What's faith got to do with it?

Dear friends of Bare Bones,

This week, we have a reported essay from Kip about migration, witness and faith in South Texas, and a recipe for hearty Tex-Mex chili to carry you through this (hopefully) final stretch of winter.

Want to learn more about food, culture and migration throughout history? Join us on St. Patrick’s Day for a live conversation about the events, flavors and people who have shaped Irish-America. Details and guest speakers to come.

Bare Bones features weekly-ish essays on food, family and what nourishes us from Beth Dooley and Kip Dooley. You can subscribe or share what they’re cooking below:

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Abundance and destitution are two facets of the one face of God, and to be spiritually alive in the fullest sense is to recall one when we are standing squarely in the midst of the other.

-Christian Wiman

Falfurrias, Texas looks, in many ways, like a typical small American town of the 2020’s: neighborhoods of bungalow homes and trailers surrounding a single main street, intersected by a highway. There’s a dollar store, a gas station, a breakfast joint with killer tacos and bottomless coffee, a Whattaburger, a war memorial, and a lot of empty storefronts.

I’ve come to south Texas with my friend Sam, to assist with an episode for his podcast, American Refugee. The show features stories of people who have fled their homes and braved oceans, deserts, smugglers, and the ruthless whims of politicians, to come to the United States. 

I’ve been wanting to visit the southern borderlands for years now and, pandemic notwithstanding, the time feels right. The migration crisis is one of many that has remained abstract in my mind, insulated as I am by so many layers of privilege, and it’s now the start of Lent, a time to face emptiness and suffering, our own and others, and to keep watch for what visions and questions emerge. It’s a time to witness.

We’re going to meet Eddie Canales, a fourth-generation tejano who spends his days, and often his nights, surveying a landscape of emptiness and suffering and doing what he can to protect migrants from Latin America as they attempt to cross it.

At any given moment, just miles from the hum and glow of U.S. 281, groups of migrants move swiftly by night through thickets of mesquite, chaparral and oak, hiding by day in the shade of those thickets, or in deer hunting stands, or by burying themselves in the sand. They’re attempting to walk around the final Customs and Border Patrol checkpoint, just south of Falfurrias, on their journey to San Antonio, Houston and beyond. They come from as far as El Salvador and Honduras, surviving cramped train rides, stash houses, and extortion at the hands of cartel-backed coyotes. But this final 25-mile walk through the brush might be the most dangerous stretch of their journey. Each year, hundreds die of dehydration or hypothermia.

You can support the South Texas Human Rights Center by donating, volunteering or simply spreading the word about their work. Learn more here.

We arrive at night, passing a white water tower on the edge of town. “Falfurrias Fightin’ Jerseys” it reads in green block letters. The nickname, Eddie tells us, comes from the Jersey cow creamery that was once the region’s economic anchor. “The cream is gone and the cattle’s gone, but the people still love their Jerseys,” he says as he welcomes us into the South Texas Human Rights Center, a three-room brick building with the shades drawn and a neon blue “Open” sign glowing in the night.

Above an old fireplace hangs a green and red fleece blanket with the Virgin Mary, one of several blessed mothers in the room, amidst migrant rights banners, shelves with old board games, and dozens of blue milk crates holding plastic 2-gallon jugs of water. “I’m not real religious,” he says, nodding at the Marys, “but she’s big down here.” Just then he answers his phone in Spanish. “Guatemala,” he tells us a few moments later. “Her sister crossed three days ago. Hasn’t heard from her since.”

As Eddie fields the call, Sam and I examine a large map of Brooks County pinned to a corkboard by the kitchen. The county is 944 square miles, most of it private ranchland. There’s Ramirez, Johnson, Wagenschein, Singer, Hinojosa, Los Compadres, among others, and the two largest by far, Cage and Jones. Thumbtacks mark the water stations Eddie keeps stocked with the 2-gallon jugs, nearly 50 in all, blue barrels of the sort you might toss your trash into at a concert or cookout. Tiny black stars mark on the map where bodies or remains of migrants have been discovered – at least 800 since 2009. On average over the course of the past nine years, a body has been found at least once a week, often by the ranchers as they graze their cattle or lead hunting trips.

Eddie wraps up his call with the Guatemalan woman, his tone kind and matter-of-fact, like a town doctor explaining a prescription. Tomorrow, he’ll call Border Patrol to see if her sister has been picked up, then visit the ranches near her last known location. Sam and I will tag along and help restock the water stations.

The next morning, we visit Brooks County Sheriff Benny Martinez, a forty year veteran of state and local law enforcement in an all-denim get-up with pearl snap buttons. He sports a graying, well-coiffed mullet.

