1,500 miles…

bags on bags of snacks, hours of naps in vans, very few showers, and numerous placticas later, we have returned to Southern Arizona from our second travel seminar. The premise of the second trip was to understand how the border functions differently in different parts of the southwest. I can’t boast a complete, thorough understanding of what the entire US-Mexico border encompasses, but I can say that the time we spent in Agua Prieta/Douglas, El Paso, and Big Bend National Park gave me a sampling of the ways in which Mexico and the US are unavoidably neighbors, and conflicts that exist within that relationship.

Our trip began in Agua Prieta, Sonora. Mark Adams, US Coordinator for Frontera de Cristo, took us to the fence one morning to give us a brief synopsis of the relationship between Agua Prieta and Douglas. Douglas’ economy, he explained, is based on the residents of Agua Prieta – Walmart, Food City, and all the fast food chains that are on the US side of the border in Douglas (pop 16,000) primarily serve the folks on the other side of the border (who number between 100,000 and 125,000.) With a crossing visa, Agua Prietans can pass through the check point, do their shopping, leave the sales tax in Arizona’s economy, and go home with their goods.

The fence that we were all standing next to was an excellent example of border hysteria and American tax dollars being poorly spent, he pointed out. The fence used to consist of chain link with barbed wire on top. It was incredibly permeable, and people used to cross for weddings, funerals, lunch and/or shopping. Next, it became a cream-colored picket fence with pickets pointed towards the US, ostensibly so that Mexicans didn’t feel like they were in jail. As Mark sees it, the direction of the pickets are representative of how border policy really just makes it harder for people to go home to Mexico. He also mentioned that US Border Patrol has started checking documentation for folks heading south across the border and detaining the folks as they’re trying to return to Mexico. While this could be explained as “teaching them a lesson,” to me this merely exemplifies how border enforcement, at the end of the day, is mostly about profit – the more bodies we incarcerate, the more money is made in food contracts, contracts with doctors, contracts with construction companies, contracts with folks who was prison garb, etc etc etc.

Mark also explained to us how the communities of Douglas and Agua Prieta started to feel very differently towards each other by the mid 1990s, when traffic through their section of the border increased because bigger cities like El Paso and San Diego were sealed off. Residents of Douglas hadn’t even wanted the wall in its current manifestation because they were well aware that they were financially supported by undocumented crossers. However, as more migrants passed through the region, resources got squeezed and “the illegals” started to be blamed. Even residents of Agua Prieta turned hateful towards other Mexicans who were trying to cross through the region. Additionally, the culture of fear that we’ve seen so shamelessly propagated in Tucson reared its head in Douglas, too, as the border became militarized. As Americans saw a huge fence, lights and cameras as prominent parts of the border, it was harder and harder to believe that there was nothing to be afraid of on the other side of the fence.

Our time in Agua Prieta/Douglas had a religious bent to it, and left a number of us thinking about how religion can span the border and motivate people to be allies in the name of brotherhood and sisterhood. While this left a few of us (including myself) feeling pretty conflicted, I found myself able to push past my discomfort to appreciate the weekly vigil that was held by Frontera De Cristo on the Douglas side of the border. Beginning in the parking lot of the local McDonalds, Mark distributed 100 some-odd crosses to participants of the vigil. Each cross was inscribed with the name, birth date, and death date or date of discovery of a migrant found in Cochise county, where Douglas is located. We set off south on Pan American Ave, arms full of crosses, walking single file towards the border and designated port of entry. Every few feet, the person at the head of the line would turn around, raise the cross bearing the name over their head, and say the name as loudly and respectfully as possible to the line of cars waiting to cross the border. After each name, everyone else in line shouted “presente!” After some time, each person would leave their cross in the street, leaning again the sidewalk, and return to the line. In this manner we leapfrogged all the way to the border, all the while inhaling the exhaust of those waiting to cross the border. Despite my discomfort with the repetition of crosses and the visual of people raising crosses over their heads, I recognized this form of remembrance as vital and healing. Shouting “PRESENTE!” into the night over and over again gave me an outlet for some of the frustration and anger that has grown inside me at how migrant deaths are repeatedly forgotten in American media and culture. Additionally, standing so close to the border while remembering those that had perished not too far away made it real to me that wherever I find myself in the borderlands, people are dying trying to reach this country and its economic opportunities. And while I may feel in the current recession that those economic opportunities are few and far between, I remind myself that largely because of my country’s actions, the economic opportunities in Mexico don’t hold a candle to those that I have daily access to in the US.

