27

My 26th year of life has been filled with reflection. Just ask my 23-year-old friends who’ve had to listen to my word vomit during my quarter-life crises (no, I’m not misspelling crisis, there have been multiple).

This past year has been all about accepting that I’m not where I thought I would be. And with that has come the pleasant discovery that I’m exactly where I want to be.

I really thought by 27 I would have my shit together. I thought I would feel like an adult. I thought I would have stuff. Grown-up stuff, I mean. Like a television and a cable subscription. Or maybe lawn furniture. A garage with tools and hoses and boxes of decorations to put in my house for each season of the year. A house, for that matter. I thought I would have a job with an office, and I would wear blazers, or a lab coat maybe, or something professional-looking. On my desk would be a framed picture of my husband, which I thought I’d have.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in my apartment alone, and I burst into laughter. The thing that set me off was the realization that I was a 26-going-on-27-year-old grown ass woman, and here I was on a Friday night laying on a mattress which was laying on the middle of the floor (no bed frame or box springs in sight), in my underwear (I have a swamp cooler, and for those of you who don’t know what that means because you’ve never lived in the desert, it means my apartment doesn’t have A/C and can get pretty toasty), watching Friends on my mom’s Netflix account, and drinking a glass of red wine from a bottle that my mom bought me. It struck me as hilarious.

If you had sent 17-year-old me a snapshot of that scene and said “This is you at 26,” I would have been horrified.

But that’s all it is. A snapshot. Maybe not the most flattering one, but there’s a million other snapshots of my life that would have made 17-year-old me shit her pants with excitement.

Me at 18, walking out of the subway station to find myself standing in front of Cologne Cathedral during my first few weeks of a year-long stay in Germany.

Me at 21, spending my 21st birthday not drinking, but instead hanging out with friends in Costa Rica, eating lasagna with black beans and rice on the side that my host family prepared for the occasion.

Me at 22, getting peed on by a tarantula in the Peruvian Amazon.

Me at 23, catching a marshrutka to Kazbegi in the Republic of Georgia to spend the weekend soaking in some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen and drinking homemade wine out of a 2-liter Fanta bottle with friends.

Me at 24, standing in the rubble of the Moore Oklahoma tornadoes, staring at a car wrapped around a tree trunk, thinking of how people had worked hard for years to build a life for themselves, and it was all flattened in minutes.

Me at 25, having the most intense, and possibly only, religious experience of my life, at a Nick Cave concert in Minneapolis.

Me at 25 again, riding in a bus between the cities of Armenia and Medellin, staring out the window, and realizing that no place had ever made me as happy as this magical place called Colombia.

Me at 26, making a Walmart run with a Roma woman so that I could buy 30 pairs of underwear for the shelter, and she could buy cigarettes, and listening to her tell me stories in Italian that involved loud peals of laughter and multiple signs of the cross.

So maybe I don’t own lawn furniture. But I have a passport that’s almost full. I have a suitcase that’s a bit banged up, but still has some life in it. And I have a fridge covered with pictures of friends I’ve met all over the world. The fridge isn’t actually mine, but the friends and the memories are.

Maybe I don’t have a house. But I’ve made homes everywhere from Bottrop, Germany to Lima, Peru to a tent city inside an out-of-business Sam’s Club in Louisville, Colorado.

And maybe I wear yoga pants to work sometimes and do my reports in a coffee shop not an office. But my work is more meaningful than anything I’d ever be doing in a cubicle.

And maybe I don’t have a husband. But maybe that’s because I don’t want one. Hard to believe, right? As a woman, I’ve been fed this line that I shouldn’t enjoy my independence, but rather just put up with it until I can reach the ultimate objective: marriage. I am not trying to bash marriage. Clearly, it’s a popular concept for a reason, and it makes a lot of people very happy. I just don’t think it would make me happy, and I’m glad I’m able to recognize that now, because divorce is very expensive. It sounds really glamorous to say that I’m just too much of an independent woman to be tied down to a man. Less glamorous, but more accurate, is that I’m too selfish. I don’t like being responsible to another person. I love the fact that if I were to hear of an opportunity to pack up and move to Russia for a bit, the decision to do it is completely up to me. I would be uprooting my own life and no one else’s. And let’s be honest, I can barely stay in the same place for more than a year, so how am I going to be with the same person for the rest of my life? But more important than all of that is the fact that I don’t need a “better half” to make me happy. A lifelong commitment of monogamy and cohabitation is not a prerequisite for me to feel complete. I’ve always been complete, despite society and nosy grandparents trying to tell me otherwise. I move. I explore. I have adventures. And I love it.

