By Jacob Wilson
The highway from Tucson to Nogales is one of the most dangerous highways in the country. On the ranking of “America’s 100 Deadliest Highways”, I-19 comes out as 38th with 57 fatalities from 2004 to 2008.
Yet it is not even close to being the most deadly aspect of that stretch of desert. In 2008 alone, in the Tucson Sector desert that surrounds this highway, 171 people trying to cross the border were found dead, caught up in the Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) attempt to prevent border crossings through “deterrence”. This project of deterrence, building more and more walls, putting more Border Patrol agents on foot, and installing more detection technology in the border region, forces migrants to choose more and more hazardous means of crossing through the border.
It is down this highway and its surrounding desert that we drove on February 12th, 2016, the first day of our first overnight excursion on the Border Studies Program, on the way to visit the Nogales Customs and Border Protection Station.
Looking out the window of our van, I am briefly reminded of the highways infamous reputation. I can see that there is only a small shoulder, at the end of which is a steady slope of about five feet, fanning out into the sandy, brush ridden desert floor below. I briefly consider just how easily a driver could lazily meander out of their lane and dig their front wheels into the sand.
All the while, the beauty of the desert around us streaks by. In the distance are the perpetual mountains that pervade every horizon in Tucson’s surrounding desert, their many peaks shining under the desert sun. The highway is unique in that distances are posted in kilometers, while speed is posted in miles per hour. It is one of many marks of being near the border, a place where many such contradictions exist.
It is at the end of this specific stretch of history, beauty and mortality that the Nogales Border Patrol Station resides, one of many such stations along the US-Mexico border. It marks the most recent advent in this aforementioned history, bringing with it increased security and surveillance, increased militarization, and increased policing. As we near Nogales, the vast expanses of valley floor and distant mountains give away to the tell-tale rolling hills that signify we are getting close to Nogales. Sweeping and turning through the bases of these hills and their rolling golden grasses, we approach the station.
We pull up to the gates at the end of a side road lined with large storage yards of construction equipment and warehouses. The border wall is visible not too far off in the distance, its 20 foot tall rusted metal beams snaking through the desert hills and out onto the horizon.
We are met in the parking lot by men in olive green fatigues, the Border Patrol badge on their lapel and the Customs and Border Protection patch on their sleeves. The parking lot is filled with various CBP vehicles and pickup trucks, many with metal holding-cells installed in their bed for detaining newly found border crossers in the desert. The Border Patrol agents are tall and confident, greeting us professionally but also with an air of nonchalance.
They lead us inside into a room full of CBP posters and the faces of powerful officials: the Chief and Deputy Chief of the Border Patrol, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and The President of the United States. Almost every wall has a morale boosting poster, exemplifying the important work of the CBP with images of armored Border Patrol agents standing in front of American flags. For us students, the posters are a glaring contradiction to the reality that we had just passed through on our drive down here. What we recognize as so much pain and suffering being distorted into an oorah-style propaganda piece.
Our tour follows with similarly blatant ignorances. First we are shown a presentation delineating how the Border Patrol protects the US from terrorism (even though no “terrorist” has ever been apprehended by the Border Patrol). Next we are brought to the equipment room of the station where our tour guide offers us the opportunity to handle the same assault rifles, ‘less-than-lethal’ pepper guns and body armor that the Border Patrol uses to enforce their domain (who wouldn’t be excited to handle the same weapons that kill people and enforce fear all throughout the border region?). To cap it off, we are brought to the holding cells. There, we are shown the holding cells themselves and the people detained within them, just brought in from the desert and awaiting to see what their legal fate will be. It was possibly the most palpable example of the disconnect between the agents and the people they were affecting. The people in detention weren’t even told who we were, let alone given a say in whether or not their detention could be made public for a tour group.
Exiting the doors of the station after our two hour tour, I feel that my understanding of the Border Patrol has been greatly intricated, although probably not in the same way that our tour guides had intended. To see first-hand the extent to which people were able to disconnect their actions from the pain of others, to even see it as righteous, was sobering.
We say our goodbyes to the tour guide, thanking them for their time, and get back onto the road to continue the rest of our trip.
When contrasted to the surrounding desert and the history that the desert represents, it seems as if the Border Patrol station exists within an alternate reality. And in many ways it does when one considers all the different realities that exist in the desert. There are many parts of the desert that you can choose to see and alternatively choose not to, a quality that the Border Patrol uses to its advantage when trying to advance its own narratives. I certainly share that privilege of choice, the privilege to enter Arizona not as the subject of these systems but as an outside actor who can choose what aspects I want to see and what parts I don’t. I don’t have to see the death if I do not want to. Even the cops and border patrol agents who patrol all over Tucson can be ignored, especially if you are among the lucky few who they do not routinely target.
Yet for many people these realities are not things that they engage with voluntarily. For many people, the prospect of death, detainment and precarity are as much a part of life as is security and stability for others.
Throughout the rest of our time in the borderlands, we are continually reminded of these paradigms. I am thankful to see this desert, to hear the perspectives of so many wonderful people in the community and to be able to use those narratives and experiences to powerfully define the wide variety of realities that takes place here.
