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Reflections on the Centro Romero Immersion Experience

by Rev. Terry Gallagher 
From “Let’s talk – Sacred Conversations:  Conversations about how God would have us respond to critical issues today,” on the website of Sacred Conversations Detroit (www.sacredconversations-detroit.org), part of the Social Justice Ministry of the Detroit Metropolitan Association of the United Church of Christ.  Used with permission.
     As I prepare to facilitate Sacred Conversation workshops on “Forming a Christian Response to Immigration,” I wonder just how this issue fits in with my ministerial focus of awakening the greater Church to the crisis of Global Sustainability.

     The answer to this apparent conundrum lies in my anticipation that due to our failure to respond to the crisis of Global Sustainability, we have initiated a future which will witness hundreds of millions (if not billions) of migrant refugees struggling to find a place where their families can simply survive. My presumption is that how we deal with the issue of immigration in the present, when the crisis is significantly smaller, will form a basis for how we will deal with the crisis in the future as it grows exponentially.

     So I would suggest that we have an immediate need to engage in a discernment process of forming a Christian response to the issue of immigration right now. We need to do this before our fears prevent us from considering alternatives to our base primal drive of securing and protecting what we consider to be “ours” from the needs of the “other.” I call this discernment process: Sacred Conversations on Justice.

     In preparation for hosting a Sacred Conversation on Immigration, I attended a three-day immersion experience at Centro Romero in San Diego which included a day-long experience across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. Centro Romero is the UCC Justice & Witness ministries sponsored center created by the Southern California Nevada Conference with an intended purpose to provide theological and social justice education on immigration and border issues with Mexico and Latin America. The particular conference that I attended was titled “Globalized Feminism” with a specific contextual focus of the effects of NAFTA, Globalization and Immigration issues on women. The director of Centro Romero is Dr. Carlos Correa who facilitated this conference. Dr. Rosemary Radford Reuther was the resident theologian for the conference. The other presenters included Norma Chavez Peterson, Nazanin Wahid and Magdalena Cerda. The conference was presented in both English and Spanish to meet the needs of the participants as we were blessed to benefit from the participation of local immigrant women who freely shared from their real life experiences.

     Dr. Reuther provided an overview of Feminist Theology and how this intersected and informed life in the particular context of economic and cultural forces impacting immigration. For further information on this, you can access any of her numerous writings on Feminist and Eco-Justice Theology.  Nazanin Wahid presented her life history as a Muslim immigrant refugee from Afghanistan. The local immigrant women appeared to take particular interest in her story both from the aspect of learning about Islam but perhaps more importantly from being able to relate how the life stories of Immigrants while different have numerous similarities to them.

     Norma Chavez Peterson, Magdalena Cerda and Dr. Carlos Correa gave the presentations and facilitated the immersion experience which concentrated in the particular context of economic and cultural forces driving the Latin America immigration movement. This experience was deepened by the group of local immigrant women participating who freely shared of their personal experiences. What follows is my reflection on the experiences of this weekend.

     So just what is driving our current immigration crisis in America?  In a single word, it is Economics.  It is gut wrenching poverty caused in no small way by immense greed. Gut wrenching poverty in the daily lived experience of Mexicans and all too many others across the globe driven by the unrecognized immense greed of those of us residing in main-line America and in other “First World” nations.

     I witnessed 10,000 people living in a shanty town along a “dry” riverbed. Shanties built from discarded garage doors, scrap sheet metal and old pallets. Shanties built without running water, sewers and other niceties of life. Electricity is “pirated” from overhead lines with wire drops running along dirt streets with the occasional electrocution of unwary passing children, dogs and whatever. Shanties built to be within walking distance of the 350+ “Free Trade” zone factories. Shanties for the employees of factories that were constructed with great economic promise to uplift Mexico but which deliver $60-90 in total compensation for 60 hour work weeks. Shanties built to house the women employees and their children as these factories only employ young women in their hourly based repetitive motion labor jobs. For you see, it is easier to control the workforce by limiting the demographics in this manner.

     The fathers have gone up “north” to find work and send some money back to the families living in those shanties. There are 10,000 or so women and children living in those shanties which in dry weather are accessed by a rickety wooden bridge crossing the stream and that are inaccessible when the river floods. Shanties built in the river valley beneath the 350+ factory industrial park whose drain pipes point their way and let loose a variety of toxic chemicals whenever rainfall provides the “cover” for the pollution runoff. When I was there, I observed one small drainage stream of blue, black and orange fluid meandering towards this town. I also saw an old small tank truck delivering water to the shacks which is the only source for water. Problem is no one knows the quality of the water because no one knows its true source. It was a classic case of just be happy for what you can get.

