Suffocating from the sweltering heat, Cecelia, a migrant from Puebla, Mexico, crammed into the back seat of a sealed van. She and a dozen other women and children dared not speak, despite the lack of oxygen, because their coyote insisted immigration officials were close behind. During the seemingly eternal trip across the U.S. Border, in tears Cecelia remembered, “I prayed in silence to God and pleaded with him to let me live.”
Compelled by stories like Cecilia’s, sociologist Jacqueline Maria Hagan tells the harrowing tales of undocumented migrants traveling from Central America and Mexico to the United States in Migration Miracle: Faith, Hope and Meaning on the Undocumented Journey (Harvard University Press, 2008). In contrast to books that explain immigration solely in social or economic terms, Hagan sets out to investigate the central role of religion in migration. From Pentecostal ayunos (fasts) in the Guatemalan highlands to the shrines of Catholics saints checkered along the desert journey, Hagan gives voice to stories of faith among these “desperate and dignified people,” and so attempts to put a human face on the immigration debate.
Hope on the Border
Drawing on interviews with over 300 migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, Migration Miracle elucidates the importance of religion from making the decision to migrate through arrival. Margot, an evangelical from Guatemala, fasted and read her Bible for a “sign” from God as she agonized over whether to leave her family. She prayed that if a local coyote (a guide who transports migrants across the border for money) would accept the $1500 payment after she arrived in the U.S., she would accept it as a divine sign. When the coyote agreed, and Margot’s pastor confirmed the sign, she decided to leave. Though sociologists tend to bristle at attributing human behavior to the supernatural, Hagan rightly notes signs are “powerful agents of action” that are “real in their consequences.” Migrants like Margot not only look for divine signs but also pray, fast, consult clergy and even make pledges of reciprocity (called la promesa) to saints in exchange for safe travels. The study found that 9 out 10 migrants sought spiritual guidance from God before making the final decision to journey north.
To ward off danger, many migrants turn to shrines and images, such as Guatemala’s popular El Cristo Negro (Black Christ) de Esquilipas, a darkened wood image revered for its miraculous powers. Miguel, who left Honduras in 2001, purchased a medallion of El Cristo Negro and promised not to remove it until it fell off his neck. He credits his safe arrival in the U.S. to the image. Nearly 90% of Mexicans self-identify as Catholic, and devotion to saints and icons deeply shapes their migration experience.
Perhaps the keynote of the discordant migrant song is an undying hope. One group of migrants sought a priestly blessing before crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Apprehended by U.S. Border patrol officials, they were brought back to Mexico. They promptly returned to the priest for another blessing. With a touch of irony, the priest asked “So the blessing didn’t help you that much, did it?” One of the young men responded with genuine devotion: “Father forgive me if I contradict you, but with that blessing we arrived as far as Houston. If we had not had your blessing, who knows how far we might have gone? Probably not even to the border.”
Religion is not only important on a personal level, but institutions also help to pave the migrant trail. Churches, nonprofits and humanitarian organizations form a transnational network of advocacy and aid. Among the most notable are the Scalabrianian Missionaries, a Roman Catholic order of priests and nuns whose primary mission is to provide pastoral care to migrants and refugees. Their international network bandages wounds, provides water and food, and gives spiritual guidance to thousands – their Casa del Migrante in Tapachula, Mexico sees as many as 500 migrants a day. The Scalabrianian missionaries stand squarely in the camp of Catholic social theology which practices a theology of solidarity, advocacy and hospitality, defending migration as a fundamental human right for those those who cannot find employment in their own countries to support their families.
Even smaller Protestant organizations contribute to the international aid network. Humane Borders, Inc., has placed dozens of water tanks in the arid Arizona desert for migrants on foot suffering from dehydration. Father Bob Carney, founder of the interfaith organization Healing Our Borders, commented, “The gospel demands that we act…We must respond to what we are witnessing along the border. If not, one day our Savior will ask why we didn’t do anything in the face of death.” Many Protestant and Catholic leaders view the vulnerable migrant as a stranger they are commanded to serve as if he was Christ himself (Matthew 25:44; cf. Luke 25:15-16).
A Humane Sociology
Jacqueline Maria Hagan’s panoply of first-hand testimonies successfully brings a human face to immigration. One mother prayed for her child’s forgiveness for leaving without first waking him to say good-bye. Another migrant remembered the soul-convulsing guilt of leaving a teenage girl behind because she could not keep up with the group. The stories are heart-wrenching. Even the surprising anecdotes of hope—like the virtuous coyote who took his human cargo to an Arizona emergency room to be treated for dehydration—have a way of humanizing an otherwise political issue. It is difficult to read this book and remain detached from the harsh realities of immigration.
Yet the book also succeeds sociologically; her depiction of migrant religious practice is both fascinating if not bizarre. For example, legend has it that Juan Castillo Morales, a private in the Mexican army wrongly accused of murder, was told he would be freed if he could run across a marked line. Although he was killed by his commanding officer, he came to represent immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, seen by outsiders as a criminal, but by the faithful as a saint. Today Juan Soldado (as he’s known) is revered in Tijuana among migrants. As such, travelers stock up on Juan Soldado trinkets, beseeching his favor before crossing over to California. Similarly, thousands flock to the shrine of St. Toribio in Jalisco, Mexico each year. Known as the “coyote saint,” St. Toribio is worshiped for the reported miracles he has granted to migrants in peril. Hagan’s religious survey manages to strike a balance between compassion for migrants and objective sociological research – it’s no wonder Migration Miracle won a prestigious award in 2010 from the American Sociological Association for distinguished research.
Some may criticize Hagan for not offering policy solutions to the perplexing debates surrounding immigration reform (many of which were discussed in the Spring 2011 Issue of The Review of Faith and International Affairs). Issues like security, the American labor force, and social integration won’t be resolved by this book. But that wasn’t her purpose. Migration Miracle delivers readers a vision of both human suffering and dignity by not so much speaking for or against migrants as speaking to them. Their stories of struggle, hardship and faith make readers ask a simple question: “What if I was in their place?” It wasn’t long ago that European migrants to the U.S. (my ancestors included) were telling similar tales of woe and hope.
Recently a young Mexican man was apprehended by INS in southern Arizona. After being kicked by border patrol agents and attacked by dogs, the crouching migrant was turned over and revealed a Bible pressed desperately to his chest. After seeing the faith of these travelers, perhaps those who set immigration policy, like the border patrol agent, might consider calling off the dogs.
This is an Author’s Original Manuscript of an article submitted for consideration in the The Review of Faith and International Affairs [copyright Institute for Global Engagement]; The Review of Faith and International Affairs is available online at http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/XnwEFgYNhsDjb4W73WrH/