Of all the stories I have ever worked on, Mexican Jihad has had the wildest ride. Originally commissioned for a publication that was suddenly eliminated, as tends to happen in our “media environment,” the piece sat on the shelf destined to be forgotten.  And then,  last Fall, Elaine Rivera, a very dear friend and mentor, passed away and I wrote a piece in her honor. Elaine approached journalism as a mission, a vocation and service. In writing about Elaine I began to ask-what and where is my contribution? Mexican Jihad represented to me a contribution, un granito de arena, because the people featured in the piece make important comments in a conversation that should not be allowed to disappear. The folks at the Dart Center generously published the piece, which can be found here. Below is an excerpt.

Everywhere he looks, madness has taken hold. Bodies strung from bridges, bodies dissolved in acid. Men roam across cities and small towns carrying automatic weapons. The dead are his age. So are the killers. The enemy might have studied with him in high school back in Oaxaca. “Drug war” they say in English. “La guerra contra el narco” (war against the narco), they call it in Mexico; titles that explain the killers and the killings; titles repeated by the press, the president, and experts who claim to decode the meaning and motives in the work of criminals. 


The stunning images of war, however, obliterated the complexities of the narco engine, corruption, impunity, and a dismal economy that produced thousands of unemployed, under-educated young men who made ideal candidates for look outs, drivers, smugglers, and hit men. Such nuance would emerge within the online battlefield, where the neat lines of war were blurred and Mexicans were bombarded with videos of brutality that had gone viral. 


But the number of dead holds steady at a little over 1,000 per month, and extortions and kidnappings are rampant. General impunity continues unabated. Ninety-eight percent of homicides committed in 2012 remain unsolved. The only indication that the “war” is over is the absence of its images. 


Welcoming a new site

Thank you for visiting Tell’em Who You Are, a documentary project about the land lost to the U.S.-Mexico border wall. That project produced Against Mexico the making of heroes and enemies, which was featured on PBS and PBS Newshour.

I am now working on a book about masculinity and the U.S.-Mexico border and I invite you to visit my personal site: www.michellegarciainc.com. I will continue to update this site–www.borderwallfilm.com–and please check in when you can.

Thank you for the visit.

To access piece on Sojourners site, click here.

ON A FLIGHT from New York City to Guatemala some years back, I met a woman from Oklahoma on her way to visit her soon-to-be internationally adopted daughter. “I just found them, the Guatemalan children, on the internet and thought they were so beautiful,” she said. She beamed, her blue eyes, carefully painted lips, and cross earrings all sparkling.

Guatemala’s landscape, where wistful clouds cruise above fertile fields and past rumbling volcanoes, reflects the volatility of the country’s tragic history. That history includes a decades-long civil war, ending in 1996, in which more than 200,000 people were killed, mainly by U.S.-backed government forces. To visit the country is to experience not just that history, but also a culture that pioneered astronomy, devised an intricate written language, and erected engineering miracles. But, asked whether she intended to preserve her adoptive daughter’s ties to her homeland, the woman I met on the plane said, “If she wants to see it, we’ll bring her. But really, there’s nothing there.”

The attitude that “there’s nothing there” is, all too frequently, the attitude of missionaries en route to Guatemala. But when Joel Van Dyke arrived in 2003 from Philadelphia, he suspected there was plenty there—there in the country’s slums and in the cities’ bursting garbage dumps, where thousands of people find sustenance every day. He set out to find what was there by learning to ask the right questions of gang members, slum dwellers, sex workers, and the local faith leaders who work with them. To do this, he told Sojourners, he had to adopt the attitude “let’s go see what God is doing in the world and let that color and shape the theological discourse.”

That guiding principle is behind all of the work of the organization Van Dyke works for: the Center for Transforming Mission (CTM), an international nonprofit that provides theological training, spiritual formation, and networking support for local religious leaders in the global South. Based in Tacoma, Wash., and founded by longtime urban ministry worker Kris Rocke, CTM offers resources to grassroots organizations in more than a dozen countries.

