Women lead amidst the mess

I recently sat across my desk from one of the prophets of the #SaveAsylum movement. The leaders of this organization are an eclectic group of migrants, activists, church and community members from Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, who united in the past year to restore access to asylum at the US-Mexico border.

The prophet in front of me is a slight, single mother with a vibrant energy from southern Mexico. Looking into her face, I could see the woman’s brilliant spirit shine through her teary eyes as we discussed the purpose of the March to End the Wait for asylum at the border that we were planning. She shared with me that these days, she finds herself praying the Magnificat: Mary, the mother of Jesus’ jubilant response to her cousin Elizabeth’s greeting in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel. (Luke 1: 46-55)

In Spanish, she began to recite:
“Proclama mi alma
la grandeza del Señor,
se alegra mi espíritu en Dios,
mi salvador …

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Beloved, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.

When she came to the part about dispersing the powerful, removing the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, I interrupted her.

“You know that’s what you’re doing, right? God is doing that work in you.”

As her tears flowed, she nodded.

Later, when I reviewed the lineup for the march, I realized that all the designated speaking roles would be played by women. It wasn’t intentional. Women organically stepped forward. Even the family we would accompany to the port of entry to request asylum was all women: a Venezuelan mother, daughter and aunt.

These women faced an unbearable mess. Some left their home countries more than 700 days prior to their arrival at the border in order to flee persecution and seek safety. Many of them fled extortion, threats and unspeakable detention conditions in southern Mexico. Then, at the border, they were met with a months-long wait that, under the guise of pandemic restrictions last March, turned into a closed door.

These women are a beautifully diverse bunch: black, brown and white, quiet and opinionated, from Mexico, Honduras, Venezuela and Cuba. They have glorified the Lord as they joined their families and scraped together enough money to rent a room where they can wait in relative safety. As they approach the port of entry to claim the legal right to seek asylum, their presence and their questions shake the throne of the mighty who would prefer not to see them. They lift up the lowly as they console and provide for their children — children with endless questions: why they can’t see their fathers? Why isn’t it safe to go out and play? Why must they miss out on another year of school?

The stories and tears of these women proclaim the greatness of God. And in the same breath, they bear the pain of womanhood.

Facing this reality of the women I know at the border, I feel resentment burning in my body. I resent that burdens fall unequally on women to weep, mourn, hold vigil and persevere. In the Gospels, when the male apostles fled and hid, women stayed and wept at Jesus’ feet as he neared his death. Mary Magdalene first carried the frightening, unbelievable news of Jesus’ resurrection to his followers, and the men didn’t believe her.

#SaveAsylum March to End the Wait, Nogales, Mexico, Sept. 2020 (Image by Kino Border Initiative)

I admire the beautiful strength of women in the Gospels, just as I admire the beauty of the migrant women’s strength. Yet just as I wish migrants waiting hundreds of days didn’t have to persevere, I wish women didn’t have to be strong. I wish we didn’t have to march and organize to fend off assaults on women and unjust policies that hit women hardest, especially women of color.

The burden of living into the dominant culture’s version of a strong woman hit me in the gut as I processed the pain and violence I’ve witnessed over the past four years, particularly as I’ve accompanied migrants during an era of increased deportation, family separation and cruel obstacles to dignified migration.

And when I prayed with Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb,” the tears I haven’t allowed in months began to flow. I started to feel myself releasing the heaviness I had been carrying. Even as I sat with migrant women leaders and told them that tears and emotion are strength and that they heal us, I would not cry. I felt I had to ignore my own emotions and hold it together and be a supportive presence to the people suffering in front of me.

I know that real strength goes much deeper than an unshakeable disposition, but like many women who have internalized damaging messages about who we should be, I struggle to access this more authentic version of strong. True strength sheds tears, takes naps when needed and engages in collective struggle with an internal sense of worthiness.

Looking back across my desk as our meeting concludes, into the eyes of my compañera in the struggle for liberation, I listen to her closing words.

“La lucha es de todos.”

The struggle belongs to us all.

Yes. The struggle to lift the burden of injustice from the bodies, hearts and spirits of women belongs to us all.

Tracey Horan is a Sister of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in Indiana and associate director of education and advocacy for the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Sonora and Arizona. She has ministered with Latinx migrant communities in a variety of contexts for the last decade. She previously worked as a teacher and then community organizer and recently celebrated six years as a Catholic sister. Her hobbies include asking questions, hiking desert mountains and writing song parodies.

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