Friday, January 16, 2009


In 1989 I was invited to come to live and work in the Rio Grande Valley. I worked in Harlingen, La Joya and Cameron Park. Each one of these places marked my life with unanticipated blessings. After all of these years, I have decided to move on, leaving, with deep sadness but profound gratitude, one of America's treasures, the border between Texas and Mexico.

During my time here, I discovered the Rio Grande Valley as one of our nation's hidden secrets: a culture all its own, a mixing of northern Mexican ways, Rio Grande Valley mores, and American derring-do, perhaps best captured in our language, wrongly called "Tex-Mex" or "Spanglish" or "Pocho-Guess." I learned to delight in the wordplay, the subtle nuances and the brilliance of a language that moves between Mexican and American English and the particularity of life along a border.

And while I reveled in the joy here, I discovered much to grieve over. This is an economically-devastated place (Cameron Park, for instance, has a lower per capita income than Guatemala!). And yet we belong to the state of Texas, a place that generates more money than Austria or Australia.

The Rio Grande Valley, alone in the United States, is a militarized zone. Nowhere else in the USA are grandfathers "checked out" by armed officers while fishing with their grandchildren. Nowhere else in the United States are mothers of American citizen children afraid to go to church or to walk their children to school. The norm in our lovely Valley is often not the trust and respect that is such a part of our culture, but the suspicion and fear that comes from living amidst a drug war, a war on terrorism, and a war on people of color.

That suspicion and fear, and, in the end, hatred, has seeped into our way of life here as well. It is not unusual for a family member to “turn in” a cousin or an uncle to the Border Patrol; it is no longer surprising when elected officials take some of the billions of dollars that flow through here in exchange for turning a blind eye to business as usual.

In the end, we are a border community. A twenty minute drive from my home lands me in the midst of Mexico. My favorite place is a neighborhood called Colonia Juarez, where for the past 18 years I have enjoyed the deepest sort of fellowship with some of the noblest people on God’s earth. These are poor people—living in tarpaper shacks and knowing hunger’s face all too well. They are also extraordinarily strong people—when we have gathered together I have always been impressed with the latent power that pulses there beneath the surface.

I was in such a gathering the other day—a time to say goodbye to these good people. In the midst of the group was Yahaira. I had used a photo of her as a Christmas card some years ago, so mu
ch did her expression remind me of Sacred Hope.

But in this gathering, twelve year old Yahaira had also come to say goodbye—to me, but also to the community. That night, she was going to be handed over to a smuggler, who was to bring her to San Antonio so that she could be with her father. She was going to swim the river, and then would have to walk the four or five days it would take to cross the Wild Horse Desert, which lies between the Valley and the rest of the country.

I asked the community’s wise woman what was going on, why on earth was her mother going to put her twelve year at such risk? And she looked at me with her infinitely sad eyes and sai
d, “Sometimes people just don’t think.”

And so Yahaira set off in the evening. She was going to cross the border, a border which remains unsecure—and I don’t mean that the way the Michael Chertoff means, but in the way that the Gospel means. Yahaira will not be safe; the border will not be a secure place for her.

The cynics and the terrified might make noises about her “illegality” and whine about another individual who would be a “burden” on society. I only saw a little girl who was going to be with her father.

It is to this place and these brave people that I take leave now, as I move onto to other places of blessing. I leave with deep gratitude for the lessons offered me. And I pray in a special way for those others, like Yahaira, who take much greater risks than I can imagine, to move on to new possibilities, with hope and in faith.

Deep thanks to all who have supported the work in Cameron Park and Colonia Juarez over the years. God Bless, Michael Seifert, SM

Update: I discovered that, in the end, Yahaira never made it across the river. The Border Patrol was out in force that day and the smuggler decided that it was not worth the trouble. Thank you, Border Patrol!

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Wishes

1.   The Dream Act is passed within the first one hundred days of President Obama taking office. This piece of legislature would legitimize the presence of thousands of our nation’s young people who have lived their entire lives in the shadows of their parents’ decision to immigrate to the USA. These children know no other country than the USA. The Dream Act would only offer legalization to those who have stayed in school and stayed out of trouble. The Dream Act is not a piece of immigration reform, but a relief act (  (

2.  Compassionate, humane immigration reform. A law that will protect those who live and work and pray alongside of us from those who would exploit them. I think especially of those who work as maids and earn $100 for a 72 hour week. Of those who prepare the chickens we eat for less than $2.50 an hour. And with this legislation, although it is perhaps too much to ask for, although never too much to hope for—a conversion of our American hearts from seeing strangers as enemies to seeing strangers as friends who share a profound commonality with us—a heart-felt desire for a blessed future for all of us.

3.   Affordable health care for everyone, but starting with the poor. For once.

4.   Affordable housing for working families.

5.   And, finally, a wish of a truly dream-like quality: a conversion of our national politics, in which we stop trusting arms and military might and begin trusting education and the building up of community resources as the most effective way to enjoy peace and security in our world. Take the example of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea and make it an international policy.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

I Don't Believe That This is Rocket Science

The story below was printed in Saturday's (December 27) Brownsville Herald. The photos are by Daniel Lopez. The Brownsville Community Development Corporation has done a marvelous job of providing low-cost housing for thousands of families in our area. But there are hitches every now and again, that have nothing to do with BCDC and everything to do with the way we treat poor people in general (suspiciously and without much mercy). In this case, the 68 year old woman for whom a new house was built had to live in a shack because the light company (a public utility that became privatized in more ways that I can figure) simply couldn't be bothered to hook her up. Despite the fact that she is ill, older, and that it has been a cold December.

