Reflections on our Oaxaca Travel Seminar

            As several BSP participants have expressed before me, it is an impossible task to capture the entire Oaxaca travel seminar into a blog post. Summarizing each speaker, visit, and impression invalidates the complexity of each experience and yet each of these pieces was instrumental in the overall trip. Therefore, while I selfishly feel relieved for an opportunity to start processing the past ten days, I am also blatantly selecting portions to describe and leaving many out.
 
On our last day in Oaxaca, we were asked to split into pairs and create a representation of what we had been processing over the last few days (in a physical map, song, dance or whatever form we wanted). My partner for the project, Asa, had a brilliant idea that we should just talk to each other at first and see what came out. While I was initially taken aback by the idea (shouldn’t we just dive straight into the project?) I soon appreciated being able to just talk with someone about what I had been feeling for the past ten days. After this conversation, we narrowed down our reflection into major themes. Toward the goal of attempting a comprehensive and thoughtful approach, here are a few of our categories and accompanying stories. Please know that there were countless more challenging and beautiful moments that I wish I had the capacity and time to share.
 
1. Language
 
Though the travel seminar officially started with a 5:30am van ride, three different airports, and several Sudoku puzzles, it began for me with Ruth. A former government employee for thirty years, Ruth now hosts students from different programs and regularly has students coming and going from her beautiful home. She was an incredible host—full of tips about how we should take advantage of our time in Oaxaca (going to the square and listening to music), the best kinds of mezcal (crema de mezcal), and where to get the best kind of tlayudas (her home).
 
One evening at the dinner table, we were all discussing our intended plans for the evening and somehow the conversation turned to our musical talents in the group. Hastily, I mentioned that one of our group members loves to sing—and suddenly we had all planned a concert for the next evening. We immediately began to joke about how we were going to spend the evening demonstrating our vocal talents at the zócolo and what our group names might be. We were sitting around the table laughing and for several seconds we seemed to embody the “laugher is the universal language” cliché that is constantly thrown around. However, when we performed the next evening, our spontaneous line-up looked something like this: the Beatles, Death Cab for Cutie, and Britney Spears. When I looked over at Ruth, she seemed to disappear into the background as this array of unfamiliar songs began and more and more students came to join the singing. When asked at one point what songs she might request, she just shrugged and smiled but said nothing.
 
What songs could she recommend that we could sing? Some of us had a decent grasp on Spanish but not enough to recognize and sing a Spanish song. This moment of disconnect was starkly different from the laughter last night and represented an ever-present dynamic of our Oaxaca trip. While there were times that we were comfortable and laughing, we were still foreigners come to a new place for ten days and inevitably about to leave again. We had still come because of money and capitalism and were tourists attempting to mitigate our damage by speaking the Spanish that we could and saying “please” and “thank you.” And when Ruth told us how happy she was to have us in our home, all we could do is mutter “muchas gracias,” completely unable to demonstrate our appreciation and therefore just settling on an inadequate phrase to do the job.
 
2. Resistance
 
Our host for the trip was Oliver, a self-proclaimed cynic who happens to be German. Oliver is a current Mexican citizen working for an organization called SURCO that arranged our entire trip to Oaxaca. He liked to wear fedoras and was also passionately opposed to formal education, which he felt was being used to churn out obedient citizens that follow the law and listen to authority.
 
After our arrival in Oaxaca, he gave us an extensive history on the teacher’s union strikes of 2006 including the history of APPO. This history contextualized the current teacher’s union strikes that are happening in Mexico City, which are drawing attention to topics including standardized testing, teacher evaluation standards, and tenure terms. While it is true that testing should be differentiated based on location (and that testing in general should not be created by white men), there are multiple layers of politics muddled into the strike. For example, many parents are frustrated with the teacher’s union and the strike appears to be reaching an end without apparent compromise. While I am still very much learning about the teacher’s strike as a resistance movement, it is inherently confining and complicated that a movement meant to resist corruption is also having adverse effects on some students and families.
 
For our project, Asa and I drew a brown power fist and a Zapatista snail to symbolize resistance. I also wanted to recognize the work of midwives, advocates, teachers, and several others that we met that are doing day-to-day resistance work. How do we fit them into our conversations around working in and out of the system? How do we acknowledge and praise these forms of resistance as well?
 
3. Land and Money Exploitation
 
“Let me tell you about the words that I don’t like.” This was Simon Sedillo, a journalist who is currently working on a book called Weapons, Drugs and Slavery: Crime and Corruption in the US Political Economy. During this portion of the talk, he broke down words like “sustainability” and “anti-oppression” for our group. In the process, he also introduced me to one of my new favorite phrases: anglo manarchism (essentially, be skeptical of the way that white men are co-opting anarchism in the US). One of the reasons why I felt so inspired by Simon was his ability to just be honest with those of us who identified as US citizens about the privileges of that position. As a South Asian woman, who is also a US citizen, I was reminded again of how to think about how these various parts of my identity influence the work that I choose to do in the future. He challenged us, “don’t make documentaries. Help other people make documentaries” and reminded us that “there should always be young women of color at the table [of non-profit organizations] who are making decisions.”
Simon also devoted the majority of his speech to the devastating and violent ways that US systems of exploitation harm Mexico, specifically through dominating the weapons trade, funding and supporting violent dictators, and developing a network of private prisons that exist as a system of modern slavery. This conversation directly connected to the idea of land exploitation and the way that we continually perceive the land to be our property, both so we feel ownership over the land and also so we feel the right to claim the land as part of our own history. If we can claim it as ours, then we can tell stories about it, make decisions over its use, watch it fulfill our purpose and feel relief that the ramifications of these actions are pushed elsewhere, somewhere we can’t see, somewhere with brown bodies so the US doesn’t question.
4. Gender
“Indigenous women carry culture and therefore carry resistance” – Simon Sedillo
 
