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A mural of Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe in El Paso, TexasPaul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images
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Under the Eyes of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Catholic churches in El Paso offer assistance to a new wave of migrants amid an uncertain future for Title 42 pandemic restrictions

Maggie Phillips
December 21, 2022
Religious Literacy in America
Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.
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Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images
A mural of Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe in El Paso, TexasPaul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images

El Paso, Texas, has always been a place of transition and cultural mélange. Short for “El Paso del Norte,” literally the pass to the north, the border city between Texas and Mexico has long been used to people passing through their city, or staying to make it home. But a recent wave of migrants, over 1,500 on the evening of Dec. 11 alone, are part of a larger influx for which the city was unprepared. The surge of people across the border heightened concerns about the arrival of even larger numbers as the end of Title 42 pandemic-related restrictions on migration were set to expire on Dec. 21. But the arrival making headlines on Dec. 11 occurred on the eve of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Catholic feast and Mexican celebration of national and religious identity. The symbolism of the Virgin Mary dressed as an Aztec princess, ubiquitous throughout the majority-Hispanic city, has taken on various meanings almost from the beginning. It takes on new resonance as El Paso encounters unprecedented numbers of migrants from all over the world.

She is recognizable even to non-Catholics, appearing on candles, shirts, flags, murals, and tattoos. The Guadalupe image itself is considered by many Catholics to be miraculous, said to have appeared instantaneously—just 10 years after the fall of the Aztec empire to Hernán Cortés—on the garment of a recently converted indigenous man, Cuauhtlatoatzin, renamed Juan Diego at baptism. Both the Guadalupe image and the legend surrounding it (the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to Juan Diego and, in some tellings, spoken to him in his native Nahuatl language), are golden examples of the type of syncretism that often occurred as Christianity took root in new cultures.

In Mexico, as in other times and places, missionaries appropriated traditional symbols and practices to reflect the region’s newly established Catholic religion. Over the centuries, the Guadalupe image itself would be appropriated again and again in support of various political and societal causes. But in El Paso today, the Catholics with whom I spoke are less interested in proselytizing than they are in simply meeting the most basic needs of the men, women, and children showing up at their churches, often unannounced, hoping to head to points beyond. For some, it is a further expansion of the Guadalupe image and legend, and its inclusive themes of compassion and solidarity, to people of other faiths and nationalities.

My plane touched down on Dec. 12, the date on the Roman Catholic calendar dedicated to the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In this unmistakably Catholic and Hispanic city, where a life-size nativity scene greets airport visitors, the Guadalupe image shows up on the walls in nondescript office parks as well as churches. That evening, St. Mark Catholic Church held a special Mass in honor of the day. The church boasts a shrine with towering statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Juan Diego, around which visitors have placed candles and flowers. Indicative of the image’s centrality as an expression of Mexican identity, there is also a picture of Vanessa Guillen. The young Mexican American soldier was murdered at Fort Hood in 2020, and her ongoing disappearance gripped Hispanic media for some time before the grisly discovery of her body made national news. Inside the church, drummers and dancers in brightly colored traditional indigenous clothing and feathered headdresses, emblazoned with the Guadalupe image, participated along with the standard coterie of altar servers, priests, and ministers during the Mass. The presiding priests’ vestments also bore the Guadalupe image, one even featuring a Mexican flag. All the priests wore medical masks, as did many in the congregation, a lingering mark COVID-19 has left on a city that was heavily affected during the height of the pandemic.

It was ostensibly a bilingual Mass, but the Spanish-to-English ratio was probably roughly 80:20. Like many Mexican Americans, as Cheech and Chong knew, my Spanish is of the limited, half-remembered high school variety. Nevertheless, I was able to pick up the themes of the priest’s homily. Mentioning the difficulties faced by the indigenous people of Mexico under the Conquistadors, he addressed how Juan Diego (recognized as a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002, making him the first indigenous saint from the Americas) was empowered by his visit from the Virgin Mary. She gave him a mission to speak to the powerful religious leaders of the day, he said, despite his lowly social status.

There is a 16th-century account, published later in the 17th century but widely believed to have been written by an indigenous author, which has become the standard version of the Guadalupe apparition. It is quoted in the Roman Catholic breviary, the book of psalms that the church’s priests are obliged to pray five times a day. According to the account, in December of 1531, Juan Diego claimed to have encountered the Virgin Mary while on his way to Mass. The site of her appearance, Tepeyac Hill, in what is today Mexico City, was known as a site of mother-goddess worship by the Aztecs (a literal coincidence, which either bolsters or undermines the veracity of the legend, depending on the source). The bishop of Mexico disbelieved Juan Diego’s account, as well as his assertion, on two separate occasions, that the Virgin Mary had requested a church be built in the area. Juan Diego said he encountered the Virgin Mary a third time while going to find a priest to minister to his sick uncle. This time, he told the bishop she had directed him to a hilltop spot, covered with blossoming Castilian roses, which were out of season for early December. When he arrived to tell the bishop about this encounter, the author writes, Juan Diego unfurled his simple traditional tunic, called a tilma, to display the roses he said he had collected. When he did so, the tilma displayed the now-famous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The tilma hangs in a popular shrine today in Mexico City.