Clark Merrefield and Lauren Strieb, “America’s 100 Deadliest Highways,” The Daily Beast, 5/31/10, accessed 5/1/2016, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2010/05/31/deadliest-highways-ranking-the-100-interstates-most-likely-to-cause-a-fatal-crash.html
Maria Jimenenz, “Humanitarian Crisis: Migrant Deaths at the US-Mexico Border,” ACLU, 1-/1/2009, accessed 5/1/2016, https://www.aclu.org/legal-document/humanitarian-crisis-migrant-deaths-us-mexico-border?redirect=immigrants-rights/humanitarian-crisis-migrant-deaths-us-mexico-border
US Border Patrol, “Border Patrol Strategic Plan 1994 and Beyond,” Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 7/1/1994, accessed 5/1/2016 http://cw.routledge.com/textbooks/9780415996945/gov-docs/1994.pdf
Richard D. Vogel, “Reclaiming Their Stolen Birthright- Mexicans in the American Southwest”, From the Left- A US Forum on Combating Neoliberal Globalization, 1/1/2012, accessed 5/1/2016, http://combatingglobalization.com/articles/Reclaiming_Their_Stolen_Birthright.html
By Lena Novak and Somer O’Neil
During our time in Chiapas, we visited two migrant shelters, one of which was in Arriaga. Arriaga is a common crossing place for Central American migrants because it’s really far south in Mexico and it has La Bestia (The Beast), which is the train that migrants use to get from southern Mexico to northern Mexico. It’s a really dangerous mode of transportation with exploitation from cartels and possible injuries on the train, but it’s fast.
We got into Arriaga and it was a dusty little town bustling with people, especially near the railroad tracks. The shelter was unlike others we’d seen because we had to ring a bell and wait for someone to come get the door. When we walked into the room where we would be hearing a short talk, there were men lounging on the edges of the room or in chairs. When we came in, there was an awkward silence and then awkward hello’s were exchanged. Other migrants began coming in with folding chairs to make a huge circle around the room. Once we were all seated around the room, our group and the migrants alike, a man came in and briefly told us about the shelter – migrants could only stay for three days and then get moving – while another man filmed him and took pictures of our group in the circle. After about five minutes of this, he asked us to go around and say our names and where we were from.
After we finished introducing ourselves in a circle, there was an awkward silence. We were all seated in this circular format conducive for group talking. This circle was huge however and filled with so many people, so many voices, so many perspectives. So in reality individual side conversations were better for this particular environment. Sarah, one of our teachers was sitting on my left side, to my right was a group of migrant women. There was a nine year-old girl, her mother, her mother’s sister and a nineteen year-old girl they befriended at the migrant shelter. Sarah and I started asking these women the basic questions: what is your name again, where are you going, where are you from. The mother told us a story about how the nineteen year-old girl’s sibling fell off a train and was in the hospital. I asked if he is ok; she said he was. Sarah was then able to make a connection with the two sisters. They were planning on migrating to Texas. Sarah worked at a migrant shelter in Texas and thus had lots of information on the subject. All I had to say to the nineteen year-old girl was I like your shirt and the conversation slowly faded. I no longer knew what to say or how to interact. If I could identify with anyone in a migrant shelter I thought it would be a little girl and another girl around the same age as myself. I love children and can generally get along well with girls my own age. There were still many barriers that blocked me from being able to continue a conversation with these girls. For one language barriers, my Spanish did not compare to their understanding and speaking abilities. We had grown up in different countries and lived completely different lives. We were women but due to social circumstances, that may be all we had in common at this particular moment in time.
I could no longer think of questions or things to say. I knew they would respond if I kept up the conversation but it just didn’t feel natural. It felt a little forced. I thus sat in silence for a couple of minutes looking around the room at my peers. The chair to my left side was no longer filled, Sarah had moved her location to be closer to the mother and her sister. In the chair next to the vacant seat, a man sat quietly. The man seemed to be in his forties. I thought okay, here goes nothing and said, “hola”, directly at him. I received no response. It was obvious the man was in his own world and had not been listening but for a second I thought it was a sign that we were not meant to exchange voices and opinions. I decided to say hola a second time. The man immediately turned to look at me responding with a smile and the words hola.
This man’s name was Pablo and my conversation with him was so genuine and so pure. It is insane to think myself and a Salvadoran man in his forties are thinking about the same things. He was describing why individuals choose to become part of a group and what it means once they are a part of a group. He also views his country through two different perspectives, as a place of life and as one of violence. He wanted to debate with me about whether learning Spanish or English was easier. Through all of these small conversations I was able to see Pablo as a person situated in a difficult circumstance at that particular moment, not as a poor migrant. He was thinking and questioning the world around him, just as I was thinking and questioning the world. Although we are different in so many ways we were able to interact and form a meaningful connection with each other.
From this experience I learned the importance of speaking and forming connections with others. Although I was not able to upkeep a conversation with the individuals (I at face value) felt the most connected to, I tried again and was able to learn about the life and experiences of a man in his forties. Human connection happens on a much deeper level than the physical appearance of an individual. Physical appearances include: race, age, sex or other defining characteristics/social constructs. By talking with Pablo I learned about him as a human being in the world. He spoke about who he was as a person and shared his wisdom with me. His perceptions about the world continue to dwell in my thoughts to this day.
