His hands have been cut off, and are lying on his chest. His face has been digitally smudged, but not the edges of the hands. It is in full color. It is very hard to look at. It is impossible not to consider.

The public display of the mutilated body was a warning by the drug traffickers. The newspaper, with its photo, helped them spread the message. We are all terrorized.

For an El Paso resident, this is not the worst part of the story. The real horror is found in the paragraphs that follow, in which the reporter explains that this man had been kidnapped from El Paso, and taken to Juarez, where he was murdered. According to the reporter, El Paso school children were arriving home on the school bus when they saw three armed men taking the victim from his home and putting him in a car. A spokesperson from the El Paso Sherriff’s office confirms that “narco-violence has arrived in El Paso.”

Actually, narco-violence has long been in El Paso, although perhaps not in such a grisly and immediate manner. A physician told me of a mother missing a well-baby checkup because someone in the family had been murdered in Juarez. Last month, a man was assassinated, “cartel-style” in an upscale El Paso neighborhood. He had become an informant against his former narco associates. His murder was just down the street from the residence of a former El Paso police captain.

Sad, but not unusual, was the family that fled from Juarez after witnessing a murder in broad daylight. “The assassins then shot our neighbors. One of the neighbors turned toward my wife and held her—the bullets went through him, and, although she was badly hurt, she survived. Another of the assassins ran up to my ten year old, put a pistol to her forehead, but then the leader of the gang said, ‘No! Don’t shoot the little girl!’ They drove off, but we think that they will come after us, so we are afraid.”

Now the violence has reached a new level. In broad daylight, men can come across the river into one of the nicer neighborhoods of the area and kidnap someone. They are not interested in hiding their crime; to the contrary, they want the publicity, which the newspaper supplies, necessarily.

As I share the news with my best friend, she notes that she used to hate the sound of the helicopter flying back and forth across the city. “It’s like we are in a warzone,” she said. After a few months of witnessing so much of the Juarez violence, she had begun to look at the helicopters in a different light. She entertained the hope that the Border Patrol would be able “keep the evil over there.” But when school children witness kidnappings and the most mundane aspects of daily life (a well-baby checkup at the local clinic) are interrupted by mayhem, it is clear that containing this sort of violence is very much like trying to hold water in your hands. You cannot.

The faculty from the University of Texas/El Paso has announced its sponsorship of a gathering at UTEP on September 21-22 for the purpose of rethinking country’s policy on illegal drugs. They are putting an urgent call out for new ideas. May God bless that meeting, and may they find someone in Washington and in Mexico City that will take the ideas seriously.

In the meantime, the residents of El Paso are reminded, once again, of our connections to our sister-city. We too will now be looking over our shoulders, watching suspiciously when an SUV with darkened windows turns into the neighborhood. We too will pray in the way that people from Juarez have done for years, that our children not become collateral damage in this demonized violence.

The greatest fear is that the worst has yet to come. I look out across the way to Ciudad Juarez and wonder if the demons that bring this violence can be recognized. Probably not. They in fact look like you and me. Human beings. Someone’s son, someone’s father or uncle.

A young woman stops by and asks me if there are any apartments for rent. We talk for a while. I discover that she is a teacher here in El Paso, although she lives in Juarez. “But not any more,” she confesses, “The violence has made me physically ill. I have to leave.” Later on I discover that her mother had been shot to death “by mistake” when this teacher was but a child. She fears now for the life of her father, who is a local television personality, but she feels driven to leave her home.

After she leaves, I peer down the way. A Ford Explorer with tinted windows has turned on our street. I quietly go back inside the apartment. I carefully close the door.

The Mountains

Could it be the mountains? They surround El Paso on all sides, embracing it. They catch the light and do graceful things with it. I don’t know about others who live here, but the mountains
surprise me constantly, lifting me up out of my own small space and into the light of new ideas.
Or perhaps there is something in the water—a grocery store clerk assured me that there are high levels of lithium in our drinking water. His eyes sparkled as he said that. I told him that in Brownsville we drank from the same river, and he burst out with laughter. “Yes!” he said, “Indeed you do, but out here, we have organized our hope!”
Whatever it is that they do with their hope, El Paso manifests a spirit of optimism that defies easy analysis. Just across way—just as visible as the mountains—lies Ciudad Juarez, arguably the most violent Not-Involved-in-a-Declared-War city in the world. Last week, a dozen and a half residents in a drug rehab center were lined up in a hallway and murdered. Incredible, yet this sort of monstrosity has become so common that the details are now what get one’s attention. Like the fact that those assassins also shot the facility’s pet dog. A special note of evil.
And yet, in the shadow of Juarez’s violence, El Paso’s heart beats with hope. You catch it in conversations in the downtown plaza, you even hear it in City Council deliberations. Local leaders entertain progressive ideas. They seem to like the idea of neighborhood parks, of universal health care, and a prosperity enjoyed by all. Unbelievably (to me), there is liberal, progressive, local talk radio. On the AM dial, each morning and afternoon, I hear people sounding out grand ideas of how much better we can do as a nation, as a community, as a neighborhood, if we would just put our minds and hearts to it. Very little complaining about welfare people taking advantage of us, very little conversation about terrorists. Instead, they seem to offer a daily, edifying conversation over the radio waves. If they were to have a fund-raising campaign, I believe that I would give them money.
There is a public hospital here, as well. I came from the Valley, where not only is there no public hospital, but where medical services that are available cost three and four times as much as in the rest of the country. Not only is there a public hospital in El Paso, but the leadership touts its services. They are under severe budget restraints, yet listening to the hospital CEO on the AM talk radio show all I heard were commitments to figure out better ways to improve service. Not once did the man blame “illegal aliens”, not once did he mention noncompliant patients. He simply, humbly assured the listening audience that things were going to get better. And then he had the gall to offer some concrete ways in which that was going to happen.
Such a nice surprise.
It must be the mountains. I really think so. They draw my eye upwards and away from the narrow world view that lies at my feet.
I like the idea that most of the leadership here are young, although the one who seems to have the freshest and boldest ideas (Eliot Shapleigh) has a shock of white hair that would put him past fifty years of age.
In any case, what I have found in El Paso are public displays of the courage of ideas. People seem to choose to believe in possibilities here, and seem to spend less time trying to figure out all of the angles, all of the problems, all of the ways in which things could go wrong. Displays of the courage of ideas these days is rare, so it is such a nice antidote to its opposite, which is not so much fear, but ignorance, that feeds on fear so as to draw up cowardice from the darker regions of oneself, a vicious circle which demands that we stop building parks and begin digging bomb shelters, that we throw up fences and close down bridges, that we stop breathing deeply of life, and limit our consumption of goodness to small, tiny, measured gasps.

Not that El Paso is paradise, by no means not that. The social indices of misery rival the worst-off places in America. Between my window and the western mountain range rises up the Asarco smokestack, formerly a copper smelter that quietly poisoned most of the city as it burned up toxins from a hazardous waste depot near Corpus Christi. It is closed now, but the threat that it might reopen hangs over the city like a funeral pall.

The struggle to carry a community into the next generations will be a mighty one, here as in any poor community in the nation. But we have the mountains here, and their morning and evening beauty are daily, constant inspirations, reminders to think large thoughts, to entertain daring ideas, to create something that would be pleasing to the Same Creator of those hills.
Mountains can do that to you.