My thoughts on “Juan”

Hi everybody!  The following are some thoughts I shared at First Presbyterian Church in Silver City recently, where Melissa, Jake and I were invited to speak…..

Spanish version to follow.


Good morning, everyone.  Thank you for inviting us here to Faith this morning.  Whenever Jake, Melissa and myself meet new Presbyterian folks at different churches or YAV-related events, they usually want to know more about us, so let me tell you a little bit about myself and how I ended up in Agua Prieta, Mexico.  I’m from Grosse Pointe Woods, MI, a suburb of the Detroit area, and my parents still live there.  I was raised Catholic, and attended a well-known Jesuit high school within the city of Detroit.  Afterwards I went to Kalamazoo College, where I studied foreign languages with a passion.  (And yes, by the way, there really is a Kalamazoo!  People sometimes wonder.)  Because I had been to Honduras for a brief, 8-day mission trip while in high school, I knew I wanted to spend some time after college living in a Spanish-speaking country, working in some sort of social-justice related context.  After graduating from Kalamazoo, I stayed at home for a couple of years, and then eventually found out about the Young Adult Volunteer program from a friend of mine.

I applied, and was excited about the prospect of having another cross-cultural service experience, this time for a full year.  But I don’t think it ever occurred to me just how different this would be from my time in Honduras.  I never considered that my entire time spent in Honduras with friends, classmates and teachers I already knew fell within what some call the “honeymoon phase” of life in another culture.  Because it was so short, and because all the details of our time there were so carefully planned, it was like a vacation for us!  And looking back, I think I was simply too young to appreciate just how difficult life could be for those who experience poverty in the Third World.  But this experience has been altogether different for me; it’s put me face-to-face with people who are nowhere near home, fleeing either violence or desperate economic circumstances

Serving here in the borderlands, we hear frequently about how NAFTA flooded Mexican markets with cheap corn, and otherwise undermined subsistence farming families’ ability to sustain themselves.  We hear that some choose to live behind their homes in Chiapas, Guerrero, or Nayarit, to come north and try to find work in the United States.  We know that some are fleeing from violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras.  In the Migrant Resource Center, I encounter some of these very people every day.  They may have bruises on their feet from walking in the desert.  They may have broken an arm or twisted an ankle trying to climb over the wall between Agua Prieta and Douglas.  They may have been deported.  Or maybe they’ve simply arrived at the border, seen how tight the security is, realized how treacherous the hot desert is, and decided to stay put.  And these are just the ones I see.  We have relatively low numbers of migrants in AP right now, but there are many, many more in Nogales.

I thought it’d be a good idea to tell you about one person in particular I’ve gotten to know at the MRC.  He arrived in Agua Prieta and first came to the Center seeking help back in October.  Since then, he’s become a member of the community.  Before leaving for a work-related trip to Ciudad Juárez this past week, my colleague Betto even left him in charge of the men’s shelter because we all know he’s reliable and trustworthy.  But unfortunately, he’s had some hard times before finding his way to us in Agua Prieta, and even some near-violent episodes with the wrong crowrd.  I discovered just the other day that, because of these events, he doesn’t even feel comfortable telling people his last name, or his full name.  So out of consideration, I’m just going to call him Juan.

I had asked Juan the other day if he would share some details of his story with me, and when we finally sat down to chat, he looked out the window of our office in the Center, noticed a Border Patrol vehicle rolling along on the other side of the fence, and said, with a note of longing, and perhaps resignation, “Algún día me gustaría regresar ahí, pero… legalmente… no sé…”  I think this instance is one where the unspoken speaks volumes.

Juan doesn’t know where he was born, or when exactly.  And though he declined to talk about his earlier life when we spoke on Friday, I remember him saying (back in October, when he first arrived) something about how he had been brought to the United States when he was still too young to remember.  He lived in San Diego and various other parts of California his entire life, before being deported recently.  But when I asked him what his experience in Agua Prieta has been like, with all the people he’s met at the MRC and the Catholic shelter CAME, he said, “Me ha dado nueva vida…” (translate) “pues, estoy aquí por el milagro de Dios.”  “You guys have always treated me well, and that gives me strength, and pride, and I feel good about myself.”  When he was still new to the area, Juan did some construction work for a brief time, before making cardboard boxes in a factory for the LEVOLOR Corporation, an American company that manufactures blinds and shades.  Neither job paid very well at all, and I remember a period of several weeks before Christmas where Juan and some others who were staying at the shelter hadn’t received any pay at all from the job at LEVOLOR- apparently, the boss simply didn’t want to pay them, and was able to get away with it, until some of our Mexican volunteers stepped in to advocate for Juan and other migrants.  When payday finally came, Juan was in such a good mood, he asked me and Betto to walk down the street to Oxxo with him, and offered his own earnings to buy us each an iced tea.  Currently, he has several different part-time jobs as a painter, at various primary schools in Agua Prieta, as well as the CAME shelter.  In addition, he is honing his skills as a carpenter, and teaching others to do the same.

Of all those I’ve encountered this year, I see Juan as a fantastic example of someone who has accepted the support of the MRC, and turned it into something good in his own life.

But we are here to remember that many more people in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, etc, never get such a chance at all.  And no one should ever be forced into such trying circumstances in the first place.


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