At St. Mark, on the anniversary that tradition says the Virgin Mary first appeared to Juan Diego, the priest spoke in his homily of the legend’s themes of justice and compassion: “We are all Juan Diego, we are all someone special,” he said. Believers and skeptics both point to scientific studies to prove the tilma’s authenticity, but there is little question that the image has had enduring power. Images of Our Lady of Guadalupe rallied disenfranchised mestizos during the Mexican War for Independence, and later, Zapatista rebels during the Mexican Civil War. The Guadalupe image’s syncretic adaptation of specifically European depictions of the Virgin Mary, with Aztec trappings (her clothing is said to reference both a description generally understood by Christians to refer to Mary in the Book of Revelation, and traditional Aztec costume), seem tailor-made for the former “New Spain.” Our Lady of Guadalupe emerged as a symbol of Mexicanismo, not least to Mexicans who had left their native country, as with the adoption of the image by Cesar Chavez in the 1960s.

The Guadalupe image appears in far more modest quarters elsewhere in El Paso, at the parish hall of Holy Family Catholic Church. A large, framed print hangs in a quiet corner of the noisy room, vases of roses beneath. On the wall next to it is a billboard displaying numbers for bus companies. The priest in charge is Father Jarek Wysoczanski. Dressed in “civilian” clothes, he comes across to the uninitiated as a spritely middle-aged layman. His frequent, ready smiles and soft voice convey a contagious sense of peace and relaxation. He told me that their refugee intake area was once the site of a convent. A dwindling congregation and the closure of a larger temporary housing site for migrants in El Paso, the Casa del Refugiado (CDR), made Holy Family’s property a convenient site to accommodate the influx of migrants coming across the El Paso border. Wysoczanski said Holy Family’s facility opened in September of this year.

I arrived just as a group of migrants in the shelter were preparing to board a bus. Shouted names began to echo throughout the multipurpose room filled with cots. The departing residents with reservations collected reusable shopping bags containing food, snacks, and clean clothes. Volunteers at the shelter told me that the longest they have seen anyone stay there is two days, before they depart for other places. For most of them, El Paso is a temporary stop where they connect with sponsors elsewhere in the country who help them procure bus or plane tickets to other cities within the U.S.

This particular group lined up in the parking lot, where portable toilets and mobile shower units, marked “City of El Paso Fire Department,” were stationed. They boarded the bus to begin the next leg of their journey. No sooner did the bus depart than word began to circulate that 50 more migrants would be arriving that day, an announcement that came earlier than usual, according to volunteer Sister Mary Peter Diaz.

More than 100 murals are painted in the Lincoln Park and El Segundo districts of El Paso, Texas, depicting the city's Latino and Native American culture and community pride
More than 100 murals are painted in the Lincoln Park and El Segundo districts of El Paso, Texas, depicting the city’s Latino and Native American culture and community pridePaul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images

Diaz volunteers along with Sister Joannes Klas, a Franciscan religious sister originally from Wisconsin, who spent nine years working with Guatemalan refugees in Honduras, and an additional nearly three decades in Guatemala itself. They told me about the other religious sisters working with migrants in motels in the city, where migrants who test positive for COVID are quarantined.

The Trump administration migration restrictions of Title 42 were poised to end in the coming days, bringing an anticipated increase in arrivals across the border. But various people familiar with the work of Catholic groups and churches with migrants spoke of the already ongoing strain of COVID-19 on their ability to service the migrants’ needs. Diaz and Klas told me that Holy Family is unique among other volunteer-run shelters, in that it is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, whereas others run only Monday through Friday. But there simply are not enough volunteers, with many saying the pool of available help has winnowed since the onset of the pandemic. Since the dispersal of migrant care after the July closure of the 135,000-square-foot CDR, employees from the City of El Paso’s Emergency Management department are now present at the Holy Family shelter. Diaz said they arrive in two daily shifts of eight hours each.

Another volunteer told me that the Border Patrol has just released a large number of migrants to a volunteer-run charity that coordinates a network of shelters around the city to receive migrants and refugees. A spokesman for the Diocese of El Paso, which oversees all the Catholic Churches in the area that run shelters, said that it currently lacks a central processing hub for migrants.

