When Migrants Return: Sorrow Multiplied

The image that I chose to begin my reflection this morning is another section of the mural on the wall of the clinic in the parish in Alupo in Ilopango. It shows a migrant under the Salvadoran flag, head somewhat inclined (sorrow of leaving home?), walking toward the border wall.  Behind him a butterfly flutters while on the other side of the wall another butterfly seems to be flying purposefully northward. The text is from one of Romero’s homilies and says: “It is sad that one must leave one’s homeland because in the homeland there is no just order where one can find work”.

Yesterday I was able to spend most of the day at the Centro de Atención para Migrantes, which is under the umbrella of the Salvadoran Directorate of Immigration and Aliens. There are two such centers; one in La Chacra, a fifteen minute walk from the parish where I’m staying, which receives those being repatriated via buses from Mexico, and the other, closer to the airport, that receives deportees returning by air, mostly from the United States.

Sr. Vero and Sr. Regina are members of the Apostolic Sisters of the Sacred Heart and they participate in CONFRERES, the Archdiocesan group composed of religious men and women who focus on JPIC issues. They are composing literature and training to help returned and potential migrants with issues surrounding “La Trata”; the trade and trafficking of human persons, locally and internationally, for purposes of sex and labor enslavement, organ harvesting and other unimaginable criminal ends. When the three of us arrived at the center we met Sr. Adela Acosta, an Assumption sister, who knew several of the Assumption sisters from the project in Chaparral, New Mexico.

Sr. Adela lived through the Salvadoran civil war and was an ardent listener to the homilies of Monseñor Romero.  She shared enthusiastically how every Sunday, if at all possible, she would make her way to the Cathedral to see and hear the prophet speaking in person. The masses would often last for two hours but she said the liturgy and preaching were so full of hope and truth that the time passed all too rapidly.  When she was outside the capital, visiting la gente or her own family or friends, at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning, without fail, a radio would be turned on to the station broadcasting Romero’s mass and homily.  When the army blew up the Catholic radio station in San Salvador, that same Sunday a team from Costa Rica arrived and was able to successfully set up their equipment in the cathedral and broadcast the message across Central America. Sr. Adela said never in her life, before or since, had she ever heard such lucid, well-organized and prophetic Gospel preaching.  She told me that for a time she, too, had worked in Maria, Madre de los Pobres, the parish where I am staying.  I asked her about the famous photo of Romero walking along the railroad tracks in the company of the people and two religious sisters.  (The photo is below).  She laughed and told me the following:IMG_0901

“Yes, the two sisters–both now deceased–are the Assumption sisters with whom I was living in La Chacra. The day that the Bishop came to visit he wanted to walk and so he parked his car in front of our house. We were afraid someone might steal it and so I volunteered to stay behind and keep an eye on it. She said his visits were transformative. One of the sisters in the picture told Adela that during the visit, a poor woman holding a tiny naked child, said she needed to talk to the Bishop. He went inside. There were no chairs.  He sat on the edge of the bed and he listened to her, attentively, as she poured out her heart for fifteen or twenty minutes. He then prayed with her, blessed her house and continued his pastoral trek.  I can’t help but imagine the depth of influence Romero’s word and witness have head on our own Pope Francis!

Back to the quote from Romero that is inscribed on the mural picturing the migrant “en camino”.  How sad, how tragic, really, that people must leave their own country, their family, neighborhood, culture, language, community, church or place of worship…all that is dear and familiar, to seek work abroad, solely because of corruption, injustice, social disorder and violence. All the results of sins of greed, arrogance, pride and abuse of power for personal gain.  All the same sins that Bishop Romero teaches us must be overcome through the conversion process he calls “the violence of love”:

“Holy Week is a call to follow Christ’s austerities, the only legitimate violence, the violence that he does to himself and that he invites us to do to ourselves:  “‘Let those who would follow me deny themselves'”, be violent to themselves, repress in themselves the outbursts of pride, kill in their hearts the outbursts of greed, of avarice, of conceit, of arrogance. Let them kill it in their hearts.  This is what must be killed, this is the violence that must be done, so that out of it a new person may arise, the only one who can build a new civilization: a civilization of love”.  (Homily, March 19, 1978)

We still have a long road to walk in this area.   The reason I used the image of the migrant and the words of Romero is to underline the even greater sorrow and tragedy when one is repatriated to ones home country by force. And to motivate myself–and all of you who are reading–to give ourselves over to this spirituality of the “violence of love” that we might be liberated to participate more actively in building a civilization of love where such horrible dislocation and exposure to abuse is no longer necessary.

Yesterday at the center, after an hour of orientation and introductions, the buses of deportees from Mexico began to arrive. There were five buses in all, arriving from Veracruz, Chiapas and Tapachula. In all there 151 individuals, among whom were 27 minors, both accompanied and unaccompanied. When you see the haggard face of a young mother with a two-year old in tow, who fled a poor colonia in San Salvador because she feared for her own life and the life of her children, now being forced to return, there really no words to describe the situation. You fled the burning building but now the authorities declare you did so in an irregular manner and so must return. Can I say to the woman, “Welcome home”?  Maybe just “Buenas tardes” and smile.

The center provides a brief respite in the process of reintegrating in El Salvador. There is at least a welcome, some food, medical service if needed, interviews by lawyers, social workers and psychologists, especially for the minors.  Before the adults are released to be reunited with family who might be waiting for them at the center, there is photo-copying of ID cards and fingerprinting by the police. Records are kept of how many times an individual has tried to migrate and been returned. There are some consequences for families of minors who have been returned twice but I didn’t capture what they were.

Mediating much of the initial contact with the weary deportees descending from the buses were volunteers from Glasswing, an international non-profit (cf. glasswing.org) who also helped to orient and accompany myself and the sisters in our first experience volunteering there. Three of the young women were native Salvadorans, one was from Portugal and another from New York. They volunteered at the center every Tuesday and Friday and were hopeful that the Sisters would continue volunteering and maybe recruit some others as well.  I will return this Friday to continue familiarizing myself with the process and, hopefully, to invite some people from the parish to experience this ministry and perhaps become involved on a regular basis.

“Whoever wishes to be great among you, shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave”  (Matthew 20:27)  “Everyone has the power for greatness, not for fame but greatness, because greatness is determined by service”.  (Rev. Martin Luther King).

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