Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Tree is Weeping

 Last weekend I had the opportunity to travel back to the US-Mexico border with a group from Xavier University and Bellarmine Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio. When the immersion trip presented itself I was excited to revisit the space that was so special to me and instrumental to my growth in the past year. This time however I visited the other end of the border - the one between Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. We were only there for three days, but I experienced and learned more about the immigration crisis in three days than I thought possible.

But those stories are for another time. Today I want to tell you about a tree I encountered in the desert. On Sunday our group took a hike on some migrant trails. We were walking in the footsteps of those who are fleeing to freedom in the US. These migrant bands are often led by a guide from the Mexican Mafia. Our guide was Fr. Pete, who had spent the last 9 years exploring these paths and seeking to understand the migrant journey. Our group of 8 struggled to keep up with him as we passed through thorny bushes, overgrown grasses, and sandy riverbeds.

We finally arrived at a space that looked like it was once an overnight camp for a band of migrants. There were backpacks, sweaters, tin cans, and other debris all around us. As we took in the scene, we imagined what could have happened here and who could have been here. What were their stories? Why were they crossing? Did they make it? I noticed a little girl's pink sweater by the tree and thought, someone brought their daughter. The rusty cans told us they ate here, and the black bottles were a sign they had water with them. But why did they leave their things here? Did they get caught? Did they need to lighten their load to continue the journey? How would I decide what to leave and what to take with me?

As I played these scenarios in my mind and continued to take it all in, Fr. Pete also commented on what could have happened in this space. "We will never know what really happened here, but I do know that this was an overnight camp because when I first found this place there were women's panties and bras hanging on that tree." I looked where he pointed and found a tall-for-the-desert tree, about twice my height. It was gnarled and had some low hanging branches parallel to the ground. Its bark was dark and textured and all of the leaves were gone from its branches. Fr. Pete continued, "that is probably what we call a rape tree." The name "rape tree" tore through the sacredness of the space and I closed my eyes to brace myself for the next words. I guessed what would come next, but I didn't want it to be true. "The guides lead bands through, and when they stop, they rape the women and put their undergarments on a tree as a kind of trophy."

The "rape tree"
A wash of sadness, anger, and horror overtook my being and I couldn't listen anymore. I wanted to cry, to scream, to curl up in a ball. How could I live in a world where this happens, where I let this happen? When given time for reflection I started walking toward the tree. I had to get closer. As the trunk came into view I noticed a patch running up and down the tree that was darker than the rest. It glistened in the sun as if it were wet. Was it sap? Water? Char from a fire?

The tree is weeping.
I had no way of knowing, but what I do know is: the tree is weeping. Weeping for the violation it witnessed, weeping for the women who had no choice but to submit themselves, weeping for the guide's need to exert power over another. The tree is weeping, and I wept with the tree.

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