Dispatch from Mexicali: Migration, religion and service along the southern border

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Rev. Bartholomew Ruben de la Torre talks with members of his congregation in Mesa Arenosa de Andrade, Mexico, Jan. 20, 2019. Courtesy of Joey Sortino

The Border

The line to walk into Mexico snakes through turnstiles and corridors, traversing through the innards of a burgeoning building with the words “United States Border Inspection Station, Calexico, California” emblazoned above the entrance. The spot marks one of 25 official stations for crossing the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

This was my first trip to Mexico; I found the opportunity through Occidental’s Newman Catholic Community (NCC) and Office for Religious and Spiritual Life’s (ORSL) annual service and educational trip to the border city of Mexicali, Jan. 18–21. I joined five members of the Occidental community to deliver donations to churches and migrant houses, attend a Catholic Mass, and learn about the border and migration from a local professor, social organizers and the migrants themselves. I tried to understand the forces that brought all of these people to this transit town in the middle of the desert.

Trip organizer Maggie Contreras Bolton serves as the religious advisor to NCC. Developed as spaces for Catholic students on non-Catholic college campuses, there are now roughly 1,300 Newman Centers throughout the country. Occidental’s chapter, founded in 1921, is an extension of the Dominican Order’s parish in Eagle Rock, Ca., St. Dominic Catholic Church. The annual trip to the border, which began in 2016, emerged out of this connection.

“Four years ago, I was chatting with our priest at the time, saying we wanted more hands-on social justice opportunities,” Contreras Bolton said. “And he suggested the Dominican community down in Mexicali.”

Contreras Bolton said the trip presented an opportunity to study migration in a real-world context.

“The trip is equal parts educational, to go down and see what’s actually happening,” Contreras Bolton said. “And the intersection of Catholic spirituality around the immigrant struggle.”

Aside from myself, those on this year’s trip included Contreras Bolton; ORSL Director the Rev. Dr. Susan Young; three student members of NCC and a van full of donations including shoes, foot powder, toiletries and clothes destined for migrant shelters in Mexicali. Most of the donations came from St. Dominic’s parish, according to Contreras Bolton, though students also contributed.

Carolina Arenas (senior), student president of NCC, collected donations from her home parish of Holy Redeemer in La Crescenta, Ca. Arenas first traveled to Mexicali in 2018. She said her experience was so powerful it convinced her to go a second time.

Diego Zapata (senior) and Joey Sortino (junior) were the other two NCC students on the trip. Zapata said he went to reconnect with his parents’ experience immigrating from the Mexican state of Sonora.

“I’ve never really taken the time to really understand what their journey was somewhat like,” Zapata said. “And I feel like that is really important going forward in life — understanding all the burdens that your family undertook in order for you to have a better life.”

Sortino said he saw the trip as a way to do service and to learn more about immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I just felt that I started needing to take advantage of my opportunities,” Sortino said.

After packing the van, we trekked to Calexico, the town of 40,000 across the border from Mexicali. Around sunset, we pulled into the gravel lot of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, five blocks from the border. There, we met with the Rev. Bartholomew Ruben de la Torre, a Dominican priest in Mexicali’s Santa Maria de Guadalupe parish, the sister to Calexico’s Our Lady.

To cross the border with such a large quantity of donations required some maneuvering — Mexican officials worry about reselling and will sometimes confiscate bulk items — thus the next hour consisted of shoving bags of toiletries and clothes into de la Torre’s car. Eventually, Arenas, de la Torre, Young and Zapata, with donations hidden beneath their feet, drove to the checkpoint.

Van full of parish-sourced donations sits in the parking lot of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Calexico, Ca., Jan. 18, 2019. Zach Goodwin/TheOccidental

Meanwhile, Contreras Bolton, Sortino and I hurried to the pedestrian crossing and merged with the stream filing into the building as the sun dipped below the horizon. No one checked for passports. The two armed guards standing next to the baggage check simply observed.

