Some say grace before meals. All right. But Pina says grace before the service and the showers, and grace before the covid-testing and the mopping, and grace before the meetings, and grace before cooking, counseling, teaching, playing, dancing, singing, and grace before she dips the ladle in the pot.
I rarely catch Pina as she moves between a busy morning (tending to sleepy-eyed children and their families) and a full afternoon (meeting with Don Manuel, Susana, and Alma Rosa). She moves constantly and constant, to-and-from, up-and-down, always with tenderness and tenacity, with a limitless reserve of patience and hospitality that evokes Hebrews 13:2: Be not forgetful to show hospitality to strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
She goes by many names. Before KBI opens, Victor will shout PINAAAA into the echoing building, when the comedor is still dark and asleep. The only other sounds are of the brassy beats of La Sonora Dinamita in the kitchen, of the stirrings of waking children, and cavernous mumbling. “Ya VOY,” responds a voice from deep within the albergue upstairs. Already Pina is mapping out chores on the white board for all guests of the shelter. The white board is practical not only for the migrants, but for me: it is the easiest way to remember all the names of newcomers.
Pina flies everywhere, her dark skirt swishing and in the same black jacket, like a dark seraph, up to the offices, the albergue, the cuarto frio. She stands on the stepstool stirring huevos a la Mexicana in big strokes, or slicing thin cucumbers, onions, and cherry tomatoes for salad in the albergue. She is there like the palpitating heart of Kino, two steps ahead of everyone and yet still appearing right behind as the support while others lead.
One late evening in the shelter, Luz Elena and Pina troop in, both decked in pajamas and armed with blankets. “Luz Elena has tested positive for COVID,” Pina announces. She will be quarantining in the back room. Pina carries the most and is bent over to push a stubborn, tiny space heater behind Luz Elena. The next morning, Pina is the first one there, trekking in with Engracia to evaluate Luz Elena’s progress. While Engracia prepares breakfast on the seafoam green glass plate, Pina takes off the morning to speak with her quarantined sister.
Once a day she becomes Pinita when, after those with normal schedules have long since eaten, the social worker pops in for her late breakfast. Bernie enters the kitchen with her bold confidence, affectionate warmth, and her ubiquitous “Pinita!” I never met someone who likes sunflowers as much as I do until I met Bernie. In the encuestas, it is easy to tell an inquiring migrant, “See her, the one with the sunflower earrings? That is who you will talk to, don’t worry.” And Bernie will swoop in with her beautiful earrings like an angel seeking landing.
On Tuesdays, Pina becomes definitively Peeena by the hard “p” sound of gringo voices enunciating with alacrity “Heey, Peeena!” She steers into the kitchen on Tuesday morning just as I am easing out the kitchen entrance sideways like a crab. A little too many people, too many voices, and way too many knives. “Heey, Peeena!” The volunteers form a colorful patchwork: yellow mandils, the ubiquitous red short-sleeve t-shirt, khaki pants, white sneakers, faded baseball caps covering white hair cropped close, and pink skin of jaws in earnest, open smiles.
The kitchen becomes a chaotic mix of English and Spanish and shouts for ten-a-doors and pa-peen-o and agh-wah. Pee-car the onions. Pee-lar the papas. Some volunteers tower over Pina, but she looks so centered in herself that she carries an effect of density, for even as she flits back and forth between the cocina and the albergue and the comedor, one knows immediately that she does not stumble. A volunteer calls for more agua, and the Tuesday tortilla delivery is late. It is useless to speculate whether she is a gentle sister and consistent marshal: she is both.
Still more call her madre. During morning services that last deep into the afternoon, she wears Madre with a gracious composure and pure Ignatian indifference, cognizant of both its potency and the gratitude with which migrants address her. “Madre,” the other madres call her. But she never chastises them, she does not waste time with false humility.
“Lupita,” I ask while washing dishes one day, “what do you call Hermana Pina?”
Lupita shrugs, “Madre.”
“What should I call her?”
She shrugs again, “Whatever you would like to call her.”
Pina rushes into the kitchen.
“Hola, Madre,” sings out Lupita to which la madre responds with an equally indignant salute:
These are the bonds between women: the way they salute each other, the way female volunteers remember to give combs and hair ties after newly arriving women shower. The way they ask about children, the way they compare recipes from home. The way they braid each other’s hair, or bend their heads together and speak in soft voices. The way they whisper: it is not your fault, you are strong because you made it here, mira, you made it all the way to here, there is something divine inside of you.
