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The Bones of Immigrants Crushed on the Journey, in Attacks, or in Work Accidents Will Rise Again

“Them Bones,” the traditional spiritual based on the book of Ezekiel in the Bible about the Lord bringing dry bones to life, has a special meaning for Casa Juan Diego, the Houston Catholic Worker, because so many people come to us who have lost their limbs, whose bones were crushed on a terrible journey trying to get here, or who have been paralyzed in work accidents or shot in the back or the head. Some of their bones are now useless.

These folks who have been our guests took a dangerous trip to the United States either to escape war or persecution, especially during the 80s, or to work to send money to their families in their home countries.

Some who arrive at Casa Juan Diego have had their legs or feet cut off by a freight train (one of the main methods of travel for immigrants) on their journey north or damaged so badly they had to be amputated. Immigrants have told us about the bodies left behind—those cut in two and those decapitated by trains. Others were shot and thrown off the train by gang members in the South of Mexico.

Many who made it to the United States have lived in our houses. Sometimes we have been able to purchase prostheses for those who have lost legs, arms, or eyes to make it possible for them to walk again or be presentable in society. Many have told us also the stories of their friends and relatives who died along the way.

Others who have made it to Houston in one piece have then fallen from a scaffold in a work accident and are now paraplegics or quadriplegics or have had their fingers cut off while working. Casa Juan Diego assists many of these injured immigrants each month who are no longer able to work since there is little workers’ compensation in Texas and no disability is available to the undocumented. Others, some of whom have lived in the United States for some time, have lost an eye due to disease; that loss might have been prevented if they had had early care, but they have not known how to access such care until it was too late.

As we were thinking about what an enormous pile it would make to stack up all of the lost limbs and broken bones of the many immigrants who have walked or traveled on freight trains to the United States or lost them in Houston and other cities, we thought of the traditional song about the dry bones coming to life. The song goes like this:

Them bones, them bones, them dry bones,
Them bones, them bones, them dry bones,
Them bones, them bones, them dry bones,
Oh hear the word of the Lord .

The foot bone connected to the ankle bone,
The ankle bone connected to the leg bone,
The leg bone connected to the knee bone,
Oh hear the word of the Lord.

The knee bone connected to the thigh bone,

The thigh bone connected to the hip bone,
The hip bone connected to the back bone,
Oh hear the word of the Lord.

The back bone connected to the shoulder bone,
The shoulder bone connected to the neck bone,
The neck bone connected to the head bone,
Oh hear the word of the Lord.

The song, known by school children in the United States where it is even used to teach “anatomy” at times, is unforgettable. It doesn’t, though, explain the part where the Spirit of the Lord breathed life into the great multitude of dry bones, put flesh on them and raised them to their feet and to life. (See the story of Ezekiel from the Bible at the end of the article.)

Ezekiel’s vision is a prefiguring of the resurrection of the body, one of the central beliefs of our faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that as Christ rose from the dead, on the Last Day the soul will be reunited with the resurrected, incor-ruptible body. (Nos. 1012 to 1019). Judgment Day will be a great day for Casa Juan Diego, when all these bones will come together, bone to its bone, and these bodies will be raised, an “exceedingly great host” of the poorest and the wounded whom the Lord loves.

The stories told to us by our guests over the years since Casa Juan Diego began in 1980, the stories told before the Mass on Wednesday evenings at Casa Juan Diego are stories of joy and sorrow, violence and benevolence. Whichever they are, they bring tears either of joy or sorrow as the refugees and immigrants tell their tale of passing through Central America, Mexico, and the Rio Grande Valley.

The Rio Grande River has become a graveyard for hundreds of immigrants who tried to cross and were swept away by the current. The Rio Bravo—which is the name of the Rio Grande on the other side—may look shallow and narrow, but where the refugees and immigrants cross, it is deep enough to drown, especially if there has been heavy rain. And there is a strong current. Hundreds of immigrants and refugees fleeing war, poverty, and violence have been seized by the Rio Grande.

One evening a young man wept as he told his story of losing his best friend to the Rio Grande River. Several young men saved the speaker, but they could not save his friend, who had said he knew how to swim.

A few weeks later a mother of three children from Honduras told how her husband had been swept up by the Rio Grande—and lost forever. He was trying to cross with his five-year-old son. Three youths saved the son, but they could not save the father. A passerby took the five-year-old back across the river to Mexican Immigration, who through the Honduran consulate put an ad in a Honduran newspaper. Through this ad the mother and child were reunited and brought to Casa Juan Diego.

One day a woman called to ask if anyone knew the names or the country of the three young men who had recently drowned in the Rio Grande River, swollen with flood waters because of the recent rains. She asked if we could ask the immigrants and refugees at dinner. The guests reported that they knew the name of only one (who had been in the group with two guests at the house), but that the three were from Honduras. The caller felt better, since her missing brother was from Guatemala.