El Paso/Juárez blew me away. The cities (which are indistinguishable from each other after sunset, see photo to the right) have a combined population of 3 million – 2 in Cd. J, 1 in El Paso. A huge shift in population from south to north occurred between 2007 and 2012, when violence south of the border skyrocketed due to Calderón’s misguided war on drugs. (When I say skyrocketed, I’m talking about 3,600 murders in 2010, which is just under 10/day in a city of 2 million.) As a result of this violence, 1/3 of Juárez’s population moved north across the border. As that population moved north, business also moved north, resulting in Forbes rating El Paso as one of the best mid-sized cities in which to find employment in 2010, the same year that 10 people a day were getting murdered just south of the wall. The way that El Paso was able to remain one of the safest mid-sized cities in the US while Juárez was the most dangerous city in the world is through the incredible border security industry that we tasted briefly. With Border Patrol agents stationed every 500 feet in the urban area, tens of people manning the port of entry between the two cities, motion sensors built into the ground in the suburban area outside of the city, video cameras all over the place, and thousands of wattage in enormous lights that shine on the border all night, the border in El Paso felt like a low-intensity war zone.

The question of how we take care of our neighbors and each other as human beings became real to me in a very different way during our time in El Paso. UTEP professor Kathy Staudt talked about the femicides that have swept through Juárez in the last two decades in the context of being in El Paso’s backyard. If tens of women were being raped and murdered across a state line in the US, would the state without a rash of femicides fail to offer support for the other state in the same way that the US has failed to offer any support to Mexico?

Annunciation House (a shelter and comedor for migrants,) Maternidad de la Luz (an extraordinarily low-cost midwifery,) and Centro de los Trabajadores Agricolas (an eatery and community center for farm workers) are organizations that are supporting undocumented folks in El Paso. It was interesting to think of their work in the context of the responsibility I believe we have to take care of each other. It was also interesting to think of the work those organizations do as a means of resistance to the US’s profiting off of migrant hardship and subordination, and, in the case of those organizations that were run by white Americans, as a way of putting one’s privilege on the line, exercising the responsibility that comes with that privilege, and using one’s social capital as a tool of defense for those subjected to unjust laws.

To avoid being written off as a crazy radical when I say things like the US is coresponsible for and profits off of Mexico’s problems (and I can go off with examples like this all day, so let me know if you need more): Also in El Paso, we got to talk to the Labor Justice Committee, which is a group that fights wage theft in El Paso. Wage theft is a pretty large problem there for a number of reasons: 1) non-nationals sometimes don’t know that they’re entitled to minimum wage, even if they’re undocumented. 2) as the recession has hit and jobs have become more scarce, wages have fallen lower and lower (sometimes to below minimum wage level.) 3) undocumented status – it’s harder for undocumented folks to organize and fight because employers can threaten them with deportation. So essentially, there are plenty of people in El Paso (and across the country) who are being ridiculously underpaid (if paid at all) and they’re unable to fight for their wages due to their status. Furthermore, American employers are the ones benefiting off this cheap labor.

I left El Paso both in awe and infuriated. I was even more in awe when we got to Big Bend National Park. Did you know that Texas is huge? Turns out it is. We spent all four days there wallowing in nature: We camped all three nights by the Rio Grande – one of the only parts of the border that exists without a fence. There was something completely mind boggling about sitting on the banks of (and occasionally in) that river and thinking about how we’d be fined $5,000 and potentially sit in jail for a year if we were caught crossing it (as US citizens. The consequences are much steeper for non-citizens, of course.) We hiked around some of the most overwhelming canyons I’ve ever been whelmed by that serve as the border, yet didn’t cost millions of dollars to create. We met men on horseback who had just gallivanted across the river, as they did every day, to see if visitors to the park had purchased any of the beaded animals they left on the bank of the river. We heard, yet again, about how the hardening of the border post 9/11 (on 9/18/2001, to be exact) had ravaged cross-border communities. Did you know that on the aforementioned date, Border Patrol agents disguised as river runners entered Presidio, another town that straddles to border and had a thriving bi-national community, and rounded up and deported hundreds of people? The park ranger who told us this story said that the day when most people cluster around the fence, having conversations through it with people on the other side, is Mexican Mother’s Day.

