He stood with a table filled with goods for sale. I tried hard to keep my eyes focused through the beginnings of a blizzard. It was 1995. It was Berlin. It was winter. It was cold . He stood looking at me with a smile. I approached his table, now gently covered with snowflakes. It was filled with toy cars, jewelry boxes, and those dolls that keep appearing inside one another when you open one (then the next and so on…). I asked where the items came from. He told me, “Russia,” and he smiled as he pointed toward the ruins of the Berlin Wall.
We stood not more than twenty feet from what had once been the border between East and West Germany. With ten steps, I could be under the great design of the checkpoint. He said to me as he wrapped the wooden doll I had purchased, “You are American, no?” I nodded affirmingly. “You know many people risked their lives crossing from East to West Germany?” I shook my head from side to side. He continued, “They were seeking freedom and a better life.” He continued to tell me how family members had been separated overnight and the tragedies of those who did not survive the crossing because they were hiding in trunks or hidden compartments in cars.
I did not understand the message of his story until February of this year. I accompanied three friends to my hometown of El Paso . I did not realize I was going to see my mountainous pueblo through such different eyes. As we entered the city, one of my friends grabbed my arm and said, “Esa estrella(that star),” and he pointed to the star on the mountain. I asked why he was so emotional. He said, “That star has some incredible memories for me…” He stopped talking. I waited a few minutes, then curiosity got the best of me. I turned and said, “Tell me the story of the star….pleasssssse.” He said, “Only because you asked with your big eyes looking so desperate.” I pulled on his shirt-sleeve letting him know I did not want him to stall any longer.
“When I was ten,” he began, “my mother left my father in Mexico City, and we crossed the border illegally.” My heart sank. I never expected to hear these words from a friend I had known for years. He continued, “We waited in the dark and cold night until the right moment when the Border Patrol was taking a break. I remember staring at that star on the mountain for hours thinking of the new life we were going to have in the United States. After all, that was the reason my mother used all of the money she had saved—to bring us to a better life.” Tears began to run down my face. “We crossed through the shallow part of the river. Then we ran like five miles up the mountain to a cave. I could see the star all night. We didn’t sleep that night, fearful that La Migra(the Border Patrol) would find us. The next morning, my uncle from Colorado had arrived, and we began our new life.”
“I can tell you that I would never have received a college education in Mexico, but there has been a great price, Neomi. My parents (my father joined us after some time) cannot travel around the United States because they still have illegal status in the country. They have not seen their siblings in years. I was the only family member able to attend my grandfather’s funeral in Mexico because I am a permanent resident of the United States. Searching for a better life has meant many sacrifices. Don’t take for granted the freedom you have because you were born in this country.”
I’ve really taken to heart this message and have tried to focus on ways to bring a better life to others. Sometimes it comes with the great reward of seeing a child smile, because we were able to provide money for a birthday party. Sometimes it comes with great disappointment, because someone cannot leave the country to see loved ones in another country due to a denied visa.
But as hope must prevail, I reflect on the story of the Three Kings. I ask what gifts I can bring toward a new life. I challenge all of us to think, in this new year, how to bring new life to others.