Another time the drowning victim was from Guatemala. Maria came to us from Guatemala in 1984. The clothes on her back, which were all she had, were hardly dry when she arrived on the doorsteps of Casa Juan Diego. Maria was all alone. She was six months pregnant. She was eighteen years old.

Maria’s lifelong friend from her colonia did not make it. Juan could not swim. He drowned in the waters of the Rio Grande. He escaped from the problems and oppression in his own country, but could not escape the waters that divide us. The coyote who brought them did not attempt to save Juan; in fact, he threatened to kill Maria if she breathed a word of Juan’s death to anyone. Juan’s father kept writing to Maria about the whereabouts of his only son, having received her address from the family of Maria. Someone had to tell this parent about the burial of his son in the cemetery that is the Rio Grande River.

Julio Cesar jumped from a train in Odem, Texas, but slipped and fell under the wheels, losing a leg. He didn’t remember a thing, but woke up in the county hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas. The hospital social worker who called us remembered that he had sent us guests when he worked in Victoria, Texas–again a person in an accident who came to us through the Salvadoran consulate. The social worker knew that Julio could not receive help from local agencies. He was homeless because he did not have proof of legality. This proof is hard to come by. Hospital social workers just love Casa Juan Diego because we accept these homeless, sick, injured or battered people. We picked Julio Cesar up at the bus station which is our second home, and took him to meet Miguel, who lost both legs to a train in Houston.

Both were depressed upon arriving at Casa Juan Diego, but as their legs healed, they began to think about prostheses (artificial limbs) and we promised to purchase them for them. It turned out to be very expensive for us, but we made a promise to them that we had to keep.

One guest who came to Casa Juan Diego recounted the bloody adventure of her witness to a train consuming her immigrant friend:

“We were there half a day chatting about all that had happened to each of us. Then the train was coming and we went to take it. We began the race behind the train to get up on it. I was ahead and he behind, and I succeeded in getting up the stairs of one of the cars. I went up as high as I could so that he could get on the same car. He tried once, but couldn’t make it and the train was picking up speed. In his desperation, he began to run in the opposite direction of the train and tried to grab the stairs of the third car, where I had already gotten on. I was able to see that he couldn’t catch hold of the stairs and he hit himself on the corner of the car and one leg slipped under the train and it was cut off. I was so sad I wanted to cry. I didn’t get off because the train was already going very fast. I was able to see the blood, and my friend picking the blood up with his hands.”

Angel jumped into a train car in Laredo, only to have tons of iron pipes fall on top of his foot, crushing it. The Immigration Service called and asked if we could accept Angel and pay for bus fare to Houston. We made our usual disclaimer that we have no locked doors and cannot be responsible for returning the person to Immigration; they assured us this was not a problem because they were releasing Angel on his own recognizance. We agreed, and picked Angel up at the bus station, a center of violence in Houston, late at night. The doctors in Houston had hopes of saving Angel’s leg and inserted a metal halo to allow the bones to grow back together. Angel hoped and hoped that it would heal, because he worried about his wife and two small children in Guatemala; he had come to the United States to work and send money to them. After weeks and months of trying with the halo on his leg, the doctors had to abandon the idea and cut off Angel’s leg. Meanwhile, Angel participated in the activities of Casa Juan Diego He played the guitar with us each week at Mass, and also attended a nearby fundamentalist church. Angel was very discouraged when his leg had to be amputated.

When Angel’s leg healed enough, we raised the money to purchase a prosthesis, which is always thousands of dollars—but it was worth it. One day we saw Angel struggling to walk with crutches, clearly handicapped, and on the next day with his prosthesis, he walked erect across the parking lot as if nothing was wrong. We were ecstatic, filled with joy at seeing him walk with his new leg. And Angel was given new hope.

Immigration called from Laredo on another occasion asking if we would accept Oscar, who had just arrived with his leg cut off well above the knee. He was treated briefly in the hospital in Laredo to clean up the amputation by a train. When we said yes, we would pay for the ticket and receive him, they sent him the day after his surgery. We went to the bus station this time at 5:30 a.m. to pick him up, and when we were on the way back to Casa Juan Diego we asked how he was feeling. He admitted that he didn’t feel too well in spite of pain killers. He grimaced in pain when he said, “Es un poco fresco”—the wound is a little fresh. Fortunately, a volunteer doctor who was at our clinic that morning evaluated him, and sent him to the emergency room, where he was hospitalized for two weeks because of infection in the wound.