Y así regreso a Tucson: angrier, more confused, a little sunburnt, and my understanding of the border, the Mexico-US relationship, and what it means to care for people complicated and strengthened.

– submitted by Mariel Cohn

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Raza Studies

In a lecture at the University of Arizona as part of Ethnic Studies Week, renowned geographer Ruth Gilmore told us that one of the goals of ethnic studies is to rewrite and challenge the mythic geographies, ancient and contemporary, that characterize the way we are taught to see the world. Her lecture, “The Birth of Ethnic Studies,” dealt with the history of the epistemological question of who are we and who does what–the history of describing difference–tracing it from the Greek historian Herodotus to the banning of Mexican American Studies in Tucson. The lecture laid an interesting context for the rest of our week, which we spent learning about Mexican American Studies (MAS), its history in Tucson, and the resistance and organizing surrounding it. We watched the documentary “Precious Knowledge,” met with teacher José Gonzalez, and hung out with four representatives from UNIDOS, a group of former Ethnic Studies students and their allies who are fighting for autonomous education, political analysis, and outreach surrounding Ethnic Studies in Tucson. It was a wonderful opportunity to dedicate a short but intense amount of time to a big topic.

The Ethnic Studies Program was created in the late 1990s in order to counter devastatingly high dropout rates among Latino students in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). During its 10-year tenure, the program was incredibly successful, lowering dropout rates from around 56% nationwide to 2.5 % in Tucson.

We had the privilege of meeting with former TUSD Ethnic Studies teacher José Gonzalez. José spoke to us about the content of the classes, and why they were so successful in engaging students. First and foremost, González told us, MAS classes are based on philosophy that humanizes students and teachers. Rather than ignoring the differences in background that make up the TUSD student body and instead following a deficit model of teaching, MAS classes teach identity – teach students to know, respect, and love who they are. A lot of Latino students have never been encouraged in school, so intentional spaces must be created for them to share and to make mistakes. This is because, González says, “as teachers you have the ability to build or destroy. And Frederick Douglass says that it is easier to build a child than to repair a broken man.”

José also spoke about the influence of Paolo Freire, author of “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” in MAS classes. Freire emphasizes the important of critical thinking. Critical thinking, as opposed to magical thinking (“put it all in God’s hands,” or “She is a lucky person and I am not”) or naïve thinking (“there is an achievement gap because some students are lazier than others”), teaches students to look at systems with a critical consciousness, and to think about their thinking.

MAS classes were successful in boosting Latino graduation rates because they dealt with material that was important to the students. For many students in the classes, this was the first time they read books by people from similar backgrounds, about topics that are alive for them each day. And they learned to love and respect their communities, and to harness that pride and build something positive with it.

Then it came crashing down. In 2006 and 2007, Tom Horne, then Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, began claiming that TUSD’s MAS programs promoted anti-American and anti-white sentiments. By June 2009, Horne introduced state legislation to attempt to ban Ethnic Studies courses.

This is where it gets more interesting. We got the chance to talk and have dinner with four young activists from UNIDOS (United Non-Discriminatory Individuals Demanding Our Studies), who provided a perspective on resistance in the context of the MAS controversies. On April 26th, 2011, student activists took over a TUSD meeting and chained themselves to the desks on the dais, preventing school board members from being seated. “We felt voiceless, like our voices didn’t matter. Taking the schoolboard was the only thing we could do,” said Denise, one of the UNIDOS students who spoke with us.

The efforts of MAS students prevailed in this moment, but Horne, his successor John Huppenthal, and Governor Jan Brewer, succeeded in passing lHB 2281, which decreases state funding from schools found to be promoting “classes that advocate overthrowing the government…or advocate ethnic solidarity,” and MAS was officially suspended on January 10th of this year.

