It was a relief to take off for San Francisco to visit our daughter and her family for a few days. We were worn out in our efforts as volunteers in the struggle at the immigrant worker’s center, Voces de la Frontera, trying to stop the Milwaukee County Sheriff from turning over undocumented non-criminal workers to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) when they land in jail for minor infractions. Also, three friends, who were involved in the movement for social justice, had recently died. All three traced their activism to a sense of Catholic Social Justice. Death is part of life, but one of our friends died tragically with devastating implications for his family and the Latino community in Milwaukee.
Dori & John took us on a visit to the Napa Valley Cohn Winery for some sun, relaxation and wine. At the wine tasting, with bread sticks, I asked the bartender attendant about the workers who pick the grapes. Are they migrants? Are they documented? Are they members of the National Farm Workers Union? “I don’t know,” was the answer. “That work is contracted out; I’m sure they’re nice people,” he conceded. “Do you have Kosher wine?” “We sell it but it is not produced here.” Remembering Postville, IA and the I.C.E. raid on the Kosher meat packing plant, I wondered whether Rabbis had been successful to include just wages and safe working conditions for workers as a requirement for the designation of “Kosher.” Then I thought of Gustavo Gomez, a friend who was deported a couple of years ago and was recently killed in an auto accident in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Despite the wine and bread sticks I felt angry. It seems to me that they don’t offer the “work of human hands” in Roman Catholic liturgies; they offer the workers themselves to false gods. I can still see the distorted death face of Gustavo in the casket and my whole being screams silently in horror.
In the spring of 1999 we were organizing our annual Labor in the Pulpits program and Deacon Julio Lopez of St. Rose-St. Michael congregations promised to bring Gus Gomez to our meeting. The new comer was introduced as Gustavo Gomez, an Iron Worker and member of the Union. He was also studying for the deaconate. Gustavo agreed to do homilies in English and Spanish at two masses. Their pastor, Father Dennis, was cooperative and helpful in many ways.
I got to know Gustavo and found out he was a grandfather and that his mother Josefina was one of my wife Joanne’s students at the local technical college. Josefina was in Joanne’s bi-lingual math class for dislocated workers. Master Lock “in the race to the bottom” had moved to a low wage area and Josefina lost her job. In mid-July I called Gustavo to ask him how his preparation for Labor in the Pulpits was going. “Bill” he said, “I can’t do it.” He was working at the Miller Park construction site when the gigantic crane, “Big Blue,” toppled over killing three workers – all good friends of Gustavo. The crane accident was avoidable. Gustavo said that wind conditions were prohibitive for sending workers up in a crane to do welding, but Major League Baseball wanted the stadium ready for the next year’s midsummer All Star Game.
Gustavo’s wife Rose is Native American and one of the workers killed in the accident was Native American and a close friend of Rose and Gustavo. That year a relative of one of the sacrificed workers did Labor in the Pulpits at the Native American Roman Catholic Church.
The next I heard about Gustavo was that he was in prison. After the accident he started drinking and made a bad decision allowing arms to be stored in his house. The police got wind of it, raided the house and found the arms. Gustavo pleaded guilty to storing the arms and was sent to prison.
After serving his time Gustavo was transferred to an I.C.E. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention center for deportation. The 1996 immigration law stated that non citizens with a felony were subject to deportation. Gustavo had a green card – legal resident status, but was not a citizen. Josefina brought Gustavo to the U.S. from Mexico when he was five years old. Although he had grown up in the U.S. and was now a grandfather, he was subject to deportation. Gustavo’s family, the Faith Community for Worker Justice, the Iron Workers, priests and a Bishop advocated for Gustavo’s release and exemption from deportation. Former District Attorney E. Michael McCann was able to get the arms conviction vacated, but a felony conviction when he was nineteen years old remained. I.C.E. let Gustavo out of prison, but he had to report once a month while his case was appealed.
The concern was not only for Gustavo but also for his family. He had a wife, two children and a grandchild at home, three married daughters with children, and three sisters. One of his sisters was a widow with two young children. Her husband, a sheriff’s deputy, had committed suicide. Gustavo was also devoted to his mother Josefina. He provided emotional and financial support to a large extended family. Gustavo was the bond that kept the family together.
Two years ago, when reporting to the I.C.E. in Milwaukee, Gustavo was taken into custody without judicial process. He was sent to a detention center in Dodge County, WI and then deported to Mexico in chains. He arrived at the airport in Ciudad Juarez with the clothes on his back and $40.00. They released him from the chains. Josefina sent him money to travel to Guadalajara where she had relatives. Gustavo had helped Josefina purchase a small four-family apartment complex in Guadalajara as an investment and possible retirement home for her. Now it was a refuge where he could stay.
