Posts Tagged ‘Mexico 2010’

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Those few days we were in General Cepeda, drought was mentioned many times.  It had been twenty years, the people we visited said. Twenty years of drought.

The last full day we were there, it rained. and since the mission house is typical Spanish style, it is built around an open courtyard.  A couple of the permanent missionaries got it rolling, and it didn’t take long:

Fun, yes, but what trouble was to come…

In the weeks since, Alex has pounded northern Mexico with storms. The drought may be over, but the difficulties brought by these storms – death, mudslides, flooding – have been serious.  The need, of one type or another – never ends.

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Saltillo is the nearest large city to General Cepeda, and the diocesan see. About 600,000 people live there. It’s about an hour west and south of Monterrey. We went there for an outing one afternoon, the focus being the Cathedral and a couple of other spots.

I had to wonder why Mexico, Central and South America have not been on my tourism radar, even with all of my devotion to the original and foundational Catholicity of the Americas. Well, perhaps it is because that devotion originates in my French-Canadian heritage (mother: Bergeron + Langlois , she being first generation Quebecois born in the US), so my sights have been set further north, naturally, especially being married to a Dubruiel – another half French Canadian.

It was a quick trip. Some photos:

This is the Miracle Chapel, attached to the Cathedral in Saltillo.

You will have to forgive me for not having more details, but I can’t seem to…find them… at the moment.

The crucifix at the center of this chapel was brought by the Spanish, and one that was instrumental in converting the native peoples.   I read an allusion to it somewhere, indicating that this is one of the oldest Christian images in the Americas. If you look above the crucifix, you see an arc of red, with gold decoration. The gold is not woven or painted. It is an arrangement of milagros– the small gold charm-like items (in Europe, called ex votos) which represent the prayer prayed and answered: you pray for healing for your foot, you purchase a small milagro shaped like a foot, and when your prayer is answered, you return it to the chapel somehow, and it is pinned up above the crucifix, as a part of the design. Astonishing.

We couldn’t get into the Cathedral. Well, actually, we probably could have, if we’d wanted to stand arrayed along the back of the Cathedral and be a part of a graduation Mass:

I could hear the processional. Pomp and Circumstance.  Some things are still universal, it seems.

Not in the chapel itself, but in the alcove leading to the gift shop. I love these heavily robed figures, calling us to sorrow  – I saw figures of Christ, Mary and those at the foot of the cross similarly robed in Sicily.

The stations were freestanding sculptures, rather than bas-relief or paintings.  Photograph by Joseph.

Hugo sits in front of the Cathedral. He is seriously disabled – Cerebal Palsy, perhaps? – and also cares for his elderly mother. The permanent missionaries describe him simply as their “good friend.” They invited us to befriend him, as well, to embrace him, to give what we could.  He is, as one of the missionaries reflected later, a doorkeeper at the Cathedral – she reflected on Ps. 84:10 and I thought of the great porter saints,  Andre Bessette and Solanus Casey.

After the chapel and the cathedral, we ate lunch, and then went to the market – a tourist type of place, but good for souvenirs.  We wandered off in search of a Coca-Cola Light, and ended up in a food market, where I struck up a conversation with a young man who spoke excellent English and who told me to find some Pan de Pulque – characteristic of Saltillo – but I never had a chance.

And here we are on a rooftop in Saltillo:

And here’s the view:

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Of course there was the manual labor.

As I think I mentioned, we were given two major projects during the week: to rebuild the roof of a neighborhood chapel, and to help a family that needed a room added to their house and a ditch dug to the road for a water line.

Those who weren’t engaged in home visiting divided into two groups for those projects – and on the last day, most of the children (except Michael, who was the youngest in the group by two years) who’d been doing home visits were allowed to go to the work sites and help out.

Since I wasn’t there, I don’t have *a lot* to say, except for a couple of points:

  • Those involved with the roof demolition and reconstruction were quite fascinated by the way of building roofs down there, which involved beams, cross-pieces of wood (bamboo in some houses), the layers of dirt (which had to be sifted) and cement.   They were also impressed by the existence and use for a neighborhood chapel.
  • On the last day, those of us who’d been doing home visits also drove around the work sites to see what the other folks had been doing.  At the second home, there was the whole family for and with whom the group had been working  – mother, father, several young children, including a baby in stroller, all with shovels and pickaxes, still working on that ditch (well, not the baby…). Yes, they needed that water line.