It’s hard to describe the fury that I felt while watching “Precious Knowledge.” It was incredible to me to see scenes of love and learning in the classroom — learning that truly engaged students, that made them feel important and made them think critically about their world — and devastating to see that taken away by a few powerful white men in suits who did not even deign to visit a classroom, or, in the case of Huppenthal, visited the classroom once and then misrepresented his experience to prove his erroneous point. I can’t really imagine what it would be like to be a student in the classroom when the books were banned, when, as Erin from UNIDOS put it, “these books that reflect you are put in a box and taken away.”

The UNIDOS students that we met are inspiring models of community organizing. They’ve acquired a casita, which they are in the process of fixing up, and are planning to have teach-ins, classes, a garden, a library, and tutoring. Their goals center around autonomous education, political analysis, and outreach. They’ve organized rallies and marches, had alternative school days with teach-ins, and work to provide for the educational needs of their community. On a personal note, I valued the opportunity to converse with people our age and hear their journeys towards activism. BSP student Roxanne put it best when she said that it seemed to her that activism her in Tucson is based around the heart: people are acting because it directly affects their life, or their neighbor’s life.

Here are some helpful resources on MAS in Tucson:
Raza Studies Background and Timeline
News article from January 2012: Tucson School Board Eliminates MAS Program
Daily Show Clip about MAS Ban
Precious Knowledge Documentary ad
Mexican American Studies statistics show that the program works, from SaveEthnicStudies.org

– submitted by Rachel Adler


Imagining Borders Following Watersheds / That’s a Resource in Your Toilet

A watershed is “that area of land, a bounded hydrological system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.”
— John Wesley Powell

Did you ever consider that we pee into clean drinking water? No, really, it’s clean and you can drink it. That’s why your cat does – it’s probably fresher than the water you leave out for her. Not only is this a common practice, in the United States we are mandated by law to turn clean water into toxic waste however many times a day nature calls us to, without considering what sort of impact this has on our community or environment.

Brad Lancaster is a Tucson native who has spent the past 20 years turning his property into a rainwater harvesting system and teaching others to do the same. We walked over to his house from our classroom last week, and came to think a little differently about borders.

Tucson is in a water crisis. The water table here has dropped 300 feet in the past 100 years, and continues to fall at an average rate of 3 feet per year. 44% of the energy the city of Tucson uses goes to pumping and filtering water. According to Brad, if Tucson used its rainwater as a resource instead of shooting it out of town through sewers and drains, this city in the desert would no longer have a water crisis, and we’d be more connected to the land and each other.

On Brad’s property, he uses very little or no city water; from what I gathered, the only energy used in the consumption of water is the energy used by his washing machine, which functions as a community laundromat. He gave us a tour of his composting toilet, his natural clay water filter, and his sunken garden beds, which collect water, rather than shed water like raised beds do. He led us in a “sun dance” to teach us how he developed passive heating and cooling systems for his house without blocking his neighbors’ winter sun. He also showed us the systems he’s created on his street to reduce flooding, by directing rain into roadside gardens of native plants. Brad’s house is a living laboratory of how Tucson could reimagine the way in which it uses the water that floods its streets every time it rains. “Turn a problem into a solution,” Brad says.

Brad took us on a virtual tour of neighborhoods in Portland, OR and Seattle, WA which have changed the way they interact with rainwater by narrowing streets and planting native plants that use the rainwater that falls into the soil that has replaced pavement. It is worth noting, however, that in these neighborhoods in Portland and Washington, innovative flood-control implementation has coincided with gentrification. I don’t personally know very much about these areas, but the question of access to the resources that allow these rainwater harvesting systems to be implemented and maintained was definitely in my head throughout Brad’s presentation. Most of the techniques he showed us rely more on community organizing, observation, and creative thinking than spending power. Still, “green living” is a buzzword these days, and when a neighborhood becomes more environmentally conscious, property values come up, and it becomes more difficult for low-income people to continue living there.

But perhaps if Brad’s methods were to become the norm, access wouldn’t be a problem anymore. Radical shifts in how we think about water are hard to imagine as reality, but around the world, as water becomes scarcer, people are beginning to think differently. Grey water harvesting is now legal in Arizona, California, and New Mexico, and the composting toilet in Brad’s yard is actually part of a trial to see if that specific composting system can become legal in Arizona.

