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Only now, five months later, do I feel ready to write about Juarez. The images, sensations and stories have been stored up. When I returned people asked, “What was it like?” There wasn’t much to say. Sad. Powerful. “Why did you go?” I don’t know.
A disturbing drawing, my own, emerged out of charcoal and crayons just after I came home, and it was as unclear and troublesome as had been my entire experience in Juarez: a tree joined at the roots with a gun, both pointing skyward, raining bright leaves and glowing embers. Somehow I knew that image was me. Unnerving. I hate guns. Hard, metallic. Loud, the ensuing silence so full of finality. In Juarez there were men wearing masks riding in the backs of trucks, uniformed, holding large guns. I love trees. Aspens and sycamores especially—white, smooth-skinned, full of sway. Alive, enlivening. At the colonia, in the yard of the house where we stayed, there was a tree planted in concrete, reaching high and branching wide, roots buckling the encasing cement. What does it mean to be both gun and tree?
What was it like?

The first thing we did was make a short pilgrimage to a quiet place at the border. We walk barefoot in sand along a tall chain-length fence. Little boys, ten or eleven years old: “Foto, un dolor.” We hand them dried fruit and granola bars through the fence. Two smaller boys sitting on rubble empty their sandals of stones. I feel uncomfortable, like a spectator at a zoo shamelessly staring and snapping pictures. Mexico’s lone border patrol officer does double duty as a babysitter, scolding one of the boys who begins to clamber up the fence. Further away, also Mexico-side, a graffiti covered wall says something in symbols I don’t understand—skull, alien and clown faces. Far off in the distance: a church. The boys say its priest was murdered a week ago. No one goes there now. We sit in the sand, sun, silence for twenty minutes. The boys join us, separated by a weave of wire. My back is to the fence, Mexico behind me. One of the boys puts a piece of cardboard against the chain-length just above my head to block the sun. Another boy snores, sighs into the quiet. Two butterflies dance along the US side of the fence.
The US is updating the border fences to have a curved, barbwire top and sensors in the ground below to detect pressure of runaway feet. In 1994, $765 million was spent on border patrol to curb the flow of illegal, undocumented immigrants (4.3 million then). By 2004 they had increased spending to $3.8 billion, yet undocumented immigrants numbered 9.5 million.
What was it like?
After crossing the border we drive through empty streets, shop after shop barred and closed. Extortionists, drug mafia, come to small business owners and make demands. If the businessman can’t come up with the money, they kill him. Happened to the husband of Maria, one of the women in the cooperative we’ve come to visit. Josefina’s husband had his van, out of which he sold snacks and food, stolen at gunpoint the day we visited. Driving through the center of town I see a man with a wide grin, much like the clown on the graffiti wall, carrying candy for sale and a newspaper with front-page telling of yet another massacre.
Headline in the El Paso paper the day before we arrived, April 26: “Juarez Nears 5,000 Murders” since 2008. That’s about 190 deaths per 100,000. New Orleans at its most violent had sixty deaths per 100,000. A few days later NPR reported that thirty-two were murdered in Juarez during the twenty-four-hour period we were in the city. At first the violence seemed targeted at the middle class. Now nowhere, not even the most impoverished corner of a colonia, is safe. Not even a funeral, where three men at a funeral home, mourning a victim of the drug war, were shot and killed.
Why have I come?
My parents in America are terrified for me. Parents in Juarez face likely futures for their teenagers. A girl might join the countless others who have been kidnapped, raped, lost. A boy will most likely be coerced into dealing drugs, carrying them across the border if he’s not killed first. Like Irene’s grandson: sixteen years old when murdered. Even if these fates don’t meet the young people, they are still imprisoned in a cycle of poverty, unable to safely operate a business, threatened by drug lords, US maquilas (factories) pulling up roots and relocating somewhere “safer,” trapped behind a fence because their neighbors won’t shelter them or provide employment. (The maquilas pay a measly sum, five dollars or less a day, but even that is better than nothing.)
Why have I come?