Wysoczanski is no stranger to life in a border town, he told me, having grown up in Poland, on the border with Germany. He said Holy Family receives migrants from South America and Haiti, even Turkey and Uzbekistan. Fittingly, considering the name of his shelter, Wysoczanski said their shelter receives Title 42 exceptions—people, often families, who are fleeing persecution and other traumas, including natural disasters. For this reason, he said, they usually bring with them emotional scars and wounds. But he smiled as he told me about the 3-day old infant who recently came through. “It was amazing,” he said. “We are very happy.” It is a gift, he said, “to touch the suffering humanity.”

Wysoczanski is a Franciscan, the same order of priests who came to Mexico following Cortes’ invasion. But in his mind, he is not a missionary for Catholicism. “For me, it is more important to be human,” he said. “We are doing this because we wanted to embrace everybody. Everybody.” He described occasionally saying Mass and realizing that most of the people in his congregation belong to other religions than his, although he said he is unsure, since he doesn’t ask their affiliation. Sometimes, Wysoczanski said, his primary work is to listen to the migrants’ stories, rather than to proclaim. “We are together and we are listening,” he said. “I’m here only to be with them.”

This is a commitment Wysoczanski takes seriously. He said he sleeps in the shelter himself one night a week. That past Sunday, he said, there were 82 people in the shelter, which he estimates usually sleeps around 40 or 50 daily. “It is incredible,” he said, explaining that for many, it is their first night of real rest after a difficult, dangerous journey.

“For us, the feast of Virgin Mary is every day,” he said, alluding to the Guadalupe image that hangs in the corner of the shelter. Out of respect for the diversity of the people passing through, there was no special observance on the 12th, at the Holy Family shelter, but he said throughout the day, he saw individuals going by to pray in front of the image privately. “She is like a mother who is embracing them here,” he said.

Wysoczanski told a story about the Turkish family he encountered one night while staying at the Holy Family shelter: “The dear child, a girl, maybe 3 or so, was crying,” he said. The crying went on throughout the night, and Wysoczanski described waking up at one point to see the family standing in front of the Guadalupe image. Through Google translate, he and the family were able to communicate and rule out potential causes. “I look at the Virgin Mary,” he said, and at that moment wondered if the toddler wasn’t experiencing some culture shock in an unfamiliar environment. “I said, ‘Lady, help this girl.’ At once, the man took his iPhone and put the music from Turkey, and when she started to listen [to] this music, immediately became quiet.” Wysoczanski laughed. “I said, ‘Thank you, Mary!’”

In the account of Juan Diego and the Guadalupe apparition, the Virgin Mary is described as soothing the man’s anxiety by asking in his native language the rhetorical question, “Am I not here who am your mother?” Wysoczanski’s story of this late-night Turkish music iPhone concert, taking place before the depiction, filtered through European art conventions, of a young Jewish woman dressed like Aztec royalty, is a testament to the wide adaptability of the Guadalupe image and legend. It is the appeal of a mother who sees and understands amid the unfamiliar and unknown.

Christmas was just around the corner at the time of my visit, when Mary, her son, and his foster father, Joseph, known together by Catholics as the Holy Family, are front and center this time of year. The Christmas narrative tells a story of a time when this family were themselves without a place to stay, and later, refugees fleeing to Egypt from King Herod’s murderous designs on the infant Jesus. “I see in the face of everybody the face of God,” Wysoczanski said. His two favorite moments are when the migrants arrive and he observes the change in their facial expressions when he welcomes them, and the other is when they board the bus for their next destination. “It is for me the face of God, the face of Jesus, of Mary, of Joseph,” he said, “And God is traveling from here to the airport or to the bus station.”

Holy Family is a quick trip from downtown El Paso, a thriving cultural hub that obscures the crisis that has garnered national attention. The morning of the 13th, the day after the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, my downtown hotel lobby was a hive of activity as staff, security, and local police awaited the imminent departure of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to meet with local authorities regarding the influx at the border. But just a short walk from the lobby stands the impressive Minor League Baseball stadium for the El Paso Chihuahuas, a farm team for the San Diego Padres. There are also high-end boutique hotels, hip eateries and bars, renovated art deco architecture, and brilliant street art. In the afternoon, the lunch rush of soldiers from nearby Fort Bliss packed the restaurants. Along the I-10 highway, across which arriving migrants have been known to attempt to run to safety, billboards for the University of Texas at El Paso promise a bright future for El Paso in the field of robotics.

