The brilliant color throughout the cultural center to celebrate El Día de los Muertos certainly clashed with my middle-class, white USAmerican understanding of death. My mother has taught me to think of funerals as a celebration of life, but the reality of drab, icy funeral homes did not reflect this idea of celebration. Skeletons dressed to the nines, colorful paper strung from the ceilings, altars lovingly decorated. But here, to encounter death with such vibrancy seems the only way to cope with living on the border. For so many people in Nogales, Sonore, Mexico and Arizona, USA, living on the border is a constant encounter with death.
We met with a group of high schoolers and introduced ourselves by going around in a circle saying our names and what the word border/frontera meant to us. As USAmericans, we spoke of separation, of walls, of discrimination. Certainly true, but also in our cases very abstract words. For the Mexican high school students--- fourteen, fifteen, sixteen year olds--- the word frontera means death. A few said that the border meant “my life” or “culture” but overwhelmingly, “death.” The border is a violence--- a physical, emotional, spiritual violence.
We journeyed to Altar, a town that for many is the beginning of the final leg of the journey to the USA, the place where guides are contacted and preparations are made to cross the desert. Here, we stayed at a migrant shelter. Before dinner, we shared songs to welcome tired souls as people came in. We met Pedro, a man in Altar looking for money to buy a prosthetic leg as his old prosthetic was splitting. He said he needed the leg so he could work harder. We met José, an eighteen year old, small, quiet, who sang softly along with us even when he didn't know the words. We met Juan, who came for dinner but did not stay the night as he was going to begin to cross the desert that night. He told us he had been deported fifteen times. What kind of desperation is it that someone who had been deported fifteen times would be getting ready to again cross the desert?
And then, of course, there is the wall, cutting through Nogales. Lupe Serrano, who had installed many pieces of art along the wall, told us that it was illegal to put art on the side of the wall facing the U.S.A. I was immediately struck by this having visited the remnants of the wall in Berlin last year. On the western side of the Berlin wall, graffiti calling for the destruction of the wall. On the east, nothing. The Soviet guards did not permit people to get that close to the eastern side of the wall alive for fear of escape. And the U.S.A. was so adamant about tearing down the wall; forgetfulness is a blessing for governments who are more concerned about profits than people.
And so we come to our part as characters in this story. Ours is a ministry of making present by naming. When confronted with the question “Now what?” our response is to make present by naming. Our response is to speak of the high school students, of migrants like José, Pedro, and Juan, of justice workers like Ceci and Susanna who led us on this trip. To speak of that pain of families ripped from their lands, of communities divided by the horror of a Wall. And to name ourselves and our governments as culprits. To say human beings deserve better than the choice to die in the struggle or to die of hunger. Deserve better than to leave their home to become expendable labor in a rich [white] society. We must educate ourselves. We must act to educate our communities, to reach out to immigrants outside of our communities, to demand change from our government. In the words of the women who volunteer at the migrant shelter in Altar, we must bring the gospel to life.