Thursday, February 10, 2011

January 29-30, 2011: Days of Prayer and Fasting to End the Bloodshed in Cd. Juarez, Mexico

January 29-30, 2011 were days of prayer and fasting in Cd. Juarez to end the bloodshed, days which drew people not only from Mexico and the U.S., but from around the world.

The reflections which follow are from:
*  Cathy Cornell from NY City
*  Friends in Cd. Juarez, identified for this article as "Mary" and "John"

Forty-eight hours in Juarez.
Fourteen more people were killed in Ciudad Juarez during the first forty eight hours of this week. This is not an unusual toll for Juarez…but one that is more deeply troubling and sad for me now that I have witnessed the life of the people there this past weekend.
 What follows is my journal recounting my recent forty-eight hours in Juarez.
John and Mary, both dear friends, were there to meet me at the downtown bus station in El Paso, Texas as I hopped off Bus #33 from the airport. We walked the few minutes to the border and over the bridge to Juarez.  The first surprise was how different this border crossing is from the crossing in Nogales (across from where my mother lives in Tucson); in violence-torn Juarez there’s no swarm of vendors because there’s no stream of tourists.

In fact, at first, it looks like a ghost town. Empty, skeletal foundations mark the spot where a business area had been planned. Only a few years ago, the area was cluttered with shops, hotels, bars and prostitution. Today only empty, hollow streets.

The boarded up buildings along the dusty roads of the neighborhoods are the most obvious sign of trouble here – so many places closed up because owners couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the extortion fees (reported to be $100 a week).  And the stories I heard – of the woman who was kidnapped in May and returned because her family was able to scrape together the $100,000 ransom; slowly she was healing from the horror of that experience…or Maricela who was murdered outside the government building in Chihuahua because she persistently demanded justice for the prior killing of her daughter … or the teenage boy from the neighborhood who went out to ride the dunes in his new car and never returned (his body was found days later).

And then we arrived at (my friends' home) – a colorful and peaceful oasis in this desert, a community house of hospitality and peace. A place of beauty, of memory, of life, possibility and creativity. I walked with Mary to the nearby store and saw the
neighborhood soccer court where the head of the soccer team was gunned down not long ago (there are no longer swimming pools or other recreation areas for young people and only one library). We entered a local store (open only because they do pay the extortion) and its warm welcoming environment with smiling neighbors and a shopkeeper who likes to joke around.  This was my introduction to the paradox of Juarez.

I’ve come to Ciudad Juarez to join the fast to end the bloodshed; it was led by churches and human rights organizations as part of the bi-national rally for peace and justice on this troubled border. The crowd gathered at the Benito Juarez monument downtown – families and loved ones of so many  murdered or disappeared, seminarians, priests, nuns and joined by journalists, photographers and people from other countries  change.

Banners hung on the fence surrounding the monument – the most prominent being “No More Bloodshed” (see photo) and Ni Una Más” (not one more) protesting the savagery against women which has claimed the lives of 446 women from Chihuahua state last year. A multicolored homemade banner commemorate the life of their beloved “Tatic,” the recently deceased Bishop Samuel Ruíz García from Chiapas.

As the bell rang, those of us fasting donned little white masks covering our mouths to mark the beginning of our fast. Representatives from the organizing groups – numerous parishes, Paso del Norte Human Rights Center, Migrant Human Rights Center, Women Workers Pastoral Center of the diocese of Juarez passionately called for an end to the violence and madness. Local seminarians led us in prayers for peace and a clown lightened and activated our energies by engaging all of us (including the
somber seminarians on stage) to wave our arms and jump up and down in unison. Our many grins and giggles helped us tolerate the sadness, grief and tension that held us all.        

Then a caravan of vans and cars snaked through the city to the border fence at Anapra where we joined others on “el otro lado” (“the other side” as El Paso is called) for a bi-national rally for Peace and Justice Without Borders at noon. The US Border Police monitored the scene from the El Paso side while the Juarez side was completely without police protection. From the crowd in El Paso we heard strong statements critical of US
immigration policy, of US drug consumption that fuels the violence in Juarez, of the lack of regulations to limit the thousands of guns bought in the US which are used to perpetrate the horror, and of US military and economic policies that undermine the possibility of a sustainable solution to this nightmare. Poems and songs, prayers and pleas, testimonies of family members who have lost loved ones to the violence…of kidnappings,
shootings, and awful torture.  More stories were told and many tears shed. The children mimicked the clown’s antics and then settled down in a circle while their minds, for a short precious time, were captivated with silliness and joy.
On the way home, a female lawyer spoke of her increasing hopelessness of finding a way out of this deadly morass where seven to ten people lose their lives each day…and we spoke of the need to keep going as well as to care for ourselves and each other. The inspiration of the day’s gathering was palpable, but the uncertainty of the future weighed heavily on those who are trying to build a culture of peace.
A short while later, with the sun going down, I walked with John and Mary down the uneven dusty road, past modest homes and unsteady shacks, past children playing in the yards, dogs barking, and grownups doing their daily errands. Life goes on in Juarez. Moments later we were at the church at the bottom of the valley. Mary and I took our seats and greeted many friends in the parish and Peter processed in with the other priests to begin the Mass in celebration of Pastor Arturo’s fourth anniversary in the priesthood. With standing room only, the people sang and prayed together with gusto. Yes, this is Juarez too. This is Juarez where we gather in an upstairs room decorated with brightly colored balloons and streamers, a room filled to capacity with tables and chairs and heavy plates of delicious rice, beans and meats for all. This is Juarez – ancianos, babies, toddlers and teens, all together, full of life, with such beauty and joy.

