Stories From the Borderlands

April 6, 2011
Stories From the Borderlands

As part of January Term 2011, 10 Harvard Divinity School students, along with Maritza Hernandez, associate dean for enrollment and student services, and Matthew Myer Boulton, Associate Professor of Ministry Studies, traveled to the Arizona-Mexico border to meet with migrants who had crossed the border and to learn about organizations helping those who had been deported. BorderLinks, an Arizona-based host organization, helped the group meet with local organizers and communities of faith. Here, HDS students Kye Flannery, Jack Davidson, and Vincent Cervantes share how the experiences have influenced their lives, research, and ministerial interests.

Pilgrimage in the Desert
by Kye Flannery, MDiv candidate

Imagine walking through the desert for three to five days, carrying your most important belongings on your back, and moving toward an uncertain future and from a past so economically bleak that somehow this trek seems like a necessary evil. There is a crunch of gravel under your feet. You do not rest; if you are slow, you may be left behind, and in this no-man's-land, no one will know where to start looking for you.

Sometimes you come across things that other people have left behind—backpacks, clothing, or food wrappers. If you are lucky, just when you start to run out of the two gallons of water you can carry, you find a water station set up by an aid organization, like the Samaritans. If you are still luckier, the water station will not be monitored by the border patrol and your pilgrimage will continue.

In January, I went with a delegation of HDS students to visit the Arizona-Mexico border. It was part of an initiative that is gaining steam at the Divinity School—using January term for experiential learning on the premise that getting outside the classroom brings to life the things we are learning in the classroom. Divinity School meets school of life.

The mission of our Arizona-based host organization, BorderLinks, is to get folks from across the country more intimately connected with the issues and stories at the border—to move us beyond rhetoric and rumor, to find out why people cross the border and what happens to them when they do. Our team leaders introduced us to local organizers and communities of faith and brought us to Nogales, Mexico, to meet with migrants who had crossed the border and to learn about organizations helping those who had been deported.

For me, this trip was a continuation of earlier work and a deepening of earlier questions. I traveled with a group of Unitarian Universalists to stand against Arizona Senate Bill 1070 at the end of July 2010, when the Phoenix-area UU congregations called for help. Many Latinos in Phoenix felt under attack, as the bill seemed to sidestep federal authority to create a system of enforcement based on racial profiling.

The protest began with an interfaith rally, and the day was spent marching in solidarity with the grassroots organizations from Latino neighborhoods that were working to combat the bill. Many of the marchers I spoke with voiced the desire to be treated with respect in their neighborhoods and on their streets. This raised big questions for me about who we consider to be "American" and how exactly our economic policies create a system in which a portion of the work force is both necessary and invisible.

In January, I witnessed again the toll that our lack of coherent immigration policy was having on individual people. We spent time in Nogales speaking to deportees about their experiences and witnessing their exhaustion and their anguish. In shaky Spanish, I asked how they were, what had brought them to this border town, and what they hoped to do next. I didn't want to pry. I was surprised to find that, having been through significant trauma, a number of the migrants wanted to talk. (A word they use in Mexico for talking about something difficult, sort of getting it off your chest, is desahogarse, which means "undrowning oneself.") We heard about family members across the border, the kind of work the migrants hoped to get, some about their experience of deportation, and what their next move might be.

Many of the migrants were disoriented and depleted. Many had no money, not even for a phone call. Some had little hope of getting back into the United States but were planning to try to cross again. One woman had been separated from her husband while in detention and had been deported without him. She was far from home, penniless, and terrified that her husband might not be getting the medicine he needed for his diabetes. We placed a call to try and locate him, but the enormity of what we couldn't do for her weighed heavily upon us.

Even in the midst of this dire situation, some of the travelers talked about a faith that knew no boundaries. As one man, Victor Manuel, said, "God does not forget his children." He planned to make his way to Cuidad Juarez, a much more dangerous city than Nogales, and try his luck at crossing the border there. He showed me the phone numbers of his brother in Texas and his sister in Toronto. The numbers were written inside a pocket-sized Bible, which he had managed to keep with him all the way from El Salvador. I promised him I would call and let them know where he was.

Our last day in Nogales, we take a short hike into the desert on some of the trails used by migrants and the coyotes—the smugglers who bring people across the desert, sometimes stripping them of their valuables, sometimes leaving them in the desert to die or to get picked up by the border patrol, or sometimes delivering them safely to their destination.

Our group is somber. We find a tattered sweatshirt that has been left behind in a tree. Our guide tells us what it is like to live in the neighborhood nearby. Migrants walk out of the desert and knock on a door asking for work and needing food and urgent medical attention. The bodies of migrants are sometimes found by hikers; looking at this harsh desert landscape, it seems likely that many will never be found. The savage beauty of the desert outlines clearly the desperation in taking this route anywhere. What keeps the migrants going? The landscape doesn't seem to change. How easy it would be to lose one's way.

I find myself walking quite deliberately, mindfully, feeling each step, as if it is not only mine, as if I am tracing the footsteps of others. In fact, I am. I am walking in the footsteps of the migrants. How do they come this far? Why do they risk life and limb?

We get to the top of an incline and stop. Turning around, the valley is spread out below us, and in the distance: homes, cars, greenery, wealth.

