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Pope Francis is about to start a trip that will include stops in Mexico's poorest and most violent places. The six-day visit will take him from indigenous areas in the South to the U.S. border in the North. He's bringing a message that might not go down well with the country's conservative Catholic elites, but that's not the audience the Pope is focused on. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Alejandro Hernandez and his crew assembled dozens of bleachers along the main thoroughfare in the dusty, poor, sprawling city of Ecatepec outside Mexico City.
ALEJANDRO HERNANDEZ: (Speak Spanish).
KAHN: "These are just for the 2000-or-so people who watch the pope drive by," says Hernandez. Another 300,000 are expected to pack into a nearby college to join the pontiff for Sunday mass. Ecatepec is infamous for its poverty and high rate of crime against women. The pope's stop here is fitting with his focus on marginalized communities. And this city of 2 million is notorious for its endless graffiti.
It's hard to find a concrete surface not covered with a piece or a tag, so the city whitewashed nearly four miles of the wall along the pope's travel route and gave 50 of Ecatepec's graffiti artists a spot to lay up their best Francis-inspired drawing. There's the pope with his arms wide open, the pope as a mariachi singer and even the pope spraying some art himself.
DANIEL MACIEL: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Thirty-year-old graffitero and computer instructor Daniel Maciel says it's a nice break from tagging walls or vandalizing the subway. He says he stayed away from crosses and bleeding hearts and instead painted the pope a 10-foot-tall Aztec woman and an eagle warrior.
MACIEL: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "Before anything, even religion," he says, "we have our roots." During a six-day stay, Pope Francis plans to travel to the southern state of Chiapas and authorize the use of indigenous languages in mass celebrations. He'll travel north to Juarez across the border from El Paso, Texas, and hold a bi-national mass in solidarity with migrants. And in between, he'll visit some of the most violent regions of the country hit hard by drug trafficking. Pope Francis said he understands what Mexicans are living through - their own, quote, "little piece of war."
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POPE FRANCIS: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "And of course, I don't want to overlook any of that," said Francis in a video message on Mexico's Notimex news agency. "On the contrary," he added, "I will exhort you to fight every day against corruption and organized crime." Pope Francis's words aren't getting the warmest welcome in some circles, says Elio Masferrer Kan, an anthropologist and religion expert.
ELIO MASFERRER KAN: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "His outspokenness is a thorn in the side of the conservative sectors of Mexico's Catholic hierarchy," says Masferrer, "the ones allied with the wealthy and political elite," he adds. Francis's visit comes as the Mexican economy is slumping and the current administration is plagued by corruption scandals and human rights abuses. For 55-year-old housewife Olivia Salazar, the pope's timing is perfect. She smiles as she rides her bike past the new pope-inspired murals painted for his arrival this weekend in Ecatepec.
OLIVIA SALAZAR: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: He's coming to all these difficult places," she says, "because we need him and we need his faith." Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Ecatepec, Mexico.
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