First elected sheriff by just 40 votes, he says he spent his first term proving to the locals “this is a guy who really listens.” After winning his second term by a landslide, his office was flooded in 2012 with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests about his department’s protocols for handling migrant deaths. They all came from some guy named Eddie Canales.

“I had no staff for it, no capacity,” says Benny. His team was already overwhelmed with cartel shootings, knifings, drug deals, not to mention human trafficking. He says an average day at the Falfurrias courthouse sees 70 to 80 cases.

Eddie dropped in one day to see about those FOIAs, with a paralegal in tow. Benny told him the situation, and said “how can we resolve this?” They began working together to create missing persons reports, and found a forensic anthropologist from Texas State University to identify remains and notify families of the deceased. After a few months, Benny introduced Eddie to some local ranchers, many of whom agreed to put water stations on their land. “If he’s good with Benny, he’s good with me,” the sheriff recalls ranchers saying.

Human rights activists and researchers say this level of collaboration is rare, and ought to be replicated across border states. “It all happened in stages,” says Benny. “I sometimes have to remind Eddie of my role as law enforcement. He’s human rights, I’m law enforcement...it’s all built on mutual respect.”

Since 2009, Benny’s office has kept meticulous record of each migrant death in a stack of white binders, each as thick as a phonebook. Flipping through them, we see skulls, femur bones, teeth, and bodies of migrants splayed out on their backs, or curled up in fetal positions. One man had stripped nearly all of his clothing. “It’s not a good way to go out there in the brush. When you die of dehydration, you know that it’s coming.”

There are plenty of things Benny wishes were different: more legal ports of entry, better wages for migrant workers, national immigration policy responsive to local needs. The Biden Administration has promised more resources and better collaboration with local officials, but with natural disasters and political instability forcing more to flee their homes in Latin America, things will likely get worse before they get better. 

“But I just focus on my job, to carry out the law, follow the guidelines,” he says. “You can’t fix everything. All you can do is try to make life a little bit easier.”

We head back to the Center and begin loading Eddie’s pickup with the crates of water jugs. He rolls up his shirtsleeve and slaps the spot where he got his second shot this morning, right in the middle of a bicep tattoo -- the logo of a Mexican labor party. As we head out of town, I ask him whether he gets pushback from local Trump supporters. He says he’ll sometimes find “MAGA” or “Build the Wall” scrawled in red on the side of the water stations. But rarely, if ever, is the water taken out. More often, he finds extra bottles have been put in.

The landscape is dry, but not desolate, more brushland than the desert depictions seen in movies. That wide-open Texas sky is real, though. In quiet moments off the main roads, I can hear the coo of pigeons swirl up from groves of sage and cacti.

Down 285, an east-west highway north of the checkpoint where many of the migrants emerge from the brush to be picked back up in cars and vans, we haul the water and mend a few lids. Small archway-like openings in the thick, thorny brush reveal pathways the migrants walk. Crouching low, I wander in, thorns and prickers snagging my clothes and skin with every step. I see a few empty water bottles; an empty backpack; a faded yellow bag of refried beans. Eddie says that in seven years of maintaining water stations, he’s only seen one migrant.

All day, Eddie’s phone rings. Honduras. Chicago. Guatemala. Nebraska. Sometimes it’s spam, but screening calls is not an option. We drive over to the last known location of the Guatemalan woman whose sister Eddie spoke to last night. He flags down a rancher passing by in her truck. She rolls down the window and runs a hand with long, pink nails through her hair, revealing a honeycomb tattoo on her forearm.

“Have you seen any migrant women wandering around here?” Eddie asks. She shakes her head. “I’m the guy who fills those blue things with water jugs,” he says.

“Oh yeah?” she says. “Well I’m the one who takes them out.”

A long pause. “Why would you do that?”

She shrugs. “They make a mess.”

“They save lives. You shouldn’t do that, you know.”

“Yeah well, now that I got your plate number,” she says, leaning her head out the window to peer at his bumper, “I’ll know to send them your way.”

Nonsensical yet unsettling, like a weird playground insult, her threat hangs over us as we head into a cluster of ranches. “Do you get a lot of that?” I ask Eddie. “Not really. But now I know that there are migrants coming out on this road. I was right to put some stations along this section!”

But doesn’t it bother him, what the woman said? “Nah, I let it roll off, man! We’re trying to save lives. See this place here?” He points to a driveway with a high metal fence and a Semper Fi flag. “You know what he said when I asked him if I could put water stations on his land? He already has some - and he’s a Marine!”

Later that night, Sam and I head back out to one of the water stations to capture more audio, and to feel what it’s like out there in the dark. The temperature has dropped from 80 to 50 in just a few hours, and the empty brushland feels menacing now, our headlights disappearing into black.

