Freedom

We watch from the sidewalk, our chairs pulled out from the patio and close to the road to feel the breeze. Across the neighborhoods and above the dividing wall, we can see the fireworks of an Independence Day celebration in El Paso, Texas. It’s any other hot day in Ciudad Juarez. Mexico won’t celebrate her independence until September.

 Although it isn’t a holiday here, it’s been a good day. About thirty kids came this morning. We read books, some reading to little ones, some struggling to read to me. An older adolescent or two pretended to read the kiddie books so they could stay for the other activities. They were too old to be there, but I won’t run off a child who wants to be a part, pretending or not. Just wish I could get them lost in a chapter book.

After the reading part, we did jigsaw puzzles, learned to play checkers, colored dot-to-dots and paint-by-numbers with the color words in English. Then some jumped rope, single and as a group. We made a new recipe of slime that didn’t turn out too great, so I told them to leave it until the next day. Maybe I could salvage it. There were Connect Four and Guess Who challenges. I let them play while hearing my name called a million times. Then they lined up, chose three books to take home, and received a cross-in-your-pocket quilt patch some friends had made plus a cookie from South Korea from some of my English students back home. The kids chanted the three rules, “Read them, care for them, return them,” and they were gone.

Exhausted, I raked my hand across the back of my neck. A ninety-five-degree day with a breeze carrying sand from the desert mixed with sweat and sunscreen to form a gritty mess. I reorganized the materials for the next day as a few boys stayed to fold the tables.  Tomorrow we would paint wooden fish from Dirt-Cheap with a nightlight attached. I want them to remember God loves them, and they can be the light for someone else. Maybe they will remember.

After a lunch of eggs and beans, I set out to visit some of the families. Last year, one family lost a child to a tick bite, another to accidental electrocution. Isn’t life hard enough for them already, Lord?

As I walk the streets, I hear my name called each time the kids see me again. Dogs roam or collapse in spots of shade. Others are tied, never getting to run free.  Trash blows down the streets and swirls around the pallet shacks. The constant smell of tortillas warming on a comal wafts through the hot air.

The first family I visit lives in a one-room shack of pallets and tarps with a dirt floor. An outhouse is right outside the door. They had to dig the hole. It’s not a port-a-john. Uncovered water barrels hold their weekly supply, and a hundred yards of cable connect them to the closest power pole.

“Buenas tardes, Señora,” I say. I learn she is the grandmother. The kids are gone with their mom to try to find a school with room to register the kids. It still surprises me that it’s a struggle for newcomers to find a space. Many times, they are wait-listed. I ask about needs, and she smiles.

“¿Todo?” I ask.

Todo,” she says still smiling. She needs everything. Later I’ll bring her some sheets and towels a church has given me. I give her a quilt square and move on.

Later that night, as we watch the fireworks, the señora walks up with another lady and her teenaged daughter. “I told her to come meet you. She needs diapers for her daughter,” she tells me.

“How old is she?” I ask.

“She’s seventeen,” she says, and I realize she is talking about the tall girl with her.

“What’s your name?” I ask.

“Liset.”

“How old are you?”

“Eight,” she answers, smiling.

I promise her mom some adult diapers and add them to my list for S-Mart and for future donation requests. Again, I think, “Lord, don’t they already suffer enough?”

The next afternoon, I deliver the diapers, and the sheets and towels, and find another family who needs help with bus fare to get their rebellious teenaged daughter home from her father’s house in Baja. I give the mom half of the bus fare and lend her my small suitcase. She will ride for over twenty-four hours to get her daughter only to turn around and ride over twenty-four back. Hopefully the girl has learned the grass isn’t always greener with her papá.

 A hot storm blows in bringing dirt and pollution before finally bringing the relief of rain.  The sun shines through it all. A brilliant rainbow stretches across the sky. We will trust in you, Lord. Use us to relieve the suffering of this world.

That evening we walk to the park. A band is playing, and several tables are set up selling snacks and drinks, elotes and aguas. They will be here all weekend to raise money for one of their own with cancer. Yes, sadly the big C word also walks into the lives of those with the least means to fight it. “Lord, don’t they suffer enough?”

But I look around at the happy faces, the slower lifestyle, the large extended families, and I wonder if maybe we aren’t the ones long-suffering.

Happy Independence Day.

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