Joanne and I visited Gustavo in Guadalajara. His spirits were down; it was obvious that he missed his family. Iron Workers are very skilled, but Gustavo couldn’t secure a permanent job. He did do occasional construction work and taught some classes in Tai Chi. His mother, Josefina, in her 70’s, got a job cleaning an office building to help support him.
Gustavo’s family in the U.S. faced severe problems without Gustavo. A hardship visa was suggested as a way to get him back. The paper work was never completed.
A few weeks ago I received an early morning phone call from Guillermo, Gustavo’s brother-in- law. The shocking news was that Gustavo had been killed in an auto accident in Guadalajara. Guillermo’s 18 year old son was with Gustavo and was seriously injured. Josefina and Gloria who is Gustavo’s sister, Guillermo’s wife and mother of the young Gugi (Gustavo Guillermo) who was injured, had left for Mexico. Gugi insisted that his uncle was alive. He said he saw him get out of the car and was singing joyfully under a nearby tree. The police said Gustavo was killed immediately and the body had to be pried out of the smashed car. Two other young men were also in the car and were injured but not seriously. A gold chain was stolen from one of them by the medical personnel or the police.
Mexican and U.S. authorities allowed the body to be sent to the U.S. for a funeral and burial. There was also a funeral service in Guadalajara. The cost of sending the body back to the U.S. and the medical expenses amounted to $13,000 in U.S. currency. Family members in the U.S. and Mexico contributed to defray the cost for Josefina and Gustavo’s wife Rose. It’s more than somewhat ironic that I.C.E. allowed Gustavo’s dead body to return home.
Josefina asked me to call some labor people and some of those with the Faith Community for Worker Justice. The phone call to the Iron Workers was initially received with stunned silence, then the comment, “I worked with Gus; he was a good guy; a terrible thing has happened.” They sent flowers.
The wake was on a very warm evening in a packed funeral home with no air conditioning. Former D.A. E. Michael McCann paid his respects. Josefina was devastated as were Gustavo’s kids. Rose, Gustavo’s wife was numbed with grief. Joanne and I escaped the crowd, the grief and the stifling heat before the praying of the rosary.
The funeral liturgy The funeral was at St. Rose Parish, a former Irish immigrant church now Latino. A large very quiet group filled the Church. Mass was said by Father Dennis and assisted, or you could say “con-celebrated,” by two other priests. Father Dennis, a friend of the family, preached the homily. Dennis was visibly shaken; he said that he thought things were pretty bad and couldn’t be worse, but now he knows it can get worse. That’s why he chose the story of the crucifixion from Mathew for the Gospel reading. The image of the dead, battered and bloody handyman on the cross did it. We knew what he was talking about. But what’s the response? Dennis said the response is faith in Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus rose from the dead and so did Gustavo. Sadly, nothing was said about fighting the immigration law that is destroying families.
This was good enough for Josefina. She will continue with us in the New Sanctuary movement as a member of the “Comité Timón” (New Sanctuary Steering Committee) and “Círculo de Apoyo” (New Sanctuary Support Group). But the Resurrection theology was comforting. She wrote for the funeral:
“I entrust my son to God. I give God thanks for having lent Gustavo to me and to the family. Share with each other the joy of bidding Gustavo farewell. He is happy to be here in this Church surrounded by all of us who loved him. He has gone on with Someone who loves us more than anyone else in this world, Our Lord, who received Gustavo with open arms to give him eternal life. He now rests in the Lord’s arms.”
Josefina’s statement was not shared by word or print at the funeral mass.
But it was not finished; Gustavo’s sister asked us to go to the cemetery with them. A sorrowful and strained Father Dennis read the prayers at the grave. Gustavo’s grandson, five year old Jason, competed with a continuing litany, “no – no – grampa, - don’t do that to him.” Native American relatives provided somber drumming. The casket was lowered into the grave. Jason’s litany became more intense. The Native Americans invited us to sprinkle tobacco on the casket. Some simply dropped soil into the grave. And we still weren’t finished: a dump truck loaded with dirt backed up to the grave. As the truck dumped dirt and covered the grave, Jason continued, now screaming, “no – no – grampa – grampa.”
Jason’s father had been murdered the year before in a drive–by shooting.
A month after Gustavo’s funeral, the 18 year old Gugi was accompanied back to the U.S. by his mom and Josefina. He has a scholarship to a top engineering school, but won’t be able to attend this semester.
Gustavo’s tragic death and the suffering of his family place a severe strain on Faith. Is it really going to be O.K.? And belief; do our myths and rituals serve to explain and inspire? Also, where does Catholic Social Teaching fit? Does it fail as badly as the myths and rituals – is there a difference?