When I was a little girl and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I never said a nomad. But that’s just because no one ever told me how fucking cool it would be to be one.

 

Hablando Espaliano

Today, 14 women came to Casa Alitas.

One of them is a Roma (commonly known as Gypsy) woman who speaks Italian. I’ll call her Perla. Perla likes to talk and she doesn’t really care if you can understand her. I was talking with another guest about her situation and she broke down into tears. Perla was trying to be supportive, I think, so she would make a whole speech then look at the woman, at me, at the other volunteers, waiting for us to respond. We would all nod solemnly in agreement, wondering silently what she was talking about.

I had to go to the store to buy some undies for the women, and Perla asked to go with me so she could buy some cigarettes. When we got in the car, she asked me a few questions, like how old I was, and whether I had kids. I think my ability to answer these questions gave her a false sense of how much Italian I actually understand.

She talked nonstop for the whole 10 minute ride to Walmart. I caught quite a bit of it, and after the bits I understood, I’d give an ah or an uh-huh or an ay, no. This would encourage her and she’d begin to talk faster, waving her hands to illustrate her point or making the sign of the cross (she did this so many times, that I feel my car is now super blessed). Then she would burst into wild laughter, and I would too at the absurdity of the situation. She’d pat my arm like we were sharing a real knee-slapper, and then continue to tell me stories.

This job has a lot of moments where I have to step back, look at myself, and just take a minute to appreciate how bizarre my life has become. Walking around Walmart with a cart full of 40 pairs of underwear and 10 bottles of various household cleaners, while chatting with a Roma woman in a mix of Italian and Spanish was definitely one of those moments.

Compassion Fatigue

The first few months of my service at Casa Alitas was exhausting. But more than that, it was rewarding. In the same way that you run a race, struggling to breathe, willing your legs to keep going, and then cross the finish line, feeling exhausted, but uplifted by that runner’s high. So I would feel each time a family would leave me. I’d be exhausted from the chaos that is Alitas – running around town getting groceries, donations, money transfers, getting calls from ICE, family members, volunteers, comforting crying, sick kiddos, comforting crying, sick mothers, intake interviews, legal orientations, volunteer orientations, making travel bags, sitting at the Greyhound station, trying to do 10 of these things at the same time for 4 different families. But the moment I stood next to a mother about to board the bus, and I hugged her and wished her luck, and felt her fingers wrap tightly around my shoulder out of fear, knowing that as soon as she stepped on board, she’d be on her own for the next two days, and out of gratitude because she didn’t have to be on her own for the last two – at that moment I knew at least this race was over. And as I got back in the van and pulled out of the Greyhound parking lot, switching from the Mexican radio station to my Spotify playlist now that I was alone, I felt the runner’s high. The satisfaction that for that short time, we had been able to provide a place where she felt cared for and welcomed, where her children felt safe. I felt gratitude that my life choices had landed me in this house that looks so normal on the outside that you would never think anything of it, but that on the inside is what someone once referred to as the “ER of the border.”

But as the months went on, this started to change. The exhaustion stayed with me and the runner’s high got weaker and weaker.

I wrote a blog post about this 2 months ago, but I never published it. Because upon rereading it, I realized that it sounded a little concerning. The kind of thing that might make friends call me up to see if I needed a hug…or a therapist. I probably needed both.

The timeline of my downward slump went something like this.

October – During a particularly busy few days, where I had been working and sleeping at the Casa for 72 hours straight, I left the house, full of mothers and screaming children, got in the car to go to the grocery store, and burst into tears. I couldn’t take being needed anymore. The women at the house would literally line up and crowd around me, one needing me to talk to her uncle and explain how to buy tickets, another needing me to get medicine for her child who was crying and feverish, another needing me to help her make a call to Guatemala… As soon as I would start helping one, the other would come up and need something else. At that time, I had very little volunteer help, and even when the volunteers were there, it seemed like they always needed something from me, too – where do I find this? how do I do this? she asked me this – what should I tell her? After crying in the grocery store parking lot, and eventually gathering up the energy to walk back into that house, I stayed up til 1 a.m. after all the guests had gone to bed to see what jobs I could apply for when I quit this one. At the end of October, I took a trip to Colombia for a wedding. Before I left, I told my VISTA Leader that I still hadn’t decided whether I’d get on the plane back to the U.S. I was only kind of kidding. But I did get back on the plane. And I’m only kind of sure that was a good decision.

November – Things at the house were the busiest I’d ever seen them. There was a surge of migrants crossing from Central America and ICE began to drop more off to us instead of taking them to Phoenix. This actually worked in my favor, as a lot of the volunteers finally took me seriously when I said I needed help, and stepped up to start coming to the house. I finally got some time off, and for a while I thought my troubles were over.

