Priest Offers Succor to Migrants Who Dream of Better Life to the North

Times Staff Writer

Father Florenzo Rigoni walks briskly along the glass-strewn earth of Zapata Canyon, a sprawling amphitheater of ravines, hills and arroyos that is one of the principal crossing points for immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere seeking to enter the United States illegally. It is a cold Saturday evening just before sunset, and there are hundreds of men and women whose uneasy faces underline fears that their journeys may end in failure and arrest on this chilly night.

The Italian-born priest, known here as Padre Flor Maria, has just come from the church-run migrant shelter he directs in a Tijuana neighborhood. With beds for 220, the Casa del Migrante (House of the Migrant) is the only such facility in a city that daily receives busloads and trainloads of new arrivals from the Mexican interior.

Open-Air Mass

"Brothers," the missionary addresses those gathered in Zapata Canyon as the eyes of the migrants fix on this curious bearded vision in a flowing white cassock and sandals, walking among them like a parish priest greeting his congregation. "On this evening that for many represents your last hope, the realization of so many dreams, I invite you to join in our Mass, that Christ may accompany you."

The migrants form a semicircle for the open-air Mass. Eventually, hundreds participate, and others look on from nearby hills and paths, as Rigoni, donning a bright green vestment over his cassock, recites the comforting words of the service.

"I hope that this Mass can be for each of us an encounter of brothers, brothers of a world without borders, where no one asks for papers, where dusk will fall with bread and peace for all."

Many experts, academics, social activists and others have trekked to the U.S.-Mexico border to study migration and work with the uprooted people in this city of roughly 1.5 million. But perhaps none is as singular as this driven 44-year-old priest from northern Italy who daily rubs shoulders with some of Mexico's most destitute people and seems to embody the contradictory nature of the border.

Rigoni is also a highly educated (by Jesuits) and deeply religious theoretician and theologian who has worked with migrants extensively and speaks five languages (seven counting Latin and Greek); prays at least two hours a day; founded a monthly magazine about migrant concerns in West Germany; is an accomplished electrician, plumber and, at times, amateur physician, and constantly employs panoramic prose in an effort to put border Mexican migration into some kind of world perspective.

"From my experience in Germany, I am often tempted to compare Tijuana to Berlin, the open door between East and West where opposing ideologies and economies collide," Rigoni wrote in an article for a Catholic publication.

'A Magic Situation'

"For me," he added in an interview here, "Tijuana is a magic situation, a place where the contradiction of hope and despair, of yesterday and tomorrow, of the past and the future, really dance together in an attempt to give a new answer. . . . It's a theater of contradictions."

Rigoni's order is called the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, also known as the Scalabrini Fathers, who work with migrants worldwide and produce learned tomes on migratory trends. The order is named after its founder, Italian Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini, who in the late 19th Century persuaded Rome to send missionaries to the New World to assist Italian immigrants.

Rigoni arrived in this border city three years ago after the bishop of Tijuana, Emilio Carlos Berlie, requested the order's assistance in a city that receives an estimated 12,000 impoverished migrants monthly from the Mexican interior.

There was particular concern that imminent passage of the new U.S. immigration law might trigger an exodus of Mexicans back to Tijuana from the United States. But so far that has not materialized, and Rigoni is not confident that the law will succeed in curbing illegal immigration unless authorities address the underlying economic causes of the migration.

"These people are fighting for survival. It's no longer a question of adventure, as it has been with so many immigrants in the past," Rigoni said. "For many, it's a question of life and death. There's no law that will be able to stop their flow."

While those he serves have traveled some distance to reach the lonesome border canyons, Rigoni's road from the mountains of northern Italy has been even longer. Before coming to Tijuana, the priest had worked for more than a decade with migrants in West Germany and Italy and for three years as a priest/electrician on Italian freighters.

"I wanted to be with these people who work on the boats," he explained, "but the (shipping) companies wouldn't let me go just as a priest so I had to earn my way as an electrician."

Since his arrival in Tijuana, the priest has overseen construction of the three-story Casa del Migrante, which opened last April after being built at a cost of $450,000 with funds from the order and from a Catholic foundation in West Germany. (Those two sources, along with donations, also cover operating costs.)

Refuge for 3,000

Thus far, the shelter has provided refuge and food for more than 3,000 migrants who stay an average of nine nights before finally crossing into the United States, returning to their home regions, or settling elsewhere in Tijuana.

The shelter is in a modest, hilly neighborhood overlooking downtown and the sleek, high-rise glass towers of the Fiesta Americana Hotel, the signature for a new, booming Tijuana whose reality is starkly different from that of most migrants. Emblazoned on the shelter facade is its biblical motto: "I walked as a foreigner, and you gave me shelter."

"Welcome, welcome," Rigoni greets Domingo Cruz, a 24-year-old migrant from the Mexican interior state of Oaxaca who was directed to the shelter from a nearby hospital. "Our home is your home."