It is daunting to discuss Teotitlán del Valle but I want to mention it because it felt in many ways like the core of the trip. There we visited with members of Vida Nueva, the weaving cooperative, who were primarily all women of different ages. The two women that I stayed with, Doña Isabel and Doña Reina, showed us their land, their market, their temazcal, and their weavings. We responded with questions in Spanish, wide smiles and murmurs of gratitude. I am so appreciative of that trip and also extremely aware that we were able to have that experience because of numerous factors, including money.
 
I aim to continue reflecting on this interplay of culture, resistance, and gender to eliminate pre-conceived notions of what “resistance” looks like and also to consider a question that Simon raised: the representation of indigenous women in media. I also want to say that throughout the travel seminar, I was initially delighted by the consistent mention of indigenous women with the people that we interacted with, and then later also concerned and upset about who the term “women” encompasses and excludes.
 
5. Our ideal community
 
Over the summer, I was asked to draw or write about my ideal community and I found that I was struggling. It seemed strange to me that I would have trouble with an assignment that I initially thought would be comfortable. The same question was brought up our last day in Oaxaca and I found it just as confusing. The theoretical words that I wanted to say such as “dismantling systems of power and oppression of course” and “community accountability and justice” seemed hollow and meaningless. However, on our first day in Oaxaca we learned about the cargo system, a physical implementation of the community accountability framework that I had read about. The cargo system was a person acting as a police officer in their community for two years and then switching out. This system was an alterative form of justice, for example, a man who was caught beating his wife was given a consequence based on the wishes of his wife and enacted by his neighbors. Though complicated, this system was a process that rejected the idea that putting people behind bars is a solution.
 
//Where do we go from here?
 
 It is impossible to form genuine connection and reciprocity within a 10-day period, but we still went and were present for 10 days. When I found myself completely at a loss for how to behave, I remembered that hiding is unproductive as well. I am looking forward to continued reflection and critique on what it means to travel and return home, what to carry away, how to describe without romanticizing, how to tell stories.
 
– Uma Venkatraman

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Operation Streamline

In the federal courthouse downtown, the first thing we meet through the glass doors is security. We take off shoes, belts, sweaters, bags, empty our pockets. There was no body scanner, only a metal detector, but otherwise the process was the same as in a US airport. When we were all through, we took the elevator to the third floor and entered the courtroom through doors on the back wall immediately opposite the magistrate’s bench. Well it’s called “the bench” but it is really a large cushy chair behind a large sharp desk. What is really a bench is what almost everyone else in the room was sitting on–our group and a dozen other observers in the back right; public defenders in the center, maybe a dozen of them too; and seventy people, all brown, mostly men, sitting on the left and overflowing the benches into where a jury would otherwise be seated, and a handful of women, sitting in the center section near the public defenders. All of them chained at the ankles and at the wrists, and their wrists chained to their waists. There were a number of US court marshalls in navy blue jackets and border patrol agents in their dark green standing at the doors and in the aisles. There was another door along the right wall just in front of where our section ended.
 
At 1:30pm, the presiding judge entered, we all rose, we all sat, and it began, a whirlwind. The judge called up eight people, and as their names were called so were the names of the public defenders who were “defending” them that day. Two public defenders who spoke to us earlier in the day, told us about the process that morning. From 9am to noon, the seventy migrants slated for Streamline that day come to this very courtroom, where they meet the public defender the court has appointed them. In Tucson, the lawyers are assigned three to six clients, and have just these three hours to meet with each of them, to explain the charges against them, to explain their rights within the system, to ascertain that their clients have a full understanding of all of these things, and to present them with the decision they must make–of pleading guilty, which will drop their felony charge to a misdemeanor and land them with a six month maximum sentence before deportation, or of choosing to go to trial, in which they would almost certainly lose, gain a felony conviction, face up to twenty years in prison, and then be deported anyway. If the lawyers have not been able to thoroughly meet with and have these conversations with all of their clients by noon, too bad because that’s all the time they get.
 
So, the judge called up the first eight migrants and their lawyers. Starting with the first person and then moving down the line, he said this:
“(Person’s name), do you understand these rights, do you waive them, do you enter a plea of guilty knowing that you will be sentence to (number 30-180) days?”
Person: “Si.”
Translator: “Yes.”
Judge: “(Sir or Ma’am) are you a citizen of (country) and on September (day) near (city) entered a time and place otherwise designated?”
“Si.”
“Yes.”
“(Number 30-180) days.”
And he moved onto the next person in the row, same script, different fillers. The countries the seventy people were from were Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. The cities I heard most frequently where people had been caught by Border Patrol were Douglas NM, Sasabe AZ, Nogales AZ, Naco AZ. Everyone had been caught within the last few days.
 
