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Irish compassion at the Mexico border

Amid controversy over her Oprah-endorsed novel, Jeanine Cummins describes the Irish she encountered at Mexico's border

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Through the barricades: a deported Mexican woman talks to her mum on the US side of the border on her wedding day

Through the barricades: a deported Mexican woman talks to her mum on the US side of the border on her wedding day

The wedding party

The wedding party

Father Dermot Rogers from Belfast, who performed the ceremony

Father Dermot Rogers from Belfast, who performed the ceremony

Jeanine Cummins

Jeanine Cummins

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

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Through the barricades: a deported Mexican woman talks to her mum on the US side of the border on her wedding day

My Irish husband and I have lived in New York for more than 20 years, so I've heard all the stories: a Leitrim man meeting his childhood friend on a job site in Brooklyn, a tourist pulling into a petrol station deep in the Australian outback only to find her neighbour Mary from back home in Navan working the till, a backpacker from Limerick hiking down from the summit of Mount Kenya and running into his cousin coming up the other side. "Howaya, Paul, how's Nuala keeping?"

So I wasn't surprised when I went to Mexico to conduct research for my novel, American Dirt¸ and met not one, but two Irish priests working among migrants in the US-Mexico borderlands.

The first was an Irish American, the grandson of Irish immigrants, Father Pat Murphy, who runs La Casa del Migrante, the migrant shelter in Tijuana where I spent time in the summer of 2015. The casa has more than a hundred beds and offers vulnerable migrants temporary shelter, a hot meal, and the chance to contact their worried, faraway families. When I visited the casa, the staff psychologist had a queue outside her door that was never shorter than three men waiting. A lot of grim faces, bloodshot eyes.

A heavy sadness that Fr Pat nimbly manoeuvred himself through, always with a sombre smile. While I was there, a young man on crutches came in from Honduras, 22 years old, with one empty pant leg pinned up behind him. The story flew quickly around the shelter: like so many of his countrymen, three days prior, this young man had been on La Bestia, the freight train migrants ride atop to get from Central America or southern Mexico to the US border, when he'd fallen off. There was some consensus - he was lucky it was just the one leg. Usually it was both. Sometimes an arm or a hand, too.

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Father Dermot Rogers from Belfast, who performed the ceremony

Father Dermot Rogers from Belfast, who performed the ceremony

Father Dermot Rogers from Belfast, who performed the ceremony

Still, the effect of the young man's presence in the shelter was akin to dripping a bead of Fairy Liquid into a greasy pan. The others scattered from him, repelled, gave him wide berth. As if his condition might be contagious and if they came too close, their dreams, too, might be maimed and killed. I will never forget that man's face as he struggled to come to terms with the empty trouser-leg. When he leaned to plant his elbows on his knees, there was just the one knee. He'd have to find a new gesture. Fr Pat spoke to him just as he did to everyone else: gently, firmly. He didn't flinch.

The next time I visited the borderlands, I met Father Dermot Rodgers from Belfast. It was unremarkable to meet another Irishman there, 5,000 miles from the homeland, on a hot and sunny day in Parque de la Amistad in Tijuana - the kind of weather that'll make you fuchsia in the cheeks, damp around the hairline. I expect to encounter Irish people wherever I go in the world, and never more so than on the frontlines of humanity. I was impressed by how lightly and fluently Fr Dermot folded his Northern Irish accent into Spanish. That day, he wore his vestments at the border. He was set to perform a wedding. 'Friendship Park' feels like a heavily ironic misnomer when you visit that place; it's one of the most thoroughly fortified and militarised stretches of border in the entire world.

But when you look west across the Pacific horizon, you get a sense of how futile the border really is. The water will not obey the strictures of human governance. Overhead, the undivided sky is a stark, blasted blue, and the birds cross at will. They sit atop the rusting fence, their presence a mild rebuke to the border patrol. Look how silly this all is. Still, the border fence is so impenetrable it's no longer possible, in Tijuana, to even wriggle a pinky finger through to the other side. Padre Dermot stood on the southern side of that fence, the Mexican side, with groom and bride. She was a deported Mexican mother with three young boys who were all US citizens. She wore a beautiful, slim white dress and fingerless gloves. Her bouquet was red and white roses with a spray of baby's breath. Her sons were in sharp suits, and their new stepfather was resplendent in the uniform of the US Marine Corps. On the US side of the fence, the bride's mother leaned her forehead against the steel mesh, straining to see and hear as much as she could while her daughter said, "I do."

Neither mother nor daughter could cross that border, so they held the wedding here, where mom could watch through the fence. Afterward, the three boys would return home to their undocumented grandmother in California. They'd have to leave their parents behind. Padre Dermot performed the ceremony beneath the hot eye of the sun in his impeccable Spanish, with that brand of pragmatic compassion I've come to recognise as particularly Irish. It's a compassion so modest it's practically embarrassed of itself. It goes to lengths to deflect attention. It is the same brand of compassion my dad inherited from his father.

The presence of Irish people everywhere isn't new. The global diaspora runs generations deep. It runs into boardrooms and bar-rooms alike, slums and mansions, New Delhi to Hollywood to Tokyo. Few cultures are as globally scattered as the Irish. When my family and I disembarked from a recent Aer Lingus flight in Newark, we thought nothing of the standard call to donate our leftover currency into the old Unicef envelope there in your seatback. I had to remind myself that other airlines don't do this. It's uncommon, this cultural norm of Irish generosity. It's not so ordinary. And yet, anywhere you go in the world, wherever there are vulnerable people, the Irish are there, sweating beneath the sun, raising funds, distributing aid. They are doing the quiet work of fighting injustice. They're making the tea. That grace may be Ireland's finest export.

Jeanine Cummins is the author of 'American Dirt', published by Tinder Press, which is out now

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The wedding party

The wedding party

The wedding party

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American Dirt controversy

When Oprah Winfrey selected American Dirt for her influential Book Club, she predicted that "everybody who reads this book is actually going to be immersed in the experience of what it means to be a migrant on the run for freedom."

The novel about a Mexican mother and her young son fleeing to the US from a cartel had been praised widely before its recent release. However, multiple criticisms including accusations of cultural appropriation have been levelled at Jeanine Cummins who has an Irish husband and some Puerto Rican ancestry. Dozens of authors published an open letter to Winfrey that urged her to reconsider her selection.

Cummins has cancelled her book tour due to safety concerns. Winfrey is still due to meet Cummins and it is expected that their discussion will air in March on Apple TV Plus.

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