Conversations with Migrants: The Volunteers

In her Stories From a Texas Border Ranch series, Melissa Guerra looked at the daily intricacies and deep contradictions of life in a South Texas border town. Sharing tradition, culture, and family with her Mexican neighbors, the narrative journey of her homeland veered away from politics to paint a powerful picture of daily life in the Rio Grande Valley. Now, Guerra returns with another border series, this time looking at life from the other side. A timely perspective that begs consideration, these are the stories of the migrants. 

“Senorita, Senorita! Can you come here? I need a pill or something. I feel very sick…”

Her eyes were hidden behind dark drooping lashes and long brown hair, but I could see that her face was flushed. I placed my hand on her forehead and neck; she was warm, but the entire waiting room was warm, as the air conditioner had gone out in the former Evangelical Church that was now the Catholic Charities Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. Within, 200 migrants were waiting to catch their outbound bus rides. The din was a mix of migrants talking, babies crying, volunteers talking in Spanish on cell phones to distant relatives sending money, and the buzz of an animated movie in the play center. It was difficult to determine if her discomfort was from the stale air and commotion of her surroundings or from within her own body.

“How old are you?” I asked her. “Twelve.” she coughed. I quickly located Sister Jan and explained the situation. She directed me to the volunteer doctor set up in a makeshift medical office in the corner. Along with her father, the girl and I pushed through the crowd. The volunteer doctor closed the door, so the girl could be examined in privacy, and I moved back into the main waiting area. I was later told she had a fever of 102°F.

Stepping over outstretched legs wearing ankle monitors and bodies curled up in blankets provided by the Red Cross, I passed the phone bank of seven or eight bilingual volunteers coordinating bus fare for migrants. People clutched at their belongings, contained in clear zipper bags from Homeland Security. Their documents were contained in manila envelopes labeled with bold letters “PLEASE HELP ME. I DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH. WHAT BUS DO I NEED TO TAKE? THANK YOU FOR YOUR HELP!” This was the daily scene at the Respite Center, a mainstay of my community that was recently thrust into international spotlight as our border plight deepens.

As a chef and food blogger from the Rio Grande Valley, it was becoming increasingly absurd to write about everything except the immigration crisis that is literally unfolding in my front yard. As I tested recipes in the kitchen of our family’s cattle ranch, undocumented aliens (UDA’s) were being apprehended by Border Patrol in the pasture adjacent to our home. So, over the last year I began to write about what I see as a local resident on the border. I do this not only because I am a life long witness to the progression of border issues, but also as an antidote to the surge and spike of information that is occasionally hurled at the rest of the nation via our media outlets. Immigration and border management are part of our local culture, and for us, the situation is more than a sound bite or a politician’s ad hoc promise: it’s our way of life.

The Rio Grande Valley has precious little available water. Migrants that are smuggled or trafficked through our area are, many times, dropped with little chance of survival. Our rural ranching community works closely with law enforcement to make sure lost migrants are rescued. However, saving them from the elements also means they will probably be deported. Though I have spent a lifetime interacting with migrants, I didn’t really know what they went through before or after they crossed our property.

I am as guilty as any local of accepting the reoccurring cameo appearance as part of our local scenery. Just like ignoring that guy with the cardboard sign when you stop your car at an intersection, we ignore the plight of the migrant. But because of the increased pressure our border is experiencing, the increased media attention, and the impending fortification of the border infrastructure, I wonder daily how our lives in the Rio Grande Valley will change. Will we be the community that spends its days in its own business, home and family pursuits, or the community that solely exists to serve the political needs of our nation and those of migrants? Perhaps the latter is a fear that has prevented me from becoming more involved in the past. I like the way we live now, and I am afraid of change.

Considering my awareness of my community’s challenges, I started writing down my daily interactions with migrants in order to reveal their individual stories. I wanted to understand their deeper histories, as their lives affect my life on the ranch. My colleague Rigoberto Gonzales, a talented local artist, has been sketching the migrants, in lieu of photos. As our project progressed, however, we felt we were pushing the boundaries of the migrants’ personal space, which had already been breached time and again. Instead of formal interviews, I decided to volunteer at the Respite Center. Perhaps, by working among the migrants, I could casually speak with some regarding their journeys, all while giving back to my community in a way I hadn’t previously.

