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NEW YORK – Antonio Mendez, or “Don Antonio” as he’s known in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles despite not being a priest, came to the United States from Mexico in the 1980s. To this day, he remembers sleeping on the street without the prospect of shelter, and being hungry, with only a quarter in his pocket.
So, remembering his own plight, Mendez walks. Every year he makes a pilgrimage some 50 miles from Lake Forest, California, in the Diocese of Orange County, to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles to raise awareness for the hardships that migrants often face when they get to the United States.
Mendez first made the journey in 2014 from Santiago de Compostela Catholic Church in Lake Forest. The time it takes him varies based on how many people go with him, but by himself, he said, it takes about three days. The date always coincides with the Archdiocese’s Mass to commemorate the start of the U.S. Catholic Church’s National Migration Week.
“When you see someone coming up on the street, most people are very indifferent to the suffering of the people in the street. Most people, when they see someone in the streets, they turn around and go away,” Mendez recently told Crux. “I know what it means to be on the street. I know what it means to be hungry. I know what it means to be cold and have nothing to cover yourself, and it’s hard.”
“When you see the suffering of the people, you cannot be indifferent to them,” Mendez said.
Part of what inspired Mendez to make the pilgrimage in 2014 was the church bringing in relics of Saint Toribio Romo from Santa Ana de Guadalupe in Mexico. Born in 1900, Romo is the patron saint of immigrants. He was a Catholic priest until his death in 1928 when he was killed during the Cristero War, when Catholics in Mexico fought against the anti-church Mexican government of the time.
Mendez noted to Crux that when it comes to Romo “you hear many stories of pilgrimages, and they’re asking him to help them to come across the border.”
As for why Mendez continues the walk every year, the word that kept coming up was empathy.
“I want to do it to be in empathy with all of the immigrants who have somehow, one way or another, had to leave and go live in different places and find a better way to live because of any number of situations – drug cartels, poverty, lack of work – and you see your loved ones don’t have any opportunity in life so you’re looking for a better life for their future,” Mendez said.
This year’s Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles to commemorate the start of National Migration Week was Sept. 19. Archbishop Jośe Gomez of Los Angeles celebrated the Mass and encouraged prayers for government officials and lawmakers that they’ll work towards immigration reform.
Towards the end of the Mass, Isaac Cuevas, director of immigration and public affairs for the archdiocese, recognized Mendez for his yearly journey, saying “we also want to make a brief mention in recognition of Don Antonio … Don Antonio and a small group of people have come from Lake Forest California, that’s over 50 miles away, in a three-day walking pilgrimage to be at our celebration.”
National Migration Week ends tomorrow, Sept. 25, and coincides with the Vatican’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees. The theme for both is “Building the Future with Migrants and Refugees.”
Asked what more the church can do on migration, Mendez noted that the church does a lot on immigration but added that what’s needed is social encounters, and everyone doing what they can.
“That will be a big difference, taking the consciousness to the people looking around and seeing what I’m doing,” Mendez said. “It’s not about walking the 70 miles, or 50 miles, but it’s about what you can do.”
Mendez made similar comments about politicians and politicization of immigration policy in the U.S. He emphasized that in both political conversations and general society human beings have a dignity that has to be respected at all times, and that immigration reform alone won’t end the indifference towards others.
“People asking to have immigration reform so everybody gets a legal situation. I do not think that this will end indifference to people. That’s not for a political party,” Mendez said.
“You see the empathy and you make empathy with yourself with other people. They are human beings like you and me. They have dignity that everybody has passed over again and again and that’s not right.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg