building peace
Silas Crews

During a peace workshop in Nogales, Mexico, Soledad Luna, whose sign reads misericordia or mercy, and Jeannette Pazos listen to Jorge Pazos.

In the border town of Nogales, Mexico, MCC-supported trainings are bringing peace, healing and a new way of looking at the world.

Marycruz Sandoval knows how to fight.

From the time she moved to the border town of Nogales, Mexico, two decades ago, she grappled for a better life, settling her family on a vacant plot of land so she could pay school fees instead of rent.

Armed with rocks, she and other women confronted the owner of a water tank service, making sure water got delivered to their area out of fear if nothing else. Later, when her teenage daughter had problems with a classmate’s mother, Sandoval talked of buying her a pistol and urged her to fight back with an empty bottle or whatever she might have in her hand.

When MCC began offering peace workshops in Nogales more than a decade ago, Sandoval was not first in line.

Marycruz SandovalMarycruz Sandoval, right, and Manuel Morales Sanchez, an HEPAC staff member, work together to build a fence around a new garden area at HEPAC. Photo by Silas Crews

But she had learned to read and write through the community organization that MCC was partnering alongside. She volunteered in its kitchen, preparing lunch for neighborhood children.

“As volunteers here, we had to attend,” she says. “It made me very tired, very sleepy. I took notes and never read them.” She told others how boring it was and called it a waste of time.

Yet she kept coming back, and over time the lessons took root.

In a place where life is shaped by the flow of people from elsewhere and runs on the schedules of the maquiladoras or factories that line the border, MCC’s peace work — from workshops more than 10 years ago to trainings this summer — is transforming how Sandoval and others approach the conflicts around them, offering an opportunity to share and heal wounds of the past and opening space to talk about violence.

playgroundHEPAC reaches out to neighborhood children with lunches, camps and activities, some of which focus on peace. MCC’s Global Family education program supports HEPAC’s work with children. Photo by Silas Crews

Participants in the MCC-supported workshops study peacebuilding and conflict transformation techniques and learn about trauma healing based on the STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience) program of Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.

They also examine their own experiences of community, conflict and trauma.

“Our stories are the base,” West Coast MCC worker and workshop leader Luzdy Stucky of Tucson, Ariz., tells participants in a workshop at Hogar de Esperanza y Paz Asociación Civil (Home of Hope and Peace Civil Association or HEPAC), a community organization and MCC’s partner in Nogales.

Having a safe place to share a story of harm opens opportunities for healing. People gain power by examining the larger injustices that their communities experience.

Through the workshops, “we began to bring out and put on the table everything that was hidden away — a trunk of suffering and pain,” says Jeannette Pazos, director of HEPAC.

sharing during a workshopPedro Castro Rodriguez, left, and Guadalupe Felix share together during a peace workshop held at HEPAC. Photo by Silas Crews

For 53-year-old Guadalupe Felix, that meant for the first time talking to a man about the pain she’d experienced at the hands of her spouse. Pedro Castro Rodriguez, 58, her partner in the workshop’s storytelling exercise, shared with Felix the violence of his childhood and his separation from his daughters.

Telling doesn’t make everything better. It can’t determine how Felix will or should interact with the spouse who mistreated her. Rodriguez still lives in solitude.

But it has power.

“I feel relief,” Felix says, “to know that there are people that can listen to you, knowing there are people that have different problems than we have but they suffer the same way as ourselves.”

That’s particularly important in Nogales, where people most often moved from somewhere else for the opportunity a border town might offer and now, far from home, scramble to make a living and support their families. Workshops are a rare opportunity for newcomers and long-time residents to step back and reflect on what they’ve experienced.

Celeste with childrenCeleste Valenzuela Fernandez sits with sons Abdiel, left, and Santiago. Learn more about Abdiel. (See MCC's Hello children's page for Summer 2013, Hello Mexico.) Photo by Silas Crews

For 33-year-old Celeste Valenzuela Fernandez, raised in Nogales, that includes an increase in violence and crime.

