Sunday, December 21, 2008

Temple to close hospital deemed critical safety-net provider

Just received this information:

Temple managers have told hospital staff that Temple intends to virtually close Northeastern Hospital, eliminating maternity and other services, possibly leaving intact only an "urgi-care" center and certain outpatient facilities.

Temple is a critical safety-net service provider for the Port Richmond, Kensington, Bridesburg, Juniata and Fishtown communities in Philadelphia.

The closing of the busy maternity service, the 14th maternity department to be shuttered in the Philadelphia area since 1997, will mean the elimination of all maternity services east of the hospitals on Broad Street from Center City Philadelphia to the Bucks County line.

Temple receives special "Enhanced Government Support" from the state, funds that most other hospitals do not receive, so they can perform their role as the safety net hospital for poor and under-served neighborhoods in Philadelphia. According to Temple's own financial statements, TUHS has received more than $120,000,000 in these funds over the past five years; more than $27,000,000 of this amount was specifically designated for Northeastern hospital.

Join with nurses, doctors, community and political leaders at a candlelight vigil to protest Temple's plans to eliminate vital services at Northeastern on Monday, Dec. 22 from 6:15 to 8 p.m. The vigil will be held at Northeastern Hospital, corner of Allegheny Ave. and Tulip Streets, in Port Richmond.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Hope is the thing with feathers

“You must have been so scared when you were kidnapped.”

It is a few months before my father’s death in 2004, and I’m riding home with him from an appointment with his oncologist. He is driving because he still can – and because it is one of the few routines he has been able to retain from his pre-cancer days. No matter that all of the family actually likes driving more than he does, it is a way of taking care of us so ingrained that wresting the steering wheel from him would be viewed as an act of high treason.

He doesn’t answer me immediately, concentrates on guiding the hulking Land Rover through the twisty Chester County back roads on which he’s chosen to drive home. This is another idiosyncrasy of my father’s – never choose the easier road, go for the one that requires attention to navigate.

“Scared? No,” he finally answers. “Not exactly.”

He rarely talked about the experience. We lived in Guatemala when it happened. He was driving home from work one afternoon when three cars boxed his in – you’ve seen the maneuver in movies. The men dragged him out of his car, hooded him, shoved him to the floor of one of their cars and drove around to disorient him before taking him to a room. There, they alternately abandoned him to hooded isolation, or harangued him with the details of my mother’s whereabouts, and ours, and how easily we, too, could be where he was.

In those days in Guatemala we lived on tenterhooks – no family got through without some brush with terror. Cars were pulled over, houses were forcibly entered, schools and workplaces were raided. Neighbors denounced one another, and people were picked up for interrogation on the slightest suspicion of malfeasance, or misfeasance, or nonfeasance. Torture, disappearances, assassinations and all manner of the collateral damages associated with an undeclared war were commonplace.

Kidnappings funded arms purchases, and despite ransoms paid, most of the kidnapped were never seen again. Or, their bodies turned up much later.

So how could my father not be soaked in fear, not be paralyzed by the impossibility of his circumstance?

“I was too busy for fear,” he tells me as we traverse the bucolic Pennsylvania landscape where he found a home a few years after his kidnapping. “I had to figure out how to stay alive. I had to convince them to let me go, so I could get back to you kids and your Mami. To make sure you were safe.”

I look over at my dad that day in 2004, and see a man much diminished by the ravages of chemotherapy and radiation. He had always been too short to cut an imposing figure, but he had the presence that comes from years of obligations met, of words held as bond, of a fire banked so deep that no circumstance – no matter how dreadful – could extinguish it.

“Don’t you hate the people who put you through that?”’ I ask him.

“How can I hate?” he answers after a moment. “I’m here.”

Years after we moved to the United States, my dad met the father of one of my brother’s friends. The man – roughly my dad’s age – had been detained by Pinochet’s henchmen after Allende was overthrown in Chile. He was an impressive person – a man of deep intellect and erudition. His twisted hands and wrists were the result of torture. He conversed quietly about his experience – about the grotesque things human beings are willing to do to each other in the name of politics,or for fear of what that other person represents.

My dad wasn’t a man of many words – so he had to be prompted to tell his own story. He never described it as a form of torture – it hadn’t left a physical trace on his body after all – but it was clear to all of us listening that torture, indeed, was what it had been.

Listening to both of them talking that day, I felt a little pity for their captors. (Okay, not much pity, but still, some.) They had sought, by inhuman treatment, to make these men less than human. To make their lives unlivable. To make them forget to hope.

They had failed.

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” American poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “That perches in the soul/And sings the tune without the words/And never stops at all.”

As much as I miss him, I am grateful my father didn’t live to see the country he loved embroiled in the sordidness of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo or the debate about whether waterboarding truly qualifies as torture. I’m relieved he wasn’t alive for the revelations about extraordinary rendition, nor to see the Patriot Act enacted.

Mostly, I’m glad he – a proud U.S. citizen – didn’t live to see the fear we are visiting on undocumented immigrants in this country. It would have sounded alarmingly familiar: Cars pulled over at random ( Workplaces raided ( Neighbors denouncing each other ( and People picked up for interrogation on the slightest provocation (

If you are recoiling at the analogy, you are not alone. So did I the first time I heard it drawn for me by a priest friend who works with the undocumented. Even more, his analogy for the way we treat and deport the undocumented uses the word torture.

Told you – recoil.

But then I think back on my father’s experience and I see troubling parallels. He was plucked suddenly from his life. He was taken somewhere he didn’t know by people who held power over him. He was isolated. His family was threatened with the same treatment. Read my blog post of Oct. 23, “Disappeared in Philadelphia,” and you’ll see that Beto’s experience is not far removed from my father’s.

A number of people with voices in the immigration debate have claimed that whatever treatment undocumented immigrants get it is no more than what they deserve. That they’ve broken laws. That they negatively impact the economy. Even, as Pat Buchanan says in his book “State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America,” that they are threatening the very nature and ideals of the nation.

The same arguments were made in Chile under Pinochet. And in Guatemala during its slow slide into genocide. Thankfully, both those countries have since come out of their long, fearful darkness.

We, on the other hand, stand poised on the edge of a feather.

Friday, December 12, 2008

La Morenita in Philly

Millions of people throughout the Americas are celebrating the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe today. Catholics in Philly are no exception. Join Cardinal Justin Rigali for the celebration of this feast tonight at 7:30 p.m. at St. Thomas Aquinas Church on 17th and Morris St. in Philadelphia.