December – I thought November was busy. We received double the families in December. Unfortunately, that coincided with finals at the U of A, and the holiday season, so my volunteer base dropped substantially. I was ready for it, though. November had given me some free time, and I was working only 60 hour weeks and actually getting to sleep in my own bed some nights. I was willing to power through December, knowing that in January things would get easier again. I overestimated myself.

The surge, plus the ICE Raids had everyone talking about immigration in December and we were soon receiving media requests, volunteer inquiries, and piles of donations coming in. Not to mention the high number of families we were welcoming. There were nights when we had 24 people that needed overnight accommodation (we have a capacity of 10 at Alitas so had to rely on volunteers to take in families in their homes as well). Buses weren’t running due to weather, things were shut down for the holidays.

At the same time, we had a family with us who had been unable to find a sponsor, and unlike most families who are with us for one night, they were with us for 2 months. The mother had experienced an enormous amount of abuse and trauma and was not stable or in a position to make good decisions for herself and her son. Her son was 9 years old, and you could tell that the crazy chaotic Alitas environment was the most stable thing he’d ever experienced. Having them in the house was an emotional roller coaster, and their story is a story for another day.

After 5 months of doing this job, I felt like a boxer. Not like a good one, but like the loser, that somehow stays on his feet and keeps taking the beating over and over. The emotional toll of growing close to this family and then watching the mother unravel her son’s life and her own was just one more blow. I felt like it was a matter of time before my knees gave out and I hit the ground.

The first time I really realized what a bad place I was in was when I came in to work to take over for a volunteer who was ending her shift. As soon as I walked in the door, the volunteer told the guest who had just been dropped off, “That’s Jamie. She’s the coordinator. She’ll know what to do.” And the guest, a woman from Mexico, immediately ran to me, crying, and started frantically explaining her situation. She had come with her husband and 2 daughters. She had been released with her youngest daughter to us, but her oldest daughter was 18, and like most adult women who aren’t pregnant and aren’t traveling with their children, she had been sent to a detention facility, as had the woman’s husband. The woman was distraught. She didn’t know what her daughter would do all by herself in detention (i.e. prison). She was only 18, she’d be terrified. She needed her mother.

The woman was telling me all this, grabbing my hand, and begging me to do something about it. But I was not listening. As soon as she approached me, all I could hear were the thoughts in my head saying, “I need to leave. I need to get out of here. I cannot breathe. I need to leave.”  It was the first time I noticed such a physical response to the stress. My heart rate increased. My muscles tensed. I felt like someone was stepping on my chest and sucking all the oxygen out of the room. And I knew I was not ok.

So I made a point to focus on self-care. I spent as much time working away from Casa Alitas as possible. I stopped reading news about immigration and started reading silly novels. I downloaded a meditation app on my phone. I tried to get out in nature as much as possible.

Flash forward to March. I was sitting in a conference room at Catholic Community Services with a group of Princeton students who had come to the border for an alternative spring break. They had visited with a lot of other organizations working for migrants’ rights, and after I talked a bit about our program, we got to the Q&A. While visiting with No More Deaths, they had learned about the Culture of Cruelty report and the abuses that migrants have suffered at the hands of Border Patrol agents. They asked what kinds of stories I had heard, and I told them of what women had told me of the verbal abuse they suffered, and the conditions they had endured in Border Patrol detention. I also told them how they’re not all bad. Like the CBP agents who had dropped off a family to us, and when the family got out of the car, the agent patted the little boy on the head and said in Spanish, “Remember what I told you. You’ve got to start going to school and learning English really well so that you can get a good job and take care of your mother.” The boy’s mom had tears in her eyes as she shook the officer’s hands and sincerely thanked them for being so kind to them.

After a few other questions, one of the students directed the conversation back to the culture of cruelty. She said she couldn’t wrap her head around the BP agents that abuse these families. What’s the point of grabbing their possessions just to throw them in the dirt and kick them around? Why spend the energy mocking and insulting these women who are just trying to flee for their lives and keep their children out of danger? What kind of a person do you have to be to treat a vulnerable human being that way?

