BY ELYSE MCMAHON
2020 has been a year of uprooting. Uprooting the places, people, and thought patterns that made me feel most comfortable. I left the city where I had studied the past four years and said goodbye to friends who felt as close as family, not knowing when I would ever see them again. I returned to my childhood home and had countless uncomfortable hours to reflect on where I had been and where I was going. I knew at the end of summer, I would be flying 1700 miles away from home to embrace even more change. As someone who loves meeting new people and exploring new places, I am equally averse to change.
At the beginning of quarantine, I read a piece by Gloria Anzaldúa, “Now let us shift . . . the path of conocimiento.” She narrates the process of moving from one way of knowing to a new way of knowing or conocimiento. It is a process of inner transformation and uprooting. She writes,
“To learn what to transform into you ask, ‘How can I contribute?’ You open yourself and listen to la naguala and the images, sensations, and dreams she presents...Your inner voice reveals your core passion, which will point to your sense of purpose, urging you to seek a vision, devise a plan. Your passion motivates you to discover resources within yourself and in the world. It prompts you to take responsibility for consciously creating your life and becoming a fully functioning human being, a contributing member of all your communities, one worthy of self-respect and love.”
Holding Anzaldúa’s words of advice close to me, I moved to El Paso and stepped across the threshold into the next stage of my life characterized by an unfamiliar language, vast mountains, and 100+ degree weather.
I went into this service year with a resolve to listen more than speak and tread lightly. I was determined to form relationships with my neighbors and coworkers, yet I was unsure how to do so without screaming of white saviorism or colonization. Not to mention, I was working from home amidst a pandemic. Forming friendships and becoming familiar with a new city wasn’t exactly intuitive. I spent the first six weeks of my time in El Paso reflecting on my path towards conocimiento and uprooting thought patterns seeped in white supremacy, racism, and patriarchy that have made me complacent in the past. I took a backseat and observed as I learned from my coworkers at Las Americas, some of the most incredible activists I have ever met. As I slowly met the people around me, I was still unsure of my place in this community and I held back from leaning into any new relationships. Afraid to do harm, I kept a guard up to protect those around me as well as myself.
If you know me, you know I am incredibly klutzy and forgetful, despite my desire to be seen as graceful and coordinated. I knew it would just be a matter of time until my clumsiness came to bite me. One afternoon, I was at the office by myself to complete a few tasks for my team. Trying to be quick and efficient, I leaned down to throw something out and quickly came up and hit my head on a cabinet. I put my hand to my head to check the damage, and was alarmed to find that I was bleeding. I was by myself in a new office without any sort of plan in case of emergencies. Without thinking much, I called my coworker who I had yet to meet in person. My team was incredibly welcoming, and my instincts came over me to call on them for help. She answered instantly and drove to the office with bandages, water, and immense kindness. My other coworker stayed on the phone with me to calm me down. Within a few hours, half of my team reached out to me to make sure I was ok, despite me wanting to keep my embarrassing accident to myself. Fortunately, the effects of the injury were mild and I was back to work the next day. Yet, the effects of the accident went much further than a physical bump on my head. That night, I reflected on my intuition to be able to call on my team despite just meeting them the month before. All along amongst a group of badass immigrant advocates, I was nervous to say or do the wrong thing and was unsure of how to integrate into my work culture. Yet, in a moment of crisis, I knew deep down I could count on my team thanks to their warm welcoming of me into their lives. I was filled with such gratitude despite a clumsy day.
A mere 24 hours later, I was working from home by myself when I went outside to bring in the garbage can. Excited to get a moment of sunlight, I absentmindedly walked outside without shoes, without a phone, and without my keys. I blamed my lapse of judgment on hitting my head, but regardless of what caused me to close the door behind me, I was locked out mid afternoon without any way to contact someone to let me in. Feeling rather dumb, I called on my instincts and thought of my next move. Should I wait outside for three hours for my roommates to come home? Or should I try to use the resources around me? I decided on the latter and walked next door to ask my neighbor if I could borrow her phone. Having memorized only my mom’s number, I called her and asked her to go to my email and find my local coordinators number. She did, but unfortunately my coordinator was in a meeting and did not see my phone call. Back to square one. Despite my embarrassment and beating myself up, I was met with warm hospitality for the second day in a row by someone I barely knew. My neighbor, a young woman with a three year old son invited me in to wait for my roommates to come home. She offered me water and insisted I try a Gansito, the Mexican equivalent of a Twinkie, as she asked me about myself and how I was liking El Paso. She made dinner as her son beckoned me to play hide and seek and watch Toy Story 4 in Spanish. The hours passed with gratitude towards my neighbor as I waited for my roommates to come home.
That week marked a shift in perspective as I continue to discover my place in El Paso as a 22-year-old, eager-eyed volunteer. The first six weeks of working at Las Americas I felt like a sponge trying to soak up as many immigration acronyms and Spanish words as possible. I was overwhelmed with admiration for my coworkers and wanted to figure out my place in the organization by pushing myself and learning. While I expected to learn some of the intricacies of immigration law, I did not realize that I was also soaking up lessons from my coworkers on hospitality. It took a series of absentminded mistakes for me to realize how welcomed I really had felt by this city. In moments of clumsiness, I was greeted by grace and kindness by strangers welcoming me to their city. I am still very much on the path towards learning and unlearning, and each day I am overwhelmed by the changes I am facing. But despite all of the discomfort, I am finding solace and gratitude in the relationships I am forming. Working with immigrants each day, I am faced with the opportunity to extend hospitality in the same ways I have been shown by my neighbors and coworkers, even when I am not sure of my place or of the right way to say a Spanish sentence. While I hope there will be no more head injuries or locking myself out, I am hopeful to continue to learn from the warmth and hospitality of those I meet in this sunny border city.
Elyse McMahon (she/hers) is a recent graduate from the University of Dayton where she majored in Political Science and Human Rights Studies. In her free time, she loves spending time with others, having deep conversations, rock climbing, hiking, playing Scrabble, and reading too many books at a time. As an Ohio native, Elyse is eager to move to El Paso and soak up the borderland sun and join the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy team. Elyse is passionate about justice, equity, and education, and she cannot wait to jump right into this work!
In Their Own Words
We invite you to get to know Loretto Volunteers and the program here. Volunteers introduce themselves and reflect on their experiences.