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Mr. Obama, Tear Down This Wall – The Meaning of Pope Francis’ Visit To The Border

The words in the title mark my main wish for the most significant outcome for Pope Francis’ visit to the Mexico/US border.

On the heels of reporters pressing the pope for condemnation language around a GOP candidate and the building of walls, I would like to explore the significance of the already present wall and the possible impact of its demolition for communities on both sides of the Mexico/US border in relationship to the visit of the pope to the Juárez/El Paso/Las Cruces pueblo.

For over 150 years, decisions have been made by the national governments of the United States and Mexico about the region and inhabitants of the neighboring space, many times without the knowledge of life along the border. Francis’ visit highlights not only issues which affect this region but also the lack of understanding by so many about life in these Mexico/USA border communities.

This pope who’s Twitter handle is @Pontifex, or bridge-builder, has greatly emphasized the importance of breaking apart fences and walls and building bridges, particularly during his trip to Mexico. If the wall were to be demolished prior to the next US Presidential election, then the point of emphasis which swayed both the media’s and public’s attention away from the many complexities of life along this border to some crazy comments made not only by one (as highlighted by the media) but multiple Republican candidates, would be moot.

So, I turn to some of the issues which were both highlighted and ignored related to Francis’ visit to this border.

To Tear Down the Wall Means a Deeper and Broader Understanding of Migrations

The simple fact is that migrations among these three communities of El Paso/Juárez/Las Cruces are a way of life. These three interconnected communities have co-existed for hundreds of years, sometimes more peacefully than others. US policies regarding documentation, militarization, and the wall have taken a toll on the co-existence of these communities and pulled them further and further apart even when they literally connect by both land and population.

One simple example of this forced split in co-existence can be seen in that the larger, uglier pieces of the wall were not shown during the coverage of Pope Francis’ visit to this border pueblo. The wall symbolizes the forced split of the pueblo community of Juárez/ El Paso/ Las Cruces and all other such communities along this border. That forced division adds to people’s negative mentality around community and human dignity. It promotes a nationalist perspective on both sides of the border rather than the commonalities and shared life that very much exist.

When those who live with one another as neighbors see each other as strangers, how can we expect to welcome those who have made the further dangerous journey to reach the USA? The fact that the wall already exists along much of the Mexico/USA border and so few people in the USA have this information should lead us to ask about our own nationalist biases, especially as Christians.

The issue then is much broader than the surge of immigrants to this border over the last few years, mostly fleeing violence in Mexico and Central America. The kindness and hospitality often found in this community, which a bus load of reporters mentioned as they returned to St. Pius X Catholic Community in El Paso, Texas after the Eucharistic Celebration with Pope Francis, becomes truncated because of the imposition of northern ideological frameworks around national security and the need to strengthen the force at the border.

This ideology has led and continues to lead to individuals and groups believing in the need to split from Mexico, further militarize the border, build a stronger and higher wall, and force more dangerous routes for those who are trying to build a better life in the United States.  So, the issue of immigration, the disregard for human dignity, the loss of lives of immigrants, and the lack of understanding of the importance of migrant life along the border are all interconnected.

Therefore, Francis’ prayer at the large cross, blessing of the three small crosses (one for each of the communities of Juárez, El Paso, and Las Cruces), blessing of the Francis VIPs, and blessing of those at the Sun Bowl and in El Paso and Las Cruces should all be understood as interconnected acts of the work of God by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.  They should be regarded as one concrete daily experience of life struggled with and fought for everyday in these communities, with the very important application of the preferential option for the vulnerable in the Francis VIPs to be the ones chosen to represent the US side of the border community.

The juxtaposition of Francis’ prayer for the many lives lost in the journey to “El Norte” with some of those who had successfully made the journey, yet still live in detention facilities points to some of the worst possible outcomes of treating our neighbors as strangers.

To Tear Down the Wall Means the USA Will not Stand for Violence in Juárez or any Border Community

Juárez, recently considered the most dangerous city in the world and still ranked among the top 10 on some lists, hosted hundreds of thousands of people last week. A number of people slept on the street which points to both the drastic lowering of violence in the city over the last five years and the respect paid for all of the pilgrims, including Francis.

One of the largest critique’s of Francis’ visit to the Mexico/US border comes from the closing of much of Loop 375 or Border Highway and increasing security in this area and the area known as Segundo Barrio, one of the historically poorest neighborhoods in El Paso. The security increase included local, state, and federal agents present in this area. On news station showed the tank that was parked on this highway to send the message that illegal immigration will not be tolerated even during the pope’s visit.

This extreme militarization of the border shows the large disjuncture with Juárez being one of the most violent cities in the world and El Paso being one of the safest cities in the country. I even heard someone remark that the border on February 17, 2016, looked like the Gaza Strip. The juxtaposition should lead us to question how can such a reality be possible? What did Francis do with this juxtaposition?

While Francis’ choice of venues were not out of the ordinary from other trips, particularly that of his other North American visit in September of last year, the venues seemed greatly significant in Juárez. His visit to el CERESO no. 3 provides faces, names, and Christian music to a prison which has endured some extreme violence, including a large riot of rival gangs in 2009.