(La Morenita carried in the procession preceding the Hispanic Heritage Mass, 2007, Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, Philadelphia. Photo by Sarah Webb for the CS&T)

(La Morenita at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Philadelphia, Nov. 30, 2008. Photo by Joanna Lightner for the CS&T)

(La Morenita accompanied the Guadalupe torch from Mexico City to New York City on a two-month, 5000-mile journey. Here pictured at St. Peter the Apostle Church in Philadelphia on Dec. 6, 2008. Photo by Carmen Alarcon for El Diario/La Prensa)

(La Morenita at St. Patrick Church in Norristown, Dec. 7, 2008. Photo by Sarah Webb for the CS&T)

(La Morenita at La Milagrosa Chapel on Spring Garden St. in Philadelphia. Photo by Sarah Webb for the CS&T)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A day in the life

(Photo above by Carmen Alarcon, courtesy El Diario/La Prensa)

Check out El Diario/La Prensa story by Carmen Alarcon following the Guadalupe torch runners from Philadelphia to New Jersey:

Even better, check it out on El Diario's smart edition, with great layout and nice photos (the link to El Diario/La Prensa's smart edition is always at the bottom of this blog).

One caveat: The article is in Spanish. Good thing Joey Vento, Geno's Steak owner and Philly's unrepentant monoglot, isn't one of my readers.

Or, you can wait for Thursday, and check out two of Carmen Alarcon's photos of the Guadalupe torch at Philadelphia's St. Peter the Apostle in the Catholic Standard & Times (Thank you, El Diario, for reprint permission) with captions in English.

Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe.

Friday, December 5, 2008

This just in

A torch lit at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City on Oct. 5 – a symbol of hope and faith, and a reminder of the human dignity of the peoples on both sides of the border – carried by runners from Mexico City to New York City, will make a stop in Philadelphia this weekend.

Sometime between 5 and 6 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 6 the torch, carried by runners representing the migrant community, will arrive at St. Peter the Apostle Church at 5th Street and Girard Avenue. Sunday morning, runners will carry it to its next stop – Bayonne, N.J. – ultimately to arrive in New York City on Dec. 12 the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Also, on the Philadelphia Catholic breaking news front, it is semi-, quasi-, just-about official that the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul – Philadelphia’s mother church – will be installing an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Apparently, the Mexican community of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish wrote a letter to Cardinal Justin Rigali last year requesting that he consider installing an image of La Morenita in the Cathedral given the large number of Latino Catholics in the Archdiocese….at this year’s Day of Sanctification for priests, Nov. 24, the Cardinal announced it is in the works.

No word yet whether it will be in the chapel, or in the Cathedral proper, or whether it will be a statue or a painting, but as soon as I know, the readers of this blog will know.

(Photo of La Morenita at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Philadelphia by Joanna Lightner.)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Blue for the folks

Odetta, an American music icon, died Dec. 3. If you've never heard her sing go to: Definitely check out the second video -- her appearance on the Tavis Smiley show early this year -- she's 77 and still amazing.

(Image of Odetta is from Wikimedia commons)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mumbai memorial service in Phila.

This just in --

Dec. 8
Mumbai Memorial Service
at Congregation B'Nai Abraham
527 Lombard Street, 7:30pm

A memorial service in honor of the memory of Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg, 29, director and founder of the Chabad House in Mumbai, and his wife, Rivkah, 28, who were brutally murdered along with hundreds of others will be held Monday, Dec. 8, at Congregation B'Nai Abraham, 527 Lombard Street, at 7:30 p.m.
For more information, call 215-238-2100.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

E Pluribus Unum

Just received notice of the following:

The Migration Policy Institute's National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy is launching the E Pluribus Unum awards program.

This new national awards program will provide four $50,000 awards annually to exceptional initiatives that promote immigrant integration. The J.M. Kaplan Fund is providing support for these awards in each of the next three years to focus attention on successful integration initiatives, and to inspire and provide program models to others around the United States who might also undertake such efforts.

(The organization defines immigrant integration as the two-way process by which immigrants and their children come to feel - and be - Americans and by which American identity and culture expand to reflect each new generation of immigrants.)

Application procedures and rules can be found at The deadline for applications is January 31, 2009 at 9 p.m. EST. If you have any questions, please contact

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Renewing hope, seeking justice

From the U.S. Catholic Bishops:

National Migration Week to be Celebrated January 4-10

WASHINGTON—The Catholic Church in the United States will celebrate National Migration Week on January 4-10, 2009. This year's theme, Renewing Hope, Seeking Justice, "reminds us of our obligation to bring hope to the hopeless and to seek justice for those who are easily exploited," said Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City, chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Committee on Migration, in a letter sent every parish and Catholic school across the country.
"For many mig
rant communities, injustice and hardship are too commonplace an experience. Given the often marginal and vulnerable status of migrants, it is important that communities everywhere treat migrants justly and provide a welcoming presence to all people on the move," said Bishop Wester.
This year national migration week sheds light on the religious, political and cultural aspects of migration in all its forms. The bishops hope the resources the USCCB has made available will help Catholics become familiar with the many issues surrounding migration.

"As the face of local churches continues to change, information of this kind is becoming more and more important. Individuals, families, schools and parishes need opportunities like National Migration
Week to learn the realities about newcomers entering their communities," said Todd Scribner, education coordinator for the Migration and Refugee Services of the USCCB.
Last April, Pope Benedict XVI encouraged the Bishops of the United States to continue to act in this regard.

