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Breaking Down Walls

Blog Headers 2023-24 (1)

Editor’s Note: Lay missioner Julia Pinto, who serves in the US-Mexico border region, describes an encounter with a woman whom she serves both physically and emotionally at the Migrant Resource Center.

We had months of attending to very few people at CRM, the Migrant Resource Center. The number of people I attended to in my 4-hour shifts throughout the months of July and August averaged less than one person per shift. Sure, I made use of that time in building up fellow volunteers and working on my Spanish skills, but at times it was tempting to question my purpose. I gave up time with family and friends, a job that paid money, a comfortable life…just to sit in this center in the summer heat (with no A/C) for four hours again and again and record yet another zero? Then came September 8th.

The first group arrived, after having been detained, processed, and expelled into Agua Prieta by the Border Patrol, consisting of two women and a man. The man was trying to find out where they needed to go next. One woman was weeping audibly to someone on her phone. The other woman was reserved, quiet, guarded. 

I start with my usual script: 

“Would you like water or a little coffee? Is anyone hungry? We have bean tortas.” 

My fellow volunteers and I serve them tortas and water, and they are so grateful.

“Does anyone have any pain in their feet, legs, hands, head?” 

The woman who was more reserved timidly nods her head. Her ankle is hurting. I help her limp inside to the table where we offer limited medical care. 

Grabbing a seat for each of us, I ask her name, and she tells me one that is sadly too difficult for me to make out or pronounce. Let’s call her Angelica for now. I ask where she’s from – she is from Puebla, a state in Mexico closer to its southern border. She is noticeably on edge, not trusting me with her personal information, and I can respect that. She has likely been through many exploitative experiences over the past weeks or months – things that I know I could not live through – and has learned that many people cannot be trusted. 

As I examine her ankle, I see that it is busted from a bad fall, with lots of swelling and heat. I’m thinking RICE – rest, ice, compression, elevation – while trying to think of ways to help her relax. Angelica’s in a hurry, being told on the phone that she needs to get to the next destination, so the only thing that I can really help with is compression. I’m getting out the supplies needed to wrap her ankle, while admitting to her that I am not a nurse (and that I’m actually a math teacher).

I clumsily clean and wrap her ankle and try chatting with her a little more. Angelica and I are about the same age. She wants to return home to her family, but the cartel has taken her documents so that she cannot leave without their consent (i.e., paying them extra), and she has no money left. She has a ten-year-old son whom she had to leave behind. Angelica asks me my name, and I tell her. Tears roll down her cheeks, and I can see her walls coming down as her body relaxes. “My sister’s name is Julia.” 

She really wants to see her family, be reunited with her son. Angelica is a woman of faith, so I assure her of my prayers. As I finish my pathetic ankle-wrapping job and help her get her socks and shoes back on, I ask her if she would like a hug. She gratefully accepts, and we share a warm hug. “Espero que puedas estar con tu familia muy pronto.” I hope you can be with your family very soon, I tell her. Her tears are flowing now as she gets up to leave with her companions. 

Medically speaking, I didn’t help much. And I can’t pretend that I am a great person/missioner all the time, practicing perfect moments of accompaniment. I have failed to love the people that come through the center time and again, selfishly and cowardly not offering the help or hug that was needed, not being willing to touch feet or wounds that look gross, not wanting my choppy Spanish to make me look stupid, not letting the real stories of pain, violence, exasperation break or even touch my heart. I know that it is only by the grace of God that I was able to reach out to Angelica and that she found a moment of comfort. It’s not my doing. It’s up to God, and that gives me the peace and courage to continue. 

There are many visible and invisible walls between us, but I pray that they will one-by-one come down.

Questions for Reflection: What walls do you perceive between you and those around you? How might God want to work through you to bring unity where there is division?

Julia graduated from The University of Texas at Dallas in May 2015 with a BS in Mathematics and a Math Teacher Certification at the ripe age of 20. She taught Geometry, Algebra 2, Precalculus and Statistics for four years in a public high school in Richardson, Texas, as well as another year in a private school in Takoma Park, Maryland. Julia’s desire to serve and minister like St. Francis drew her to Washington D.C. to work as a Publications and Communications Associate with the US Catholic Mission Association through the DC Service Corps program, where she researched and helped support various mission organizations around the world. This call to mission now pushes Julia to venture beyond D.C. to serve as a missioner on the US-Mexico border. In her free time, Julia enjoys reading, working out, dancing, meeting strangers, and solving all kinds of puzzles.