     This shanty town officially does not exist according to the government of Tijuana. It is built in an old riverbed which can’t be used for anything productive because it occasionally is subject to flooding. Since the shanty town doesn’t “exist” then police, fire, ambulance, schools, hospitals and other services are unavailable to the residents therein. The residents are typically migrants from other areas of Mexico and Central America. They are primarily people from the impoverished rural countryside who can no longer scratch out a living as farmers on degraded land while facing the aggressive competition of USA agribusiness. So they come north to Tijuana in pursuit of the dream of providing a better life for their families. They live in these dirt floored shanties in hope of accumulating enough wealth through the factory work to move into one of the government sponsored complexes of tiny apartments. The local term for these apartments is “pigeon coops” because of their appearance and size. The dream of moving “on & up” is for the most part illusory. The separated fathers eventually establish new families in American and forget the original ones living in shanties in Tijuana. The women age and get displaced from their jobs. As women mature in these jobs, they begin to object to being exploited by adverse working conditions and consequently management find the reasons to fire them. The average age is 18-34. Women participating with us shared experiences of needing to wear adult diapers to avoid taking bathroom breaks and also of submitting to male supervisor’s desires in order to continue employment.

     As exploitive as they are, the factory jobs themselves are disappearing as corporations build factories in Asia and elsewhere with cheaper sources of labor and even fewer hygiene, safety and environmental regulations than Mexico. Tijuana once proudly proclaimed itself as the TV manufacturing capital of the world but I suspect that dubious honor now belongs to another place somewhere in the globe. A place with even cheaper overhead than Mexico in order to satisfy our insatiable marketing fed desire to own more and more cheap commodities of flat screen TV’s and other such must have products.

     When the jobs disappear, the people migrate to find work. The only other choices available for the desperately poor are drugs and prostitution. So they continue their sojourn north crossing one way or another into the USA in hopes of finding a life for their families. When we traveled into Mexico for the day long immersion experience, we were accompanied by several of the local immigrant women. While they traveled with us on a bus into Mexico, they were deliberate in finding other means of returning to the USA. They could not risk their VISA status being challenged at the border because of their being associated with us.

     But in the face of such despair there are some signs of hope. There are some signs of organized resistance to these forces of domination and exploitation.

     One small group of women from this shantytown organized into a collective effort to resist the exploitation. They were successful on two different fronts. The first being economics. When a company pulls up stake from the “Free Trade” Manufacturing Zone and heads for greater opportunities elsewhere, the displaced employees are theoretically entitled to compensation for lost wages. In the past, this has typically meant taking whatever the company offered as Mexico wanted to maintain a business friendly reputation and government officials were reluctant to pressure companies to comply with the requirements. This small collective of women organized an effort to pressure the officials to hold the companies responsible to comply. The result was a compensation settlement that was 4 times the original amount offered by the departing company. The second front that this collective of women were successful in was the remediation of the environmental damage caused by a battery recycling company that just shut down and left all it wastes behind. For years, the women in this community had to live with the effects of waste acid, lead, cadmium and other heavy metals piled on this property in rusting and leaking containers flowing down the hill into their shacks. When they organized, they pressured government officials to remediate the problem. Candidates for office would promise great things to these women but never follow through on them. The women turned up the heat by engaging a USA environmental advocacy group in their efforts as well as staging media events to draw attention to the situation. Eventually the Mexican government along with the USA EPA cleaned up the site. When I visited it, the former abandoned factory waste site was now sealed in concrete with a recreation facility built on top of it. This small group of women is both amazed and emboldened by their successes and are currently planning future activities. So I find that there is cause for some hope in an otherwise despairing situation. There is cause for hope when women organize and rise up in collective opposition to exploitation. Whenever I encounter groups of women resisting the powers and the principalities which cause the injustice in their daily lives, I am reminded of a gospel story. It is found both in the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew:

     Matt 15:21-28: Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (NRSV)

     There is also cause for hope when comfortable main line Americans participate in immersions, workshops and conferences in discerning the causes of economic disparities and just what God is calling us to do in response to issues of Immigration and Eco injustice. Perhaps in doing so, in allowing ourselves to be critiqued just like Jesus, we can truly hear and respond to the women in their need.

     At the closing reflection for the conference, our resident theologian named the forces of exploitive capitalism for what they are. She named them as sin. She named them as evil embodied. As I ponder what the Gospel is calling me to do in response to these issues of Immigration and Eco injustice, I agree with her.

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