A Wall of Shame, A World of Difference

A few weeks ago I went to the other side of “the wall of shame” for the first time. Yes, that’s really what it’s called.

Here in Lima, Peru, a six-mile wall separates one of the richest parts of the city from one of the poorest. There is a world of difference from one side to the other, constructed with concrete. As Emma Lazarus so eloquently put it, there are quite literally “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and they aren’t huddled by accident.

The contrast of green, residential streets and steep, dusty hillsides was instructive for me. As an American abroad, I can’t help but compare this wall to the U.S.-Mexico border. Up close and personal with this border separating rich from poor, I am left with a fresh evaluation on the injustice of walls and fences. And from a dispassionate perspective on a literal border wall here in Peru, I would like to discern some of the consequences of our own border wall.

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One Solution Spawns Many Problems

Two years ago as a Jesuit novice visiting Lima, I only got a hint of this unique divide between rich and poor: behind the Jesuit high school in Lima, la Inmaculada, you can see a wall atop the dry hillside where fruit trees grow. Peeking over the top, metal rooftops are a reminder of the world beyond. The other side of the wall was a mystery.

I just returned to Lima in June and took advantage of the opportunity to join our current novices as they were exposed to life on the other side of the wall — no land titles, running water, or basic security. “El muro de la vergüenza,” the wall of shame, keeps various parts of San Juan de Miraflores — the poor district to the east — from spilling into green, spacious, and wealthy Surco to the west, which includes the Jesuit high school. Migrants from the mountains began arriving in San Juan de Miraflores in the 1970s, but some communities have settled there as recently as 2000.

For a half century now, the cycle of migration has involved taking and defending land — sometimes by force. La toma de tierras or la invasión de tierras, the taking or invasion of lands, is the only way to start over for those who abandoned everything in the mountains. Whether it be private or public land, it is a true fight to open the door to a better life.

The history of the Jesuit high school mirrors the dynamic of the district at large. It moved from central Lima in 1966, but the Jesuits faced a tough choice in the 1970s. With so many migrants arriving from the mountains, how could they protect the future of the school? After planting fruit trees to put the land to use, they put up a wall around the spacious and green high school out of a credible fear that they would lose the property if they didn’t. But it didn’t stop there.

Their neighbors were inspired. Property-owners from Surco, especially the development called Las Casuarinas, began building the wall of shame in the 1980s. Six miles of concrete later, construction has continued as recently as 2014. What’s more, the results are in: Las Casuarinas is the fourth-safest neighborhood in Lima. And Pamplona Alta, where I visited in San Juan de Miraflores, is one of the least safe — there is one police commissary and one state medical center and one public high school. The population is drastically underserved, without access to the exclusive resources on the other side of the concrete and razor wire.

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Walls and Theories of Justice

Where things get sticky is that arguments of necessity are heard on both sides of the wall. At face value, there are reasonable arguments for and against.

On one hand, Catholic teaching clearly upholds property rights. Doesn’t a man who paid a fair price for his home and garden have a reasonable expectation of enjoying them? Does he also have a right to enjoy the neighborhood where he bought property, expecting a quiet, green environment? Everyone can recognize the detriment to society if we take away ownership of property, especially arbitrarily. I think we can also appreciate the value of a good neighborhood.

On the other, Church doctrine makes it clear that private property is not for the benefit of the owner alone. The property owner has “the task of making [property] fruitful and communicating its benefits to others,” and “to employ [goods of production — including land] in ways that will benefit the greatest number” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, hereafter CCC, 2404-5). Put simply, there is nothing inherently good about accumulated wealth, but there is in taking care of others. And there should be nothing discriminatory in our taking care of others.

The Catechism puts the matter much more bluntly, citing Gregory the Great: “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice” (CCC 2446, emphasis mine). It is no leap of reason to argue that Surco belongs every bit as much to those who live in San Juan de Miraflores, despite their limited access.

In short, it’s easy to see why each side feels justified.

Yet for one side it is a matter of gardens, while the other struggles to live. Development and charity efforts are clearly insufficient and they fail to address political ineffectiveness. Since 1978 the Jesuits have supported development projects there such as PEBAL, the Program of Basic Labor Education (supported by la Inmaculada, the Jesuit high school). A Fe y Alegría school was built in the neighborhood. But the depth of need and the unique problems found in steep, hillside settlements overwhelm quick solutions and political will power. Not to mention the clearest fact of the entire district: a wall prevents people from easily accessing resources they need. I imagine that won’t be changing soon.

