El Paso, TX; the U.S.-Mexico Border; the line between two different worlds which begin to blend the closer in proximity they become. If it were an abstract painting, the U.S. and Mexico would show up on the canvas in radically different colors and textures, yet I imagine the artist would take her hand and smear it at the places the two countries conjoin, leaving the area of Juarez-El Paso particularly indistinguishable, just as the two cities look like only one from a birds eye view. Juarez-El Paso is an environment of effortless pluralism the type that has sparked nationalist hysteria throughout our country, but I view such pluralism as beautiful, perhaps even anthropological art smeared by the hand of God. Border historian Oscar J. Martínez characterizes U.S.-Mexico borderlands as a place with “powerful transnational forces [which] pull large numbers of borderlanders into the orbit of the neighboring country with a resulting array of cross-boundary relationships and lifestyles.”
In January of this year, I made a trip to this part of the border as part of a contextualization study with my peers at Brite Divinity School. It featured a week full of powerful interactions with numerous borderlanders from all walks of life- clergy and activists to academics to refugees- in one moment, I even found myself praying in a federal courthouse as approximately 30 migrants and refugees, many of whom were barely over the age of 18, would be simultaneously sentenced to prison or deportation.
One truly transformative person we encountered was when we visited the Border Farmworkers Center and met its Executive Director, Carlos Marentes. Marentes has oft been compared to his late colleague and mentor, having been called the Cesar Chavez of the West. The U.S. has a long history of abuse and exploitation of migrant farmworkers, from physical abuse, to employers’ failure to pay already miniscule wages. Carlos was quick to give us information chronicling the history of such exploitation, which frequently goes unpublished. He included a picture of workers being sprayed with the pesticide DDT, at the border as part of the Bracero program in the 1950s. Marentes has made it his life’s work to advocate on behalf of migrant farmworkers to prevent such abuses from occurring.
Talking with him was also a powerful reminder of how deeply intertwined our realities are with the workers. For starters- our food. He pulled out a bucket of chile peppers as a physical example of the painstaking and thankless labor that goes into nourishing our bodies. So striking that someone else’s physical pain could manifest in my physical nourishment.
Marentes also provided some insight regarding the causes of such a magnanimous wave of migration. He explained that most agricultural land in Mexico operated under the Ejido system, meaning most it was community owned- such a foreign concept in our capitalist society. The Eijido system began to decline mid-20th century when the World Bank created dependencies on loans for farming technology, and died with the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, championed by then president Bill Clinton. Allowing U.S. corporations to negotiate with Mexico’s financial elite, the U.S. demanded that the Eijido system be abolished from Mexico’s constitution, allowing foreign interests to buy those lands and force its inhabitants to either leave or work for a fraction of the rewards. Think about that- U.S. corporations now have enough power to change a country’s constitution. And it wasn’t just Mexico, comparable trade policies have been enacted elsewhere, devastating thousands of self-sustaining communities across Latin America, because that is what capitalism inherently does.
NAFTA ushered in an unprecedented level of prosperity for much of the U.S. and unprecedented levels of poverty for Mexico. In that, I have to acknowledge the money in my pocket and the food that I eat is tainted. But while this exploitation of citizens might have brought immediate gratification for us, there are long term ramifications for us too. This caused millions of workers in Mexico to come to the U.S. to seek work, ramping up what is often referred to as the “immigration crisis (yeah- the U.S. caused it).” This ultimately led to a nationalist backlash and Trumpism, which has certainly sent many of us into a frenzy. More so, these policies boosted the Agricultural Industrial Complex in North America, which is now one of the leading contributors of climate change in the world.
Universalism. What happens to one happens to all. The subjugation of laborers across the world that our country has helped cause, has rendered us lost too. Lost in anxiety over our political climate. Lost over the state of our planet. As Universalists, when we say our salvation is wrapped up in others, it is not a theological abstraction- it’s a reality. And when we speak of salvation, it is not of some hypothetical afterlife. It is Here. Now. Just as Juarez and El Paso, despite being on other sides of a fence and belonging to two separate human social constructions we call countries, they are the same from the perspective of our vast universe. With millions of migrants and refugees journeying toward their salvation- their literal saving, it behooves us to journey with them. Because, in the long term, our saving is also contingent upon it.
We are all migrants. Todos Somos Migrantes.