We stand at the cusp of Holy Week, a most sacred, emotionally exhausting time of entering into the last days of Jesus’ life. On Wednesday I had the unique opportunity to accompany a woman, I’ll call her Lupe, and her 8 year old son, I’ll call him Carlos, otherwise anonymous travelers on their pilgrim journeys.
Lupe and Carlos are from El Salvador, a country devastated by gang and cartel violence. During the War (The El Salvadoran Civil War:1980-1992) El Salvador was violent, many people were killed at the hands of guerrillas, but the violence in Lupe’s town has actually gotten worse since the War because now it is more indiscriminate. Gangs abduct and force into submission or kill nearly all the boys who are 10 years old and older. Since Carlos is 8 years old and is a handsome boy, Lupe was forced to make a choice to leave her country, her cosmetology career and her entire livelihood to travel north to save the life of her son.
Lupe and Carlos began their journey on foot, and traveled many miles this way. Occasionally they we able to hitch rides with other pilgrims traveling north, but they were never fully sure who they could trust. They had little money, for fear of getting robbed, and never fully knew the way. They just kept traveling north. They boarded trains, rode on top or in between the cars and always were forced to get on and off while the train was still in motion.
In the South of Mexico they began traveling with a woman who had two children a 4 year old and a 4 month old baby. The five traveled together for many days. Lupe recounted that Carlos really struggled with the journey. They didn’t sleep well for days at a time and so Lupe often took Carlos by the hand and nearly dragged him forward as he sleep walked along. The mother with the two children dragged her four year old along and held her infant as she journeyed. One evening at dusk the five pilgrims encountered a cartel group of bandits. The cartel abducted the five and held them at gunpoint. They forced them to walk and crawl up an unpaved road, up a craggy mountain. The cartel demanded money from the women, who had nothing to offer. The men threatened to rape the women and kill the children if they did not turn over their money. The women stammered and sobbed that they had nothing. Then the cartel told the women to put their children in the position, they were going to kill them. So Lupe and the other mother spread out their children’s arms and lay them hysterical on the ground. Carlos and the other two children were so exhausted that they didn’t even fully recognize what was happening, they just whimpered from confusion and exhaustion. The women were then told to assume the position as well, and they did. Realizing they had no money, the men tormented the families for a while, before letting them go.
Lupe, Carlos and the other woman with her two children were free to continue their journey. They continued northward for about 2 more weeks before reaching the US border. Lupe and Carlos were accosted by Border Patrol agents and put in the Dilley Detention Facility where they lived and were processed for 15 days. I met them upon their release from detention, having passed the ‘credible fear’ interview, they were headed to another US city to be with family and await their court date for a hearing.
I accompanied them to the airport, where Lupe shared with me her story. She told me about family members who left during and shortly after the war and how her greatest hope and joy was in seeing them again. They had not returned to El Salvador again to visit, because they said that the pain of leaving again, of ‘abandoning’ their family once again would have been too difficult. These family members had been in the US for so long that they had never met Carlos. Lupe was so excited to introduce her family to Carlos, she is so proud of him.
She asked me what happened to women and children who didn’t pass their interview if they got deported, to which I was forced to explain that if she hadn’t passed she and Carlos too would have been deported. She left El Salvador with no real sense of the process, simply traveling north to ensure that her son did not get abducted by the gangs in her town. This really made an impression on me, she had no idea who to trust or how to get information about what was going to happen to her. She was asking me all sorts of questions about the process of meeting with her immigration officer when she arrived in her new city, and the only thing I could do was explain to her that it would really be beneficial for her to meet with the officer and try to obtain her work VISA and eventually a green card so she wouldn’t live in constant fear of deportation.
She told me that she couldn’t tell her family about what happened to her and Carlos in the south of Mexico, how they had been almost killed. She said it would be too much for them. She said the journey was just terrible and she didn’t want to burden her family with it, because it was just so horrific. I shared with her that what happened to them, on their 6 week journey, was a trauma to her heart and that she should seek out some help from a psychologist and social worker when she arrived in her new city. I told her she has to process this trauma in her heart, in order to heal herself and be whole again, and especially that she couldn’t carry this burden alone.
I realized after sharing this with her, that I had been entrusted to help her carry her burden.
Lupe and Carlos boarded the plane and began the next part of their pilgrim journey. They were going to begin the next phase of life together with their family, still plagued with fear of the unknown, but a different type of unknown than they left behind in El Salvador.
My experience with them has been a powerful reflection for me on my call to walk the Way of the Cross. There were many times in Lupe’s recounting of her journey that left me feeling like I had been punched in the stomach. I imagine this is how Mary, Simon, the women on the road and the bystanders felt in accompanying Jesus on his Way of the Cross.
I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Lupe’s life and the life of Mary of Nazareth who fled in haste at the birth of her Son, to protect his life and who walked with him to his execution.
My own life has been brought into the mysterious union of God with Lupe and Carlos. It was easy for me to see how Lupe’s life mirrored that of the Blessed Mother, and even in the midst of that parallel, I found myself reflecting and drawing on the strength and example of Mary and the Beloved Disciple whose enduring presence accompanied Jesus through his most difficult hour.
My Marianist vocation places me in situations where I will accompany the marginalized, even sometimes to their own cross. While I wasn’t there and present with Lupe and Carlos when their life was threatened by the cartel, they offered me part of their burden through sharing their story. Lupe told me that she is sure of the presence of God, because only God could have brought her and Carlos through this horror.
Part of helping bear their burden is in telling their otherwise anonymous story. This Holy Week I challenge you to think about how you are called to accompany, as Mary and the Beloved Disciple, those who are heavy burdened.
I leave you also with a poem for reflection by RS Thomas, called “The Coming”
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, A river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.