By Luz Varela
Wednesday, February 1, 2017

I walk in to the smell of black beans, rice and tortillas cooking. The place is loud and active, with mothers crowded up in the small kitchen and their children playing and running all over the house. The noise and chaos is comforting to me, reminding me of home with my Mexican mother whose outside voice is simply the same voice she uses everywhere else. As I stand there in the doorway, absorbing all of this activity, a woman approaches me, gives me a quick hug and kisses me on the cheek. "¡Bienvenida!" ("Welcome!") she says to me. Her smile is warm and her eyes are tender and tired, perhaps a fatigue that she's been carrying with her for many years now. She grabs my hand and guides me through the house, introducing me to her three children; all three of them mirror their mother's greeting. I felt something warm go through my body, and it was not the fact that I was in South Texas in the middle of the summer—triple-digit nightmare; it was a familiar feeling, like I had been there before.

I walk around the casa (house), exploring the new place that shall be my place of service for a year or so. The house is big, about 10 rooms and four bathrooms, but with this many people around, it feels like a two-bedroom apartment. I call it a house instead of a shelter because the ladies refer to it as La Casa, and also because that's what it feels like with all of these people around. The walls are a pale cream color, contrasted by an opaque green color on the door frames. The space is wide and open, and the many windows allow for plenty of sunlight to come through. At the very entrance, behind the door, there is a world map that takes up that whole wall space. There was a group of children pointing fingers in random places on the map. I laughed when I heard a little boy tell another one, "This is my home," pointing out somewhere in Africa "Guatemala!" I got really close to them and pointed my finger to where Guatemala really is on the map and told them, "Aqui esta Guatemala." ("Here is Guatemala.") Their eyes widened in admiration, they looked at each other, and with their fingers tracked the many miles, borders and places they had to go through to get here.

I continue to walk around hoping I find something to make myself useful. It is my first day, but I don't want anyone thinking that I am merely here to sit and watch. I ask the mother who introduced herself to me if there was something I could do to help, and right away she handed me a set of clean bed sheets. I should have known that in a Hispanic household there is always something to do. I start making beds, and then moved on to sweeping the floor. The women around me talk about their many experiences, comparing stories and events, some of them shocking and sad. Their stories sparked my curiosity, but I didn't dare to ask them anything yet. I also realized that I knew nothing about the situations in their home countries. Why are they here? What led them to make the decision of embarking on such a dangerous, long journey with their children? Surely, they had to have a really good excuse for leaving their home. I know my mom did when we left Mexico 10 years ago. 

In mid-thought, a little kid approaches me and pulls at my shirt, "¡Guineo!" she points over at the counter. I was caught off guard. "¿Dinero?"  ("Money?") I ask her, feeling confused. Does she think I can give her money? "No. ¡Guineo!" and points again at the counter. I look over at the counter again and look back at the child helpless until one of the teenage boys takes a banana from the counter and gives it to the child. The little girl takes it and runs away. I scratch my head feeling confused. "Guineo is banana," explains the older boy, who walks away smiling. I had not realized that my Spanish was also different from theirs. I feel a little embarrassed and continue to sweep the floor. Mothers began to call their little ones to sit at the table. One of the ladies offered me a plate of rice, beans and fried plantain; I accepted it and sat at the table.

The children eat first and then the mothers. It is interesting seeing the children's reaction to the food that sits in front of them. They stare at the plate for a while, carefully inspecting it, some sticking the tip of their tongue out to taste it. When they finally stick their spoon into the plate, it takes a while to get them to eat it. They take a spoonful of beans and after some convincing from their mothers that it is not food from the detention center, where they were held for months as prisoners, they take that leap of faith and place the spoon in their mouths. I watch how their expressions turn from suspicion to surprise and then to pure delight. "This is home," I reassure them with a smile. I wonder how long it has been since they had a meal cooked by their mamas. A little child takes a handmade tortilla bigger than his face and rolls it in his little hand very slowly, and after he has a long roll in his palm, he then proceeds to stuff the whole thing in his mouth. I laugh and suddenly all of my doubts about this new place, this new job, disappear for the time being. One of the mothers sits next to me and as we are eating she asks me how I got there, to which I respond with my mouth full, "¿Disculpe?" ("Pardon me?") She thought I was one of the mothers and wanted know if I had crossed the river to get here or if I had walked through the desert. I explained to her how 10 years ago, I took a greyhound bus from Laredo, Texas, to Elkhart, Indiana, with my mother and brothers. I told her about the piles of snow in Indiana and how different the food is here. We laugh and there is a sense of comfort between us, two strangers. I look at her face; she couldn't be much older than me. Her child approaches and pulls at her demanding her attention.

The dining table, old and creaky, has probably heard hundreds of stories. The women sit around the table and give thanks to God for the manna he has sent them. They tell each other their stories, and how the nightmares they lived seemed like they now belong to a distant past. There's always a place to sit at that table, and if not, the mothers will make room. This place and time is sacred for them, is safe and comforting. When they are feeding their children, there is no worry about the immigration court or how they will make it in a new country that does not want them in the first place. They cook with love because they know no other way to do it. And they feed whoever comes through the door, because that's what they have always done. For many of them, the kitchen is the hospital room or the counseling session that they need so much. Their tired hands still know the rhythm of what used to be their life back in their countries. There is always a pot of black beans waiting for the hungry mouths that are full of stories. This is more than comfort food; this is healing food because it satisfies the hunger and in a way mends the broken souls.

