Three weeks ago, the woman in charge of our English classes was going over dates in which there would be no class. December 26, for example, no class. She then asked about December 12.
I looked at my four Mexican students. “12 de Deciembre? Porque?””
Faces scrunched up. A few of the ladies smiled.
“No eres Católico?
“No. Soy Mormón.”
Adriana, who had been a nurse when she lived in Mexico responded (and very proud of herself), “Mormón? Ay! No, es mamón!!”
We all cracked up, especially me.
Dec 12 is La Fiesta de Nuestra Señora Guadalupe. The Feast of Our Lady Guadalupe. Our Lady [of] Guadalupe is a Catholic title of the Blessed Virgin Mary associated with a Marian apparition and a venerated image enshrined within the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The basilica is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world, and the world’s third most-visited sacred site. Pope Leo XIII granted the venerated image a Canonical Coronation on 12 October 1895.
Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared before Juan Diego, the first indigenous saint, on the hill Tepeyac near Mexico City, thereby accelerating the evangelization of the Mexican natives.
I texted the students later in the week and asked if any of them were going to the Mass for the Feast of Our Lady Guadalupe. Adriana responded and she invited me to the mass on that day. Because of work, I showed up late, so I couldn’t sit with her family. By the time I got there, there was standing room only in the lobby. So many beautiful, faithful brown faces. I listened intently. The priest spoke in Spanish. Songs were sung to the Mother of God. When I was able to take a peek, I saw a large mural of Guadalupe with Christmas-like lights blinking. While there, I saw other friends. Ana, who I taught the year before, was there with her family, including her son, who plays saxophone in the high school band of which my oldest daughter is the drum major. There was Joaquin and his older brothers; both go to my boxing gym. Their dad sings in the choir. Then came the part of the sign of peace. People told me, “Paz,” as I shook the hands of strangers and friends.
Sunday, December 9, marks nine years since my dad died. We had (to put it nicely) a complicated relationship before his death. A week before his passing, Pablo and I flew down to Puebla, to see our dad in the ICU, and our mom and sister. My dad had gone to downtown Puebla to buy blankets because of the cool weather. While crossing the street he was hit and eventually killed by a delivery truck.
I sat with my dad in the ICU; hands swollen, on a ventilator. I knew how this would turn out. I remember my mom being so concerned about the hand swelling. Shortly after we arrived, our family met with the attending doctor. We requested my dad be taken off life support. The physician explained he could not do that. What? In Mexico, to take someone off life support is akin to murder. I was shocked. One of the last days I came by, I whispered into my dad’s ear, “You should go now. You will be an incredible burden on mom.” He died shortly after Pablo and I returned to the USA.
At the time, Cathy was pregnant with our youngest, who burst into this world a month later on January 11. Our oldest would turn 4 on December 31.
I noticed processions as we were taking a bus from Mexico City to Puebla. While in Puebla, I saw a similar procession. I asked what it was about. It was a pilgrimage for Catholics, something having to do with Guadalupe.
Two weeks ago I was asked by our Guatemalan immigrant friend (leaving her name out on purpose), who is seeking asylum, to write a letter of recommendation for her.
I do not mean this in any kind of vulgar way, but My God. Her receiving asylum could be life or death for her and her two children. I hadn’t pried too much into the reasons why see fled Guatemala. I did know that Guatemala has one of the highest rates of femicide in the world. Maybe it had to do with that? I didn’t pry. But then I was asked to write her letter. I needed to know more. So I sent her a list of questions. I then texted her to get some clarifications. I know how difficult it is for me when I tell my story of being intimidated by a white man with his gun, while standing in line at an ATM. How much harder it must be for her to share her story. So, when I eventually asked her, I said that talking about this could be hard. She answered, “Sí, la verdad, es muy difíl.” I stopped asking for details to avoid further traumatization. Here are the list of questions, with her answers, translated into English.
- What state / province, county and city do you come from?
I come from the village the Tortuga, Retalhuleu, Guatemala.
- What kind of work did you do?
I used to work in a Dole banana factory.
- What was your weekly salary?