"I want to enco
urage you and your communities to continue to welcome the immigrants who join your ranks today, to share their joys and hopes, to support them in their sorrows and trials, and to help them flourish in their new home," said the pope.
The materials include several bulletin inserts that address issues related to human trafficking, immigration, refugees, and Catholic social teaching on migration; information on how to acquire the revise
d edition of Unity in Diversity: A Scriptural Rosary, to guide spiritual reflection on migration; and a foldout poster. Several of these resources are available also in Spanish.
More information, including how to order materials, can be found at

Latino bishop appointed to Diocese of Sacramento

WASHINGTON—Pope Benedict XVI has accepted the resignation of Bishop William K. Weigand, 71, from the pastoral governance of the Diocese of Sacramento, California. Bishop Jaime Soto, 52, who has been co-adjutor bishop of Sacramento since October 11, 2007, succeeds him.
Jaime Soto was born December 31, 1955, in Inglewood, California. He attended St. John’s Seminary College in Camarillo, California, and there earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy in 1978, and Master of Divinity degree in 1982.
He earned a Master of Social Work degree from Columbia University School of Social Work in 1986. Bishop Soto’s pastoral experience includes work in Catholic Charities, immigration reform and ministry to the Hispanic community. As a member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) he is a member of the USCCB Administrative Committee; Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Church in Latin America; a member of the Committee on the Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth; a member of the Committee on National Collections; and a member of the Task Force on the Spanish Language Bible and the Task Force on Promotion of Vocations to the Priesthood and Religious Life. He is chairman of the Board of Directors of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., CLINIC.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Let’s talk turkey

My brothers and I grew up in Guatemala, celebrating Thanksgiving as el Día de Acción de Gracias. Mostly we celebrated it out of solidarity for my father – an American who had lived abroad most of his adult life (and indeed, most of his youth as well). We grooved on the food, were horrified by Pilgrim fashion, and generally, identified with Squanto and the other non-Puritans at the table.

Which is interesting, given that the Patuxet and Wampanoag Indians were the only non-immigrants at the table.

Thanksgiving -- as much as it is about family and food and giving thanks to God for both -- is about the citizens of an existing community giving welcome and rescue to the immigrants who washed up on the shores of their great, good land. Think about it – immigrants with no legal standing in the community sitting at the same table as those whose history in America was long-established. Hmmm.

This Thanksgiving, I’m delighted to say, family is traveling to Pennsylvania for the celebration. There will be lots of great food – Anna and Jhumpa are terrific cooks, and I’m not so bad, either – and even better conversation. Especially during the making of tamales, which just invites sharing (see my very first blog post to read about the tamal-making process).

When we sit around the table we will represent nearly every stage of the immigrant experience.

My brothers and I are second-generation Americans – born to a first-gen Greek-American and a Guatemalan – a long-time “resident alien” who became a naturalized U.S. citizen a scant year before her death. Alberto was born in Mexico, Bill in Guatemala, and I was born in Thailand. Despite being American citizens from birth (by virtue of the 14th Amendment’s jus sanguinis) we didn’t move to the U.S. until we were teenagers (or nearly so) and, in many ways, have had the f.o.b. (“fresh off the boat”) experience common to recent immigrants.

My husband, Bryan, was born in New York State, where his forebears – Welsh, English, French, German – settled generations ago. Jhumpa was born in England to Bengali parents, who soon thereafter immigrated to Rhode Island, where she grew up. Anna also was born in England, to an Irish parent and a Spanish one. And if the priest friend I’ve invited to Thanksgiving joins us, he’ll bring Philadelphia Irish-American ancestry (I think) to the table with him.

Then there are the kids – Morgan Sophia, Octavio and Noor. Octavio’s and Noor’s heritage unites two of the fastest-growing “minorities” in the United States; and Morgan fits into the long-standing tradition of new immigrant parent mixed with old.

Their names, their faces, their beings are the America of the 21st century.

I am not so innocent to believe that they will be immune from discrimination for who they are and who their parents and grandparents are (or were). Already Morgan has dealt with at least one schoolmate, who, finding out that she had some Latino heritage, decided to call her an “illegal immigrant.” But I am hopeful. And as I keep saying in these blog posts, that is really what the United States means to any immigrant: hope and possibility.

If my priest friend does show up for Thanksgiving, no doubt he’ll be asked to lead us in our prayer of thanksgiving before the meal (always ask the expert to do the job). But if he doesn’t, this is the grace I’ll be praying – a Marist prayer for immigrant justice on this most immigrant of holidays:

O God,
Who welcomes all His children,
and embraces even the prodigal ones,
help us open our hearts
and welcome all who come, searching
as our ancestors did,
for the promise of a new land, a new life.
Root out fear from our souls;
help us form the words
“sister” and “brother”
as we greet the newcomers.
Let us remember that,
with Your grace,
there are enough loaves and fishes
to go around
if we come together
as Your family.
Give us the courage
and the compassion
to respect the rights of all
in this country of abundance.
To embrace all in
the name of Your love.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

What kind of garden?

An update on the story about Marcelo Lucero, the Ecuadorian immigrant killed by Patchogue teenagers out to bash "beaners," a link to which I originally posted on Nov. 11:

El Diario/La Prensa has lots of really good coverage of this story in Spanish. (I've got a link to El Diario's smart edition at the bottom of all my blog posts.)

There is a direct connection between crimes like this one and the uncivil discourse about immigration and immigrants we've heard the past few years.

So, what does this have to do with gardens?

I've been looking at the little garden my family planted this summer. It is under a layer of snow today, and beneath that, the earth that produced the acorn squash we will be eating at Thanksgiving lies fallow. It is good ground. It has rewarded our work by giving us much. By feeding us, by allowing us to dream of its fruits, by dazzling with its variety and productivity.

Politicians and commentators, talk radio hosts and columnists (and in Philadelphia, even cheesesteak vendors) have planted seeds of fear and spite against undocumented immigrants and Latinos in this nation -- this garden -- of ours. They have carefully tended and watered them, watched them grow into hatred. Incidents like the one in Patchogue, or in Shenandoah, Pa. (see also in post of Nov. 11) are the crop they have cultivated.

Sometimes the scope of their harvest of hate takes my breath away.

But this is what I know about gardens: they can be replanted. Mold and rot can be rooted out. The skeletal structures of last year's harvest can be pulled whole from the ground. Earth can be turned over, made fresh and enriched.

We can plan to plant an entirely new garden next season.

All we really need is good seed. And the desire to plant and tend it.

Download "We can stop the hate: A tool kit for action" at the following web site:

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The care and feeding of our human family

With Thanksgiving little more than a week away, many of us are preparing for the meal we like best. My husband, for example. He swears he could eat the traditional American Thanksgiving meal every day of the year without getting tired of it. Since I tend to cook mostly Mexican and Guatemalan dishes for special occasions I’ve had to promise that, yes, I’ll roast the turkey instead of putting it into a Puebla-style mole, and indeed, I will include mashed potatoes on the night’s menu, along with the acorn squash from our garden.

This year, for many Americans, the questions will be less about what they will serve, but whether there will be enough to serve. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 13 million U.S. households did not have enough food at some point in 2007. Of those households with the lowest “food security:” 98 percent worried that food would run out; 96 percent included adults who cut down or skipped meals, and 29 percent included adults who had not eaten anything in a full day.