A group from a parish in Pennsylvania was following ours, so what wasn’t completed that week certainly was finished by the next crew.

(Photos courtesy of Kent, Debbie, Eric & Chris)

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There was that, too.

(Work photos forthcoming, once I get a few…come on, people!)

A great slide a block away from the mission house.  The ranchos had these concrete slides, as well – not as tall, but solid, and often with four slides jutting out from the center.  Solid. Slick.

There were two birthdays during the week. Pinata was employed.

And sacrificed.

Ice cream across the square, right next to the church.

In one of the common rooms in the mission house. Studying song lyrics, playing with bouncing balls and fighting imaginary foes. Who come bearing cameras, apparently.

Even brushing your teeth in the communal “sink” in the courtyard was an adventure.

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Here is what we did in Mexico, most days:

We’d work (visiting, digging, hammering) in the mornings, then come back and eat, then have siesta – some would indeed sleep, others would wander, go kick a soccer ball, go find ice cream, cool off in the amazingly cool plaza across the road.

Then, in the early evening, we would gather and get ready to go out to the ranchos.

Ranchos are settlements, to put it most simply. They are settlements of landowners who farm (the best they can in a long-term drought) and have animals the land , and the convoluted, shifting history of Mexican agrarian reform is involved in this in ways that I really don’t understand.

There are about 45 ranchos associated with the Church in General Cepeda. None have a resident priest, it should go without saying, and the sense I got was that they had Mass in the ranchos perhaps once every three months.

You can perhaps see the cross on the hill. There was a cross erected, it seemed to me, on a hill above every one of the ranchos.

So an important element of the missionary apostolate in the area is bringing prayer services to the ranchos as frequently as possible. They work with the parish priest to coordinate this aspect of the apostolate.

We divided into three groups, each led by a couple of the permanent missionaries, and after prayer and preparation at the mission house, we would set out – some of the ranchos were fifteen minutes away, others 45 minutes to an hour.

Missionary Santiago (James) with some kids (including mine) at a rancho.

(Most of these missionaries are young Americans, but there is a concerted effort going on to form local people to serve as well)

Some of the ranchos were tiny – the first our group visited had perhaps 6-8 houses grouped around an open space. Others had paved roads and small businesses – cafes, and so on.  All featured exhortations to good hygiene and health painted on low walls, often with Tweety-Bird, Winnie-the-Pooh or other characters involved.

One rancho had been almost totally and successfully proselytized by Jehovah’s Witnesses.  They said that the JW had built an air-conditioned chapel (I experienced nothing air conditioned in Mexico, myself…) and had even brought a picture of one of the older, long-term Catholic missionaries in General Cepeda, stating that yes, they knew Senora, and implying (if not outright stating – I am not sure) that she approved of the JW.  I didn’t go to that rancho, but the group that went engaged in evangelization, as the Spanish-speaking missionaries directly engaged the claims of those who confronted them with JW teaching in an effective and loving, clear way, and that when it looked as though no one at all was coming to the Catholic service, the suggestion was made to just stand outside the chapel and start singing…and people came. Not a lot, but a few – the remaining Catholics in the rancho and perhaps a few more.

It was summer and the light was still high, so not many younger men were around. Older men, women and children – that was who we saw, and mostly women and children.

We honked the van horn as we drove in and then rang the chapel bell three times: Once when we arrived, then a donother when it was about ten minutes to begin, and a final time when we began.

After we piled out of the van, we walked door to door, inviting people to come. We learned what to say: Buenas Noches. Somos missionares Catholicos….

Eventually they would come. Mostly women and small children. Boys in school shirts would hang around outside, maybe venture in for a few minutes, then book it.

(I asked about schooling. One of the missionaries told me that the ranchos had schools, but teachers were required to live in the rancho, which meant they would often disappear midway through the year. )

This is the chapel in the second rancho we visited. Protestants also had a chapel in the place, which seemed to have about twenty or so homes.  Several families have joined the Protestants and it has apparently caused (naturally) a great deal of division in the community because it’s, well, divisive.

