Mountain Sunset

El Paso Trip Part One: The Colonias

It was a small trailer on a square piece of dirt. It certainly wasn’t what she had dreamed of when she had first come to the United States to stay with her mother, a citizen, but Soledad* owned the land and everything on it. Not ideal, but worth being proud of.

Soledad had a quiet dignity that I had to admire. Serving us cookies from an old family recipe, she was insistent that she was the host and that we were her guests, reinforcing was Pastor Rosemary had told us before coming: With this service trip, we are here to learn from the people we talk to, not help them. When I had first heard those words, I hadn’t understood them, but seeing the idea in action brought clarity. Soledad and the other people we met weren’t looking for us to come save them, but rather to understand their situation. I learned so much on that trip that I didn’t know would impact me when I first signed up.

It all started on a cold, dark evening in January. I had given up trying to work the thermostat in my dorm and was laying under a half dozen blankets in defeat when my roommate bounced through the door with a stack of papers.

“I’m going on the border immersion justice journey!” she exclaimed with a smile. “You should come!”

After some questions, I learned that what she was talking about was a school sponsored trip to El Paso, Texas, to volunteer with Christo Rey church and learn about immigration. I am very passionate about both immigration issues and Latin American cultures, so I knew this would be an unmissable opportunity. I am incredibly privileged to be able to work and put my money toward these travel experiences, and I’m grateful that I can take a trip with the purpose of volunteering.

The first day of our trip, our group of eight students and a professor were tired from sleeping on the airport floor after a plane was canceled due to snow. We were grateful to be out of frigid Fargo and in a city where temperatures were typically at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit while the sun was out, but our backs hurt and our eyes were drooping. We attended the bilingual church service at Christo Rey and took a long nap before dinner. I remember thinking that this was a waste of a day but not particularly caring; the triple-decker bunker bed in the church’s guest room was calling my name.

El Paso Sunset City Skyline
An overhead view of El Paso taken from the window of the church’s van

The second day we visited the colonias. These are small sections of land sectioned off into plots sold to undocumented people with the sentiment being, “If you own land in this country, life will be easier for you.” I personally was surprised that citizenship was not a requirement for owning land. Every person in the colonias, regardless of their citizenship status, pays property, income, and sales taxes. Again, this was something I thought only US citizens did. I would soon learn that illegal immigrants pay their fair share of taxes but can’t share in any benefits. They can’t go to college, can’t hold their employers accountable for safe working conditions or fair wages, can’t apply for welfare, and can’t go to most homeless shelters. Homeless shelters are only eligible for government funding if they require patrons to provide a social security number, so only a few such as the Annunciation House, which caters specifically to people without documentation, accept those without citizenship status.

At the beginning of the trip, I had a very vague understanding of the process to become a US citizen. I knew it could take a fair amount of time; one of my professors had spoken of her husband, who is from Spain, going through the application process for a few years despite having a green card from his wife. This was a couple who had reasonable (but not excessive) financial resources and the marriage certificate to help them along. He also was not from a country with huge quantities of visa requests being made, which slows down the process significantly.

An older woman named Soledad opened up her home in a colonia to our group and shared her life story with us. She had a quiet dignity that I had to admire. She could take care of herself, she was strong and capable, but she was up against a system that didn’t want her to succeed. She told us a story of working for a family for a week only to have them say that they wouldn’t pay her. This had happened a few times, the people knowing they didn’t need to worry about getting in trouble when the threat of deportation hung over her head. Soledad shrugged at our outrage on her behalf, saying that she was blessed that in more than twenty years of living here she hadn’t faced worse abuse at the hand of an employer.

I was curious during this discussion, wondering why she had spent more than two decades without getting her papers in order. She had payed off the mortgage on her property first. I didn’t want to be rude, especially because this woman seemed intelligent and I didn’t want to come across as condescending or ignorant, but she explained that part of her journey without prompting. Soledad originally had come to the United States in the late 90’s to stay with her mother, who was a citizen. Her family is split between Juarez and El Paso, and her husband is one of those on the other side of the border. He went home to Juarez for a family emergency and has not been able to return. Soledad came to this country because her mother was petitioning for her citizenship. When a citizen petitions for another person, that person must stay within the US during the process. This does not exempt them from deportation. Soledad’s mother died a few years ago, and her petition for citizenship was automatically voided. All those years were for nothing; Soledad is too old to restart the process with any hope of becoming a citizen.

