Monday, February 13, 2012

Eagle Pass, TX and Piedras Negras, COA

Sculpture in the Piedras Negras Plaza
Eric and I got a short tour of Piedras Negras with Sister Ursula the day of our arrival, but it was pretty dark by then, so we were really surprised to actually see the city the next morning when we crossed over on our bicycles. Right at the foot of the bridge, there is a really fancy plaza with beautiful sculptures and a lovely running/biking path along the Rio Grande.  East of Tijuana, this was the nicest, most modern looking plaza we had seen on the border, and Sister Ursula told us it all had been done in the last few years.  While I probably agree with Sister Ursula that the money used could have been used better, I hope that it created some jobs for Piedras Negras (which is what is most needed in Juarez right now: non-narco jobs) and I hope that it will bring in tourists that will boost the economy.

Bikes Across Borders sign on their bike trailer 
Eric and I had hustled down to Eagle Pass right when we did because we heard of another group of cyclists who were traveling to Piedras Negras from Austin, Texas and we just had to meet them!  It was a group of ten cyclists, many Austin peddicabbers, who built bicycles and rode them down to the border to donate in an annual migration of the group Bikes Across Borders. Very Cool.

We were fortunate to meet up with this group to hear a bit about their ride down, but also because we got to learn about the organization they stayed with and donated the bicycles to--Comite Fronterizo de Obrer@s/Border Committee for Workers.  The CFO consists of current and former maquiladora (factory) workers who organize for workers' rights in six cities along the border.  Through education and empowerment, they support workers and are trying to get better working conditions and pay in the maquiladoras.

One part of the CFO that is really impressive is a small factory that promotes the values of the organization, aptly named Dignity and Justice Maquiladora Company.  They are really small, only a group of 6-10 workers, all of whom were fired from their jobs after standing up for their rights. Unfortunately, there is currently not enough demand to provide the workers full time work, but they hope it will continue to grow. They make t-shirts, sweatshirts and tote bags, often from organic cotton.  If your company/organization is in need of t-shirts or totes, this would be a fantastic cause to promote and their U.S. distributor is right in St. Paul, Minnesota, North Country Fair Trade.

The small but impressive Dignity and Justice Maquiladora

After getting riled up about worker justice, we stopped by the Casa del Migrante of Piedras Negras.  Frontera Digna is operated by the diocese, the same as Casa Emmaus, which we visited in Ciudad Acuña. Though similar, we had an excellent visit, due in great part to the woman in charge, Elizabeth.  She took a good chunk out of her day to explain to us the situation of migrants in Piedras Negras and also told us her personal story of being an undocumented laborer for 20+ years in the San Antonio area.

One interesting trait that distinguishes Frontera Digna from all the other shelters we have visited is that they are receiving more migrants traveling northward than being deported.  65% of their guests are immigrants from Central America, while 35% are people of Mexican origin being deported.  The reason for this distinct reality is that the U.S. is not currently deporting many people from Eagle Pass and most Central Americans travel through a series of houses of hospitality in Mexico that lead to this house on the border in Coahuila.

Elizabeth, the encargada at Frontera Digna migrant shelter
After speaking with Elizabeth for more than an hour, she encouraged us to go speak with the migrants.  While Eric headed outside to talk to the men, Elizabeth invited me into the women's dormitory.  I squeaked open the door and timidly asked the four ladies inside if I could come in to chat.  I felt bad entering their domain, but they invited me in and I felt honored with all they shared with me.

There were three young women who had traveled up from Honduras and one older woman who appeared to have some mental health disabilities but was deemed "the grandmother of the house" and now permanently resides there.  I mostly talked to the younger women as they were so kind to share bits of their lives with me.

The women were 32, 24 and 22 years of age and all have previously lived in the United States.  The oldest woman was staying at the house with her three children including her 12 year old son, a U.S. citizen, who dreams of being a Border Patrol agent so he can "let all the Central Americans through."  The younger two women had children in Honduras and they were also several months pregnant.  While the woman with children traveled through Mexico on buses, the two young pregnant women rode the trains through Mexico.  As previously mentioned, the route through Mexico is extremely dangerous for Central Americans and they are often targeted due to their vulnerability.  These young women had witnessed lots of abuse, but one elaborated with a particular story of several men pulling women off the train to sexually assault them.  She begged the men, showed them her pregnant belly, but they demanded she get off the train.  Crying loudly, she began to slowly descend the ladder she clung to and only then did her harasser give up and leave her alone.  She saw many other women that did not have her luck.

I talked with these women about where they previously stayed in the U.S. (a good sampling: Los Angeles, Kansas City and Boston), about how they previously crossed, and why they wanted to cross again.  Though they had been there previously, none knew about the tight security not just at the physical border, but also at the Border Patrol checkpoints on the roads going northbound.  They were all disillusioned with the difficulty of crossing, yet determined to do so.

When it was time to go, I thanks these women for their stories, and as I often do, I apologized for the policies of my government that won't allow them to legally cross and give more opportunity to their children.  I really appreciated being invited into their world momentarily and reminded of each individual's struggle.

