Fenced in by the El Paso Police Department, September 12, 2017
I’m back. After a two month absence from Fierce Fronteriza, I am back, writing and reflecting on life on the border.
You know the cliché life happens? It’s true. Life happened to me, all around me, and it forced me to stop and consider how to take care of myself in the midst of trauma.
Just days after my last blog post in September, I found myself fenced in by the El Paso Police Department, many in riot gear, with a group of El Pasoans protecting a historic, low income, mostly immigrant, largely Mexican American community from demolition.
For over a year, I have worked with the residents of Barrio Duranguito in El Paso’s southside as part of a grassroots organization, Paso del Sur. My life has centered on a small neighborhood, once known as the First Ward, whose historic and architectural significance is well-known to scholars in the area but is denied by our City Council, their staff, and their friends, the wealthy real estate developers.
Stopping the bulldozers the night of September 11, 2017. Photo courtesy of Paso del Sur.
The night of September 11, bulldozers arrived in the neighborhood and were stopped by residents and supporters. That evening, three El Paso appellate judges signed an order saying the City must stop any demolition of the neighborhood, pending the resolution of litigation in the courts. I arrived at Firemen’s Memorial Park in the barrio in time for the celebration.
The next morning on my way to work, I decided to drive by the barrio to do a welfare check only to find that demolition was underway. A demolition company, hired by the property owners of much of Chihuahua Street, was conducting a drive-by demolition, causing damage to numerous buildings between 7 and 7:30 when I arrived.
First photo of the drive-by demolition. Photo courtesy of Paso del Sur.
Despite the arrival of one of the legal team, with order in hand, the men continued ramming the buildings until we called the police. The police stopped everything until they could verify the order. Soon almost a hundred supporters arrived and in the 95 degree heat, we tried our best to stop the company from putting up fences around the buildings in order to continue the demolition.
I look back on my Facebook Live videos from that morning and the events of that day are almost unreal.
Rather than fence the partially destroyed buildings in order to keep us safe, the police assisted the demolition company in fencing us in with the buildings. We were not allowed to leave and return. Once we passed outside the make shift gate, we had to remain outside, away from the buildings. We chose to remain inside since it was clear that the City didn’t respect the court order. This meant that we had not access to bathroom facilities, to places to sit, to food. The police allowed water in, but nothing else.
At one point in the afternoon, over thirty policemen appeared in riot gear and they were intimidating. Yet, they had fenced us in. People of all ages, all genders, all physical shapes, and many of us dressed to go to work. We were anything but threatening. We heard they had planned to tear gas us.
Looking back, I wondered how could they do this legally? Why would they do this? We were not breaking the law. The property owners were. The City of El Paso was. The demolition company was. We were stopping an illegal demolition, yet one City Council rep brought food for the police officers while they denied us food. Some of my friends were manhandled by the police and they still feel the physical aftereffects.
Every day for exactly two weeks after this, I cried. I remember it was exactly 14 days and then I didn’t cry about it again. But what remained with me for two months was weariness, exhaustion, and a painful flair up of fibromyalgia. My neck has hurt so much since that day that I can barely turn side to side.
Don Aurelio, elder from Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl, 2005.
In our traditional teachings, susto is a response to a traumatic experience. We lose a part of ourselves. One of my maestras, Elena Avila, talked about how susto manifests itself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It is a loss of part of one’s soul and it must be retrieved.
I remember years ago being in the home of an elder in Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl in Morelos, Don Aurelio. He is a well-known and widely respected curandero, granicero, and community leader. One day, he showed us a jar with some dark liquid. It was one of his remedies against susto and it was made of many different poisonous insects: centipedes and spiders and other venomous creatures. Honestly, it looked horrible.
Don Aurelio asked if I wanted to be treated for susto and I said I did. I didn’t particularly feel like I was suffering from susto but I knew enough to realize that we could be traumatized and not consciously know it. And I knew that I had experienced enough trauma in my life to have susto. Don Aurelio stood behind me, lifted up my hair, and put some of the venomous insect liquid on the back of my neck. I thought, I don’t feel anything. I don’t think anything is happening.
When I saw the photos that my friends had taken, my eyes had rolled back in my head. Clearly, something was happening.
I thought about that today, about how events leave us asustados and then the susto begins to feel normal and then, as in my case, I just live with the pain and the weariness and the feeling of exhaustion. I thought about how the susto of that day has affected me for two months and how difficult it is in this state to do something about it.
The beautiful thing about community, however, is that we don’t always have to do things by ourselves and in the midst of this trauma, I have been loved and brought into ceremonia and cared for so that I can start coming back to myself. And that’s where I am- trying to come back to myself, to retrieve the part of my fierceness that was torn away from me that day, exactly two months ago today.
Singing and praying and remembering myself back into wholeness, day by day.