Radical shifts in the way we think about water also require reimagining the way we think about borders. The way water rights work, especially in the southwest, where water is both scarce and in high demand, is a complicated maze of laws and dams and regulation, because state and international lines cut straight through watersheds; sometimes they are rivers themselves. Reimagine: borders drawn along watersheds, as John Powell said. If we imagine our communities as all of the people living within our watersheds, political borders fall away. Suddenly, we’re not only connected to Tucson, but we’re also connected to the greater Arizona community, and beyond, into Mexico. Water doesn’t stop at the border wall. If our borders come to be about the resources within an area whose bounds are defined by nature, we can start to think about working together to use those resources in a way that makes sense: harvesting the rain, only making use of what an aquifer can recharge on its own, and not peeing into drinking water, but rather into a pile of sawdust that can become compost for fruit trees.

– submitted by Maddie Taterka


Oaxaca: Education as a Means of Resistance

By the end of my time in Oaxaca, I was proud to tell Taxistas that I lived on Fraccionamiento la Noria, sobre la Mitla. The week had brought so many physical and emotional challenges on our group, and arriving to Cenobia and Viri’s house was always a pleasure. Here we’d have time to decompress, relax, and reflect on the days we’d shared. I start this entry with a huge and humble Gracias to the family that accepted us into their home and shared so much. Their stories, their smiles and laughs, their cute kids, and their willingness to sit down to talk over coffee always felt rejuvenating and personally made me feel closer to home.

SURCO and a brief history of APPO’s Oaxaca and beyond

Our first day began with an introduction to SURCO (Servicious Universitarios y Redes de Conocimientos en Oaxaca, A.C.) with Oliver Froehling. SURCO is a non-profit grassroots organization in Oaxaca focusing on education and consultation for Oaxacan activist and organizations, as well as international participants interested in food and water sovereignty, environmental issues, indigenous rights, and community-radio and video, in hopes of creating an international network invested in creating worldwide change through dissemination of local knowledge and experiences. Oliver talked about the Comite de la Defensa de Tierra y Territorio, and explained that twelve organizations are mobilizing and working on land rights issues with surrounding communities. He also described the local efforts focused on the self-empowerment of communities through the use of community-based radios and television stations, operating regardless of governmental licenses. Oliver mentioned that there is a debate surrounding the issue of airwaves and frequencies and who owns them, since they’ve technically been there since before the radio was invented.

We learned about RASA (Red Autonoma para la Soberania Alimentaria) which started in 2008 to promote urban agriculture, the value of agricultural skills brought by campesinos, and the sharing of agricultural knowledge. Oliver explained that Oaxaca is one generation or less from the countryside, and people seeking jobs in the city have brought along their agricultural skills that usually go forgotten. RASA attempts to remind campesinos of the agricultural wealth and knowledge they bring to Oaxaca city. RASA was created in response to the food crisis of 2008, which brought tortilla prices to an all-time high, making it almost impossible for campesinos earning just a few cents a day to purchase their staple food, in an already devastated region affected by free-trade.

More recently, the prices of the egg have increased sixfold, once again making it impossible for Mexican families to afford yet another staple food. According to Oliver, the price of a carton of eggs went up to about $6 dollars, which is in most cases more than many Mexican workers make in one day.
RASA has not only been on the frontlines of addressing the crises first-hand along through “farmer to farmer” trainings, but they have promoted discussions about inequality and marginalization in Mexico through the economic disasters.

We also learned about the APPO (Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca), created in 2006 after the teachers were brutally apprehended during an annual strike in May of that year. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, then the governor of Oaxaca, called for the dismantling of the teacher’s occupation in city’s center square after 23 days of protest; this resulted in a violent square-off between police and protestors, comprised of teachers, students, and community organizations. After the violence in 2006, tourism in Oaxaca decreased and their economy felt a huge impact. The movement was then broken as the federal government cracked down on organizers and used intimidation tactics to subdue activists.