I get up and take my dish to the kitchen to wash it. A young mother is at the sink and extends her hand for my plate, smiles, and says, "I can wash it for you." I thank her and offer to help dry the dishes. She hands me a clean towel and I begin my work in silence. "Me pidieron un uniforme," ("They asked me for a uniform,") she said. I looked at her and realized she was talking to me. "Las Maras." (Las Maras Salvatruchas, a notorious gang in El Salvador.) She looked at me with a concerned look. I wondered why they would ask her for a uniform, and then she said, "I was a policewoman in my country; I almost finished my studies in the academy." She did not look much older than I am, and if she was still in school, she could not have been much older than I. She was a policewoman in her country, and when the MS-13 asked for a uniform, literally, she refused. The next morning she woke up to find that her tires had been slashed, all four of them. She knew that this was no coincidence; they knew where she lived now. Her husband was also a policeman (part of the Special Forces in El Salvador), and when he tried to fight back for his family, he realized some of his fellow policemen had already sold themselves to Las Maras. The threats continued, she explained. Explicit videos sent to her phone, harassment in the streets, more damage to her property – to the point where she couldn't go out of her house without fearing it would be her last day alive. 

"Mi esposo y yo tomamos la dura decisión de venirnos a los Estados Unidos." ("My husband and I made the tough decision to come to the U.S.") And so their journey to the Unites States as asylum seekers began. 

As I stood in the small kitchen, hearing this hard story among the chaos in the house, my mind was processing a thousand thoughts. Inside me were feelings of anger, anguish, sadness and fear. This was no telenovela (soap opera), or a book that I was reading. This was a woman telling me her story.

A coyote (a person who smuggles immigrants into the U.S.) waited for them at the border of Mexico and Guatemala, she continued. There was a group of people already with them; among the people, a 5-year-old girl with no mother around to take care of her. "I could not believe she was by herself," she said with such a tender, motherly concern. "So I took my daughter on my right hand and the other little girl on my left one, and together we crossed Mexico." She told me about how scared she was of letting go of one or both of the little girls when crossing the river to get to U.S. land. She carried them both with her as if they were both her babies, and when they finally made it across and saw immigration, the little girl pulled out a note from her tiny pocket and handed it to the immigration officer. "Mandenla a esta direccion, por favor" ("Send her to this address, please") is all the note said with an address in the United States. I could not believe that a mother would have the courage to send her little girl across a country and a river by herself among strangers. For a second, I felt angry at this mother who seemed careless to me. But I realized that I didn't know her story, or what would push her to make such a hard decision. "I was heartbroken when they took her away from me," the lady continued interrupting my internal debate. "I didn't ask her mom's name or where she was going. I probably won't see her ever again," she said with tears in her eyes. A mother who is able to love motherless children – this is a rare image of God we often see portrayed in church. But there she was, in front of me, grieving for a child that was not from her womb.

We finish drying the dishes and serve ourselves a cup of coffee, even though it was late afternoon. We sit with the rest of the women at the table who are still eating, and listen to all the myths and rare events that took place for them on their journeys here. Right at that moment, sitting at the table, the mothers look at peace. I don't know how many of these stories will have a happy ending or how many of them will actually get their "American dream," but I'm glad I can be here to listen and to be a stop on their journey. Where they can find rest.

I am suddenly eager to learn about the brave, wonderful lives of these women. As I'm sitting there, someone serves me another plate of food. "Gracias, ya comi," ("Thank you, I already ate,") I explain to them in the nicest way possible. Hispanics don't like to have their food rejected under any circumstance. "Necesita comer mas porque aqui va a trabaja mucho," ("You need to eat more because here you will be working a lot.") They say with their motherly tenderness. They are taking care of me already and they don't even know why I'm there in the first place. The children pull my hand, "¡Apurese!" ("Hurry!") We want you to play with us, they say. Their mothers look relieved to see their children be children again after days of not sleeping well, cold rooms, long interrogation sessions from immigration, lack of food, mistreatment, perhaps abuse. To see them active again gives them strength to continue. Of course, it doesn't take too long for the mothers to start yelling at their rowdy children, but this kind of chaos is peaceful to me. People come and go in this house. No one ever stays long enough to observe and absorb all that happens in this amazing place.

I look outside and notice it's dark; the time is 10 p.m., and I've been in this place for merely 12 hours, but it definitely feels longer. I say goodbye to the children as they continue to pull my hand begging me to stay. I reassure them I will be back in the morning. A strange part of me wants to stay, but it has been a day full of learning and feeling for me. I feel physically and mentally exhausted, their stories linger in my thoughts, and when I finally get to my bed in what is going to be my new home for the next year, I begin to sob. I was definitely not ready for this and I begin questioning my adequacy for this new job. Working alongside asylum seekers is not going to be easy, I told myself. It's already feeling draining, demanding, and heartbreaking, but nonetheless, the feeling of belonging has not left me yet. Something about this place feels familiar; I remember this heat. This all feels like the home I once had in another time, maybe in a distant memory or a forgotten dream. Maybe this all will finally bring me to be at peace with my past.

This blog post is the story of Luz's first day at her Mennonite Voluntary Service placement, Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES). She continues to work at RAICES as a legal assistant, and helped found Casa RAICES, a shelter for families that have just been released from immigration detention centers.

Luz is an immigrant, and has been a recipient of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival) since it was introduced in 2012. DACA has allowed Luz to work during college, travel, and allows her to continue her work at RAICES with UACs (unaccompanied alien children). 

Casa RAICES is currently struggling with an influx of families, and has set up additional emergency shelters with the help of several local churches, including San Antonio Mennonite Church.

Donations to support the work of Casa RAICES can be made at their website.

MVS has placements available in San Antonio with RAICES. If you are interested in getting involved with this work, click here to apply.

Luz Varela served with Mennonite Voluntary Service in San Antonio, 2015-2016. 




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