Emerging from the building into the night, we marched up a concrete staircase onto a busy street lined with hotels, restaurants and pharmacies. The air smelled of cigarette smoke and spicy, buttery elote. The rumble of laughter, reggaeton and motor engines called out from downtown.

“It felt like something happened,” Sortino said. “But really we’ve just walked a few feet.”

Welcome to Mexicali.

The City

“Baja California has always been a place of transit for many migrants,” José Ascención Moreno Mena, professor at the Autonomous University of Baja California (UACB), said in Spanish.

Mexicali, with a population around 700,000, arises out of the emptiness of the Sonoran Desert. Development of the Mexicali Valley began with the expansion of the Imperial Canal in 1901, which enabled agricultural production.

Chinese immigrants were the first group to settle en masse in Mexicali, banned from the United States by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and drawn to the region by jobs. The peak of Chinese presence was 1919 when Chinese farmers accounted for a majority of the city’s population and 80 percent of regional cotton production. Immigrants from Russia, Italy and Britain, among other places, also abounded in the region, which built a diverse population in Mexicali, Mena said.

The Chinese faced xenophobic violence from the 1910s–1930s, including land seizures, repatriation and, in one instance, a massacre of 300 Chinese laborers in Coahuila. Today, around 10,000 people of mixed or full Chinese ancestry live in Mexicali. A Chinese pavilion stands in the city’s Plaza de Amistad and Chinese cuisine is considered the regional food, with restaurants at every corner.

According to Mena, the 1950s brought an influx of migrants from other parts of Mexico, transforming Mexicali demographically. Around this time, the border region began to develop industrially.

Maquiladoras — factories that take advantage of low wages and tax exemptions to produce goods in Mexico before selling them in the U.S. — soon dominated the landscape. According to an investigation by the Palm Springs Desert Sun, Mexicali’s 180 maquiladoras employ more than 75,000 people. They also contribute to severe pollution and labor exploitation, according to the investigation.

This confluence of agriculture and industry combined with Mexicali’s location has made the city a migration hotspot.

Much of this migration is part of a daily cycle, with laborers, families and even school children crossing the border every day in and out of Calexico. According to Al Jazeera, there are as many as 25,000 border crossings here in a day.

Other migrants seek permanent residence in the U.S. and find themselves in Mexicali on the way. In November 2018, 1,000 members of a migrant caravan overwhelmed shelters for days after officials prevented the caravan from continuing on. Some members of this caravan, still stuck in Mexicali, have grown frustrated.

Just days before we visited, 25 Honduran migrants attempted to burn down a local shelter, protesting poor conditions. There is also a contingent of Haitian and African migrants stranded in the city as the U.S. remains closed due to policies in Washington.

Though Mexicali sees its share of migrants, most head for Tijuana, according to Mena. This is partly due to the physical barrier in Mexicali, which is part of 700 miles of fencing built along the border since 2006. Furthermore, across the Mexicali border lies harsh desert, while crossing in Tijuana leads to greater Los Angeles, a metropolis with more resources for migrants.

The lack of resources in Mexicali and the poverty of the migrant families passing through motivated the Western Dominican Province — the regional organization of the Catholic Church’s Dominican Order — to establish its second global mission here in 1995.

“Upon arrival, [the friars] were confronted with a small agrarian border town that was being overwhelmed by a rush of destitute migrant families searching for employment in northern Mexico or hoping to emmigrate (sic) to the U.S.,” the mission’s website reads. “Their immediate efforts were concentrated on alleviating the crushing poverty in the area.”

Today there are three priests servicing this mission, including de la Torre. During this trip, de la Torre served as our guide, connecting us with the stories of those who live in Mexicali and those just passing through.

The Dominicans

“I’m told that at 3 years old I was pretending to say Mass. I do remember turning the stuffed chair in our living room and standing at it like a pulpit and preaching to nobody … I said, in Spanish, ‘Look how the world is, look how the world is!’” de la Torre paused. “Round.”