In nine of them—Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Kenya, Romania, and the U.S.—local leaders working among “those who have been wrongly labeled the least, last, and lost,” as Rocke puts it, together form a “ragtag religious order” they call “Street Psalms: A Community of the Incarnation.” Street Psalms begins with a three-year theological training made up of six units, or “intensives,” which, along with spiritual formation, forges a team. “The way we sustain poor people without silver or gold,” says Rocke, “is through community.” It’s one committed, as the organization’s website says, to “a shared life of action, reflection, and discernment.” Members learn from each other by meeting, reading scripture together, and visiting each other’s work sites.

STREET PSALMS’ theology and community are born from the experiences of local leaders whose journeys have led them to find “good news.” For Guatemalan-born Tita Evertsz, the journey began one night years ago on a bus from San Diego to Tijuana as she fled her abusive husband with $28 in her pocket, two young children, and another on the way. At the crossing into Mexico, an immigration officer asked for her entry visa; Evertsz, who had no papers to show, dug into her purse and prayed. When she looked up, he had left. She embraced her kids and wept. That’s when a stranger did the unthinkable: She asked what was wrong and how she could help. The lady helped Evertsz find a motel, and soon she reconnected with her family, who arranged for her to continue home to Guatemala.

“I was wounded and hurt and confused. I had something inside pushing me to find God,” Evertsz recalls. She began volunteering at a hospital in Guatemala City, where the nurses asked her to pray for a gang member in intensive care. Through him, she says, she discovered La Limonada, a sprawling slum where she began working with children, doing ministerial work and providing psychological guidance. Eventually she established two schools and a shelter for formerly abused and abandoned children. “The world sees [La Limonada’s residents] as monsters, but [when you go] there you see human beings,” she says, adding that their pain reflects the failings of those who judge them. “Because of lack of love, we fail to save them as children, which is why they arrive at where they do.”

The road simply unfolded, she says—a path it seemed this solidly middle-class woman, now in her 50s, was destined to walk alone. “The perspective inside the church” was that “they don’t believe there is hope” for residents of La Limonada, she says. “People don’t want to go there.” Five years ago, after some 13 years in La Limonada, she found Joel, and through him a community of some 30 people doing similar work: “Guatemalans fighting to create a better Guatemala,” she calls them, people who “spoke my language.” She was no longer alone.

Finding “good news in difficult places” and in the leaders who work there, says Van Dyke, is a journey illuminated by a scripture passage he holds dear: the story of Hagar in Genesis 16. As the Egyptian slave is running away, an angel calls her by name and asks, “Where have you come from and where are you going?” “Churches don’t take the time to do what the angel did in the Hagar story,” says Van Dyke. “He asks her this beautiful question of grace—‘tell me your story.’”

A “THEOLOGY FROM below,” he says, demands the recognition that “it’s Hagar that understands far more than the Abrahams and Sarahs.” After all, it’s Hagar who is visited by an angel in this passage. The gang member that Tita Evertsz prayed for years ago in intensive care—who himself later became a pastor—was her Hagar, and Tita became Joel’s, each revealing a message and sharing wisdom.

But embracing the principle behind Hagar means ceding the power and privilege missionaries often enjoy. Van Dyke and Rocke have often found themselves confronting the “toxic” method of evangelizing learned by many evangelists—“the paternalistic kind of evangelicalism that taught [many] to go into their communities and hit people over the head with the Bible,” as Van Dyke describes it. “It’s just another way of doing violence in the midst of all kinds of violence, this time in the name of Jesus.”

