It’s 6 p.m. and the sunlight is diminishing by the minute behind the mountains that overlook Guillen Middle School in South Central El Paso.
While school is out, there are dozens of cars crowding into the school’s parking lot, and many more overflowing into surrounding lots and any free space in the neighborhood adjacent to the school’s football field.
Upon exiting the vehicles, the occupants are not dressed in athletic gear, nor are they uniform in age or height – but they did come equipped with a similar goal – master 20 dances of prayer for their upcoming performance at the Sun Bowl.
More than 350 Matachines from local parish groups came suited with their drums, comfortable shoes, guajes, or dance rattles, and wooden prop arrows to practice for the evening.
“We are having a bit of trouble…but that’s just like everything else,” said Sylvia Perez, Coordinator the Matachines of St. Mark’s Catholic Church. “But I think everything will turn out fine.”
Beatriz Caballero, assistant coordinator for the Matachines, said they received the news that they were to perform at the Sun Bowl’s event, “Two Nations, One Faith,” two weeks ago. In that time, organizers were able to gather more than 350 dancers, schedule 20 dances, and schedule daily practices at the church and other venues. Practices last 2 to 3 hours.
“I have so many conflicting feelings right now,” Caballero said. “I am nervous and worried. (I hope) our dances turn out well for the Virgin Mary, the Holy Father and the Pope. It is a lot of responsibility for all of us to get together and unite. You have different characters and personalities – but we are working together and preserving.”
In an effort to stay organized during practices, coordinators use a large karaoke machine to broadcast their announcements. But once the drummers begin to beat on their instruments, it’s nearly impossible to hear anything else.
With this in mind, the dancers are divided into two lines and must dance in place. Instructions are visual and are accomplished through the use of a large flag that is waved to cue the dancers. Coordinators also communicate to the dancers by running up and down the field and yelling out instructions as best they can.
Dancers and drummers on their part must do their best to watch and listen as the evening wears on and their sight becomes limited.
With only a few dim stadium lights, dancers look to one another for guidance.
Beita Acosta, 9, a student at Purple Heart Elementary School, looked at the dancers around her and watched out for any coordinators that might run shouting out instructions. As she does so she stomps her feet on the ground – not missing a beat. Acosta said she joined the Matachines about six months ago and said she wasn’t sure how she felt about the upcoming performance.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” she said while fidgeting. “It’s cool because my mom came yesterday and she saw all the people lined up and she loved it. She showed me the video and it looked nice.”
When asked if she was nervous – Acosta exclaimed, “Yes I am nervous.”
The large group will have one more rehearsal on Tuesday, the day before the live broadcast before their performance at the Two Nations One Faith event at the Sun Bowl. The event is a celebration of Pope Francis visit to the sister city of Juarez at the Sun Bowl Stadium.
The celebration, set to begin at 1:30 p.m., will include a livestream simulcast of the Mass at El Punto, or what is knows as the festival grounds in Juarez, at 4 p.m.
In addition, country music artists Collin Raye and World Youth Day guitarist Tony Melendez will perform live, according to the Catholic Diocese of El Paso’s website.
Other performances will include a ceremonial dance by the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Tigua Indian school; music by the El Paso Diocesan Choir; and Mariachis. The Matachines are expected to perform between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. and when the Papal Mass is complete.
MEANWHILE, IN JUAREZ
Across the border at El Punto, where the Papal Mass will be held, 32-year-old Juan Sanchez unloads audio and production equipment from a large semi-truck with the help of his colleagues.
On Saturday, audio and video production crews were readying the screens that would broadcast the mass, and rigging the motors, Sanchez said. All this in preparation for the Pope’s Papal Mass, scheduled for 4 p.m., on Wednesday.
“This is just a ‘typical’ day for me,” he jokes. “Just collecting and gathering equipment and getting the screens ready. Just a normal day.”
Sanchez has been working on various tasks relating to the altar, rigging, audio and production for the past two months.
“I’m actually a freelance contractor for productions,” Sanchez added. “And I typically work on audio for the city and the courts. But we were asked to do this – and absolutely. We should be ready by Sunday.”
The construction of the altar, by the company Soyo Contrucciones began on Dec. 28, 2015, according to the Juarez Diocese. On Saturday, as construction crews worked tirelessly to place the finishing touches to the area, several locals tried get a peek and enter the site through the gate at Heroica Colegio Militar Avenue and Costa Rica Street.
Police blocked the entrance and explained that only workers could go through. When turned away – locals drove further down, and parked their cars along the roadway for a brief moment to get a glimpse of refurbished Juarez Fairgrounds.
The fairgrounds aren’t the only sites that have been refurbished – along the Avenida Tecnologico, or the papal route, the streets have been cleaned and painted.
Billboards with the Pope’s image and his message line the streets along the route and businesses along the route sport banners with his image as well. Along the way, he will make a stop and have lunch at the Seminario Conciliar, (the seminary).