One morning a woman sits down in front of me for an encuesta and she will not stop crying. Her name is Catarina. Her family will later test positive for Covid and be shelved in the upper room, where we will hear her moan in pain and pray for days straight. But right now, she is on the metal bench across from me. The plastic table-top sneeze guard separates us, and she cannot stop crying. I am trying to flag down someone, anyone, god anyone, where is the box of tissues, somebody find me an angel, can we get a damn tissue box over here. I push the plastic sneeze guard away to the side to grasp both her shuddering hands.
Then suddenly Bernie is there, miraculous Bernie. She swoops in, fluttering down from God-knows-where and she sits next to the slightly bent woman shuddering tiny Catarina-sized shudders.
Bernie leans in close to her, takes hold of one of the feeble hands, and speaks softly, quietly. I am very aware of the slick sweat of my own hand still holding Catarina’s other. The way my back arches awkwardly over the table to reach her. The damp heat of my mask. Today Bernie is wearing big, white circular earrings with tiny doves in the middle, and the doves whisper silently, too, into Catarina’s ear. Minutes pass.
Bernie’s whole demeanor is relaxed. She holds this feeble woman like a duckling.
She holds babies born in Nogales like this, too.
The migrants ask her, “Do you have kids?”
When she says no, they invariably comment, “Oh, why not? You’re thirty!”
“I have 400 migrants here!” she says, laughing and earrings jangling.
Bernie proffers another Kleenex, and we exchange glances once the sobs dribble away and Catarina sniffs and declares she is ready. Bernie informs her that she will answer just as a few teensy questions, she is in good hands, she is strong, she has made it here to Kino, that is something, that is a feat in itself, she is a woman of courage.
Bernie whispers and the dove earrings bob up and down. Then extending invisible wings, she sails back into the morning fray. I let go of Catarina’s hand, the one that I have held since her first tear, and I begin, “Can you tell me your complete name?”
These are the bonds: the way that we draw new borders, wider borders, to encompass one other, to grow space to listen to one other.
Bernie says that this is what it is all about. Not that Catarina will remember us, but she will remember that there were people who listened to her. “That’s when they feel they’re accompanied,” she tells me one day when we are talking about the migrants. “There’s a lot of love,” she says. “And that’s what we need. We need people talking about love with other people.” She keeps at it, profetizando love. “I’m grateful,” she reflects.
These are the bonds: the way women talk about love with each other. The way they tell their own stories and how they tell new ones.
Now that Maria is out of quarantine, she washes her children’s clothes in the pila with a whap, whap, whap. She is reserved, warm, motherly. Later she will become the matriarch to all the young women in the shelter, as if nothing were more natural than for her to drape her wings over her young brood. She does this without asking for it, without complaining, as if it were pure fact that she is loving and generous, and it cannot be contained. She chooses to be happy when she has every right to be sad.
We wash together, sharing space punctuated by silence. She methodically twists each piece of clothing before slapping it clean onto the clothesline. We wash. Whap, whap, whap, whap.
She occasionally speaks about what she hopes for in the US. She is intensely specific, the classes and teachers her son will have in this wonderful place to which they are going. She describes it down to the last detail so that if she can get it absolutely perfect, she will be lifted out of Nogales and set down into that place she’s been telling me about, where all the wishes will come true. With enough detail, then surely she will get to live into the story she paints for herself. She shares these hopes with the women upstairs in the shelter, and they listen. We cling to the hopeful tales that give form to a reality that is not here yet.
Once I am sitting at the brown table, eating, of course, I am always eating if I can help it, when a woman draws near. I need to tell you something. The woman appears fresh from an encuesta with one of the male volunteers and holds her red tarjeta as evidence. She is good to go. She has received encuesta, ropa, desayuno. But now she draws near. She does not want to tell the male interviewer something, and yet, she desires someone to know, a woman to know, a woman to hear her.
I need to tell you something. I swivel on the bench to face her. We bend our heads together like swans. These are the bonds: the ways in which we encircle one another with care and love. We hold stories of sexual assault with quiet “Mmmms.” This is the way we break down walls.
Bernie tells me, “Well, you know something, when I started working, I was told once ‘Oh, if you cannot do this from now to 4:00pm, it’s okay, you call the sisters.’”
“Yeah, but it’s their day off,” Bernie had responded.
“Yeah, but that’s their work. They have to be available all the time.”
Bernie shakes her head at me, no, she didn’t and doesn’t agree.