Night fell, and we prayed, they prayed, we all prayed together.  The last rancho we visited had a very nice chapel with many images, included a great Our Lady of Guadalupe framed by a set of lights shaped like roses that would flash on and off, off and on.   Unfortunately, as darkness fell, someone attempted to turn the lights on in the chapel and blew a fuse as a result, so even the roses went dark. But the prayer continued, there in the shadows.

Choosing items from bags of donated clothes after the prayer service.

I don’t  presume or pretend to know anything substantial or important about the spiritual lives of these people. I don’t know how Mexican political, social and cultural life over the past century has worked to impact their experience of faith.  I don’t know what they do in between visits from the missionaries and the priests – the chapels obviously weren’t neglected.  I don’t know if the way that their faith has been embodied in traditional devotions is being successfully passed down from the grandmothers or if the younger people are drifting.  I don’t know what the Protestants and the Jehovah’s Witnesses do or say to draw them away.  I wish I did know more, though.  From what I saw and heard (what was translated), they are people who suffer loss, sickness and uncertainty, are worried about their children, who are trying to live out Jesus’ command to love, who look to Christ, Mary and the saints to help them, and who live under a cross on a hill.

At the end of the prayer services, people would be invited to come up for prayer. One night – the second night – I stood at the front of the chapel with the missionaries and others from our group and women came up. Two women who, in succession spoke quickly and quietly, the missionary translated their deep need, and both what both women asked prayer for from the five of us, what they both needed, were my needs,  as well.

And once again, I learned about communion.

Jehovah's Witnesses walking away after witnessing to *me* Tuesday morning.

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There are many opportunities out there for lay Catholics to engage in short term mission abroad – y0u just have to look for them. Food for the Poor. Catholic Medical Mission Board (for medical professionals). Mustard Seed Communities.

(You can add your own in the comments)

(I live in a continual low-grade state of irritation at CCI – Catholic Communication Incompetence – and this is a simple example.  What would it take for a diocese to have available on a website, in the diocesan press – an ongoing list of current and future domestic and international mission opportunities and needs? People are, in general, very interested in mission activities, I find.  It doesn’t take much more than informing to get them engaged at some level. Anyway.)

Many of these take you into areas in which conditions are more severe and the poverty is more dire than what we experienced – Haiti, city slums – , however such efforts also not set up, most of the time, for families.  In addition, FMC – the group we assisted – is first and foremost,  committed to evangelization and a mission of loving, Christlike presence. They certainly meet physical needs, but their emphasis (at least in the town of General Cepeda) seems to be on assisting the local Church in meeting the spiritual needs of the people, so even the meeting of physical needs such as money for a medical test or food, is accompanied by prayer.

So part of what our group did was to visit people in their homes – accompanying the FMC permanent missionaries on their rounds to shut-ins and the sick. (While the other part of the group was doing construction work) Sometimes we would take dispensas – bags of basic food staples – or bring something to meet a previously discerned need – crutches, for example.  Most of those we visited were elderly.

Unfortunately, I didn’t write down anyone’s names and they don’t come easily back into my memory in Spanish, so I’ll just create names for the very real people I met along the way.

On Monday, I met Dona Maria for the first time. She lives with her daughter, Goya, not far from the mission house.  I found it fascinating that even though the ringers in her group of visitors obviously didn’t speak Spanish, she (and Goya) both conversed with us in their own language, as if we would we understand, and believe me, we were trying.

I did, however, grasp at least one point without assistance – she pointed to my eyes – oyos – and clearly expressed concern, so I had to sigh, as I had not done for a few weeks, “Allergies,” to be translated, for yes, once again, my eyes, my eyes! had struck, and since they cleared up that day – Monday, the day after we’d traveled from Texas, and then returned to agony the next Saturday night and Sunday when we were in Houston and thereabouts, I have no choice , regretfully, especially considering my heritage, but to blame Texas.

(And if my daughter hadn’t been with us, and if she couldn’t drive, I suspect I still would be sitting in a Houston hotel room as we speak….)

Dona Maria was 90 years old and beautiful, as was her 56-year old daughter. We returned later in the week with some fruit, which is hard to come by in that part of Mexico, apparently, since it is the desert.