After the judge issued the sentence to the last of the eight people (sentences varied from 30 to 180 days, depending on individuals’ records, and averaged maybe around 70 days), he said “Waive the financial assessments, dismiss the felonies,” and the eight people were marched out the door on the right of the courtroom, just in front of where we sat. Their lawyers returned to their seats. The judge was already calling up the next group. The scene repeated itself. The sound of chains never faded. The entire process—the misdemeanor conviction and sentencing of seventy people—took half an hour. Around 2pm the gavel fell, the lawyers filed out, the judge came down the aisle followed by several US marshalls, and pushing through the gate into the audience section where we sat he said, “So what do you want to know?” He said this casually, like he is practiced and even bored with this whole process, and with this Q&A session after, a self-imposed duty.
 
There are a ton of constitutional arguments against Streamline. Some of them are that there is no due process, that defendants are not being addressed individually to determine whether they fully understand the rights that they are giving up and are pleading voluntarily, that attorney-client confidentiality goes out the window in that single courtroom morning session, and that defendants’ initial court appearances are often delayed. We read an article in which the public defender with whom we met, was asked why she continues to do this work, given Streamline’s blatant injustice. Her answer: “We’re all parasites. But there’s something to bearing witness. If I don’t do this, the reality is that somebody else will be in there getting $110 an hour who doesn’t care.”
 
Sitting there in the corner of the courtroom and watching Streamline happen in front of me, I felt like I was coming to see a show. I felt disgusted by my gaze, I felt extremely uncomfortable with my position in the proceedings. But what the public defender said about witnessing—that’s what my role is, that’s why we were in that room that day. As a group, we’ve been talking a lot about reciprocity and privilege and study abroad programs and our program. And a lot of these topics have converged in questions of how we enter into communities that aren’t ours, homes and families and networks that aren’t ours, and what does it mean for us to “learn” from these spaces and these lives, and how can we do this in ways that aren’t just one-sided or exploitative from our side, but are respectful and reciprocal. Sometimes, reciprocity is possible. Sometimes we can give directly when we receive. Sometimes we can’t. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. In some cases, what we can do is witness, and use that experience actively as a tool. Before this semester, I had never heard of Operation Streamline. Neither had many of the other students on this program. Neither had many of our host families. Neither had many of my friends. This is happening everyday in US federal courts in certain zones along the US/Mexico border. That morning, the public defender said to us, “If it can happen in this federal courthouse, where people fight for civil rights, it can happen anywhere. You have people in Iowa being torn out of meat-packing factories. The border is not just here, the border is everywhere. And we have to stop the dimunition of these rights and the dilution of what they mean. And we have to say no, we are not going to allow it. And it starts with having these conversations with people.” Yes my gaze that day was uncomfortable, yes there are issues with my gaze and my presence and the space I take up and we take up as a group, and yes it is imperative that we are constantly conscious and critical of those things. Also, we can use these things as tools, we can bear witness, we can bring what we learn out of that windowless room where it is being kept and I can write this post about what we saw and we can have these conversations and fight in these ways.
 
-Jaye Harden


Operation Streamline

The first group of eight people went up to the judge. A few lawyers for all 70 detainees stood behind them and translated as the judge declared them guilty of illegal entry to the United States. I tried hard to make out the words coming from the judge’s mouth as he hurriedly mumbled the sentences, making the formalities of the court seem solely that, formalities. However, despite the traditional and formal demeanor of the court — a judge sitting up on a higher stand, formal attire, lawyers, guards, court rules — there was nothing legitimate about this court.

Maybe the fact that I knew that each of the 70 individuals had at most twenty minutes with one of the six lawyers provided for all of them influenced my view of this court session. The reality is that the lawyers have 20 minutes to complete an impossible task.

They have to attempt to overcome language barriers, dealing with a client who possibly has not slept or had a real meal in days, been dehydrated in the desert, and may have experienced any number of traumatic experiences when crossing the dangerous desert. They had 20 minutes, as a lawyer of this court said, to attempt to explain what a misdemeanor is, what a felony is, and all the information that somebody who is not familiar with legal procedures in this country would need in order to make a fully conscientious decision in court. The legal advice was mostly the same for everybody: Sign the Misdemeanor Plea, this way you will serve less time “because nobody ever wins immigration cases” and “if you have been caught before you will avoid being charged with a felony.”  By the end of the court session, the judge will have sentenced every single one of the 70 men and women to jail time.

They all replied with either “Si”,”Si su señoria”,”Yes, sir” or “Yes, your honor” to being guilty and taking the misdemeanor charge as well as 60 to 180 days of jail time and then deportation. This rapid process took five minutes, then they were dismissed and in the 10 feet journey to the door the now “criminals” thanked their lawyers and attempted to shake hands, obviously with visible difficulty because their hands were cuffed and the cuffs were attached to a shackle hugging their waist. This exact same process was repeated approximately seven more times and the results  were 70 people expedited in approximately 30 minutes.

