Among the Least of the Cardboard City
By Fr. Mario Ghezzi, PIME
Fr. Damiano Tina, a PIME Missionary at Ecatepec, works in one of the shanty towns on the outskirts of Mexico City: “I’m here to stay with those who live on the edges of society. Often I meet the Lord, who is already working here.”
The shacks are crowded along the train tracks, in the Cartonera, one of the slums on the outskirts of Mexico City. It is here that “The Beast” passes; the freight train that crosses all of Mexico, from the South all the way to the US. It is a means of transportation that has become famous because the migrants from Central America try to get onto its moving cars to hitch a free ride to the north. What is happening around here is no less dramatic, thousands of people piled up in shelters erected quickly, having to deal with violence and heartless neglect by everyone. “Not even the Mexican police enter here,” Fr. Damiano reveals. This is his home; this is his community, which we are here to meet. They are waiting for us in the square in front of one of the barracks, to listen to the Word of God together. Right here where a community is beginning to take root.
Originally from Milan, Italy, the 45-year-old PIME Missionary has been in Mexico since 2006. He has carried out his priestly ministry in Guerrero for 10 years now; first in the suburbs of Acapulco, then in the mountains among the Mixtecos, and finally he arrived here, in the vast suburbs of Mexico City. His mission: to open a new presence of PIME on the edge of a metropolis of 25 million inhabitants. “Since 2016 I have been here at Ecatepec,” Fr. Damiano explains. “With its 5 million inhabitants it is the largest municipality in the whole Republic of Mexico. It also forms a diocese in its own right; without even realizing it, one simply has to cross the street to find oneself in the territory of Mexico City.”
Fr. Damiano lives on the edge of a metropolis, in an extremely difficult context. “These are forsaken suburbs, unsafe, marked by violence and inhabited by people who have come here from different States of the Republic, in years when population growth was very strong,” says Fr. Damiano. “In the area where we are, there is also a strong indigenous presence of Nawatl communities; they are groups originally from the State of Vera Cruz, on the Atlantic coast. The first ones came here looking for jobs 40 years ago; but now we are already in the second and third generation. The Bishop of Ecatepec wanted PIME missionaries here to take care of them.”
Fr. Damiano works with the Nawatl as before, but in an environment quite different from their villages. We “nomadic missionaries” are often sent to where the great exodus towards the cities has led millions of people to concentrate in dark corners; where often safeguarding their dignity can even become a challenge.
“To me and to Fr. Deodato Mammana (Diocesan Priest of Catania, and Associate PIME Missionary) the chapel of San José has been entrusted as a meeting point for three districts. Among these districts there is the Cartonera, the biggest slum: called the Cartonera because the first group of shacks that were erected were made of cardboard. The next ones were made of wood and even bricks, but everything here was built illegally. Thousands of people live there, indigenous and not, stretching out along the tracks of ‘the Beast’. Strangely, the phenomenon of migrants has decreased here in recent times; after the articles and television reports the authorities have intervened to try to stop the flow of migrants here. But occasionally we still see people who cling to the freight cars that pass through the Cartonera.”
What is the presence of the Church in such a context? “As missionaries, we did not come to lock ourselves inside a chapel to offer our sacred rites,” replies Fr. Damiano. “We are here precisely with the desire to give an answer to the invitation extended by Pope Francis, to be a Church that goes to the peripheries. Ecatepec is a geographic periphery on the edge of Mexico City, but it is, above all, an existential periphery because the situation is really difficult and problematic. Ours is a street ministry, aimed at an out-going Church.”
“When we arrived here three years ago there was no pastoral presence of any kind. This territory belonged to a parish of Ecatepec, but no one had come this far. So we began to know the stark reality. I began to visit families, entering homes, making myself known, accompanied by an indigenous catechist woman who placed herself at the service of our community. Because the Indians keep their customs, their traditions, their language, I needed someone to help me. Also, because one has to tiptoe, little by little, into this reality, in order to truly get to know it. Even now we propose simple initiatives: our people are illiterate, hence we explain the Word of God in a simple way and we rely on group activities as well as popular songs. But above all, it makes us understand that we are here for them, and that we have no other claim besides the one of accompanying the journey of their community. So, I walk a lot, they see me, they know who I am: this is already a success. At the point when the children began to greet me, I knew everything would have been okay. I could tell that people love me.”
A simple presence, but with some clear and prophetic choices for the context of mission in Mexico. An example would be that the PIME Missionaries never mention money when it comes to matters of the faith. “We do not enter into any commercial logic about it,” Fr. Damiano specifies. “It is no coincidence that Pope Francis insists so much on this point of not charging or expecting any repayment. People can see, that with us it is different, and this draws them closer to us.”
However, going to them is always the first step: “We need to get rid of the idea that the parish is the center to which everything has to converge while the rest is excluded. They do not have to come to us, but we who have to go to them. Jesus did not say: I will wait for you at 10:00 o’clock in my office, or in the social hall for the meeting. It was He who visited the people where they were and, thus, gave birth to his Church.” It is a method that is certainly not valid only for Mexico: “Even in countries with an old, Catholic tradition you should have more courage, you should be willing to lose something in order to gain what is most precious and important. Otherwise we risk a fatal withdrawal, we would turn into a non-profit charitable organization. We should go beyond the structures, beyond what keeps us tied down, unable to take off. Leaving what is certain for what is uncertain is the logic of the Gospel.”
He recounts when he brought the apostolic nuncio to the Cartonera; it was the first time for a bishop to be among this cardboard community. “He told me: ‘I have done diplomatic service in other places, where poverty was widespread, but nowhere else in Mexico City was I so struck by the gap between rich and poor.’ It is true, here it is simply shocking: there are villas of very rich people close by some of the indigenous people in this suburb who live literally among piles of refuse, where human dignity is denied. Faced with this stark reality, how could we say, ‘Come all of you to our chapel and celebrate Mass’? That would be witchcraft, not Christianity. The only viable solution is to approach the humanness of these people so that Christ may enter in it and give them new life. Otherwise nothing would ever change.”
For the people of Ecatepec the image of faith, par excellence, is popular religiosity: flowers, holy water, candles, and pictures of the saints. “No priest should do away with these things. They are a fundamental basis. With the awareness that there are also many concepts imbued with magic and superstition that need to be purified. When I hear that Mexico is a Catholic country, I smile. It still needs real evangelization work, helping people to understand that the Gospel is not a book or a philosophy but a Person who wants to be with them. Popular religiosity is a starting point: then Jesus has to enter. It is possible through a closeness that manifests itself in everyday things.”
The face of a true Christian community, even at Ecatepec, can no longer be just the local priest. “Here in Mexico the laity are still in the Old Testament: the common idea is that they should not use their brain, but just execute orders. Hence, we started to propose a bit of Bible reading, a bit of training, and even reading as well as reflecting on some pages of the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. Now, a new world has opened up. Of course, getting involved is costly, but the difference is visible. In our territory we found many laymen, who were waiting for the right moment to put them at the service of the Gospel. Above all, women look to get involved; if the Church really wants to positively affect this reality, it must rely on them. Women change the face of the family, of society, of the neighborhood; they enter where men cannot; they establish relationships. We missionaries did not invent anything: the Lord was already working here. He was waiting only for those who could help these energies come to the surface.”
Is all this changing the Cartonera? “Ours remains one of the most unsafe areas of Ecatepec,” replies the PIME Missionary. “But things change from the bottom up, getting to know people, loving each other and making ourselves lovable. We are not the ones who change the course of history, but we must do all we can do. Those who chose to remain disengaged are cowards. Things change if we are willing to change them, and to change ourselves with them in the process.”