Hands on Fire

After parking our rental cars at the Shell gas station in Nogales, Arizona and walking across the border into Nogales, Sonora on the shoulder of the road, we arrive at the comedor (lit., dining room). At 9 a.m. the building is nearly empty, except for staff and volunteers wearing yellow vests, who are preparing the food and setting the tables that will soon be occupied by more than 100 migrants. I can’t imagine how we will all fit inside this room, let alone how anyone will manage to move once the room is filled with people.

Our guide on this Monday morning is Joanna Williams, KBI‘s Director of Education and Advocacy, and she introduces us to Sister Cecilia and Victor. Sister Cecilia, who coordinates all programming at the comedor, is petite and powerful; Victor, who is in charge of maintenance, stands at the door, greeting and vetting everyone before they enter the building, ensuring the safety and security of the migrants.

Joanna reminds us of the rules of the comedor—don’t take photos of migrants without explicit permission, don’t let migrants use your telephone, don’t give migrants your contact information, don’t make promises to the migrants—and reiterates that Sister Cecilia will give us instructions throughout the morning. If we are in doubt about what we need to do, we are to follow Sister Cecilia’s lead and assist the staff members and volunteers in providing for the migrants’ physical needs while they are in the building.

Then Joanna invites the ten of us to take on assigned tasks during the meal, asking for five of us to form a line from the kitchen door and pass plates of hot food to the center table’s edge. She also asks for one volunteer who speaks Spanish to take special orders from the migrants, especially from parents of small children, so everyone gets to eat what they like and less food is wasted.  

When she asks, “Is there anyone in the group who is passionate about tortillas?” Josh and I raise our hands and call out “yes!” in unison. I’m not sure what motivates Josh, but I am moved by the desire to serve the migrants their bread, which is considered the defining characteristic of any meal.

At home, I bake challah, two loaves for every Friday night, just as God provided double the manna for the Israelites in the wilderness every sabbath. In Nogales, I wish I could break bread with the migrants and share a meal with them as I do with my family every week. We’ve come from all over the United States to show our solidarity. We are all una familia in God’s eyes.

We fill bread baskets with freshly baked tortillas that are kept steaming hot inside an insulated 30-quart cooler and bring the baskets to the tables once the food is served. Then we circulate among the tables and add stacks of hot tortillas to the baskets. We use thin bakery paper to handle the tortillas; it provides no protection against the heat, and I burn my fingertips every time I reach into the cooler.

Josh and I signal to one another from across the room which tables are running low on tortillas. As I expected, there is barely room to pass between the tables. The biggest challenge is to fill those baskets with both speed and grace.

“¿Quieres mas?”  “Si, gracias.”  “Buen provecho.”

Reaching over the shoulders of diners, squeezing between people sitting back-to-back on benches, I place stacks of hot tortillas in the baskets, all the while trying not to drop them, smiling and exchanging pleasantries. It is a repetitive task, and also a sacred ritual. Our religious traditions teach we cannot live by bread alone: both physical and emotional nourishment are required for human beings to flourish. 

Forty minutes pass in a blur. Sister Cecilia is at the microphone again, asking those who ate to help with clean-up. The men wash dishes while the women stay with the children. Some are waiting inside to meet with volunteers who are dispensing medication. We chat with them, and give stickers and toys to the children while they wait. Others head outside with Ethan, who encourages some of the older kids to try juggling. There is cheering and laughter, especially when one of the balls flies into the street. Volunteers are hanging a Christmas piñata in a parking lot across the street, and soon the children are scrambling to collect the candy from the ground.

It’s almost noon. The sun is shining and it’s warmer now. I zip my gloves into the pocket of my fleece and tie it around my waist. We’re getting ready to catch a bus to downtown Nogales, where we’ll enjoy lunch in a restaurant before our walking tour along the border wall.

The children return to where we’ve gathered on the sidewalk outside the comedor to share their sweet bounty. We hug those who lean in enthusiastically and high five the shy ones. I notice my fingertips are still red from the burning hot tortillas. But it’s not until I’m settled into a seat on the bus, humming along to “Feliz Navidad” on the radio, that I notice my eyes are burning, too.