The Comedor

by Glenn Hendler

Serving food at the comedor, or dining room, was central to our experience in Nogales. It was the first thing we did on the first morning, after crossing the border on foot, and the last thing we did on Thursday before leaving on Friday morning. The act of serving put everything else we did–hiking in the desert in areas where migrants have walked, listening to a presentation from the Border Patrol, watching Operation Streamline in a courtroom–into perspective. [At the bottom of this post are lots of photos from the comedor].

One reason the simple act of serving felt essential to the experience was that it humanized us in relation to the migrants. KBI staff told us that many of the people at the comedor had never eaten in a restaurant, though some may have worked in one. For us to wait on them leveled things just a little bit. We were still, to them, puzzling outsiders, professors from faraway New York City whose reasons for being there were not very clear. But we were serving a practical purpose there.

And that felt good to many of us, too. In our evening debriefings, we described the strong emotions–empathy, rage, despair, sadness, inspiration–that interacting with the migrants produced. For many of us, serving food made those emotions manageable. It was a practical task familiar to us, something we could throw ourselves into, something more concrete we could accomplish. It felt less intrusive and fraught than walking up to strangers and asking them to speak with us.

However, we did that at the comedor, too. On previous trips, as Jackie Reich and Jim McCartin told us, it had been possible to serve the food and then sit down with people as they finished eating to chat in a more relaxed and natural way. Because there were so many more people coming to the comedor at the time of our visit, there had to be 2-3 shifts for each meal, morning and afternoon. We had to rush people through, and the opportunities for substantive interactions were few. Some of us simply held young babies so their parents could eat in peace. Those who spoke Spanish could chat briefly. I managed to amuse one table, inadvertently, by trying out my very minimal Spanish, offering them jugo de mañana (tomorrow juice) when I meant to say jugo de manzana (apple juice). Adding to the irony was the fact that what I was pouring was actually iced tea! For the rest of the meal people at that table would smilingly ask me for more jugo de mañana.

During most shifts, we had enough people inside that a few could step outside and talk to the people in line on the street waiting their turn. I think we all agreed that that was very difficult. It often felt as if we were intruding on families at a difficult moment in their lives, and that we were demanding the attention of a captive audience (they couldn’t leave or else they’d lose their place in line for food). I think we all felt that awkwardness (or worse). For some of us there was the added fact that we couldn’t speak Spanish, and had to rely on others to translate, which meant that not only were we intruding on the migrants, but that we were also disrupting good conversations that our colleagues were able to strike up with migrants.

I’m sure others will write about the conversations they had, and I will be among those to write more about interactions with children, which in my case had to take place without much language being exchanged. I did have one long conversation with a man who had just been deported after decades picking grapes and other crops in California, and who was fluent in English. I am not sure I can reproduce his story, because he told it to me out of order and in bits and pieces, but he was eager to talk. And he didn’t just want to talk about his deportation and the challenges he faced; he also wanted to talk about his interests: in racing cars, in sports, and other things. And he wanted to ask about New York, which he said felt impossibly far away to him. I couldn’t answer much about racing cars or sports–that’s not stuff I know about–but I could listen, and that seemed enough for him.

After he’d gone in for the meal, he made a point of seeking me out, thanking me, and shaking my hand. That was one of the things that most struck me about serving the migrants: how grateful and appreciative they were, and how eager so many were to express that appreciation. That didn’t affect me by making me feel that we were doing a wonderful thing. Rather, it made me admire their capacity to be grateful even in the most desperate of situations. And that’s one thing I will take away from this experience: I want to strive to be more like the people I met, in this and other ways.

Here are some photos from the comedor. The first are of the line outside. The comedor is on the edge of a highway that leads to a border crossing, and so there are usually cars, trucks, and buses backed up along the road. The migrants wait their turn to eat on the curb and the sidewalk along that highway. Keep scrolling and you’ll see more photos (including slide shows that you can click through) and more explanation.

Here are some photos of us and the KBI staff (mostly in yellow aprons) preparing for the first shift and starting to serve the food. (Click the arrows to move through the slide show)

Next are photos from during the meal. A doorman monitors everyone who enters, and also gives them a squirt of hand sanitizer as they walk in. (You can click on an individual photo to make it bigger.

Mopping up…and other things that happened after the meal. Some migrants get basic medical care in a corner of the comedor. Another group that comes in on many days–and with whom we had a chance to talk–is No More Deaths/No Más Muertes.

Dana and Marchiana may have more to say about this family, whom they talked with at length on the last day. For me, with my limited Spanish, it was a chance to make some kids laugh by making funny faces. And that was something.

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