This is Operation Streamline:  fast and effective, a true factory of criminals. I was observing the commodification of 70 poor and brown people with my own eyes.

We had been warned about the harshness of the process. The first groups seem to be mostly Mexican and Hondurans. As a Honduran, my heart was painfully stung every time I heard a name and following it “citizen of Honduras.” And as an American as well (dual citizenship) I was embarrassed, disappointed, but most of all, utterly disgusted.

The longer I was in that court, the faster the judge was reading the sentences and the less I could breathe. After seeing the first group go by, I thought I’d be fine, and I thought I’d hold my tears in. But the injustice was so evident.  It filled the air in that damp room and choked me.

I knew these defendants although I might have never met them personally. I know generally the circumstances that forced this journey. It is not unusual for laborers in the fields and Maquiladoras to earn about $5 after a full day of work. It has become common for teachers not to receive pay for a year of work. And these conditions have been a reality for years because any efforts for social economic improvement are violently repressed by our government and military, historically known to be trained in the United States School of the Americas. Never in my wildest dreams would I consider any of these people criminals.  Those who live comfortable safe lives on this side of the “border” often forget that they seek the services of these hard-working people who care for children and the elderly, paint homes, construct houses, do beautiful landscaping, and simply seek a living wage . I want to ask those who accuse and charge them with names like aliens, criminals, alien criminals if they have ever faced the necessity of walking days in the desert exposed to all kinds of deadly dangers in order to reunite with their loved ones?  Have they ever been unable to feed their loved ones?

After the trial that judge told us, the group of observers, if we didn’t like what we were seeing to not complain to him, “I don’t make these laws, go out there and talk to your senator and vote for politicians who will implement the laws you want. You’re wasting your time here.” Surely, we do need to talk to our senators and get involved politically so that dehumanizing processes like Operation Streamline are terminated.

However, this thorn of injustice goes deeper than Operation Streamline. This thorn is called racism and exploitation and has a long history in the Americas. Such a long history indeed, that it is now embedded in our cultures, and the fact that we have laws, such Arizona’s SB 1070 that persecute people for being brown, or looking indigenous, mean little to nothing to our society.

It is easy for us to be pleased with the system when it works well for us, when we are ignorant of the difficulties it creates for others. An observer at the court asked the judge if any efforts were being made to help political refugees from Honduras, and he responded: “I don’t know anything about Honduras.” And added he doubts that the people at Streamline are political refugees because they are probably farmers and some of them illiterate and probably have not participated in political demonstrations. I think this statement would shock and rejected by anybody who has lived in Latin America or somehow been involved with it’s political histories.

Laborers have always been actively involved in politically economic social movement.  Considering the judge’s constant contact with Mexicans and Central Americans I’d think he at least would have some curiosity about peoples lives or the histories of their countries.  Just from the Aguan area in Honduras, 56 farmers and active members of  La Resistencia, the rising pacific social movement against the Military and Political Coup in Honduras, have been murdered since 2009.

Every American with any sense of morality or good or equality will lose sleep over the fact that our border is a war zone , where deaths occur on a regular basis and never make any headline, and for the fact that we pay tax money for families to be separated. Every person who proudly calls himself or herself American,  should question what exactly makes one more American than another that was brought here as a baby, raised in our neighborhoods, studied in our schools and had a legitimate job? For not having citizenship papers they are now on the list of Homeland Security. They suddenly become a national threat.

It is 2013, and we are massively incarcerating hundreds of brown men and women. I ponder the evil that infest our societies. How do we get to the point of exploiting, wasting other’s lives, in order for us to meet our greedy and selfish desires?

I believe there is a high profit incentive behind it. And it is not a coincidence that dark-skinned Hispanic and Indigenous people being targeted. To be completely honest, I believe immigrants are the easiest most vulnerable people to incarcerate. The United States has determined that the moment one steps foot in their border, he or she is a criminal alien without constitutional rights. No Miranda Rights for you, no right to a lawyer. The business of prisons has noticed this vulnerability and exploits, making billions of dollars out of the lives of the poorest of the poor.

Sitting at that bench in the Tucson Courthouse, I questioned law itself. I questioned why had I ever entertained the idea of being a lawyer if you have to play by bad rules, and if immigration procedures and rules contradict each other. As Jason Haan, a former attorney of Operation Streamline describes it: “Operation Streamlines turns lawyers into puppets.”

Even though there is no current evidence that Operation Streamline is serving its purpose of deterring illegal immigration, on the contrary, the numbers of re-entry cases (decreed as felonies) is increasing, the new immigration reform plans to triple the number of people prosecuted in Operation Streamline. Hence, tripling the cost of the process, which according to the DOJ incarceration costs alone for Operation Streamline add up to between $7 and $10 million a month, that is discounting all other Court and deportation expenses.

It is my hope that more honest discussions can be carried out about current immigration policies and programs like Operation Streamline. I hope someday we can reach solutions that don’t involve border militarization and immigrant criminalization that so far have proven to “make the poor poorer, and the rich richer” as well as an increase in the violence of the border.