The rise of violence means the rise of criminals imprisoned which also means a lack of individual names and stories of these persons. A number of people at CERESO have been waiting over a year for sentencing. In his wisdom Francis states, “Divine Mercy reminds us that prisons are an indication of the kind of society we live in. In many cases they are a sign of the silence and omissions which have led to a throwaway culture, a symptom of a culture that has stopped supporting life, of a society that has little by little abandoned its children.”

To Tear Down the Wall Marks the Absolute Need of These Border Communities to Share Just Labor

One of the largest issues in border communities has been just labor practices. The fact that cheaper labor exists just across the bridge on the El Paso side has always kept the pay for labor lower in El Paso and Las Cruces. It also means the exploitation of some of the Mexican workforce as not enough jobs exist in Juárez, so many people go to El Paso to work. These workers in El Paso have no rights because they technically do not have documents recognized by the USA government for labor in the USA.

Because of this situation, numerous forms of exploitation can occur. The most recent case I heard was of a woman who worked for two weeks, twenty-four hours a day with no aid or reprieve caring for an elderly woman while the woman’s family went on vacation. When the family returned, they paid the woman $25 (US) for the two weeks of labor. The woman could do nothing but take the money and continue to work with this family until she was able to find others who would pay her a more just wage, yet she still works with no security.

Francis’ meeting with the world of labor signifies more than meeting with those who own and work in factories in Juárez. It points to the attention needed for labor reform on both sides of the Mexico/US border. As Francis states, “Here today there are various workers’ organizations and representatives of the Chamber of Commerce and business associations. At first sight they could be considered as adversaries, but they are united by the same responsibility: seeking to create employment opportunities which are dignified and truly beneficial for society and especially for the young people of this land.”

To Tear Down the Wall Means a Preferential Option for Women, Particularly Latinas

Juárez has been known for feminicide. Some point to the disappearance, murders, and mutilations of women’s bodies as the first sign of the violence in Juárez. The treatment of women on both sides of the Mexico/USA border should be considered atrocious in many ways.  While no border city in the USA, even on the Canadian border, has a reputation for disappearance and mutilation of women, the statistics around Latinas in the US can also be startling. For example, on average Latinas earn 55 cents to every dollar a White/Anglo man in the United States earns.

The fact that women gave the two morning speeches for Pope Francis’ visit to Juárez deserves to be noted. I do not know whether this request was made by Francis , or if it was a political move to highlight women to counter the bad reputation given to this community regarding women. In either case, women were extremely significant to the pope’s visit.

On February 16, 2016, in anticipation of Francis’ visit to the  border, a group known as #100women100miles walked  from Juárez to El Paso to highlight the many abuses of the immigration system in the United Sttaes. Some women walked for the women who had been promised refugee status and were never given proper process and instead were deported. Other women walked because they had known some people, mostly men, who had served in the military as a way to receive documentation recognized by the USA government but were deported upon return from tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Some women walked to show the solidarity of their prayers for the women and children in detention centers. These women traveled from close and far to participate in this one-day event to raise awareness around immigration abuses and speak for those who could not speak for themselves due to their status of documentation (un)recognized by the USA government.

A highlight of Pope Francis’ trip was the speech shared by Evelia Quintana Molina with her many wise words, among them, “One day I found myself sad to be far away from my home without my daughter and family. I thought to myself, God, may it be your will and not mine. God, I only ask that your plans are better than mine.” Her message of teaching the world about daily life in prison from her particular context coupled with the need for responsibility for one’s own actions and gratitude for those who visit prisoners, especially the pope, stood as a profound moment not just for Francis’ trip to Juárez but his entire trip to Mexico.

Finally, Daisy Flores Gamez spoke candidly and honestly at the meeting with the world of labor. She said, “We would like to share with you [Pope Francis] that on this border the economic situation and the positions we are able to perform make family life and the honest care and attention to our children increasingly more difficult. As persons of faith, some of us have been able to be strong in hard times but painfully we know that not everyone has been able to endure this situation. We ask for your Holiness to pray for us as Juárez intercedes for you.”

The preferential option for women during the pope’s visit to Juárez highlights the strong contributions women are and have been making. Francis’ trip to Mexico City did not have such overt leadership of women. The mass in Chiapas clearly showed larger engagement of women. But, in Juárez, the women spoke their minds and engaged the development of a border theology!

What central message is central to a border theology?  It is: to tear down the wall and other divisions means we choose life and to live the struggle together!

Neomi De Anda, a Tejana scholar/activist and Catholic Lay Marianist, was raised between El Paso and Corpus Christi, Texas. She currently serves as Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Human Rights Center Associate at the University of Dayton. She holds a Ph.D. in Constructive Theology. Her research interests include Latinas and Latin American women writers in religion 1600 – 1900; Christology; Latin@ Theology; theology and breast milk; the intersection of race and migrations in conjunction with the Marianist Social Justice Collaborative Racial & Immigrant Justice Team; and developing a border theology in partnership with the Hope Border Institute.  She has been awarded the Louisville Institute First Book for Minority Scholars grant and fellowships from the Hispanic Theological Initiative. In the past, Neomi has directed the Oscar Romero Scholars Program at the Catholic Theological Union; served as the Treasurer for the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States (ACHTUS); and Co-chaired the Latino/a Religion, Culture and Society Group of the American Academy of Religion. Besides her extremely supportive husband, parents, and brother, Neomi gives much credit for her work to her roots at St. Pius X Catholic Community in El Paso and St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas.

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