As I prepared for the pope’s visit to the borderland, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect but decided not to overthink things and simply see where the moments led me.
Tuesday, February 16, 2016 – Segundo Barrio
As I made my way to Segundo Barrio, I ran across an organized march and rally to show support and solidarity for immigration rights and workers’ rights. The event was held in the Sacred Heart church in El Paso’s downtown, near the international bridge that Pope Francis would be within walking distance of.
From faith leaders to labor leaders, all gathered together to uplift the spirit of all the voices that have gone ignored.
As I walked the streets near where I grew up – St. Vrain and Paisano – I suddenly felt aware…here I thought it was about the pope…but it wasn’t, it was about MUCH MORE…about the people that work everyday in the maquilas, about the people dying trying to cross the border.
The realization took me from just being a spectator or reporter, to the fact that I am a part of that conversation as an El Pasoan. In my old neighborhood, there was national media covering Segundo, here is the other conversation that was going unnoticed but, because the pope would be just across the river, he was there to shine the light, to give a platform to those voices.
With the pope’s visit a little more than 24 hours away, it was also a little surreal, the marchers and media, the people and police getting ready, as a city.
Wednesday February 17, 2016 – Sun Bowl Stadium
The sun blazed down, heating the mass of people in line, as they began to wrap around the stadium. Slowly and steadily people made their way to their seats.
Travelers came from all around just to catch a glimpse of the pope on the jumbotron, I met a group of women that had traveled straight through the night from Phoenix; another group came in from Houston.
Even media was coming in from all areas – big and small – journalists from Alpine, Austin, and Chicago, to name a just a few. Father Fabian Marquez did a wonderful job of giving a cheerful opening welcome and keeping everyone’s energy up for the long afternoon.
The Catholic Diocese prepared a great agenda, packed with entertainment, starting with the Pueblo Dancers who performed several dances including the Eagle Dance, representing the Eagle who carries the people’s hopes up to the Creator.
They were followed by the outstanding Mariachi Orgullo who kept the excitement going as they played regional favorites that the crowd loved. We also had a colorful and beautiful performance by our own local Matachines Dancers.
As all these festivities went on, I kept thinking to myself of the slogan for this Papal Mass: Two Nations, One Faith; but actually watching the different groups that came to pay respects, I felt that El Paso is really a place of multiple nations. As I have said before, we are truly a place unlike any other.
During the morning press conference the Catholic Extension group brought in several bishops to speak to us on the church’s role in helping refugees and migrant families. They spoke at length about how important this trek was to the pope. He specifically picked the route in Juarez, because that was the route that most migrants walked, and since most of those journey’s end in fatality, the pope’s journey will also come to stop and end at the levee, as a symbolic gesture.
I suppose it was because this conversation was weighing heavily on my heart, that, for me, the moment that was truly moving for me and brought me to tears was hours before the mass, it was when they played the National Anthem.
I was in the middle of tweeting or doing something on social media, when I heard the anthem start and immediately I stopped and placed my hand over my heart, but something was different; this time I wasn’t just zoned out waiting for the song to pass, in this moment I thought of the group I’d seen marching the day before, I thought of the questions that morning asking about whether the pope can influence politics, to which the bishops replied, his job (Pope Francis) is not to change politics but to hopefully open the hearts of all people.
I thought of our sister-city and the journey that so many of our own parents made so that we may be born in the land of opportunity. I thought about myself and our current political situation, I thought how powerful those words that bind us all, our National Anthem and how many lives have been lost trying to “get to the other side” in hopes of reaching America, land of the free, home of the brave…
Energies were kept high, there were musical stylings by Tony Melendez and country artist Collin Raye. Father Tony Ricard got the crowd roaring with his bold style and humor, even joking on the Cowboys. Father had jokes on jokes, he was really refreshing in the midst of the Texas heat.
Once the crowd caught sight of the live stream “Popemobile” there was no holding back. The audience cheered, clapped, cried at the images of El Papa. He waved to the crowd in front of him in Juarez and our crowd at the Sun Bowl waved back, we were truly in sync with our Juarez familia.
Silence fell across the stadium as the pope walked up the ramp to “El Punto” where a giant cross was placed at the levee to honor all the lives lost on the border. I could hear people tearfully sniffling on our side as we watched and reflected in that moment of silence.
The mass began and I expected to hear lots of feel good words and a maybe a lesson in how to be good to our fellow man, but what I DID NOT expect was to hear the brave and bold reprimanding of the injustice in Juarez, for all the world to hear.
Pope Francis addressed the serious problem of immigration injustice, calling it a human tragedy and global phenomenon “Esta tragedia humana que representa la migración forzada hoy en día es un fenómeno global.”
He boldly noted that this human crisis extends and creates a perpetual spiral meant to entrap the very poorest and allow drug traffickers and violence to gain its stronghold, not only affecting the poor but making it impossible for the youth and next generation to break free.
The pope also bravely recognized the hundreds of women who have disappeared and have been unjustly robbed of their lives “¡Y que decir de tantas mujeres a quienes se les ha arrebatado injustamente la vida!”
At the close of the speech, he reiterated that it is up to us, as members of the human experience to open our hearts and let love in, he blessed both cities and asked that the people not forget to say a prayer for him as well. El Paso and the Sun Bowl received a very special recognition from Pope Francis, thanking us for having been a part of this, he also thanked the Lord for not allowing any border to prevent this moment from happening and thanked the people of the borderland region, for coming together as brothers and sisters to create one family, one community, “Gracias, hermanos y hermanas de El Paso, por hacernos sentir una sola familia y una misma comunidad Cristiana”
I looked around the Sun Bowl as the day drew to a close, some people were crying, some people were hugging, but we were all present in this historic moment, together.