De la Torre was born in 1940 to Mexican immigrants in Lincoln Heights, one of the oldest neighborhoods in LA. Now 79, de la Torre — or Father Bart, as he is known to most — serves in the Santa Maria de Guadalupe Parish, part of the Diocese of Mexicali.

“I wanted to be a priest until about the sixth grade, and then I wanted to go to the Navy. I thought it was adventurous, out on the sea,” de la Torre said. “But then … in the Gospel it says, ‘What does it profit a man who gains the world but suffers the loss of his soul?’ And I thought, ‘I’m certainly not going to gain the whole world, so I might as well work on saving my soul.‘”

De la Torre entered a seminary in San Fernando Valley at 13. It was a relief, he said, to find an environment filled with like-minded boys. From then on, he studied scripture and religion, as well as other subjects like English — a language he picked up in school since he only spoke Spanish at home.

De la Torre followed up his time at the seminary with numerous degrees in various topics, including Thomistic Philosophy, Thomistic Theology, Clinical Pastoral Education and Medieval Studies.

Not all of de la Torre’s educational experiences were academic. In the early 1970s, de la Torre spent several months at a Catholic church in Pacific Grove, a small town on California’s Central Coast. One night, he awoke to find a dark figure looming over him — Satan, according to de la Torre. The Devil threatened to take him, but de la Torre warded him off with holy water. The next morning, his fellow priests told him a local girl had been kidnapped by a witch coven down the street and after the priests freed the girl, Satan must have come to take de la Torre instead.

As a result of the experience, de la Torre said he believes in Jesus, and knows as fact the existence of the Devil.

Since his ordainment as a priest in 1967, de la Torre has served at several Dominican parishes throughout the North American continent, from Toronto to LA to Oregon. He was serving in Benicia, Ca. when he received a phone call from a colleague asking if he would serve in Mexico. De la Torre’s response: ‘Sure.’

That was in 2005, 10 years after the Dominican Order of the Catholic Church established its mission in Mexicali. De la Torre now acts as one of three Dominicans serving at four churches in the diocese.

When St. Dominic’s in Eagle Rock reached out about a potential service trip to Mexicali, de la Torre became the point of contact. During the first trip in 2016, de la Torre said he helped minimally, but over time, as he built a relationship with Contreras Bolton and others in Eagle Rock, he became more involved.

The Migrants

For 26 years, Jorge Rodriguez Gudiño built a life in LA, where he worked for a construction company. Then one day, that life was gone.

“I left [LA] to visit my family,” Rodgriguez Gudiño said in Spanish. “And it’s difficult to return without papers.”

Today, Rodriguez Gudiño helps run Casa Betania, a home for migrants located on the southern outskirts of Mexicali, roughly six miles from the border. Members of the Diocese of Mexicali founded the shelter in 1974 and the home still receives some material support from the Diocese and service groups like ours.

Rodriguez Gudiño greeted us and helped set out our donations in the dining room, chuckling as he picked out a pair of size-12 shoes for himself. Rodriguez Gudiño has assisted here for two years, and though he enjoys helping, he hopes to save up enough money to start his own venture.

“I don’t want to work for anyone,” Rodriguez Gudiño said. “I want to have my own business.”

That business will be in Mexico. It is too difficult, he said, to pursue such a project in the United States.

Casa Betania was the second migrant shelter we had visited that day, having earlier stopped at Hotel del Migrante, a halfway house in downtown Mexicali. Extensive profiles of the shelter by Vice and Univision highlight the stories of migrants from Mexico and Central America. Many of these migrants were deported from the United States, endured 106-degree temperatures in the summer, and slept in cramped quarters or on the roof. The border sits some tantalizing 300 yards away, visible from the large cylindrical windows that line the top floor of the shelter.

When we visited, the crowding was evident. The hotel organizers tried to queue the hotel occupants to receive donations, but that system fractured quickly. Some migrants circled around, circumventing the line. The more reserved migrants hung back and received nothing.

The experience was overwhelming for many of us.

