I went to Querétaro this week for a forum on migration hosted by the University of Querétaro (UAQ). It was a unique experience given that 1) it happened during the Migrant Viacrucis Caravan, and 2) I was tagging along with a student group from the University of Chapingo. On the first day of the Conference, the perspectives of migration came from religious/spiritual leaders of the migrant rights movement. The panelists were Padre Solalinde of “Hermanos en el Camino” in Ixtepec, Padre Pedro Pantoja of Casa del Migrante “Frontera con Justicia” in Saltillo, Fray Tomás Castillo of Casa del Migrante “La 72″ in Tenosique, and Martín Martínez of Estancia González y Martínez in Tequiquipan, Querétaro.
All Catholic, these religious figures are of the most prominent in offering aid to and demanding human rights for Central American migrants in transit across Mexico. This is because the migrant shelter network in Mexico is largely operated by the Catholic diocese. The implications of the involvement of the Catholic Church are political, social and economic. While the church has struggled with lack of transparency, social conservatism, and corruption, it has also offered an unwavering hand to migrant “brother and sisters.” Although the diocese has replaced Catholic organizations such as Catholic Relief Services as the principle authority behind migrant aid projects, a smattering of non-Catholic religious organizations (e.g. the Jesuits, Quakers) and NGOs also contribute to migrant aid, and one change taking place is that the priests in charge of the Catholic-diocese-run shelters have more independence now than ever.
Of the panelists, Padre Solalinde is the most well-known. Characterized by his pristine white robes and the simple cross around his neck, his human rights work and management of the shelter in Ixtepec is known all over the country. He is of the most prominent symbols of the struggle for human rights in Mexico. (He has been at attendance at almost every major event related to migration I’ve attended in D.F., including CAFEMIN during the Viacrucis.) As an outspoken critic of cartel abuse and violence against migrants in Mexico, he puts his life at risk. And, as with the other panelists, his work is rooted in his Catholic faith. In commenting about the context of Mexican Catholicism, he said “Conservatives tend to separate the heavens from the earth, religion from faith,” abandoning the work of God in their daily lives. He also decried the current state of violence against migrants, calling attention to the recent Migrant Viacrucis and the urgency of humanitarian aid for Central Americans fleeing violence.
Pedro Pantoja, after sharing a presentation about the massacre of 72 migrants in Tamaulipas in 2010, shared his perspective about migrants, “a new social subject,” who comprise a constantly shifting “ciudad itinerante,” or “itinerant city” of people who, due to conditions of violence or poverty are not able to survive in their place of origin. These populations are transversing this part of the globe more than any other. The spiritual implication is a moral responsibility to aid in the protection of these “itinerant” populations. Where a political border does not imply a lack of responsibility in protecting other human beings. And the recognition that political boundaries do not determine the dignity or worth of those living on one side or the other.
Fray Tomás had the most overtly radical stance of the speakers, and his radicalism made him the speaker with the biggest impact on me. He called for revolution, revolution in the way we conceive of transnational borders and calling for a restructuring of the inequalities and violence that are forcing people to migrate. In Fray Tomás’ vision, “love is the only act of violence,” and is what is needed to transform the slavery-like conditions of the modern migrant workforce. He compared the current Catholic work in migrant shelters to the religious order of the 16th century, which sustained slavery by keeping people alive simply in order to work in exploitative conditions. The aid that is provided to migrants, just as was given to slaves, is followed by brutal acts of violence and systematic poverty. “We are talking about people who work from “el gallo to el grillo,” from sun-up to sun-down (literally: “from the rooster to the cricket”), pointing out that migrants aided are often killed in further along in the migrant route. (“La 72,” is named after those killed in the Tamaulipas massacre, many of whom had stayed in “La 72″ just days before. This name reflects a consciousness about failure of migrant shelters to truly protect or help their vulnerable, invisible migrant populations in the long run. The aid they provide is immediate, and thus the needs met are only immediate.) And it’s not just the migrants who are on the train tracks, he said, it’s all of us. More and more of us are finding ourselves on the wrong side of political, socioeconomic, cultural, religious borders. Finally, he insisted that “believing isn’t enough, you have to act.”
In most contexts in Mexico, religion and spirituality lay the basis for hospitality and relief provided to migrants. It’s true of the Casa as well. Although it might seem impossible to have faith in the face of mass extortions, killings and corruption, the closer one gets to the frontline of migrant activism, the closer you will find yourself to God, even if only vicariously. Close proximity to this commitment to faith offers light amidst ever-present acts of irreverence for human life.