I wrote about my introduction to working with immigrants in ICE Burns: My Early Doula Clients. In 1990-1991, I volunteered as a doula at a Planned Parenthood Prenatal Program in San Diego, California.
El Paso, Texas
When I moved back to Orlando in 1993, I stopped for 3 months at Casa de Nacimiento, a birth center (now closed) in El Paso, Texas. 99.9% of the clients coming through Casa were immigrant women from Mexico, usually Ciudad Juárez. My Spanish, school-acquired, then practiced with the doula clients in San Diego, became second-nature in El Paso.
While Casa gave me an amazing education and taught me many skills, there are lingering worries about being a white person using the immigrant women as practice specimens… a reverse voluntourism experience. I will write about these feelings separately; they are deep and complicated.
I was not as woke about the White Savior Complex as I am now, so merely tried to be the best student midwife I could be. I loved these women and their families. I loved talking to them, learning about their Mexican lives (which were slightly different than the Mexicans’ experiences in San Diego). I purposefully kept my heart open, wanting to be a positive birth worker for the women coming and going through the center’s doors. Those 3 months in El Paso remain some of my most wondrous life memories. While most people despise the city, I found it alive with culture and magic.
Getting from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso for prenatal appointments was often a hit or miss experience for the birth center’s clients depending on which officer was patrolling the border bridge that day.
“It had not been easy: The visa that allowed her to cross back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. is expensive, and she had had to prove she had money in the bank and a reason to return to Mexico to be granted it. The lines at the border between Juarez and El Paso can take hours, and border agents are said to sometimes tear up the visas of women who are noticeably pregnant. Some women end up giving birth on the bridge between Juarez and El Paso because of delays….”
When the border was closed to even those with visas, the pregnant and laboring women, with their families, trudged through the Rio Grande River… day and night… to cross into the United States. They often walked miles to reach the birth center.
Crossing the Rio Grande was bad enough, but the water was/is disgustingly polluted. American maquiladoras rose on Mexican soil years ago as a way to bypass manufacturing regulations implemented in the United States. With so little oversight, the maquiladoras also freely dump their waste, including poisonous chemicals, directly into the river… the same one laboring women were walking through. On several occasions, we would give a river-soaked woman a shower before she felt clean enough to have her midwifery appointment or birth her baby.
I remember one visit down to the edge of the river to help a nursing mom up the slope, the surface of the water had an oil (or gasoline) slick on it as well as scum like this:
All because Border Patrol would feel holier-than-thou and not let people over the bridge even with valid visas.
I’ve not been to El Paso or Ciudad Juárez since 2002, but the border topic, with #45 in power, has a new focus.
Just this week, on February 22, 2017, the Washington Post wrote “Anxiety over Trump stems flood of Mexican shoppers to El Paso,” ending the piece with:
A U.S. border agent checking documents remarked at the lack of cars.
“People are scared,” he said, as he took this reporter’s and a photographer’s passports.
“Of our president,” he said, before sending us on our way.
Yes, those of us who have a positive history with immigrants in border towns are, most assuredly, very, very scared.