It appears that no papal journey to Mexico is complete without someone handing the leader of the 1.2-billion-member Roman Catholic Church a sombrero. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI donned them during their visits. Now it’s Pope Francis’ turn. By our count, he’s worn at least three during his trip.
Dancers perform for Pope Francis at the airport in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Sara Hernandez came to the papal Mass clutching half a dozen yellow balloons. As she got closer to the Juarez fairgrounds, the homemaker bought a dozen papal key chains to keep the bunch from floating away.
Her 8-year-old grandson, Kevin, had inscribed one of the balloons with an important message -- not for the pope, but rather for his dead father.
“I wish that you were here with us dad,” he wrote, misspelling “wish” in Spanish.
Kevin’s mother works in the Juarez maquiladoras. His dad, Pelon Hernandez, cleaned houses in El Paso. Five years ago, he was shot and killed in front of a Juarez supermarket. His mother said he was killed by drug traffickers. Police have yet to find his killer.
So she came to see the pope wearing a T-shirt bearing her son’s name, photo and a message: “I will always remember you.”
Hernandez released the balloons at the end of the Mass -- all but one, which she tied to a barricade. Passers-by stopped to hug her and hear her story. She knows many others who have lost sons here.
“I hope it helps end the violence,” Hernandez said of the pope’s visit, her eyes tearing up. “Because of the violence, I suffer. All of us mothers; the pain never ends.”
The pope saluted “our brothers and sisters” in El Paso, who were following a live broadcast of the Mass at the Sun Bowl stadium, adding that thanks to technology, “we can pray, sing and celebrate together ... and that no border can prevent us from sharing.”
Gracias a la ayuda de la tecnologia, podemos orar, cantar y celebrar juntos ese amor misericordioso que el Senor nos da, y el que ninguna frontera podrá impedirnos de compartir.
El Papa Francisco
Some of those gathered on the levee on the U.S. side of the border were overcome with emotion when Pope Francis waved to them and blessed them.
“It really was beautiful,” Claudia Diaz said, crying.
But joy turned to sadness when the pontiff got back in his popemobile and headed toward the Juarez fairgrounds. Most sat quietly but couldn’t hear much of the Mass from their vantage point.
“This is so unjust, being here on this side and not to be able to cross and be over there with him,” said Diaz, gesturing toward Mexico. “We just have to be content with being on this side.”
Diaz, who is from Juarez and does not have legal status in the U.S., said many of her cousins, friends and her mother-in-law attended the Mass in Mexico.
“It’s sad here on our side because we can’t even hear the Mass,” she said. “They couldn’t even put a speaker here so we could hear it.”
Pope Francis did not cross into the United States but stayed in the scruffy city of Ciudad Juarez, once infamous for a sky-high murder rate, especially of young women. But his message was clearly intended for both sides.
He decried the global “human tragedy” that forces people to migrate unwillingly, risking death -- “each step, a journey laden with grave injustices: the enslaved, the imprisoned and extorted.”
Reserving special mention for women “unjustly robbed of their lives,” Francis said migrants “are the brothers and sisters of those expelled by poverty and violence, by drug trafficking and criminal organizations."
“Injustice is radicalized in the young,” the first pontiff from the Americas continued. “They are ‘cannon fodder,’ persecuted and threatened when they try to flee the spiral of violence and the hell of drugs.”
An estimated 70,000 people formed a human chain to protect the papal motorcade along the 25-mile route from the airport to the border.
At the start of the border Mass, Pope Francis mounted a ramp where one large cross and several smaller ones were posed to represent migrants killed in their attempts to reach the U.S. He said a blessing, with Texas on the nearby horizon. Those gathered on the levee waved and shouted, “te queremos, papa” -- “We love you, pope."
The waiting crowds erupted in cheers as the popemobile entered the Ciudad Juarez fairgrounds. Elderly men, overcome with emotion, wept.
Claudia Diaz, a 44-year-old woman who lives in New Mexico, where she does not have legal status, walked onto a levee on the U.S. side of the border, past Border Patrol agents and a highly fortified fence.
She said she wasn’t scared and instead focused on finding her seat in a VIP section -- the closest spot to the pope on this side of the border.
“This right here, what the pope is doing, is a miracle because he has permitted for people like us to be at this place -- in these lands that are so vigilados, so militarized, where so many have died trying to cross this river,” she said, pointing to the mostly parched Rio Grande. “For us to be here at this moment is very big.”
About 400 people, including local officials, religious leaders, migrants and activists, were bused from El Paso to a levee near the Mexican border to receive a blessing from Pope Francis.
People are streaming into the old fairgrounds in Ciudad Juarez for the pope’s open-air Mass.
Ticket holders are given color-coded wristbands, and volunteers steer them into barricaded areas, some at the foot of massive screens broadcasting musical performances and imagex of the pontiff’s progress through town.
“Are we ready for the pope? Raise your hands!” an announcer called. Hundreds of hands went up, then applauded.
In a section near the back of the gravelly field, Jorge Balderrama claimed a spot with three relatives, laying blankets on a section of blacktop hours before the Mass was due to start. There was no shade, no way to avoid the intense sun as the day went on, but the sales manager didn’t mind.
“We came to get his blessing,” said Balderrama, 45. "It’s a way to give us hope, having him with us.”
Though he said he doesn’t expect the Mass to bring an end to the violence in his native Chihuahua state, in the long run, “this will change a lot of people’s consciences.”
Martina Miguel Martinez, 40, brought her 5-year-old son, Angel Gabriel Anaya Miguel, to see the pope.
She moved to Ciudad Juarez from Oaxaca years ago to work in the maquiladora industries that supply the U.S. with clothing, television sets, snacks and other consumer products.
She returned to Oaxaca in 2008 to aid her ailing mother, and stayed away once she had her son as the violence escalated. The two returned in August, and she went back to work.
“It seems safer. I see news and hear stories about assaults, but no one has touched me,” she said.
She’s Catholic, and has noticed the attention Pope Francis pays to immigrants.
“I think he’s trying to understand, because he doesn’t live it,” she said as she walked her son along the long line to enter Mass. “He’s trying to change things for us.”
Raul Gallegos, an Uber driver, was about the only vehicle in downtown El Paso early Wednesday morning.
He said he’d never seen the city so quiet on a weekday. "Usually there is a lot of traffic on the street,” he said.
All the extra security, especially the multiple blockades, seemed a bit much, he said.
“It would have been different if he would’ve come here,” he said of Pope Francis.
Still, he said, even though the papal visit is a nation away, it may be worth all the inconvenience and the money the city has spent on security for the visit.
“I think it’s great for the community,” he said. “It’s especially good for Juarez. They’ve had a hard time with all the violence.”
A cross dangled from his rear view mirror as he made his way to the border.