Today is September 15th, many people in Mexico and Central America celebrate their Independence day. Nonetheless, more importantly there is also a hope for a new Independence. A new economic, military and  political independence from the United States.

– Martha Sanchez


Reflections on Altar/Nogales

Figuring out how to approach this assignment is difficult, because I feel an inclination to do two things I don’t really want to/couldn’t possibly do: (1) speak in a way that captures or represents the “group experience” to a wider readership, including prospective BSP participants and (2) provide a neat little nugget summary of the chronology of the last few days. All I can provide is a few scattered articulations from my own perspective, which has been shaped by conversations with Jaye and you all and every other person and environment I have encountered, but which cannot be read as anyone else’s truth. I’d rather not cover each item on our itinerary in shallow detail, because that short-changes them all and I’d rather reflect in greater depth about one or two events.  Also, I don’t feel that it’s appropriate for me to formulate my views into a tidy cohesive narrative because that belies the frazzledness of my own thoughts and the complexity of these experiences, as well as the fact that I am refering to the lives of people we have briefly met and topics that to me are exactly that, “topics”—subjects to mull over and write about and maybe cry about, but that do not necessarily enfold me or cause me daily harm. To compose words about these “topics” in a neat way seems to reduce them further and I also mentally can’t, because of the extent to which they are still unfathomable to me.

The first thing I want to talk about is visiting Border Patrol. One aspect of the experience which struck me the most was the ways that the “job” of policing the border, and presumably the training that agents go through (perhaps speaking to militarization, policing and surveillance more broadly), involves an ideological conversion of the nuances of reality and the flesh/thoughts/feelings/spirits of people into rhetoric that obscures injustice and frames the whole system as alternately a game/sport and an urgent project to maintain order. WHAT AM I SAYING. How do I find a way to say what I’m thinking. I’ll just give examples.

Both of the agents mentioned that they had always loved to be outdoors, hike, and “run around the mountains,” so their friends had said, ‘hey, if you love doing all that, why don’t you apply to be on border patrol and put those interests towards serving the country?’ (as though patrolling the border is just a slightly more patriotic outdoorsy activity). They talked about “tunnel teams” who go down the “rabbit holes” to find “smugglers.” They talked about how agents can apply for “details,” which I understood as being like special temporary bonuses (e.g., getting to ride a horse for a little while), and after being selected for a detail they can’t apply for another one for 90 days, so the novelty doesn’t wear off—kind of reminds me of a computer game where you collect a special coin and then get to fly for a limited time, or something (am I stretching this metaphor?). They talked about how they sometimes have to spend a week at a remote camp in the desert, and complained about having to bathe with jugs of water in the intense heat and be away from their families (I can’t imagine how difficult that must be, but it still sounds almost quaint compared to what migrants go through and the ways in which they are separated from their families)—and overall, they made it sound like an adventure. Then they talked about their “community involvement” and the “Explorer Program” which they run for local Arizona youth in order to “guide them to a better path,” in which kids “get to shoot guns, do everything we get to do, it’s kinda fun.”

There are so many ways that the agents use intentionally complicated/abstract phrasing to obscure or create distance from what is actually happening and to propagandize. For example, when a migrant throws a rock, it’s a “lethal assault”; when agents throw a rock, they are exercising a “field expedient weapon.” The language with which they discussed the technologies used by “smuggling organizations” (e.g., “digitized cammo booties”; “ultralight aircrafts” [also described as “lawnmowers with wings]) and “terrorism” (e.g., “putting spikes on the back of marijuana bundles”) which has evidently “increased and taken on many forms since 9/11” (maybe because we label more and more stuff as “terrorism” ever since 9/11?)—made the migrants  or “illegal aliens” seem more threatening. Meanwhile, all of the words that they used to talk about their own technologies (e.g., “radiation isotope identification device”; “unmanned aerial systems” [drones]) and their systems/methods (e.g., “Alien Transfer Exit Program”; “sign-cutting” [following footprints]; “escalating levels of consequence delivery”) were almost absurd in their dehumanized convolution. The “levels of harm done,” which dictate the “levels of consequence delivery,” include:

(1)  not active compliance (the agent beckons, but the migrant stands still)

(2)  active resistance (agent grabs migrant and migrant wriggles out of grasp)

(3)  assault (migrant kicks or hits agent)

(4)  serious bodily harm (migrant poses great threat to agent, e.g. by picking up rock)—the consequence for this is that the agent can “escalate to the level of lethal fire.” No warning shots are allowed. What does that mean? What do you think that means? They said, “We don’t shoot to kill. We shoot to stop the threat and de-escalate.” They also said, “We know what it feels like—everything we use has been used against us. Granted, not the guns.”

I JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MIGRATION CAN EVER LEAVE OUT AN ANALYSIS OF WHY PEOPLE ARE MIGRATING. The Border Patrol did mention that migrants are often poor, or that the “smugglers” prey on people. They talked about how the agents take a “humanitarian approach” by deporting children across the border at the same place where they had crossed (as opposed to what they sometimes do with adult migrants, which is move them over to Texas or other crossing points to disorient them). But they don’t imagine what might be entailed by an actual large-scale humanitarian approach, which might involve changing U.S. economic policy so that people don’t have to migrate. Obviously it’s not in their interest to talk about how, for example, many people are unable to continue growing their ancestral corn because of the influx of subsidized US corn, and thus must migrate in search of work in the US, often in the fields of the same factory farms whose GMO products displaced their livelihood in the first place). It’s not surprising that BP doesn’t talk about those things and probably doesn’t learn to think about them, as though the whole issue with migration starts in the immediate surroundings of the wall. What’s more unsettling is that the general conversation about migration that takes place in schools, in the media, at my family’s dinner table, everywhere in this country, also leaves out this incredibly basic question about how the US engineers the necessity of migration.

I’d wanted to write in some depth about my home-stay too, but I’m starting to run out of steam. I’ll just mention a few details:

I was thankfully very heartened by conversations with my host, Alma, and her daughters who are roughly our age.  Gabi helped a lot with translation and interpretation. Alma told us how she loves “mi México” and doesn’t want to leave, and that being in the U.S. makes her angry. She said she has a VISA, but Border Patrol doesn’t care who has a VISA or not, they treat you rudely all the same (“hay tanto racismo”). She also said that she doesn’t generalize about everyone in the US, because she knows there are a lot of good people and that’s why she likes being involved with Border Studies. She appreciates that we are visiting and learning.

Her daughter also explained to us that the fields of study are more specialized and vocational in Mexico for undergrad, so if you’re interested in studying social justice, your main option is law school. She said she’s working in a maquila that’s owned by a Mexican corporation which pays $12/day, whereas many US-owned maquilas pay $8 per day. She wants to study journalism and be on the radio as a representative reporting on concerts, parties and other events. She says she wants to do this because she’s loud and friendly and always the one singing at karaoke.

That’s all I can manage for now! Thanks for reading.

-Rena Branson


Reflections on our excursion to Altar, Sonora

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I’m trying to think of how to do this. I’m supposed to be writing a reflection on this thing, this trip, these seventy-five-ish hours that twelve of us just experienced together. (together? yes, and also no). Before we left, people from home were asking me if I was excited. I had no idea how to explain my confusion with that word. I had no other words to give either. Now, afterward, it seems if anything harder and weirder to try to name all the feelings I am having about all the things I saw / heard / experienced / felt / received.

We got back to Tucson yesterday. This reflection would be different if I wrote it tomorrow, or in a week, or in two. But it is this right now.

I am in my house. Well, my host family’s house. Martha, my fellow student and housemate, is making cookies for us. There is still a little bit of a cactus buried in my right pinkie from our first night in Tucson but I can hit the delete key now without even feeling it so that’s cool. I got my first flat tire on my bike rolling out of the driveway this morning. I have been in the borderlands for almost three weeks. I can’t even say how much longer it feels. Two of the things they said would inevitably happen to us in our fifteen weeks here—poked by a cactus (well actually I fell on it), flat tire—have already happened to me. I wonder what else will happen to me that has been predicted. I wonder what else will happen to me that hasn’t been predicted. It feels like I(we?) am(are) at a point right now. I don’t know what else to say about that, but I think a transition is happening / is about to happen.

So on thursday we started the day at the Nogales border patrol station in Nogales-Arizona at the US-Mexico border. In a windowless conference room, two agents delivered us a powerpoint presentation. Laying on the table at which we sat was a rope ladder that people had used to climb the border fence, booties that leave no tracks in the desert, rocks that had been thrown across the fence at agents, and a PLS—pepperball launching system—that they told us was “kind of like a paintball gun.” After the presentation they took us on a tour of the station—we got to pass around their huge guns and try on their gear, we got to watch their monitor feeds from cameras along the border wall, and we got to look through a wall of windows into the station’s detention center, where an agent was tossing foil blankets at a bunch of men in one of the holding cells. Things they said to us during the presentation, tour, and conversations afterward:

-“illegal aliens”
-“good for the country” “I get to meet the community”
-“terrorists”
-“make it more difficult for them”
-“you can tell if they’re females or males, or if they have big packs that are probably full of marijuana”
-“there’s all kinds of different terrorism….with the smugglers, them trying to cause harm to us, you get marijuana bundles and flip them over and there are spikes. now that’s a kind of terrorism.”
-“I basically saved his life, he would have died crossing through the mountains”
-“if he’s throwing a pebble—well, probably not worth shooting”
-“exotics—middle easterners, chinese…”
-“we have a feeding schedule; they get fed, the juveniles get fed…”
-“the smugglers have an agenda when they talk to you, they want you to think we kill people and beat them up all the time…” “my agenda is to go home to my family at the end of the day.”