I tried to minimize the awkward moment after introductions by immediately talking to someone. It was the most freedom we’d had a shelter to just talk to migrants the whole time, but I wasn’t sure how to approach it. The man next to me was Adelmo and the man next to him was Pablo. Pablo looked interested in talking but it was difficult to talk to both men at the same time. I asked Adelmo about why he was migrating and he told me about his son being threatened and beat up by gangs to make him join. I suddenly realized he was crying and began searching my Spanish knowledge for ways to respond. I finally said, “Lo siento.” which is similar to “I’m sorry” and “I feel for you” at the same time.
Then Pablo stood and came to sit on the other side of me. He began to talk to me about the rules of the shelter – how you had to leave after 3 days, even if you were sick or injured, and how they confiscated your phone for security reasons. I became very aware of my phone in my pocket and began to consider how strange it was that my privilege extended even here. The migrants were not Mexican citizens, but neither was I. Yet I could just enter this shelter with whatever I had in my pockets and take time out of migrants’ relaxation before they continued on their journeys. I didn’t know what to say and I wanted to include both men in the conversation so I tried to ask questions they could both answer, mostly about how they were migrating and whether they were concerned about the danger. I quickly found that I wanted to be able to follow up with both of them on their answers, which was difficult. Finally, Lena began talking to Pablo and I turned my attention back to Adelmo.
But we didn’t just talk about his migration story. Adelmo asked me what I was studying and what brought me to the border. He seemed pleased when I said I was studying literature and that I was on the program because I feel it’s important to learn about experiences that are not my own from people as well as books. He nodded and said more people needed to understand the migrant experience. This made me really hopeful because I imagine my contribution to the migrant and Latino communities is sharing stories and raising awareness through my writing.
I asked him about his job and his eyes lit up as he told me about carpentry and building houses. I told him he must like hard work and he told me that building houses was hard work but that carpentry was just enjoyable. His passion for carpentry was so obvious. He went on to tell me that he didn’t have a wife and that his son was staying with his aunt while he migrated. He wanted to make money and then return to his home. There weren’t many jobs in El Salvador. So we began talking about what he did on days when he didn’t have jobs. He asked me what my favorite movie was and told me his was “Señor de los Anillos.” I was confused until he pointed to his fingers. His favorite movie was Lord of the Rings! We bonded over that and talked about music as well. I told him I liked folk music and he told me he liked romantic music.
Adelmo was the most surprising person I have ever met and I hadn’t felt that connected to anyone on the trip before that moment. We had spoken in Spanish for more than an hour about his migration, our lives, our families, and our plans. Not only did he give me hope for my idea about using my writing to contribute to causes, he also gave me that experience to hold onto. I thought of him when we marched for migrant rights in Phoenix, hoping that he would successfully migrate and benefit from the rights people have been fighting for for decades. He continues to be inspiration for me as I wrap up the semester with final projects and think about my motivation for this work.
By Maya Street-Sachs
“When undocumented migrants are criminalized under the sign of the “illegal alien”. Theirs is an “illegality” that does not involve a crime against anyone; rather, migrant “illegality” stands only for a transgression against the sovereign authority of the nation-state” (De Genova 175).
What Nicholas De Genova is stating above is that those who our society labels as “illegal aliens” or “criminal aliens” have not actually performed a crime against someone or something (i.e. murder or theft) however they have simply moved within the randomly, arbitrarily, created borders of our world. I think that upon moving to the borderlands, even for just a short time, this fact is all too clear in not only the legal proceedings that mix our criminal justice systems and immigration systems into one sweaty, packed, and fast paced court room, but also in the every day lives of people that have chosen/been forced to move to the United States, seeking work or simply a place to live in which they feel safe from prosecution and violence from the drug gangs.
To cross the US/Mexico border from Mexico for the first time is not a crime, but a violation of our country’s immigration policies.
To cross the US/Mexico border from Mexico for a second time is a criminal act followed by a court proceedings and time in detention, county jail, or prison, followed by deportation.
These might sound simple and objective but these policies function in exactly the opposite manner— they are confusing, arbitrary, and unjust when actually implemented into real life settings and with real life people. Through the militarization of the border, and permeation of these policies into the everyday lives of immigrants in the United States, non-citizen individuals are no longer treated like humans first above all else, but instead as “illegals”. There are many steps along the journey and policies that migrants jump through in order to reach the United States in which I feel that individuals are treated as “illegal” before they are treated as humans — from the moment they begin their journey, to arrest, to detention, to deportation. Our country has policies that govern each of these steps of this inevitable process that strip migrants of their rights to “life, liberty and security of person” as stated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This 1948 document also states in Article 6 “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law”. Our immigrations system has completely disregarded these rights. Below I will describe two out of many “spaces” within the migrant journey in which migrants’ “illegality” immediately strips them of their “human rights” in the eyes of United States immigration policy.