This month, the U.S.D.A. released shocking figures for 2008: 36.2 million Americans, including 12.4 million children, are now “food insecure.” The U.S.D.A. expects that the overall cost of food will have increased 4 percent by the end of this year. The cost of individual products such as cheese will have risen 14.5 percent this year, eggs 16.3 percent and bread 17.3 percent.

Staff from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Nutritional Development Services – which stocks local emergency food cupboards -- told the Catholic Standard & Times back in September that they had seen an increase in use of food cupboards, and a decrease in donations. Today, Philabundance, one of the region’s largest hunger relief organizations, sent out a release stating that it is “experiencing a serious shortage of food.” Donations have decreased by 31.2 percent – the equivalent of 4 million pounds of food.

“Everywhere we turn, there are stories about the rising unemployment rate, the number of people in danger of losing their homes, and the anticipated jump this year in home heating costs,” said Bill Clark executive director and president of Philabundance. “And then there’s the ‘sticker shock’ we all experience at the end of the grocery check-out line. None of us are immune to the effects of our faltering economy.

“The fact that most of us are carefully weighing whether we really need that item that we’re considering buying serves as a reminder to me – and all of us here at Philabundance – just how much more serious life’s choices have become for our neighbors who were already struggling, or even just getting by,” Clark said. “The need has increased as we see that families who in the past have been able to provide for their own are now looking for help.”

Philabundance is asking organizations and individuals to plan food drives and to donate non-perishable foods. Call 215-339-0900 or visit the web site at for more information.

You can also contribute money to Nutritional Development Services for purchase of food for the emergency food cupboards it stocks throughout the five counties of the Archdiocese. Call 215-587-2468 or visit the web site at for more information.

If you wish to contribute to a local food cupboard directly, milk, cheese, cereals, peanut butter, jelly, canned tuna and soups are always in high demand.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Poll shows support for immigration reform among Catholics

A quick post to let you share in this information from the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference:

WASHINGTON—A recent Zogby poll of Catholics nationwide showed overwhelming support for reform of our nation’s immigration laws, with Catholics supporting a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million undocumented persons in the country.
The poll conducted October 17-20, included a sample of 1,000 people who self-identified as Roman Catholics and was commissioned by Migration and Refugee Services of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (MRS/USCCB). It had a margin of error of +/- 3.2 percentage points.
About 69 percent of Catholics polled supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, provided they register with the government; 62 percent supported the concept if they were required to learn English. The U.S. Catholic bishops have long endorsed a path to citizenship for undocumented persons that would include requirements to register with the government and to learn English.
“These results show that, like other Americans, Catholics want a solution to the challenge of illegal immigration and support undocumented immigrants becoming full members of our communities and nation,” said Johnny Young, executive director of Migration and Refugee Services of the USCCB. “It is clear that those opposed to a legalization of the undocumented are a minority,” he added.
In other findings, 64 percent of Catholics opposed the construction of a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, while three out of four Catholics agree that the church has a moral obligation to help provide for the humanitarian needs of immigrants, regardless of their legal status.
Todd Scribner, education coordinator for MRS/USCCB, stated that the poll results demonstrated that the efforts of the U.S. bishops to educate Catholics on the realities of immigration are bearing fruit.
“Catholics are generally in agreement with their bishops that there needs to be a comprehensive and humane solution to our immigration problems,” Scribner said. “The strong educational efforts of the bishops, through the Justice for Immigrants Campaign and their own teachings, have helped generate support in the Catholic community for comprehensive reform.”
The U.S. bishops launched an educational initiative in 2005, entitled the Justice for Immigrants Campaign, to educate Catholics on the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Days of violence and hate

Whoever says, "I am in the light," while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light.
- 1 John 2:9-10

Nov. 10 in Upper Darby, Pa.:
Hoa Pham and his wife are brutally attacked and tortured in their home -- he is killed and his wife is hospitalized with serious injuries. The Pham family are parishioners of St. Alice Parish in Upper Darby; the church is holding a week-long prayer vigil.
Pham, an officer in the South Vietnamese Army, was imprisoned for seven years in a communist prison camp before emigrating to the United States 17 years ago.
The funeral is set for Saturday.
Read the report from Channel 6-Philadelphia's ABC affiliate:

Nov. 9 in Patchogue, N.Y.:
Seven teens are charged with fatally stabbing an Ecuadorian immigrant. According to reports, they admit they were looking for a "Hispanic" to beat up. Authorities consider it a hate crime. Read the Newsday report:,0,5039497.story

And on Nov. 13 in Pottsville, Pa. there will be a hearing in the case against three teens who are charged with the brutal death of Luis Ramirez, a 25-year-old undocumented immigrant working in Shenandoah, Pa. as a fruit picker and factory worker. Because the teens were allegedly screaming racial slurs at Ramirez, this is also considered a hate crime by some. The incident took place in July of this year.
Read about the scheduled hearing in the Republican Herald:

How does a community heal from the depth of violence and hatred evinced by these tragedies?

A while back, I spoke to Robert Nix, the chairman of the Police Advisory Commission in Philadelphia. He had spoken at a vigil in Shenandoah days after the attack on Ramirez about just that -- how to put a community back together.

"From what I've seen," he said, "healing communities takes a lot of honest effort and hard work. It takes open dialogue between everyone in the community -- all of the stakeholders. It takes strong and decisive local leadership. It takes a belief in the innate goodness of man. It takes fair and impartial justice. And it takes forgiveness from the heart."

"We need to have faith," he added. "Faith in our fellow man, and faith in God ... to rebuild a relationship of mutual trust among [the community's] members."

Please join your prayers to those of the Pham children and the Vietnamese community in Upper Darby, to the grieving family of Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue and Ecuador, and to Luis Ramirez's family and friends in Shenandoah and Mexico.

Hearing immigrants' voices

The Painted Bride Art Center at 230 Vine St. in the Old City section of Philadelphia is hosting a performance titled "Underground America" from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 12. It is a reading of oral histories by undocumented immigrants.
After the performance, Peter Orner (editor of the book "Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives"), two lawyers and the director of HIAS and Council Migration Service of Philadelphia address the legal, economic and humanitarian issues surrounding the immigration debate.
The event costs $15. Call 215-925-9914 for more information.
(Thanks to Regan Cooper for the heads-up.)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Disappeared in Philadelphia, Part 2

(Read the first part of this story in the Oct. 23 post.)

