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The International Writers Magazine: Volunteering
From our archives
To El Paso, With love
• Allison Racimo
I hate crying. With my nose as red as that of Rudolph’s, puffy eyes, and never ending hiccups, I am not a pretty sight to behold. Crying was never part of the plan when I left Philadelphia for El Paso, Texas.

El Paso kids

I didn’t even pack a box of Kleenex tissues in my luggage, but once the tears started to cascade down my face on the last day, I knew that I had forgotten something else entirely in my trip planning: room in my heart. Not in any sense does this mean that I had closed myself off prior to arriving in El Paso; I just did not prepare myself or my heart to be flooded with an overwhelming sense of belonging and solidarity with the people of El Paso. A sense of oneness. Completeness.

Many moments during the week in El Paso I found myself creeping off into a corner, wanting to be alone with my jumbled thoughts. Frustration bubbled as I questioned why this trip affected me on a much deeper level than my other three Habitat for Humanity trips. Over the course of my four years at Villanova, the Service Break Experience program transformed my life and opened my mind to the poverty and injustice of our generation. My search to understand the factors behind poverty pushed me to places such as North Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, and now, El Paso, Texas. For the trips to Arkansas and Texas, I took on the role of leader of a group of 15 members who would aid in the building and reconstruction of a house for a family in need. Besides the minor complication that many of our group members had never held a heavy duty hammer in their hands before, my co-leader, Eric, and I had to take into account the geographical location of El Paso and the national controversy behind it.

Located a few miles from El Paso sat Ciudad Juarez, nestled across the border in Mexico. Separated by the Rio Grande, the two cities sat awkwardly from each other like a couple in therapy. Nearly visible from every single point in El Paso, Juarez hovered in the distance like a dark cloud of pain and neglect compared to El Paso’s sunny and positive demeanor. Plagued with turf wars among cartels, corrupt law enforcement, violence, and the drug trade, Juarez looked like a crumbling third world city. Wherever I looked, I saw chaos and collapse. Across the fence, human breakdown could be seen in the crumbling houses covered in tarp.

Juarez holds an uneasy coexistence with America, symbolized by an 18 foot, rust-colored fence that spans along El Paso, continuing for 650 miles across California, Arizona and New Mexico. Border patrol officers donning forest green uniforms dotted the perimeter of the steel fence, their watchful eyes trained on Juarez and accompanied with heavy artillery. With the presence of tight security, it was no wonder that we were greeted with “El Paso welcomes you to the safest city in America,” voice recording upon entering the city’s airport. The statement held absolute truth, but I could not help but shake my head at the irony of it. Just a stone’s throw away from the safest city-with its armed guards, barbed wire, and eerie prosperity- sat Ciudad Juarez: one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico.

We lived comfortably during the week in a local church where Habitat for Humanity had based its headquarters. Unfortunately wherever I sat in the courtyard, the desolation from Juarez radiated towards me every day, settling uncomfortably within my chest. I wanted to help. I wanted to understand. Our group seemed to look at Juarez as more of a spectacle rather than a place that required attention. But I knew that beyond the military checkpoints and the tales of carnage that filled newspapers, Juarez’s extinguished light had potential to reignite.

On the last day at the work site, our group learned that the family whose house we were reconstructing planned to visit and see the progress. Excitement crackled in the air as we dusted, nailed, and painted the last finishing touches on the siding. Intoxicating smells of grilled onions and hamburger meat wafted in the air as we prepared a picnic for the family. In the midst of setting up tables, a Mexican man and woman walked into the backyard where the festivities were taking place. Ozzie, our foreman on the site, led them around while speaking in rapid-fire Spanish. Intermittent nods of approval mixed with wary apprehension drifted our way as Ozzie beckoned me to come forward and speak to the family. As the only person in our group fluent in Spanish, I had taken upon the role of translator – a job that I excitedly welcomed with open arms.

Ozzie introduced me to Mr. and Mrs. Ramirez, a couple in their late 50s who had just recently acquired their United States citizenship after coming over from Juarez. Holding out his hand in greeting, Mr. Ramirez spoke in broken English and stuttered in embarrassment while his wife laid a comforting, tan hand on his back. As I began to respond in conversational Spanish, I saw the obvious relaxation of his and his wife’s shoulders, the light in their mud-brown eyes brighten, and the beginnings of a smile appear. Although I wanted to talk to Mr. and Mrs. Ramirez more, Muriel, the site contact for Habitat for Humanity, suddenly gathered us into a circle and gave a speech about what we accomplished this week. “You’re not just building a house for the Ramirez family, you’re giving them a home,” Muriel said. I noticed the beginnings of tears trickling down her face as she continued to give her never-ending praise about our dedication. Sure enough, warm drops cascaded down my face as well. Hiding behind my Ray Ban sunglasses, I surveyed the group and saw that they had all linked arms, wiping tears off their dirty and paint-encrusted faces. Mr. and Mrs. Ramirez nestled safely in the middle of our big group hug, relishing in the warmth and security that the group radiated.

What came next stunned me even more: our group members began talking excitedly to the Ramirez family in English, tugging on their hands to show them what specific part of the house they had contributed to. Unable to tell my kids that the Ramirez family had absolutely no idea what they were saying, I stood rooted to the ground, eyes transfixed on the heartwarming scene before me. The Ramirez family walked around the house with them, nodding their heads and clapping their hands at our finished product. Like a first time mother witnessing her child take its first steps, pride swelled in my heart for my fifteen group members who opened their minds to the experience.

As the festivities started to die down, Mr. and Mrs. Ramirez tapped me on the shoulder and beckoned me off to the side. Mr. Ramirez took my hands in his, the calluses and leather-like texture of his skin giving me the impression that this man threw all he had into his work. “No le olvidaremos,” he said with tears flowing. We will never forget you. His wife brought me into a welcoming embrace and whispered the same words over and over into my ear like a prayer. Without any warning, the emotional dam that I had been trying to control this whole time broke ruthlessly. Sobs racked my entire body as I held onto her like my life depended on that hug. I didn’t care if I had a red nose, puffy eyes, or hiccups. None of it mattered besides our embrace. “You’re welcome,” I said in English. As warmth flooded their eyes, I knew that they understood.

While I boarded a flight back to Philadelphia the following morning, I realized that I did not leave El Paso as an expert on the crisis of immigration. I didn’t know the legalities and legislative policies behind it all. I didn’t know the exact number of Mexicans that risked their lives every day crossing into Texas. However, I did know one thing: love and gratitude speaks a language of its own. It doesn’t speak English, Spanish, or Chinese. The language that love speaks transcends the spoken word, and is seen in the tears cried, in the bruises from hammering your hands, and in the sweat on your face. Although a fence physically separated Ciudad Juarez from El Paso, a simple language barrier did not deny us the opportunity to tell the Ramirez family that we cared for them. As our plane took off, I realized that even if I had packed boxes of tissues, they would not have been sufficient enough to wipe away the tears that I cried. El Paso, no le olvidaré tampoco.

I won’t forget you either.

© Allison Racimo April 2013
aracim01 (at) villanova.ed

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