Border Patrol agents act under the Department of Homeland Security and within that, the US Customs and Border Protection — employing more than 21,000 officers today. As a federal law enforcement agency, Border Patrol agents actually do most of their work in an arguably law-less land (the desert) and concerning individuals who are deemed “illegal” in the eyes of the United States government, making it so that their policies and actions lack even less morality and accountability than actual police officers who at least, especially today, have more eyes from the public watching their day to day moves.
Above, we can see the guidelines that Border Patrol agents are trained to use psychologically and practically when it comes to their use of force out in the field — usually the desert. Even though the Border Patrol agent that we spoke with at the Tucson Sector Border Patrol office — a man named Ricky Ortega — was well prepared and well versed on how to speak to a liberal and critical group of visitors, it was clear that Ortega has no moral qualms with acting within this top portion of the diagram — using deadly force towards individuals with substantially less power and force than the agents. While meeting with agent Ricky Ortega I was struck by a number of sound bites that he threw at us.
Here are just a couple from our visit on Friday, February 12, 2016:
“…Let’s say we [Border Patrol Agents] were being assaulted…” / “…We don’t know what we don’t know…” / “…We aren’t trying to kill people…” / “…10-20% [of people crossing the border] have some sort of criminal history. The vast majority of people crossing are good people… however we are always on a high threat level — everyone is that 20%…” / “…We can shoot into Mexico…” / “…We are responsible for our bullets…” / “… If we shoot, we don’t investigate…” / “…Officers are always innocent before proven guilty…” / “…Releasing names makes it seem like an [agent] is guilty…” / “…We hope we don’t have to use firearms…” / “…All threats agency…” / “…you can exceed level of force…” / “…You can go beyond their [migrants] level of force…” / “…You never know what happens here…”/ “…Based on an officer’s perception…” / “…We are so used to people using force against us…”/ “…We don’t shoot to kill, we shoot to stop the threat…”
For me, I think what the above unorganized amalgamation of words that came out of Ricky Ortega’s mouth prove is how the desert becomes a kind-of anything goes land in the eyes of law enforcement. As Border Patrol agents physically and technologically stalk and detect “illegals” they then apprehend them in more or less any fashion that they deem necessary in the moment — verbally, physically, or both. The power dynamic in these situations could not be more unequal. Agents often speak very little or poor Spanish, they are in government-issued uniforms, half the time they are white, are mostly male, and most importantly perhaps, they are citizens and they love their country. The migrants, on the other hand, often do not speak a word of English (or sometimes even Spanish for that matter), are in dirty, tattered, clothing that they have been wearing for days, they are non-white, sometimes they are women and children, they have no access to a weapon besides a rock, and most importantly perhaps, they are non-citizens, or “illegals”, “bodies”, and “aliens” as agents so love to call them. They are “illegally” trying to enter the United States because life where they are coming from just doesn’t seem possible anymore. What all of this comes down to is that agents do not need to have much, if any, moral, political, or social justification for anything that they do out in the desert, for in their eyes they are protecting our country from those that do not belong within our borders. In this way, migrants lose all of their rights as people and humans within this initial step of their journey as they are solely and immediately labeled as “illegals” before they can even open their mouth to tell their story, not that anyone would listen.
The combination of agents’ and many government officials’ notion that migrants are dangerous and/or terrorists and need to be stopped at all costs in order to perform one’s job correctly, and our legal and immigration systems’ ability in general to organize policies and tactics in such a way that individual agents have the jurisdiction to decide in the moment what is best in that situation makes it so that the model above doesn’t really mean all that much. What we can learn from the mindset of Ricky Ortega, the very existence of such a militarized, active, and large, Border Patrol faction, and the extreme lack of legal accountability for agents who have murdered someone in the desert or by the border wall, is that no matter what the situation might be, migrants traveling in the desert find themselves in this in between, law-less space where they are not looked at as humans who deserve protection under even universal human rights laws. As Border Patrol agents are trained to view the status of these men, women, and children as first and for most “illegal”, they are stripped of any other identity such as refugee, migrant, farmer, father, or musician, and thus find themselves without any legal protection and in this face of imminent deadly force use against them.
By Maggie Schumann
In March, the Border Studies Program journeyed to Chiapas, Mexico to learn about how US policy has motivated and shaped migration from Mexico and Central America. One aspect of the trip was a visit to a Zapatista caracol, the seat of an autonomous and representative municipal government affiliated with the 1994 Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) rebellion. There are five caracoles, which means snail, in Chiapas where these autonomous governments, called Juntas del Buen Gobierno, or Meetings of Good Government, gather. Our opportunity to visit a caracol was a special one. You need a trusted connection to enter into their communities — after all, they are in rebellion against the Mexican state. The day we were scheduled to go, I happened to feel horrible with my stomach being turned over by an intestinal illness. However, I decided to go nonetheless, thinking that I would never have another opportunity to learn of the Zapatista uprising directly from its members.