“The whole hotel ordeal was kind of a blur to me,” Zapata said. “I was just screaming and throwing things … I kind of just zoned out and was just doing what I had to do.”

“I’m not usually in a situation where I have to classify who’s in most of need of what,” Arenas added. “It was a very real moment.”

The chaos, the hotel supervisors said, was a result of several factors: the number of migrants, the desperation birthed by the proximity to the border and the hotel’s all-gender and no-rejection policies.

Hotel del Migrante shut its doors until further notice Feb. 5, just three weeks after our visit, due to a lack of economic resources.

Casa Betania is located much farther away from the border and it houses only men. According to Rodriguez Gudiño, the shelter only allows for 20–25 residents at a time, each limited to four-day stays. We set out all of our donations as night fell, and the men, talking quietly among themselves under the lights outside, came in one by one to pick out what they needed.

Currently, unauthorized border crossings are near a half-century low point, according to sources including NPR and the New York Times. Increasingly, migrants are claiming asylum, which is legal to do at any point of entry under United States law. Caravans like the one that crossed the continent in Fall 2018 are not unusual either, but that caravan’s size — 7,200 migrants is said to be the largest on record.

According to the Pew Research Center, while migration from Mexico has decreased, migration from Central America has actually increased. The Council on Foreign Relations reported that between 2012 and 2015, the number of asylum seekers originating from the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) increased five times over.

Escaping violence is the primary driver of regional migration. The Northern Triangle, specifically Honduras and El Salvador, is home to two notoriously violent street gangs, MS-13 and M-18, who fight over territory and drug trafficking routes. According to the International Crisis Group, over 200,000 Salvadorans died between 2014 and 2017 as a result of gang violence. Meanwhile, San Pedro Sula, Honduras has been termed “the most violent city in the world,” averaging 20 murders per day. Economic opportunity is another migration motivator. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) estimates that 60 percent of those in rural areas of the Northern Triangle live in poverty.

Juan Avitia Renderia is from Zona Siete, a barrio of Guatemala City, Guatemala. Though less violent than Honduras or El Salvador, Guatemala’s poverty rate is the highest of the three, and the country still suffers from the wounds of a 36year civil war.

“I left looking for a better future,” Avitia Renderia said in Spanish. “And with plans to reunite with my children who are in the United States.”

Avitia Renderia’s children live in New York, where he lived before he was deported. His time back in Mexicali has been filled with tribulations.

“[Criminals] kidnapped me, all of that,” he said. “When a group of criminals kidnaps you, they rob all of your money, everything.”

Like Rodriguez Gudiño, Avitia Renderia has spent the last two years assisting at Casa Betania. The more time that passes, the more he worries about losing touch — culturally, socially and linguistically — with his children.

“The years keep coming,” he said, “And I also haven’t been able to communicate very well with my children.”

Jose Luis (no last name given) is also Guatemalan, from the city of Chiquimula. He made the choice to leave his wife and three kids in Guatemala, traversing the more than 2,570 miles to Mexicali to cross into the U.S. He hopes to make enough there to support his family. Getting to this point, however, has been grueling.

“The truth is that you suffer a lot because when you get on the train, we tended to endure cold, we tended to endure that heat, sometimes when there’s no time to eat we endured hunger,” Jose Luis said in Spanish. “We suffered a lot on the journey, but we’re going to cross here. It’s because we want to help our families. We want to see something better for our families.”

Jose Luis is referring to the cargo trains that stretch from Central America up through Mexico and to the border. As many as 500,000 Central Americans smuggle themselves onto these trains every year, hoping to evade Mexican officials. Some freeze, starve, get robbed or kidnapped. Others simply fall off and are crushed beneath the wheels.

Jose Luis is not to be deterred.

“My purpose and my goal is to reach Los Angeles,” Jose Luis said. “And first I alone am going to accomplish it, and I’m not going back down until I, one day, have my family ahead, have my family prospering.”

Jose Luis expressed his gratitude for the donations, saying they would help the migrants on their journeys.