The 26-year-old who sits before me on the sofa of a Philadelphia parish rectory is small and slight. Her young face is framed by loose, dark curls, and she smiles a lot – mostly when she turns to look at the 5-year-old seated beside her on the sofa.

Though he fidgets, he’s been remarkably good during the two hours it’s taken me to interview his mother. He follows the volley of Spanish conversation with his eyes, answers my few questions to him in both Spanish and English. Dressed neatly in dark trousers and a light shirt, and carrying a child-sized backpack he won’t remove even when he sits down, Jesús reminds me of my nephew or of my older brother at that age. Same dark hair and eyes; same precocious gravity amid childish smiles.

“Do you like school?” I ask him.

He attends a bilingual Head Start program, and an afterschool program at one of the local Catholic churches.

He nods, a serious expression on his face.

His mother watches him answer the question with that look mothers get – admixed pride and wonder and concern.

He is the reason this quiet young woman crossed the border into the United States about four years ago. She carried him over in her arms.

“My motive [for coming here] was my son,” she says to me. “Para sacarlo adelante.”

So that he has a chance. A future.

I think of my own daughter, at that moment probably just getting home from school and sitting down at the computer to do her homework. When she was little I would tuck her into bed telling her I loved her more than the sun and the moon and stars. And I meant it. Still do.

And yet, I find myself thinking, could I have done for her as this young woman did for her son?

A modern immigration story
“I come from a humble town,” Erica says to me, describing a town in Mexico where most of the parents cannot afford to buy their children shoes.

Erica and her baby lived with her parents, and two of her brothers, 15 and 7 years old.
“There was no work there, no way to make money,” Erica continues. “My parents didn’t have enough for food.”

A few minutes later she adds: “No hay prestamo para comer.”

There’s no loan you can get for food.

Getting a visa to come into the U.S. to work is nearly impossible for someone like Erica. An unskilled laborer, she fits into the lowest priority category of applicants for a pool of only 40,000 visas granted annually.

Even to visit the U.S. with a tourist visa isn’t an option for someone like her, I learn.
It costs $100 to get an interview to see about a visa. And to qualify for the visa, you have to give proof of substantial savings, or hold title to real estate in Mexico.

Erica didn’t have a hope of savings or real estate. But she had hope.

Several of Erica’s brothers had already crossed the border and settled into restaurant jobs in the Philadelphia area. She knew they worked 12-hour days, making about $8 per hour -- enough, she thought, for her son to have something better in his future.

Erica came across the border the way so many of the poor do – by hiring a “coyote” to lead her through some of the toughest terrain in Mexico and the United States.

“No se si aguante,” she tells me the coyote told her when she first approached him. He doubted she could make it across with a child in tow.

Somehow, she convinced him.

She carried her son – and his powdered formula and diapers – through forests and steep gorges and cornfields. She slogged through mud when it rained, and through cold nights.
Others made the journey also, following the same coyote on his trek to, and through, Nogales – a town about 60 miles south of Tucson on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The border patrol caught them, and returned them to Nogales, where the coyote ditched them.

“No se va poder,” he said to them, shaking his head. “It’s not going to be possible.”

But Erica and the others did try to cross again. And got caught by the border patrol again.

It’s not clear to me what side of the border she and the others were on when they were assaulted by a gang of what Erica describes as “cholos” – young men in their 20s who stripped them of their rings, their jackets and shoes, and any money they had.

“They took the diaper off Jesús, and spilled out the powdered formula looking for money,” she tells me.

When they didn’t find any, they wrested the baby from her, beat her and tried to strip off her clothing.

She tells me she believes she might have been raped if a 16-year-old immigrant boy had not stood up to the gang. He claimed her as a sister, and was beaten by the gang in her stead.
Eventually they crossed the border into the United States, and after a 13-day ride in the back of a van, Erica and Jesús arrived in Philadelphia.

Within days Erica is working, Jesús is in his new home with uncles and aunts, and the prayers Erica intoned every night on her long and hope-filled journey seem to have been answered.

It should end this way, her story. Prayers answered are a good end.

But if you read the first “Disappeared in Philadelphia” entry you know this is no end.

Thinking out loud
Some 20-odd years ago, when I was in college, a writing professor handed back one of my short stories with this comment on it: “Honor everybody in the story.”

“I didn’t?” I asked him, incredulous.

“How many times did you let this character say what he said directly to us, the readers?” is how I remember my professor answering my question with a question. I think he was fond of doing that.

Then, less than a year ago I found myself in the archdiocesan office for Hispanic Catholics, ranting to the vicar, Msgr. Hugh Shields. Poor Monsignor, he suffers my rants rather more often than anybody else these days because he is kind, and reasonable, and doesn’t really have an effective escape route charted out.

As I recall, I was going on and on about how I didn’t understand why people judged undocumented immigrants so harshly.

“So few people hear their stories,” he said. “You know, if they could see their faces and hear their voices I believe it would be different.”

I trust their judgment, these two men of different vocations but similar insight.

Erica's voice:

“I wish people knew that we’re good people. That we don’t come here to harm anyone. That we’re willing to work hard, to do heavy work. That we just want to help our families, and get a little bit ahead.

“I wish there were work visas that would allow us to go back and forth to Mexico. I haven’t seen my parents in five years.

“You know what I dream of? Bringing my parents here.
“Being able to get them visas, and bringing them here the right way.”

Monday, November 3, 2008

It's almost Tuesday

To paraphrase poet Robert Browning, people have died trying to get to this place where we are now...
So go out and vote!

And, know your rights:

  1. Don’t be fooled by misleading flyers. Both Democrats and Republicans vote on Tuesday, November 4.
  2. If you receive a phone call offering to help you vote by phone, hang up and report the incident to 1-888-Ve-Y-Vota (1-888-839-8682).
  3. If you have a driver’s license, U.S. passport, or state-issued identification, bring it!
  4. If you do not, bring a document that shows your name and address, such as a utility bill, bank statement, paycheck stub, government check, or other government document. If you do not have any of these forms of ID and are a registered voter, you can still cast a provisional ballot.
  5. If you need assistance reading or filling out the ballot, you have the right to bring someone with you to the polls to help you or to request assistance from a poll worker. Some locations, but not all, are required to have materials in Spanish or other languages. For a list of these locations, call 1-888-Ve-Y-Vota (1-888-839-8682).
  6. If you make a mistake on your voting ballot, you have the right to get a new one.
  7. If you have any problems, such as your name does not appear on the list, you do not have ID, or there are no more ballots, request a provisional ballot.
  8. If the election voting machine you are using does not work or flips your vote to another candidate, contact a poll worker. You have the right to use another machine or cast a paper ballot.
  9. If you are already in line by the time the polls close, you have the right to cast your vote.
  10. You have the right to vote in secret and without being intimidated.
  11. If you are denied a provisional ballot, have any problems that prevent you from casting your vote, or witness any questionable incidents, call 1-888-Ve-Y-Vota (1-888-839-8682).
  12. If you have lost your home to foreclosure, you still have the right to vote. Contact your local election board to inquire as to where you should go.