We ended the day at CCAMYN (Centro Comunitario de Atencion al Migrante y Necesitado) a migrant shelter in Altar, Sonora. We ate dinner and talked with migrants, some of whom had just been deported, some of whom were about to try to cross, some of whom were about to turn around and go home because they couldn’t afford to go the rest of the way or because they refused to carry drugs for the mafia, who controls the entire area and is impossible to evade. In the courtyard after dinner, two fellow students and I started talking to one of the migrants, someone who has interfaced with the US so-called “criminal justice system,” the prison system, the immigration system, never mind countless other systems in the US and in Mexico that have impeded his, his family’s, and his neighbors’ abilities to live and work and move and not move. Things that he started telling us:

-that he loves America

-that people who are deported are criminals and have to pay the price

-that he has been deported
-that every country has laws and you have to follow them
-that he loves us
-that he does not see the border
-that to be American means that you can walk around the world and everyone will roll out a carpet for you
-that the American government makes its laws and plays its games to protect its own citizens
-that he can’t trust Mexico, or Guatemala or El Salvador or Russia or China or anyone else, so he has to trust the US, because who else will he trust?

Already in these three weeks we have had so many conversations about reciprocity, about giving, about taking, about power, about our varying positions as students from private liberal arts colleges in the US, eleven of our twelve as US citizens, many of us as white, many of us coming from super privileged class backgrounds; the lists of our privileges vary from person to person in our group, but certainly go on. We have had conversations about taking pictures, about hearing stories, about what it means for us to enter and exit spaces and how we take and is it possible to give and is there any way to do what we are doing without harm and if there is how do we achieve that and if there isn’t should we keep doing it anyway

I am an American citizen, I am white, I am from an upper middle class background, I go to Oberlin College. My family has paid a lot of money for me to come live in this region for a few months, cross the border in a white van with my US passport, and visit this shelter to hear from people who use it for its real purpose. Standing across from this person who was telling us his story, I had all these questions of power, of what my silence meant and what my words might mean too, of the space I take up, of the space I was taking up just standing there in that courtyard in that moment. Questions of how to receive and hold these words he was giving us, of how maybe it was best for me to just listen, because with the power dynamics of my very presence it felt too complicated and too questionable to do anything but be quiet and listen. But also, standing there listening, my silence started to feel wrong. I felt automated and disrespectful just standing and smiling and nodding, knowing that as soon as the three of us walked away we would burst into a huge break-down of what we had just heard and all that we felt about it. It felt wrong to be silent, like I wasn’t respecting him as a person enough to engage with him, to communicate some of the things happening in my head as he was communicating some of the things in his head. So I started asking him questions, arguing with him about foreign policy and the US government’s motives. Some of the things he said felt like really really important reminders to me about the many many privileges of having my US passport. Some of the things he said made my stomach squirm with how closely they echoed the american dream rhetoric that the border patrol agents had fed us that morning. Mostly the conversation was a reminder to me that really, this stuff is complicated. Something that we have been hearing, not just from our leaders but also from various community members and workers that we’ve been meeting with since we got here, is that the borderlands are full of contradictions, of things which may seem incongruous but which actually exist alongside one another in the same space. Maybe the american dream is all a myth, maybe this man and his family and his neighbors have experienced first hand the violence of the border wall, of NAFTA, of the drug war. And maybe he also loves America, maybe he needs it to exist. I’m not a person who can say that’s right or wrong. I am not a person who can say that it is incongruous with everything he told us about his life. It’s his experience. It’s complicated, multilayered. So is mine, so is yours probably. That’s how we are. It’s a cool thing about being a person, to not fit easily into a box, to not have one neat little packaged meaning.

A last thought—well that’s a stupid thing to say, so really just a final thought for now. One of these questions which I am sure will be ongoing throughout the semester (and after) is about this reciprocity, about the giving and taking, about when it’s appropriate to speak or take up space and how to go about doing that. It is something I struggled with in our visit with border patrol, and, in an entirely different way, something I struggled with at CCAMYN with the different migrants I spoke to. Something Jeff and Katie told us early on is that much of this semester, much about being in the borderlands, is about unlearning. Constantly questioning the ways I take up space, and trying to unlearn the ways that that causes harm to the people and spaces around me, is a really really important part of the learning and living that I want to be doing here in the coming months (and, again, on and on after I leave this specific space). It is something I want to balance, though, with not using silence as a way to avoid engaging with the world around me.

-jaye harden


Encuentro con Rosalva Fuentes y Fortin de las Flores, Pt 1

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    I’ve been hearing various program leaders articulate their respect for Rosalva throughout the past two weeks, so it was wonderful to be able to yield the floor to her and Fortin de las Flores this past Thursday to learn from them. I came in with a head heavy with acronyms and numbers, and Rosalva’s presentation and the games we played added a rich layer of comprehension. We were moving, watching, and listening, and I came away with a deeper understanding of the situation created by laws like SB 1070, as well as a greater appreciation for the activism that went on (and still continues) standing up to those laws.

     But first, we started with a brown vs white soccer game. Rosalva explained to our Border Studies group what we’d be doing, then led us all out to the courtyard of the Historic Y. Rosalva was going to be our referee, and we were to stop when we heard her whistle. We divided into teams and stood around awkwardly, some of us opting for bare feet, other shod in flip flops or high heels, myself in Tevas. As soon as the ball dropped and we all scrambled for it, laughter broke out and the fun began. Far from being a normal soccer game, Rosalva would periodically blow her whistle, take the ball, and turn it over to the white team. This happened when the ball went out of bounds as well. At one point Rosalva authorized one of the white team members to simply pick up the ball with her hands and walk it into the brown team’s net, scoring the white team a point. The game ended soon after, and we debriefed quickly about the whistle as a symbol for power. The one’s with the whistle are able to call the shots, to change the rules to the benefit of themselves. It was pointed out that no one protested as to the unfair favoring, and I thought about the pitfalls of white allyship when one doesn’t want to realize or potentially forfeit privileges in their favor in the name of greater equality for all.

