March Against the Border Wall
August 27 – 30, 2008
Last week a group of citizens marched from Ft. Hancock to El Paso to protest construction of the Border Wall along the Rio Grande by the U.S. government. The march commenced Wednesday evening with a cultural event at Fort Hancock and formal blessing from Bishop Armando Ochoa and concluded Sunday afternoon with a bi-national rally and ceremony at Sunland Park in El Paso at the present international barrier.
I was fortunate join the marchers on Friday evening in Fabens and arrived at the church as the Father was blessing the circle members and Diana Joe was smudging each individual with sacred smoke. We were lovingly cared for by the parishioners at the church community center where we bedded down on the floor for the night. At 6 a.m. these parish women arrived with delicious menudo and burritos to send us on our way. It was a good thing that we were well fortified, for we marched a little over 10 miles before our next stop at the Mission of San Elizario.
At this point in the journey we numbered 20 – 30 marchers. We chanted, sang, and held signs and flags, inviting people to unify in solidarity against the wall. Our group spanned ages between old and young, with a few very spirited elders showing us the way. We were Mexican-born, American-born, brown and white. Divisions melt and people’s hearts beat together on such journeys.
Each morning we met in a circle to ask a blessing from the four directions and to smoke the sacred pipe and drink the water of life. This, in a Catholic Church! Sometimes the Catholic fathers joined us in our circles. I was amazed and humbled to see regular folk holding the sacred pipe and passing the smoke over their bodies. Every time we arrived at a new church on this trail of missions we were greeted by Aztec dancers in stunning costumes, blowing on conch shells, dancing around an altar consisting of the drummer and burning incense. In the company of the ancients and with accumulated blessings, our walk took on a very spiritual tone. It was easy to travel the distances and experience sun and thirst, hunger and rain, undaunted.
We walked past miles and miles of cotton fields in full bloom. Fields undoubtedly planted and tended by the very people that the U.S. government wants to fence out.
Arriving in San Elizario, we found ourselves on a canal along the river — better known as the International Boundary. There we witnessed a strange spectacle. A huge metal basket 25 feet off the ground, held up by a steel arm. Star Wars? Discarded farm machinery? The U.S. Border Patrol vehicle parked at the base of the contraption helped me grasp that we were looking at a piece of surveillance equipment, and indeed, we were being surveilled. We halted our march and staged an impromptu rally. A couple of people spoke while Diana smudged and chanted along the concrete ditch. And, amazingly, people started drifting out of their houses and listening to the speakers, edging closer to us. A group of 6 horsemen passed along the dirt road lining the ditch. Two stopped to listen. Pretty soon the others returned. When we recommenced our walk, we had swelled in numbers and the horsemen (“jinetes” in Spanish) even carried our signs on their high-stepping mounts, all the way to the center of town and the church plaza! It was a happy moment.
The last 5 miles of the walk were noteworthy in that our numbers kept growing — we must have been about 40. We were on a heavily used road with almost no shoulder, and it POURED RAIN. It rained so hard that we were ankle-deep in water. Fortified as we were by prayer and ritual, and with the encouragement of many drivers honking and waving in solidarity, we just kept walking. Wonderfully, no one was hurt, there were no traffic accidents, and every single car that passed was careful not to spray us with a rooster’s tail of water.
We arrived at the Mission of Socorro (Succor: to sustain, help, assist), dripping like rats, where Saturday evening mass was just finishing. Father Joe Nelson invited us right into the sanctuary and the entire congregation clapped their hands in welcome.
Sunday, after our morning prayer circle we said good-bye to the fathers of the Socorro Mission and walked an easy couple of miles to the next mission, located in the Reservation of Ysleta del Sur. At the church we formed a circle around yet another Aztec priestess and Father Arturo Bañuelas. We now numbered about 60. The prayer and message of Father Bañuelas were for peace, in our hearts and in our world. We prayed for the thousands who have lost their lives while crossing the border.
Then, further infused with prayer and conviction, we got into cars and drove to the site of the wall construction. Here we climbed up onto the levee which parallels yet another ditch and the river itself. Currently there are two border walls already in place but this is where the new wall construction is happening. The 18-foot posts are set on this long stretch which borders Interstate 10. We unfurled our flags, and seven of us carried poster boards that together read NO WALL on one side and MURO NO on the other. It was great exposure, and the passing cars and trucks let us hear their appreciation.
I was unprepared for the impact that walking along this imminent wall would have on me. Folks, it is going to make a very high dark line against the horizon. All the arguments for and against the wall aside, its visceral effect was significant. I don’t see how we can live with such a thing.
We piled back into vehicles and drove to the final staging area of the march: Anapra, Mexico, or Sunland Park, N.M. I experienced shock when I saw the reality of the International Boundary with Mexico. A 10-foot chain link fence with a ragged top brought to mind a refugee camp in war-torn Africa, but not my own country’s border with its neighbor! The Mexicans were ready for us with signs matching our own decrying the wall. It was a congenial scene. Rather like visitor’s day at a federal penitentiary. People chatting and touching hands through the links. Mexican kids climbing part way up to catch the apples and oranges we tossed. At one point a soccer ball emerged and a spirited round of volleyball ensued. I could not get over the harshness of the surroundings, or the sameness of the people on both sides of the fence.
We marched. Our counterparts quickly picked up our chants. Father Bañuelas led us — numbering now over 100 — uphill to where the new wall begins. It climbs a steep mesa, its massive form cutting a dark line to the top. We sank to our knees and once again prayed for those who have perished making the dangerous journey north. We prayed for peace, and an end to aggression. Then the Father asked for each to make contact with one person on the other side of the fence. Through my tears, I made contact with several.
The march was over. Then the process of saying farewells, collecting possessions, and shuttling cars. Shifting gears and compressing emotions and the long drive back to Alpine.
Yes, we need to better secure our borders. We can do it through just immigration reform, drug-law reform, and cooperation with Mexico to develop programs that help people find work at home. Real answers will come from investing in human solutions, not military projects.
[Top two images by Pilar Pedersen. Last image courtesy of Nat Stone.]