Giving the Shadow People to the Light this Advent

[Editor’s note: this essay was written by a former volunteer, Mary Fontana, for Annunciation House’s newsletter in the winter of 2004. It remains relevant today.]

It’s late—late in the day, in the year—and Olga is sweeping out her bedroom. She is thirty years old with big eyes and big brown freckles, an undocumented chilanga, a native of Mexico City. She wears soft, forgiving clothes from the clothing bank downstairs: baggy dark-blue sweatpants and a sweater I picked out, green with flowers embroidered down the button line. She has been a guest at Annunciation House for nearly two weeks, ever since delivering her firstborn child, Mariana, at Thomason General Hospital in El Paso. Olga is still recovering from the labor. She can’t walk upstairs, to where the women’s dormitory is. Instead she and the baby sleep in the white-walled clinic just off our office.

Mariana is tiny and perfect. She has fine black hair and cheeks like apricots. I hold her, wrapped in a fuzzy donated blanket, as Olga sweeps and sweeps. I have never seen Olga cleaning before: the new mother is exempt from the chores we assign to other guests. But today is a special day. Today, on the last day of October, Olga is waiting for her husband.

They’ve been married for three years, but Oscar has a work permit and a seasonal job in North Carolina and she hasn’t seen him in months. He called this morning. “I’m in Dallas,” he told Olga on the office phone. “I’m coming.”

Now we wait in a tight flutter of excitement. Olga continues to sweep. She is preparing, with the small gestures that are all she can make, to greet her husband. After the floor has been cleared of its few mummified cockroaches, Olga showers and combs out her long black hair. She has washed all of Mariana’s tiny clothes in the bathroom sink. They hang like pink and yellow flags on the bare wall of the clinic. And I’m buzzing around from the phone to the door to the window, outwardly more anxious than Olga. She is practiced in the art of waiting. Only Mariana seems completely unconcerned with the occasion, as she sighs and wraps slim fingers around my pinky. “Vas a conocerle a tu papi hoy,” I tell her.

It’s nearly ten o’clock at night when Oscar calls again and my heart curls up, thinking he’ll say he can’t make it tonight. “Where are you?” I ask, with Olga fast at my side. There’s a pause. Then: “Virginia and…let me see…Magoffin?” he replies. I practically squeal. One block away! I tell him how to get to Annunciation House and hang up the phone. Olga and I beam at each other like two lighthouses.

Five minutes later I’ve been distracted by some other urgency—a guest needing aspirin maybe, a phone call, I don’t remember—and I turn away from that demand to see Olga standing in the office door, her sleepy pink baby in her arms, and with them a man who could only be Oscar, so happy and right do the three of them look together. All around them the chaos of Annunciation House wells up: kids’ drawings of ghosts and pumpkins taped and flapping on the door frame above their heads, a heap of dirty dishtowels at their feet, the TV commenting loudly from the sala. But you could miss all that and see only Mariana, like a little sun, lighting up her parents’ faces as they bend over her.

And though Christmas is two months away, I think of its birth, its joy, and for the first time, its great tragedy—the wrenching instability of the stable. Olga brought her newborn child home to a refuge for the poor and indigent, a building by which the trucks and buses roar at all hours of the day and night, an old, leaky house held together by masking tape and prayer. Mary and Olga alike must have wondered, as they studied the freshly minted faces of their babies, what kind of futures they could possibly hope to shape for them. Futures begun in borrowed rooms where cold air crept under the doors. Futures hemmed in by the fences of poverty and itinerancy. I remember that when Olga brought Mariana home from the hospital she asked us, “They’ll let me stay here now, won’t they? They’ll let me stay with my baby?” I heard in her voice the incredulousness Mary must have felt when she hobbled into the stable, when she first saw that shabby, dirty cave where she was to give birth to the son of God. I want to plant my fists on my hips and talk up at the sky. This is your child! Are you going to watch her be shunted into a dark corner of the earth the moment she is born?

It’s almost too easy to invoke the Christmas story here, with Olga, where the parallels are so obvious: two families far from home, wanted by the law of the land, refugees with uncertain prospects and new babies to worry about. It’s also too easy to paint myself into the scene at the stable; after all, my house, Annunciation House, welcomed Olga and made a place for her. But there’s a more difficult truth at hand: Olga has orders from La Migra to present herself for deportation at the bridge as soon as she’s released from the hospital. She’s currently in violation of those orders. My country does not want her here. The United States is not the stable; it is an inn with no room.

Of course, Mariana is hardly the baby Jesus. The torrents of migrants knocking on our country’s doors are not the newborn children of God. No indeed—they are Christ crucified. They are the starving, the tortured, the uprooted, the slaves of poverty and corruption and violence. They are not saints: some of them steal and lie to us and shoot up on the roof of Annunciation House. But they have suffered, and where human beings suffer, there the Christ is.

Yes, it is Christ that enters our country illegally. It’s Christ who pays a coyote to smuggle him past immigration checkpoints. Christ hopping a train in the iron-cold dark. Christ who shrinks away from the window in quiet fear when the word is passed around the house: la Migra is outside. Christ picks the apples in my hometown of Yakima, Washington. Christ sends money to his wife in Guatemala. Christ misses her three kids, far away in Oaxaca with their grandmother.

Christ cannot vote in our country. He can hardly complain if his employer cheats him of wages, or insist on safe working conditions or health care. If the government takes any notice of him at all, it will be to deport him. So he keeps to the shadows, nameless and voiceless. So many men and women, relegated to the obscure corners of our country—a people walking in darkness, dwelling in the land of gloom.

In Spanish, Olga has told me, the expression for delivering a baby is dar a luz: to give to the light. As we shift into November and the days shorten, mornings and evenings smudging closer together, I wonder: how will we give birth to justice in this fine, wounded country? When will we give our shadow people to the light? Who will call them by name out of the shame and obscurity of ‘illegality’? When the next Olga and Oscar knock on our door, will we persist in telling them that we, the richest country in the world, have no room at the inn?

Advent is coming. It is the season of waiting, and of darkness—lit first by one candle, then two, three, four. And Annunciation House itself exists in perpetual advent. Its inhabitants wait: for a cousin in Denver to send money, for the patrón to call back with work, for papers to go through. We as a community wait as well for freedom to come down like a desert rainstorm, for the load of the poor to be lightened. We are an Advent people. All we can do is what Olga did as she waited in hushed expectancy for her husband: sweep out our rooms, make ready for our liberation to arrive.

For the word advent also means a beginning, an onset. So in the dark of November, I wait for the beginning of spring. I wait for a thawing of the fear and exclusivity that call people aliens in the land of their brothers and sisters. I wait for the day when Christ can come out of the shadows and feel the warmth of the sun on his dust-etched face.

In the meantime, it’s bone-cold in the office of Annunciation House. Olga wraps her baby more snugly in the fuzzy cotton-candy-colored blanket. She sets Mariana carefully in my arms for one last cuddle before bed. As I carry my bundle through the sala, a few of the guests ask jokingly if she’s my baby. I laugh with them, but then I think: yes. Yes, of course she is my baby. I did not give birth to tiny, perfect Mariana, but by God I will help give her to the light. For unto all of us this child is born, homeless and precious; unto us this little girl is given. May the government be upon her shoulders—and get off her back.

[We are currently raising funds to renovate our 100+-year old building so that it can continue to be a place of refuge for people like Olga and her child. In this season of giving, would you consider supporting our mission? Read more and/or make a donation here.]

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