My Journal of Conocimiento – “Becoming Aware” –
Alternative Spring Break – Interfaith Border Justice trip for students
Southern Arizona, 3/12-19/2011
Sponsored by the Office of Religious Life, University of Southern California
(Our group walking on a migrant trail - one of many hundreds - from south to north, near Arivaca, AZ, to drop water jugs to prevent migrants from dying of thirst. We saw many, many empty water containers along the way. Photo by Mike Hyatt.)
This poem from the Reform Jewish prayerbook, which we read during Shabbat at Temple Emanuel in Tucson on our last night on the trip, beautifully sums up Conocimiento 2011:
Standing on the parted shores of history, we still believe
what we were taught before we ever stood at Sinai’s foot;
that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt;
that there is a better place, a promised land;
that the way to that promise passes through the wilderness;
that there is no way to get from here to there
except by joining hands together.
(Mishkan T’Filah, P. 39
Saturday, 3/12: We left campus at about 11 am. Our crew: myself, Rabbi Lori Schneide of USC Hillel, and 8 students - 6 undergrads and 2 grad students. We made it to Sahuarita, AZ, by 8 pm and set up “camp” at Good Shepherd United Church of Christ – a church with SHOWERS!!
Sunday, 3/13: We woke up to a beautiful day and started it with 9 am worship at Good Shepherd. Then we drove east to Sierra Vista, AZ, to visit the Ramsey Canyon Nature Conservancy Hummingbird Sanctuary. We hiked up to a viewpoint over the valley and saw a “migra” observation balloon hovering over the mountains. I had not been to this area for 7 years, and the increase in the number of "migra" (border patrol) vehicles is very, very dramatic.
We drove from there to Naco, to the border wall - an obscenity of steel cutting across the desert. It does not even pretend to look nice! It slices the vast open landscape like a knife. The students stuck their arms through the gaps in the fence so they could say they made it to Mexico! From there we drove to nearby Bisbee, an old town tucked up in a canyon above a gigantic open pit copper mine. The students wandered the narrow streets for half an hour. I saw some intriguing “metal art” - stainless steel which had been specked with water and then hit with spray-paint, resulting in cool-looking effects.
From there we drove as fast as we could to make it to the 6 pm vesper service of the nuns of the Benedictine Monastery in Tucson on Country Club Rd. It’s a beautiful old 1930’s Spanish-style church and compound. Made it for vespers- beautiful liturgy in plainsong. Said our Baptist student, Emanuel, afterward: “When those ladies pray, they really pray” - he was weeping. The nuns fed us a great meal of home-made pizza (“students love pizza!” they said) and they arranged the tables so each student could meet with a different group of sisters for conversation. Wonderful! I sat with Lenore Black, the sister who has published some of my writings in the Order’s “Spirit and Life” magazine: our first time meeting face to face. We had a long chat with Lenore, Kathleen, Patricia, all sisters in the monastery, after dinner and final prayers; the students were very moved by this encounter.
Monday, 3/14: We went to the Nogales Port of Entry with Fr. Ricardo Elford, a Redemptorist priest who has been working with migrants for four decades in the Tucson area. He was one of the leaders of the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980’s, which smuggled Central American refugees into the US and housed them in churches and temples, until the government changed its policies and stopped deporting them and gave them refugee status. He gave us a history of that movement and an overview of current interfaith border justice work in southern Arizona. Then we drove down to the border to get a good look at the vast trucking complex there - NAFTA at work. We looked over the town of Nogales, Sonora, from a hill on the US side. Then we drove to Patagonia, AZ, and to an old ghost town out on a dirt road to the East and South - a world of leafless mesquites and lonesome yuccas - dry grass - solitude - dust – quiet in the old graveyard that is about all that’s left of the abandoned mining town. There was a lot of cement in the “cementario” or graveyard, and no green grass. Metal crosses, some in tin with letters punched out with nails. An old rusting fridge with the door swung open in a ruined adobe house. Many “migra” trucks kicked up dust as they zipped past us on the dirt road.
In the evening we went to Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Tucson for a talk (by a Muslim, Catholic Deacon and Hispanic activist) called: “Scapegoating Migrants and Muslims”. The speakers made the connection between the ways that Muslims are being treated (the current witch-hunt by the Republicans in Congress) and the way that migrants are scapegoated in Arizona (e.g.: Arizona AB 1070, the law that profiles Hispanic people for scrutiny/arrest by local/state police as possible undocumented people.)