It is a practice so ingrained that when Edwin Luna, a former gang member and drug user turned pastor, was preparing to launch his own ministry in Guatemala City, he originally based it on the “traditional” thinking that the “church is a building and you go out and bring people” into it. Then two gang members showed up at his home. His first instinct was to offer them prayer. They prayed until a voice deep inside Luna whispered they didn’t come to pray; they came to ask for a favor. “When I asked, ‘what [do] you want?’ they said, ‘we want to live with you,’” he remembers. Against his better judgment, defying all rules of sanity and safety, he welcomed them in. With that, eight years ago, began his mission with gang members.

Luna established the Iglesia Tesoros de Gracia (Church of Treasures of Grace)—but he found his traditional theology study offered little inspiration on the streets. “I was taught how to baptize someone,” he says. “But they didn’t show me how to win the person with a vision of the streets.” Through participating in CTM’s Street Psalms program and community, Luna formed a theology that leans toward texts such as the story of Hagar or the horrific story of rape and dismemberment contained in Judges 19, studied for the pain they express and the message of hope they contain.

“The church doesn’t go to those stories because they don’t know what to do with them,” says Van Dyke. But Street Psalms participants “go to scripture together to give voice to pain,” which is “life-producing. It’s a whole new way to read scripture—learning to take the stained glass off the text.”

CTM HAS, IN ways big and small, challenged traditional missionary practice. In the summer, the organization hosts North Americans on two-week visits to communities in the global South—but it pointedly names these groups, some 15 a year, “vision trips,” not short-term “missions.” As Van Dyke wrote in CTM’s weekly “Word from Below” email last year, in “contrast to a ‘mission trip’ (centered on what an outsider is invited to come and ‘do’ in another culture), a vision trip focuses on the invitation for an outsider to come and ‘see’ what God is doing through local, grassroots leaders serving their own people in hard places.”

The effects of CTM’s approach have bubbled back home, including to Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM), the 124-year-old missions agency that, along with CTM, helps funds Van Dyke’s work in Guatemala. CRWM director Gary Bekker says Van Dyke has “pushed [the organization] to whole new areas.” While service to the “least, last, and lost” is hardly new, says Bekker, Van Dyke’s “concentration and vigor” stand out. “He’s taken it—not that it’s extreme—pretty deep,” says Bekker, praising Van Dyke’s “constant addressing and pushing on the fact that, even in prison, the gospel is for a whole person and for all dimensions of life.”

Van Dyke and Rocke’s theology and critiques, however, have come at a cost. Recently, they authored Geography of Grace, a book inspired by “a holy discontent” with a mainstream-church “gospel that can unwittingly sow seeds of violence and despair among society’s most vulnerable members.” Their first publisher withdrew; according to Rocke, this was largely because of the book’s interpretation of the scene in Matthew 4 where the devil tempts Christ atop the pinnacle of the temple. In this passage, Rocke and Van Dyke find a Jesus who is invited, but refuses, to violently enter a violent church system, one promoting sacrifice over mercy.

“Our proclamation of the gospel is often a product of the power and privilege we enjoy,” Van Dyke and Rocke write in the book. (As it has been in the past; for example, the CRWM, when founded in 1888 to work with Indigenous Peoples in the U.S., was initially called the “Board of Heathen Missions.”) The story of mission—his own and others’—is, Rocke says, to start with the attitude, “‘here comes the white great savior,’ only to figure out that [the missionary] is the wounded one, is the crippled one.”

Van Dyke and Rocke introduce and conclude their book by emphasizing that their work is firmly based on a willingness to give up the power of unquestioned certainty. They submit themselves, they say, to the very real possibility that they are wrong. For now, though, in Guatemala and countries across three continents, they and others at the Center for Transforming Mission have committed themselves to the simple act of asking.

There’s a bottle of Jimador brand tequila, half full, in the kitchen, the remains of a conversation about the Mexican student movement. But I didn’t buy it. The bottle of J&B holds just one swig and I never touched. It landed in my kitchen after a book party I didn’t attend, brought over by someone who doesn’t live here, but did for a few weeks while I was in New York and who unraveled my narrative conundrum. The near empty bottle of red wine, originated in a vineyard near Monterrey, in northern Mexico, and arrived at my home via a friend reporting on ‘election campaigning in areas controlled by organized crime,’ the assignment itself mocking any notion of democracy. The wine, too sweet to drink, made for an excellent stewed beef with vegetables, prepared by that reporter who covered the story, scored the wine and who rode off in a cab driven by a spy for a local crime cell.