She leans in toward me: “I see them dying every day, doing everything they can. They never stop. They have to be solving all the problems.”
When I send a message to Hermana Pina late at night, I wonder if she is off-duty, maybe calling family, or resting, or doing anything but thinking about the comedor.
That afternoon, she and I were in the kitchen. She passed me the keys to the comedor and reviewed the scrap paper in her hand that charts the number of people in each room. Her mask was flopped open (the one that Maritza made: white cloth embroidered with a pink butterfly swirling above twin sunflowers). She took a sip from the water bottle. Make sure to turn off the gas when you’re done. Have a good evening and send a message if you need anything.
Now, late at night, I text Pina from the shelter: La puerta del baño en el cuarto filtro se cerró por dentro. Hay llaves?
A moment passes and a text dings!
Emmm…ahorita voy a abrirla jeje
Pina arrives in the car a few minutes later, now donning pink sweatpants and swinging the lanyard of keys. She fixes the problem, unlocks the door, becomes caught up in children’s delight of her unexpected arrival, and allows herself to be delayed in her departure home.
To the children in the shelter, Pina is la hermana, and they always sniff her out for a snack or to show off a Crayola picture.
“Quien busca?” I say to them while chopping cucumber.
“La hermana,” they answer. Their bodies wag back and forth in the threshold of the kitchen door in anticipation.
“You mean Pina?”
“Aren’t you all going to sing in the Sunday choir?” I ask.
“What choir?” they chirp.
“The one that you sang in last week during the Sunday prayer.”
“Ooooh,” they answer. “The one with la hermana.”
“Yes,” I say.
“Oh, yes, of course! The one with la hermanaaaaa.”
When I arrive home from the night shift, I message, Gracias Pina.
She responds: Praying hands emoji. Pina’s texts nearly always include her emoji of choice: two brown hands at prayer.
On October 16th, I write, Pina!!!!! Nos vemos en diciembre!!
And she responds: prayinghandsprayinghandsprayinghandsprayinghandsprayinghands prayinghandsprayinghands prayinghandsprayinghandsprayinghandsprayinghands
If you don’t pay attention, you can miss how the visible moments of ordinariness reveal the invisible realities of grace.
Dissect the sinews of systems, pull apart protocol and process, investigate each angle of the institution, and you will find at its heart are women. The ever-present, elastic, ebullient engine of Kino. Pina energizes her team members to take initiative, to operate without her. Nudges Tachita, Pide perdon, no permiso. Just do it. Bernie teaches delight, over and over again. Winks knowingly. Lupita defends joy. Alma nurtures seed-like hope. Mónica grounds and sustains it. Praying hands. Praying hands. Praying hands.
On a day of hot blue sky, I am upstairs with the women when Bernie visits us. We have melted into sticky plastic mattresses, and I am conjoined to the cool metal of the bunk bed’s blue pole chatting with little concern for time. Nearby, kids buzz about oblivious to the heat; nothing assuages their boundless fount of energy. Despite their circumstances, they seem no less content than other children, though some are quiet. One has the loveliest face of any child I have ever seen.
It is past three and the front door is closed, the day is over for all but Bernie. Her upstairs visit merely signals a brief reprieve from a hard case. She swings lightly onto the nearest blue mattress in her tight jeans, heeled boots, and dangly earrings and breathes out, “Whooooh.” And she starts to talk. Not with “how are you?” Neither superficial chatter nor orderly questioning, but with compañerismo, with ease and fluidity born of deep care and compassion.
Soon the children race to Bernie, a new victim! They proffer a soccer ball, and she accepts, heeled boots and all. She laughingly drags herself to her feet again, shaking off the weight of a difficult case, and the kids insist on where she stands and where to pass. She makes a good-natured show of being overwhelmed by their superior skills and they delight at each fumbled pass. The hollow sound of her heels clack on the floor.
They form a funny sight indeed. Everyone becomes invested, and Bernie follows the kids move for move, pass for pass. Soon, the women are sitting up, and the gravitational pull of Bernie unsticks them from the mattresses. Some days a woman is strong enough to play soccer, and other days it leads her to a place of painful memory. It depends on the afternoon. Today, all the women are playing, raucously and righteously.
I am stuck immobile to my pole, cognizant of a certain electricity occurring, a kind of border crossing, between Bernie and the women. Their armpits form little lines of sweat, but the most joyful is Bernie herself, with her clacking heels and dangerously tight jeans. An awful lot may be said about Bernie’s extraordinary acts of social work at the comedor. But even more is to be said about her inconspicuous ones.