“I give thanks to God for you all and for the people that bring us this help and that give what we need here in Mexico,” Jose Luis said. “God bless all those honorable people.”

Later that night, sitting around a table at the hotel poolside, we reflected on our experiences at the migrant shelters — highs, lows and whether or not our donations would have any impact. Young recalled a moment when she, Sortino and one of the migrants began laughing at their failed attempt to communicate in Spanish.

“In that mass chaos, there was that very short human connection that kind of reminded me why we were doing this,” Young said.

For Arenas, the experience had a personal impact because of her family’s own immigration history. Her grandparents were deported from the U.S. six times before settling successfully in LA. In one instance, it was their coyote, or smuggler, that turned them in, the very person they had trusted to take them to safety.

“It makes me sad because there’s that sort of out-of-touch experience … [my grandparents] wanted us to assimilate, they wanted a better life for us,” Arenas said. “But at the same time, there’s that loss of roots almost. It’s a little surreal … just thinking about my personal life and how I am at a very privileged school and getting an education and how it’s all happened within a couple of generations.”

The Congregation

The next day, Jan. 20, we attended a Mass led by de la Torre at a small church in the rural neighborhood of Mesa Arenosa de Andrade, east of Mexicali along roads lined by date trees and junkyards of old tires. The church we visited sits on a dusty estate that includes the main building for Mass and two open-air rooms for Catechism classes.

Gonzalo Garcia Pérez, the driver of our van that morning and throughout the trip, was a member of the local congregation — he had attended Mass there for so long that he counted his time in numbers of priests instead of years. He lives nearby with his family. Some of his children, like his son Oscar, an engineer in LA, have gone north, much as Garcia Pérez did when he left his home state of Jalisco for Mexicali.

Congregants soon entered the main gates of the property. Families with all generations in tow mingled under the trees before they proceeded into the church. The morning air was near silent, with only the whistling of a man at the general store down the street.

The church itself was three-walled with a thick curtain across the entrance. Above the altar was a statue of Jesus on the cross and to the altar’s right stood a likeness of St. Juan Diego, the Aztec prince said to have been visited by the Virgin Mary (a.k.a., Our Lady of Guadalupe) in 1531 and a favorite figure among Mexican Catholics. De la Torre entered the church a few minutes later, dressed in a white robe and a green vestment. De la Torre glided up to the altar and began Mass.

The service was short. It consisted of hymns, homily and Communion. The churchgoers’ singing united with the sounds of daybreak, the light breeze lifting the notes up toward the altar.

“A free people that walks through the waters of life,” the congregation sang in Spanish. “A free people that walks with great faith and religion.”

Sortino described the service as peaceful.

“It also struck me that the service felt like a very integral piece of the community,” Sortino said. “It just felt like a regular congregational place.”

After the service, we distributed the last of our donations. Setting up on tables in the catechism classrooms, Arenas said she was reminded of her grandmother, who taught Catechism for 25 years.

Donations are distributed to church congregants in Mesa Arenosa de Andrade, Mexico on January 20th, 2019. Zach Goodwin/TheOccidental

“And giving out donations, I mean we’ve been doing that [as] the purpose of this trip,” Arenas said. “So it’s been really gratifying and humbling at the same time.”

We ate lunch at the home of Maggie (no last name given), one of the congregants, and her two daughters. A statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe watched from a nearby table. Maggie has been attending services in the parish for at least 30 years and at this small church in Mesa Arenosa for the past seven. Here, she said, she feels an even greater connection to her faith.

“I know that it’s the same God,” she said in Spanish. “But this church feels different.”

Maggie (middle right) with her two daughters Julia (left) and Mary (right) and family friend Abdilena Mendoza (middle left) at Maggie’s home in Mesa Arenosa de Andrade, Mexico on January 20th, 2019. Zach Goodwin/TheOccidental

Though there are many consistent church-goers like Maggie, de la Torre said that he has seen a wavering of religious faith throughout Mexico.