“Many days I think I should have stayed in Mexico,” she lamented. “I had my struggles, but I would not be so alone.”

US Mexico Border in El Paso, Texas
A giant red X marks the border highway that connects El Paso, Texas, to Juarez, Mexico

Soledad’s house did not have running water for many years. Now, a single faucet has access to it. Her house only has electricity when her sister decides to share a line. When we visited there was no electricity. Soledad chose not to elaborate as to why her sister didn’t want to help her at this time. One recurring theme in the conversation was Soledad’s faith in God. She said he was good to her despite her struggles and advised us that a healthy prayer life was the key to making it through hard times.

She discussed how strong friendships helped keep her going, sharing a meaningful look with Pastor Rosemary. Soledad says her support system of friends and the fact that she owns property helps her feel content to remain in the country she has been calling home for the last two decades. Though since the death of her mother it has been more difficult to see the brighter side of her situation, she feels that she made the correct choice to come to the United States.

Before we left, someone from our group purchased one of the purses Soledad makes with pop can tabs. On the way to the next colonia, we talked about how those purses would be good to sell at craft fairs as upcycled homemade items. This would work if Soledad didn’t have the constant threat of deportation, and the lack of any sort of documentation to be verify herself as a vendor. It’s frustrating to see potential opportunities for a hardworking person to better their life and know that those opportunities won’t work for all the wrong reasons.

Mountain Sunset

The second house we visited was larger as it housed a full family. A mother and father (Marta and Esteban*) recounted their stories of first coming to the US. There was a time early on when Esteban had to return to Mexico because his parents were ill and likely near death. On his return to the US, he tried to use a temporary tourist visa as a Mexican citizen hoping to visit. He would then secretly stay past the end of the visa limits.

His plan went awry when one of the border officers asked to see his wallet. When he refused, stating they had no right to search through his possessions when he had already shown them all the necessary documentation, the officer replied: “You have to do what I say. I could tell you to strip naked and you would have to listen.”

In the wallet, he found papers which had been issued in Texas, proving that the man had been in the US for an extended amount of time in the past. This resulted in Esteban being sent to a holding facility to await deportation.

He was caught and detained trying to cross the border twice after that. Crossing the US border illegally more than once is considered a felony, regardless of criminal background. Esteban, a Christian husband and father, went from having a clean record to risking long prison sentences if he were to be caught again. It had been five years since he had seen his wife or children. His youngest daughter, the only citizen of the family as she had been born in Texas, barely remembered him.

As we sat in the family’s living room, Marta explained to us that the house had been a work in progress when they moved in. Esteban had been working on plugging holes in the walls to keep snakes, mice, and other animals from entering. She also had to find enough work to feed and clothe the family now that a large percentage of the household income was gone. Their youngest daughter was born with a heart condition that required frequent medical attention, which was the main reason Marta kept her family in the United States while her husband was barred from returning.

Esteban’s final attempt at crossing the border was successful. He and his family were reunited, but they explained to us that the following months were a struggle. He had to restrengthen the bond with his wife and get to know his children again, who had changed a lot in five years and were struggling to heal from their father’s absence.

Meeting people with different backgrounds and places in life moved something inside of me. It made immigration feel less like an abstract political debate and more like something real that normal people participate in. They were all so average. How could they have lived through such intense experiences only to sit on the couch and make jokes about tamales with our group?

Getting to know people living in the colonias brought the issues they face down to a more human level. Experiencing the justice system that helps create some of these issues, which I will post in Part Two, gave me the knowledge I needed to engage in the conversation to bring about change.

*names have been changed to protect identities


I am a writer, actor, translator, and social activist.

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