By Rev. Matt Koerber
I asked John Standridge to tell me about his life in Texas. John is a PCA pastor and a good friend from our time in Boston. He is a native of Texas and returned several years ago to work with a church plant. Although John doesn’t literally live on the U.S.-Mexico border, he lives a couple of hours’ drive away. More importantly, the community that he lives in is a “border crossing culture” with a significant Hispanic population. Many of the issues that seem distant to Pittsburghers are part of his everyday reality.
MK: You told me that you live only a few hours from the U.S.-Mexico border. How does immigration affect the makeup of your community? Are most immigrants in your community from Mexico?
JS: Yes. We live a little less than 250 miles from the border city of Ciudad Acuna, which is in the state of Coahuila. It's kind of challenging to talk about our community in terms of the usual associations we have with immigration, for the simple reason that we live in a part of the world which was for so long part of another country (most recently Mexico). As someone once told me, "My people never moved. It's the border that moved." This creates quite a different community dynamic from, say, Boston, Houston, or New York, which represent opportunity magnets for peoples all around the world. While the immigrant demographics of Cambridge, MA (where I used to live) was wildly diverse, it was that way because of the attraction of the universities, business opportunity, etc. In the town I live in, which is about one-third Hispanic (almost entirely of Mexican heritage), the connection is ancestral (i.e. they've always been here), familial (they come because they have family here), or economic (they’ve come to earn money to send back home).
MK: Do people tend to move back and forth across the border quite a bit or is it hard to do that? Once people arrive in the U.S. do they typically stay for good?
JS: People still go back and forth quite a bit. On the one hand, the back and forth is just the normal shopping/visiting family stuff that's always gone on. Any time we go to the mall in San Antonio (about an hour southeast of here), the parking lot has a good number of cars with Mexican license plates from some of the adjacent Mexican states (Coahuila and Tamaulipas mostly). At the same time, crossing is much harder than it used to be. Prior to 9/11 you didn't need a passport to cross the border. It was common to pop across for lunch, shopping, visiting friends and family with barely a nod to immigration authorities on either side. The realities that have come in the wake of 9/11 as well as the ascendence of the drug cartels has changed that immensely. I went across recently into a little town called Nuevo Progresso (south of Welsaco, TX, in Tamaulipas), and it was a breeze going into Mexico, but coming back was pretty onerous. There are not only tightened borders, but Border Patrol/immigration checkpoints at various spots along I-10 within the U.S, this has been pretty controversial but it makes the point that this country is very much vigilant about drug trafficking/illegal immigration. Because of this, illegal immigration is actually way down. My sense is that most people who come, come for stints of time, to earn a little money, with plans to return. There are, however many who have come and stayed, managing to function pretty well. This can get pretty complicated in the course of life. Some are illegal, but have children here. Many work in family businesses or even businesses that they have started. Many of them pay taxes, despite their illegal status. A lot of this stuff is changing in the current climate. There are a few local restaurants I frequent, and I have noticed since the election that they are down in staffing, with many of the regular employees no longer there. The rumor is that they were undocumented, and have now either returned to Mexico or decided to stay out of the public eye.
MK: From your perspective how do the lines between documented and undocumented immigrants break down?
JS: I have no idea what the percentages are, and I think it would be a hard thing to find out. There is nothing in place that would keep families from enrolling their kids in school, there are job opportunities, there are family connections, all of which make it less obvious who is documented and who is not.
MK: In what ways does the presence of immigrants impact the community as a whole?
JS: From a cultural standpoint, it certainly makes it richer. In other ways, it creates tension. The Anglo and Mexican-American communities coexist in our town, but there is little evidence of seeking connection. Apart from the school system, which necessitates integration, we are divided in the parts of town we live in, cultural values, where we worship, and in many cases, by language. I don't know if you're familiar with Colin Woodard's book "American Nations," but our little town of Kerrville, TX sits right on the fault line of "Greater Appalachia" and "El Norte." Greater Appalachia is largely born out of a Scots-Irish culture, suspicious of those perceived as outsiders, where identity is rooted in a kind of "warrior ethic" bolstered by a strong sense of personal sovereignty and independence. "El Norte" is the oldest of the American nations, running along the borderlands of the old Spanish colonial empire that took root in the late 16th century. This culture is more community-oriented, but in such a way that it values fierce independence, self-sufficiency, and hard work. While there is certainly tension between these communities, the deeper concern is how readily dismissive they can be of each other. Of course, there is also this deep irony in that those communities that are now cast as unwelcome/illegitimate (the Mexican-American culture) preceded the culture that is now in power. If you were to visit the Alamo in San Antonio, you would see that the defenders of it were an incredibly international group, but it seems to me that they cohered around a common enemy, more than a common interest.
MK: How does the Hispanic community relate to the dominant culture? What term do people use to describe the "white American culture"?
JS: Not being an insider of that culture, this is a hard one for me to answer. One thing that should be pointed out is that in many places in our region, the Anglo culture is not the dominant culture. In our community, which is about one-third Hispanic, on one level, you could be encouraged by the level of integration. The public life of our city churns with a mix of people going about their day, getting along, commonly contributing to its life in commerce, education, public service. On the other hand, my sense is that there is at best a reluctance to venture past the cultural bounds, and probably a pretty deep suspicion of the Anglo culture. This is lamentable, but to some degree understandable given not only the history, but the current climate especially in politics which are charged with fear-mongering related to immigration related issues.
MK: As a pastor, how do you try to interact with these issues in your ministry?
JS: In one sense, in my capacity as a minister of word and sacrament I continually unearth inescapable biblical themes that supremely bring to bear reconciliation, of being called together into Christ as "one new people," comprised of "every tribe, tongue, and nation." I see that at the heart of how we think about our relationship with God has immediate and palpable implications for how we relate to our neighbors. As Christians we are urged to remember our former alienation and hostility toward God and others, to the end that we would relish the grace that reconciled us not only to God, but has now related us to those we once despised and were suspicious of. I love Peter's phrase, that we are "elect exiles," called to love the home we've been called to for the time we're here, but to never lose sight of our fundamental loyalty to the Kingdom of God. This is not an easy issue to interact with in our context. I have people in my life who would celebrate a mass-deportation initiative, and I have others who have illegal immigrants in their family and are scared about what might happen to them. It seems to me that God has called me to sit in the tension of that, trusting the power of the gospel to change hearts, patiently pursuing folks even as I have been (and continue to be) patiently pursued by my faithful Savior.