We visited Dona Teresita, who long ago, as a child, lost both legs. She is elderly, too, and married – her husband is a blacksmith, the story is he took her to the church in a wheelbarrow for their marriage, and they live in a large single room with a bed on one end and a kitchen and table on the other in an area behind the shop.  It is dark when you first walk in, but your eyes soon get used to it, as do your ears, as they are filled not only with Dona Teresita’s contented voice,  but also with the sounds of the many caged birds in the walkway between the couple’s room and the shop.

We took a set of crutches to another man, along with a dispensa. He lives with his wife and perhaps other family members – I’m not sure, but a child and then a younger man came in and out as we were there.  Here we were led by the male missionary native to these parts, who has, along with his wife and children, answered the call to minister to the people of the area. He talked with the couple for a long time, read Scriptures, and we prayed with and for them.  The man to whom we had brought crutches rose occasionally to stir beans on the stove, but eventually the missionary took over the task, and stirred and unwrapped tortillas.  There was an air of sadness here.

(On the left, the children of the mission group trooping into the house mentioned above, past the horse tethered at the door.)

At another house, Dona Lupe also seemed sad, and revealed at the end of the visit that we had come at the precise hour her son was being brought before a court for a hearing on some charge or other.

Luis Angel is a little boy, nine years old. He is very sick with a “cancer of the blood” which I think must be leukemia, and which had taken an older brother.  The local missionary is a regular visitor, and they are friends. We crowd in the kitchen, women and children from parts north, and wait for the boy’s mother to bring him in. He pushes the curtain between the rooms aside, and walks in, carefully, and like all the children we meet, he is smartly dressed in a collared shirt and long pants. He smiles weakly at us, he chats with Tonio as he is accumstomed to doing, his eyes are large and he takes us in, all of us, and we are sorry we didn’t know we would be meeting Luis Angel, for if we had known we might have brought something more with us, something to give him, something to help him, but at the same time we wonder, what can help more than our prayers?

There are conversations about medicines and other things, and we bat away flies in this kitchen piled high with dishes and we are careful not to knock over pots and we motion to our own healthy children to watch for the buckets and I think that if my son had died and I were waiting for the other sweet one with the huge trusting eyes to go even as I prayed he would not, I would not have the strength to scrub every corner or empty every pot either.

We are women, we are children accompanying the missionaries, doing what we can, to be present, to listen, to pray.  Our children embrace those whom they visit readily, sweep their little hands over their bodies in the Sign of the Cross, grin as they are told they should stay and live with the old woman whose three room house is neat and clean and who proudly shows us her needlework. They are not afraid in the least and they are especially glad to be where they are when there are animals, which there usually are.

We met them, we took them something they needed.  We listened and tried to understand as the missionaries listened, as they talked, as they read Scripture, as they prayed.  We prayed along with what Spanish we knew – Padre nuestro – and collapsing into English when we had to – Our Father – Dios te salve, Maria…the Lord is with thee…

Back in Birmingham, I live next door to Pat and Jack.  They are elderly, as well, and Jack labors, tied to oxygen machines, tubes tacked along every wall of the house, upstairs and down. They never had any children of their own, and last time I talked to Jack before we left he told me how much his wife adored my boys, boys who race over whenever they see Jack resting on the front porch or Pat outside with the dogs, boys who talk and talk to their neighbors about what I know not what, which is all right. I don’t need to know. The other day David brought the little boys back from the movies. Both Pat and I were sitting on our respective porches. It was Pat they raced to talk to first, and that was fine. It was more than fine – it was good.

But there are other neighbors with other needs, neighbors on my street and beyond.  I went to Mexico and visited some of them, visits that re-awakened me to my responsibility, a responsibility I have too long put on the back burner, excusing myself from that kind of personal contact and face-to-face service because, well I’m serving my children, and charity begins at home or I reach people with my books or insert lame excuse here.