And that’s how I found myself defending Border Patrol. I think I was just as surprised as they were. I have no doubt that 6 months prior to that, my simple answer would have been, “Good question. It’s beyond me how someone could treat another human being that way.” But now, my answer started with, “I think there’s a few things you have to understand that might help explain some of their behavior. Not justify it, but explain it…”

I told them that one thing I learned by doing this job is that compassion fatigue is a very real thing. You reach a point where you cannot continue to take on other people’s pain and trauma, because in this line of work, it’s never-ending. And BP are talking to the same people I’m talking to, seeing the same kiddos, hearing the same stories. But they see more, too. They see the kids coming here on their own, who get sent to the shelters, not Alitas. The see the dead bodies. And we expect them to do this day in and day out, and do it with love and compassion?

The agency doesn’t expect them to. That’s why they train them to refer to border-crossers as bodies instead of people. Every time an agent calls me and says “We’ll be bringing you 3 bodies in about half an hour, ma’am,” I feel a little shocked at the coldness of the term. But they probably don’t even realize they’re saying it anymore. This is not an arbitrary term that the agency decided on. It has a purpose, and that purpose is to dehumanize the people that the agents come into contact with every day, so that the agents can do their job without “compassion” getting in the way of it. I’m sure they employ plenty more techniques that have the same intention.

Another thing that I think should be noted, is that it was reported in 2015 that men made up 95% of BP agents. When you have a male-dominated force like that you have to take into account the pressure that societal views on masculinity place on the agents, coupled with the stigma that surrounds mental health in this country. Take me, for example. When I started feeling compassion fatigue, I talked with my VISTA Leader about what I was going through, and she suggested seeing a mental health provider. For two women, working in an organization like AmeriCorps, that was a relatively easy conversation to have and a natural solution to come up with.

But imagine a male BP agent in his early 20’s, struggling with the fact that in his job he regularly comes in contact with people on the verge of death (some past it), who are coming from situations so horrible, that the thought of abandoning their home and their culture, taking a dangerous journey through Central America and Mexico, crossing the desert and hoping they make it out alive is the best option they have. They see women and girls who have been raped and beaten. They see feet raw and bleeding. They see lips cracked and peeling with dehydration and desert heat. Can you imagine this agent turning to a peer or going to his superior and sharing his feelings about how the things he encounters on the job every day are slowly eating away at his soul? Of course not.

So what happens if you don’t? What happens if you internalize all of that and just keep on doing what you’re doing?

I am definitely not proud to admit this, but at a certain point, I literally just stopped caring. I didn’t have it in me anymore. Remember the woman whose daughter and husband were detained and who rushed to me to see what I could do to help them? She was completely distraught, and crying to me, and I did not feel empathy. I felt resentment, even anger. I was angry that she was making it hard for me to breathe. I was angry that she was here needing things from me. It’s hard to come up with reasons that I was angry because my anger was irrational and I knew it. She had done nothing to deserve my hostility, and yet I felt it. Which is why I knew at that point I had to make a change.

But BP agents aren’t in the position to make a change, and so they keep feeling angry. And they get angry enough to grab a migrant’s belongings and stomp them in the dirt for no reason at all. They get angry enough to insult them and shout profanities at them, and to do a lot worse.

It seems, at least from the anecdotal evidence I get from the women at Alitas, that a lot of times, the female agents can be especially vicious. For only making up 5% of the force, I hear a lot of stories about the awful things they say to migrants. Who knows, maybe it’s just one woman in particular and all the stories are about her, but I wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with the fact that the women take it harder. They see all the suffering and watch what these mothers are going through with their kids, and it hits them deeper than it does the male officers. So they lash out even harder.

Again, I’m not justifying any of the abuse that the Border Patrol commits. And I think a lot of what they do goes above and beyond what can be attributed to compassion fatigue. But I don’t think we can chalk it all up to them being evil people. They’re just people. We’re all cut from the same cloth, and even though their mission is very different from mine, the blows we sustain in carrying our missions out might be more similar than we expect.

Bye Felipe

 

This past weekend, I attended the Tucson Festival of Books. It was a great festival, and I was blown away by all the events and author panels that were put together. However, there’s one thing that really stuck with me after the festival was over, and not in a good way. So I thought I’d pull out all my thoughts and let them stew here in this muggle pensieve that I call a blog.

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The issue revolved around a particular panel I attended called Race in America. On the panel were Edward Baptist (Cornell History Dept), Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (Notre Dame History Dept), Linda Martin Alcoff (Hunter College Philosophy Dept) and Lalo Alcaraz (cartoonist – La Cucaracha, and writer on Fox’s Bordertown – watch it, the high school football episode almost made me pee my pants).

