Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico were this year’s location for SOA Watch. I arrived in Nogales, Arizona, early Friday afternoon on October 7.
I went there for a protest march that School of the Americas Watch (SOA Watch) had organized. Fr. Roy Bourgeois, a laicized Roman Catholic priest, founded the human rights group in 1990 to protest the training of Latin American military officers at the School of the Americas, now called Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
The school is located on a U.S. Army base in Fort Benning, Georgia. Some of its graduates have committed murder, rape and torture in Central and South America. Other graduates have allowed people under their command to commit these atrocities. Crimes include the 1989 murder in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter.
The year following the massacre, and every year until 2016, SOA Watch has held its annual protest against the school at Fort Benning. This year SOA Watch shifted the protest and demand for immigration reform to Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico, where a border wall separates the two cities.
Solidarity and friendship
We gathered at the notorious Eloy Detention Center Friday evening. As the sky darkened over the desert, cars parked facing Eloy and flashed their headlights. Detainees answered by flickering their cell lights. They knew we were there in solidarity and friendship.
On Saturday more than 770 of us marched to the border wall. We carried placards showing our support for immigrants and refugees. Since I had never been to Mexico, I was looking forward to being on the Mexico side. Sadly, I misunderstood the directions and ended up in Arizona. After listening to the music and speeches and joining in the prayers, I persuaded a couple of people to walk with me and circle around to Mexico.
A chance encounter in Nogales, Mexico
To my delight, I saw a colleague who works for the Sisters of Mercy. She invited me to join her group in visiting the Kino Border Initiative Center. The center is a binational organization that offers assistance to migrants through its soup kitchen, nursing clinic and women’s shelter.
After hearing a presentation about the Center visitors broke into small groups and shared what was in our hearts. When asked why I had come to the wall, I replied that I came to learn more and to feel more.
As we boarded the bus to leave, several young Mexican men offered us older people their seats. This simple and friendly gesture touched us, especially in light of the U.S. attitude toward immigrants that the presidential campaign has fostered.
The evening had cooled off by the time we returned to Arizona. We welcomed down time to eat, relax and chat about our experiences. Later, we returned to the border. Speakers from various faith traditions spoke of having compassion for our brothers and sisters and encouraged us to continue working for immigration reform. We prayed for the world’s immigrants and refugees.
The Gospel reading at Mass on Sunday was about the 10 lepers whom Jesus cured. Only one leper gave thanks. The priest spoke of following God’s will in our lives, emphasizing that to follow God’s will we must be people of gratitude. I reflected on what a difference it would make if we were grateful for the many gifts that immigrants bring us each day. Hardly a meal goes by without our benefiting from their work in our fields and processing our food. We could also enjoy their presence and build relationships with them. We cannot live in appreciation and openness when we live in fear and hatred.
Holy people on both sides of the border
I returned to the gathering on the U.S. side of the wall after Mass, where I met a group that travels across the U.S. planting crosses where immigrants have died. They invited marchers to join them in a prayer service for the hundreds of immigrants who perish in the deserts each year.
I was reminded of a song that Woody Guthrie wrote to lament the plight of immigrants who had died in an airplane crash in Los Gatos, California. Rather than reporting their names, the media simply called them deportees.
“Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be ‘deportees.”
I think now of these people who plant crosses in no-man’s land to remember those who have died. My greatest blessing from this trip was meeting really holy people. For this reason I feel grateful.
As I walked away from the border to end my involvement in the protest, I turned for a final look at the wall. From the top of a hill I saw below me the long curve of steel that divides people in the U.S. and Mexico. It is more solid than any cathedral.
When our descendants look at the wall, what will they think? Will they remember us as a fearful, selfish people? Or will they consider us a generous, welcoming people as enshrined by the Statue of Liberty?
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