Reflections on our excursion to Altar, Sonora

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

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