Tuesday, 3/15: We went to Arivaca with Lyn and Mike Nowakowski, members of Good Shepherd. They are a retired teacher and judge from Madison, WI who are now serious Green Valley Samaritan volunteers. Arivaca is a scruffy little town out by Baboquivari (visible all-around, a volcanic thumb in the air). There I walked into the town’s bar and chatted with the weary woman bartender and her one and only customer, a toothless old hippie with a big grin who told me how bad the economy is there, now that so many of the drug smugglers have been chased away by “migra” (the Border Patrol). “They used to spend their money here!” he lamented, as the bartender nodded. We went to Sasabe on the border, and stopped at a funky general store where we met Tim, a very rough-looking guy with tattoos on his neck (red!) sitting in his pick-up truck outside the door. He said he was a sort of was working for “private parties” and the government to intercept drug smugglers. “They’re not very good,” he said of the cartel foot-soldiers in Mexico. “I crawled right up to one of their camps without being noticed,” he said…scary guy. He pointed across the border. “Sinaloa cartel controls that hill (to the east), Beltran Leyva cartel controls the area south of the town, and the Zetas control that hill (to the west).” Mike Nowakowski said he thought Tim was a “Minuteman” border militia member or a Minuteman “wannabe.” (There was a big sign in the center of Arivaca that said “Militia” in a circle with a slash through it.)
With the Green Valley Samaritans, we went outside of Arivaca to a migrant trail just inside the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge. We met with Bethea and other “Samaritanos” and walked to the site where Bethea (70 years old) found 64-year-old Alfonso Salas lying dead, face up, on the ground while out on water patrol. Lyn placed fresh silk flowers on the mound of stones. Alfonso was headed back to the U.S. where he had lived and where his kids now live. Alfonso died of heart failure/heat exposure. Jennifer, our student whose Salvadoran parents came across illegally (and now are ciudadenos - citizens) was crying- it had a powerful effect on her (and all of us).
Hundreds of thousands of migrants pass through this area annually, despite the new iron walls put up to deter them, despite the huge increase in border patrol agents and higher chances of being apprehended, despite the increase in migrants convicted in court of immigration violations, despite the increasing danger from drug-cartels who now control the "coyotes" who lead them across the border, despite the fewer jobs available in the US after the recession, despite the rapes and robberies suffered by migrants, despite the "funneling" of migrants between the areas with border walls into the harshest, most dangerous parts of the desert. The evidence of their journeys abounds in the desert, when you walk the trails: empty tuna cans, empty water and elecrolyte bottles, discarded clothes to lighten their loads. These are human beings so desperate to feed themselves and their families back home that they will endure suffering unimaginable to the rest of us, for the sake of opportunities on "el otro lado" - the other side of the border.
When we returned to the church in the evening we made a mesquite campfire behind the church and introduced our two foreign students to the great American traditions of s’mores and ghost stories under the stars.
Wednesday, 3/16: We drove to Phoenix to meet with Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Maricopa County and the self-styled “toughest sheriff in America”. The visit was the result of Rabbi Lori’s friendship with Len Sherman, Sheriff Joe’s biographer. We arrived to find Fox “News” cameras focused on us. (Fox edited out the tough questions our students asked, and indicated he had “won over” some of our students – which definitely wasn’t the case: further evidence that Fox has no meaningful standard of journalism.) Our students handled him brilliantly. They charmed him and flattered him and he ate it up. “Smart kids” he said. Then the students started asking hard questions. Jennifer, who was afraid she’d get too emotional, stole the show with her insightful and incisive questions/comments - wow! Theresa, our student from Beijing, told a story of a migrant from the provinces of China who was “profiled” and abused by a Shanghai cop. The migrant came back and shot up the police station and killed 12 people. “This ethnic profiling, I think it can have bad consequences,” she said to him.
I asked him “You’re Catholic and supposedly ‘pro-life’- so why not a cross stickpin rather than a pistol on your tie?” “Don’t want to mix religion in politics,” he said. “That pistol is religion, Joe!” I said. He ushered us into his office: it was a museum to his stupendous ego. There was a wonderful moment when Jessica, from London, found herself posing for pictures seated behind Joe’s desk!
Joe sent us to his “Tent Jail” after our 1.5 hour meeting with him. The short-term, low-risk prisoners live in tents in 130 degree weather. (You can’t house risky prisoners in tents! - negating the whole point of Joe’s rhetoric about the tent jail.) Clearly the jail guards don’t want to deal with the heat, either – another reason the much-touted tent jail turns out to be so tiny compared to the rest of the facility, which looks like any other jail in the country. A sign on the front of the jail read “Illegal Aliens Not Allowed” (to visit prisoners). But so what? Nobody can get into any U.S. jail without a valid I.D. I discovered that Sheriff Joe isn’t the toughest sheriff in America. He’s just the loudest and most obnoxious.
In the evening we went to Clinica Amistad, hosted by Father Ricardo, who manages it. It was packed with patients who don’t have any insurance. It’s a once-a-week, all-volunteer, integrative clinic offering Reiki and Acupuncture. It was buzzing with activity!
Thursday, 3/17: 8:00am: Southside Presbyterian Church, Tucson – a hub of immigrant justice activity. It’s a church with a sanctuary that is built in the manner of an Anasazi Indian ritual kiva – circular, partly below grade, with “vigas” and “latillas” in the ceiling. We talked with the jornaleros (day laborers) at Southside’s Day Labor Registry and had a good chat with them about SB 1070. We then drove to Arivaca/Sasabe with the Tucson Samaritan Patrol (Jeff and Mike).