 

There were a few things that were problematic about this panel. The most glaringly obvious being that the panel on race wasn’t actually very racially diverse. This came up in the first question of the Q&A session, and much to my disappointment, no one on the panel responded. Lalo sarcastically made the point that none of them put together the panel, they just got invited. That is true. The panelists themselves had no control over who would share the stage with them, and if the festival organizers had actually tried to get someone like Cornel West on the panel, I would’ve had to have a sit-down with them to talk about the importance of setting attainable goals. However, I think it would have been an excellent opportunity for the panelists to open a discussion about the state of the current dialogue on race, and whether they felt enough people of color were having their voices heard. Instead, no one commented.

Had they, the second question would have tied beautifully to that theme, as the woman spoke about the lack of racial diversity in the publishing industry and how no one is hearing the stories that people of color are trying to tell, because they can’t get past the white “gatekeepers.”

At this point, faithful reader, (i.e. mom), I’m going to suggest you watch the following video starting at the 41 minute mark until you hear the woman’s question, Lalo’s response, Felipe’s response, the woman’s counter, and Linda’s response. Otherwise the rest of this post won’t make much sense.

http://www.c-span.org/video/?406242-8/panel-discussion-race-america

Finished watching yet?

Finished cringing yet?

Didn’t cringe at all? ….Then chances are you are a white male. Don’t feel bad about it! Just read on, keep your ego in check (I’m looking at you, Felipe) and try to understand where this person is coming from.

Let me preface by saying that I am white. If you are reading this and didn’t know that, I would be interested in hearing what kind of google search rabbit hole led you to my blog! Please feel free to let me know in the comments. As a white person, I clearly have never experienced what this woman described. No one has ever made assumptions about my job or status purely based on my race.

However, as a woman, I do feel that I can relate to what she is saying to some degree. I’ve been in many professional situations where my male coworkers were clearly treated with a higher level of respect by other males, while the females were looked upon as less competent, or just ignored. I was in one situation at FEMA where I was canvassing with a male crew member at a dentist’s office. I was right beside my male coworker the entire time, and the dentist did not shake my hand, did not introduce himself to me, and did not address me once while we were visiting with them. I’m sure he thought I was a secretary, due to the fact that a vagina severely impedes a person’s ability to do anything besides type, answer phones, and take notes. That’s common knowledge.

My point is, I get it. But my other point is, I don’t get it. I will never know what it’s like to have people make assumptions about my intellect, my level of education, my personality, my values and morals, and my personal life based on the color of my skin. That is not a part of my reality. The best I can do is listen and trust that she knows better than me what that is like, and try my best to imagine what it would be like to live in her reality.

Which brings me to my problem with Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. His comments were not an example of using humor to help us get through tough conversations about race. His comments were super fucking douchey. The problem is, he completely dismissed this woman’s and Lalo’s experiences. With a chuckle about how he would be flattered for someone to think he was good at raising kids or parking cars, he was essentially saying, “You’re silly, and this is not a real problem.”

And this was so. fucking. familiar. This is the reaction I’ve gotten so many times when talking about street harassment. You should be flattered that they think you’re a nanny and not a college professor with a PhD! You should be flattered that some dude on the street says you have a nice ass! You should be flattered that a rich white person in Beverly Hills trusts you to park their car! You should take it as a compliment that the guy passing you on the sidewalk shouts [something I can’t repeat because my grandma reads this blog]!

No, sir, we should not. And who are you to tell us what we should or should not feel? Is it that hard to just acknowledge that you have no clue what the fuck we’re talking about? Is it that hard to just admit that you will never understand, because when you walk around South Bend, Indiana, the only assumptions people could make about you based on your appearance and your accent are that you’re a college professor (ding! ding!) or that you’re the voice actor for Nigel Thornberry from the classic Nickelodeon cartoon The Wild Thornberry’s (I’m still not convinced that you’re not).

At that point, despite your outrageously thick lenses, you did not see Lalo’s face, which was clearly saying “Abort! Abort! Juststoptalkingnow!” and trying to save you from yourself. No, unfortunately, you just kept digging that hole, going on to say “I kind of wish I could share these deprivations and these humiliations…”

Do you, Felipe? Do you?? 

At that point in the video, the woman wasn’t speaking into the microphone, so the film crew didn’t pick it up, but if I remember right, she was trying to explain to him that not only did people think she was a nanny, they also treated her differently and with much less respect because of it. She then goes on to stress that he will never ever understand how humiliated that makes her feel.

Not realizing just how deep he’s dug himself, he tries to pull himself back out of the hole with a comment about how class prejudice is just as harmful as racial prejudice. That may be true, but it does not counteract the amount of steaming garbage you spewed from your mouth a few seconds ago.

