© 2019 by Sarah Cornette

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Casa Del Migrante, Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.  

 

Casa Del Migrante is a shelter run by the Catholic Diocese of Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas. El Paso-Juarez is a binational metropolitan area (population 2.7 million) on the border of the United States and Mexico. One of the largest ports of entry on the US/Mexico border, it is the second most important point of trade on the border, with over $33 billion in trade mostly in the auto industry, electronics, and textile manufacturing. The most well-known geographical feature of the region is the Rio Grande river, one place where migrants attempt to cross the border. 

Ciudad Juárez (population 1.4 million) became infamous for violence during the Mexican Drug War, with murders per capita peaking in 2008-9. Since then, the rate of violent crime has dropped some, in part due to increased police and armed forces, and citizen neighborhood watch groups--although last year the rate of 

homicides spiked dramatically. (1)  Asylum seeking migrants are particularly vulnerable to kidnapping and other violent crimes, often targeted immediately as they are returned across the port of entry bridge. Volunteers often bring groups of migrants to charity shelters like Casa Del Migrante to await their initial asylum hearing (the wait is now up to a year).  Shelters intended to serve asylum seekers for a few days are now coping with more than double their numbers, with residents remaining many months at a stretch. Education and organized activities for the families and children are virtually nonexistent as the shelters scramble for resources to meet the overwhelming demand. For more on the asylum seeking process for this population, see the Why Mexico? Page.  

The Hope Border Institute is a faith-based community organization in El Paso/Ciudad Juárez pursuing research, providing leadership development, advising local leaders on policy, and advocating for social justice on the border.  Hope Border Institute played a critical role in bringing the mural project to Juárez, connecting us with one of their collaborating organizations, Casa Del Migrante. Operated by the Diócesis Ciudad Juárez, Casa Del Migrante houses about 450 asylum seeking residents, mostly families.  

The Casa Del Migrante shelter is a cluster of buildings located on a dusty lot not far from the Zaragoza Bridge, one of the city’s ports of entry to the US. In contrast to the situation of the asylum seekers on Samos, the residents of this shelter have small cinder block units to sleep in, a dining area with meals three times a day, spaces to play, and a room with a television to watch. An order of Dominican Brothers runs the shelter alongside shelter staff and volunteers who handle intake, triage for social and legal services, and basic health care needs. There is air conditioning in a couple of spaces, important in this climate (the temperature peaked at 105 while I was there).  I did not see any organized activities (no classes or school for the children) the week I was there, except for mealtime and mass.

In contrast to the camp residents on Samos, asylum seeking residents in this shelter share a common language, Spanish (a second language for many of the migrants), and a common faith, Catholicism. The Church and Catholic faith were evident throughout the shelter -- with statues of The Blessed Virgin and Our Lady of Guadalupe in gathering spaces, painted messages of hope and peace from Saint Dominic on the walls, and pictures of Pope Francis, Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II, Mexican Bishops and other clergy prominently displayed in many different areas.  Another contrast with Samos came in the security of the facility: the shelter was locked and surrounded by a fence topped with razor wire, for the protection of the residents. Residents were not allowed cell phones or access to the internet (the reasons for this weren’t completely clear to me, although it was explained that cell phones made asylum seekers vulnerable to exploitation).  

On Samos, I had not been allowed to work within the camp, and officially I was denied permission to visit it, although as the camp was practically open, I was able to go in anyway (accompanied by a staff member familiar with the camp, as personal safety was a significant concern).  The mural project on Samos had been pursued entirely within the separate structure of our hosting organization, Still I Rise. In Casa Del Migrante, we were able to work where the asylum-seekers were living. It had a completely different feel and type of freedom than the camp on Samos. While we had to wait outside and talk through an intercom to be allowed access, once within the shelter walls, we were able to move freely and without concern for our safety. We were embedded in the activities and textures of daily life:  moms nursing toddlers in the courtyard, groups of men gathered in precious shade under the few trees, boys kicking balls in the dusty yard behind the buildings, fathers taking sick children to the office for care, the intensity of the line of people waiting for the dining hall to open for a meal, the overwhelmed staff trying to handle many different kinds of problems coming at them all at once in an unending stream every day (including the disruption to routine that our project caused).

 

Flexibility, again, was key to the success of this project, and being mindful that the goal was to provide the migrant families with an uplifting and empowering experience. My intention was to have a group of about 10 or so teenagers working on the project, but after assessing the needs of the residents and the practical aspects of working in the facility, I opened up the experience to everyone who wanted to participate in some way.  The making of the mural became a daily community event instead of an activity for one group. People of all ages flowed in and out of the space, taking up a brush, helping to watch smaller children, or simply watching and enjoying the process. After trying a couple of spaces that didn’t work out, we ended up using the dining hall for the project, and were limited by the schedule and requirements of that very vital space.  

The fifty or so people who participated in the project were from Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, from toddlers to middle-aged, although the majority of the participants were teenagers. This was far more people than I had ever organized before in the creation of a mural panel. Key collaborators included my friend Kerry James, an anchor support for all aspects of the process, and Hope Border Institute’s Ilka Vega--acting as our community liaison, serving as the initial translator and organizing a handful of university student volunteers who became additional critical support as our numbers grew.  