The sky blue antique ashtray sitting on my refrigerator, in the early months held the bullet shells that I collected after an off duty cop in Guanajuato rang in the New Year by firing his pistol into the air. It was later filled with countless cigarette butts, produced from the dark topics that often dominate discussions and precipitate clandestine smoking. Death, disappearances, corruption, impunity. The ashtray, not mine, is now empty.

Just beyond the kitchen, in front of the door to the back patio that I mainly use to store the trash until the garbage truck comes around, stands an oversized slightly tacky arrangement of artificial flowers with a musky odor purchased from a 10 year old boy. He made the rounds at a steakhouse where some 30 journalists had gathered after learning strategies for coping with trauma. He slapped hands with the men, flirted with the ladies and flashed a wily smile, charming his way into selling five arrangements. In truth, he was welcomed as an unscheduled dose of relief.

A yellow rose that I presented to a man who helped me find towels when I arrived and who later held my hand occupies the center place in my living room. The rose, now shriveled, made him smile, and it will stay in the glass art deco vase as long I can see faint strains of life or as long as I’m still here.

The sheets aren’t mine, nor the down comforter, nor the massive white desk of pressed wood where I spend all of my time. They stay behind, along with the spices and cheese grater I bought, my only contributions to this apartment. Within 10 days all of it, along with the plants and trees I have tended to, will be off limits to me. I have nothing left in hand from the late night whispered conversations in the garden about the teachings of love that defy intellectual exercises. No memento from the nights that we searched the sky for stars, and imagined shaping stories from the void left by the 10,000 disappeared and what their absence says about the lies told about what some call a war, and how we tolerate those lies. I failed to record those conversations and I failed to figure out why nights out in Mexico City always seem to end after 3 a.m. But I have noticed those are the conversations that become plans realized, editorials written, alliances formed.

I also failed to keep my bamboo plant alive, it was overcome with a plague and the remedy—shared by the friend who bought the tequila– involves mixing tobacco with water. I haven’t tried it, I’m not good at concoctions. Even the hummingbird spurned the nectar I prepared for her. There’s no possible way to preserve these things or even say good bye, not to the hummingbird that tiny wonder who snaps me out of my obsessive thinking with the sharp flap of her wings announcing her arrival. She is simply an inspiration, as is the glow from the evening sun that radiates from the stone walls in the garden. There can be no good-byes for things that make me stop and look, things that last for a moment, things I can’t hold in my hands.

The things I love I leave behind, they don’t belong to me. I am empty handed after my time in Mexico City. Progress was slower than I expected, ideas I once thought brilliant soon seemed untenable and distracting and were abandoned. The book flourished but remains unfinished. But I love the things that belong here all the same because they are reminders of moments that forged a deep appreciation and respect for loosening my grip, claiming nothing as my own, and allowing truth to reveal itself —the focused surrender to the work. For that bounty, and the people who brought it to fruition, I am grateful.

PBS Newshour includes Against Mexico: the making of heroes and enemies as part of its election coverage. We celebrate this significant recognition of Against Mexico and the resonance of myth in framing our social and political reality and, the definition of ‘us.’

Excerpt below:
At first blush, a group reenactment of Texas’ 1836 battle to secede from Mexico has little to do with today’s political environment. But the notion of what it means to be an American is an issue that continues to stir up strong emotions, and resistance to a strong federal government can be seen in elections across the country.