And I think, in the heat, of what it means to walk as a pilgrim in the desert, on a pilgrimage that could end in many kinds of tragedy. There are snakes and sharp cactus and javelina; there are border patrol agents and dishonest coyotes who may decide halfway through the trip to leave you behind or who may steal the valuables you brought to help you with this new start. And there is always, always, the merciless sun. It is a pilgrimage that could end in death. But, somewhere to the north, there is a promised land.

What can I do, as someone who already lives in heaven? One thing I can do is to step outside, to start to try to understand it from a distance, from the outside looking in. That is what HDS made possible for us.

We begin to walk back into the land of milk and honey, ready for dinner. But we do not walk alone, and when we look down at the valley, we do not look as only ourselves. Our eyes see double. The desert stays with us, in our eyes and in our feet. We step over the barbed wire as strangers in a strange land, as pilgrims who seek to wash the dust from their feet and to find themselves arrived, to find themselves home.


Tracy Howe, MDiv candidate, examines a mural on the wall dividing Nogales, Mexico, from Nogales, Arizona.: Jack Davidson


Preaching Through Experience
by Jack Davidson, MDiv candidate

We could have read stories about border crossing right here in Cambridge. We could have met with migrant workers in Boston. We could have researched border policies from the comfort of Andover-Harvard Theological Library. But if we had not actually taken the long pilgrimage to the U.S.-Mexico border, then we could not have had the invaluable learning experience of touching the metal of the wall at the border, feeling the heat of the desert on our skin, or seeing the look of defeat in the desperate eyes of the recently deported.

When I returned to Boston, I tried preaching a fiery sermon about the blatant racism, classism, and sexism on the border, but I received some very negative reactions from the congregation. My problem was that I was trying to preach about an experience. Instead, I had to find a way to let the church share in my experience—a way to preach through an experience.

I decided to bring the experience of the dividing wall into worship. I set up a large projection screen down the middle of the congregation, with projected images of the actual wall that divides Sonora and Arizona.

The inability to see fellow congregants was more of a sermon than I could ever preach. Here are a few excerpts from the spoken reflection, based on Ephesians 2, that accompanied the experience of that division:

This wall here . . . divides the city of Nogales, Arizona, from the city of Nogales, Mexico. It is made out of recycled metal from the Vietnam and Gulf Wars, violence recycled into division. . . . This wall here . . . funnels countless border crossers into the desert to die a painful death. Hundreds are found dead each year . . . violence recycled into division, recycled into violence. . .
Paul wrote to a divided world, saying, "You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints . . . members of the household of God." That is the ultimate of Christian acts . . . taking existing forms of hate and division, then recycling them into unity and compassion. . .
All too often, human institutions build walls that recycle violence into division, like this wall here. But God works in a very different way. God recycles human violence into hope. God recycles swords into plows. God recycles the crucifix, a violent government tool of torture and oppression, into the cross, a symbol of new beginnings and love. That is the cross, the central symbol of our faith.Violence recycled into hope. Hate recycled into compassion; oppression recycled into human understanding; walls recycled into bridges; . . . division recycled into the United Body of Christ.

After the spoken reflection, I invited members of the congregation to write a note and post it on the wall—a letter to a divided world—just as Paul had written to a divided world, and just as the citizens of Nogales had written to a divided world through murals and crosses.

What would you have written on your sticky note? What walls in your life, either tangible or metaphorical, would you want to address? How would you help a congregation experience an injustice that is happening 2,500 miles away? How would you inspire them to compassionate action?

Queer Studies at the Border
by Vincent D. Cervantes, MDiv candidate

"Why did you cross?" This was the question that set the context for most of our conversations while we sat with migrants in Nogales, Sonora (Mexico). The most powerful answer, and the most common, was "para sobrevivir" (to survive). Many of the stories we heard during our time at the U.S.-Mexico border were stories of survival. Every day, individuals and families looking for a better life on the other side risk it all in hopes of surviving just another day.

These stories of survival and crossing the threshold in hopes of liberation and freedom sound all too familiar. They resonate with many of the "coming out" stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) individuals. I have come to understand LGBTQ folk as border crossers in their own right. Border crossers travel across lines in hopes of surviving another day, and yet they are met with resistance and questions about their origin. In many cases, they are forced back to the other side.

I embarked on our trip to Tucson, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, in hopes of understanding the relationship between queerness and border studies with more clarity. As we heard about the history of the border and the region, I began to ask questions about identity and citizenship, and I started to rethink the way I understand how space is occupied. As I heard the personal story of one young man named Victor, who came into the United States and lived on a train for one year and in a park for another, I began to question the cost of survival and the ways in which society practices hospitality.

Through listening to the stories of the migrants and those engaged in work at the border offering support to those in transition, I have been able to use their personal experiences as a springboard for critical engagement.

One of the most pressing theological questions I left our trip with was, "How are we acting as good neighbors?" I find this question to be at the intersection of LGBT/queer studies and border studies. As I rely on personal narratives in my research, I am interested in how these migrants' stories and the stories of LGBTQ folk serve as a critical witness that instructs us on what it means to serve those around us as good neighbors. The stories I heard about rejection, trauma, and fear have motivated me and have inspired my work in this field, and I try to move forward with their stories, so their voices and their calls for good neighbors may be heard.

This article appears in the Spring 2011 edition of Harvard Divinity Today.