Ten years ago I lived on the foothills of the Santa Ritas, a small mountain range in southern Arizona. Backyards were separated by deep rocky crevices called arroyos, ancient pathways for rain water that runs off the mountains during the summer monsoon season. The arroyos are vital to the environment, providing greenery for food and shelter, supporting the lives of rabbits, lizards, quail, squirrels, birds, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, and javelina.
On my daily walks, I could see footprints in the sandy beds of the arroyos. Some of the footprints were animal, particularly bobcat. But most of them were human footprints, new sets every night.
Footprints of people traveling in darkness, running from a life of desperation toward hope, facing uncertain challenges, including the real potential for rape and death by the very people “helping” them cross over.
Along the border are high towers with powerful cameras that pick up movement miles away. When the cameras detect movement they send out a warning and then helicopters and trucks converge where movement was detected.
These helicopters fly low over head, the engines loud, shaking houses in their wake. At night the helicopters had powerful headlights that shone onto the desert ground. In addition to helicopters there were trucks, white ones, with Homeland Security or Border Patrol written on the side. Many people were captured.
In the desert there is no place to hide.
What I learned in 2009 is that immigration on the southern border is so complex that it cannot be simply reduced to “illegalities.” Doing so removes all of our (the US) responsibility from the issues. In many ways the issue is about increased violence in Central America and Mexico, but it’s also financial and, at least in part, has to do with coffee. As a result of NAFTA, large coffee companies were buying coffee farms and undercutting local farmers. Farmers were being forced out of the land they had owned for generations.
During my time in southern Arizona I visited Agua Pietra, Mexico and a co-op called “Just Coffee, Caffeine with a Conscience.” This is a story of networking at its best through a common mission between Presbyterian Churches on both sides of the border and an Episcopal Church in Douglas, Arizona. It all began with one man, Eduardo Perez Verdugo..
In 1999 Eduardo left his home in Guatemala after Hurricane Mitch which followed on the heels of the dramatic fall in coffee prices. These two events significantly undermined the financial structure of his community. He migrated 2000 miles north to Agua Pietra, Mexico where he found a job in a factory. Eduardo joined the Lily of the Valley Presbyterian Church. After a time of factory work Eduardo was offered a better paying job at a golf course in Phoenix. Telling no one of his plans, on Oct. 4, 1999 he migrated over the border without proper documentation. Eduard was caught by the Border Patrol, having fallen and severely injuring his knee, and sent back to Mexico. At his return the church rallied around to support him while he recovered from his injuries. He told the pastor, Mark Adams, that “Leaving our land is to suffer.”
Out of that statement blossomed the idea for the Cafe Justo, Just Coffee. Through the co-op, farmers in Chiapas grow, then transport coffee beans from Chiapas to Agua Pietra. In a simple three room facility the coffee beans are roasted, ground or not, bagged, and shipped.
Now many farmers in Chiapas participate in the co-op, making a living wage, keeping families together, and regaining their dignity and self-respect.
While at the border I also learned that prior to 9/11 migrant workers used to cross the border daily to work on ranches in the US, returning home in the evening after cleaning up after animals and doing dirty labor that most people in the US won’t do. But the border closed after 9/11 and cut ranchers off from valuable labor and workers off from viable employment. I heard US ranchers complaining about the challenges of keeping their property well maintained post 9/11 and their desire to have their workers back.
Policies in the United States are having a damaging impact on the crisis at the border. The crisis is far worse now than it was ten years ago, and more complex. It’s overwhelming. How to respond while we prepare for 2020 and the hope for changes in leadership? Responsible coffee drinking may be one tiny thing we can do. Considering collective coffee consumption in congregations on Sunday morning and weekday meetings, if we all drank Just Coffee or another fair trade coffee, we might have an impact. Well, that, and being an informed voter that votes.
The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski is an Episcopal priest serving a parish in Dearborn, Michigan. She’s been a member of RevGalBlogPals since 2006 and blogs at Seeking Authentic Voice.
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