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Fire in the Canyon

Fire in the Canyon: Religion, Migration, and the Mexican Dream

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 252
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  • Book Info
    Fire in the Canyon
    Book Description:

    The canyon in central Mexico was ablaze with torches as hundreds of people filed in. So palpable was their shared shock and grief, they later said, that neither pastor nor priest was needed. The event was a memorial service for one of their own who had died during an attempted border passage. Months later a survivor emerged from a coma to tell his story. The accident had provoked a near-death encounter with God that prompted his conversion to Pentecostalism.Today, over half of the local residents of El Alberto, a town in central Mexico, are Pentecostal. Submitting themselves to the authority of a God for whom there are no borders, these Pentecostals today both embrace migration as their right while also praying that their Mexican Dream - the dream of a Mexican future with ample employment for all - will one day become a reality.Fire in the Canyonprovides one of the first in-depth looks at the dynamic relationship between religion, migration, and ethnicity across the U.S.-Mexican border. Faced with the choice between life-threatening danger at the border and life-sapping poverty in Mexico, residents of El Alberto are drawing on both their religion and their indigenous heritage to demand not only the right to migrate, but also the right to stay home. If we wish to understand people's migration decisions, Sarat argues, we must take religion seriously. It is through religion that people formulate their ideas about life, death, and the limits of government authority.Leah Saratis Assistant Professor of Religion at Arizona State University.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2467-5
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-26)

    On a spring night in 2008, hundreds of people in the Mexican state of Hidalgo pressed into the base of a canyon ablaze with torches. So palpable was the shared shock and grief, people later said, that neither pastor nor priest was needed. The place was El Alberto, an Otomí community located several hours north of Mexico City, in the region known as the Valle del Mezquital. The event was a memorial service for one of their own who had died in the desert of southern Arizona, shortly after an attempted border passage. Earlier that evening, several young men from...

  5. PART I

    • 1 Fire from Heaven
      (pp. 29-53)

      A community study produced by El Alberto’s health clinic in 2008 opens with a story about the town’s past, describing it as a “savage town” where “nobody entered for fear of being killed.” But in 1960, a man who had been working as abraceroin the United States brought back evangelical Christianity, “and from that day forward the town allowed people to enter, and their evolution began.”¹ While the image of progression from savagery to civilization may appear extreme, the words echo a narrative of progress voiced, time and again, in interviews and informal conversations with the El Alberto’s...

    • 2 Living Crosses
      (pp. 54-67)

      Catholics and Protestants alike frequently say that El Alberto is a harmonious town. Despite religious differences, they insist, they are bound together by their common heritage and by their strong tradition of collective labor. So pervasive is this notion of harmony that at first I had difficulty gathering Catholic stories about religious change. The first Catholic perspective on the past that I managed to gain came not from a resident of El Alberto, but rather from Lucita, a hñähñu cultural promoter who had participated in pastoral outreach efforts in El Alberto in the 1980s. By Lucita’s account, evangelicals did not...

    • 3 I Lift Up My Eyes to the North
      (pp. 68-84)

      Migration had been a good thing for her family, Cecilia explained as we chatted outside her house one afternoon in 2009. Four young children hung in the doorway listening. Cecilia said that it was thanks to her husband’s time in the United States that the family now had a place to live. Their house once looked like the outdoor kitchen—she pointed to a spindly structure made of wooden poles. Cecilia said that she and her husband used to cover their children with plastic when the water came pouring in when it rained. She held up a scrap of plastic...

  6. PART II

    • 4 Send Us Power
      (pp. 87-101)

      The house where I would wash my clothes while I was in El Alberto belongs to the brother of my host. To reach it, one goes through an iron gate and over a hexagon-brick path. The home is painted white, unlike the bare concrete of so many other homes left behind by emigrant families. The house is surrounded by overgrown fruit trees and weeds, slowly reclaiming what was once theirs. A mop-head sits inverted on a piece of rebar. Elephant-ear seedlings grow in rusted coffee cans. A papaya tree crowds the house’s dark-tinted windows, its spindly trunk topped with lobed...

    • 5 To Crush the Devil’s Head
      (pp. 102-121)

      Evil is alive and well today, the pastor of Templo Bethel assured me one summer as we stopped for gas at a PEMEX station on the way to a worship conference. As he drove the minivan, cell phone in hand, he and the other passengers had been telling me about the past. They spoke of how frequently children used to die of malnutrition and witchcraft. The pastor’s monolingual grandmother listened silently in the back of the van as the others told me that she had once worked as a healer who sucked children’s eyes to rid them of curses. Although...

    • 6 Shielded by the Blood of Christ
      (pp. 122-142)

      Alejandro was in his early thirties when he survived the border accident that cost three others their lives. His wife was pregnant with their third child. Alejandro had been returning to his home of ten years in Las Vegas after a visit to El Alberto. The van that he and his companions were riding in was hit several miles north of the Arizona border, in what was apparently a chase by Border Patrol agents. Alejandro was in a coma for five days. When he awoke, he found himself paralyzed from the waist down. He was surprised that he had survived,...


    • 7 The Night Hike
      (pp. 145-167)

      After the border accident that inspired the Pentecostal fast outside of Alejandro’s house, a crowd of people from El Alberto and surrounding communities gathered at the base of the Gran Cañón in honor of the man from the community who did not survive. The decision to light luminaries on the canyon walls came naturally, for the town’s members had been lighting the torches on a weekly basis for nearly four years as part of the Caminata Nocturna. The community began this “Night Hike” as a response to the increased danger of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. They also began the endeavor...

    • 8 The Mexican Dream
      (pp. 168-190)

      The Caminata Nocturna’s message is not for tourists alone. It is also directed toward the youth of El Alberto, many of whom serve as guides and actors in the border simulation for a year or more before making their own decisions about whether to cross the border to the United States. Countering the individualistic ethos of U.S. labor, the Caminata project seeks to foster a spirit of self-sacrifice, community participation, and respect for origins. It urges young people to realize that “here, in Mexico, they can achieve their dream.” The border reenactment is but one among several projects through which...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 191-208)

    El Alberto is not the only community of the Valle del Mezquital region that has witnessed its first border crossing fatality in recent years. A young man from the neighboring community of El Dadho put it bluntly: “They go to the North, and they come back as ashes.” Despite recent claims that the economic recession in the United States has led to a decrease in Mexican immigration, border deaths have not abated. Over 250 deaths were recorded along the Arizona-Sonora section of the border in the 2009–2010 fiscal year, 183 deaths the year following, and nearly 100 in the...

    (pp. 209-212)
  10. NOTES
    (pp. 213-220)
    (pp. 221-230)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 231-240)
    (pp. 241-241)