I earned 600 quetzals a week ($80).
- For what reasons did you flee Guatemala? Can you share a specific story as an example of why you fled Guatemala?
We fled from my country because the police had threatened us with death threats against me and my children. It was terrible. I have been able to get help here with a therapist but I still have bad dreams. The other night, I woke up in tears because of a dream I had where someone wanted me and my children dead.
- Why didn’t your husband come?
The father of my children did not come because I am a single mother. I separated from him two years because he treated us very badly.
- What day did you leave Guatemala? At what time did you get to the border of Mexico-USA?
We left my country on May 18, 2018; I arrived at the border on June 2.
- What were some of the dangers you encountered while traveling through Mexico?
The dangers when we came through Mexico, I was walking at night looking for a place to sleep with my children.
- How long were you detained?
I was detained from June 2 To July 25,
I was detained in Texas.
- How long were you and [your children] separated?
We were separated for 53 days.
- When did you arrive in _____t, Oregon to live with your cousin, ____?
We arrived on July 27 in _____t, Oregon to live my cousin, ____.
- How has your stay in the United States been so far?
Well and safe because here my children do not run into dangers as in my country.
- How has been the transition of [your children]?
For them, it is very difficult to go to this country for, it is all new, but they see they are adapting to their new life here in this beautiful country. Things which are difficult are the language and making new friends but they say they feel very happy living here and do not want to return to Guatemala.
- What are your hopes for your children?
My wishes are that they give me the opportunity to stay in this country so that my children are safe and I am able to work for them so they can study to be professionals.
- What are your hopes for yourself?
For myself to be able to be with my children always.
- What would happen to you and your family if all three were deported?
If we go back to Guatemala we will run into a lot of danger. The three of us are very afraid of returning.
Here is the letter I wrote:
December 9, 2018
Michael Daniel Barker, PA-C
To whom it may concern:
It is my great pleasure to provide this immigrant-asylum reference letter on behalf of my good friend, __________, who has applied for asylum in the USA from Tortuga, Retalhuleu, Guatemala.
My name is Michael Daniel Barker. I work in orthopedic surgery as a Physician Assistant in _____, Oregon. I have known ______ for the past five months. I first met ______ shortly after my 17 year old daughter came home from church, telling me of a Guatemalan woman who had been detained at the Texas-Mexico border and separated from her two children for fifty-three days. My daughter knew ____’s story would touch my heart as my mother immigrated from Guatemala shortly after President L.B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. I have found _____ to be quite a respectable and kind person. ______ is sincere with her dealings and treats everyone with respect and kindness. She and her____children, have become an important part of my family’s life.
After we had known each other for some time, _____ felt comfortable sharing with me why she fled her country of Guatemala. She had been employed at a Dole banana packing plant, where she had worked since she was 12, earning $80 a week; the terrible irony of Dole’s contribution to O. Henry’s coined term, Banana Republic, is not lost to me. Some police officers delivered her a letter, which they had written themselves, threatening her and her _____ beautiful children with death. As you know, at present, Guatemala has one of the world’s highest rates of femicide. Myself having been threatened with a gun because of my ethnicity, I can understand in a very small way. Yet it is impossible for me to imagine such a dangerous situation as _____ was living; the police nor government offering her the protection, which we in the USA take for granted. It was very difficult for ______ to tell me her story, so I eventually let her know that she did not have to share any more details, for fear it would further traumatize her.
Can you imagine a situation which would cause you to leave your country, traveling with your ____ small children, without a spouse because you had left them due to how badly they treated you and your children, looking for safe places at night for your children to sleep, and still wanting asylum in a country where “immigrant” has become an epithet? Can you imagine being woken up from your sleep, crying, because of the horrible dreams of someone wanting to kill you and your children? None of us can, but all of us know we would do the same for our children. Since being here in Oregon, _____ has been able to see a therapist to help her deal with the trauma. It has been a blessing for her.
_______ is an honest and hardworking woman and wants a job so her children can be supported, safe, and one day attend a university. She is already a vital and recognized member of the neighborhood, where she lives with her cousin, _____. Her children are attending school and thriving because they feel safe. But, they are very scared of the possibility of having to return to Guatemala.
With the strongest of feelings and with no reservations, I recommend that _____ be considered for asylum as soon as possible. Strong, persevering women like ______ are needed in this great country.
For any additional details or questions regarding ______, please feel free to contact me at ________ or by email at _______ and I would be more than happy to discuss further.
Michael D. Barker, PA-C
– Breath –
It dawned on me yesterday that the procession I saw 13 years ago, was a pilgrimage culminating with The Feast of our Lady of Guadalupe. Isn’t that strange? And there I was last Wednesday night, invited by a friend of mine, to worship at the Catholic Church, three days from marking the death of my dad.
I share these stories for these reasons. Many of us only see brown and black bodies as something deficient. I’m not saying we see them as inferior, but we do see them as lacking, and so we want to help. It may seem noble, but it be racist. To quote my wife, “Good intentions can still be racist.” If you can only see someone as deficient, they will never be equal to you. You will always be condescending to them. There will never be equality. This is something I constantly have to check with myself.
One of the reasons I attend “Brown Church,” as the Barkers refer to my Spanish speaking LDS congregation, is because it re-orients my relationship with the Spanish speaking community. It is easy to become their White Savior. I am swimming in privilege. I have a good job. I can help the community.. But you see? It may sound benevolent, because it is. It may be benevolent racism. I want to pull myself up to their level, to commune with them. Same with my Spanish speaking students. I want to be equal with them. One of the things that really makes me happy is when I see my students in public. “Hola maestro!” Then I get a hug. They are not hugging up to me. They are just hugging ME.
When we have no relationship with the local community we want to help, we can never see ourselves as equal to them. They will always be a deficient people. We can only be the, the self congratulatory, White Savior.
Adriana, inviting me, brought me up. I was able to meet her son and daughter. I took a picture with them in front of Guadalupe.
Yesterday my immigrant asylum-seeking friend tried to call me while I was seeing patients. I texted her. I called her back. It rang. No answer. Then she called me. Her voice was very bright. She thanked me for the letter (I had sent her the Spanish translation). Her attorney said it was well written. I thanked her for the privilege of doing this small act for one of my sisters. She made me feel good. She really did. She pulled me up.
As we were leaving the Catholic church, Adriana and her son told me they had been up since 3:30 that morning.
“Why? Did you have to work?”
“No. It is Guadalupe’s birthday so we get up early to dance, sing and celebrate, here in the church, with her.”
I think all of us long for that kind of warmth. There is something different about the warmth which comes from mother. Perhaps that is why so many religious people seek for the Divine Feminine. For Mormons, it is Mother God, an olive tree, olive oil, Eve’s wisdom, Sofie. For Mexican Catholics, it is Mary’s appearance to an indigenous man many centuries ago. You see without mother, we don’t have the Son of God. Isn’t it fitting that she is celebrated 10 days before we celebrate the birth of her son?
Sometimes there are wounds which only Mother can bind.
Happy Advent, as we prepare ourselves, with Guadalupe, for the birth of her son and our savior.
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Miguel is a Guatemalan-American Mormon living in the Northwest with his family. He is one of the proprietors of the Rational Faiths blog.
All posts by Miguel Barker-Valdez
Powerful, Miguel. “Benevolent racism”
Thank you for writing, for telling the truth out loud.
Thank you for this thought- provoking post. My Hispanic husband and I (an anglo) are LDS and serve weekly at a Catholic church in El Paso, helping refugees, mostly from Central America. I am at a disadvantage because I speak very little Spanish. The refugees we help have been processed through immigration and we help provide the necessities of life while they wait for their flight or bus trip to their sponsor. Sometimes as we drive them to the airport or bus station my husband will get in a conversation about what their life was like in their home country. So I have heard a few stories similar to your friends. I need to work on avoiding benevolent racism. My intent is to provide hospitality, the same as I would provide to any visitor. I want them to feel welcome. I hope the USA will be their new home and that they will experience success!