We stopped near Baboquivari (the holy mountain where the creator/trickster god of the O’Odham people, I’itoi, is said to live), to look at one of the water tanks with the tall flagpole and blue flag set out by Humane Borders. At Sasabe we drove along the border fence, which Jeff demonstrated can be very easily scaled by shimmying between the tall fence poles. A shadowy figure, a lookout, peered from a hill on the Mexican side. The fence is imposing and rolls up and down the landscape until it abruptly ends a few miles from the Sasabe border crossing. Why?
We walked a migrant trail near Arivaca - dropped gallon water jugs and picked up Samaritan Patrol’s “empties” left by migrants. Lots of empty bottles of “Sun Water” and “Electrolit” along the trail - rough country, desolate. We could feel the rough, hot journey of days and days for the migrants.
Then to Gadsden Coffee Company just east of Arivaca. It’s run by a couple of men who are Buddhists. Bikers, bicyclists and rednecks all hanging out on the patio and under the awning with a great view of mountains and desert. It serves smoothies and salads and the place is encrusted with memorabilia of the days when Arivaca was a notorious “hippie heaven” in the late ‘60’s.
That evening we had dinner at El Minuto Café next to El Tiradito, where Fr. Ricardo led the vigil for migrants who have died (he’s led it weekly for about 30 years). There were lots of spring break students there from around the country, working with Humane Borders, No More Deaths and Border Links. Prayers, announcements of “leftie” events, lighting of the memorial candle for the dead migrants. Veladoras twinkled on the old adobe wall of El Tiradito (The Castaway), a long-time folk shrine to lost love in the Tucson barrio.
Friday, 3/18: In the morning we heard Randy Mayer, pastor of Good Shepherd UCC, talk about the work of his congregation in border justice - it’s the main focus of this lively church - mostly retired people, but for a retirement community it has more young families than most. 100+ of them go out into the desert to drop water on the trails (Green Valley Samaritans). Randy showed us a “bordado”, an embroidered napkin with the words “El Buen Pastor” and an image of Jesus the good shepherd on it. It had been found on one of the migrant trails.
Then we went to San Xavier Mission - the ornate Fr. Kino mission church on the Tohono O’odham reservation near Tucson. It’s a place of serene beauty: a brilliant white masonry church with fantastic images on the inside walls.
From there we went to Old Town Tucson. We stopped at the Old Town Artesans compound, full of shops and a nice courtyard.
Then at 1:30 pm we walked to US Federal Court to witness Operation Streamline. 70 or so migrant in chains were being processed rapidly. Young Hispanic men sat in the courtroom waiting to plead guilty (almost all of them) to illegal entry into the United States. “Culpable…culpable...culpable...” Walking out in chains… some of our students were in tears, watching this parade of misery. Then a meeting with the federal public defenders, who minced no words about what a travesty of justice Operation Streamline represents. "It is not a deterrent," declared one of the lawyers about the effect the program had on border crossings from Mexico. Another of the public defenders recited the number of teachers that could be hired for public schools if the money was diverted from Operation Streamline.
In the evening, we went to El Charro, an old Sonoran-style Mexican restaurant in Old Town, for a long, slow feast in the patio - nice! The “carne seca” dryer dangled above the patio... it's the signature dish of the restaurant - dried, shredded, very tasty beef.
At 7 pm, we went to Shabbat service at Temple Emanuel in Tucson… those of us who are "goyim" tried to recite the Hebrew liturgy with our Jewish brothers and sisters! A beautiful interlude after an intense day together.
On Saturday, 3/19, we got on the road by about 10 am and arrived in LA at about 6:30.
"Mojados in the Promised Land", a song modified from a poem I wrote several years ago and dedicated to the interfaith border justice activists around Tucson, is based on the beautiful vision in the book of Revelation of an international, multi-ethnic, heavenly city coming down to earth. My late singer/songwriter friend, Lisa Atkinson, turned my poem into a beautiful Mexican-style waltz on her CD, "Connie's Songbird". (You can get the song at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/lisaatkinson.2 . ) Below are the words:
Mojados In the Promised Land
Tune by Lisa Atkinson and George Kincheloe
Words by Jim Burklo and Lisa Atkinson
We are all mojados in the promised land
We’ll cross that bright river today
All our backs will be wet when we finally stand
At the throne of God someday
Nobody's thirsty in the promised land
Coyote can't steal your soul
Buzzards don't glide over desert sands
There is no border patrol
There are no migra at the pearly gates
No fake ID's to buy
They don't take your money and leave you to fate
You can't get caught in a lie
You won't get deported from the promised land
You cross over there, you are home
It’s our place to build and our place to stand
Heaven to earth, kingdom come