Friends in Tijuana

"I thought I would go to Tijuana to help the poor by cooking dinner. Instead, I was invited to become poor, through an openness of heart and poverty of spirit that was so attractive."

We spent a day in Tijuana, the small town across the San Diego, California, border into Mexico. We went there to prepare dinner for about two-hundred men, a few with young sons, who have been either deported from California to Mexico or unsuccessfully attempted to cross into the United States and do not have family in Tijuana. We were at Casa del Migrante, which is run by the Scalabrinian Congregation founded in 1887 by Blessed John Baptist Scalabrini to help millions of Italian immigrants in the American continent. I was expecting to find these men with no hope, dejected, and feeling very down. Instead I was very surprised to find men who witnessed to the courage and desire to live their lives fully by embracing their dramatic reality. How is this possible? What sustains these men from whom everything and everyone was taken?

After meeting a few of them and hearing their story, it was clear that the difference is in their being loved. Before the men started to eat dinner, Daniella, a social worker at Casa del Migrante, asked who wanted to say the blessing and two hands went up. Daniella called out one name and the prayer began. Everybody was in silence, including us, the volunteers, who had arrived hours before to prepare dinner. But it was not a formal silence; it was a silence filled with gratitude and, surprisingly, peace--a gratitude that finds its roots in the Easter words of Pope Francis: “The Lord calls us to get up, to rise at his word, to look up and to realize that we were made for heaven, not for earth, for the heights of life and not for the depths of death: Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (Homily at the Easter Vigil, April 20, 2019).

As soon as the prayer finished, while I crossed the room toward the kitchen, Xavier, a young man in his twenties, grabbed my arm and with tears in his eyes looked at me and said: “Gracias, amigo.” Gracias, amigo … all of life in these two words: gracias amigo! Another man came into the kitchen after eating dinner and said, “Today I’ve been treated like a Roman emperor. Thank you.” And a third man, who was deported last week while heading to work in West Los Angeles, having been brought to the United States by his grandparents about forty years ago when he was only two years old, claimed to be excited to start the “next chapter” of his life in Mexico, even though he would have to “brush up” on his Spanish. He had already found a job, which is one of the services provided by Casa del Migrante, and was looking forward to what life would be like back in Mexico. We were totally blown away by his openness of heart and had to ask ourselves, what makes this possible?

It is Christ’s friendship, present now with us, that can sustain the call to life every day as life presents itself. I thought I would go to Tijuana to help the poor by cooking dinner. Instead, I was invited to become poor, through an openness of heart and poverty of spirit that was so attractive. As Pope Francis said on the Second World Day of the Poor, "in hands outstretched to one another, a salvific encounter can take place to strengthen our faith, inspire our charity and enable our hope to advance securely on our path towards the Lord who is to come" (Message for the Second World Day of the Poor, 2018). This is Easter!

Guido, California, USA