Profile: Alejanrdo Siller — The Eyes of the Immigrant, the Image of God
Alejandro Siller was a successful businessman in Mexico when he encountered real-life suffering that redefined his destiny.
During a sabbatical in California, he came face-to-face with the living conditions of Mexican farm workers.
What he saw startled him. He met migrant workers living in shacks with no plumbing. many washed in irrigation canal water. families worked, and their children worked, in extreme heat. They faced depression, loneliness, low wages, no community support. They were trying to make a living a long way from home. Siller listened to their stories, and it changed his life.
“I never imagined the conditions they work in,” he recalls. “This was the USA. How could this be happening? They knew they were being abused, but they were vulnerable. I decided on a new goal in life – to be present to them and study the question: why must they live like that?”
That was twenty years ago. He returned to Mexico, but his heart was moving now in new directions. It took another ten years, but Siller and his wife made a decision. After their four children grew up, he sold the businesses and the house. The couple studied, obtaining applied spirituality degrees.
And they turned their faces north: They wanted to be of service to Latino migrant workers and other immigrants in the U.S., unsung people trying to cope and contend with a globalized economy and a self-conflicted host nation.
“To do something like this you have to trust God 100 percent,” Siller says. “We wanted to see if our expertise could help their situation.”
Siller is now a member of the pastoral team at the Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC) in San Antonio, Texas. The organization was started by Roman Catholic officials in 1972 to help parishes and other communities improve their Hispanic ministries. In a nation convulsed by immigration debate and resentments, MACC has emerged as a peace broker to improve multicultural relations, empathy, and self-respect on all sides.
Siller conducts leadership workshops all over the country. One goal is to enable empowerment of Latino newcomers, help them manage the complex emotions of their immigration, and also ease tensions or confusions inside the receiving communities, whether the community is a town, local parish, or neighborhood.
“I visit parishes and other groups who want to make changes in their situation,” he says. “I visit immigrants who are willing to face the loneliness and trauma they have known. They hide it. They try to smile. but they’ve known the trauma of having left a piece of land they’ve loved for generations. They know the trauma of the harsh desert crossing, or the trauma of being abused by authorities in Mexico along the way, or of being abducted and held for ransom.
“Why do they leave their country? They feel they must in order to be responsible parents. They are saying, ‘I cannot continue to sustain my family in this place where I am; I want something better for my children.’ They want to be responsible for their families, just as any parents in the world would want to be.”
The trauma they carry sometimes continues in un- manageable ways, he says – in drug abuse or domestic abuse.
“You can’t do away with trauma until you face it and bring it out. When you do, you will be liberated, and it will be easier to achieve integration in the new culture.”
The workshops have stirred immigrants to identify and meet their own needs in their new setting.
“I see them organizing themselves to pay emergency bills and learn English skills and create soccer leagues. They become responsible for their needs. They connect with church. They learn to visit state government offices, for instance, in order to stand against hostile legislation.”
But Siller sees that both sides – the receiving town or church, and the newcomers – need educating. both must somehow form a new community.
“They need to move to a new stage of commitment. They have to work it out.”
In Christian language, the question is always, Who is our neighbor? Who is the Good Samaritan? Siller says:
“Perhaps the immigrants are the Good Samaritans after all. They come here as hard workers. So maybe they come to help us. They are energizing our churches. They believe in family and sacrifice. We are in need of them. They are Good Samaritans.”
At church-hosted workshops, people on all sides get to know each other, learn about their daily living conditions, and celebrate Eucharist together. The hope is they find a new level of trust and truth going forward together.
“As baptized Christians we are all called to become prophets and tell the truth about the reality we are living right now,” Siller says. “One truth is this: we are created in the image of God, and that means we should all be capable of reconciliation and forgiving and showing love to ourselves and others.”
Siller’s dream is to see these workshop exercises in empathy break through to a national level – where ranchers, minutemen, border patrol and immigrants all find a way to come to the table to hear each other.
“My goal is to take all the different groups in the immigration debate and bring them to the U.S. capital and tell the government: ‘You are not doing your job. This is what I need, and you are not providing it. We need good laws that allow us to pursue liberty and happiness.’ ”