“Application of the senses” on the border

  Part of the border wall dividing Nogales, AZ and Nogales, Sonora.

By: Andrew Hanson, SJ

“Ignatian contemplation,” the hallmark style of prayer one uses to engage St Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, entails what St. Ignatius calls the “application of the senses.” Essentially, one prays with a particular gospel scene imagining the sights, sounds, smells, etc. that the characters in that particular scene might have experienced. Since the senses are so intrinsically linked to memory, important sights, sounds, smells, etc. from one’s life find their way into the Gospel scene. Recalling our experiences along the border in Nogales, Arizona/Sonora (whether in the near future or farther down the road) will be easy because of searing sensory experiences we had. Here are a few examples:


We visited the Pima Country morgue in Nogales, AZ. After receiving a thorough explanation of how unidentified border crossers (UBCs) are found dead in the desert, we got to go into the “anthropology room” and see how technicians examine bones in an attempt to identify the unfortunate UBC. Walking into the room with a neatly organized collection of human bones on the examination table, we were hit by a wave of the stench that accompanies decomposing remains. This is the same smell I remember clinging to my childhood dog when he would return from the cornfields of Iowa after rolling around in a dead animal like a pig in a mud pit. Mind you, these were the decomposing remains of a human being, not some Iowan countryside critter.


Operation Streamline functions out of the Federal courthouse in Tucson. I won’t go into the details about how it functions, but imagine about 30 migrants being tried, sentenced, and shipped off to prison in a matter of an hour. Hard to picture? I hope so, because it defies any notion we have of a “just and fair trial.” What is seared into my memory is the judge referring to each migrant by their case number (e.g. “28099N”) as if they were a room full of Jean Valjeans and hearing the clinging of the metal chained to their hands, feet, and waist when they were led off to federal prison. The fictional character Jean Valjean’s life was forever scarred by stealing a piece of bread for his starving family. These migrants’ lives are forever scarred for crossing a man-made line in the sand. Les Miserables is a beautiful piece of fiction. As they spend 30-180 days in federal prison, I’m sure each migrant is often incredulous at the fact that what they are undergoing is not fiction.


You know that sensation of taking your clothes out of the dryer immediately when the cycle is done? Well, that’s not the way you want the clothes you are wearing to feel when you are walking in the desert. It took mere minutes for our clothes to bake as we ventured along migrant desert routes with our friend, Bob, who volunteers with Good Samaritans and leaves life-saving water and snacks out in the desert for anyone who may come across it.


One of the many services Kino Border Initiative provides at its soup kitchen on the Mexican side of Nogales is a meal for anybody who has recently been deported. As I ate with one of the migrants, I asked him “how’s the food?” He looked heavenward, outstretched his hands in front of him and said: “Ooooh! This is glorious compared to the food they fed me in the detention center!” Mom’s Christmas feast after a semester of dorm food doesn’t even remotely simulate the contrast between for-profit detention center food and the soup kitchen food made with Mexican maternal love and compassion.


What image of life along the border is not seared into our memories?! Here are just a few: 

-The mafioso pawns of organized crime perched on the hills of the border controlling who is allowed to cross like fantastical bridge trolls.

-The 4 human-shaped targets at the Border Patrol Station which agents use to practice shooting their concentrated-chili-powder-filled ammunition.

-The 20 foot high by 14 mile-long wall that splits what was once a single town into two radically different municipalities.
May the stark reality of life on the border be fodder for your prayer as much as it will continue to be for ours.


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