A View from the Other Side of the Tracks
My writings are not dogmatic – simply introspective. Although my writings rarely reflect bible passages, the prescribed readings for Sunday, March 27, 2011, paralleled well with several manifestations in my life that same weekend. In Exodus, the Israelites marched through the Egyptian desert, looking for water, and questioned Yahweh’s presence amongst them (17: 3-7). Through John, we are told that although Jews did not associate with Samaritans, Jesus, broke the taboo by asking a Samaritan woman for a drink of water from the well (4:5-42). In Psalms, the Hebrews rejoice Yahweh’s presence, and advise, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (95:1-2, 6-9). And in Romans, Paul wrote that God proved his love for humankind by giving us what he most loved, his son, and that we, too, can show the love God’s spirit poured into our hearts through everything we do (5:1-2, 5-8).
If today you hear his voice … Journey through the “Darien Gap”
This past Saturday morning, the Cesar Chavez march rerouted my bus and, consequentially, my routine for getting to work. Home and work are near each other, but are separated by an area of ill repute, through which pedestrian travel is generally inadvisable, especially for women. The option of walking through forbidden land reminded me of a similar choice I faced while in Central America. During my time as a volunteer, I visited several countries by bus. When I researched land travel into South America, I encountered an obstacle known as the Darien Gap. It is the missing link in the Pan-American Highway between Panama, Central America and Colombia, South America.
Places that are “forgotten” by civilization tend to have darkness. The Darien Gap is an untamed wilderness currently subject to violence and kidnappings due to civil war. To enter safely into South America, I had to launch myself into the air, by plane, to travel between safety zones. Similarly, to travel between the safety zones of Barrio and Downtown, civilized folk cross the “Darien Gap” of the Westside by launching themselves into the air, by way of overpasses.
I never questioned my habit of traveling these overpasses, though I always wondered the identity of the buildings below. Habit altered my perception of distance; Downtown seemed far enough from the Barrio to warrant vehicular travel. The unexpected break from routine this weekend led to my adventures into the “Darien Gap” between old Westside and Downtown.
The first thought provoker of my day was the unexpected number of taxis, charter coaches, and tourist buses traveling in my opposite direction. Those were the people that were getting ready to participate in the Cesar Chavez march, and they were avoiding the “Darien Gap” of the Westside in an upscale fashion. That sort of came across as adding insult to injury, as if riders inside were saying, “OMG – look at us – we’re going into the Westside, where the poor people live – OMG, I’ve never been here – Let’s take a picture with my iPhone so we can put it on Facebook – This is so exciting!” With those thoughts in my head, I approached the Commerce under-bridge haltingly, but with my best badass-girl-don’t-mess-with-me-attitude impersonation I could muster; this was forbidden land, and I, a lone woman, was about to cross it on foot.
I was surprised by the virtual ghost town found under the Commerce bridge, and by its likeness to a barren dessert; it is void of pedestrians and loiterers, and has little traffic. The area is perfect for its current use – a dirt parking lot for the Bexar County Jail and related jail bond establishments. These buildings provoked a second thought – that the presence of these buildings is why the Barrio still has a bad reputation; the area is literally teeming with undesirables outside the law, albeit safely under lock and key. I happened to glance into the storefront window of a jail bond place, and managed to get the scare of my life; posted were the criminal WANTED ads. These visual aids of the types of ruffians housed inside the jail were scarier than any haunted house or scary movie I’ve experienced; these were criminals, they were real, and they were loose. While my blood ran cold, a police car cruised by; the area was under heavy surveillance, which made me feel safe.
Next to the jail is a handsome building I’ve admired from the overpass my whole life. I took this opportunity to “meet” the building face to face. For information, I approached a man who had just delivered La Prensa newspapers inside. The beautiful building I mistook for abandoned actually houses Generations Federal Credit Union headquarters. Their building is the historic, former International & Great Northern Railroad (I&GN) depot, designed by Harvey L. Page. This architecturally significant gem is found in the “Darien Gap” of the old Westside (though the page lists it as Downtown). Directly across the street from the credit union is AVANCE, which provides parent education programs. The proximity of these two building to the county jail provoked my thoughts a third time.
Maybe it’s just me, but isn’t it a little ironic that we taunt criminals with a bank at arms reach? It’s sort of like waving a brownie in front of a dieting diabetic. And isn’t it a little condescending, or perpetuating a self-fullfilling prophesy, to teach parenting skills next to the jail? I mean, what kind of message is being sent? (And yes, I can understand if another, more appropriate space was not available.) This is my imagined scenario of a parenting class: “Ok, parents, follow me up here to the balcony. Now, look over there. You see that? That is the county jail. And over here? That is a bank. If you fail as a parent, your kid is going to break into the bank and end up in jail. But, if you are successful, your kid will be a law-enforcer and hero, and will be able to put money in the bank. And if you are semi successful? Well, then, your kid will end up down there, looking for day labor at Cattleman Square. They may end up with money in their pocket, but maybe not enough for the bank. So, do you want your kids behind bars, or outside the bars? Destiny is in your hands.”
As I neared the end of the bridge, a little past the credit union, I encountered the “undesirables,” whose eyebrows were raised by my feminine presence, though maybe they thought I was an undercover agent of some sort. These “undesirables” were not criminals; they were simply day laborers looking for work . Though they probably did not present danger, I felt uncomfortable being the only female for several blocks. A police car cruised by again, reminding me safety was near.
