Sister María Engracia Robles Robles, M.E., has been present at KBI since the very beginning. She has worked with migrants in Nogales even before the formal inception of KBI, and here she shares what the work looked like prior to the official inauguration of KBI.
Engracia Robles is a Missionary Sister of the Eucharist who has been at KBI since its inception. She is familiar to migrants, volunteers, and the broader community for the many roles she plays within KBI: in education and human rights, on the Nogales radio, her social media updates, and her unceasing steadfastness to the border and migrant rights. Engracia shared about the earliest days of the work and accompaniment that has grown significantly since its early days, a reflection of the vision and labor of so many people.
In the early 2000s, the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist worked in Nogales through a partnership with the Tucson-based educational nonprofit BorderLinks. The sisters—Engracia among them—led school and church groups from around the U.S. in tandem with the Arizona-based staff. At the same time, the sisters and other Nogales residents were becoming increasingly aware of the presence of migrants in the city, particularly those who had just been deported from the U.S. after attempting to migrate through the desert. In 2006 and 2007, Engracia said, the need was increasing, and a group of neighborhood women responded by cooking a big meal once a month and bringing it to migrants under the Mariposa bridge, just yards north of the current comedor.
By 2007, Engracia—along with her coworkers Jacobina and Noemi—decided to support the work that local residents had begun the previous year by providing food the other days of the month. They lived and cooked in a small house—provided by the Nogales, Sonora-based organization HEPAC—on the edges of the city, and transported the food to the area underneath the bridge for the hundreds of migrants who arrived daily. There were only a handful of people cooking, transporting, and serving the food, and so there was often not enough to feed everyone as much as they needed or wanted. When the sisters ran out of food, they would drive back to their house, cook more, and then come back to the bridge to keep serving, and it was in that way that thousands of migrants were fed and received.
Engracia said that even though the work was long and difficult, she, her coworkers, and locals were “sustained by the fervor, enthusiasm, and energy of looking for a way forward.” Engracia developed relationships with local parishes, who provided some financial support, as did a company called Impresas Sonorenses, who donated 2,000 pesos/month (approximately $120 at current exchange rates). Area bakeries provided the tortillas, and No More Deaths stepped in to offer cooking oil and beans. Simultaneously, however, the Nogales, Sonora police removed the meal operation from under the bridge, saying it was a safety and traffic hazard. The setback didn’t stop the sisters, though—they took their operation on the road, with daily stops at Grupos Beta as well as the “Fronteriza” bus station. This experience had also convinced Engracia that a permanent space was necessary, and so she went every week to the municipal government—“insisting and insisting,” as she describes it—for their assistance with a building.
Her tactic and persistence worked. On May 30, 2008, the building where the comedor now stands was inaugurated. The municipal government built the structure of the space, with a roof and bathrooms. There were no real walls and no furniture, and so the sisters and their community partners outfitted the space with whatever they could find. In the monsoon season, the rain would flood in from the hilltop and cover the floors; people ate with pools of water at their feet. There was no protection from the sun and heat, either, or anything to warm the space in the winter. It wasn’t much, Engracia recalls, but “everyone had a place to sit…and people often said that they felt as if they were among family when they entered there.”
At the same time that this work and advocacy was occurring, the Jesuit Province of California had committed to working with immigrants, and was beginning a process to determine where the need was greatest and where their presence would be most useful. They carried out a needs-assessment survey at multiple sites along the border and in the Southwestern U.S. over the course of a year. In Nogales, the Jesuits had connected with the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist to collaborate on the study, which was carried out locally by then-Sister Noemi and assisted by Engracia and Jacobina.
After careful review of community responses and where their presence would be of most benefit, Nogales was selected as the site where the Jesuits would commit to their border project. They partnered with the sisters to create a binational and multi-dimensional organization, and four additional partners joined the California Province of the Jesuits and the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist in the creation of the Kino Border Initiative: the Archdiocese of Hermosillo, the Diocese of Tucson, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, and the Mexican Province of the Society of Jesus. The three areas of priorities that emerged from the study were humanitarian aid, education with communities on both sides of the border, and collaborative advocacy to transform immigration policies. These areas of focus are the same ones that form the mission of KBI to this day.
As we move into the new facility and celebrate all of the possibilities that it holds—more comfortable spaces for migrants, staff and volunteers; a space for migrants to sleep; private rooms to process emotional challenges and trauma; and classrooms to build upon skills for workforce integration; among others—it is an apt time to honor the work of all those who made this space possible. There are thousands of people whose time, vision, and experiences have led us to our current space of growth and celebration. As we prepare to expand and reflect on the significance of this moment, we give thanks for the migrants, students, volunteers, donors, groups who have visited, our neighborhood partners, Jesuits, and the sisters—among so many others—who have guided the way.