Nogales is not as affected as other communities by the drug war, which has killed some 50,000 people in Mexico since 2006. But it is a place where people come and go, where drugs and guns pass through on their way across the border and where the stress of poverty and lure of gangs are strong.

At her 13-year-old son’s teacher conference in January, Fernandez listened as a fellow student talked to the teacher about not needing school because he wants to be a gunman like those for gangs. Last year, from just outside her home, she watched in horror as one man robbed another of his car at gunpoint — her son standing nearby and watching “like it wasn’t anything dangerous.”

This is not a topic people talk about freely, though, for fear of offending the wrong person or getting involved.

“In these workshops is where we can really express what we do think,” Fernandez says.

workshop sessionLuzdy Stucky, West Coast MCC migration and peacebuilding associate, talks about cycles of violence during a peace workshop. Photo by Silas Crews

The goal, Stucky says, is to open up discussions on peace so that gradually friends and neighbors can continue the conversations. She’s trained HEPAC staff such as Pazos and Tito Bojórquez (read more about him), and women such as Sandoval, to lead workshops.

And in their stories Stucky sees clear signs her work is taking root.

“It’s a very good way — to live in peace,” says Sandoval, who tracks her journey toward peace to HEPAC’s commitment to her over the years.

It started with learning to read and write. Then, she recalls, leaders began talking to her about God. She told them to stop. “God didn’t maintain me, give me the food,” she told them. “So for me, your God isn’t worth anything.”

But, as she says now, there is nothing that moves without God’s will.

She continued working alongside HEPAC, and over time, her anger at God turned to prayer — and eventually faith. As the peace workshops progressed, her outlooks and behaviors began to change too, so gradually at first that her family noticed more than she did.

In time, though, it was Sandoval who, instead of causing discord, would talk to those disagreeing and help find common ground. When young men in her neighborhood fought with rocks, she began speaking to them about living in peace and the respect they should have for themselves and others.

“You see and live life differently,” she says. “Before, the problems, even if they were very small, I saw them as very big. Now, we know that in addition to the fact we’re sustained by God, there are ways to solve that problem.”

What’s more difficult is convincing her neighbors that peace can be a solution to problems the community is facing. “The women want to go there and fight as we did in the beginning,” she says. “Now I’m telling them we have a different way of working.”

Sandoval urges them to send officials emails or letters. “I’ve even proposed there are times we can send flowers,” she says.

Not everyone buys this approach. “There are some friends that are not my friends now,” she says. “But there are some that are and have followed us in the workshops.”

a stone for peaceMarycruz Sandoval holds a stone she chose more than a decade ago to mark her commitment to peace. Photo by Silas Crews

After years of relying on rocks and threats to make changes, Sandoval now holds close a different stone — one she chose during a workshop where Stucky trained her and others to teach about peace and that she keeps in her bedroom. “When I’m very angry, when I’m furious, I go and look at that stone and remember my commitment,” she says.

As HEPAC stuck with her, she stays in touch with women from the peace workshops she’s led, sending texts when she has credit on her cell phone and encouraging them to make lasting changes in their lives.

“They say, ‘It’s too much . . . . I’m not able to.’”

And Sandoval tells them what she’s heard through the years from Stucky and others. “I say, ‘When God gives us a new day, we decide how we want to live that day . . . . You have the opportunity to decide how you want to live this day.’”

borderA bus travels in Nogales, Mexico, along the border with the U.S. Photo by Silas Crews

Migration and MCC

In Nogales, Mexico, as in many other places around the world, people and families are shaped by migration. We invite you to explore the following MCC resources.

  • Order “People on the Move: Human Stories of Migration,” a new traveling, 12-panel exhibit featuring stories of migration from around the world. Email or call MCC U.S. at 717.859.1151 to learn more.
  • See the Spring/Summer 2013 Washington Memo on U.S. immigration policy at
  • Go to to read the Spring 2013 edition of Intersections, a quarterly publication exploring the theory and practice of MCC work. This issue focuses on migration and development, including Christian emigration from the Middle East, remittances in Nepal, displacement in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mexico as a global crossroads.