A Week of Wrapping Up
Our many weeks here are drawing to a close, and while we are doing some more interviews and lots of other filming for “cutaways” or b-roll shots this week, most of our time is being spent solidifying our relationships with project participants and making sure that we can keep in touch over the next few months. We happily went to visit Ofie, and left weakly protesting, our arms weighed down by many knitted gifts and her invitation to stay at her house any time we returned to El Paso.
Our final interviews this week revolve mostly around two issues: The water and landfill struggle in an El Paso colonia, College Park, which Katy mentioned previously, and some additional interviews about the context of Juárez. In addition to our usual sit-down interview with a resident and friend, Dolores Ortiz, we attended a number of their community meetings and also went to the City Council meeting yesterday to observe the way that the City of El Paso’s leadership responded to colonia concerns.
I will restrain from using some of the new colorful Mexican slang Katy and I have picked up, and simply say that I was extremely disappointed. Katy has already laid out our basic frustration with the initial situation: Two landfills are vying for El Paso’s commercial waste, one of which is right next to the colonia that Dolores and many other families reside in. The colonias were consulted not by the city (who “couldn’t find them”) nor by the landfill next to their homes, but rather by a PR company whose client is the competing private landfill – in other words, the health of their bodies and their community is only a question when someone else’s money is at stake. After waiting for eight hours to speak at the City Council meeting, the residents were barely given time to express their concerns, and were rudely cut off and bossed around by the Council men and women; the Council’s interest and questions were focused on the profits and and losses for themselves and the two landfills.
I am not saying that a City Council should not be concerned for its own budget or the concerns of its business community – that’s part of the job. Also, I recognize that we are not El Pasoans, so it’s not our Council to critique. That said, what infuriated me was that we spent two hours earlier that day listening to people preach about the importance of regulating the selling, buying, and breeding of dogs and cats (two hours!), and that residents and council members make speeches about how they wanted to be proud of how companion animals were treated in their great city of El Paso – yet, the health issues and degraded quality of life for tax-paying resident families on the outskirts were utterly disregarded. Not only were they disregarded, but this disregard was done without any tact, respect, compassion, or patience – all of which were reserved for English-speaking, white residents of El Paso on all of the other issues addressed in the day-long meeting. It is a grievous failure, when only a small, affluent portion of a population is given a space to speak to “representatives” – a title I am reluctant to use in reference to the El Paso City Council members. They could have done a much better job at weighing the issue, and I somehow have a feeling this was not a one-time lapse of respect.
Dolores summed up the imbalance (somehow without bitterness, only a sense of resignation) that no one asked for her papers when she was paying taxes, yet whenever immigrant communities (with or without formal documentation) needed something back from the government at any level, they are intimidated and ignored.
Aside from this frustrating El Paso-side failure of the City to protect and respect its residents, we also conducted an interview with the locally beloved Padre Bill Morton, a great friend and former pastor of the Lomas de Poleo community in Ciudad Juárez. A Columban missionary since his ordination in 1985, Padre Bill ministered in Lomas de Poleo for eight years, and recounted for us his experience of the local violence on the mesa as well as the convoluted and unjust workings of the Mexican justice system. After testifying in Mexican courts about the harassment and violence by the vigilante group hired by the Zaragoza family to kick the residents off the land, he was deported from Mexico back to the United States about five years ago, and has been running the Columban mission, hosting student groups, and continuing to speak out on behalf of the people of Lomas from the U.S. side ever since then.
It was an enlightening interview, interspersed with dry, grim humor, and framed uniquely with a perspective on God, faith and the poor, and how Padre Bill’s beliefs and mission as a priest fit into an incredibly unfair and difficult situation. Of the significance of their struggle, he said that in a city – really a whole country – where people no longer bother to ask for justice from their government, at least there is this one place, this small community atop a mesa, that is still demanding justice and doing everything in their power to attain it legally and non-violently. In the same breath, he emphasized everything that poor, rural communities like Lomas have to teach the rest of us about life in a world where our notion of “development” and “progress” seems less and less capable of leading our species towards peace and happiness. Their great joy in the world, despite suffering, and simple way of life should at least give us pause when we consider our rate of consumption, the effect of that on the environment, and whether or not the materiality of life leads to being happy people.