Since the menu at the Respite Center never changes — sandwiches and soup — I decided that one of my volunteering contributions would be to cook lunch for the volunteers and staff. I made a heaping pan of arroz con pollo and a pot of beans. I delivered my food to the kitchen and walked into the main receiving room. I leaned momentarily in a doorway, simply to take in the whole scene.

Perusing the crowd, I noticed that most of the people waiting in the Respite Center were under the age of 25, many with infants. There were young men wearing backwards caps and baggy sports jerseys, watching cartoons with their babies. A beautiful set of twin girls with matching curly black hair, dirty faces and crusty pink striped t-shirts were toddling after their mother. There was a mature woman in her 40’s with a wind burnt face that made me think she came from a mountainous region, perhaps Guatemala. An older man was stretched out on his back on the evangelical stage, his eyelids half closed, and his mouth gaping, revealing a golden crowned tooth. I stared for a moment, and was relieved to finally see his chest rise, and hear him snore softly.

In order to capture a migrant’s story for my project, I thought that maybe I could talk to the family of the girl that had the fever, but she was slouched over on a chair feeling miserable. Because the room was so crowded, people seemed determined to defend their boundaries, talking amongst the other migrants, and reaching out to the volunteers only when they had a need. It was chaos, but as I stood there, I couldn’t help wondering where everyone would be without the Respite Center. There are currently no other options. And as if on cue, a new group of approximately 40 migrants came in the door. Counting volunteers, I estimated 250 people. There was no time to approach this new group and get acquainted with their needs, as we had to get lunch on the table. I looked for the other volunteers to offer my help.

I was directed to help in the kitchen, as some of the volunteers stepped out to take a break. A woman named Leanne was shredding cooked chicken for the soup, and we talked about why we were there volunteering. She said she was from California, as were many of the other volunteers that day. I said I was a local writer, and I was curious as to why people from California would come to another part of the U.S.-Mexican border to help with migrants. Leanne explained that she was Jewish and that God’s commandment of mitzvah was an obligation that she took very seriously. She and her rabbi were on the border to serve, just as they had served in Africa and Eastern Europe. I thanked her for including our area in her peace efforts, and we continued to shred chicken together until all our supply went into the soup.

As lunch was ready — and as a professional with extensive restaurant experience — I hopped to serving. The Respite Center dining room holds only 24 chairs and six tables, so the children were brought in to eat first. Once they were fed, the adults began to trickle in, each eating as quickly as possible so that the next one could take their place. Some of the migrants looked confused as to how they were to acquire a bowl, so I explained that they could pretend they were dining in a restaurant, and that I was their waitress. A few chuckled when I delivered their soup with a “Buen Provecho!”

Behind the dining tables were two smaller offices that had been converted into walk-in closets. Once a migrant had acquired a service number, they could select from available donated men’s or women’s clothing. While the population of the dining area ebbed and flowed, lines of migrants waited patiently for their allotment of donated clothes, only inches from the tables. Every inch of the room was in use.

There was a third area reserved for children’s clothes and diapers, managed by Isabela, a cheerful, curly haired young woman that spoke little English. She was chatting and laughing with a petite woman modeling a beige t-shirt to a man who confirmed that yes, it looked nice on her. On the table was a baby seat with an equally petite newborn baby girl buried under a pink flannel blanket, only five days old. Born to the woman modeling the t-shirt, the baby had been born in the detention center. No name had been given yet.

With groups of 24 wafting in and out of the dining area, and lines of people nearby trying on clothing, it was pandemonium, but eventually all were fed and the tumult subsided. The local staff members settled in to eat some of the food I brought. The visiting volunteers snacked on the more familiar granola energy bars.