To create the mural I followed a similar process to the other panels, but with some distinctive shifts in response to the context of this situation. As on Samos, the inconsistent makeup of the group meant we simply had to stay in the moment with decision-making.  For example, the kids who were in the room when we needed to make color choices were the ones who set the color scheme for the panel, a decision we stuck to even when new participants had other ideas. Vote and move on became my mantra. With a common language among the participants and shared Catholic religious background, popular themes emerged more quickly and clearly in their ideas and drawings about what was important in this situation:  their homelands, the focus on health and safety in Casa Del Migrante, and their hopes for the future (reuniting with family across the border, being able to go to school, and peace). Overarching all of these themes is their faith, and thus the images of Jesus, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the Church in Juárez became prominent. 

I had to rely on the community to manage more of this project than I ever had in the past. With so many children and adults moving in and out of the process, and so many waiting for turns to paint, I shifted control of various aspects of the mural to the participants. For example, Luis, a 23 year old man from Honduras, has been waiting for several weeks for his hearing in September to exempt him from the MPP program (so that he can await his asylum proceedings in the US instead of Juárez).  Luis showed up eager to paint on day 3, and his English was more than adequate for us to communicate well. After explaining the color scheme that had been chosen and watching his patient and fair interactions with the excited children, I turned over management of one end of the mural to him, checking on him frequently to make sure he wasn’t overwhelmed.

 

On the other end of the mural, Giselle, a local law student volunteer and my primary translator after day 1, navigated her own interpretation of the color scheme and the needs of the children (and paint management, no easy task!) with equal grace. These gestures of trust and shared responsibility are critical to eliciting a feeling of mutual respect and empowerment that is the heart of this project. Various other children and adults stepped up at different times to lead both the painting and the surrounding organization of the large numbers of people. I looked up at the end of Day 3--our first day of painting--to find that the room had been cleaned and organized except for the small number of materials and children I was still working with to finish for the day.

Despite the daily-increasing numbers of participants in the project, I noticed by the end of day 2 that most of the adolescent girls had disappeared from the group. On day 3, I asked the volunteers to look around the shelter and personally invite some of the girls who had been so interested and involved to join us. Two adolescent girls, Nicol and Blanca (enthusiastic participants on days 1 and 2 but who could not be found for painting) approached us during cleanup, clearly disappointed, explaining that their fathers would not allow them to paint because there were so many adolescent boys present. This was reminiscent of the restrictions many families had for their daughters on Samos. We planned a girls-only hour of painting the next day, made signs, found the fathers to explain the restriction and asked permission for their daughters to come.  We even announced the restriction on the loudspeaker to make sure there was no confusion. Even still, one of the girls did not show up. However, we did have a robust group of girls--and women-- who painted with enthusiasm! Announcing girls-only hour seemed to endear our project to all the women who were working in the shelter, and the kitchen ladies who had been so annoyed by our bustle softened and came over to help us paint. The boys had to be turned back too many times to count, and watched through the windows as the girls calmly painted details in our scenes.

The last hour of painting the mural was a cheerful circus of an event, as the boys poured noisily into the room after their exclusion. This was such a precious time, as the boys who were so invested in the project took over completion of many important areas.  Franklin, 15, from Honduras, had a shy smile and a gift for painting graceful details, and we laughed as over and over again I’d say things like, “Franklin, I need you! Jesus needs his face!” Some of the key participants were hard to find today, and we found out later that many were sick--viruses spread rapidly in these conditions.  But many made it over by the end anyway, the project was too important to miss. One father who asked to paint delighted everyone with his surprising gift for painting delicate stars.

With so many participants waiting for a turn to paint, we had plenty of time to get feedback from the families who participated.  We had paper copies of the questions I like to ask, and volunteers to help transcribe when the participants couldn't write.  Here's what the community had to say about this project (transcribed from Spanish): 

What was the best part of making the mural?

 

Luis, 23, from Honduras:  "Collaborating with kids of different nationalities whose dreams are the same."

 

Franklin, 15, from Honduras:  "Being able to share ideas."

Uriel, 12, Honduras:  "Painting with the brushes."

What do you think everyone needs to know about this project?

Natalia, 14, from El Salvador:  It's important that people know where we are from, what we are doing now, and what we hope to do in the future."

Luis:  "It is absolutely important that we let ourselves be known by our dreams, expressing them through the painting."

Uriel:  "I think everyone needs to know about this project!"

Elia, 37, from Nicaragua:  "That we are all important even though we are immigrants."

What will you always remember about making the mural?

Luis:  "The happiness in the faces of the children and adults and how it was possible to forget the problems we all faced while pursuing our dreams."  

Franklin:  "The happiness that Sarah and Kerry shared when making the mural."

Uriel:  "How much fun I had!"

Elia:  "That we all have a dream, and we can start making them happen with respect, friendship, and compassion toward other people and children, in God's grace."    

Yhervin, 17, from Guatemala:  I will always remember the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the unity we had in the moment of making the mural. Together we can move forward!"

Natalia:  "I will always remember that the mural is my exact story."

Footnotes:

(1)  Vulliamy, Ed. “A Day with the Men about to Make It across the US Border – at Any Cost.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 22 Jan. 2019, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jan/20/a-day-with-the-men-about-to-make-it-across-the-us-border-at-any-cost