In our region, as in many other places across the country, the month of May was a time for the conferring of awards and recognitions. A couple of weeks ago, a good group of us filled a restaurant in downtown McAllen, and lifted a toast to two of our own heroes. The South Texas Civil Rights’ Project honored our friends Jennifer Harbury, of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, and Sr. Norma Pimentel of the Diocese of Brownsville, with The Emma Tenayuca Award for a lifetime of great, good work.
Jennifer had just finished filing a lawsuit against the State of Texas’ Department of Vital Statistics for refusing to issue birth certificates to the undocumented mothers of newborn US citizens. She is a fearless woman, which is a good thing as the kinds of injustices that she takes on don’t allow a lot of free time for being afraid. Upon being called up to receive her award, Jennifer immediately deflected the attention from herself to the community that she feels honored to serve. She had brought along as guests to the celebration the mother and the children of a client of hers, a young woman who had been murdered shortly after being forcibly deported to Reynosa. “Your mother was strong—and so are you,” she said, quietly, to the family. The boys nodded; the mother quietly wept.
Sr. Norma, who continues to lead the local hospitality for the tens of thousands of Central American women and children who have turned themselves to the border patrol was equally dismissive of accolades. “All we are trying to do, all any of us should be doing, is recognizing the dignity of every single human being we encounter.” She was unflinching in placing the blaming all of us for the appalling way that the US government warehoused the refugee children last summer. “We can point fingers at the border patrol for packing those kids into a tiny cell—but we are the ones who let this happen. We are the ones who remain silent about the way America treats immigrants.”
The most notable honor of the month—although a posthumous one–went to Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the former Archbishop of San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, now the most violent not-at-war nation on earth. At the end of May, the Catholic Church declared him “beatified”, just one step before sainthood. In 1980, a proxy for the US-backed Salvadoran military had assassinated Romero as he celebrated Mass in a hospital chapel. The day before, “San Romero” as he has been called by Salvadorans ever since, had preached a Sunday homily ordering the Salvadoran soldiers to stop killing innocent people.
The murder was not surprising. The sound of a bullet stopping a life, however, is always unexpected.
It was some thirty years ago that both Sr. Norma’s and Jennifer’s professional lives had been profoundly distressed by the first waves of refugees fleeing the same Central American violence that cost Romero and hundreds of thousands of others their lives. Sr. Norma, fittingly enough, had helped administer Casa Oscar Romero, a sanctuary for Central Americans established on the outskirts of Brownsville. Jennifer herself had gone to Guatemala, where she witnessed the shameful war being waged there, and where she ended up sharing the sadly common horror of the torture and murder of a loved one. She confirmed, first hand, that it was her own country, the USA, encouraging, funding, and celebrating this violence.
Thirty years later, San Romero has moved on—or depending upon your theology—has made himself more at home than ever in the Salvadoran people. Jennifer and Sr. Norma remain in place, here on the Texas border with Mexico. The violence continues and so does the flight of refugees. In the old days–thirty years ago–fortunes were made brokering arms to Iran and using the cash to fund the Nicaraguan “contras”, all in the name of national security. These days, money is still being made out of that violence and its victims. To mention just one of the schemes, six and seven year old Central Americans and their moms are locked up in prisons run by private companies. This is not a new ploy—in fact the private prisons have already been shut down once before—but the huffing and puffing about how such prisons “secure the border” have made their owners flush with prisoners and profits once again.
We here in south Texas have moved into the heat of June, but the images of Oscar Romero shot dead in his chapel, or those children and their mothers being shuttled off to jail still manage to chill my heart. One could do worse, perhaps, than lighting a candle to San Romero, and praying that the words of Jennifer Harbury and Sr. Norma somehow reach the proper authority, that this authority be bothered enough by the truth of those words to do something radical, perhaps even award winning, such as letting the mothers and their children go, or releasing that document that gives a child her birthright, or staying the hand of those who would forcefully, wrongfully deport some child’s mother to her death.
Wouldn’t that be something, indeed?