For more information on voting and state-specific information, visit

(Thanks to Elena Lacayo for this information.)

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Go fly a kite

Today, All Saints Day, people in Guatemala are flying kites at cemeteries (see for a great little video of the festivities in one Guatemalan town) as part of the two-day religious celebration of All Saints and All Souls that is a particular favorite for Catholics in Mexico and Guatemala.

If you wait out the video’s introduction of the year’s Queen and Princess of the Kites, you’ll see the amazing kites themselves – pieced from tissue paper and mounted on light wooden armatures. They are part catechetical picture-book, part sampler of the textile motifs found in the traditional garb of the town, and wholly Guatemalan.

You’ll see the blue and green-painted mausoleums of the cemetery, the sea of marigolds adorning gravesites, and the atmosphere that, despite being a Solemnity of the Catholic Church, can hardly be described as solemn.

For many years I think I saw this tradition as a marvel of folk art – the need to create that finds expression in ordinary people and everyday materials and turns into something extraordinary. But now, eight years after the death of my mother and four after the death of my father, I see in it something else.

It is like visual prayer, this kite flying.

The armatures, enormous and unwieldy, seem incapable of flight, and yet they soar high above us – where we envision the heavens, the communion of saints and Church triumphant, to be.
It is the community as a whole that gets those kites into the air. Some of it is skill, sure, and experience from past years. But most of it is faith that the kites can fly, and that by grace they will fly.

The same can be said of something that is happening in the Philadelphia area tomorrow, on All Souls Day. The first Spanish-language Mass to be televised across the region will take place at 6:30 a.m. on Telemundo WWSI-TV 62.

This, too, has been a community effort: Catholic entrepreneur Jorge Fernandez; the network’s general manager Clara Rivas; Msgr. Hugh Shields and Anna Vega, both from the archdiocesan Office for Hispanic Catholics, have had this in the works for a long time. Cardinal Justin Rigali is the celebrant of the Mass --and it is a joy to hear the Archbishop of Philadelphia’s beautiful Spanish during the liturgy.

Getting this Mass on the air has been as much a labor of faith and shared commitment as getting those huge Guatemalan kites in the air. Both leave me a bit in awe of the sheer devotion they evince: to God, to the vitality of the pilgrim Church on earth, to traditions and heritage.

And ultimately, for me, there is no way to talk about heritage, to talk about these days of commemoration of the departed, without talking about my parents. That’s them in the photo at the top of this blog entry. It will be their gravesite I will visit at St. Joseph Parish cemetery tomorrow after the All Souls Day Mass.

In keeping with the Guatemalan and Mexican cultural traditions I inherited from my mother, I will bring yellow and orange flowers that resemble marigolds to place around their headstone. In keeping with the Catholic faith I also inherited from my mother, I will read: “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them.”

I will talk to my parents at their gravesite as if they were in front of me, and tell them how much I miss them. Then, I’ll come home and cook the foods they liked, to remember what we’ve shared across tables both literal and symbolic.

Two days later, I will enter a voting booth in the exercise of a right I inherited from my father; my citizenship earned by his blood.
I have been accused of turning everything into an argument for reforming our existing immigration laws and quotas, but in truth I cannot think about my parents without thinking about the ways lives are being shaped by our broken immigration system.

My father’s father, Leander Panayotis Vourvoulias, was born in Turkish-occupied Smyrna (what was then called Asia Minor) in 1894. He was the son of a Greek barber. According to a very skimpy bio that was written about him many years later when he was winning an award from the Consular Corps as Consul of the year, he had a college degree from American college in Smyrna.

It is unclear how my grandfather ended up in Havana, Cuba working for the National Bank of New York, but that same bio says he spent time in Chicago training in a bank before he moved to Cuba.

What is clear is that it was fortunate that he was in the Americas when his younger brother, George, was of the age to be forcibly conscripted into the Turkish army. My grandfather secured documents that allowed his brother to emigrate first to Cuba, and later, after coming to the U.S. via Key West, to Chicago, Ill.

It was to Chicago my grandfather also eventually returned, with my grandmother, for a year or so before moving to first to Colombia, and later to Mexico. My father was born in Chicago, in that sliver of time they lived in the U.S.

If this were happening today, my grandfather would never have gotten a visa to enter the United States as anything but a tourist. Because he would not have had an advanced degree or a post as an “outstanding professor or researcher” or be possessed already of managerial or executive status with his employer, he would not have qualified for the first two categories of employment-based visas issued in the U.S.

He might have qualified under the third employment-based preference, which gives first priority to those with bachelor’s degrees, second to skilled workers and third to unskilled workers. But the total annual quota for all three of these categories under this preference is only 40,000 visas a year.

If my grandfather’s story were happening today, even if he had lucked out and gotten a visa and then applied for either permanent residency or citizenship, our family history would be quite different.

As a citizen, it would take him 6 to 12 months to get papers to have his wife join in Chicago legally; if he were a permanent resident, it would take him five years, or longer.

Today, as a citizen, my grandfather could expect to wait seven years, or longer, to be able to bring his brother out of harm’s way. As a permanent resident, he wouldn’t even be allowed to try.

Let’s face it, if today’s quotas had been in effect during the great waves of German, Polish, Italian and Irish immigration of the past two centuries, the majority of us would not be able to claim American citizenship.

Skilled laborers like the German and Italian stonemasons responsible for some of our most beautiful architectural structures would have ranked penultimate on the visa quota list. And forget the unskilled laborers who built the infrastructure and kept us in food – the nation would have welcomed with open hearts only those who were already privileged, educated and white-collar.

As we do now, with our existing quota system.

It should not be lost on anyone with immigrant roots that the 14th Amendment – the one that says you get to be a U.S. citizen if one of your parents is one (jus sanguinis) or if you were born in the United States (jus soli) – has been the target of anti-immigrant rhetoric during this electoral cycle. Two early candidates in the race advocated eliminating the jus soli right for children born in the U.S. of undocumented parents. They still advocate it.