There doesn't seem to be a whole lot going on in Eagle Pass as far as border-related social justice worker, but accompanying Sister Ursula, we saw a lot of the good work being done in Piedras Negras, much of which is supported by the Eagle Pass community.

Sister Ursula is an RN and she works at a diabetes clinic 3 days per week and spends her Wednesdays helping out at the chemotherapy clinic at the Eagle Pass hospital.  Her three day weekends allow her to  cross the border and run around to all the organizations over there that she is supporting as part of the Benedectine Sisters of Boerne, Texas program Caridad de Corazon, Charity of the Heart.

Benedictine Sisters Germaine and Ursula
The house we stayed in with Benedictine Sisters Ursula and Germaine is their mission house and they host several groups per year that travel down from other parts of the U.S. to do service work on the border.  It is a big house, but we were surprised to see how a great portion of it is currently devoted to storing donations to go to Piedras Negras.  With the tightened restrictions on what can go into Mexico (for example, the government taxes bags of used clothing, raw chicken, milk, etc.), the Benedictine mission house has become a donation center. On Friday, we accompanied Sister Ursula on her deliveries to Piedras Negras and she was excited not only to show us around, but also because more people in the van meant that she could cross the international boundary with more donation items!

We were very impressed with all the ministries that we saw and for the most part, we were just in and out. Our first stop was delivering food to the Comedor where school children can go to get a full meal before or after school. After that, we dropped off some food and winter jackets to a small shelter for the homeless. Next stop was to bring cloth to the CFO Justicia Maquiladora (see above), because when they are not cranking out orders, the workers can use the sewing machines to make other items to sell locally and try to make a living.

After lunch, we stopped in for a visit with a man and a woman, Memo and Egla, who previously managed a Baptist children's orphanage in Piedras Negras.  The orphanage recently closed, but luckily there were only three children living there at the time, and the two boys were accepted into the other orphanage in the city and Memo and Egla adopted the little girl, Lupita.  Sister Ursula will often visit them and check to see how they are doing, because after the orphanage closed, the father was out of work for a long time and now they were supporting a little girl too!  Fortunately, Memo recently found work and they seem to be doing well.  It was really nice to be invited in this home and to see this sweet family.  The man and woman have several other children, but all are grown and, though they could be her grandparents, they are providing a stable home for little Lupita.

Hugs all around at Casa Bethesda,
home for people with disabilities
Next up, we stopped by Casa Bethesda, a group home of sorts for people with disabilities.  We had spent about an hour here on the day of our arrival into Eagle Pass, and I am very impressed with the work of this house. There are at least 15 residents, with a vast range of disabilities and needs, and there are only a few staff members who are often by themselves with all the residents. My sister is severally disabled and I simply cannot imagine this workload, but they seem to manage and thrive, with the higher-functioning residents taking greater responsibility in the cleaning and care.

We brought them food and diapers and all the residents who were able ran to greet Sister Ursula, many asking when they were going to go to Soriana again.  With such a small staff, the residents very rarely get to leave the house, but Sister Ursula has recently taken van loads out to eat or to go shopping at Soriana, a Walmartesque store. I just loved this and wish I could accompany them on one of their outings!  Though they may not often get out into the greater community, they have a beautiful yard space, including a basketball hoop and large playground, and Eric and I tossed a ball with a couple of the residents.

Eric plays with the boys at the children's home

After Casa Bethesda, we had longer visits at the boys' and girls' orphanages which are operated by the diocese of Piedras Negras.  At the boys' house, there were about 12 boys, all under the age of ten, so we ran around and played with them for a while.  At the girls' house, there are currently only 6 girls, all but one under ten.  The older girl, 12, Jennifer, appears to have some disabilities and isn't too verbal and she was just the sweetest girl in the world.  After a few minutes there, she took my hand and she pretty much did not let it go for the next two and half hours. The afternoon of our visit, a large group of education students from the university came over and threw a party for the kids. They brought balloons, pizza, a couple of them dressed as princesses and they played all sorts of games. It was a lot of fun, though Jennifer and I stayed on the sidelines as she preferred to just watch. When we were leaving, I had to let go of her little hand, but I can still feel her warm presence in my heart.

Story time at the fiesta at the children's home

Our last stop was at the home of a woman in a poor colonia on the outskirts of the city.  Sister Ursula told us about a trend she has seen in these small neighborhoods: that one woman of the colonia become the go-to, the unofficial representative, whom the residents bring their questions and needs to.  The woman we visited had this role and Sister Ursula spoke with her about the needs of the kids in the community, as the Benedictines give grants to many of the children in the neighborhood, enabling them to go to school, a privilege that unfortunately is not free is most parts of Mexico. After Sister Ursula delivered some tuition money and received a request for hair clippers for a student in a cosmetology program, we headed back to Eagle Pass.  What a day!!

Though we were only in town a few days, because of Sister Ursula, we were able to see a huge portion of the social work happening in Piedras Negras, giving us great insight into this area of the border.  We are so grateful to have been able to witness all the work that is currently happening and we can only hope it continues to receive all the support it needs.

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