I didn’t know much of the Zapatista movement before our visit, so instead I started reading about it afterwards. This is a bit of a summary of what I’ve learned: The Zapatista movement started publicly on the 1st of January, 1994 after ten years of planning in the forests of Chiapas. That day, January 1st, 1994 was chosen to be the same day that NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, came into effect. The Zapatistas protested against the neoliberal state and its capitalist projects, exemplified by NAFTA, that were robbing the indigenous people of Chiapas of their traditional livelihoods close to the earth. The Zapatistas in their trademark covered faces took control of over 500 territories in Chiapas, including San Cristóbal de las Casas, in the first weeks of January. The Mexican government’s response was both rapid and strong, and the Zapatistas retreated for the mountains. The peace talks that followed saw the efforts of the Mexican government to trade so-called development funds for the submission of the EZLN. There was a cease-fire from the 12th of January that lasted for two years, until the signing of the San Andrés Accords, that were supposed to give more rights to the indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, the Mexican government has never followed through on their promises. All the while, in those years the EZLN and especially its mysterious Subcomandante Marcos, fought a battle of public opinion and won the sympathy of the Mexican people and international activists.
In 2003, the Aguascalientes, centers of the Zapatista Army, were converted to be centers of municipal and autonomous government. Each one of the Aguascalientes became one caracol, a place where representatives of each community met in a Junta del Buen Gobierno. These governments served the same functions as state-sanctioned municipal governments but were autonomous and Zapatista. One of these Juntas, one of these governments, was the one we visited. The ten representatives that make up the Junta also spoke with us.
The Junta, remarkably diverse in both age and gender, described to us the history and politics of their work. The group described how they had been chosen by their communities. The appointment to the Junta lasts for three years, cannot be turned down, and requires that they travel to the caracol once per month to meet with the Junta for a week-long period. The representatives are not paid, but while they are away from home working in the Junta, their communities care for their crops and families. There is no campaigning. The Zapatista process of electing representatives made a great impression on me, especially as I have been interning with Congressman Raúl Grijalva’s Tucson District Office for the semester. The contrast between the Zapatista elections and our own couldn’t be more stark. The Zapatista way omits all of the competitivity, expense, and in this moment, pain, of political campaigns. We would likely have better representatives, too. However, this model is likely enabled by smaller communities in which all members know each other.
The Junta also told us a bit about their rules and initiatives in the Zapatista communities. For example, one set of rules regards alcohol in the Zapatista pueblos. Each Zapatista community prohibits all alcohol. If someone violates this rule, the first and second times they have opportunities to change their behavior. If there is a third time, the community meets to decide if they will expel the individual from the pueblo. This rule is one example of how communal decision-making is worked into their form of justice.
The Zapatista health centers are one of the Junta’s initiatives that seeks real, as opposed to neoliberal, development. Any member of the community can access medical attention at a Zapatista health center. If someone can’t pay for the medical services, she can pay with what she has, maybe corn, beans, or labor. Families only have to pay when the treatment is successful; if the family member dies, the family pays nothing. These examples of Zapatista rules, communal justice and initiatives for real, community-defined development are ways of governance I hope to dwell on for a long time.
We stayed at the caracol for only one night. Too soon, we were leaving. But all of us carried the experience and the example of the Zapatistas into our studies and our lives afterwards. For one student, the visit to the caracol challenged her Quaker and pacifist identity. For me, the visit showed the power of local government and the merits of working outside of the system of official government to enact change. Someone said to us when we were in the caracol that our task was to reimagine and reconstruct Zapatismo for our own communities. For now, I am continuing in that thought experiment, bearing in mind the “Mandar Obedeciendo de EZLN / Obeying Mandate of the EZLN:
- Obedecer, no mandar / To obey, not order.
- Bajar, no subir / To lower oneself, not raise oneself.
- Proponer, no imponer / To propose, not impose.
- Convencer, no vencer / To convince, not conquer.
- Representar, no suplantar / To represent, not supplant.
- Servir, no servirse / To serve, not serve oneself.
- Construir, no destruir / To construct, not destroy.”
Sources and additional readings:
“The Zapatista Uprising: The Best Post-Modern Revolution.” http://vivatropical.com/podcast-mexico-zapatista-post-modern-revolution
Mexico Solidarity Network. “Zapatismo”. http://www.mexicosolidarity.org/node/317
Hayden, Tom. The Zapatista Reader. Nation Books, 2009.
Grant, Will. “Struggling on: Zapatistas 20 years after the uprising”. BBC Mundo. 1 January 2014. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-25550654
All photos by Jacob Wilson and of murals at the Zapatista caracol.
Nogales: Through it all
The first day of our semester we went to Nogales, Arizona to have our first experience in the shadow of a wall. A wall that metaphorically you can find, more like a concept that signifies separation, along the whole border between the US and Mexico, and that physically exists for four miles in southern Arizona, dividing the Nogales of the United States of America from the Nogales of the United States of Mexico.
For me, this experience gave me a frame of reference for the whole of my time in Ambos Nogales and even for my entire semester with the Border Studies Program. I came as an American, ignorant, someone who had only flown in a plane to La Ciudad de México and had never crossed a border so obvious and explicit, so strong and impotent, so transcendent. A border where you don’t even have to show papers on one side, but on the other you have to wait for an hour, carry suitable identification on your person, and undergo scrutiny at multiple checkpoints to cross back.
