Sr. Norma Pimentel gives emotional, powerful lecture on immigration crisis

Jack Allen, Contributing Writer

Guest speaker Sr. Norma Pimentel presented the lecture “Restoring Human Dignity: Lecciones De La Frontera” to an Iona audience in the Mulcahy Gymnasium on Sept. 15. 

Compassion, tenacity and awakening were the themes of Sr. Norma’s lecture as she shared her tumultuous journey through the world of immigration and spirituality. The event marked National Hispanic Heritage Month, co-sponsored by OLAS and the Office of Mission and Ministry. Sr. Norma, instead of rattling off her successes or personal achievements as one of TIME’s 100 most influential people, presented an immediate call for justice. However, at the center of it all is standing up for what’s right. 

Much to the surprise of the audience, Sr. Norma was once a fine arts student, much like some of the students at Iona. It wasn’t until a fateful evening that she discovered her vocation for others. Sr. Norma wanted to go to Pizza Hut with her friend, but her friend insisted they attend a prayer group first. As it turns out, the meeting was much more meaningful than any slice of pizza. It was so much more meaningful that Sr. Norma decided to devote herself to faith, despite the pretense of completing a fine arts degree. In the blink of an eye, her life changed completely.  

Sr. Norma’s friend had also compelled her to become more involved in immigration. Amidst the unrest in El Salvador in the 1980’s, they joined a sprawling protest in front of their congressman’s office to reduce American sponsorship of warfare. Disheveled and separated families poured into the United States without protection or certainty, with some brave Americans like Sr. Norma and her friend taking necessary action. As policemen chiseled at the crowd, Sister Norma was ready to leave.  She realized she had an obligation to do something greater than herself. “If you run away when it gets tough,” she said, “you stand for nothing.” She was soon arrested. 

After protesting in the 1980s, in 2014, Sr. Norma once again encountered injustice in immigration.  Immigrant families were dumped at bus stops in the United States, with no guarantee of shelter, food and other essential resources. In response, she opened the Respite Center in San Juan Texas. However, it wasn’t just her running the show; in reality, it’s quite the opposite. After Sr. Norma took to social media and spread word of the Respite Center, the community answered almost instantaneously. Families offered supplies, services and the simple courtesy of human interaction to the innumerable immigrants entering the United States. In fact, even a border patrol agent offered shoes to a father.  

As a community leader, Sr. Norma is no stranger to venturing into uncomfortable situations: mosquitoes, floods and rats are commonplace in border communities. However, there is one moment that defines her willingness to embrace discomfort – her visit to a detaining center. Unaccompanied children are assigned to detention centers, facilities that are often too small to accommodate the overwhelming quantities of newcomers.  

Sr. Norma described it as one of the most challenging experiences ever as young children were hidden away in cells like stray dogs in kennels. She was compelled to ask one of the guards to take her, telling them “I want to go in there with the children.”  

The guards permitted her to enter the room. Suddenly, she became appalled by the densely packed room of children. Deep, dark brown eyes peered at her from every direction. “Please get me out of here,” they begged. In situations such as these, Sr. Norma turns to faith: “Let’s pray.” Soon enough, Sr. Norma and the children bowed their heads and prayed for a better future. Even the guards outside began to cry. This transgressive, unexpected act of compassion demonstrates Sr. Norma’s mission, the mission of humanity. She teaches that, at its very center, society is just people; everyone is on the same level. Sr. Norma actively seeks those in need and immerses herself in their struggles, offering consolation and hope. 

Likewise, she calls upon her audience to heed the same mission. At its very core, students at Iona are just people, and all people deserve the same dignity.  It is imperative that the university’s community stands for human dignity both on and off campus. Norma warns that if Gaels cannot fight for each other, then the Good Fight no longer exists. Everyone is called to tenaciously stand for compassion and awaken their respect for the human person.