One other thing that the microphones weren’t able to pick up was the audience’s reaction. This talk was mostly attended by senior citizens (side note: this seems to be a common theme for most social justice related talks/gatherings in Tucson – show up, young people!! Where you at?!).  If I’ve learned one thing about Tucson’s older population, it’s that they don’t take no shit. I once met with a church’s morning coffee group to talk about the Alitas Program, and after mentioning the conditions of Border Patrol detention, I was fully convinced that if a BP agent had been in the room, a few of those old ladies would have turned him over their knee and gave him a whooping. They didn’t take Felipe’s shit either. There was hissing. Actual hissing from the audience. It was fantastic.

Now the sad part about this is that clearly, he was in the wrong. He said something insensitive, like people do, but he didn’t sign his death warrant. People make mistakes and he could have come back from it. Despite the hissing and the grumbles, he could have made it right by simply saying sorry. He could have apologized to that woman for reducing her very real experiences to a silly joke. He could have admitted that it was misguided to make light of something that is clearly upsetting to her. But he did not. He did what a lot of people with a bruised ego unfortunately do, and he acted like an even bigger asshole in an attempt to reassert his authority to an audience who had clearly lost respect for him.

He goes on to talk very disrespectfully to one of the community members that I know personally – a long-time volunteer at Alitas, and someone that I have a lot of respect for. I will not get into that whole situation, as I am clearly biased and also not well informed about the topic the were debating. However, if you watch the interview that Felipe did after the show (http://www.c-span.org/video/?406242-9/open-phones-felipe-fernandezarmesto) you can see in his response to being called an imperialist, he throws the word “ignorance” around as much as possible in a sad and pathetic attempt to make himself feel like the bigger man, when really he is just resorting to the name-calling that he condemned a few minutes prior to that.

In closing, conversations about race are hard. We are bound to say stupid things. We’re bound to get it wrong. It’s going to be uncomfortable to realize that we may unintentionally have been “the oppressor” without knowing what our actions or words meant to the person receiving them. But these conversations are a chance to grow. They’re a chance to say sorry, I won’t do that again, and then not do it again. But we don’t get anywhere by shutting people down or dismissing their feelings. We have to open ourselves up to other perspectives. We have to give other voices a chance to speak, and when they do we have to really listen.

 

Not just a story

“El hambre viene, el hombre se va, sin más razón.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      El Viento, Manu Chao

A few weeks ago, I took a solo trip to Bisbee, AZ. I had had my first complete day off in a couple of months, where I had volunteers covering the whole day at the house, and I didn’t even have to be on call. I had planned to go on a trip with the Tucson Samaritans to do a desert hike and water drop, but they weren’t able to find an experienced volunteer to lead the trip for me and the other newbie that signed up, so the night before, the trip was cancelled. All (3) of my friends were busy the next day, so I hopped in my car by myself for a little day trip to the old mining town. The drive was one of the most beautiful I’d ever taken. Huge thunderheads rose behind picturesque mountains and wildflowers lined the highway. 

Unfortunately, those beautiful thunderheads inevitably meant rain, and by the time I made it to Bisbee, it was raining too hard to walk around the historic downtown and browse the shops and art galleries. Instead, I found a bookstore attached to a coffee shop. I browsed the books, and came upon The Death of Josseline by Margaret Regan. That had been on my to-read list ever since it had been mentioned at the Samaritans orientation, and since I had already managed to get myself in some hot water with the Pima County Public Library over some books that had been sucked into one of the many black holes that hide in Casa Alitas, I decided to buy it rather than borrowing it. 

I took my new purchase over to the coffee shop, settled in to a little table in the corner, and began to read. I opened first to a map of the Arizona-Sonora Borderlands. I scanned the names of the border cities – Agua Prieta, Douglas, Naco, Nogales –  which 3 months ago I had never heard of, but which were now so familiar to me after, time and time again, I had written them down as the point of entry on the family intake forms at Casa Alitas. 

I turned to the prologue, which told of Josseline. From the title of the book, I already knew her fate, but I was not so aware of the way hearing her story would hit me. The author tells of the 14-year-old girl from El Salvador who was traveling with her 10-year-old brother to be reunited with their mother in Los Angeles. They had made it through Guatemala and Mexico, over the U.S. border, and were crossing the desert through Arizona when Josseline began to feel sick and weak and couldn’t go on. The coyote decided to leave her behind, and Josseline insisted her brother go on with the group. Days later, a volunteer from No More Deaths found her lying dead under a bush. 

As I sat in the crowded coffee shop, taking in the details of her journey, the description of the scene that the volunteer came upon, the mourning of her family, I tried hard to relax my brow, swallow the lump in my throat, and hold back the tears enough so that they wouldn’t pool over. 

