A Maryknoll priest tells of his ordeal to return home
after Guatemala goes into lockdown
[googlefont font=“Cormorant Infant” fontsize=”20″]By Rodrigo Ulloa, M.M. [/googlefont]
On Friday night, March 20, I had to make a snap decision, filled with risk and a lot of prayer.
Four days earlier, Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei had announced he was closing the country’s borders due to the coronavirus pandemic. Immediately the airports, bus stations, city transit, shopping centers and tourist sites shut their doors to prevent the spread of the infection.
The newspapers and the television news were reporting that it would be impossible for foreigners to get out. I was in Guatemala with the possibility of being in lockdown there for who knows how long?
I was born in Guatemala, but had immigrated with my family to the United States 21 years earlier. On March 6 I had traveled to Guatemala City, the capital, as a Maryknoll priest looking into a possible site to hold a vocation retreat during Holy Week. I also planned to baptize the daughter of some friends.
After President Trump said he would close the U.S. border to international flights and warned U.S. citizens who were abroad to return because of the pandemic, I felt an urgent need to return “home” to my parents, siblings and Maryknoll.
I asked myself, “What sign do I need to make the right decision?”
My friends, the Santa Cruz family, to whom I am very grateful for their attention and wonderful hospitality during my stay in Guatemala, helped me answer the question. In the middle of this dramatic situation, they heard that the only open border crossing between Guatemala and Mexico was at the southern Mexican city of Tapachula. But all the country’s public transportation was shut down.
The Santa Cruz family offered to get me a car ride to the border. They said: “Rodrigo, this may be the last opportunity to return home; take it; we support you.” Without a doubt, that was the sign—feeling supported by a family—that I was making a good decision.
Saturday morning, I traveled with two friends who also live in the United States, Cristian and Brenda. The Santa Cruz family paid a driver, Rafael, to drive us toward the border of Tapachula. During the ride we invoked the blessing of the Three Kings, making them our guides and remembering that they, after visiting the manger and seeing Jesus, Mary and Joseph, were sent by an angel of the Lord to go home by another route, despite the danger.
As a missionary priest who has served in Nepal and China, I recalled the times I have had to cross other borders, such as overcoming the language barrier of another country, having to adapt to a new country and beginning a journey toward an unknown place and having to trust in signs of God’s providence, as the Three Kings followed the star on their visit to the newborn baby Jesus, Our Savior.
In life one accumulates and stores strength in the heart: phrases from our grandparents, events that reaffirm us, poems from our mother or father, memories from when we lifted ourselves up from the ashes. How important it is to have these reserves in our heart!
For me the phrase that accompanied me comes from the Bible, “The Three Wise Men trusted and went another way.” The wise men had to feel supported by the Holy Family, who also returned home by another way.
That is exactly what was in front of us: returning home by an unknown road. Upon crossing the border toward Tapachula, I thanked God for the blessings we received on the journey and the beautiful people we met along the way, such as the Mexican immigration officials, who made us feel welcome, particularly in times when foreigners face severe checkups in other countries due to fear of the disease.
The trip from Guatemala City to the border of Mexico took four hours. During the ride I saw an untold number of announcements for products of all types. To my surprise, among them was one with an image of the manger and Jesus, Mary and Joseph. When I saw it, I said to Brenda, “Look who’s here!” She saw the image and said smiling, “The Three Kings are with us.”
In Tapachula, on Sunday morning, March 22, we boarded a plane to Mexico City with connections to Atlanta, Georgia, and Austin, Texas. From Austin, we drove to San Antonio, and the following morning I took a flight to New York. I arrived at Maryknoll in Ossining that evening and since then have been under quarantine in my room.
Thanks to God I made a good decision, and I share these words to encourage you to draw on your store of strength, the precious reserves deposited in your heart. Let’s combine our reserves so that together we can defeat this virus. Our Lady of Maryknoll, pray for us.
Featured Image: Maryknoll Father Rodrigo Ulloa and his friend Cristian as they cross the border from Guatemala to Mexico on their long journey back to the United States due to restrictions caused by COVID-19.