By the time I got to work, only twenty minutes had elapsed since I left the house. Normally, I waited fifteen minutes for a five-minute bus trip. The journey across the Westside “Darien Gap” dissolved the illusion of danger and distance.
From work, later that morning, I heard and saw the Cesar Chavez marchers. From previous experience, I knew they had crossed the “Darien Gap” by way of bridge, the one that crosses over a gully and connects the Guadalupe area housing projects to a funeral home and hourly-rate motel. They then turn a corner to march in front of UTSA Downtown. No doubt, their route is a lot more scenic, but how awesome would it have been if they had marched by the jail, the historic railroad station, AVANCE, and Cattleman Square? I think they would have been in closer solidarity with La Raza if they had; it would have brought attention to the fact that we still need to make long strides in the areas of workers’ rights and civil rights. I think it is great that La Raza wants to be university bound, but their route makes it seem like the only frontiers left to conquer are the ones in higher education. However, I can understand if La Raza chose their route simply for eye-pleasing, nerve-easing reasons. I mean, who wants to freak out high school kids with pictures of escaped convicts?
On Sunday, I tried to repeat my adventure under a different overpass. A train, however, obstructed my path. I took my time climbing the bridge; I realized the vast expanse of railroad tracks below would have challenged my trip. Many of the houses nearby were cute, but dilapidated. Businesses which once thrived had closed, the exception being Toudouze, a wholesale supply warehouse. Also, a good portion of the land below was fenced off and designated private property by either the railroad or the university. I enjoyed my trip up into the air, and the delicious, touristy aromas of the restaurants near the university. As my normal bus caught up to me, I made a choice right then to never use the bus again to get to work – unless I had a heavy load to carry, or if the weather was bad. Again, I reached my work in twenty minutes. When I told my mother this, she could not believe me; she joked that I must have flown. Undoubtedly, the bridges have altered her sense of distance, too.
Later that day at work, a woman showed up from a nearby town. She had traveled fifty miles out of her way to make a donation. Pie-making had made her prosperous and happy, and she wanted to share her piece of the pie through mission. In a way, she had crossed her own “Darien Gap,” too – that of time and distance away from home – to help those in need.
If Today You Hear His Voice … Give Your Heart
Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman was a very big deal because Hebrews considered Samaria and its inhabitants a source of contamination; hence, this is a story of breaking the walls of segregation. It’s interesting that this reading came on the weekend of my very own Cesar Chavez march through the Westside’s “Darien Gap.” People’s avoidance of this area despite safety, and some people’s fear of crossing into the Westside in general, makes me think this area is viewed as a source of contamination. How can people help but feel suppressed when their home and its population are viewed as filth? Are the overpass bridges providing safety, or flagging danger? Why are youth in the Barrio strongly encouraged to become law enforcers? There is nothing wrong with police, but why are we encouraging them so strongly in this direction and not in others? Perhaps it’s because the prison is literally in our backyards. I feel the indirect message being sent is, “you people are the problem; clean up your own mess.”
Jesus said to the Samaritan woman: “whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in [her] a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14). I hope I’m not coming across as extremely negative and judgmental about the different structures in my micro-society. My intention is to give one insider’s view of how the structures in this micro-society can affect lives negatively, whether directly or indirectly. Perhaps the situation can somehow be improved, whether here or in similar, parallel micro-worlds, by understanding the circumstances.
In a way, a spring of water has already been born in me. I now understand that my local “Darien Gap” is nothing more than a barren, isolated wasteland, safe from most harm (thanks to the police). Though I feel safe crossing this area by day, nighttime is a separate issue; danger lurks most commonly in darkness. But now, at least, I can’t be gripped by an irrational fear of the unknown in this short span of land between home and work, which translates into a lighter carbon footprint, money in the pocket, and a greater sense of pride for my community. Maybe, eventually, I will feel safe or comfortable enough to join the men at the day labor site, but don’t hold your breath.
I love Psalm 95 because it serves as a reminder to keep our ears open to God’s voice in our daily lives. For this reason, it is the Invitatory Psalm of the Liturgy of the Hours for the Monastic Office – the structured prayers recited during specific times of day by religious. I did not have Psalm 95 in my head when I began my day on Saturday, the day of my exodus, but I’m very glad I was open to the option of crossing my local “Darien Gap.” Likewise, I doubt the donor that came to my work was inspired to donate because of Psalm 95, however, something called her to help, and she was open to responding regardless of the distance. At Mass, the priest gave us some homework. He said: “All the small things you do, do them with extraordinary love.”
Thank you, reader, for letting me share my journey and musings with you; at the moment, that is as much of the pie as I can share. Also, please remember to keep your ears, eyes, and minds open to the callings of life, and open your mouth in the name of justice. With this, I leave you with Psalm 95. You can click on the MP3 on this page to hear it: http://www.spiritandsong.com/compositions/76049
A Source of Discrimination & Segregation
To Learn about the caste system in Latin America, watch PBS’s “When Worlds Collide.” For a synopsis, visit: http://www.pbs.org/kcet/when-worlds-collide/education/lesson-2.html