As part of my growing interest in immigration reform, I asked my Director of Formation earlier this year to allow me to spend my summer internship learning Spanish. An opportunity presented itself when Fray Tomas, a friar from Mexico, visited Holy Name College to give a presentation on the migrant and refugee crisis in Mexico and the effects of the Southern Border Plan (Programa Frontera Sur) on the people fleeing violence, poverty, and discrimination in Central and South America. Fray Tomas oversees La72, a safe house of refuge for migrants and refugees located in Tenosique, Tabasco, Mexico.
Well… earlier this week, Br. Casey Cole OFM and I arrived in Tenosique for our summer immersion experience. We will be spending the next two months in La72 learning Spanish, in addition to encountering, working with, and learning about our migrant and refugee brothers and sisters.
We began our long journey from Washington, DC to Tenosique with an early morning (1AM) five-hour flight from Dulles International Airport to Mexico City. This was followed by a brief layover and another flight to Villahermosa in the south of Mexico. Casey and I were then picked up by Ramon and Tilman, two volunteers from the center. After loading our over-packed luggage into the back of a produce truck, we embarked on a three-hour ride to Tenosique.
The past few days here were a total blur – a sensory overload caused by a new language, sauna-like humidity, pungent smells, and meeting hundreds of new people. This was compounded by temperatures that have been north of 100 degrees since we’ve arrived. I have barely had any time to wrap my head around the situation when my body seemed to just give out to heat-induced lethargy and tiredness. Needless to say, a mid-afternoon siesta (or two) has been a lifesaver.
Despite our seemingly inauspicious beginnings and the difficulties our bodies had with adjusting to the heat, we are growing in confidence each day. Our language instruction is underway (Monday through Friday, 9AM to 12PM) and we are getting accustomed to the weather, food, and frenetic routine of La72. Though I have not stopped sweating since we first arrived, relief seems to be in sight. Today is our first day off and I am relishing the slightly cooler temperature brought about by last night’s rain.
We’ve also been able to meet many of the migrants and refugees here at the center. Coming from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and even from the United States, they have graciously welcomed us to their home and have gone out of their way to be accommodating. Despite the sheer poverty and difficulties of their stories, they maintain so much joy and hope. Men, women, elderly, young, straight, and LGBT – injustice has brought them all to this place and I hope that whatever little thing I can do this summer can in some way help them along their journey. My heart has been moved by their stories and I intend on holding each of them in prayer and affection every day.
To help us maintain a sense of peace amidst all these new experiences, Casey and I have decided to maintain a consistent prayer schedule. Our first night, we said compline in our sweltering room, tired, overwhelmed, and uncertain if we had made a mistake in choosing this ministry, which we felt so ill-prepared for. More than ever, it seems that prayer will be a fundamental part of my experience as a Franciscan friar and I can tell that I will be turning to it often this summer for comfort and consolation. That recitation of compline did much to assuage my concerns.
Each day has since been an improvement and Casey and I have both grown in confidence and hope about our summer here in Tenosique. Additionally, Divine Providence has sent us two angels in the form of Sr. Daryl and Sr. Chapita, two FMM Sisters (Franciscan Missionaries of Mary) from the Philippines and China/Nicaragua, respectively. They have been so good to both Casey and me since our arrival. Knowing that this summer was sure to be a big challenge for me, God so kindly sent me a Filipino Sister who not only speaks my native tongue (Visaya), but also has a connection to Sr. Luisa Bayate, my friend and Poor Clare Sister in Cincinnati, OH. This happy little coincidence gives me great confidence that God is watching over us, no matter how challenging or frightening our present situation may seem.
I cannot help but feel God’s goodness and grace palpable in this place. La72 is truly a sacred space and my heart is filled with humility and gratitude for the opportunity to be here and to meet so many new people. I hope to begin writing in Spanish soon, God willing that my language acquisition skills work overtime. Please keep me and Casey in your prayers.