CIUDAD JUÁREZ, MEXICO — Pope Francis’ final Mass in Mexico on Wednesday will be a watershed moment not just for this bruised city but for its native sons and daughters, including those who left but never stopped believing.
Natives like Phoenix resident Sergio Siller and his wife Rosa, along with their son, made the 444-mile, seven-hour drive to what Sergio described as a “thirsty city.”
By some estimates, more than 500,000 people are expected to descend on Juárez Wednesday for what’s likely to be an emotional day in a city that’s had its share of highs and lows. Juárez, once the beacon of democratic hope in the 1980s, fell hard on its luck with hundreds of women killed in the 1990s – killings that continue to this day – to a raging drug violence that left more than 10,000 people dead between 2008 and 2012.
It’s a violence that’s touched people on both sides of the border, transforming thousands of residents into so-called “security refugees,” forcing them to flee for cities throughout the world, especially in the southwest, from El Paso to Dallas, to Los Angeles and Phoenix.
Even though Sergio moved to Phoenix before the mayhem broke out in 1988, Juárez continues to be home. He visits about four times a year. He experienced the wrath of the drug violence firsthand. Cartel members murdered his next-door neighbor in Juarez and his brother died from drug abuse in 2011.
“It was really hard for my family. He fought,” Sergio recalled his brother. “He went for a couple of rehabs, tried to do that, and he could not make it. He ended up losing his life.”
On Wednesday, in the wee hours of the morning the 49-year-old FedEx courier and his wife will be among hundreds of thousands partaking in the historic open-air Mass near the “banks” of the Rio Grande. The Sillers are parishioners at Sacred Heart Parish in Phoenix.
“When I found out (Francis) was coming, I told my husband we had to go,” Rosa said. “I’m just very excited to get near and be able to feel the blessings. We just wanted to be in the same town. But getting tickets and actually getting closer, I can’t explain it. Just watching him on TV, I get emotional.”
Sergio’s sister Adriana Siller lives in Juárez. She said the community is rallying behind the papal visit.
“We look forward to his message of love and of mercy,” Adriana said in Spanish. “The people of Juárez are in joy. The city is transforming and preparing itself. Most importantly, the city is in harmony.”
A special altar about 50 yards from the El Paso-Juárez border was built for Francis to pray for the estimated 6,000 migrants who died over the past 20 years trying to cross the border into the United States.
“We need to be heard as immigrants. I’m an immigrant, my parents were immigrants, and we should all be able to have a better life,” said Rosa, who works in the office of Herrera Elementary School in Phoenix.
Overnight, thousands began arriving, quietly taking a place near the Rio Grande. Rosa and Sergio headed out to Mass at 4:30 a.m. – 12 hours before the start of the Mass.
“Juárez will rise from the ashes,” Sergio said. “There was a period of great darkness, a period of kidnapping, violence and corruption. But the light is coming back and the pope is bringing it. … There’s light at the end of the tunnel.”