Every day, migrants such as Cruz find their way to the shelter. Most hear by word of mouth; others are directed by various social service and church workers here. Assisting the director is a staff of lay workers, three Scalabrinian sisters and another Scalabrinian priest. Doctors, social workers and others contribute time on a volunteer basis.

The migrants' stories, often heart-rending, are told in unemotional language. What may pass for drama to a U.S. listener is simply life for so many in Latin America.

Juana de la Luz Torres, 28, a lively mother of seven, said she came to Tijuana in early January from her home in Mexico City, seeking to find a better life in the United States. She was accompanied by four family members, including her 1-year-old son and her brother Raul, 20.

Arrested 3 Times

Three times the group has attempted to cross together, she explained, and three times they have been arrested by U.S. immigration authorities and returned to Mexico. Now, penniless, she said she is contemplating returning to Mexico City with her son, freeing the others to try the crossing on their own, unburdened by the presence of her and her baby.

"With an infant like this, it's very difficult to cross," she explained as she nursed her son in a simple but clean shelter room consisting of bunk beds. "I'm afraid he might get hurt or get ill waiting in the canyon, trying to escape."

Before going back, however, she must somehow come up with the bus fare to Mexico City.

Although most who stay at the shelter are from Mexico, the center also serves as a temporary home for many Central Americans and other non-Mexicans passing through Tijuana. Rigoni allows them to stay at his peril--for most are illegal aliens in Mexico, and, he, like the members of the asylum movement in the United States, could theoretically be charged with harboring undocumented foreigners.

"We trust in Providence," the priest explained, adding that Mexican authorities here have yet to cause any problems.

For Central Americans, there are special dangers in commuting through Mexico. All tell tales of being harassed by Mexican authorities who are famous for extorting bribes, known as la mordida, or the bite, from migrants in exchange for not arresting them. Mexicans face similar threats, but as citizens, they aren't quite as vulnerable.

Carlos Lopez Ibarra, a 22-year-old Guatemalan with a severe case of high blood pressure, said he traveled by freight train from the Guatemalan border in an effort to avoid detection. Nonetheless, he said he was stopped twice by Mexican authorities and forced to pay bribes during his harrowing eight-day trip to the Mexican border.

"If in the past the trip for Central Americans was a Calvary," Rigoni said, "now it has become a hell."

Rigoni avoids political statements, and, in a nation with strong restrictions on the clergy, carefully words any implied criticism of official authority. "Ours is a revolution of charity, of sharing a morsel of bread, some water, a place to sleep," he wrote for the Catholic publication.

However, he is quick to denounce as "state robbery" the routine extortion of migrants by Mexican police. Moreover, he freely refers to the world economy as a "failure," one that has divided the world into two blocs, rich and poor.

"One (bloc) becomes richer and richer," he said, "and one becomes poorer and poorer."

He is also suspect of revolution, which, he said, tends only to change the groups in power--except, he said, for "the revolution of the Gospel." Nonetheless, Rigoni said he has noticed a more activist stance recently among many migrants--a trend, he said, that should be disturbing for Mexico, a nation that has maintained basic political stability for more than half a century in the face of the turmoil so prevalent elsewhere in Latin America.

"If we are not able to change the reasons for this migration, this migration for survival, we can face, in the close future, a possible revolution," Rigoni warned. "For the first time, people in Zapata Canyon are talking about uprisings. They're talking about dates, about movement. They're talking about weapons. This is new in my experience."

Asked about his vocation and his apparent wanderlust, Rigoni's cited the odd circumstances of his birth. He said he was born in a truck on the run from Fascist forces in the mountains of northern Italy where his father was an anti-Mussolini partisan and later a truck driver. His interest in becoming a Scalabrini father was sealed, Rigoni said, when as a student in Italy he saw a pamphlet from the order featuring two missionaries.

"One was riding a horse, and the other was riding a motorcycle," he recalled. "The brochure asked, 'Do you want to be a missionary, senza frontiere (without borders).' At that moment, this was already for me an enlightened path."

Apart from his fascination with the world of the migrant, Rigoni acknowledged: "I like the adventure."

At Zapata Canyon, there are few tears, although the tension is high as the time to move across the border nears and Rigoni's Mass comes to an end. Night has fallen. Men and women gather in little groups, often led by a coyote, or smuggler. Most carry no more than a small satchel for trips that may last months or years.

The Mass, in fact, takes place on U.S. territory, although the canyon itself is a violent no-man's land that has long been virtually ceded to the migrants by the Border Patrol, which refers to the area as the "soccer field." During makeshift confessions and benedictions at the canyon, Rigoni said, many of the migrants speak of guilt of having left their families behind, of fear of the uncertain road ahead.

"I believe . . . that each one of you remembers exactly the moment when you said goodby to your loved ones," Rigoni told the assembled crowd during a brief sermon. "We hope this Communion will accompany you on this long, long night. . . . We hope that you can cross, that you arrive at your destination, that you find work."

As the service ends, the participants set off on the dusty paths heading for the north, just as churchgoers elsewhere return to their cars or to their homes.

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