Education as a Means of Resistance

Oliver was a great lecturer and shared a bit of his own story and journey to this work. In 1994, as NAFTA had just been implemented and EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional) he was searching for a topic for his dissertation. He arrived in Mexico to do research and never left . He spoke on the intersection of activism and academia, and the need for more “public intellectuals.” I’d struggled with the relationship of activism and academia throughout my time in college, as I’d hear students and professors theorize social justice, while others demanded out on the streets. I wondered what the use of academia was in a movement that required more people willing to demand justice through political and social action, and even more how my late nights at the library were contributing to any movement. I still struggle with these questions, but listening to Oliver talk about spreading knowledge and ideology through the use of history and analysis reminded me of the importance of education within activism.

Education became a central theme in our trip, from visiting el Centro de Desarollo Comunitario Centeotl in Zimatlan, Oaxaca, and CEDICAM (Centro de Desarollo Intergral Campesino de la Mixteca “Hita Nuni” A.C.) in Nochixtlan, Oaxaca. Similarly to RASA, both Centeotl and CEDICAM focused on valuing and retaining local knowledge/skills, and capacity building through farmer to farmer learning and escuelas de campo. Both community organizations focus on lessening dependencies on outside resources through agriculture, however Centeotl also works with campesinos to bring income to families through the production and sale of amaranth products. CEDICAM focuses on training and educating community members on sustainable agricultural practices which require little to no additional money to start, not only allow them to sustain their own families through farming, but also to empower them in making their communities look like they want them to through the use their own skills.

At CEDICAM we met Eleazar Garcia who is a promoter and local indigenous campesino that has been active and an integral part of the organization for over ten years, doing everything from family outreach, to delegations, agricultural trainings, and reforestation projects. He explained that CEDICAM values the skills of the people of the region because the indigenas have been growing maiz for over 9,000 years; something incredible worth knowing and praising. He explained that the region is called Mixteco, meaning “Land/Nation of the Rain,” and that stories tell of a time that the region was filled with vegetation and life. Eleazar continued that the land had been destroyed by poor agricultural habits, limestone burning, machinery and fertilizers, as well as goats that were brought into the region and destroyed soil as well as plants.

Eleazar explained that it was possible to bring the soil back to life, but it would take dedication and hard work. He explained that another reason for doing this work was to create more opportunities for self-sufficiency, so that families would not have to migrate elsewhere to find livelihood. This is a challenge however, because as Eleazar explained, fixing damaged soil and land takes months, even years at times, and migrating still seemed like a more viable means of survival for many struggling families.

Eleazar’s discussion made me think about the meaning of “gente del Maiz,” and the parallel between maiz and the peoples of Mexico; both have been around for thousands of years, both have adapted to all climates and conditions, both come in all different shades, colors, and sizes, and ultimately, both are tied to many products consumed by the world. Eleazar talked about maiz being an integral part of life, and using the parallel mentioned above, I was reminded of the crucial role that Mexican immigrants and corn have played for the US for decades. Immigrants have been the back bone of industries like agriculture, hospitality, etc, and without their work, the US economy would have floundered ages ago. At the same time, corn has been the base of so many products consumed in America, from gasoline to potato chips and cooking oils, and even beauty products. Eleazer’s work educates campesinos on the importance of their work and existence in order to consolidate the necessary power of the communities constantly victimized by governmental, military, and financial institutions, for change.

As Eleazar explained, there is an importance in valuing and learning the cultures from the Mixtec region, along with their skills and histories, and their ability to survive for centuries by maintaining corn as central to life. Their history of resistance is the foundation of today’s struggle against huge corporations like Monsanto and Maseca. I was reminded here that education is part of the process of mobilization; that people must understand where they came from, where they stand, where they are headed, and where they want to be. Eleazer also explained that through their farmer to farmer education, they are not imposing changes that can become undone, they are concretely showing people how these changes are beneficial and people naturally gravitate towards the new ideas. Education in activism and organizing creates the space for analysis and understanding of the larger systems at work, reflection on previous resistance strategies and their successes and failures, and planning on future tactics and actions. Through education these organizations are able to discuss with campesinos about the current state of their communities and the tangible efforts that can be taken to challenge those conditions.

– submitted by Erik Martinez