Kate Kilpatrick

Alabama pilgrims hope Francis will change attitudes toward immigrants

For these construction, landscaping and domestic laborers, a chance to see the pope is a miracle itself

PHILADELPHIA — For Ciro Hernández, 53, Pope Francis represents hope. 

An immigrant from San Luis Potosí, Mexico, Hernández works at a chicken plant in Alabama, and he is one of 53 pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Mobile who have traveled 1,100 miles in a bus to Philadelphia for this weekend’s papal visit. “I just want to be blessed by the pope,” he said. “I want to take a picture with him and shake his hand and give him a hug.” And he is hoping that whatever Francis says will help the nation’s immigrants.

Francis has already brought immigration center stage during this trip. At his speech to Congress on Thursday, he urged the U.S. to welcome immigrants, reminding them, “Most of us were once foreigners.” During his address at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on Saturday, he is expected to deliver his most focused message yet on immigration.

Hernández hopes that, somehow, Francis’ words will make a difference. “Maybe the pope can help us get the papers — talk to the government or president so all the people can get their papers,” he said.

The Alabama pilgrims are staying in dormitory-style accommodations at the Thomas Aquinas community center in the Point Breeze neighborhood of South Philadelphia. The center received requests from various groups that wanted to stay there during the papal visit, some offering to pay generous amounts, but the center chose to forfeit profit in favor of accommodating the immigrant pilgrims instead, said Sister Ruth Bolarte, the chairwoman of the center’s board. “This was a family group. You have a mixture of adults, children, young people,” she said. “And of course, they are Hispanic, [some] migrant workers. Those are groups that stay in the margins, unfortunately. Even in our ministry within the church, they’re the last group sometimes we think about.”

Olga Villar, the director of Hispanic Ministries for the Archdiocese of Mobile, coordinated the trip and joined the group on the bus to Philadelphia. Most of the pilgrims, she said, are living in the U.S. without proper authorization. According to Villar, the men and women in the group work in manual labor — construction, landscaping, cleaning houses. Most are Mexican nationals, with others from Guatemala, Panama, Honduras and Venezuela.

“I know it was faith that drove them through the desert and the Rio Grande,” said Villar, sitting on the floor outside one of the dormitories. “Seeing the pope is something so foreign to them,” she said, and many might have thought, “‘You’re not worthy of touching or being near.’ And this means for many, the impossible is possible.”

Volunteers from Philadelphia’s large community of Catholics, many of them also from immigrant families, welcomed the group with homemade snacks and handmade decorations at the Aquinas Center. Claudia Chavac, 23, a youth volunteer at a South Philadelphia church, is one of them. She tucked the corners of an orange sheet around the mattress of one of the guest beds shortly before the group arrived.

Chavac arrived from Guatemala at age 10 and said she was teased and insulted at her school until she was able to speak English. She said she hopes the pope’s message will motivate U.S. politicians to find a more compassionate approach to immigration. “I expect them to find a way to deal with immigration and give them opportunities to help them so they don’t [have to] separate from their families,” she said.

Maggie Martinez from Tallassee, Alabama, with the songbook that was distributed to everyone on the bus so they could hymns during the long ride to Philadelphia.
Kate Kilpatrick

As the bus from Alabama pulled down the street toward the Aquinas Center on Thursday afternoon, the volunteers welcomed the pilgrims at the gate and helped carry in their suitcases, along with a few musical instruments that buoyed their spirits during the 19-hour ride.

Maggie Martinez, 17, and Monica Vega, 14, met on the bus and became fast friends. “We’re the only ones alone without parents,” Vega said.

Oscar Castro, 38, traveled with his wife and daughter, who was born in the U.S. The family lives in Clio, Alabama, where they are members of a small, entirely Latino congregation. Asked what he prays for, Castro said, “That the day doesn’t come that we have to separate — for problems of immigration, police.”

Most of the adults have left family members behind to work in the U.S. Alberto Salmeron, a father of four and an evangelist to the Hispanic community in Foley, Alabama, said he hasn’t seen his wife and children, who are in Veracruz, Mexico, in six or seven years. The pope’s visit, he said, “will strengthen us more to keep going as immigrants, to keep fighting, because it’s not easy to be far from the family.”

Villar said being separated from their families is an ongoing issue for many of the pilgrims. “Especially for the women, it’s very difficult,” she said. “And I know in this group there are women struggling with that. And the reason they left was for their families.”

Thinking about these struggles during the long bus ride, Villar said, she couldn’t help thinking about the symbolism of an earlier era’s bus rides in Alabama. “The more I have reflected on this, the more I think of how Dr. [Martin Luther] King’s dream started in Montgomery,” she said. “For me, it’s a journey of hope. There is a lot of struggle. There is a lot of suffering. There is a lot of despair in many. But in all of them, there’s a desire to serve. And that’s what keeps them going.”

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter