U-C: What I See

Friday, January 07, 2005

Notes from Nogales


I hope your celebration of Christmas was restful as mine was. I spent a week hibernating in the snow in northern Vermont with my family.

This week I find myself in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico with a group of seminary students from Western Theological Seminary (a Reformed Church of America school), Wesley in Washington (Methodist), and Gettysburg in Pennsylvania (a Lutheran School). There are eighteen participants on the trip as well as my co-workers Sister Noemi from Mexico and Debbie from Tucson.

It is cold here - the kind of bone-chilling cold that only happens in the desert. Our Michigan students came thinking that they understood cold, but have agreed that 25 degrees in the desert seems colder than zero degree temperatures up north. It's made worse by the fact that there's no such thing as central heat in the homes that we are visiting.

Yesterday we had lunch in my friend Johanna's home. Johanna lives with her husband Ignacio and their two children - Jimmy and Perla - in a house they have been building themselves for more than five years. The house has two rooms about twelve feet by fifteen. The front wall is made of brick, and the rest of the walls are cinderblock. Where there are holes for the windows, they've been covered over with old pieces of plywood until some day in the future. They now have a tin roof (a high commodity in Nogales), but there is a six inch gap almost all the way around where the walls don't meet the ceiling. Johanna has stuffed old clothes in all the gaps in an attempt to provide a little more protection from the cold. The floor is made of dirt, but covered with old carpet scrounged from the local swapmeet. The walls are covered with photos of family members and certificates from the children's schools as well as from adult education classes that Johanna has taken.

There is electricity: two bare light bulbs, a refrigerator and a television, but no running water. Johanna washes dishes and clothes from a fifty five gallon drum in the yard. There is a small, gas cookstove run off a propane tank propped against the outside wall of the house. The bathroom is an outhouse in the yard built over a toilet pit with a toilet inside but no running water. They flush it by dipping from the drum of water sitting in the corner, which is also how they bathe water comes from. The last time I stayed with them for a few nights in their home, it was equally cold, and raining hard. That was before their tin roof was finished, and we sat amid pots that collected the dripping water.

Ignacio works in a local factory. He has a good job in which he makes almost seventy-five dollars a week. Johanna finds odd jobs that allow her to stay home with her kids: selling used clothing, making and selling tamales, cooking for BorderLinks groups, and the like. She has worked in the U.S. owned factories, called maquiladoras, off and on for years. In the last few years, she has become a local expert on Mexican Labor Law, and people knock on her door almost every day to ask for help with some work related problem. One of our students on this trip is a lawyer who is in seminary preparing for a second career, and he marveled at how adept she is at explaining the ins and outs of arcane pieces of the Labor Law. Not bad for someone with a 7th grade education.

One of the reasons we are such good friends is because of our shared love of humor and storytelling. Johanna speaks so fast, and in such a circular fashion as she hops from one story to another, that it is often hard to translate for her.

Jimmy is in grade school - seven years old. He has a huge smile, and most of our interactions end in a wrestling-tickling match on one of the double beds that are in each of the two rooms in their home. Perla is a little older, a bright, serious student who loves to study and often wants to show me her latest project from school.

Every day families here struggle for even the most basic survival. This family, like almost everyone I know in Mexico, is one crisis away from disaster. What holds them together is their love for their kids, their commitment to build a future for their family, and their connection to friends and neighbors. When someone in this neighborhood gets sick, or loses a family member and must pay for a funeral, neighbors go door to door to take up a collection to support one another.

This week, I remember again how blessed I am to find God among these people and in this community over and over again. Reconnecting with old friends, and experiencing this world again for the first time as I see it through the eyes of the students on our trip, is the greatest gift from God that I can imagine.

Blessing on all of you as you begin a new year.