To read the entire piece and watch the film click here

The Pope laid it all on the deadly sin of greed. Greed was behind the 50,000 deaths in Mexico, behind the terror, loss and pain. Young people sick with greed, he said, have caused tremendous ‘human suffering’ across the country. It was a simple phrase but the synopsis of the message Pope Benedict XVI intended to deliver in Mexico seized my attention because in characterizing the origins and causes of the violence in Mexico, the Pope was simultaneously framing a violence that some call a ‘drug war,’ one that others have labeled a criminal insurgency.

NYTimes: The church, he told reporters on the papal plane, has a “great responsibility” in a country that is 83 percent Catholic to guide young people away from that false promise, “to educate the conscience, teach moral responsibility and strip off the mask, the idolatry of money that enslaves mankind.”

I recently scanned the transcript and found that response along with this explanation of the role of the Church in supporting the Mexican people.

“We must do our utmost to combat this evil that destroys humanity and our young people. I would say that the first step would be to proclaim God: God is the Judge, God who loves us but who loves us in order to draw us to goodness, to truth against evil.”

The Pope’s characterization reflects an ideology that informed the work and investigations he conducted as Cardinal Ratzinger and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, also known as the enforcer of church doctrine. Such doctrine holds that the road to salvation leads upward, toward the power up high, which at times overlooks the realities of life down below that form the underpinnings to that ‘greed.’

But missing from his description of ‘greed’ was any acknowledgment that Mexico has one of the greatest wealth disparities in the world. His definition of greed does not extend to include the very few who control the entirety of the country and its wealth. What of their greed? When asked about this critical detail the Pope responded by saying:

Naturally the Church must always ask if enough is being done for social justice on this great continent. This is a question of conscience that we must always ask ourselves: what the Church can and must do, what she cannot and should not do? The Church is not a political power, nor a political party, but rather a moral reality, a moral force.

It is with a ‘moral force’ the Church frames Mexico, and one must ask if that moral force will be directed toward the powers whose greed has marginalized the many who sought what they needed in organized crime, a greed beyond reproach and accepted as inherent and essential to Mexico.

Such insights into the Pope’s views about greed are contained within his work as Cardinal Ratzinger. It was during his tenure as ‘enforcer’ of doctrine that then Cardinal Ratzinger initiated an investigation into world renowned liberation theologian, the Jesuit Father Jon Sobrino.

In 2007 the Vatican, with Ratzinger as Pope, issued a sanction against Sobrino calling his work ‘erroneous’ and ‘dangerous’ to the Catholic flock. I had the great fortune and honor of interviewing Sobrino in El Salvador, his adopted home for several decades, soon after the sanction was made public. He offered a viewpoint of ‘goodness’ distinct from the one invoked by the Pope, a goodness that is found among those ‘below.’ Sojourners magazine graciously published the piece which you can find below. It is interesting to note that the Pope in answering the question about wealth disparity in Mexico added this about Liberation Theology

“I do not know whether the phrase: “liberation theology” which can also be understood very well, would be of much help to us. What is important is the common rationality to which the Church makes a fundamental contribution and her continuous help in the education of consciences, for both public and private life.”

Goodness Revealed

by Michelle Garcia
This article appeared in the January 2008 issue of Sojourners magazine
One Sunday morning an all-too-familiar scene unfolded in the sacristy at Iglesia El Carmen in Santa Tecla, outside San Salvador. Giggling children blessed with the blood of the coffee gods surrounded an elderly Spanish priest, showering him with warmth and adoration. It was an image of an encounter—European and native—mythologized over centuries in Latin America from the first conquistador who disembarked with a gun in one hand, the cross in the other, and a mandate to “civilize.”

But the church pastor is no ordinary priest and this is no ordinary encounter. The pastor, Jesuit Father Jon Sobrino, is a world-renowned liberation theologian. He says these children, the country’s poor, offer salvation. Through them the mystery of God is revealed. “La gloria de Dios es el pobre,” declared slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero—“The glory of God is the poor.” That aphorism hangs next to a banner with a crucified Jesus on the church’s otherwise sparse altar.

