El Paso project helps farmworkers recover 'dignity of their lives'

Carolos Marentes of El Paso, Texas, greets Pope Francis at the Vatican (CNS/L'Osservatore Romano)

El Paso, Texas — Carlos Marentes was warned he would have only seconds, not even a minute, to greet Pope Francis.

"They said, 'Someone will be there to take your photo. And in the time it takes to take that picture, say what you have to say.' I said so much, they took eight pictures!" Marentes chuckled.

Marentes, 64, is the founder of the Sin Fronteras Organizing Project and executive director of the Border Farm Workers Center in El Paso. Marentes said the mission of both is simple: educate field workers about their right to a fair wage and safe work environment, and alleviate the day-to-day problems that workers face.

"They are like an invisible force, not thought of by anybody," Marentes said. "No one thinks about where the food they eat comes from. Our idea is to help them recover the dignity of their lives. This kind of work can be very dehumanizing."

Marentes knows all about struggle.

The second of 12 children, he was left with much of the child-raising as he watched his mother prepare to cross from Juarez, Mexico, into El Paso daily for her job as a cook at a restaurant. His father worked as a bootmaker. Later, Marentes himself would take a job working as a picker in a field, but he heard the pay was better working in the Rio Grande Valley, which is in the southernmost tip of south Texas. El Paso is in far west Texas.

"I missed my family too much, so eventually, I made my way back," he told the Rio Grande Catholic, newspaper of the diocese of El Paso. "We had among the country's worse farmworker conditions. The average income was less than $6,000 a year. That was 1980. Today, the average is $6,700."

In 1983, Sin Fronteras was born. It is funded solely through personal donations and the occasional assistance from a public or private sector group like United Way of El Paso. It took 10 additional years to raise the money for the Border Farm Workers Center located blocks away from two international bridges that pour into downtown El Paso.

"For a long time, I didn't see the connection between my faith and striving for justice," Marentes said. "Being Catholic was just what I was, like being Mexican. Helping them was a political activity. I would separate those activities from my life."

He watched as the garbage collectors in Brazil gained their own demands for fair wages and decent working conditions through a brutal strike.

"I realized that the struggle is not about organizing the collective action of workers, it represents another kind of strength. Their main power was coming from their faith, faith in God and faith the situation would get better."

At times, the struggle was just too much for Marentes.

"It was March 2013. I'd had some kind of allergic reaction in the fall and I looked like I was burned. I was dying. The doctors couldn't see me. I had no insurance. Sin Fronteras had no money. We couldn't pay a phone bill. I was convinced these were my last months."

He credits El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz, Msgr. Arturo Banuelas and Marco Raposo from the diocesan Peace & Justice Ministry with helping him review and reignite Sin Fronteras. He got his health back. And, Marentes said, he had an epiphany.

"We cannot solve our problems without strength in our faith," he said. "We need power that doesn't come from ourselves."

Exactly one year later, Marentes was called on to join a select group of 100 social justice workers in Nicaragua. Someone suggested the pope would be interested in meeting the group.

"I personally never thought it would happen," Marentes said.

An envelope with a return address to Vatican City arrived at his El Paso home.

"Never in my life did I think I'd meet the pope. I can't even get an appointment with City Council. When we have meetings, they send their aides," he laughed.

And so in October, Marentes found himself in his room at the Vatican, wondering, "What does one say to the pope when you only have seconds to spare?" He began reading the survey he'd provided to farmworkers weeks earlier, reminding them this was their chance to send a message to "el papa."

"None of them asked for something for themselves. No one asked to win the lottery," he said with a smile. "They all just sent good wishes to him."

And that's what Marentes shared in his eight seconds with the pope. So how did it end?

"He gave me a rosary and shook my hand," Marentes said.

[Elizabeth O'Hara is the editor of the Rio Grande Catholic, newspaper of the diocese of El Paso.]

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