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U.S. Mexico border reflection

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February 4, 2011

By Alivia Tison '13

When 10 CSB and SJU students and I met at the airport to begin our travels to one of the most controversial regions of the United States over winter break, we did not know that we would instantly find community, hospitality, and a new family within the people along the U.S./Mexico Border. 

Whether learning about the Segundo Barrio community in El Paso, Texas, sharing meals with our host families, or learning from a Border Patrol agent, we may not have known the immensity of the complications of our new friends' lives yet, but upon arrival we knew that we were surrounded by exceptionally caring individuals.  We learned that El Paso was recently namedof the "Safest city for its size in the U.S.," while across the highway Juarez has been referred to as the "Most dangerous city in the world that's not declared a war zone."  As if those two extremes aren't enough, many people along the border live in El Paso but work and have family  in Juarez and vice versa.  Little by little, we pieced the information together, and the more I learned, the more my heart fell heavy with knowing the tremendous obstacles that people face in our own backyards. 

It didn't take me long to learn that unanswered questions would haunt me during this trip. 

  • Why should it take the class of ESL students we visited 20 years to obtain U.S. citizenship only to be greeted with a test that many U.S. born-citizens cannot even pass? 
  • Why should my host mom have left the country that she loved because of a poor economic situation to arrive in the U.S. where she lives off welfare from the government for her five children and does not have the papers to obtain a job? 
  • How come our site supervisor in El Paso could not attend his uncle's funeral in Juarez for fear of being shot only to be filled later with a mixture of emotions upon learning that every man at the funeral was killed by a drug cartel? 
  • When will the sweet, elderly man from the Sin Fronteras Farm Workers Center be paid and treated reasonably?

The most difficult question for me came when touring the actual border fence with Border Patrol.  At one point, I had one foot in Mexico and the other in the United States, literally straddling a cement line that someone deemed as the border.  Looking across the highway, I could see the city of Juarez marked with mobile homes on a mountain and one large green house, which we later understood belonged to a drug cartel.  I thought about all of the people living in Juarez, of the stories my host family told me about the celebrations that used to occur there, and of how much they wish they could go back to see their families and communities.  It puzzled me why this cement line has resulted in many deaths and sufferings for those who did not make it across, while many others made it to the other side only to end up feeling dejected and lost.  A shiver went through me as I thought about all of the families separated, the smugglers who take advantage of their own people, and the way a line can divide human beings into two separate groups.    

It is easy to look at the U.S./Mexico Border just as that - a line that splits one group into two.  It's much harder to see that simply because someone creates a division does not mean that we aren't still part of one group, the group called human beings that shares the same thoughts, desires, and love. God resides in all of us, and to deprive one group of the care and love is to deprive Him of the same.  

As a CSB Campus Ministry trip, it is hard to explain why God allows these miseries to occur, but then we look around and see all of the beauty that does occur in their lives.  By reflecting nightly with the group from CSB/SJU and incorporating the Catholic Social Teachings, we developed a better understanding of our thoughts and how God was working in our lives throughout the trip.  Despite the fact that many of the homes we stayed in on the border were not filled with material things, it does not mean that their lives were not filled with tremendous happiness.   God showed us a side of living that many of us are not accustomed to and that reminded me of the value of talking with family, sharing meals together, and giving back to your community.  During the trip, we met a woman who wrote for The New York Timesbefore returning to Segundo Barrio to help restore her community, and a graduate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology who grew up in the neighborhood, pursued his education, and now works at a non-profit organization that helps immigrants obtain health care and take important classes.  It's inspiring and uplifting to hear of people who give back to the community that raised them, and it's people like these who contribute to making the world a better place.

One of the five pillars of Alternative Break Experience's at CSB is Intentional Living, and we realized how important it is to incorporate this pillar into our daily lives.   After seeing the injustices that farm workers face and living in a house the size of my CSB Suite with five children and six dogs, I cannot imagine what life would be like for them if everyone bought from local farmers, paid higher prices for groceries, and lived a modest lifestyle.  Reflecting upon these issues helped us come together and hold ourselves accountable to put these simple measures into our daily lives.  It seems unfair that while we attend college and move forward, so many are facing hardships beyond their control, and it is our responsibility to do our best to help them move forward as well.  They have inspired me to give back to my community and live less of a material but more of a relationship-focused lifestyle. 

I did not know that by participating in this Alternative Break Experience I would find a family not only in the ten other students from CSB/SJU, but also in my host family, the students taking classes, and the supervisors of our trip.  A cement line, a fence, or a river can separate a group into two, but that does not mean that we are separate people.  The people I met along the border showed me what happens when people work together to make change.  In our daily lives we can do so much to make a huge impact on the world, and I'm forever grateful to my new friends in El Paso for making me realize how possible it truly is to make an impact on a community and how we can come together to create happiness for all people.