Week 2 in Juárez: Learning to swim

I just finished my second week in Ciudad Juárez. I’m “swimming” a lot better than I did the first week, thanks in part to a wonderfully supportive team that has done everything to make my transition into this new job easier. And I have to say, the “sink or swim” approach has done wonders for my Spanish. I’ve lived in Mexico for almost eight years, but there’s nothing like being forced to use Spanish almost 24/7 to engrave it more thoroughly into my being. (Below is a picture of young men from a juvenile detention center called CERSAI. More on that below.)

We’re still in the preparatory phase for the Building Dreams project. This week, we finished the process of hiring our new team, finished the preparatory work for the team training sessions that start next week, and began work on creating a logo and promotional material for the project. It was a very productive week—a lot of work, but very satisfying.

But the big highlight of my week was Friday, when I visited some potential beneficiaries of the project for the first time. My new friend Frank, a great guy who has a long history of working with youths, first took me to a place called “Lupita,” one of the Salesiano Oratorios. These Oratorios, like the ones I visited in Tijuana, are basically youth centers, with schools, playgrounds, athletic fields, classes in art and music, spiritual instruction in the Catholic faith, and more. We went there mainly to pick up the team of Salesiano volunteers that would go to our next destination (below). Here are a couple of pictures of Oratiorio Lupita:

Our team then went to a place called CERSAI. CERSAI stands for (in English) “Social Reintegration Center for Juvenile Offenders,” and the facility is basically a “juvenile hall,” a detention center for adolescents who have broken the law. And let me tell you, in terms of its security at least, it’s a real prison. We had a long list of rules to follow and things we couldn’t bring in (belts, watches, black or gray clothing, cell phones, cameras, etc.). We submitted identification and went through the metal detectors. As you can see in the video below, these guys live in real jail cells, with bars and everything. They all dress in identical gray outfits. Everything is very regimented, though I must add that in spite of all the prison features of the place, the staff I encountered while I was there struck me as kind and helpful and caring toward the youths. Here are a couple of pictures (I couldn’t take pictures inside—the first picture in this post above is taken from the Internet):

I don’t think they see too many gringos there. When we entered, I had an amusing exchange with the woman at the front desk. She looked at my fair-skinned, freckled arms with fascination and said in a friendly, bemused tone, “You know, you’re not really white. You’re more pink.” To which I added, “Yes, with brown spots.” We all had a good laugh.

Then, upon seeing “Gregory John Mackie” on my identification, she wrote “Gregory John” as my first name and family name, as if I would be addressed as “Mr. John.” She had read it like a Spanish name, which can often (when the person doesn’t have a middle name) take the form of the first name followed by the family name (father’s last name) followed by the mother’s last name (often dropped when a shorter version of the full name is used). So a person’s full name might be “Carlos Salazar González” but the name is often shortened to just the first name and the family name: “Carlos Salazar.” That’s what she did with the name on my identification. We had a laugh over that too.

Once we got in, I had the opportunity to meet some of the young men there: Jesús, Eric, Carlos, Ernesto, Noé, and a number of others whose names I have unfortunately forgotten. They were all curious about me—again, not too many gringos there. One of them, upon realizing that I was an American, said with a kind of wide-eyed expression, “So it’s really easy for you to cross the border.” The US border is only a few miles away from them, but from their standpoint it might as well be the border with Mars. I said yes, and added, “Someday, I hope it will be easy for you too.” The whole experience at CERSAI made me feel that being an American might be a positive thing for my new work. I hope that being exposed to a friendly American will help give the people I work a picture of kind-hearted Americans that is currently obscured by the barbarity of the Trump administration.

Along with the Oratiorios and the legal authorities who will send people to us, this is one of the sources from which future beneficiaries of the Building Dreams project will come, so it was great to meet some of these guys for the first time. Today, though, I was simply there with the volunteers, who regularly visit just to connect with the guys and do fun things with them. That’s what we did: We watched a movie (Real Steel, about a robot boxing league), and had a trivia contest between three teams, which I’m happy to say that my team won. 🙂 One more amusing moment: One of the questions was “Who was the first man to walk on the moon?” I of course had the answer, and I think those young guys were either impressed or thought “What a geezer!” when I told them that I had seen the lunar landing live on television.

I left with a real feeling of love and affection for these young men who, whatever they may have done, were friendly, smart, full of laughter, and eager to build their dreams. It will be a real joy to work with them and others like them. It feels like a holy undertaking. But I really need to work on my hand-slapping/fist-bumping technique. I definitely felt like a geezer when I was trying to get all the moves down! 🙂

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P.S. If you want to see an interesting video of CERSAI—complete with bad but readable subtitles—click here.

6 Replies to “Week 2 in Juárez: Learning to swim”

  1. Greg – or should I say Mr. John, 🙂
    I really enjoyed your entertaining description of your first visit to CERSAI, and I was impressed with the video. It looks like a good environment for those youthful offenders. Do you know the success rate of their re-integration?

    It sounds like you are in the right place, and I look forward to hearing more about your work there.

  2. Thanks for your great accounts here. Good to know your beginning to fit in.🙃 Many blessings to you and all those you encounter.

  3. Thanks Greg. I can see the little boys still in those young men. How wonderful they have a means to turn their lives around.

  4. Thanks for your kind responses, everyone! Martha, you ask a good question—so good that I asked it myself in our training this morning on the Mexican law regarding juvenile offenders.

    I asked the woman who ran the training about the success rate of CERSAI. She said that unfortunately, they aren’t keeping records. And they should. Follow-up is a big problem. When they let them out of CERSAI, they basically say “Good luck” and they’re on their own. (She did add that in her opinion, the director of CERSAI is excellent.)

    That’s one of the reasons for our project, though: We want to work with these young people after they get out of CERSAI, so they can build on the work they started there. So, I guess that the authorities’ unfortunate lack of follow-up gives us an important job to do!

  5. Love following your journey Greg. Thanks so much for the postings. You are truly doing wonderful work and are a blessing to so many. Love and light to you dear friend.

  6. Thanks, Janet! There are still days when the swimming feels difficult—like today, when I was filling out paperwork for the project’s main financial backers. (I have a tough time with financial lingo in English!) But I have a lot of help, and the project feels blessed.

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