On All Saints/All Souls, I hope more than just Guatemalans fly some prayers up to heaven.

I hope that in commemorating our beloved departed we can hear clearly the stories they have for us – stories of love and faith and family, of how we are all immigrants seeking sanctuary, saved by amnesty and in search of Promised Land.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Wearing red

Well, this is not blog I expected to write next.

Me, writing about the Phillies? It boggles the mind.

Though I’m not much of a sports fan I do retain certain affection for baseball. My father was a baseball fan; my brothers are baseball fans; my husband is a baseball fan; even my daughter lays claim to it.

Out all those loved ones, not one is a Phillies fan.

My dad, born in Chicago, was a lifelong Cubs fan. One of the ways he bonded with my daughter was by passing along his love for his team. My brothers? Well, growing up in Guatemala means you don’t form regional preferences, so the youngest loves the Detroit Tigers, the oldest the Pittsburgh Pirates. And my husband, though born and bred in New York State, roots for the Minnesota Twins. Go figure.

The best explanation may be that baseball fans are a contrarian bunch. You have to be a contrarian to love the slow-paced, still mannerly game in which athletes as dissimilar as little Joe Morgan, Big Papi Ortiz and Mark “the Bird” Fidrych have excelled. The fact that sports historians now believe that baseball “was invented” in England rather than in the United States in the 18th century matters little. Is there anything more quintessentially American?

So, back to the Phillies.

This morning I caught the train into Philadelphia as usual.

Well, not exactly as usual. The platform was clogged with Phillies fans on their way into the city to celebrate the World Series win together. The station wasn’t twice, or thrice as full as normal. Try 50 or 100 times as full. And, let’s not talk about the parking lot.

Every train that zoomed by without stopping sounded its whistle, acknowledging the hundreds of fans gathered on the platform. When we got on the train – the second stop from its point of origin – it had to go express because it was already standing room only. We flew by stations packed with Phillies fans. Nobody paid for a ticket. People were convivial and warm. Conductors were upbeat.

People expressed sympathy that I was coming in to work rather than to play along with the rest of them, and in fact, the people in the front half of the car made a concerted effort to get me to ditch work altogether. It was without question, despite the crowded conditions, the most enjoyable ride I have ever taken on Septa regional rail.

It also made me think. Sometimes, when we are together and united in a single purpose – to celebrate what we share – we are a better people. We are kinder, friendlier, more forgiving. I only wish something besides sports could engender this reaction, this feeling of community in us. A presidential election, for example.

Of course, I reserve the right to change my opinion about all of this tomorrow. Despite my rave about the ride in to the city, I’m a little scared of the ride home.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Disappeared in Philadelphia

“Some people have disappeared on their way to work.”
It is one sentence among many during an interview I am conducting about outreach to immigrants in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The people sitting at the table with me are a priest, a nun and a layperson – all remarkable advocates for the communities they serve.
I wonder if they notice that the sentence makes me flinch.
When I was 15, my family moved to the United States from Guatemala – a country that was then escalating from civil war to genocide. Hundreds of thousands of people were disappeared during those years – on their way to work, or school, or the corner store. I can’t hear a sentence like the one that opens this piece without thinking about life in those days – of how our ordinary routines were flanked by fear, limned by caution.
“What do you mean, ‘people have disappeared?’” I ask. “In Philadelphia?”
“Let me see if I can get someone to talk to you about it,” Sister Lorena says.
Several weeks later I find myself in the rectory of a church in Philadelphia of which I am not a parishioner. Erica, a 26-year-old woman dressed in jeans and sneakers, sits across from me, her 5-year-old son fidgeting on the sofa next to her. They’re not parishioners of this church either. Sister Lorena has brought us together here so I can hear about Beto, Erica’s 18-year-old brother.
The story begins on Thursday, March 15, 2007. Erica shares an apartment with her three sisters and two brothers. She is still asleep that morning when Beto gets up to go to work at the restaurant where he is a cook.
Usually he leaves for work in the early morning and doesn’t get home until 1 or 2 a.m. He speaks some English, and Erica describes him as “tranquilo” (even-tempered) and “muy cumplido” (reliable).
On that day, he wears a jacket and carries a backpack. He has his cell phone on him, and his pay for the past week, some $500 in cash, by Erica’s accounting. He calls from the subway platform on his way to work, speaks briefly to one of the family members and ends the call by saying he’ll call again later.
At 1 p.m., a co-worker at the restaurant calls the apartment.
“What happened to Beto?” he asks. “He didn’t show up for work.”
The family tries to find him. They call the police, who ask for a description, what clothing and shoes he was wearing. One of the family members runs a photo of him down to the station.
They worry that he might be hurt or dead – that his girlfriend’s ex has killed him in some fit of jealousy. The next day, they seek her out and she refuses to open the door or answer any of their questions. It seems to confirm their worst fears.
Still, they spend the rest of that day, and Saturday and Sunday also, posting flyers with his photo, and asking around whether anyone has seen him. They call hospitals and inquire about every John Doe. At 3 a.m. on Sunday, a friend of the family, utterly desperate, calls Sister Lorena.
“None of us thought about ‘la migra,’” Erica says to me, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement by its nickname. “It hadn’t even crossed our minds.”
But it crosses Sister Lorena’s mind. At 8:30 a.m. on Monday, March 19 she calls the York County Prison where most undocumented immigrants from the Philadelphia area are taken.
By the time they ascertain he was taken there, he’s already gone.

What happened to Beto?
Erica recounts the detention story Beto tells her when he is finally able to make a call to them: He’s on the platform at 15th and Market waiting for his usual train. He notices Philadelphia police on the platform checking people’s backpacks, but doesn’t think much about it.
At some point, a policeman approaches him, asks him what time it is. When he hears Beto respond, the policeman asks him if he has documents proving he’s a legal immigrant.
Beto, Erica continues, tells the policeman he has papers, even though he really doesn’t. He is loaded into a van with 15 other young Latino men from the train platform, and taken to the local precinct.
The police turn him over to immigration authorities in Philadelphia. There, the I.C.E. agents take his watch, his jacket, his wallet and his cell phone.
Before Beto is shipped off to the detention center in York, his wallet is returned to him with approximately $100 of his original $500. He has to plead with them to get his cell phone back.
He’s not at York long. Within days he’s taken first to Texas, and then to Arizona, where he is finally able to contact Erica. He’s on his way to be dropped across the border -- Ciudad Juárez, Sister Lorena guesses – to find his way back to their hometown in Puebla.
“Another waitress where I work [as a busboy] knows someone who was picked up the same way, at the same station,” Erica tells me when she finishes recounting her brother’s story.
Then simply, with no drama: “I no longer take the trains.”