The local news that day (and into the next morning) included coverage of a fire downtown that had destroyed a shoe store, which fire crews were having difficulty fully extinguishing, their trucks blocking off an entire section of the street. It was the kind of thing that might have been bigger news in a midsize city like El Paso, but instead was fighting for equal time alongside stories about the pressure on local homeless shelters, many at capacity due to arriving migrants, and massive delays for delivery trucks coming across the border from Mexico due to increased vehicle inspections. Further delays are likely with a plan to reassign border agents from customs to migrant processing.

I received a tip about young undocumented Venezuelan migrant who had shown up at a church in the morning. Rather cosmically on-the-nose, his name was Jesús. When I met him, he had a sandwich the priest had made for him, a bag containing a change of clothes, and a bus ticket that evening to Denver.

In many ways Jesús fit a profile Father Wysoczanski had described to me that morning at Holy Family. Venezuelans in particular pose a challenge for the work of places like Holy Family, according to him. Typically, migrants released by the Border Patrol to NGOs for processing have sponsors somewhere else in the country that they are trying to reach. The Venezuelans who have been arriving recently often do not, said Wysoczanski, which makes rendering assistance challenging for the shelters, whose primary function is to serve as a temporary way station for the newly arrived as they make arrangements. But, he said, “it’s the mysteries of God, I don’t know how, but they go out, they look,” he said. “And they are able.” Somehow, through providence, they find sponsors, he said.

Twenty-five-year-old Jesús still didn’t have a sponsor when we spoke, but he was definitely relying on the mysteries of God. He said he had left Venezuela due to the economic situation and lack of security, where you might have enough food for two days before returning to uncertainty. After passing solo through “seven countries and one jungle” over two months by foot, bus, and cargo train, Jesús said he had crossed the border into El Paso the day before, when he noticed a group of Venezuelans and followed them. They found a small gap in the wall, he said, that they crawled through “like little ants.” That night, Jesús slept at a transportation terminal with some other migrants. A Catholic himself, he said he began looking for churches, arriving at one the next morning. According to Jesús, people arriving from Venezuela generally know that they can get help getting tickets for transportation at churches. Jesús was sick when he arrived at the church, where he said he was fed, given a place to stay, and medicine to treat his symptoms. Unused to the cold, Jesús said, he was unable even to swallow when he arrived, but with “thanks to the help of God and the padre,” he was doing better when we spoke.

The bus station from which he was to depart was packed with men, women, and children of all ages, seemingly occupying every available surface. The garish artificial light overhead felt like its primary function was to serve as a mocking reminder that it was dark outside, and enabling sight was simply a collateral fringe benefit it grudgingly bestowed on bystanders. But it was not a desperate scene. Jesús said he was enthusiastic, and he did not seem to be the only one. Indeed, while a few toddlers slept on the floor on blankets, in many ways, the familial and group dynamics on display around us appeared, on the surface at least, like those in any transportation terminal waiting room.

If there was a system for preboarding, no one seemed to know what it was, and if they did, they were not forthcoming. My translator explained Jesús’ ticket to him, showing him his seat number. The price, $90, was on the ticket (he said he paid half of the fare himself, and the priest had paid the other). Once in Denver, where he knows no one, but where he heard they pay hourly and it’s pretty, Jesús said his plan was to repeat his El Paso play: Find a church, and rely on providence to find the right people to get him where he was supposed to be—in this case, a job where his lack of documentation would not be an issue. He hoped to find a job within the week and get himself independent as soon as possible.

While we stood in the terminal, Jesús told us he has a 1-month-old son back home in Venezuela, and my translator learned he was an anime fan (they both particularly liked Avatar: The Last Airbender). When it was time to board, we shook hands, and Jesús turned one last time to issue a jaunty wave and smile over his mask before disappearing onto the bus. There was still one more hurdle to clear: interior Border Patrol checkpoints where he could be sent back across the border if he was asked to show the documentation he did not have.

My translator walked back with me to my car, entering into tour guide mode and telling me about the two murals visible from the bus station. One showed a group of children playing a traditional game called chinchilagua, similar to leapfrog. In the mural, the children help each other over a wall. In the foreground are the words from the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty: “Huddled Masses Yearning to Breathe Free.”

The Lady Liberty motif carries over to another mural across the street, next to Sacred Heart, one of the oldest churches in El Paso. My own family lore says that my great-great-grandmother once obtained a miraculous prayer from the priest there, which freed her husband from prison after three days. He had been detained for political reasons during the Mexican Civil War. She and my great-grandmother, her daughter, had been smuggled over the border to escape the conflict after threats against their family. On this mural, by a local artist nicknamed Cimi, a reimagined Lady of Guadalupe floats above various figures from early-20th-century El Paso. Like a Lady Liberty of the Rio Grande, the Lady of Guadalupe appears in the sky welcoming a family wading over the border. Instead of a torch to light their way, she shines a flashlight on their path. In her other arm, in place of an open book, a towel is draped across her arm to dry them upon their arrival.

