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Our Lady of Guadalupe hangs in portraits over the cities of El Paso and Juarez, and her gaze rests on the Mexican and on the American without discrimination. From her post in their churches, businesses, street murals, thrift shops, and homes, Our Lady of Guadalupe serves as the shared mother of El Paso and Juarez whose closeness has earned them the nickname the Sister Cities. Mary belongs to both cities as both cities belong to each other. Notions of border and nation try to separate them, but the cities cling to each other as people move between them. Like the river that forms much of the US and Mexican border, their boundary is one of fluidity and movement. Pigeons fly from one side to another while desert sand blows between the posts of the border wall.
I was able to visit both cities in May with the University of Dayton’s Moral Courage Project, a human rights storytelling project designed to document the experience of the border in an attempt to disrupt the current narratives around immigration and humanize contentious issues. For two weeks, our team met with the people who call these cities home, and they shared with us their stories of tragedy, courage, sorrow, love, resistance, and hope. While we were there, President Trump shared his own version of the story of immigration. He spoke about gang members and animals and the wall needed to keep them out.
Beneath the shadow of the wall that stands at the border already, I encountered animals much different from the ones Trump insists lurks there. While walking the wall, I came across two abandoned stuffed animals—one on the Mexican side, one on the American—both dusty from the sand they sunk into and with stuffing bleeding from tattered seams. I thought, not about gang members, but about the children I know who cling to their toys for comfort, who need them to sleep. I wondered if the children who once clutched these bears now have trouble sleeping without them.
In the storage room of a parish office, under the gaze of two statues of the Blessed Mother, we sat with an undocumented mother. She shared with us the loneliness of immigrating, the pain of watching the impermeability of the border dissolve her marriage, and the hope she has that her children will have enough opportunities in America to make that pain worth it. I struggled to understand some of her Spanish, but I didn’t need a translation to feel the way her voice trembled under the weight of the love it carried for her family. At the end of the interview, shaking her hand felt familiar. I had long ago memorized a mother’s grip—soft and capable—in the hands of my own mother, my grandmother, my aunts.
On the walls of the home a deported veteran converted into a support house for other exiled US veterans, under a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe and between the Mexican and American flags, hangs a portrait a Vietnam veteran painted of the granddaughter he hasn’t been allowed to meet. The US government tells him who he can and cannot hold, so instead he cradles a paintbrush and calls his beloved onto canvas. A border wall separates him from his family, but on the walls of his home he hangs their faces and holds them in his gaze. The other veterans who frequent his support house describe him as their grandfather. When he laughs with them, his eyes crinkle in the same places my grandfather’s used to when he sat around a dining room table with those he loved.
Within the dried up Rio Grande, we witnessed Hugs Not Walls, an annual event during Mother’s Day weekend sponsored by the Border Network for Human Rights. Beneath the unrelenting weight of desert sun, families separated by the border are given three minutes to hold each other. Decades of distance dissolve for the short moments families are allowed to be together. Then, time is called, and families are forced to part—reduced to individuals and directed back to the opposite banks. Amidst the joys of coming togethers and the pains of pullings apart, I learned what face a father makes when he realizes the son he has not held since infancy has grown taller than him and the way a child wails when she is not ready to say goodbye to a mother she has not seen in years and may never see again.
Over the course of our two weeks, we asked the people who we met what they wanted the rest of the world to know about them. One response was universal: Immigrants and those who live within the borderlands are people just as human as anyone else. When we asked what keeps them hopeful, they told us about their relationships—the reprieve that comes through the ability to be together, the act of discovering family within unexpected people and places, the possibility of one day holding a loved one again, and the strength they find within the promises of each other. Forced into a political system designed to separate, isolate, and dehumanize, the offspring of the Sister Cities resist and rebel under the gaze of a common mother by loving, holding, and being of and for each other.
The Blessed Mother hangs in portraits over the University of Dayton just as Our Lady of Guadalupe hangs over the borderlands. Through our Marianist identity, we have claimed Mary as our mother, but more than that, we have claimed all those who fall under her gaze as our sisters and brothers. When we remain complacent in the face of immigration policies that seek to dehumanize our own, we refuse the relationships the form our identity. We must choose family by committing to the ways we are bound to one another and refusing the ways our culture disavows and distances the vulnerable. We need to reject immigration policies determined to isolate and marginalize and instead, demand policies that prioritize the relationships at the center of what it means to be human. And just as urgently, we need to love and to hope. When we choose hope and love as means of resistance, when we hold one another closely within systems maintained by distance, we learn that there are no boundaries that truly separate us, no walls which we cannot peer over, and no borders around the ways we belong to each other.
Photos courtesy of Annie Denten.