Nothing but questions
As I try to find my way through a section of Philadelphia I don’t know after my two-hour conversation with Erica, I’m struck by her poise. She’s managed to tell me her brother’s story, as well as her own (look for subsequent blog entries) calmly and with a self-possession I don’t feel after talking to her.
I seethe with questions.
Are there really police staked out at certain train stations in Philadelphia doing immigration checks?
On what basis are people being asked to present documents – on that train platform or anywhere else in the city and suburbs for that matter? Their “Latino” look? Their accents? Their “immigrant” backpacks?
Are immigration officials temporarily confiscating the cell phones of detainees to deprive them of legal counsel? Or to pull the telephone numbers in the memories of those phones so they can chase down other potential “illegals?”
Mostly I ask myself how anyone endures the anguish of having a loved one disappear so inexplicably. As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, this is not a new question for me. What is new is that I’m asking it in the United States.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Diversidad unida por la fe - Diversity united by faith

Photos from the Hispanic Heritage Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, Oct. 12, 2008.
Fotos de la Misa de la Herencia Hispana en la Catedral Basilica de SS. Pedro y Pablo en Filadelfia, 12 de octubre 2,008.
Photos by Sarah Webb/CS&T Fotos por Sarah Webb/CS&T

Friday, October 10, 2008

Mass and masa

I am making tamales.

The process requires a peculiar combination of skills -- half culinary, half assembly-line -- that I find deeply satisfying. Tamales, you see, mean family.

We traditionally make them on holy days and those special occasions when family, and those who might as well be family, gather. I cook the cornmeal masa and all the savory or sweet fillings. My daughter and Anna spoon and ladle, and fold the combination into their corn-husk or banana-leaf wrappers. My husband and my brother are charged with multiple duties: soaking the husks, warming the leaves over a stove burner so the oils come to the surface, cutting string and strips of leaf, and finally, tying the little bundles together before lowering them into a pot that fits 50 to 100 at once.

Someone always forgets to put an ingredient into a couple of the tamales during assembly. Another forgets what type of tie indicates which flavor of tamal and mixes up a few. Or thinks he does. I’ve been known to run out of an ingredient two-thirds of the way through and have to improvise wildly to finish the batch.

But during the time it takes to put the tamales together, and the hours it takes for the steaming bundles to fill the house with their enticing aroma, we have a great time. There is always lively conversation and good-natured teasing; epiphanies and mea culpas large and small; shared joys, and sorrows, too.

But today I am making tamales alone, as I have done for the past three years, in anticipation of an October gathering of family which none of my actual family attends. Sunday, Oct. 12 at 2 p.m. the Hispanic Heritage Mass will be celebrated at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. Every year the event draws hundreds to fill the 19th-century edifice with music, colorful traditional outfits, and prayers like I remember them from my childhood -- electrifyingly heartfelt and in Spanish.

I have a defining memory for each year’s Mass. In 2005, I carried a banner with the image of Our Lady of the Rosary that had been laid out on our kitchen table for weeks while my daughter and I painted it.

2006 was the year I was asked to be a lector -- not for my quality of voice or Spanish diction, you understand, but because I wear the heavily embroidered Guatemalan huipiles inherited from my mother that one of the organizers of the event just loves.

Last year, for the first time, I experienced this particular Mass more simply, as one of many sitting in the pews. After the Mass, I milled about among the throng of people I didn’t know. We treated each other with great warmth and ease – exactly like a family who gathers once a year for something important. At one point, looking around, my eyes threatened to fill with tears. I’ve always understood intellectually the command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” but I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t often feel it so viscerally.

This year, I’m afraid I’ll remember the Mass for a different reason. Some of the organizers believe attendance will be much lower than usual because those who are undocumented are scared to gather publicly, even at church.

This year has been one of escalating fear for them. The largest Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) workplace raid in U.S. history took place in Pottsville, Iowa in May. Nearly 400 people were arrested. Most recently, on Oct. 8, another 300 people were detained at their workplace, this time in Greensville, S.C., (read about the raid at:,8599,1848211,00.html).

Some of those detained will have violated immigration laws knowingly, but some will not have made that choice for themselves. Some may be eligible for U visas, or T visas, or qualify for temporary protective status because of crisis conditions in their homeland -- but most likely don’t know it. Almost all will be asked to sign a voluntary deportation order --not understanding that doing so will waive their ability to appeal the deportation -- which will mean that they will never again be allowed to enter the U.S. legally.

Many will be separated, temporarily or permanently, from their young and adolescent children, who may be U.S. citizens. (A publication that outlines some of the rights and options available to the undocumented is available from:

Also among those detained and kept from their families for hours are lawfully present immigrants. At the Greensville raid they were allegedly given a different color wristband than the undocumented once their status was determined by the ICE.

The zeal to rout the undocumented doesn’t leave us untouched. Our Church insists that the undocumented be treated humanely and with the dignity due every human being ( as does that commandment I felt so forcefully at last year’s Hispanic Heritage Mass.

But we are often taken to task for our concern. Every time an article about immigration appears in an issue of the Catholic Standard & Times, I get to read letters to the editor expressing outrage that the article appeared at all. Sometimes I get to read letters from people who find it offensive that we publish a bilingual page, or that the Archdiocese makes an effort to have Masses in Spanish and reaches out to Latinos regardless of immigration status. Once I even got to read a letter that said the sender wouldn’t be contributing to Catholic Charities that year because a young Latino boy was pictured on the promotional poster.

It illustrates something most native-born and permanent resident Latinos feel intimately -- that the discourse about immigration has become less about documents and more about impugning our ethnicity and heritage.

Which brings me back to this year’s Hispanic Heritage Mass. I will miss the voices that because of fear won’t be raised with mine in the Cathedral Basilica, but I am hoping that new voices -- the voices of those who are willing to stand with their human family regardless of status or background -- will decide to join in this celebration of our shared faith.

Afterwards there will be tamales in the offing -- born of multiple distinct ingredients and transformed by pressure into one cohesive and marvelous whole.