If the people walking around the streets of Tucson right now weren’t bundled up in jackets and close-toed shoes, I’m not sure I would remember that three months had passed since I arrived in August. The Border Studies Program Fall 2012 semester kicked off during the monsoon season here in southern Arizona when daily highs were still upwards of 100 degrees and sunsets were often accompanied by heat lightening.
When we received a schedule of the semester on one of our first few days here, I remember being told to prepare for how quickly the next 14 weeks would pass. I tried my best, but even so, I’m not sure anything could have adequately prepared me for the strangeness of finding myself faced with the reality that in less than a week, my peers and I will be saying adiós to this semester and to one another. El tiempo ya se fue rapido, pero rapidíssimo!
For the past week or so, I’ve been expecting to be hit by the wave of sadness that usually engulfs me at around this point when I’m preparing to say a big goodbye. And there have been moments when I’ve felt that sadness creep in, but it’s hardly been anything unbearable. And I’m starting to suspect that there’s a reason for this. Here is how I see it: this semester may be coming to an end, but the fact that this is happening is hardly an ending. I suppose maybe I’m just parroting that old cliche about endings-as-beginnings, but this time, I think there’s something to it. Here’s why.
In the first place, I no longer believe that endings exist, gracias a the way that the Border Studies Program has exploded my understandings of time and space. One of the primary modes of learning we have engaged in this semester, as I understand it, is a process that I’ve come to know as “naming the world.” To me, that means listening deeply and looking closely, both inwardly and outwardly; it means telling a story about how things are and why they are that way. It means searching for history in the present and imagining the future. In other words, it means connecting all senses of “time” together, seeing past, present, and future as a whole, not disparate parts of a timeline. In this sense, this semester is much more than a semester. My experience here in the borderlands was shaped by every experience that had come before it in my life, and everything that is to come will bear its marks. I believe that every moment is this way.
This BSP’s tagline is “a semester in the US/Mexico borderlands.” I know that this semester is not really ending because I know that even after I leave Arizona, I won’t have left the border. The world we live in, the world that we create and that creates us, is a border world. And as it stands, those borders represent a cruel and inhumane logic that determines who can move, who cannot, and who is forced to move. No matter who you are or where you are, you are implicated in that grand system of controlled movement. In this moment, that fact is heavy in my mind and in my heart. And one of my greatest hopes for myself moving out of the semester is to continue feeling that way: to be conscious of borders and the unfreedoms that they create for the rest of my life––and to act in solidarity with those are demanding that those borders come down, so that we may all begin to heal from the ill-logic that made them possible.
Finally, I know that this semester is a beginning rather than an ending because the friendships that I have formed over the course of the past three months are ones that I hope will continue for a long, long time. I know that any learning I did this semester is owed to all of the incredible people I interacted with: my ten fellow students, our four classroom instructors, the family I stayed with here in Tucson, and all of the people who so generously shared their time, stories and knowledge with me and my peers. I believe that as we students transition into life after the Border Studies Program, we will be able to turn to one another for support of all kinds; we are in this lucha together now and we still can be in spite of physical distance.
And so as I think about what it will feel like next Tuesday when the Border Studies Program semester is officially over, when we students begin to go our own ways, I feel strong, not sad. It’s true that the world now seems a whole lot more tangled-up to me than when I first stepped foot in Tucson in August, and I feel despair about that in a more real way than ever before. And it’s equally true that I now feel better prepared than to act in that world, and do so in a way that’s in accordance with the convictions that I’ve come to name this semester. I am looking forward to seeing how our stories spiral out from this point, far but near, apart but connected. Siempre estamos juntos, todos nosotros en este mundo. Conectados. We’re always together, all of us in this world. Connected. I leave the semester with that knowledge guiding my feet, my hands, and my heart.
– submitted by Roxanne Rapaport
On Friday the 2nd of November, el Dia de Los Muertos, we gathered at the BSP office at 3.30 in the afternoon with instructions to dress in white. We were headed to a cross-border procession in honour of the recent deaths of José Antonio Elena Rodríguez and Ramses Barrón Torres, Nogales natives who lost their lives to the guns of Border Patrol agents in October 2012 and January 2009 respectively. The vigil also intended to protest the crime of their deaths, the lack of a thorough investigation into them and the lack of justice for the families of the deceased. The procession would begin from two points- one from Nogales, in Arizona, and another from Nogales, in Sonora. They would converge at the massive row of rust coloured bars- the wall that prevents both cities, and both countries, from merging into one.
It was here that José Antonio Elena Rodríguez was shot at the age of 16 by an American Border Patrol officer through the slats of the wall, on Mexican territory. The details of what happened are not that clear- officers allege he was throwing rocks. What is clear is that he was shot seven to eight times in the back through one of the four inch gaps in the wall.
