Crossing the border: Volunteering in Juarez |

Crossing the border: Volunteering in Juarez

Morgan Smith
Special to the Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Morgan SmithThis old man was waiting for food when the van of volunteers pulled up. He sat alone and didn't speak to anyone.

JUAREZ, Mexico – It’s Thursday morning, Dec. 23, and I’m headed into Juarez, Mexico, with volunteers from a Catholic program called Our Lady’s Youth Center in El Paso, Texas. This is my fourth trip to Juarez and about my twentieth trip across the border this year. These crossings are all nerve-wracking, but conditions in Juarez are especially horrific. There were an estimated 2,663 homicides in 2009, more than the combined total for New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston, Baltimore and New Orleans.

Nonetheless, there is a heroic side to this tragic history and it is personified by these volunteers as well as the many enduring Mexican families I’ve met.

Normally I go on Fridays, when the volunteers drive three or four vans across the border, buy food at a Juarez market and take it to their food bank, “El Banco de Comida de Dios” in the Colonia 16 de Septiembre, where local volunteers package it. Some goes to the needy local volunteers and some to people who come to the food bank on foot. The rest is taken in the vans to families who are older, sick or have no means of transportation.

In addition, the volunteers assist a long line of people with special needs. For example, a man named Santos had lost much of his eyesight working as a welder in Kansas and was seeking help for his eye problems.

When the food has been loaded into the vans, we work our way through this desolate neighborhood, or barrio. Some of the streets are paved, some rutted dirt. One is just a drainage canal for storm runoff. The van struggles up and down the hills. In summer, temperatures are typically in the mid-90s; in December, it is dry and windy with constant dust. At several houses, clothing is hung outside, for sale. During one stop a group of young drunks taunt us, but otherwise there are no signs of danger. Most of these volunteers have been doing this work for many years; it is their mission and they have a dedication and an extraordinary lack of fear. Other than a municipal police patrol (very friendly officers on horseback), we see no evidence of any kind of government services.

Usually each van will deliver food to about 15 homes. These residences are tiny, with only two small rooms and the bed or beds in the front room. There are perhaps a few family photos and crosses on the walls, a statue or poster of the Virgen de Guadalupe, a chair or two and maybe a hot plate to cook on. Few have refrigerators. Many of the recipients have been in the program for some time, so they know the volunteers and are excited to see them.

In each home, the volunteers bring the family members together to hold hands and say a prayer. I’m not a churchgoer, so this was awkward for me at first but it was obvious how much this means to people who seem totally isolated and alone, even though they live in this crowded colonia.

When we leave one home, a woman appears from up the street. Her 37-year-old brother, David, is dying of cancer. His wife, five children, a sister and a neighbor gather by the bed of this emaciated man for a prayer.

On this particular Thursday, Dec. 23, we started loading the vans in El Paso before sunrise because this was to be the Christmas celebration at the food bank. We bought turkeys and hams, salads, chicken, bags of beans, sauces, toilet paper and Irish Spring soap. Boxes of gifts have been prepared for the 200-or-so boys and girls who will attend.

There is little traffic heading south into Juarez but, as always, an enormous northbound line. Every time I cross, whether over the long bridge on foot or in one of these vans, I have the impression that everyone else is simply fleeing to the north.

On this day, the volunteers bring the homebound to the food bank where there is a mass, pinatas for the kids and a huge meal. The police patrol comes by on horseback to enjoy the chicken and beans. One officer named Ericka pulls off her balaclava to display long braided hair. There is even chocolate cake for dessert.

Afterwards each child receives a gift package with small toys and basics like toothpaste and a toothbrush. Then we take food to those who are unable to attend; these are the sickest of the sick, and it’s obvious that most will have died by the time I visit again in January or February.

Shortly after 3 p.m., we’re headed back towards El Paso but the day isn’t quite over. As we head onto the bridge from Juarez to El Paso, Tito, the volunteer driver, pulls to a stop and opens a huge container of lemonade. We then drive slowly up the incline of the bridge, handing out paper cups of lemonade to the dozens of vendors who are trying to eke out a living selling pirated CDs, gum, nuts, sunglasses and other trinkets. One of the vendors is wearing a “narco cap”, a hat with the face of Jesus Malverde, the narco saint. I offer him $5 but he won’t sell it. In a few minutes, another van will come along with sandwiches.

Because of the continuing violence along the Mexican border, you would assume that these towns would be shunned by humanitarian workers but that’s not the case. In Juarez as well as tiny, dusty Palomas to the west, which I have visited perhaps a dozen times, religious-based groups and individuals, both American and Mexican, provide what few social services there are.

Yes, there is terrible violence and mayhem along the border, but these extraordinary people are undeterred. It’s an honor to accompany them.

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