Posted: September 30, 2013 Filed under: Uncategorized
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.
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.
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.
“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
Posted: September 30, 2013 Filed under: Uncategorized
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?”
Judge: “(Sir or Ma’am) are you a citizen of (country) and on September (day) near (city) entered a time and place otherwise designated?”
“(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.
Posted: September 19, 2013 Filed under: Uncategorized
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