“Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.” James 5:4
Week 5: The Migrant Camp
On Tuesday morning I scrubbed myself extra clean, knowing it would be my last shower before spending the week in a very dirty place. With one last look in the mirror and with much intention I unclasped the 20 dollar sparkles from my ears, and slipped the 12 dollar ring off my finger, an attempt to lessen the chasm I knew would exist between myself and the women in the migrant camp.
Poverty was a given, but besides this I had no idea what to expect during our four days an hour and a half south of the U.S. border. What I experienced is still heavy in my heart, and I don’t know what it all means yet, but it was hard and it was fun and it was beautiful.
Mexico is a great place; the people are warm and funny, the many cultures and languages are richly vibrant, the jungles/beaches/deserts are vast and magnificently gorgeous, and I don’t even need to elaborate on the deliciousness of tacos. But Mexico’s got some issues, one of which is their economy. I think we all know that many Mexicans have immigrated illegally to the United States, but something I learned this week is that thousands of Mexicans from rural Mexico have been migrating throughout the past few decades to more populated areas within Mexico to find work. Which is how places such as migrant camps come about.
The community that we stayed in was three long rectangular buildings in a row, with 10 rooms on each side of each building, resulting in 60 of these rooms in the camp. Each room is 10 feet by 10 feet, dirt floor, with little to no sunlight. I think only about 15 of these rooms were occupied while we were there, with anywhere from 2-9 people living inside. It costs about 25 dollars a month to rent a room, and 80 cents a day for electricity. Most of the work that the men do is agricultural, working in nearby fields from 5:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon, for which they are paid 10 dollars a day. Yeah. Unfortunately there isn’t always work to be found, which isn’t fun when you have a hungry family.
Upon our arrival to the camp we were greeted by many of the women and children in the community, most of whom moved here from the Southern state of Oaxaca. After introducing ourselves we began working to clear the garbage out of the rooms where we would be staying, sweeping down spider-webs and dust, and painting white over multiple layers of chipped paint and graffiti. We also began digging the hole for a new outhouse! It took two days and four shovels, but we eventually had a 4×4 hole, 15 feet deep! A major issue that the community had was their water drainage: many of the women wash their clothes and dishes right outside of their rooms, and although there were shallow ditches to allow the water to drain into a small field next to the homes… there was a whole lot of standing, black, water going on. Using those same four shovels, we dug deep holes to allow for drainage in front of the women’s washing stations, deeper ditches, and filled in the field of black water with the dirt from the outhouse hole.
All throughout the week we were also playing with the swarms of children who would come to help us paint, and pick up trash, and be chased and tickled and cuddled. One afternoon we gathered a group of little girls and taught them how to wash their hands, and after we all had clean hands we gave them pink and purple manicures! The best part was watching the kids in the days that followed, carefully washing their hands at whatever chance they got. My very favorite day was Thursday, when we put together a little VBS type of program for the kids, and at the same time invited the moms to come and talk with us and with each other over coffee and cookies. We wanted to have this time for the moms because we had noticed that there didn’t seem to really be a sense of community in the camp, and we wanted to provide an atmosphere for them to develop friendships with each other.
Thursday afternoon I introduced myself to several women in one of the corner rooms, who moved here with their husbands and children from Oaxaca six months ago. I had wanted to meet these women because that day I had noticed that one of them had a baby, which I hadn’t seen until then. It was clear when I was standing in their room that I hadn’t seen the baby until that day because she spends most of her time inside that dark little room sitting in her stroller. I asked if I could hold the baby, and when her sixteen year old mama said yes I walked over and picked her up, holding her in the air for a few seconds as streams of pee drained out of her drenched diaper. I held her on my hip for a few minutes as I talked with her mom, before suggesting in my naivest voice that perhaps she needed a new diaper. With a fresh baby Luz Maria in my arms, I asked when she was born, the answer: February 28th 2010. THAT’S MY BIRTHDAY! I exclaimed with teary eyes as I felt the divine connection God had given this baby and me. I explained to Luz (which means Light) about our birthday as she stared at me blankly, never fidgeting, never making any noise. I asked her mom if I could bring her outside, and I spent the next hour talking to that baby, carrying her around in the sunlight to see everything going on in the camp, and then very intentionally staying right in front of her home, within sight and ear-shot of her mom, playing with Luz, talking to Luz, trying to model for her mom a way to interact with her child. I think it took Luz about an hour before I got her to laugh, and when she did I was so happy!
If I had been in that situation a few months ago I would have thought the best thing for Luz would obviously be to be put with a family who could take better care of her. In a home with space for her to play on the floor, so that by 12 months she would at least be able to crawl, but this school has changed the way I evaluate these types of situations. I know God allowed her to be born in that family because He wants them to raise her, and as a Christian my role is to support families such as those.
There were several men who had been coming around the room throughout the day, but at one point when a man walked by Luz’s face lit up, and I asked him if he was her Papa. He said yes, so I stood up and handed her to him, and the way he awkwardly looked at her and held her was slightly amusing but mostly just sad, and yet I knew it was the best thing for her. I walked away and didn’t glance back at that home until a few hours later, and when I did I saw… Luz sitting OUTSIDE in her MAMA’S LAP, as her mom was cuddling her, and playing with her, and LUZ WAS SMILING! Now, maybe that’s how they normally interact and I hadn’t noticed it, and that’s great, but if not.. maybe just maybe I helped teach that woman how to love her baby better.
We’re back at the base now, all of us united tighter together and freshly scrubbed and showered. I can see my reflection in my laptop, earrings adorn my ears again, and my ring is on my finger. I am still struggling to process this chasm of poverty, and understand more of how my wealth is connected to their poverty, how my lifestyle affects theirs, because I know that somehow it does, but God is good, and He is teaching me slowly. I will never look at grown-in-Mexico produce the same, and I also have a whole new understanding of Mexican immigration to the States. All things considered: this week was awesome.