If I had been reading that same passage a few months prior, I don’t think my reaction would have been the same. My brain would have known it was sad. I would have understood that it was a tragedy, what happened to this girl, but I don’t think I would have felt it. I don’t think I would have felt my heart ache for her, and I don’t think that same heaviness would have settled in the pit of my stomach and stayed there. A few months ago it would have seemed so far removed from me. Just a story. But now it was all too real. 

In Josseline, I saw every little girl that I had welcomed safe and sound into Casa Alitas. The one who followed me around, wanting to be my helper. The one who drew a picture, and then glowed with pride when we hung it up on the wall with the rest of the artwork from the kiddos. The shy one who sat still and quiet, staring with her big brown eyes at the other kids running and screaming through the house. The one who proudly listed to me about all the things her mommy could do. The 15-year-old who asked if I could take her to the store to buy a Coke at 9 pm because she was craving one so bad, and then when we were in the van alone, started giggling, embarrassed, and admitted she just wanted to borrow my phone to call a boy that she didn’t want her mom to know she was calling. 

I saw all these little girls lying face down in the desert, alone. 

And I wonder… what if Donald Trump sat down for dinner with a woman and her daughter, and the woman, in her soft and quiet voice, calmly began to tell him about her husband who used to beat her and the gang members who attacked her and raped her back in her home country. Would he still be so eager to send her back there? What if he held a sleeping baby in his arms while he listened to its mother talk about how she had struggled to keep food on the table in a village where there were no jobs that paid living wages. Would he still want to spend ridiculous amounts of money deporting thousands of people, building walls, and increasing the number of Border Patrol agents to make sure food doesn’t go into that baby’s stomach?

What if Chris Christie got to know the young pregnant woman who fled to another city to escape death threats, only to find that the threats would follow her wherever she went until finally fleeing the country was her only option. Would he still want to track her like a FedEx package, or would he realize she was a human being and not an Amazon order?

What if all those people with the “This is America – Speak English” bumper stickers listened in on the after-dinner conversation of 3 Guatemalan mothers, who were already bilingual – speaking Mam and Spanish – talking about their children’s future in America. They hoped their children would grow up trilingual, speaking English, Spanish, and Mam, but admitted that English would be the priority and they were willing to let Mam, their native language and such an integral connection to their culture and roots, fall to the wayside if their children weren’t able to learn all three. Would these people still chastise them for not immediately being able to speak a language that they had never had the resources or time to learn, or would they respect them for already knowing more languages than most (non-immigrant) Americans?

What if Border Patrol was trained to use the term people instead of bodies? Would they start treating them like it?

Where they come from

A couple of minutes ago, a three year old girl from Guatemala was looking out the window at Casa Alitas and saw two guys walking down the street. She leaned in close to me, and in her hard to understand 3-year-old Spanish, I heard her whisper something about the police and a pistol, as she stuck out her pointer and middle finger like a gun, pointed it into her mouth, and pulled the trigger, jerking back her head.

The women here chat and laugh and the kids play and watch cartoons, and you forget that they have a story that you’ll never know, and wouldn’t comprehend even if you did.

Why Have Kids When I’m Already a Mom

When raising kids, a lot of times women will have those moments where they think, “I’ve turned into my mother.”

I’m not married and I don’t have children, but I’ve had a lot of those moments lately. I’ve come to discover that running Casa Alitas is sort of a mix between working at a hostel and being a mom. Here’s a taste of the “mother moments” I’ve been having lately. Most are in response to the teenage boys we have in the house.

When I ask the teen boys what they want from the grocery store, and they say “I don’t care.” This used to be me and it would drive my mom crazy. Now it’s me being like “Just tell me what you want or I swear on all that’s holy, I will buy nothing but tuna!!”

When I look in the fridge and pull out a jar of salsa, then realize it is empty. I have found empty tupperware, empty bread sacks, empty cheese bags, empty gatorade bottles. And it drives. me. nuts. This was mostly a problem with the 2 boys who were living here last month. They’ve since moved into an apartment together in Phoenix. Sometimes I imagine what their fridge there must look like. Just shelves full of empty bottles and containers. Seemingly stocked with food, but when you look a little bit closer you realize it’s nothing but empty packaging.

When I get in the Alitas van, which is totally a mom van, and everyone who I am driving sits in the back seat and leaves me in the front seat alone. Mom response: “Someone get up here! You’re making me feel like a taxi driver!”

