This first appeared in Frank’s blog on October 28, 2019, as “Si Me Matan.” It is republished here with the author’s permission.
Casa Vides is hard to find. After an eleven-hour drive (mostly on I-10), the three of us arrived in El Paso, Texas. Well, we kind of arrived there. The GPS got us pretty close to our destination. We had to wander around a bit to find the actual house. Casa Vides doesn’t have a big sign to advertise its location. If anything, it tries to stay hidden.
Leon Street has limited parking. When you come right down to it, there is really no parking on that street. I planted my Ford Focus in somebody’s private parking space and then begged the owner to let me stay there for five minutes. It helped to have Sister Ann Catherine with me when I made my plea. People tend to be a bit more tolerant when a religious sister is involved in the conversation.
After parking the car, I led Sister Ann Catherine and Shawn in the wrong direction. I do that sort of thing. We turned ourselves around and found Casa Vides. It’s a two-story brick building with an intentionally nondescript wooden door. The door simply says, “325”. We rang the bell. Somebody answered.
That somebody was Gustavo. He was a slight, young Latino, with long hair and eyes like Jesus. He welcomed us in. Other people were there. Sister Caroline was on the phone, dealing with a crisis. Apparently, a young migrant woman was trying to fly to New York in order to be with her family. That was not going to happen because the airline refused to take her, due to the fact that she was in a wheelchair and she had nobody to assist her during the flight. The young woman had broken both ankles while crossing the Rio Grande in order to get to the United States from Mexico. The situation was turning into a mess, and Sister Caroline was trying to handle it.
The lower level of Casa Vides is split into two halves. One part is set up for people to sit and relax. There are several old, overstuffed sofas covered with cracking and crumbling Naugahyde. The other half of the first floor is set up as a dining area, with folding tables and folding chairs. In the back is a kitchen, and there is also the Romero Room, a bedroom with bunk beds for children.
The upper level has bedrooms, bathrooms, and showers. The bedrooms are set up to shelter migrants, and to house the volunteers at Casa Vides. To get to the upper level a person has to use an outside staircase. Seeing as El Paso generally has fair weather, this is not a problem. I wound up sharing a small room with four other men. This was not an issue for me. I grew up with six younger brothers. I have experience with this sort of thing.
How can I adequately describe Casa Vides?
First, Casa Vides is a home, albeit a temporary one. I felt at home there, even though I was a total stranger. I felt like I belonged there. That is a rare experience for me. I almost never feel like I belong.
There is a mural inside of Casa Vides. It shows the images of Gabriel and Gladys Vides. They were a married couple from El Salvador. Both of them were murdered by the death squads in that country. They were murdered by people who were most likely trained by the U.S. at Fort Benning in the School of the Americas (SOA). The children of Gabriel and Gladys came to the U.S. and were eventually granted asylum. Those kids were in this house. They were at Casa Vides.
On the mural is a quote from Saint Oscar Romero, It says, “Si me matan, resucitaré en mi pueblo.”
“If you kill me, I will be resurrected in my people.”
Flowing from the mural are streams of names on the walls. There are thousands and thousands of names on the walls. These are the names of people who were murdered in El Salvador and Honduras and Guatemala, and God only knows where else. In the basement are more names. Those are the names of the people who died trying to enter the U.S. from other countries. Many of the names are unknown because bodies were found in the desert. For those unknown dead, it is simply written, “Desconodido.” That Spanish word is everywhere in Casa Vides.
There is also a mural in the basement. It is a tribute to a young man named Juan Patricio. Juan Patricio was not documented. He was staying at Casa Vides. The Border Patrol came for him. He ran. They killed him, not far from the house. They killed him because he was “illegal,” whatever that means. Juan Patricio is a martyr. He is a saint.
In the very early morning, I often sat in the dining area, and I read the names of the people on the walls.
I was surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. I was surrounded by saints. I was never alone.