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Hope and Peace in Nogales

A mini-immersion into life in a border town

Since I was going to drive all the way to Tucson from Eugene for a weekend retreat, I decided that afterward, on Monday, I’d continue a couple of hours down U.S.-19 to the Mexican border town of Nogales, and stay until Saturday. A mini-immersion experience in life at the border.

I had lined up my host via email: a community center known as HEPAC (Hogar de Esperanza y Paz / Home of Hope and Peace), which evolved from a family’s tradition of serving free lunches to neighborhood school kids, beginning in 1969. Thirty years later, a humanitarian nonprofit called BorderLinks bought the property and added classes for local kids and adults, and started hosting visits for U.S. groups, often from churches or colleges, people wanting to see for themselves what life is like there and to lend a hand wherever needed.

Today, as an independent Mexican nonprofit, HEPAC serves a hundred or more free lunches every school day to neighborhood children, runs (for example) English classes and vacation camps for kids, dance-exercise classes and craft workshops for women, and hosts numerous groups of gringo visitors.

HEPAC maintains a small kitchen-garden; corn was being planted while I was there, which will provide flour for the tortillas served in the lunch program. The public toilets are ecological; water for drinking and cooking is purified on site; a dozen multi-bed rooms in a dormitory are maintained for visitors. The dining hall is spacious, light and cheery — painted not long ago by a U.S. delegation, and the kitchen seems adequate. The HEPAC campus also has a couple of classrooms and staff offices, of course — and a tiny house, occupied by Maria, the English teacher, and her husband, Elias, the night watchman and occasional English tutor. Their three kids are away, working or in college.

It appears to me that HEPAC is poor, like the people it serves. Everywhere you turn, something needs fixing, painting, replacement. Forty-some years of service with very little money for upkeep has taken a visible toll. Still, I have no doubt that the kids and the moms and most everyone in the surrounding community experience HEPAC as a place of hope and peace, as its name asserts, a refuge from the deprivations of their daily lives at work and at home.

Esther, the lady who runs the kitchen and children’s lunch program, pays for some of the groceries out of her own pocket, as her parents did decades ago. Scott, a full-time volunteer from L.A. with World Ministries, works at fundraising for HEPAC, doubling as a delegation host and regular participant in the humanitarian projects of sister organizations. Manuel, the staff handyman, is always fixing something (the water purifier pipes while I was there). Tito spends most of his time showing and telling with the visiting groups and individuals like me. Jeanette Pazos, the director of HEPAC since it went independent in 2004, was away when I was there, but behind her enthusiastic welcome to me via email and the positive attitude toward her exhibited by staff I sense a strong, charismatic leader.

More than 400,000 people inhabit the municipality of Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. (Nogales, Arizona is just over the border-wall.) Most of them live in homes they’ve cobbled together from scrap wood, chicken wire, corrugated metal, fieldstone, tires, salvaged windows and doors. Typically, these delicate assemblages, more like nests or dens than houses for humans, are attached to or dug into or perched atop the many hills of the city. One very big hill, near HEPAC, is a former city dump upon which are situated several such homes, some of whose inhabitants spend the days gleaning and recycling items of value from this mountain of trash and garbage.

The streets of HEPAC’s neighborhood — called Bellavista! — are dusty, rutted passages of clay winding up and down the hills. Grownups walk and kids play on the streets, and neglected dogs amble about and snooze there, everyone making way for the noisy cars, pickups and scooters. I did drive through another neighborhood, called Kennedy, where the streets are paved, clean, and quiet, and the homes are pretentious villas, some with pools, fountains and with gardeners trimming shrubs. Tito identified one of the most lavish as the mayor’s home.

I’ve read online that about half the employed in Nogales work in the 100 or so factories (called maquiladoras) in the city’s two large industrial parks, manufacturing or assembling products, many electronic, for export. Factory workers here get paid about $75 a week, said to be about a sixth of what U.S. workers earn for similar work. Originally set up by the Mexican government to encourage and capture foreign (especially North American) investment, the border factories really took off after the NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement) went into effect in January 1994.

Tito told me that “just about everyone” who lives in Nogales intends to move to, or back to, the U.S. That’s probably an exaggeration. Some residents are deportees who have decided to make their permanent home there; others stay there to assist, or prey upon, people actually migrating; many will go on working in the factories; and those folks living the good life in the Kennedy neighborhood? I wonder what their retirement destinations are.

Still, the energy of Nogales does seem to be about the flow of Mexicans into the U.S. to find work. And it’s about the back-flow of the deported. I would say that most of the migrant workers are young men from rural villages who have come to realize that to make a living — for themselves and for their families — they must migrate to Mexico’s biggest cities, or to the U.S. — a project that is physically hard, even life-threatening, expensive beyond their means, and likely to get them busted and sent home sooner or later. The coyote (guide) fee varies, I’m told, from $2,500 to $3,500 from Nogales, so an IOU is needed for this expense alone.

The small group of men that Scott and I interviewed just hours after they had been deported to Nogales by the U.S. Border Patrol ranged from 18 to 43 years of age, most in their 20s. With more than a dozen others, these guys were waiting their turn to make phone calls to relatives, but here they can also take a shower, and get any medical treatment they might need. These services for deportees is provided by the federal government of Mexico and is called Grupo Beta. At another facility, run by a NGO, deportees get meals and lodging for a few days.

The security guard at Grupo Beta, himself a Mexican deported after living most of his adult life in the U.S., told us the limit is supposed to be five days at this place, but some stay longer. The recently deported have no money, most have nothing but their clothing. A few, the guard told us, have serious and painful injuries: he pointed out a young man whose right leg below the knee was severed by the train from which robbers had thrown him. Blisters and abrasions on their feet are common among migrants who have made long treks in the desert before being caught. I suppose some suffer from hunger and thirst for the same reason.

Tough as their situation was, the deportees we observed at Grupo Beta that morning in Nogales were not at all despairing. What we saw in their faces and behavior was mainly fatigue and resignation — but also resilience and hope, and a readiness to smile. Broke, not a clue where they will get food or a bed the next week and beyond, these guys seemed OK.

Luis, for example, age 32, who did most of the talking for his companions, was subdued, soft- spoken, thoughtful about his replies to our questions. That very morning, he had been sent home just hours after setting foot in the U.S. — this time. But last time, not long ago, Luis had spent five years in the states working in the nursery and landscaping business — and it had been a good experience, he assured us. Yes, he got paid what he had earned, and yes, he was treated well by bosses and owners. He knew they would re-hire him, and he wanted to get back there.

“What would you guys think,” we asked, “of a program that allows you to work in the U.S. for a period of time, a season, then you return home for some time, then go back to the U.S. for another work period — and so on?”

“That would be good,” they agreed. Some sort of guest-worker program was clearly preferable to life under the conflicting realities of U.S. employers who need these migrant workers and want to hire them, and immigration laws that criminalize them for going after these jobs, which they desperately need.

Any guest-worker part of a reformed immigration law must, of course, provide for fair pay and benefits, good working conditions, and so on, terms of employment that are just and reflect the dignity of honest work and workers. We know how to do this. Cesar Chavez showed us how 50 years ago, and the farmworker unions he started in California and Oregon continue his legacy.

As New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote (May 8): “Opponents of reform are trying to hold back the inevitable.” The deported migrant workers we talked with last week in Nogales, Mexico, trapped in a tangle of needs, opportunities, and irrational prohibitions, should instead be welcomed into the U.S. workforce. Luis, Mario, Francisco, Carlos, and Juan — each one is a gift for us, not a problem, unless we insist on making it so.