Today, the wall is made of tall bars in place of the solid barrier that used to divide the land it sits on. Standing next to the wall, I felt the magnitude of that day. I was standing on top of a small hill, and at the bottom was México. It was cool, one of the special days for me before the heat of the spring arrived in Tucson. I looked through the bars, looking down at everything below me: everything under the colossal power of the United States of America, everything under the privilege with which I came and with which I come today. Through the bars, México looked like a zoo, a jail, an exhibit: trapped. I felt the wind blowing through the bars and saw the sun rising between two of them. Even a wall this tall (12 feet) cannot combat the natural forces of Mother Earth, just as it can’t combat migration which itself is a natural force, an inherent behavior of human beings. I also felt the presence of the cameras mounted on the tower pointed at México. I felt like as if of my movements were being recorded, as if the officers in the Border Patrol truck with the tinted windows were watching me.
Today it’s very easy to identify which side you’re on based on what surrounds you. On the US side there are Duty Free stores, wide streets, and corporate fast-food joints. On the Mexican side there are cheap pharmacies, dental clinics, and street vendors selling tacos in the crowded and narrow corridors surrounding the Port of Entry. But time is impermanent, and things have changed a lot here. I remember hearing stories of parties in the central plaza of, what for many years used to be named, Ambos Nogales, where residents from both México and the US would visit family and celebrate their shared city. I remember hearing stories of Mexicanos passing Cuban cigars and alcohol through doors and windows to the US side during Prohibition. Things have not always been how they are today. The land has a memory of millions of years without a wall cutting through this small spit of immense desert. And there is a future here: the possibility of change.
I have spent a lot of time now on these two “sides” of this small area of our world. I have stood next to the monument to José Antonio – a fifteen-year-old boy who was shot to death by a Border Patrol agent through the bars of the wall – and imagined the impossible task of throwing a rock over it – the official reason for such a use of force. I have heard stories of people climbing up alongside buses, falling off the wall at night onto the other side, breaking knees or legs and getting to Tucson in need of medical care they cannot legally seek out. I have heard of the 50-foot wall and the 51-foot ladder, a common symbol used to describe the worthlessness of building more or taller walls because people who want will always find other ways to cross this 2,000 mile-long stretch of Borderlands.
Maggie, one of the compas of our group, ruminated once about the “coexistence of normality and injustice”. This refers to the idea that, day after day, it’s possible to forget what has happened that was unjust in the specific moment in which it happened. Through it all, life goes on, and even such a significant thing as the wall becomes “permanent” with a little bit of time. One day, a little boy called to me from a school on the Mexican side as I was standing in the US: “Hi! What is your name?” For him, this was a normal day. But while life goes on with this temporary understanding of Ambos Nogales, the struggle also goes on. The struggle against this separation between human beings, and the denial of the right to work, the right to eat, the right to live. The right to our own land. Both sides. All of it.
Flying over Southern Arizona, I watch the perfectly paved and seemingly brand new suburbs on the outskirts of Phoenix give way to endless fields that are divided with laser precision, each massive plot the exact same size. This kind of techno-human landscape stretches to the horizon. Every time I look out the window, every time, I see the land bent perfectly into this massive system. Then, I look down. Rugged valleys, no fields. Something has changed. I look closer, and I realize little towns and farmer’s crops are woven into the landscape. The farms I see are all tangled up with the landscape around them, and the houses I see are colorful and crumbling. Mostly, I see land without human construction. Then we are flying over Mexico City. I see buildings of all colors piled against each other, I see dirty, chaotic streets full of minibuses and pickups and cars weaving their way through twisting crowds of people. Mexico City’s massiveness makes me dizzy. As we make the journey from D.F. to Oaxaca City, I realize how normal the laser-cut machine society in the North has become, with its spotless roads and parceling of every mile of land to the horizon. In Oaxaca, murals whose colors scream LA LUCHA SIGUE jump from cracked walls, trash and dirt occupy corners and crevices, the smells of sizzling meat and exhaust fumes waft through the streets where flowers crawl up walls and children play tag or sell little packets of gum. I am trained, by media decrying crime and poverty in places like Oaxaca, by the exceptionalist attitude we have in the U.S. toward “normality” (safe, wealthy, white suburbs). I am trained to focus on the beggars in the streets, the cracks in the walls, the dirt on the floor in the buses. And I think, purposefully, many of us in the United States have an idea of “Mexico” that is choking us with ignorance and arrogance. We are only here for 10 abrupt days, so my observations and judgments are grounded in the shallowest of experiences, but I think it is still important to share some of what I see.
We have come to Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, México. The Nahuatl name for the valley here is Huaxyacac, but was appropriated by conquistadors whom Spanish-ized the name to “Oaxaca” as part of the process of cultural assimilation of indigenous people, according to our tour guide and friend Oliver. This was our introduction to the 500-year occupation of this land and de-legitimization of its original peoples whom still live here. We have come here to speak with friends and partners of the Border Studies Program, people resisting capitalist domination in a myriad of ways, from holding political offices, to dismantling the official political system and sustaining alternative and traditional politics, from screaming in the streets to throwing huge parties.