We gathered at a street corner a short walk from the Border wall with images of the dead, placards, banners, candles and lilies and walked mostly in silence to the area where José Antonio was killed, walking alongside the wall. The wall in Nogales, and the fact that you can see through it, are becoming a familiar sight to us. We came to Nogales on our second day of orientation and walked alongside it, on the other side, during the day. It was the first time any of us had seen the US/Mexico border. To repeat that after having been to Nogales a number of times, and having seen the Border in its differing manifestations in El Paso and Big Bend National Park, is to realize that the militarization of this Border is both an uneven but ongoing process and a brute fact.
Another group gathered on the Mexican side of the Border and when we reached them everyone stopped walking. We pushed our faces through the gaps and said hi. People handed flowers and candles back and forth. Banners from one side were hung from the fence on the other. Many spoke to Jose Antonio’s family through the bars. Guadalupe Guerrero, whose son Carlos Lamadrid was killed by US Border Patrol in March 2011 as he attempted to scale the wall to enter Mexico came out of the crowd and gave her condolences publicly to Jose Antonio’s mother, Araceli Rodriguez. Songs were sung, solemnly, and both sides joined in with the same chants, speeches calling for accountability on the part of Border Patrol given.
We have been reading, in Dying to Live by Joe Nevins, about the maintenance of a state of what he calls “apartheid” between Mexico and the US, and about the human tragedy of that. Nevins states that there has never been a time when this Border has been so militarily blockaded as it is. And yet there has never been a time when more people and goods, legal and illegal, have crossed it. The tragic irony of the situation is that this wall ostensibly enforces national sovereignty when it has never been more irrelevant to the way the global economy works. Labour in the US will be sourced from the enforced idleness of dispossession in Mexico because third world desperation works for less pay, but workers can work in one country and live in another. It makes sense. The US government, and its associated corporations, calls the shots whatever side of the border we might talk about. Imperialism that pretends.
To militarize the Border is to pretend to the ordinary people of the US that their sense of besiegement that comes from ever lower wages, loss of livelihood, and no net of security to be caught in when you fall is unavoidable, and not engineered. It is also to make desperate, and quiet, the people who circumvent the walls and walk through deserts to work in secret at jobs it pretended didn’t recruit them. Standing at that procession equally close to people on both sides, only with obscured vision, it seemed inconceivable not to think that this “apartheid” could be said to be the pretence of sovereignty in an era when there is none. How can it be anything but a farce when a Border Patrol officer can walk to the line between countries, clearly demarcated, poke his gun through it, and shoot a teenager dead?
– submitted by Sophie Gregg
For our last critical issues class of the semester we traveled about 60 miles southwest of Tucson to the Tohono O’odam Nation and had the privilege to meet with members of TOCA, Tohono O’odam Community Action in Sells, AZ. The Tohono O’odam, meaning “desert people” reside in areas of the Sonoran Desert in both southern Arizona and Sonora and are divided by the Mexico-US international border, drawn across their lands in 1853 by the Gadsden Purchase. The reservation is the second largest in the United States, is comparable the state of Connecticut and home to 70 miles of the international border.
Considering our previous study of the border in other contexts and geopolitical locations and having read a couple of articles about the Nation, it was clear before our visit that one could study interaction between native nations and the border alone for at least a semester.
As TOCA’s work does not center around issues of the border and with the brevity of our visit, we held in mind that a deeper understanding of the ways the border affects life on the reservation would have to wait.
We met with Anthony Francisco Jr. of TOCA at their office in the community/shopping center of Sells before heading out to TOCA’s farm, which employs traditional flood plain agricultural techniques. Ak chin farming, which utilizes rains of summer monsoon season is well adapted to the climate of the Sonoran desert. Traditional crops that the Cowlic learning center grows include tepary beans, O’odam squash, and native “60-day” corn. The farm works to reintroduce traditional crops and make them available to the community aiding with health and the preservation of existing traditional knowledge. One project of TOCA’s related to farming and native foods efforts is “A New Generation of Farmers” program which aims to train youth in traditional O’odam farming methods to promote a cultural, environmentally, economically viable way of life.
In speaking with Anthony about his work with the farm and youth of the nation, he emphasized the value of TOCA’s work being in large part helping young O’odam create strong connections to the land and their cultural heritage. He emphasized the importance of speaking to identity to inspire positive growth and its widespread success empowering youth, in contrast to efforts from outside organizations. I was reminded of the work of the Ethnic Studies Program once in place at Tucson High by its similar approach and success. Of the traditional language, song, and ceremony, Anthony highlighted the importance of the principle s-wa:gima, which celebrates an industrious lifestyle in which one’s strength is drawn from the sun.
After visiting the farm, we made a short visit to the Nation’s annual Diabetes Fair and were able to learn about many community organizations providing information and services from flu shots, to crafts including jewelry and baskets, to information about domestic abuse.
We concluded our visit at the Desert Rain Café where we were able to speak with Tristan Reeder, co-founder of TOCA, and Rhonda Wilson, a basketweaver who has been involved with TOCA for many years and works with TOCA’s Desert Rain Gallery. We were also accompanied by Julia Munson, former student of the Border Studies Program, and currently a Food Corps member with TOCA. The Desert Rain Café is another project of TOCA is dedicated to preparing traditional healthy O’odam foods such as tepary beans, saguaro fruit syrup, and cholla buds.