“The last element of faith to go is faith in Our Lady of Guadalupe,” de la Torre said. “But that’s going too. That’s being lost through secularization, individualism, materialism … the influences that are permeating the psychology of Mexico as well as the rest of the Western world.”

Similar attitudes were reflected in de la Torre’s earlier homily, which focused on high divorce rates, premarital sex and the dissolution of the family unit as substantial problems facing Mexican society.

That is not to say all are wavering.

“Remember one thing,” Garcia Pérez warned over dinner the night previous. “I am never late to Mass.”

The Impact

Over the course of the long weekend, we delivered donations to two migrant shelters and a church, attended Mass, took photos at the border wall and munched on tacos and chow mein.

“[The trip] sort of went the way I expected it to,” Contreras Bolton said. “The only thing that changes [year to year] is really the students.”

Though Contreras Bolton did not know the exact number of donations delivered, she estimated the value at around $3,000. It was almost too much to bring, yet at the same time not enough.

“One of the hardest parts for me was to only have very limited supplies of shoes … the only time we almost had a fight was over the shoes,” Contreras Bolton said, referring to Hotel del Migrante.

The trip also served as an educational opportunity for all involved. Sortino highlighted the lecture from Professor Mena that the group received Jan. 19 about the history of migration in the region as particularly informative.

Zapata added that it was interesting to see how so many groups, such as Chinese and Haitian immigrants and not just Mexicans and Central Americans, have used Mexicali as a launching point and contributed to its cultural fabric.

“It just really contextualizes migration in a way that you don’t really understand or comprehend from any book or any class you take,” Zapata said.

When I asked Arenas, Sortino and Zapata to reflect on the trip from a religious or spiritual perspective, they hesitated. They did not consider it to be a mission trip, they said, nor was religion the primary lens through which they saw their experience.

“Because for me, just traveling with Newman and just traveling with Dominican priests, that’s the extent from which I see it [religiously], other than going to Mass,” Arenas said. “I saw it mostly through a social justice lens.”

For Zapata, the spiritual aspect of the trip came through seeing how the migrants carried themselves.

“Everything was very much about faith, and faith that their life would be better, and that they’re putting all of this work into improving their lives and leaving an intergenerational legacy for the family,” Zapata said. “To me, that was just way more proof to me of God’s existence and the power of faith than anything I would have read in the Bible.”

The Border

The morning of Jan. 22, after we ate breakfast at his ranch house, Garcia Pérez drove us to the border, passing a long line of vehicles queuing parallel to the fence. Dropped off at the pedestrian crossing point, we proceeded down the concrete staircase into the belly of the immigration station. Through a mesh barrier, we could see people passing the other way into Mexico, the clinking of turnstiles ringing in the morning air.

The pathway back into the U.S. winded into an office manned by border patrol agents who scanned our passports and asked questions of our intent. Photos of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence hung over the door through which we passed into the United States of America.

Diego Zapata (left) and Carolina Arenas (right) walk towards the border crossing in Mexicali, Mexico on Monday, January 21st, 2019. Zach Goodwin/TheOccidental

In Calexico, we walked back to the Occidental van parked in the Our Lady of Guadalupe parking lot. We piled in and set out across the scorched desert to Los Angeles, a desert crossed by priests one way and migrants the other.

“They will no longer call you ‘Abandoned,’ nor your land, ‘Desolate,’” de la Torre read in Spanish, from the book of Isaiah, during Sunday’s service. “Instead you will be called, ‘My delight is in her,’ and your land, ‘Married,’ for the Lord delights in you, and to Him your land will be married.”

The van continued its journey back towards Occidental, the asphalt highway cutting through a land neither abandoned nor desolate, but a land traversed by the feet of man and held by the hand of God.

This article was revised Feb. 13, 2019 at 3:25 p.m. to correct the full name of ORSL — it is the Office for Religious and Spiritual Life, not the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life — and to note that the author traveled with five other Occidental community members, not six.