“For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat.” -Matthew 25:35
Benjamin Hill, Mexico
“I watched a man the other day at the feeding program,” said Father Quiniones as our group sits in a restaurant in Benjamin Hill, Sonora. “How many tortillas do you think he ate?”
We had only met Father Quiniones a few minutes before, but we could already tell that he was a storyteller. We had already learned from Rick, our leader, that Father Quiniones had two great passions apart from the church: loving the stranger and telling a good yarn. “This many,” he said. He held up one palm, then turned it over for each multiple of five. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty. And then an outstretched pointer finger: twenty-one.
“Twenty-one tortillas!” he said.
He shook his head, smiling and tapping the laminated menu against the table. The waitress, waiting to take our order, smiles. Like everyone else in the restaurant, she is tender toward Father Quiniones.
We have come to Benjamin Hill to see one of the church-run migrant feeding centers headed up by Maria de los Angeles and Dona Licha, two ladies at the church. Their team of volunteers prepares tortillas, beans, and eggs and sausage to give to whatever number of migrants show up each morning. They subsist entirely on donations from the community.
Benjamin Hill is set in a valley, making it different from other towns in Sonora, the Mexican province that borders Arizona. We see grass and flowers in a park here: the only time we will see grass all week. It’s a sleepy town with tiny bits of color: the music of a mariachi band playing in a family’s garage for a wedding, a cemetery where gravestones are not solid white or bronze markers but are painted in vibrant pinks, greens, and blues.
But Benjamin Hill is also a key center for migrants, especially those making the dangerous passage on the train lines, usually Central American men. It is where the train line forks, forming a Y, with the western line eventually terminating in California.
During our long rides in the minivan, I was astonished that anyone would undergo a four-day, seventy-seven mile walk through desert just to work a job that at best would pay minimum wage. But now, looking at the dirt roads and absence of any sort of industry in this area, I am astonished that anyone can find the means to stay.
In the 1940s and 1950s, even up into the ‘80s, the ratio of Mexican to American wages was dismal but stable. On the average, a Mexican worker made a third of what an American worker would make. But following the dramatic globalization of the ‘90s and the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a Mexican worker is faced with a growing cost of living coupled with a wage that is just 1/13th of what a U.S. worker would make.
It is no coincidence that Zapatista uprising in the southern Mexican farming state of Chiapas coincided with the signing of NAFTA. In the words of Rick, our leader, “They knew they were going to get screwed.”
In part because of NAFTA, Mexican produce and food is undercut in price by U.S. subsidized food that is imported to Mexico. In an irony that is almost laughable, citizens in the traditional corn-growing regions of Mexico eat tortillas made from corn grown in the United States.
At the same time as income and opportunity is falling for Mexican farmers, prices are rising. From what I hear from my friends who have traveled more extensively in Mexico, neighborhood or street markets are becoming virtually extinct, replaced with American-style supermarkets.
As we priced goods there and compared them to a decent hourly wage (about $1.50 an hour in a factory), the reasons for mass migration hit home. A tube of toothpaste costs the equivalent of an hour’s wage; a box of sanitary pads the equivalent of three. A bag of dried pinto beans about forty-five minutes’ wages.
In comparison, if someone was working a below-minimum wage job of $4.00 an hour under the table, the toothpaste would cost $4, the sanitary napkins $12, and the beans and rice $3. Even without luxuries, food and personal hygiene can easily take up 60-80% of an average Mexican family’s budget.
And this is with a “good” wage of a factory worker, without counting in clothing or the cost of housing and utilities, which can easily put one’s expenses at over 100% of one’s income. With U.S. produce and goods so artificially cheap, farmers from fertile growing regions are left with few options: go to a bigger town where they can find work in a maquiladora (a factory of a multinational corporation) or go to the United States. At one of the centers we visited, growers from Chiapas and Oaxaca make up over 60% of the migrants they saw passing through in order to cross the border.
But this hunger is theoretical. In Benjamin Hill, as our group sits having breakfast at the small concrete room that was built to provide food for migrants passing through, it becomes real.
Three gentlemen, Daniel, Heriberto, and Tomas, walk in and begin eating their beans, tortillas, and eggs. Tomas, who can’t possibly be more than twenty-five or twenty-six, doesn’t eat twenty-one tortillas, but he easily eats fifteen. The men finish their plates, and Dona Licha and Maria de los Angeles ask them gently if they’d like more, then portion them out another plateful. Despite their hunger, the men are treated with dignity, eating their meals with real plates and silverware, treated like friends or customers at a restaurant.
The men gradually begin talking with the Spanish speakers in our group. They translate at first but then forget: caught up in the conversation.
I pay less attention to their words than to their faces and eyes: gentle, hardworking, worn.
I look at Father Quiniones as he serves the men the coffee he’s made, at Dona Licha and Maria as they serve the men with smiles and conversation. I wonder if they’re thinking about the Matthew passage, but they don’t seem to be. They are simply serving their brothers.
This post is part of a new series, What I Saw Wednesday. Every Wednesday, here at the blog, I will be writing about what I saw, close to home or far away. These stories are mine, but they are not only mine, any more than my money, my time, my life is mine alone. They are to be shared, pondered, told.
To kick off this series, I am posting every day this week my experiences on the U.S.-Mexico border in 2007. You can read the first post here. I hope you’ll journey with me this week to the other side of the border.