Romero’s words ring in Sobrino’s ears. They influence his many published writings and form the cornerstone of liberation theology, a strain of Catholicism that emerged as a force in Latin America during the 1970s, promoting Jesus as liberator of the oppressed and impoverished. But in a sanction published in March 2007, the Vatican branded the ideas contained in two of Sobrino’s books as “erroneous or dangerous,” thus discouraging Catholic seminaries and universities from teaching his work.

The Latin American Jesus promulgated in Sobrino’s books Jesus the Liberator and Christ the Liberator is forged by the lived reality on the continent. With nearly half of the world’s Catholics living in Latin America—most of them in abject poverty—a Jesus who brings liberation reflects the reality from the ground, from the lives of the poor. But the Vatican objects. “Theological reflection cannot have a foundationother than the faith of the Church,” wrote the Vatican. “Only starting from ecclesial faith, in communion with the Magisterium, can the theologian acquire a deeper understanding of the Word of God ….” In other words, the Vatican governs the Catholic concept of Jesus Christ, and reality is the province of the hierarchical church.

The Vatican’s sanction sent a jitter through theologians and laity—not all of whom espouse Sobrino’s views—who fear it represents yet another signal of increasing rigidity within a Catholic Church that is shedding the more inclusive climate ushered in by Vatican II in 1963.

I encountered Sobrino in the sacristy of his church after Mass on a cool April morning, but he at first declined to speak with me (as he had refused other interviews requests). Suddenly, I blurted out the one question that had gripped me since reading his books: What is reality? My question caught his attention.

In Where is God? Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity, and Hope, Sobrino wrote that reality is the Cross. “One must take charge of reality,” he wrote, quoting Ignacio Ellacuría, one of the Jesuit priests murdered in 1989 by U.S.-trained Salvadoran soldiers. “One must ‘bear the burden of reality’ with all its crushing weight.”

“Reality is what’s being covered up, the things that are covered up and are very hard to unearth,” Sobrino answered me, launching into a finely tuned reflection. “Hope is a reality. … Reality is hard, but it’s wonderful. There is this energy, the will to live. … I’m happy in this country. There are many good things.”

But Sobrino upends any simplistic view of the reality of El Salvador. True, 11 people are murdered every day and thousands flee every year, but many more stay and persevere. How easily we choose where to cast the lines of reality, from there choosing whose suffering merits help and who to kill.

“You know Sept. 11,” Sobrino states. “But what is October 7? It’s the day the democracies bombed Af ghanistan. The poor of this earth, which are the majority, don’t even have calendars,” said Sobrino. “What should be said and what should be silenced is in the hands of the few and powerful, and that is what I fight against.”

In El Salvador, defining reality is a daily battle. Street vendors and acti vists are charged as terrorists while the late Roberto D’Au buis son—the military lead er and founder of the current ruling political party, who a U.N. Truth Commission determined or dered the assassination of Arch bishop Ro mero—is nominated as an honorary “Hijo Meritismo” (“Meri torious Son”) of the nation. But for some 30 years Sobrino and the entire liberation theology movement have been the subject of Vatican scrutiny as a “Marxist-inspired” movement.

Although the recent Vatican “notification” did not officially silence Sobrino or remove his books from circulation, it warned Catholics that the content does not conform to church ideology. The sanction followed a six-year investigation initiated by Car d inal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, while he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the enforcer of church doctrine.

The Vatican rejected Sobrino’s notion of the “church of the poor” as the whole church’s base—a basic tenet of liberation theology—saying such a concept “would make this preference a partisan choice and source of conflict.”

Sobrino has defended his theology and refused to accept the Vatican’s judgment. In a private letter to the Jesuits’ Superior General, leaked to the public, Sobrino said prominent theologians had reviewed his book without finding error. By accepting the judgment, he would have to acquiesce to a 30-year Vatican campaign against liberation theology, Sobrino said, and betray religious leaders who sacrificed their lives defending the poor.

