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 Ju├írez, 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.