Jesus Caldera, 34, said he is among a group of seminarians that will be having lunch with the pope on Wednesday.
“It’s going to be such a great joy to have him so close and to converse with him,” Caldera said. “I really don’t have any questions for him. I just want to listen to him. But if I could say one thing to him, I’d ask hi to keep us in his prayers. This city needs a lot of prayers – it was damaged and hurt by the violence and the insecurity that came with it.”
Caldera said that while the physical refurbishment of the city is one step in the right direction in preparation for the pontiff’s visit – more should be done.
“Everyone needs to get out of our comfort zones and seek out those in need,” Caldera said. “He (the pope) is asking us to reach out.”
Caldera, who is in his last year of study at the seminary, said he’s been mediating and studying the teachings of the catechist while reflecting on the message of mercy that the pope has instructed everyone to follow.
“It’s a spiritual preparation that includes prayer and invites us to look within ourselves to reinvent ourselves,” Caldera said. “And it’s not something that will happen overnight or just in one day – it’s a calling for us to be better in our daily lives so we can continue to carry out the Pope’s message of peace, mercy and love.”
Breaking the Fourth Wall: A reporter’s perspective
As I prepared to cross into Juarez on Saturday morning with Andres Acosta – I wasn’t sure what to expect. Sure, we had an overall idea of our task at hand – familiarize yourself with the Papal route – but that was it.
Upon crossing we hired a taxi to take us to El Punto, the site of the Papal Mass, and our cab driver immediately assumed we were tourists and jumped at the opportunity to take us to the site.
I later explained to him that we were in fact journalists from El Paso that wanted to take the entire route – with stops along the way. I expected hesitation from his part but to my surprise he agreed.
During our drive, which lasted about 2-hours, with stops and interviews along the way, he pointed out restaurants to us and gave us a plethora of information ranging from street names, Juarez history, his faith and his experiences during the drug wars which plagued the city with violence and death.
While I recorded our conversation, for the purposes of remembering street names, I didn’t catch his name – I know, I know – that’s reporting 101. (I can just hear my mentors groaning at this).
But after hearing his stories of the drug wars – I didn’t want to get his name. It was strange – even though I had only known this cabbie for two hours it felt wrong to ask his name, and perhaps it was my conscience or the uncertainty about how long the diminished state of violence will last that kept me from blurting out – “Y tu nombre?” (Your name?) and “Como se deletrea?” (How do you spell it?).
While the organization Seguridad Justicia y Paz, or The Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice AC, has recently removed Juarez from the list of the most dangerous cities, a travel warning by the U.S. Department of State recommends U.S. citizens traveling into Mexico to use caution while in Chihuahua.
So, taking all that into consideration – I refrained from asking him to identify himself. That being said, at the start of our drive our cabbie said he was Catholic and would be among the thousands at the Papal Mass.
“I got the tickets from my church,” he said. “And the funny thing is- I stopped going to church a while ago – because you know it’s long, and then you have the kids that don’t know how to behave, and sometimes you fall asleep…”
“But then you heard about the tickets and the Pope’s visit and suddenly your going to Mass as a dedicated member,” I suggested jokingly.
“Well of course,” he said laughing.
After our visit to El Punto, he travels to the International Airport where the Pope will be arriving and departing. Our cabbie knows the route by heart and tells us when and where and at what time the Pope will arrive at each site.
“You see along here there will be a human chain – they say 80,000 people but I suspect that there will be more than 1 million in town,” he said as we travel down the Eje. Vial de Juan Gabriel toward the airport.
We continue on Juan Gabriel and turn left at the Calle Baranco Azul intersection.
“And there to your right behind you is the prison,” He points. “There all manner of violent and nonviolent criminals are there.” He keeps driving and doesn’t offer to stop at the prison.
We continue driving down the Calle Baranco until he reaches the Avenida Tecnologico, and situated at the end of the intersection is the airport.
He makes a left onto the Avenida Tecnologico – where billboards welcoming the pope are plentiful, and so are the restaurants.
Our cabbie starts to talk about El Bronco, and begins to give us mouth-watering details about how they prepare their burritos – clearly it’s close to lunchtime.
As we make our way toward the seminary, on Bulevar Manuel Gomez Morin, he starts to talk about the cartels and the violence that plagued the city for so many years.
“You know it’s not that they would seek out regular folks to kill or shoot them their fights were amongst each other not everyone else,” he said. “If there were vendors out on the street they were warned or told not to show up to work the next day – but people have to work and make a living so they might ignore the warning. In one day there were 38 killed – it was a massacre. Some were left without limbs, others were decapitated…just a tragedy.”
Because he’s very candid about the violence I get the sense that perhaps he feels safer, and if that’s the case, then maybe the city is safer. I ask him if that’s how he feels and he says yes, without hesitation.
“It’s very calm now. I mean there are a lot of new businesses popping up – and people that left and abandoned their homes because of the violence are coming back now,” he said. “It was such a destructive time, but now it’s calm now, and I think the Pope’s coming here speaks to that.”