Oscar told us later that he had lost his leg because while riding the train he had stepped out to the edge of the car to urinate and was pulled under the train. With time and even more money because his amputation was to the hip, we were able to obtain a prosthesis for Oscar.

In more recent years at Casa Juan Diego we have been receiving immigrants who have lost limbs or have become blind because their diabetes was untreated. They couldn’t afford a doctor or sort through the bureaucracy in order to get help from a public clinic.

One man was living in the back of a truck and did not know he had diabetes until his foot had to be amputated. That man, whom we will call Martin, was referred to us by Adult Protective Services, the arm of the government assigned to assist adults who have no one to care for them. They said they could not help him at all because he did not have papers. Martin has been very depressed, but we have been working with the Mexican Consulate for his return to his family in Mexico.

In one month in 1999 we received several calls regarding people who had nowhere to live because their bones had been crushed, literally. One man’s hands were crushed in a machine at his work; a woman’s feet were crushed under a train. Two people who had walked for days coming north became very tired and decided to sleep along the highway. Unfortunately, a car veered off the road and ran over them.

We brought Samuel back from Ben Taub, the local county hospital. His foot was run over by a bus and had become a mass of red, swollen, flesh and was seriously injured. The hospital treated him for several days and would not let him out unless we came and signed for him. We thought it was a ploy to collect money, which we did not have at the time. Actually, the staff of the hospital was not about to let him go unless there was someone to care for him—no money involved. Samuel was kept on the third floor at discharge—which is almost all obstetrics, but he swore that he did not give birth!

We found Miguel wandering around a vacant lot near one of our houses. One side of his head had long hair, the other side was clean shaven—he would be perfect for punk rock—except he had an awful gash on the clean-shaven side. He also had a mammoth cut in his arm and where his fingers used to be, little bow ties where the skin had been sewn together to close off what was left of his fingers. Miguel had fallen out of a tree he was trimming and got tangled up with a chain saw. Fortunately, his employer took him to the hospital. Many times employers drop off injured men at Casa Juan Diego and run.

We have purchased a number of prosthetic eyes to cover the area where an eye was removed. As with the feet, patients and doctors keep hoping that removal of the eye will not be necessary, but the day comes when it must be removed.

A few times, the bones have miraculously healed themselves, even in this world. In 1992 Julio lost the sight of his eye when he fell through a loose second floor trap door and hit his head on the edge of a bathtub. The dust had not settled on the accident before the lawyer for the man who hired him arrived at the hospital with a form for Julio to sign giving up all right to seek compensation except for $500 the man would give him. Julio, a shy man, signed. He said he didn’t want to sign, but not coming from a litigation society like ours, he said that “what doesn’t belong to a person, doesn’t belong to them.” Julio was dizzy for weeks. The doctors wanted to perform surgery to remove all the injured sinuses. They had already given up on the eye. Julio went along with the idea of surgery until they came to the warning about the possibility of getting AIDS if a blood transfusion proved necessary. Not much of a chance, but a chance in a million and apparently hospitals at that time were required by law to get the signature.

Julio refused. He would take the chance of surviving without the removal of the damaged sinuses. At least, he said, he still had one good eye, whereas if he developed a serious disease he might not live at all. Julio returned to us blinded in one eye. His wrist and arm hurt badly also. At his next appointment the doctor checked his blind eye. Behold, he could see! (Not completely, but the sight was slowly coming back.) The eye doctor, not the other doctors, also discovered on that day, three weeks after the accident, that the wrist was broken and had to be re-broken and set at that late date. At the next conference of ophthal-mologists (eye doctors) at the medical center all the attending doctors took turns looking at Julio’s eye and Casa Juan Diego’s miracle—or rather Dorothy Day’s miracle.

Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete made the provocative statement at a priests’ retreat in 2007 that “I can only have certainty about the Resurrection of Jesus if I see contemporary evidence of it.” Which is to say, the Kingdom begins here. We have glimpses at Casa Juan Diego of the new heaven and the new earth, in the midst of suffering, crushed bones, and setbacks, while we are waiting for the fullness of the Promise when the Lord comes again.

As Dorothy Day and St. Catherine of Siena said so often, “All the way to heaven is heaven because Jesus said I am the Way.” This can be true even without some bones.


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The Bible passage from Ezekiel which inspired “Them Bones” spells out how the Lord can bring all the dry bones together again one day and put life in the raised body:

“The hand of the Lord was upon me and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me round among them; and behold, there were very many upon the valley; and lo, they were very dry. And he said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, ‘O Lord God, thou knowest.’ Again he said to me, ‘Prophecy to these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’

“So I prophesied as I was commanded and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a rattling and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And as I looked there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘Prophecy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great host….

“You shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live….” (Ezekiel 37)
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVII, No. 6, September-October, 2007.