The National Catholic Review
Michael E. Engh

Life in the barrio changed me as a Jesuit. Part of my heart remains snagged on the razor wire surrounding Central Juvenile Hall; a portion of my soul is entwined with people whose language I speak so poorly. What began as a sabbatical from Loyola Marymount University quickly became a crash course in inner-city life. And when I returned this year to our gated campus on the affluent west side of Los Angeles, I found I could no longer teach or write or preach as I did previously. Memories of too many faces and the echoes of too many voices returned with me.

While on sabbatical, I lived with the six Jesuits at Dolores Mission in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles. They make their home in a parish carved out of a third-world barrio wedged between four freeways. Only five minutes away the glass towers of downtown Los Angeles gleam on the western skyline. Parishioners, however, live in century-old houses or in public housing projects plagued by gangs. The Jesuit residence afforded me easy access by freeway to the Huntington Library for my sabbatical research project. Every day I entered the privileged realm of scholars, but I soon discovered other riches in settings far less genteel.

The people of “the Flats” (the parish neighborhood) welcomed this gabacho (gringo) and smiled warm greetings whenever I attended parish events. The “minors” (the juvenile inmates) startled me with their typical teenage mannerisms and attitudes, which so closely resembled those of my own high school-age nephews. From both prisoners and parishioners I saw various forms of faith that enabled them to endure poverty and to overcome misery.

Meeting the parishioners and following the Jesuits to Central Juvenile Hall (or “Juvie”) enriched me in unexpected ways. I remember the Sunday in early December 2001 when the Aztecs arrived at Mass at Central Juvenile Hall. Wearing leopard-skin costumes and headpieces with yard-long feathers, six rattle-shaking women and men pounded out a barefoot rhythmic step to usher in the priests and acolytes for Mass in the gym.

Michael Kennedy, S.J., the pastor of Dolores Mission, had invited me to concelebrate the Eucharist with him. One hundred and fifty or so youthful prisoners sat in rapt amazement when the bare-chested leader blew a conch-shell blast to signal the start of the ceremony. The boys carrying the cross, candles and Lectionary approached the altar hesitantly, because the Aztecs repeatedly advanced and then retreated toward them. Reaching the altar and bowing to the framed image of Our Lady of Guadalupe festooned with crepe paper, one dancer blessed La Virgen with a smoking bowl of incense, and the troupe slowly exited, stage left.

The dancers, though, were not the reason that I remember that Mass so clearly. Also present that day were five nervous, self-conscious mothers of the prisoners, women who usually have to wait in long lines for an hour or more for weekly visits with their children at Juvie. Mike and the Catholic chaplains, Janne Shirley and Javier Strauling, had obtained special permission for these women to attend this Mass. They sat on battered plastic chairs along the dun-colored side wall of the gym. After the Gospel, five or six teenagers from Mike’s weekly meditation class re-enacted the Guadalupe apparition story in the vernacular of the barrio, a sort of devotional “gang-speak.”

Mike then asked the mothers to come forward and stand with their sons. Each young man read a statement he had written on how his mother reflected to him the love of the Virgin Mary. When asked by Mike if they wished to reply, three mothers shook their heads, but one woman took the microphone, clutched her son’s arm, uttered one or two words, and then dissolved into tears. The last to speak, the mom of a boy I tutored, began, “Mi’jo (my son), I remember the day you were born.” Looking into her son’s eyes, she described the joy she felt when, for the first time, she had held him as a baby in her arms.

The gym was still, and the prisoners and their guards strained to see and to hear the exchanges between mothers and sons. At the conclusion, the boys applauded loudly, and Mike asked the actors and their guests of honor to remain there with us at the altar for the rest of Mass. Javier took photographs, one of which I later framed for my room. It shows minors in the fluorescent-orange jumpsuits then worn by H.R.O.’s (high-risk offenders) standing arm in arm with their moms under the red, green and white balloons that arched over the Virgin’s enshrined image.

Walking down the hallways leaving Juvie that morning, one line echoed in my memory, “I remember the day you were born.” This sentence had startled me, because I had often heard it over the years from my own mother. Five days later, on my birthday, she repeated the words again, with the warmth that again was heartfelt—not saccharine or sentimental. A mother never forgets bringing a new life into the world, no matter if her son is a prisoner or a priest. And because our mothers are so similar, we, their children, are too, in ways I recognized that day with startling clarity.

Three days later, on Dec. 12, my alarm went off at 3:30 a.m., and I wondered why I had been so stupid to agree to get up at this hour. I moved slowly and eventually got down to the church by 4 for Las Mañanitas, the traditional serenading of Our Lady at dawn on her feast day. Almost 100 people, including children, were bundled up and crowded in the street and on the steps to the closed front doors of the parish church. They smiled and nodded to one another, while singing hymns.

A framed picture of the Virgin rested on the top step against Ana, who, with several other women, led the singing. Five men in mismatched clothes played their trumpets and guitars in the style of mariachis. For a number of Sundays the parishioners had collected money at the Masses and sold food afterward to raise the funds to hire these musicians.

The lead singer from the previous year’s celebration, a short, rotund woman with hennaed hair and red lipstick, wore a tight-fitting black charro dress and jacket that matched the silver-buttoned suits of the men in her group. Standing one step down from the entrance to the church, she had sung with startling directness to the Virgin’s picture set on a small altar.

The front doors opened, and the people surged forward with La Virgen and entered the lavishly decorated church. Row upon row of red, white and green paper chains stretched from one side of the church to the other. From the front door to the sanctuary, parishioners had strung twine across the nave and hung multicolored papel picada images of the Virgin cut from one-foot squares of tissue paper. Her altar was festooned with vases of long-stemmed red roses and star-shaped paper flowers in Mexico’s national colors.

The choir sang at full volume, and people packed every seat and aisle space in the church for the beginning of the Eucharist. After the readings, the priests left the sanctuary to stand in a side aisle to watch the half-dozen costumed men in their early 20’s re-enact the story of Mary’s apparition on Tepeyac hill.

These actors were volunteers from among the 40 to 60 men who sleep each night on cots in the church under the auspices of the parish’s Guadalupano Shelter program. Women from the parish and from other groups prepare morning and evening meals for these immigrants, who stand on street corners throughout Los Angeles looking for day labor. The men’s performance was a heartfelt thanksgiving to the parish and to their patroness.

A teenage girl from the neighborhood joined the cast in the role of the Virgin Mary. Her hands clasped in prayer cradled a cordless mike. “Juan Diego” had trouble with his lines, and the “bishop” coaxed him along when the dialogue dragged. Through it all, the people in the congregation sat in total silence. Not a baby squealed or a child fidgeted. Young and old focused on the play with a concentration that amazed me as much this year as it did the first time I had witnessed it.

When it was over, we moved en masse across the street to the school’s basement and ate pan dulce, with cups of steaming chapurado (chocolate rice milk). Looking at the now animated crowd with the many noisy children, I recalled what one of the women lectors who leaned out of her pew had said to me after the play. “You know, she’s one of us.” And I saw that she was indeed. La Virgen was with all of her people.

Michael E. Engh, S.J., is a professor of history at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, Calif.