Lenten Journey in the Sonora

A few years ago I was visiting a little town called El Bosque, up in the mountains of southern Mexico, about two hours north of Tuxtla Gutiérrez.  I was traveling with the interfaith fair trade organization, Equal Exchange, and we were studying coffee farming and marketing crafts for churches in the states. While I was there, I met the families of two young people, Daniel Hernández and Jasmine Díaz-Pérez. They would have been about nineteen when I was there, and had just gotten engaged. Their parents were wonderful, hard working people, and their families had been growing corn and beans and coffee in that region for over a hundred years.
However, in 1989 that began to change. Before then prices for coffee beans had been set by an “International Coffee Agreement,” led by the US. We had created the agreement back in the sixties as a way of providing poor farmers in Latin America with just enough income to keep them from joining rebel movements like Fidel Castro’s in Cuba. But in 1989, Cuba was hit hard by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the US pulled out of the Agreement, allowing coffee prices to swing wildly on the open market. Within three years prices paid to poor farmers had fallen to a thirty-year low. According to World Bank numbers, over 600,000 people lost their jobs and homes in Central America and Mexico alone.
In addition, after 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect, allowing the US to export cheap, subsidized corn into Mexico, their sales of corn also collapsed. Local prices fell from an average of $5 a bushel in 1995 to $1.80 in 2000, and it wiped out tens of thousands of farmers.
With each economic hit, the Mexican countryside emptied out more young people creating abandoned ghost towns in its swath.
Some of those farmers were from Daniel’s family, and the summer before we arrived, their conditions had gotten so bad that many decided they had to leave. The options weren’t good. They could join the rebels, migrate to the sweat shops, grow cocaine, or put together a delegation to make that terrifying journey north into the US to find work. Typically if a group managed to get in they’d rent a room together, take turns sleeping and working, eat as little as possible, and send money back home. One day’s work, picking vegetables in California, at below minimum wage, could feed a family of six in El Bosque for a week.
So, they chose six young men who would go north and try to get in. One problem was that Daniel was one of those, and he and Jasmine had just gotten engaged, and they couldn’t stand being apart. Maybe they could go together, they said, and both find jobs? Maybe they could afford a place of their own. Maybe they could finally get married… So the family relented and Jasmine was added to the group, and then they left.
They walked north along the spine of the westward side of the Sierra Madre Mountains, sometimes hitchhiking, but mainly walking for almost three weeks. Then, exhausted and nearly broke, they stopped at the town of Altar, Mexico, about sixty miles south of the border, where they hired a coyote. “Coyotes” are those often unscrupulous people who, for a fee, will smuggle people like cargo over the border. Whether the families succeed or fail, the coyote still gets paid. Typically, they don’t really care.
There are several routes into the US from Altar. The best is through the town of Sasabe, because there’s less sand and more shade. Another is shorter, but straight through the near-impossible Sonora Desert. Jasmine and her family didn’t have the fifteen hundred dollars their coyote usually charged, so he took what they had, and then led them north through the Sonora.
But he shouldn’t have. They were too weak, the journey had been too long, and the heat was too evil. After three days they collapsed and couldn’t travel any further. And about 100 miles southwest of Tucson on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation the coyote abandoned them. Daniel and two of Jasmine’s uncles struggled on ahead to search for help. They turned themselves in to border guards and then led them back to the others.
When they got back they found everyone in critical condition, weak from heat and dehydration. Two recovered within a few days. Two more were placed in intensive care but recovered. But young Jasmine, Daniel’s fiancé, didn’t make it. They tried to resuscitate her at the hospital, but she was already gone. Daniel survived but no one knows where he is. They say he ran screaming from the hospital when he got the news, and there’s no word on what happened to him since. He never made it back home. He never contacted anyone about getting a job. He simply disappeared, in grief.


I don’t know how to solve our complex story of immigration. I can’t begin to work through all the legal and historical issues that brought us to where we are today. What I do know is that Jasmine and Daniel are not our enemies. They didn’t come here to hurt us, or take our jobs, or soak up our tax dollars. They came here because they were hungry, because they were desperate, and because they loved each other. Their lives were caught up in economic forces that were larger than they were, and over which they had no control.
And I know that little Jasmine died for our sins. She died so that we could continue to worship a market system that destroys families and crushes human beings far away, so that we can live well here at home…a system that forces wages down so that we can drink cheap coffee and wear cheap shirts, and forces immigration up so that our farms and services can have cheap labor. Whatever we decide to do in the next months about immigration, we should never, ever blame those who are drawn to the American dream and risk their lives trying to attain it.
And I know that whatever punishment the judge gave to the coyote who abandoned them in the Sonora desert, at the end of the day, you and I and all of our families are co-conspirators in the crime.
Bread for the World

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Just a couple of weeks into her first pregnancy, Amanda Bornfree learned that her husband had lost his job. She was scared. Amanda wondered how she would get the nutritious food that would allow her baby to grow and thrive. After visiting a clinic in her community and signing up for WIC, Amanda was able to set aside her worries and focus on preparing for the arrival of her child.
If automatic spending cuts are allowed to go forward in a few days as scheduled,roughly 600,000 infants, children, and expectant moms will be without the vital assistance that helped Amanda and her baby. WIC, international food aid, clean water programs, and other essential programs are at risk.
President Obama talked about these potentially devastating across-the-board cuts during last night’s State of the Union address. The cuts, referred to as the sequester, could disrupt all of our lives, but hungry and poor people, both at home and abroad, would suffer the most. Lives are at stake, so we must use our collective voice to fight these cuts.
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Tell them that cutting programs that effectively combat hunger and poverty will not solve our country’s fiscal problems.
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  2. Balances cuts with revenues.
Make sure hungry and poor people are provided for in our nation’s budget. This is a critical step toward ensuring a place at the table for all.
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David Beckmann
President, Bread for the World

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The Conumbrum

February 5, 2013

The painful and difficult irony with Republicans is that they absolutely must strengthen their support from women and Hispanics if they have any hope of winning the next generation of presidential elections. Both of those groups overwhelmingly went for Obama in the last election out of outrage over what they perceived to be misogynistic and jingoistic comments from Republican candidates. Some of those comments, like Todd Akin saying that a woman’s body had some mysterious power to “shut down” and not produce a baby, if the woman had been raped legitimately, were borderline psychotic. Some of them, like Mitt Romney’s comment that we plan on making life for undocumented foreigners so miserable and painful that they would eventually decide to “self deport,” i.e. leave the country to get some relief from the oppression, were flat-out cruel.

But at the same time, 96 percent of all Republican districts are solid, locked down, Republican districts. And the representatives of those districts are far more concerned about being attacked in the next primary from someone from the far(ther) right than they are concerned about who is in the White House. So, to protect their jobs, they have to vote against what is good for the national party. To do what is good for Republicans in general, is to do what is not good for their own re-election prospects. To do what is good for their re-election is to do what is not good for the party. Crazy statements at home will get them re-elected. Crazy statements on a national scale will get Hilary elected. 

How to get out of that conundrum is something that no one in the Republican party has yet figured out.