As I said, I took very few photos of the people we visited. I couldn’t resist Alan, though – he and his mother both said it was okay. He and his family – grandmother, mother, aunt, a few siblings and cousins and (I guess) male relatives (who were not present during the day) lived in a two-room house that had a third room before it burned down. The owner of the land was refusing to support rebuilding and was trying to get them off the property. Alan had three pets (pets, that is, for the moment. Who knows what their eventual fate was to be)  – a puppy, a baby goat and a chicken, all of which he brought to show us, successively, ropes and cords tied to their necks. He, like all of the children we saw, was impeccably dressed (and not for school – he was too young for school. )

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Also in the religious goods store in Saltillo. The St. Michael statue was huge and wonderful. Is it me, or does his headress have an Aztec-ian feel?

More substantive posts forthcoming.  Re-entry is a challenge.

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I’m not going to do a day by day, blow-by-blow account of our time in Mexico. There are more interesting ways to tell the story. In addition, I think doing so would be disrespectful to the way that FMC hopes people will experience mission weeks: as a missionary who can’t predict what and who a new day will bring to the door.

I also don’t have anywhere near a “complete” set of photos to document the week. Much of my time involved home visits and being at the mission when people in need came to the door  for help, and I wasn’t about to whip out a camera in that context – although there was one little boy whom I couldn’t resist photographing, and his mother gave her permission. Secondly, I wasn’t on the work crews that were doing building work, and never made it out to those sites while they were working – I don’t have any of my own photos of that, but others do.  I’ll post a few if they come my way.

But since we didn’t arrive at the actual mission until Sunday night, we’ll tell that part of the tale….

We rose around 5am in San Antonio, loaded the vans and headed south to Laredo where we found Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe parish and grabbed some breakfast.

Once across the border in Mexico, applying for and paying for the visas went slowly, but smoothly. The trouble came with the rental vans. The paperwork was not right – the details of why don’t matter, although I really think the rental people in San Antonio should have seen the problem up there  –  and no matter of telephoning or discussing at the window could fix it. So a few of our party climbed back into one of the vans to head back to the rental branch in the Laredo airport  back in the United States to try to fix it.

Have you ever crossed the US-Mexico border coming north?

In the middle of the afternoon?

Yes, it took a while.  Back at the immigration center, we waited.

And waited.

A couple of hours later, after many games of Bananagrams and Egyptian Ratscrew (intense) and instructions to the uninformed (like me) of the fact that in Mexico we wouldn’t be flushing toilet paper down the toilet…we were back on the road.

(The toilet paper thing is no news to many of you, but not having lived in Mexico or a border town, it was to me.  On the way back, stopping about 20 miles into the US at a convenience store, we were met with the opposite message in the restrooms: Please flush your toilet paper down the toilet. And honestly – the other way – I hesitate to say “Mexican way” because I don’t know if it’s standard throughout the area – it’s not as bad as it sounds, if it indeed sounds bad to you. Okay, enough.)

Back on the road. I’d only “been to Mexico” once before if you count 30 minutes in Nogales on our 2005 Arizona trip as “going to Mexico,”  which we probably shouldn’t. As you wind your way south from Nuevo Laredo, the mountains appear, first as shadows on the horizon, then as rocky, sweeping beauty outside your window.

We skirted Monterrey, saw just a bit of Saltillo (the diocesan see for our mission), and finally wound our way up and around in the falling darkness  to General Cepeda, population 11,000 +, where FMC has maintained a missionary presence for many years, working with the diocese and the parish to serve the poor of the area.

And here we are.

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Last fall, Joseph came home from school with news about his friend: “Mark (as we will call him) is going to Mexico next summer to help build houses. Can  we go?”

I had been vaguely aware that our parish was floating the idea of a family mission trip to Mexico (a first for this parish), but hadn’t really considered it. My ties to the parish didn’t extend further than Mass, pick-up in the car line after school and occasional adult education talks at that point. Going on a mission trip with a bunch of people I didn’t know didn’t seem to be a likely path. But when Joseph reported that his friend was going, my thinking shifted a bit, it seemed more possible, so I called the coordinator.

Too late. They were full, she said. But she’d put me on the waiting list.

And that was that, I thought.

Until she called me up in February saying there were spots that had opened, people had dropped out, and there was a meeting the next Sunday. If I was still interested, I could come to the meeting, see what I thought, and make a decision.

So I went.  As it happened, of course, one of the families that had dropped out was Mark’s, so that gave me pause. But I thought and prayed about it some more, talked to the kids, and went ahead and said yes.