If anything, many of the individuals and groups that we interacted with held in common that they sourced sustenance and knowledge from indigeneity. The word “indigenous” is often an imposed category rather than an identity people claim, said Tolo, an organizer and alternative media activist that graciously talked to our group of raggled students on a rainy Monday morning. He explained that most people just identify as the tribe or group that their community is part of, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Ixcatec among dozens of others. In these communities, upwards of 70% of men have been forced by the implementation of free trade policies to leave their families and look for work in the cities or on the other side of one of the most militarized and dangerous borderlands of the world (a statistic from residents of Teotitlan). Despite a history of genocide and humiliation, despite schools built for cultural assimilation and policies written for exploitation, these communities continue the live the resistance and celebration of everyday life by continuing their traditional practices.
We visited the community of Teotitlan del Valle, in the foothills of the Sierra Juarez Mountains, where we were given the gift of living life for a day with some friends of the program. The friends were a group of women who, having been subject all their lives to a monopoly market of their crafts, organized themselves into a weaving cooperative. They worked with other women in Oaxaca City to get their feet on the ground as an economic entity and quickly became a cultural and political epicenter of the community, with women demanding to participate in the village assemblies and in turn carrying out various ecological projects in the community. One night I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning talking with a young man named Antonio. “Like our grandparents”, he told me, “We people of Teotitlan del Valle organize ourselves to do everything. We take turns being police, we take turns doing the office work, we take turns throwing huge parties! We spend all of our money on parties because they bring us together, they equal everything out, they give us life.” But, he explained, the women’s cooperative, the volunteering tradition and town assembly and parties, are all being affected by migration. Almost all of the young men are gone. The work of raising children, growing food and maintaining the home is left to daughters, mothers, and grandmothers. This means women often can’t commit themselves to the women’s cooperative. The men (and women) that do return to the village, or that send remittances, bring with them material traditions that aren’t practical for most people. They come with Christmas lights and big speakers and throw huge parties. “Then people feel, you know, they have to do better, so they go all the way to the city to buy lights like that….” Antonio works twelve-hour days on the construction crew. At night, he comes home to eat, then leaves to fulfill his duty as a volunteer police on night shift. “It’s tough, it’s really hard… And, and it is important to me, and it is better than dealing with the bad government, and I’m really proud of what we’re doing here.” (All quotes are from memory, and translation is always an interpretation).
One reason we went to Teotitlan was to meet people that were sustaining and thriving through their ancestral traditions. We learned, however, that neither Teotitlan del Valle, nor the farming communities we visited North of Oaxaca, nor the urban farm we toured in the city, nor the brilliantly creative and hard working activists we got to talk to, are “free” from capitalism and the dominant political system. Houses in Teotitlan del Valle were stamped by the governmental seal. A new museum was being built by the government to attract even more tourists and integrate the village into the dominant (global) economy. Communities north of Oaxaca were finding economic ground to stand on by using greenhouses to grow household vegetables, greenhouses and irrigation hoses funded by a government whose interest, according to locals, was in the end making people dependent on an unfair capitalist market and getting votes. Over and over we heard how the government had given promises of agricultural support and political representation, only to not follow through or give token political power. We listened to story after story of how the government’s solutions, solutions like schools and economic integration, only ended up keeping their children out of the community, de-legitimizing non-capitalist ways of life, and forcing people to survive in the capitalist market. We saw that no one is completely autonomous from the globalisation of neoliberalism.
But Oaxaca is a place where people are presently, and have been for centuries, make creative and vibrant resistance and alternatives to the capitalist police state. When police fired on non-violent teacher’s union strikers in 2006, city residents responded with a massive occupation, taking over radio stations and universities and creating a police-free zone for several months. In our few days in Oaxaca, I saw an Ayotzinapa solidarity march of hundreds and hundreds of shouting youth. I saw a billboard on a main street with the image of a blindfolded person and the words “THE POLITICAL PARTIES HAVE US BLINDFOLDED IN POVERTY!” People were having debates on the radio, occupying land as squatter settlements in the heart of the city, and planting ancient corn seeds everywhere from mountainous valleys to city alleys. As one mural put it, “You can crush the flowers, but you cannot stop the Spring.”
Because I didn’t really get to know these people I can’t talk about them in a very holistic way at all. But I can say that our media in the United States portrays México as a failing political system full of violent people, and nothing more. By visiting Oaxaca I saw that the picture is much wider and deeper, and that there is light shining through the cracks of a crumbling wall. I think the experience was a gift, but I’m not sure if it was given to us or if we took it. Maybe the extent to which we honor that gift is the extent to which it was appropriate for us to pass through so abruptly, or go at all. So I take this different vision of México, of the people we met, of a society both broken and fertile, I take that conocimiento into my life. The creative struggles of the people we met in Oaxaca guide and challenge us in finding creative ways to organize in our own communities and resist a system which privileges a few by exploiting all the Others, both people and earth. I hope these words honor these people’s’ experiences more than they exploit them.
¡YA BASTA EL CAPITALISMO!
¡LA LUCHA SIGUE!