     We went back inside and fairly quickly went into a skit. Three white volunteers were gathered from amongst our Border Studies ranks and told that they were Canadian and driving a car. They drove until they were pulled over by a cop played by one of the men from Fortin de las Flores. He spoke in Spanish to them, questioning them, took the driver’s ID, and returned to his car. And then we waited. And waited. Rosalva came in dressed as a Border Patrol agent, and again spoke in Spanish to the people in the car. I should note here that my Spanish is a significant work in progress, and so I’m not sure of many of the specifics of this interaction. The skit soon ended and we debriefed yet again, hearing from the actors about their experiences. One person commented that this was a difficult situation to act from, because it would never happen to that person in real life. It would’ve been easier to joke about it, but that wasn’t the point, and dwelling in that knowledge and the situation was discomforting. We discussed the use of Spanish, and how it was difficult to be in a situation with someone with significant power and not understand all of what was going on. Rosalva noted that as Border Patrol she had been pretty nice, but that it wasn’t unusual for Border Patrol agents to be nasty about people speaking Spanish. And we discussed the time that had been spent waiting for Border Patrol. Our actors only had two wait two or three minutes, but the reality is often hours, often with a family in the car in the heat. We were told to think about what would be running through the heads of those people in the car, not knowing their fate but just needing to wait.

     We then broke for dinner, and came back to a timeline Rosalva had put up with some of the laws we had been reading about along with their dates. She took us through a presentation, fleshing out what these laws meant (and still mean) to the Latin@ community in Tucson. She included two videos, one from immigrantsforsale.org, and one from Pan Left Productions, “Friday Night Injustice.” All too soon, however, it was time for the presentation to end. Rosalva picked the perfect video to end with, another from Pan Left Productions featuring video footage of the students who chained themselves to the chairs at the school board meeting over Mexican American studies. I’d seen pictures of this action but never the video, and it left me with goosebumps all over and tears in my eyes. I am grateful to Rosalva and Fortin de las Flores for coming and playing with me, feeding me, inspiring me, and teaching me so many things.

– Genevieve Beck-Roe

Encuentro con Rosalva Fuentes y Fortin de las Flores, Pt 2

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Thursday we met with a familiar face, Rosalva Fuentes. This week, however, our group learned just how powerful and layered her presence is outside of the Border Studies Program.

At around 5pm we walked into a conference room in the Historic Y to find several members of Rosalva’s organization, Fortin de las Flores. We started off with a game of soccer on the patio, which we found out was to demonstrate the dynamics of a community in which one person has a whistle, the power, and one group is favored more than the other. Rosalva split us into two teams, the Brown people and the White people. She sent me to the Brown team, which was a pleasant surprise since my Mexican background does not always come across on my Russian face. As someone whose family emigrated from Mexico, it brought up some interesting questions for me. When I am home in Oregon, a very Anglo population, I am Mexican. When I am at school in Connecticut, I am Jewish. When I am in Tucson, I am most often White. I think this question of context will become a theme throughout the program. Are you only what people see you to be? This seems to be true in the borderlands, where anyone with dark skin can be pegged as an undocumented immigrant, even if you are a citizen.

Rosalva touched on this point when we went back into the conference room. She had Gerardo, a man from Fortin de las Flores, act as a border patrol agent. Three of our students pretended to be Canadians in Arizona. Their car was being pulled over by the border patrol agent. In Spanish, he interrogated the students about where they were coming from and why they were in Arizona. He spoke so fast that even our advanced Spanish speakers had a hard time understanding. The officer asked for their IDs but refused to accept any documentation from out of state. Canadian identification was irrelevant. He went back to his car and told the students to wait. There were giggles in the room, however silence quickly ensued when we realized we had no idea what would come next. Nothing was happening. We waited. It seemed like it took ten minutes, when in reality, about three minutes later Rosalva walked in. She was in a full border patrol uniform. I barely recognized her in her hat and sunglasses. She whispered to the other officer and then went up to the car. She asked the same questions as the officer before, again in Spanish. She was surprisingly cordial and explained that because their documentation was not legal in the US they would be taken to the detention center. To be honest, I didn’t understand much more than that. Rosalva ended the demonstration there.

She asked us how we felt. Some of us mentioned how strange it was to watch something that often happened to people of color in the borderlands, but would probably never happen to us. It made me realize that the issue of immigration is not just about politics or a wall. It’s about people being attacked, harassed, and demeaned in your own home. It’s being told that a life you think is your own can be taken away from you by a stranger.

Then Rosalva went through a timeline of laws that have been produced in the last ten or more years, such as SB 1070. It became increasingly clear how the issue of immigration, that is most often presented as an economic issue, is very much motivated by hate and racism. Perhaps change won’t come from policy but rather from a shift in our culture.

– Natalie Ancona