Weirdly, about the same time, my oldest called me from Atlanta and said, “Hey mom, I want to do some kind of mission trip this summer. To give back. Can you hook me up?”  As it turned out, he couldn’t come because of the impossibility of adjusting his work schedule, but that moment affirmed my sense that we should do this, anyway.

Side note:  Between my freshman and sophomore years in college, I did 6 weeks on a mission trip in Harlan, Kentucky. It was run by n order of religious sisters who did several of these in different parts of the country –  I think I originally wanted to do the Bronx mission, but it was full, so I ended up in Harlan, which was better because it was just a couple of hours from Knoxville, and gave me an experience of the poverty closer to my own area. We ran a Vacation Bible School, worked in the parish clothes closet/food pantry, did a lot of home visitation and did things like completely cleaning, from top to bottom, the home of a blind man. It was an important experience for me to have, taught me not to romanticize poverty or the poor, and deepened my faith in many ways.  I wanted my daughter to have an experience something like that before she went off to college.

But even then, I struggled and vacillated, for two basic reasons:

  • Safety.  I’m not obsessive about this, but I did worry a bit. Every time I would start to feel totally okay about it and that safety issues were overblown, knowing that the problems (to say the least) of drug-related violence were mostly in the west and closer to the border than we would be, something would pop up in the news, the last being when, in early May, I think, the University of Texas pulled all of its study abroad students and even some staff from northeastern Mexico, including Monterrey. Hmmm. So I bugged people with emails and questions, and was finally satisfied with two points: one, we had a missionary located in the place we were going come and give us an orientation, and he reassured us on the safety issue, and then I reasoned that if the situation were bad, the bishop of the area would not let groups come.

And let me tell you, once I got there, I thought, a bit abashed ….er…what was that about? Seriously. But more on that later.

  • Poverty Tourism.  Not being a Spanish speaker, not having any particularly useful skills like those with medical or construction experience, I could not imagine what I could bring to the table, me and my three children.  I was wary when I heard people say, “Oh, you end up getting more out of this than they (the poor) do” as if that was a good thing. That’s not the point of missionary work, is it? Even short-term?  To visit poor Mexicans so I can enjoy some culturally enriching spiritual growth? What? There are very poor people just across the railroad tracks in back of my house. We shop together at the Dollar Tree and Wal-Mart. Alabama is not known for its stellar literacy rates and impressive maternal and child health stats.  There are plenty of poor Mexican people living in the Diocese of Birmingham. Why go fifteen hundred miles, across a border, to do this? I pondered that question through the whole trip, and I still am, even though having been there and done what we did, I see the value to the people we visited and helped. It’s a complicated question though, isn’t it?


And so we went.

The plan was for us all to converge on San Antonio on Saturday the 19th, pile in two rental vans and drive south from there.  We were three families from our parish, plus a few individuals, a couple of individuals from other locations (North Carolina, Atlanta and Denver).  Some flew, others drove. We drove, stopping to visit the fabulous Dorian, Matthew and The Speedlets on the way and taking a spin – either literally, or by pointing at directional signs –  through various locales in the area important to Welborn Family History: Nixon, where my great-aunt and uncle lived for a long time and Jourdanton, where my father lived as a small boy for a shorter time, primarily.

We arrived at San Antonio around 5, heading for the parish of St. Francis of Assisi, which had graciously responded to our (the group’s) request for a place to stay before heading to the border.  I was the first one there – the others being in charge of the vans which needed to picked up at the airport, along with some of the group.  I waited for Mass to be over and introduced myself to the pastor, Fr. Larry Christian, who took us to the youth minister who in turn let us in to the building where we would be spreading out and camping for the night. They had even bought us pizzas – very nice.  The rest of the group arrived, along with the missionaries from Family Mission Company, the group at whose mission we would be serving (more about that later) – kindly coming along to help us through the border, which ended up being more important than we’d thought.  But things happen, you know?

So there we were – finally. We got a bit of an orientation. Some sorted through and organized medicines that were being taken down.  We ate, we prayed, we spread out our sleeping bags and went to sleep for a few hours, until the 5 am call to get up and ship out.

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