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The Warmth of Other Suns

This is my second trip to Peru, but I now call it home. For the next two years, I’ll be studying Latin American history in Lima, thinking about internal and international migration from one of the major immigrant cities of the continent. The trip to Pamplona Alta was only the first of many new encounters I will have with the Peruvian reality of migration.

My arrival comes after visiting the U.S.-Mexico border as a novice and living in New York City, also a city of immigrants. As a part of my Jesuit formation, it only seems appropriate that my easy, well-planned moves should be tempered with the painful reality of forced migration, family separation, and memories of homes now abandoned.

As I noted above, I feel a certain distance from the problems I see in Peru as of yet. The problems are not my own. I don’t wield any influence here. I don’t have elected representatives I can lobby, and my mission is not to be an activist or a social worker, but to study. I won’t lie: after working with migrants and simply having a Facebook account in today’s America, it feels good to step into a fresh reality and to be somewhat innocent again.

In “the warmth of other suns,” as Richard Wright wrote in 1945, I have new soil to let my perspective on migration grow and take into account a broader array of factors in policy debates.1

Some early observations:

First, there is an objective wrong in the wall that divides Surco from Pamplona Alta here in Lima, even if there were (relatively) good intentions at its origin. As noted, property and security are human goods, defensible to a point even with Church doctrine. However, the devil is in the details. The discernment of our obligations can be tedious if not painful. But as an outsider I can say without difficulty that it is a moral evil to prevent people from accessing basic human needs like clean water or education. Certainly the wall of shame does this, and as Christians of conscience we are obliged to look for solutions in the short and long term.

Second, piggybacking on the first, I see in a fresh way how complex these issues are. Everyone feels justified by his or her own rhetoric: the rich say it’s necessary for the wall to go up, the poor say it’s discrimination it if stays up. What side you’re on — literally — most likely determines the argument you find more compelling.

Simply put, the wall has made most of the difference in people’s opinions on policy — an ethical horizon no bigger than six miles long and ten feet high. It is as though one’s ethics were equivalent to one’s vested interests.

I see the same phenomenon underway at the moment in civil discourse in the United States. More and more, political argumentation is only argumentation, and never a dialogue.

But I’m not yet sure how border politics in the U.S. reflect the barriers that are on the rise, both physically and socially. Most people arguing about border walls and family separation are American citizens who either speak on behalf of migrants themselves or ignore immigrant voices. Unlike in Lima, Americans are all on the same side physically. So how is it that we self-select so strongly about physical barriers that it seems we are already on different sides?

I’m tempted to say it’s merely a matter of how safe we imagine the space inside U.S. borders is or was at some point in the past. In this case, publicized crackdowns on migrants and tall, strong walls are just “security theater.” That may be true, but I think there is something real here, something more than a pretty picture of America.

Much as is the case of Lima, there is a complex history behind the idea of a strong border. In America it includes Reagan’s anti-communism (which created a wave of Central American refugees) and Bobby Kennedy’s embrace of farmworkers. The full story would fill shelves, but suffice it to say that our image of America is born from real events that impacted our rural and urban, white and Black and Latino communities, all in different ways. It’s not just how we happen to feel when we watch the news or see the wall, but the real effects that have advantaged and disadvantaged ethnic, racial, and socio-economic communities differently.

Nevertheless, walls of shame in both Lima and on the U.S.-Mexico border speak subtle and disturbing messages to us that eventually constitute a world of difference. If we don’t recognize what’s behind that message so that our ethical horizons grow in height and length, we will be stuck with an ever-heavier moral burden: the cries of children screaming for their parents and the hateful shouts of our own neighbors.

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John Updike aptly summarizes our need for perspective; in his “Seven Stanzas at Easter” he was working out the nature of Christ’s resurrection, but his judgment is equally applicable to our own inhumanity:

 

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,

for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,

lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are

embarrassed by the miracle,

and crushed by remonstrance.

 

Our walled-in lives give the appearance of security and beauty, of a morally-justified history and home. But our inhumanity, our blindness to the miracle of human dignity, certainly continues to shame us before the most vulnerable people of the earth.

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Photo courtesy of Thomas Croteau, SJ.

  1. Isabel Wilkerson picked out Wright’s line to title her 2010 book on Black internal migration in the U.S. from the South between 1915 and 1970.

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