Once again, the Guadalupe image has been reappropriated, this time enfolded into a particular kind of American story: an El Paso story. And an El Paso story is always one of change and exchange; fossilized footprints from the Pleistocene era have been found, of what appear to be a woman and child crossing the desert together. On the drive back to my downtown hotel, my translator told stories about the origins of city’s Italian population, when high school girls during WWII would go flirt with the Italian POWs encamped nearby. Today, a Polish priest welcomes Turkish and Venezuelan families passing through the city.

Downtown, WinterFest was in full swing. It is the city’s monthlong holiday celebration that includes ice skating, festive treats, and light displays. Two men, one wrapped in the increasingly ubiquitous Red Cross blankets handed out to arriving migrants, approached us to ask where they could charge a phone. My translator led them to the city center, the heart of WinterFest, where visitors are surrounded by lights and speakers piping Sia’s Christmas album. There were outlets there, she explained to me, and it’s a public place. No one could tell them to leave.

This is the kind of hospitality which El Pasoans of any (or no) faiths perform quietly every day. “They’re seeing the large numbers,” Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino said of the city’s NGOs during a Dec. 13 news conference, “They’re the ones stepping up on the daily, they’re housing a large number of individuals, they’re also having to arrange for transportation to and from the airport.” El Pasoans are used to toiling in anonymity until calamity strikes. As is often the case after mass shootings, the rest of the country has moved on from the racially motivated Walmart shooting that took place there in 2020. Nevertheless, #ElPasoStrong decals and murals can still be seen throughout the city.

We are doing this because we wanted to embrace everybody. Everybody.

But El Paso needs more than grit and good intentions to adequately deal with the more than 900 average daily encounters at its recently opened central processing center, according to a dashboard maintained by the city at the time of this writing. That number is nearly 20 times the migrants who showed up unannounced in Martha’s Vineyard in September of this year, where residents’ outpouring of charity for their unexpected guests garnered national media attention (El Paso’s mayor, Democrat Oscar Leeser, also bused migrants to other cities). El Pasoans, by contrast, can often be heard expressing irritation with outsiders assuming that the city is a crime-ridden dystopia due to sensationalistic media portrayals.

Such perceptions were unlikely to be mitigated by a new round of coverage that was gearing up as I left town, with stories of migrants sleeping in parking garages amid plunging temperatures. But there are genuine concerns among El Paso leadership about both the city’s resources and the migrants’ well-being due to uncertainty over Title 42.

The community is bracing for the twin impacts of holiday season travel and further migrant arrivals, extending what is normally the one- or two-day process of getting migrants onto their next destination into a four- or five-day one. “Our infrastructure cannot keep up, there are not enough flights, there’s not enough bus transport out of town on a daily basis to allow same-day travel,” D’Agostino said at the press conference. The city of El Paso says it has spent $9.5 million since July of this year to assist migrants. While they received $2 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with an additional nearly $4 million in the offing, they were still awaiting an additional $3.5 million in reimbursements of the city money spent as of Dec. 13. Even if Title 42 remains in place,the large numbers amassed at the border are unlikely to dissipate quickly. Without a coherent, permanent approach to address the migrants and asylum-seekers showing up at the U.S. border en masse, local independent news outlet El Paso Matters describes Title 42 as “a public health policy that has become de facto immigration policy.” A continued El Paso challenge is likely to become other cities’ soon, too. D’Agostino said El Paso is working with other cities’ emergency management departments at travel hubs in other cities and states to arrange their transportation. Sanctuary cities New York and Chicago were preparing for their own influx, but Denver was already scrambling to respond to its own influx last week.

Within a week of his departure from El Paso, I received word that Jesús had reached Denver. I was unable to verify, but I was told that the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception there had helped him procure a bus ticket to Chicago, where a job was waiting for him.

A crisis that shows no immediate sign of abating, and a sense that no one is coming to help, is why migrants like Jesús are leaving their countries and families for an uncertain future. Likewise, El Paso waits for solutions from the governments of its own and other countries and states. The city relies on help from private individuals and NGOs, even as strains on infrastructure threaten to jeopardize its promising future. But Jesús, and the congregation at the Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration at St. Mark, both believe they have something else: a mother who is on their side.

He said his mother sent him off with lots of prayers and love. “The prayers of a parent are really great in the eyes of God,” he said.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.

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