When I make dinner and set it out on the table, and say “Do you want to come eat?” and everyone says yes, but no one moves, they just continue to watch TV. So I set out plates and silverware, and say “Ok, food’s ready. Come eat!” and they nod and say ok, but still no one moves. So I say “Are you going to eat?” – yes – “Are you going to come to the table?” – yes – “Now??” – Oh, ok. And then they come. WAS THAT SO HARD??

Then there are those other moments when I feel like a grandma. Only in the sense that I get to completely spoil these cute little kids for a few days and then their poor mothers have to deal with the after effects.

First, there was the little Guatemalan girl who would follow me around the house. “Señora,” she’d say, “don’t you have more….more….more….more….more………”

“More what?” I’d say.

“More……toys?”

I’d look in the office and find a few stuffed animals hiding somewhere, which would pacify her for a few minutes, until she’d come back with the same question. I’d look in the shed and find a couple teddy bears. Then a few minutes later, she’d ask again. I’d look in some boxes and find the little bags of coloring books and crayons that we send with kids on the bus rides. She’d play with that for a bit, then come back and ask for more. We have a lot of toys in this house and that little girl played with every last one of them. When I finally ran out of toys, she started asking for new things.

“Señora,” she’d say, “do you have a crown?”

“Señora, do you have a bicycle?”

“Señora, do you have a bow?”

I started baking a cake to take to the community dinner that happens at Casa Mariposa every week, and she wanted to be my helper. I put some bocadillo (sweetened guava paste) in the cake, and gave her a taste. Every time I would add a new ingredient to the batter, she asked me to take the bowl off the counter and show it to her, and I would ask her how it looked.

“Bien bonito,” she’d say every time – “Really nice.”

Then she’d ask if I couldn’t just give her a tiny bit more bocadillo, and I’d cut her off another chunk.

Then she wanted to paint her nails. I was staying overnight at the house at the time, and had brought some of my nail polish. She picked some out and I painted her fingers and toes. “Why don’t you paint your nails?” she asked me. I told her I was going to, but I hadn’t gotten around to it. “Why don’t you comb your hair?” she asked me next. “I do,” I told her. “It just looks like this anyway.”

Sadly, this little girl left, like they all do. But it was not long before I had another miniature Guatemalan shadow. This one was quite the little helper. She would follow me around and ask what she could do to help. She put away groceries, folded laundry, helped cook. It was like having my own personal assistant. In return, I spoiled her rotten. It started out when her family first arrived. I took them to the clothing shed we have in the backyard to pick out some clean clothes so they could take showers and have something to change into. The girl saw a pair of pink and black polka dot pants, and her eyes lit up. I told her she could have them and she got super excited. She found a pink shirt to match and then turned to the shoes. She found a cute little white high-heel, but unfortunately it didn’t have a match. We found a pair of velcro shoes that fit her instead and she was happy with that.

Later, she was looking at the bookshelf and I told her if she picked out some books she liked, she could take them with her for the bus trip. Her eyes got wide and she started looking through them. She found one she liked, showed it to me, and asked if she could have it. I said sure and she turned around and screamed, “MOM!!! She said I could have it!” Then, for the rest of the time she was here, she would come up to me now and then with a little toy in her hand and ask if she could take it with her. “Sure,” I’d say.

“MOOOOMMMM!!! She said I could have it!”

By the time she was ready to get on her bus, she had a little pink wheeled suitcase she had found, and it was stuffed with clothes, books, toys and snacks. I took the family to the bus station, but in the rush of getting ready, I had forgotten to grab the food bag we give them that has food, water, and toiletries for the journey. For the night buses, there are always a couple of volunteers that meet me at the station, and stay with the families to explain their tickets and wait with them to get on the bus. I left them with the volunteers and explained I would run back to the house quick to grab the food. A half hour later, when I got back to the station, I went over to where they were waiting. One of the volunteers told me that the little girl decided she wanted to stay and live at the house with me. The mother laughed, and the girl looked at me and nodded. The volunteer told me she said she wanted to stay with me because I treated her better than her mom did. I told her that she couldn’t stay with me because she was getting on a bus to Florida to see her daddy. The little girl started bawling and I gave her a hug, said goodbye to the rest of the family, and said “Well, I should probably get back to the house.” She was still wailing as I left the station. Her poor mother. I’ve got this grandma thing down pat.

But the absolute worst part of being the Casa Alitas mom is when my kids leave me. When they’ve been here for a few days, a few weeks, or even a month, and I get used to having them around the house. But then I have to send them on their way, and I spend the next few days worrying about how they’re doing in their new home, or whether the bus ride went ok. And sometimes I go from a full house to all of a sudden just me, and I sit alone in the house with empty nest syndrome until the next family gets dropped at my doorstep.