On one of our first days of the Border Studies Program, we went to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. Walking around the museum, that’s really more of a desert botanical garden, I found the looming saguaros, palo verde trees, and animals fascinating and beautiful. It was a much different landscape from my hometown of New York City, and was different still from my provincial Midwest college campus in Ohio. I thought about the inevitability of a consciousness change in a context as stark and different as the desert was. The mystery of a new ecological landscape made me both excited and terrified for the coming semester—exposure is important, I thought, but change is always hard. My thinking at this time placed this experience into the context and terms of my own life. Throughout the past three months being in Tucson on Border Studies, I’ve learned much more about this environment and communities of the Sonoran Desert, and still feel as excited and terrified of this place as I did on that first day, but in ways I wasn’t able to conceptualize during those few hours at the Desert Museum.
What has changed in the feeling of this place has come with a whole lot of listening, learning, and un-learning of all of these romanticized views of the desert and the Southwest.
On Halloween, I walked 8 miles for the Día de los Muertos Pilgrimage, organized by La Coalición de Derechos Humanos, alongside other folks from the Tucson community in order to honor the human remains of those who have perished in the desert during their migration journey north. 137 small white crosses were carried during the pilgrimage painted with the names of migrants who have been connected to the remains, and countless more were labeled with the Spanish word “desconocid@,” unknown. The unidentifiable human remains don’t account for those who have died in the desert and whose remains have not been encountered and likely won’t be. At the end of the walk the crosses were laid in front of the San Xavier Mission. The mission is an important part of the history of this region, and is still an important site of worship for many people. It’s also worth noting that the Mission is on the Tohono O’odham San Xavier Reservation and was built by Spanish colonizers as an appendage of Catholic Church that served to change, and effectively eliminate, much of the ceremonies and practices of the first indigenous nations in this region and others in contemporary Mexico and the United States. The use of this site in the pilgrimage has spiritual significance in this contradictory region.
The desert has been constructed to be an additional barrier to entry into the United States alongside the massive border wall that has been built by the US Department of Homeland Security. The ACLU estimates that 6,000 people have died in the desert during their migration journey north into the United States from countless countries south of the US/Mexico border, and beyond. The presence of the wall forces migrants to cross through the treacherous desert on foot. Some have dubbed this process as “death by deterrence,” a play on the official plan by the government “prevention through deterrence“). To start to gain some understanding of what it means to be crossing the desert in the summer, when most people migrate, the temperatures reach up to 120° and the only shade is provided by saguaros and small shrubby plants. When crossing the desert takes around 3 days for migrants, the effects of extreme dehydration and heat are not easily remedied. While people migrating have to navigate the desert they are also in constant fear that they will be apprehended by Border Patrol, and later detained and deported.
The wall not only forces people migrating to cross the treacherous desert, but also creates countless divisions that are having huge impacts in many communities. This includes indigenous people who lived on the land now called Arizona, or Mexico before that, who existed on these lands long before Spanish colonization or the later influx of Anglo people capitalizing off the land by building copper mines and developing cities. The Tohono O’odham, an active indigenous nation in this region, has their nation divided by the border. The land that their ancestors have lived on for time immemorial is now highly policed and freedom of movement within the whole O’odham nation is highly regulated and limited, not to mention the ways it stymies the sharing of language, culture, and history among the O’odham on both sides of the border. There are also countless ways in which the physical US/Mexico border wall is disrupting the ecological landscape of the Sonoran Desert. This includes habitat fragmentation, greater negative effects on threatened/endangered species, and harmful effects of constant artificial night lighting that surveillance technology requires. The roll back of government support for conservation efforts accompanies these very real ecological impacts. Check out this University of Texas analysis on the wall’s ecological impact.
A few weeks ago on our way home from the twin border cities Douglas, AZ and Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico, we stopped in Tombstone, AZ. The tiny strip of stores and restaurants looked like something straight out of an old Western movie. And this was exactly the point. People reenacting old gunfights, shops selling fudge and “wild west” garb seemed to be there to memorialize a version of the history of the Southwest that in no way acknowledged the violent appropriation of indigenous land, not to mention the way that violence was romanticized as a fun reality of the “good old days.” The seemingly oblivious consumers of the “old Wild West” certainly didn’t seem to care about confronting the very real, contemporary violence facing people in the highly militarized border region that Tombstone exists in, and it felt like a physical representation of insidious white supremacy implicit in the consumption of some culture and history in Arizona.
Even in Tucson, there is a feeling of being separate from the desert and the border. The 60 miles between Tucson and Mexico are not insignificant, and I have to remember that just because I have been here for 3 months I haven’t even scratched the surface of what being in this place means. I’ve seen the way wealth manifests in the geographic makeup of Tucson, the gentrifying downtown starkly different from the more low-income Latino neighborhood of South Tucson where I lay my head at night. The border region is full of contradictions that I am still reeling over. The desert mirrored by the beautiful mountains. The beauty of the desert with the simultaneous utilization of its danger by the DHS and Border Patrol. The hyper-patriotism and national pride that bolsters anti-immigrant sentiment in Arizona and the simultaneous erasure of some of the first nations. I am here observing and looking, but I do not live here, I am not crossing the desert through here. And at the end of the day I get to leave and maybe never think about the border again. But I’ve been captivated, in love with, and disgusted by this region and don’t think I’ll quite be able to get it off my mind anytime soon.