Watching them play soccer, I would like to tell each of them that she will have every detail of her dream fulfilled. I would like to see each cross through the port of entry with their children. But if I am no longer here to see it, that is all right, too. In this moment, they are playing soccer. There is an immense gratitude for being here, for being. Joy is not so much spectacular as it is commonplace.
When they stop, Bernie is laughing, and the women are gasping for breath and laughing, too, and it is the kind of laughter that is dangerously, beautifully close to crying. A kind of paradise askance.
One day, Alma, Bernie, and Pina all sit on the same side of the brown table to finish breakfast together. It is the Holy Trinity of sorority.
“Hold that for just a second!” I blurt.
I whip out my phone, and they all lean in with glowing smiles.
Snap! goes the camera. A charming trinity.
Then Pina jabs at Bernie, and the static trinity becomes fluid; the three burst into laughter, swaying outward with glee, and ruining the picture.
Snap! goes the camera again.
I keep the latter photo on my desk. Mouths open, masks flapping, eyes crinkled, backs arched. A messy trinity. An exhausted trinity. An incarnational trinity.
Pina always says that she finds God en medio de las dificultades. In the middle of the messiness and the exhaustion, there is something divine. The presence of God becomes incarnate. There is still joy.
Once Pina invited me to participate in a virtual workshop in the Save the Children space. She is there, with Victor, Bernie, and Alma Rosa, though we are sick of virtual workshops. By the time a recalcitrant sound system is rebooted for the third time, the on-screen facilitator serenely narrates a dynamica that instructs us to crouch on the floor like turtles. It is an exercise that summons the absurd.
My knees scoop into turtle-form beside Pina. In her mint green polo, she looks exactly like a turtle. Bernie in her tight jeans snuggles beside her like a tiny, gray pebble. The serene voice of the facilitator encourages moderate breathing. But not for those two. They are snickering, and soon, little spurts of chuckles spill out of their masks like contagions. They nudge one another. Bump one another. Nearby, Alma Rosa stifles a giggle.
The facilitator drones on, oblivious. In one particularly loud thump, Pina and Bernie both split open and collapse onto each other in a heap of hooting laughter.
Now we are all set loose: roaring, guffawing, wheezing, sobbing into the squishy floor of Save the Children. A chaotic cacophony of chortles drowns out Zoom. My forehead crinkles with joy and presses deeper into the sticky floor.
Sometimes moments of grace hit like a kick in the belly, leaving you wheezing, helpless, and in rapt delight in the presence of what is good and grace-filled. The more you pay attention to joy, Pina and Bernie teach me, the more you find an abundance of it around you.
In a place where joy and suffering batter one’s heart, we need someone to defend the worth (and wound) of loving deeply. When I face Pina, sometimes it is hard to tell when she is joking and when she is serious because she is so often both at the same time. There is a kind of hidden paradise under her obsidian eyes, as if she has caught onto something that the rest of us are still coming to terms with: that what is most holy might be right in front of us in things as ordinary as tortillas and beans.
Bob once told me that it is the sisters’ capacity for holding suffering and joy together at once that keeps him at the comedor, what inspires him, what sustains him. Negotiate between faith and sober reality. Labor and rest. Cry out with grief and then with joy.
Pina drives me home from Kino in the dark of Nogales in the sisters’ car, the one with the glass window smashed out from a stray bullet from New Year’s. The car is filled with diesel fumes and makes guzzling sounds. Our hearts are heavy, but we are laughing about something so minute that it will be forgotten by tomorrow.
Sometimes what migrants bring to KBI is overwhelming. Sometimes it is too painful to hold alone. So we seek out what is hopeful in each other. Tachita says one Sunday that she feels she can only offer a tiny smile to others. That is enough. Bernie tells me she finds God in the sisters. I have never known Pina to turn away from suffering to not find God right there alongside with her. “En medio de todas las dificultades,” she repeats.
God just keeps showing up, even in small, quotidian ways. Especially in small, quotidian ways.
I turn the little photo of Bernie, Alma, and Pina over and over in my hands. Take that one moment and protect it. Pay attention to detail, to the moment where great awareness of tiny things brings delight. Play constantly that one song that is delightful. Over and over. Guard that one relationship with your life. I think of the little trinity’s elbow jabs, embraces, and ebullience that crack us open to receive and perceive joy. You know, if you look at one thing of tiny delight long and hard enough, you learn how to be in love with life all over again.
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