We pass a shrine I’d seen earlier in the day, and which I’d been planning to visit before our departure. I assumed it would be closed at this hour, but there’s light in the narrow windows. I tell Sam to pull over, and walk through a creaky gate and a narrow, slanted path along a small cemetery plot. Inside, an empty is lit by a single altar of flickering votives. Hello? I jump at the sound of my own voice echoing off the walls. I approach the altar, and slowly make out a portrait hanging above it: Don Pedro Jaramillo, a famous curandero, a Mexican folk healer.

I kneel on the concrete and feel a deep, abiding presence in the ground and in the air around me: a subtle, steady, silent hum. I ask that those in the brush be kept safe tonight, that they might feel held somehow by this presence, even amid the terror and cold and thirst.

The next day in Corpus Christi, over baskets of fried shrimp and a bowl of chili before heading to the airport, I ask Eddie about the shrine. “Don Pedrito!” he laughs. “He healed a lot of people. And all he used was water. No medicines or anything. His cures worked because the people had faith.” Perhaps that’s what I felt in the shrine.

Perhaps that’s what carried my ancestors, too, in their journeys to America from Ireland and Germany, England and France. It’s the closest I get to the migrant experience; a brief taste of the sort of faith that can keep a person going under so much pain, so much unknown, the prospect of death at every turn.

And as my plane lifts off and carries me away just days before a winter storm rolls in, leaving millions stranded in the cold, I look down at the gulf, green-gray and receding, and wonder to myself, faith in what?


You can support the South Texas Human Rights Center by donating, volunteering or simply spreading the word about their work. Learn more here.

What’s Nourishing Us

  • My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman. Read an excerpt here, and listen to his interview with Krista Tippet here.

  • Zero-sum thinking has got to go. Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us shows how it has driven racial inequality — and how we can move past it.

  • A certain kind of fiction allows escape from the present moment while bringing us deeper into its animating energies. Try James Reich’s Soft Invasions.


Tex-Mex Chili

Serves 4 to 6

This chili calls for lamb shoulder, but it’s equally delicious with pork shoulder. There’s a vegetarian version below. Serve with big chunks of cornbread.

3 to 4 ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded

2 cups boiling water

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves or 1 teaspoon dried

2 cloves garlic, smashed

1 teaspoon paprika

Coarse salt

2 pounds trimmed, boneless lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes

2 cups dried red kidney beans, rinsed, picked over, and then soaked overnight in 4 inches of water to cover

3 tablespoons sunflower oil

1 large onion, diced

1 cup beer 

2 cups chicken or vegetable stock

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Greek yogurt or sour cream, chopped cilantro, and lime wedges 

Soak the chiles in boiling water until softened, about 20 minutes. Drain, reserving 1/3 cup of the soaking liquid, and chop the chiles. Turn the chiles and reserved soaking liquid into a blender along with the cumin seeds, oregano, garlic, paprika, and a tablespoon of coarse salt. Puree until smooth. Scrape the chile puree into a large nonreactive bowl or baking dish. Add the meat and toss to coat thoroughly. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Drain the beans and turn into a large saucepan and cover with about 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat, and simmer, stirring occasionally until tender, about 1 hour, adding more water as needed to keep the beans covered by 2 inches. When the beans are just tender, season them with salt and set aside in their cooking liquid for 5 minutes; then drain.

Preheat the oven to 375ºF. In a large Dutch oven or flame-proof casserole, heat the oil over medium heat and, working in batches, cook the lamb, turning occasionally until the meat is richly browned all over, about 4 minutes. Transfer the lamb to a plate. Add the onion to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 8 to 10 minutes. Return the lamb and juices back to the pan and add the beer, stirring up any browned bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pan. Bring to a boil and cook until the liquid is reduced by half, about 8 minutes; then add the stock and reduce the heat to a simmer.

Cover the pan and transfer it to the oven to bake until the lamb is tender when pierced with a fork, about 30 minutes. Then add the beans and bake, uncovered, for about 10 minutes or until hot. Remove the pot from the oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve with the yogurt, cilantro, and lime wedges.

VEGETARIAN

Double the amount of beans and cook them according to directions. Once they are cooked, do NOT drain.

In a large Dutch oven or flame-proof casserole, heat the oil over medium heat and add the onion to the pan along with 3 cloves of smashed garlic, stirring until the onions are tender about 3 to 4 minutes. stir in the beer and cook until the liquid is reduced by half, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the beans with 1 cup of their cooking liquid, and 2 cups of vegetable stock. Simmer, uncovered, until the liquid is reduced by half and the beans are very tender. Season with salt and pepper before serving with sour cream, yogurt, chopped cilantro, and lime wedges.


Thanks for reading, friends. Write us back by replying to this email, and don’t forget to RSVP to our St. Patrick’s Day live event. You can reach Beth directly at hello@bethdooleyskitchen.com.