Tristan spoke of TOCA’s guiding focus as a community based organization, not affiliated with the tribal government, being on empowerment not service, working with not for. TOCA works to employ a systems change model for social change, which views policy change alone as ineffective. Their focus on working to improve local food systems stems from their belief that healthy and sustainable eating habits cannot be made out of “individual choice” as they are prevented by systems constraining choice. They are working to make traditional healthy foods more accessible and make growing these foods profitable on the Nation, while embracing the O’odham Himdag principle which they see to mean: wisdom from our past, solutions for our future.
I found TOCA’s work in many ways inspiring and seeking to effectively address issues affecting the nation, but I am left with many larger questions about the context for their work, the border, and the Tohono O’odam Nation in general:
Considering histories of colonization and identities of colonizers what does it mean for privileged white folks to work on the nation? In contexts where they serve in a teaching role, a role of knowledge or of preaching ‘the right way of doing things’?
How does the Arizona state and US federal government relate to the O’odam nation’s tribal governing body?
What does it mean for a ‘sovereign nation’ to exist within the continental united states?
How does a militarized international border crossing the nation affect felt senses of security?
How do effects of drug trafficking change relations to ‘security’ provided by the Border Patrol?
In reacting to high numbers of migrant deaths in the remote desert landscape how would the nation be able to both reject the presence of this issue that has been forced upon them while also saving lives?
It seemed from our short visit that the additional layer of complexity present when considering the O’odam nation’s stretch of border differed greatly from the particularities of the border we have considered in ambos Nogales, Douglas/Agua Prieta, El Paso/Juarez and in Big Bend National Park.
– submitted by Elizabeth Tipton
Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore spoke at the University of Arizona on October second about the proliferation in this country of enclosures; of those not documented to work, and those documented not to work. These are the “inverted particularities” of the lives, the movements, the meanings of the undocumented and the incarcerated. Our boundaries grow denser, more embedded, and our institutions eat more bodies every day. “The border” the professor said, “waits as quietly as a land mine.”
The Border Studies Program found the border last week in the bleak and thirsty prison town of Florence, Arizona. The town is host to seven prisons and jails, including a state prison, two private prison complexes, and the Florence Detention Center, an ICE facility. It is to this institution that we paid our visit. The site once held detainees from Fidel Castro’s prisons and asylums. Before that, it was an internment camp for Japanese-Americans. In the room where we are screened for weapons, a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization sign hangs on the wall; a picture of the World Trade Center, and the words “We will never forget.”
Our host is the Assistant Field Office Director, Martin Zelenka. Mr. Zelenka meets us in a conference room prior to our tour of his facility. On the wall, a screen flashes through a series of video-feeds: men sleeping in bunk beds, men folding sheets, someone being processed, men playing cards, watching TV. No one explains why it is there. A security measure? Insurance against accusations of mistreatment? A selling point? The loop appears endless-the entire time we sit there I watch the same people go about their daily activities inside the facility. Mr. Zelenka begins his presentation. He explains that he is in charge of a very dynamic facility. “I think,” he tells us proudly, “that you’ll be very surprised at what you see.” Indeed.
The Florence Detention Center (FDC,) processes roughly 5000 intakes a month, and cages around 1500 people on any given day-the count is shaky because the Center’s administration often doesn’t account for the population in transit-those just passing through on their way to being deported. These inmates, we learn, can be identified by their green jumpsuits. Other inmates wear white, blue, and orange uniforms. This system marks each man according to his “level of criminality,” ranging from “none” to “some but not too much criminality,” to “habitual criminal.” Inmates hail from 80 nations, though 48% of them are Mexican, 25% are Guatemalan, and the majority of the rest are from Honduras and El Salvador.
After the presentation, we are led on a tour through the facility. We are shown the kitchen, the dormitories (row upon row of tiny beds, shoes sticking off the edge of each one like disembodied feet,) the dining hall, the tiny courtroom for on-the-spot trials, other rooms that smell the same. We pass by men staring at us from their cells, men doing laundry (for which they are compensated at a rate of $1 per day,) men being marched in rows from one part of the complex to another. When we venture outside, we can see rows of National Guard tanks lined up across the street, waiting. Next door, a training facility in “desert warfare” is being erected. It’s hard not to think about war. It’s hard not to wonder what purpose these casualties in color-coded jumpsuits serve.
2.2 million people are currently incarcerated in the United States-more than any other nation on the globe. Of these, detained immigrants (numbering 33,300 as of 2011) are the fastest growing population. Cycles of militarization, detention, and incarceration ravage communities of color in the United States, and perpetuate racial partitions that resonate with this country’s legacies of slavery and colonization.
Perhaps this is not lost on our cages’ keepers. As we say goodbye in the parking lot outside of the detention center. Mr. Zelenka wants to make sure we know in whose name the apartheid continues; “Thanks,” he says, “for coming to see what your government’s doing for you.”
– submitted by Sofie Ghitman