“If a Christology animates the poor of this world, victims of terrible sins—including ones committed by so-called believers—to maintain their faith in God and in His Christ, and to have dignity and hope,” Sobrino wrote in Getting the Poor Down from the Cross: Christology of Liberation, an online anthology published in his defense, “then this Christology will have its limitations of course, but I do not consider it to be dangerous in the world of the poor, but rather something positive. However, it is possible that it will be seen—and it has been seen—as dangerous in other worlds.”

Sobrino, now 70 years old, settled in El Salvador from the Basque region of Spain in 1973 at a time of death squads and massacres and the emergence of a new generation of religious leaders and laity who broke with centuries of allegiance to the Latin American elite. This new generation possessed, as Sobrino put it, the “ability to see through the peasants, with the peasants, and also being for the peasants to see for themselves, more than I saw, the mystery of God.”

I returned to Sobrino with more questions and this time found him in his office at the University of Central America, the site of the 1989 massacre of eight members of Sobrino’s community. (Sobrino was traveling at the time of the massacre.) At the entrance to the theology center, an exhibit honors the Salvadoran martyrs, including Archbishop Romero, who once declared that “a church that does not unite with the poor is not the true church of Jesus Christ.” Romero was gunned down by a death squad while celebrating Mass. A jewelry box entrusted to Sobrino contains a slightly yellowed handkerchief, the one used to wipe Romero’s blood. These artifacts are bloody reminders of a church that stood in solidarity with the poor, in pursuit of liberation—a mission, Sobrino says, the church has abandoned.

“In the last 25 years the churches, especially the institutional church, have tried to move away from a relationship with society. What God created was the world, not the church. The church came later. Now the churches are moving away from being in the real world and away from service to the real world. Specifically, this is true of Latin America, because being in and at the service of the real world is very dangerous.

“The church has moved away from being a church that went into conflict and suffered persecution and killings and bombings. But we must ask why? One reason is historical. There are victims, the poor, of this world of ours.

“The United States is an exception [to the rest of the world]. It is an anecdote. In the First World, in the United States, they may argue—Republicans and Democrats may argue among themselves—about President Bush, but they all agree on one reality. They agree about us [in the Third World]. They expect countries to be poor and violent. Of course, people don’t care about El Salvador. They don’t care about the poor in Brazil.

“But why? In the United States and in my country—I was born in the Basque country—we take life for granted. We take living well for granted. We don’t want to lose what we have. That is the untouchable thing. In your country, politicians have said, ‘It is our Manifest Destiny,’ which is, by the way, religious language. It is the ‘manifest destiny’ of the United States to be a prosperous country and then go back and save poor people from poverty, lack of freedom, lack of democracy, and bring them back to the real world which is democracy. For me that is an issue.

“Religion is not something different from being human,” Sobrino continued. “Religion is one way of being human. It’s not because I’m religious that I want to know the truth. We believe in a God that tells us to look at reality and to love the truth. If you don’t do that, then you have failed as a human being—not as a believer, but as a human being. Religion reinforces that human impulse toward truth, toward unmasking reality.

“Why in El Salvador do we talk about la verdad [truth] and la reali dad [reality]? Well, because awful crimes—that’s certainly true of your country—awful crimes have been, some of them, ignored. The war in Congo, for example, is simply ignored. When silencing is not possible, then it is covered up. Unmasking reality or trying to get to know reality becomes something very important for us as human and religious persons.

“It’s not only about unmasking the truth of cruel realities. If it is bad to cover up cruel things, it is worse to cover up good things. When you see goodness, if you don’t want to acknowledge it or if you are not happy in its presence, then I don’t see any hope for this planet. Have we seen goodness in El Salvador? Plenty! In this room you see pictures of those who have died: Ignacio Ellacuría, the martyred Jesuits, Rutilio Grande, Romero. This is goodness. Goodness is so beautiful. It is without arrogance, without propaganda. Goodness doesn’t make money.