She is our neighbor, living five houses down the block.

When we moved into our home, we had no trouble getting our electricity turned on. But then again, we had some money.


Residents receives new home, but has no electricity yet
By Kevin Seiff

Maria D. Garcia had been waiting for months for her Christmas present to arrive: a new home courtesy of the Brownsville Community Development Corp.

Garcia was one of 10 Cameron Park residents who received new homes this fall from BCDC after the organi
zation received a federal grant.
“If you give a person a decent place to live they’re going to be able to do decent things with their life,” said BCDC board member Father Mike Seifert.
But as the holidays neared, Garcia was still living in a makeshift shanty, waiting for utilities to be installed in her new home. Winter came, and the cold sliced through gaps in Garcia’s plywood walls. Child Protective Services told her it was an improper place to raise her two 15-year-old grandsons.

For six weeks, Garcia wait
ed for services. TXU Energy placed an installation order which was pushed back by AEP, the local electricity provider.
“We did everything right. We put in the service order,” said Sophia Stoller, a TXU spokeswoman. “(AEP)
has their reasons for moving the date.”
The BCDC home is now complete. But until utilities are installed, the corporation will not allow Garcia to move in. Of the BCDC grantees, she is the only one who has not yet been able to move into her home.
“We call every other day,” said Garcia’s daughter Adriana. “They get annoyed, but what can we do? We want my mom to have something.”

After a cold front came to Brownsville, Garcia’s children took her to their homes in Austin and San Antonio. “
We couldn’t let her stay here,” Adriana Garcia said. “Everyone was getting sick.”
AEP is expected to install the services at some point next week.
“It’s too bad,” Seifert said. “It would have been a great Christmas present.”

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Merry Christmas! Proof of citizenship?

If Jesus and Mary were fortunate, there was a midwife around at the time of Jesus' birth. Or maybe there wasn't. Certainly there was little or no paperwork done--Jesus' birth, like that of most of the people on the earth (poor people, that is), would have been an event of little note (save for the extreme interest of God and Mary his mother).

In the Rio Grande Valley, the same lack of concern about poor people lives on. For instance, a person born to a midwife (a common practice for poor families) is immediately put into a category of doubt. While the State of Texas will recognize the newborn as a citizen, the State Department imposes an extreme set of criteria, making it practically impossible to obtain a passport, and thus travel to the home of the his or her ancestors.

In the end, 2000 years ago, Jesus had it a little better. All the Holy Family needed when they headed off as refugees to Egypt was a sturdy donkey, a wise Joseph, and a strong Mary. 2,000 years later, a person born to a midwife and seeking his or her right to travel, needs a slew of attorneys (which we have, thanks to Lisa Brodyaga and the ACLU) and some good guardian angels.

The lawsuit launched against the State Department in favor of people born in the Valley to midwives continues forward. What a grand Christmas gift it would be to have that settled, once and for all.

(Christmas card, by Fr. John Giuliani and available from Bridge Building Images, Inc; PO Box 1048; Burlington VT 05402)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

¡Que viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!

It is 3:30am and we are three hundred faithful gathered in the parking lot of the church. With a shout "¡Que Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!" we begin our five mile walk to a neighboring parish. More than half of us are under 25 years of age. There is prayer, and song, and quiet talking and long moments in which all that can be heard are footfalls.

More than anything else, there is a sense of homecoming, of belonging.

Last week, the border patrol began asking families who were crabbing and fishing at a local creek for proof of citizenship or residency. The agents could not know how outrageous it is for someone's little boy to watch his father publically humiliated by men with guns. "Are you a US citizen?" is the question asked, but the unspoken accusation is "You are a Mexican, aren't you?" A question often posed by a Mexican Americans who have become Border Patrol agents as a way out of desperation.

The Virgen of Guadalupe is many, many things--inspiration, source of hope and healing, a call to prayer--but she is also Us.

She is deeply tatooed upon our hearts, a reminder that we are Mexican and that there is nothing but goodness in that.

It is like coming home after a long walk in the night.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Proyecto Niño Jesús

Project Baby Jesus

Eight years ago, Miguel and Perla's fourth child was born with severe physical problems. After a long fight for his life, little Jesús passed away, causing a grief for Miguel and Perla that I myself cannot imagine.

A year after his death, they decided to honor their son at Christmas by organizing a gift-giving project. This is something that happens all across our nation at this kind of year. Generous people looking for a way to share their gratitude do this with poor children at Christmastime. Miguel and Perla, however, take that a step further, bringing the gifts that they gather to the children who live in the appalling conditions of the hospitals and poor neighborhoods of Matamoros, Mexico.

It is a lot of work--Miguel tells me that each year with a deep sigh. And it is a lot of blessing. "If I could only bottle the looks in the eyes of those children when they receive a gift. . ."

If you would like to be a part of this, you can send donations to Proyecto Niño Jesús, PO Box 8093; Brownsville, Tx 78526.