Isabela was a local staff member. She commented how much the arroz con pollo reminded her of her mother’s cooking and we began to chat, and she revealed that she had migrated to the U.S. by herself, and that she knew how hard the migrants journey was. “But the volunteers seem afraid to tell the migrants what to do.” She said there as too much drama in the media currently, and that the migrants needed more guidance. In her children’s clothing and diaper area, she maintained order and made sure that her rules were followed. “What’s going on in the showers? I think they are taking too long!” She cleared her plate and set off to investigate.

As more volunteers were crouched in an adjacent supply room to eat, I pressed Leanne and the others for more reasons as to why they came from outside the Rio Grande Valley to help. “Because this is the place where we are allowed to help,” was the resounding answer. Another of the regular staff members named Julius quipped that recently they have begun to limit the number of volunteers that they could accommodate to 15 per day. “We just don’t have room,” he said, as he sat on a pallet of bottled water.

With the Californian volunteers, we talked a little about U.S. population density, and that perhaps areas of the border with more resources than the Rio Grande Valley had better facilities for receiving migrants. None of us crouching in the supply room had those statistics. Leanne said that the acts of kindness that she and her congregation offered were for the here and now, and that the need was currently in the Rio Grande Valley. The need was less obvious at other parts of the border.

I left the Respite Center still wondering why my own community wasn’t participating in its fate, as well as what I could contribute on my next visit.

I returned a few days later laden with clothing donations. I checked the volunteer roster, and while there were volunteers from other states signed in, there seemed to be more local residents than what I had witnessed in the past. Sister Norma happened to be at the Respite Center for an interview with a Japanese reporter. I waited until they finished to ask her about the corps of volunteers. Why had Leanne, the volunteer from southern California, journeyed to our Texas border to offer help, when a greater number of needy migrants arriving in the United States crossed the border at Tijuana? McAllen receives fewer migrants, and admittedly, offers fewer resources.

Sister Norma had just returned from a tour along the San Diego/Tijuana border, and her observations jolted my understanding of my community’s particular situation. “There are rescue missions in Tijuana, and there seems to be more ‘back and forth’ traffic between the U.S. and Mexico in California,” she said, as she surveyed the day’s crowd of migrants that mingled nearby. “We do have good local volunteers, but we welcome any and all help that is offered.”

In 2017, there was a network of approximately 20 migrant shelters in Tijuana. Online Mexican newspapers confirm that in 2018, there has been a 300% increase in murders in Reynosa, the border city adjacent to McAllen. Although murder rates in Tijuana continue to rise at a rate of 66% for 2018, missions and shelters established in Tijuana are still offering humanitarian aid to those who have traveled to the border seeking to cross in the United States. Many humanitarian aid efforts in Reynosa have ceased because of the increased violence.

This difference in narco-related violence on the Mexican side of the border shapes the humanitarian aid and volunteering opportunities in the adjacent United States communities. Whereas volunteers in San Diego and Tijuana can continue to cooperate to deliver aid in the current humanitarian crisis of Central American migrants, McAllen and Reynosa cannot replicate this partnership. The U.S. news media has zoomed in on the story of the migrant, which in turn has brought more volunteers to the Rio Grande Valley to render aid to people in need. But I am left wondering why media and political attention rests on the migrants and the management of their U.S. citizenship status, but spends little time focusing on the increased murders and violence from which the migrants flee.

Many of the volunteers that I met on this recent visit had stopped their daily lives in distant communities and flown to the Rio Grande Valley to render aid to the traveling migrants. The plight of the migrant on U.S. soil had affected their conscience. But the ominous imposition of a Border Wall and a potent influx of law enforcement personnel will affect my home town at a physical and spiritual level that visiting volunteers could never comprehend. Maybe it is this deeply personal and emotional comprehension that keeps local adults preoccupied with other, less grievous daily pursuits.  Further, perhaps this is why traveling volunteers had left the more troublesome needs that exist within their own communities.

The learning curve on human interaction, need, and selflessness at the Respite Center is steep, and one that confounds me on each trip. And while my volunteerism began as a way to understand the migrant better, I find myself understanding the Rio Grande Valley, my home, in ways that are completely unexpected.