Walking Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death

I was on a stroll through downtown Brownsville. As I crossed the street, I tossed my keys up into the air, catching them, because I liked the word and the idea, with élan-with that grace that comes from the joy of living in the middle of a good day.

My smooth moves didn’t survive a second toss, though, and the keys fell, tinklingly, through the metal grate of a storm drain in the middle of the street. On my hands and knees, I peered down into the gloom beneath the grate, and could see them there, mired in ooze.

As I fished them out, I was shocked at how something that was mostly metal could carry stink so well. The gunk that covered the ring of keys reminded me of death, spoke to me of rot, and made my skin crawl.

I wrapped them up in newspaper, and made my way home, and did not think again about the storm drains that run under our streets.

Until yesterday, when I heard the story of Silvia.

Silvia is a Mexican national, a lovely, proud woman that I have known for fifteen years.  She lives in Matamoros, Mexico, the city that is just a short walk across the bridge from Brownsville. Her children and her grandchildren and her great grandchildren all live on this side of the river,  in Brownsville. For years, on each Friday afternoon, she would finish up her work in Matamoros, pack a small bag, and walk across the bridge to Brownsville. She had a tourist visa, she had her home, bought and paid for in Mexico, and she had the loves of her life just a short walk away.

This was this good woman’s happiness, up until about two months ago, when, as she was crossing into Brownsville, an immigration agent took her Mexican passport from her, and then cancelled her visa. The agent gave her no reason for the cancellation, and Silvia returned to Matamoros, heart-broken, and stricken, wondering how she would get to see her family. The drug violence in Matamoros has made it too dangerous, especially for children, prime targets for kidnappings, to travel there.

After a good deal of thought, Silvia took the little bit of savings that she had, hired what is known as an alien smuggler and prepared to cross into Brownsville.

Silvia was terrified of the river crossing. The Rio Grande, while a small river, runs deeply and swiftly and is dangerous.  “But,” she said, “Crossing the river was the easy part. The nightmare began when we got to the US side, and the guide made me get into the sewer.”

That was how she entered into the United States–a long, long crawl, in absolute, suffocating darkness, through the rot and the death that lay in the sewer.

She finally came to a manhole cover, and rose up from the sewer into an alley. The guide gave Silvia some sweatpants and a shirt. Silvia, a dignified 67 year old woman who just needed to be with her children and her grandchildren, had to strip naked, stooping behind a dumpster in an alley off main street, as she changed her clothing.

She made it to her daughter’s home, and washed the stink off of her body and out of her hair. She dressed in her own clothing, a modest dress and sensible shoes.

She couldn’t, however, wash away the stain of her humiliation. She was not someone who crawled through a sewer, undressed in a public alley, or sneaked through the streets like a criminal.

She was a grandmother who needed to hold her children.

Now, weeks later, Silvia sleeps until noon, this woman who was once the first one up and the last one to bed, who, with an inimitable élan, delightedly busied herself with the joys of attending to a home. Her face has aged considerably in these last weeks, and the spirit has gone from her step. It is as if she has become trapped by the pull of gravity, not the kind the leads to a swift fall, but the one of the long, slow pull downwards toward the sewer of humiliation.

I know Silvia’s grandchildren–they are loud and they are many and the family gatherings trill with laughter. It is a good place for her to be, especially now, as there is nothing quite like the sensation of a child crawling up into his grandmother’s lap.

The child knows much about light and joy. The child loves the smell that lies upon his grandmother’s skin, the perfume called home, the scent, that of life.


Bubba Rejoices in Political Asylum

In 1999, a woman from El Salvador came to my parish to ask for help.

She had two really cute children with her, and one of the most obnoxious attitudes that I had ever come across. But she did manage to get help, first in one shelter, and then in another, and then yet in another.  No one could put up with her bossiness for very long, but then again, no one could look really her in the face and tell her to straighten up.

The woman had no nose.
In 1997, the Salvadoran military, during one of their sweeps through the country side, had singled the woman and her husband out as troublemakers. They shot him in front of her, and then they cut off her nose.
Theologian Daisy Machado, who wrote about this woman, says that she was made “a living, human billboard to remind dissenters of the fate that awaited anyone who opposed the government” (“The UnNamed Woman: Justice, Feminists, and the Undocumented Woman”).
As the years passed, she had her face restored, she received political asylum, and she married Bubba, a guy from San Benito, Texas.
Two weeks ago, she celebrated her daughter’s fifteenth birthday with a party at the family’s little ranch, a place in the middle of a two hundred old mesquite forest. The family has chickens and pigs and even some cattle. The woman’s restored face gleams with pride at her daughter, and at her home.
Rogelio Nunez, the director of Proyecto Libertad, in Harlingen, an agency that advocates for women immigrants, and a hero to this woman, told me this last week while we drank root beer floats and  squinted against the afternoon sun. 
“I went to school with Bubba,” Rogelio said. “When I saw him, I told him that he had better treat that woman well. Bubba told me, “Rogelio, I love that woman. She’s saved my life.”

Hurricanes and Border Patrol

Hurricane season began on June 1st. Weather forecasters are predicting an “above average” season, with as many as ten hurricanes making landfall somewhere.

The Rio Grande Valley, where a million of us live, is not a valley but a flood plain. None of the 180,000 of us that live in Brownsville have homes that are much more than thirty feet above sea level.

Hurricane season makes us nervous.

I have a friend who is an American citizen. Three years ago, her father came to Brownsville from Mexico on a six month tourist visa. She soon saw that he was developing dementia, and would not let him go back to his little ranch in Mexico, as there would be no one to care for him. Good daughter that she was, she set him up in a small room at the back of the house and she began to take care of him.

Her house is in a low-lying part of town (twenty feet above sea level) and would flood in a hurricane. This worries her because she is not sure that she would evacuate in the case of a storm. She was watching the news the other day, and saw that the Border Patrol had made it clear that they would run enforcement procedures, even during a storm evacuation. This means that at the checkpoint that lies 100 miles up the road (when you drive north from the Valley, the Border Patrol stops every vehicle and asks for citizenship documents and can, if they want, search your car), they would discover that her father was in the country illegally and could separate him from the rest of the family.

So my friend, the good mother, sits and frets. And she pays especially close attention to the daily weather report.