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A few years ago, a woman from West Michigan, Rachel, traveled to southern Mexico in order to teach music and English in the tiny village of Berriozabal, not far from the larger but hardly better known village of Tuxtle.
The experience changed her life. She kept a journal. By her own account, this is what she saw.
Rachel saw squalor unlike anything she had seen growing up in tidy, suburban neighborhoods. Her first days were filled with impressions of the dirt, the rocks, the bare feet, the ragged clothes, the shabby huts made of scraps of cardboard and corrugated metal, and the smell of sewage: a squalor that breathed on her and could not possibly be bleached away.
She saw poverty, parents and children malnourished. There was a desperate rhythm to daily life in Berriozabal: crafting, selling, eating; crafting, selling, eating. Whole families would work at weaving a single multicolored hammock, a blanket, a hand bag, or they would work at painting pottery. They would bring their crafts to the open market at San Cristobal where the tourists gathered, sell them, and then buy enough food to feed themselves for a few days. Crafting, selling, eating.
She saw injustice. The open market in San Cristobal was thick with tourists. The tourists came, as tourists always come, to add experiences and souvenirs to their lives and homes. They came to photograph the Mayan ruins, to dine on chimichangas and margaritas, and to bargain on the open market.
For the tourists, bargaining was a game. For the villagers of Berriozabal it was a struggle for survival. Rachel saw the villagers selling their skillfully make handcrafts for a fraction of their value, and she saw them going home with a fraction of the food the needed to feed their families.
She wrote: “Why can’t they make a profit on the beautiful hand-woven things they craft or the pottery that takes so many hours to throw and paint? They have such talent, such abilities with their hands. Why can’t they live as they deserve? The tourists can barter them down to a very, very low price because they need to sell to provide enough to keep their families until the next day.”
She saw joy. If Rachel’s first impression of Berriozabel were of squalor, poverty, and injustice, her final impressions were of joy. She wrote: “These people all have something very powerful and beautiful in their hearts. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit of our loving God. The joy of the Holy Spirit can be seen nowhere more clearly than in the hearts of the poor.” She noted that people were generous and took time for one another. They derived great joy from what little they had.
Thousands like Rachel cross the border each year on mission trips, having similar experiences and telling similar stories. If we take the time to listen to their testimonies, they make it clear that a border has two sides, and “invaders”—as some in the government of the United States call them—cross over from both sides.
From the northern side tourists cross the border seeking cheap vacations, and industries cross the border seeking cheap resources and labor. From the southern side impoverished and threatened people cross the border seeking security and freedom for their families. And the migrations south and north are more connected than we often care to admit. Acknowledging this, we, the church, can perhaps have a more honest conversation about the justice of both migrations and we can perhaps come up with policies that address the border problem at a deeper level.