I hesitated at first, feeling my presence would be that of a curious onlooker, really helpless to do anything but gawk, pointlessly endangering my life. But then my perspective shifted to see the worth of witness and with-ness. I have come to listen to stories, to observe and be with what “is,” to walk beside these women of Centro Santa Catalina Cooperative for twenty-four hours.
I hold a toddler on my lap and hear these twenty-seven beautiful women speak of fear for their families. It’s hard to watch their children go off to school, not knowing what they’ll encounter between home and there, there and home. One man accompanies his mother to CSC daily for her work, his sole responsibility to watch over her, as he has no paying job. Rosi speaks of longing to go to college and earn a degree, but danger and lack of financial resources hold her back. Victoria hands her little girl a sweet roll to calm the hunger in her belly. A CSC women makes about $150 a month, which may be the only income her family has.
Together with Sr. Dorica, a Franciscan nun born in Slovenia who has spent the last ten years of her life in the Arctic, I stay at Irene’s house in the colonia. The shanty town sits atop an old landfill, rubbish still uncovered in many places with fires spontaneously bursting from fumes. Irene makes salsa in a lava stone molcajete and feeds us simply, graciously. Dorica and I share a bed. Bits of ceiling fall on me in the night and I brush them nervously away, thinking they’re spiders. I sit up straight in bed in the middle of the night as a large shadow looms over us. My heart takes awhile to settle after I realize it’s only the coat rack. In the morning we see Irene’s birds: chickens, parakeets, a western bluebird in a cage.
We work side-by-side, deft and experienced fingers tying unique designs in the fringes of tablecloths and scarves showing me how. We play together. We take partners—mine is a young girl of nine—and dance, competing to be the craziest, silliest, wildest. Chelo, the eldest woman of the group, and Fidel win. Musical chairs: I’m left in the last chair, gasping. We sing: “Resuscito, resuscito, resuscito.” We share a meal, lavish because we can afford it. We pray for each other. The women form a long line and, one at a time, come to each of us with blessing. Their fingers trace an invisible cross on my forehead and their whispered words linger in my ears.
Yet now, five months later, I can’t remember what they said exactly. I do remember clearly, though, the immense relief when we crossed back over the border. I called my family immediately, said I was okay and was out of Juarez. But though I had left the violence, the violence had not left me. There were gaping holes in the fence that had previously kept it caged away. I am facing the shadow I’ve denied right of entry to my conscious side. Going beyond the border, upon closer inspection, I find murderous anger growing alongside lithe gentleness, selflessness—like those marvelous women in the midst of such horror. Both hidden, forbidden.
Both. I am tree and gun. There is subtle strength in me that can thrive in the most adverse circumstances, buckling cement. There is also fear-driven violence that unpredictably surfaces as greed and ignorance. Once acknowledged, the shadow loses its darkness. I can be conscious and intentional, having the courage to face what is uncomfortable. Seeing my violence reduces its power, allowing me to choose my responses rather than be controlled by them. I become deeply convinced: “True humility and compassion” cannot “exist in our words and eyes unless we know we too are capable of any act.”[1]
Why did I go? To cross a border within myself and claim the neighbor-self as my own, to remember that we are all “and.” Resuscito. Resurrection. Death and life.
Here’s an activity for you to try
Found poem: before your analytical mind has a chance to dissect what you have read, skim through the article again, culling words or phrases that grab you. Arrange them in some order, adding only articles, punctuation and conjunction. Notice what lies just below consciousness. Here’s mine:
skull grin: candy for sale
and massacre
five dollars/day
fence wire concrete
western bluebird
in a cage
raining violence
beautiful blessing

[1] Francis of Assisi as paraphrased by David Ladinsky in Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West (Penguin Compass: 2002), 37.
Joelle Chase writes from the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she lives and works and recently got engaged. Congratulations, Joelle!

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