“My real worry for the church is how to care for this world and also how to see the goodness there has been—and that there still is—on this continent. I am a theologian. At times theologians write things that might not be quite right or even might be wrong. But we write in the presence of the poor. When you see horrible massacres in El Salvador, Rwanda, or Burundi and when you see people, especially women, walking with all they have left and their two children and lots of things on their head, when you see them just walking, looking for refuge, I say that is primordial sanctity, primordial holiness. These are the words I use to describe something that I don’t see all the time. Yes, there is poverty, but this is to describe a type of dignity that comes from wanting to survive. I call that ‘primordial sanctity’ in order to identify something wonderful in the midst of a tragedy.”

My mind turns to Doña Fran cisca Orellana, a woman I met in the northern province of Chalatenango where, during El Salvador’s civil war, support for the guerrillas was fierce and the government backlash was unforgiving. A bomb dropped in front of her house. As she sat weaving a palm mat, she described to me how the shrapnel cut through her pelvis, how she found help at a guerrilla-run clinic.

“I saw our brothers sick, lying in bamboo cots, and my heart broke,” Doña Francisca said. “I always prayed the rosary. I stayed there watching the sick. There was Jesus, crucified.” She prayed not simply for life, but also to serve. “Let me live, Lord, so that I may weave palm mats for those who suffer, to ease their pain.” Dona Francisca’s weathered face exuded pure happiness. With such dignity in her daily struggle to live, one could never imagine calling her “poor.” When Sobrino says “primordial sanctity,” I see Doña Francisca.

As I left Sobrino’s office, I said, “I don’t believe that the Vatican’s sanction is about you. It is about everything I’ve seen here.”

The sharp-tongued theologian didn’t correct me, but smiled with satisfaction.

Michelle García recently completed a Knight fellowship with the International Center for Journalists in El Salvador. Previously she wrote for The Washington Post from its New York bureau. She is based in New York.

This piece appeared on Salon.com on November 14, 2011

CIUDAD MIER, Mexico — A Mexican army commander sent to protect a region of villages and ranches in northern Mexico from the Gulf Cartel and Zetas can describe, in detail, the profile of his assigned enemy, the country’s notorious drug cartels.

“These guys are sick in the head,” he says, gazing at the brush and mesquite from behind his aviator sunglasses, toward the camps of the “enemy.” “They follow a sick ideology, they’re animals.” Without missing a beat, he continues, “Look, there’s no jobs, the poverty is bad; there aren’t enough schools. There is nothing for these boys and the cartels offer them a job. They tell them, ‘You can have any kind of pickup truck you want,’ he says. “They get paid more than we do!”

The commander and his soldiers have staked out a lakeside park near this colonial village, providing security for the annual fishing tournament. Bureaucrats from the state tourism department and soldiers, some manning gunners mounted on military trucks, vastly outnumber the few tourists. Even so, reporters from TV Azteca prepare a promotional report about the event, an image that makes an effort to convince tourists that the “frontera chica” (small border), the nickname for this swath of the border, is secure and ready for tourists. Last year when the Gulf Cartel and Zetas launched their siege on the frontera chica, the then governor of Tamaulipas dismissed the reports of decapitations, incinerated cars and shootouts as merely a “collective paranoia.”

Such is the panorama of Mexico’s violence, a distorted battleground of propaganda, impunity and duplicity amid death. Such is the conflict in which the U.S. government has become firmly entrenched over the last four years since newly elected President Felipe Calderon launched his controversial U.S.-backed “war against the drug cartels.” The conflict has cost between 40,000 and 50,000 lives and violence has worsened with the U.S.-Mexican military deployment, according to a recent report on global violence by the Geneva Delegation. Violence in some parts of Mexico now outstrips the levels of many war zones.

For more visit—Salon.com

–This piece was reported from Ciudad Mier, Tamaulipas, Chicago, Mexico City.

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