Before leaving Juarez, I wrote fifteen more names on the memorial mural of the dead of Juarez in the patio behind Casa Tabor. As I wrote, my sadness and horror at the tremendous loss and grief of the people broke through very forcefully. I walked the labyrinth that John created in the garden nearby as I prayed that all may be free from this suffering. I chatted with Mary's chickens (Chula, Bonita and Hermosa) in their
brightly colored coop as the sadness moved through me and the joy of being with good friends comforted me. This is Juarez, where people grieve amidst the suffering and death in their community and where people comfort one another and celebrate life. I’m reminded of the chant we said after a distraught and angry parent gave their testimony – No Estás Sola – You are not alone. We must find ways to respond to the people of Juarez – by visiting and supporting their brave workers for justice, by working in our country to end the insidious ways our country’s policies promote and sustain this violence (for more information, see ) and most of all, to remember our one-ness with our brothers and sisters in Juarez. 
Juarez – You are not alone.

Cathy Cornell
New York, NY
February 4, 2011

As Cathy Cornell had to cross to El Paso to catch her flight back to New York City, John takes up the narrative in Cathy’s chronicle style for the afternoon of the 30th..  The concluding event was to be a Mass celebrated by Bishop Renato Ascencio Leon in the colonia Salvarcar on this first anniversary of the massacre of the 18 people, 15 of them young kids.   President Calderon, who on hearing the news of the massacre the year before said it was the result of gang war.  Faced with the outrage of the parents and community he retracted and promised to build 20 playgrounds for the youth in Juarez; the one in Salvarcar where the Mass was celebrated was the first completed.

       John bid goodbye to Cathy to then join Elizabeth Flores and people from Mexico City, all to go in her van to the Mass.  They stopped for a bite to eat on the way, for they had been fasting since early the previous day, some braving the unusual cold while vigiling the whole night.  They proceeded south on Avenida Torres to the south-central part of the city to the colonia Salvarcar.  They arrived just in time but then had a good half hour to visit with folk, while John joined the acolytes to await the Bishop and three other priest concelebrants. 

       A crowd of 1,200 took places in the unroofed cement bowl-like amphitheater, portable seats in the first rows reserved for the families of those murdered and some of their young companions.  As people filled the bowl up its stepped sides, an equal number of people gathered at the top to attend standing.  The place once filled struck John as not without its charm.  

       There was more delay as the priests and Bishop Renato mixed with people and took time to greet the family members of the 15 martyred youth.  Properly vested the bishop at the outset of the Mass welcomed the crowd acknowledging first the families, friends and neighbors of the young martyrs.  The altar was on a cement platform of some 25 feet across and four feet high at the very center of the bowl.   It accommodated the priests and the acolytes nicely with supporting musicians and excellent speaker system.

      The Bishop's remarks at the beginning and interspersed through the Mass liturgy focused on hope in the promises of Jesus Christ, and the consolation he in the name of the diocese offer to the still grieving families.  He stressed the themes in the Preface of the Mass of the dead of an "eternal dwelling place with their God" awaited those deceased. 

    The Bishop with the clergy afterwards visited and blest the memorial plaques commemorating each of the 15 young victims.  These russet-colored marble plaques were laid out above at street level in a semi-circle around a gushing water fountain, where first one of the elders of the community gave a impassioned discourse calling for justice for this atrocity and for the respect and the promotion of the youth.   With each plaque there was a matching tall evergreen tree.  The people crowded around the fountain.

       The elder continued at each plaque to read with microphone the name, date of birth and death, then the testimony by family to the life and aspirations of the youth inscribed thereon.   The Bishop and clergy proceeded slowly the few steps between each, sprinkled holy water and gave a solemn blessing.  At times a family member added more detail about their loved one, some with heightened emotion calling for justice and a stop to the criminality unleashed on Juarez.  

      The blessing at the memorial lasted longer than the Mass.  Afterwards Bishop Renato lingered long with reporters anxious to get answers to the many burning questions afloat in the air.  John's impression was that folks left with some consolation from the solemnity of the liturgy, and from the strong gathering in solidarity with the families.
      The solidarity from far and near for suffering Juarez was first of all evident in representatives and press from England, Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, Canada as well as from Mexico City, Cuernavaca and in the USA from San Francisco, Austin, El Paso, Cathy from New York City.   Sisters of Mercy and associates sent 24 solidarity messages that were among the 2500 received by the human rights office.  You have been sent Cathy Cornell’s reflection with the additional report on the Mass in Salvarcar because of your solidarity shown in the past. We ask that you continue to help spread the spirit of solidarity for this besieged city, Ciudad Juarez, indeed for all Mexico.

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