As our bus speeds down the Pan American Highway towards Oaxaca, a Nicholas Sparks movie dubbed in Spanish playing overhead, I’m not sure what to expect of our trip. People from home keep asking me why we’re going. Uncertain myself, I tell them that we’re going to “see the other end of migration,” and to understand and connect the dots with what we’re beginning to discover while in Tucson. I’m only half bullshitting.
Most of my previous knowledge about Oaxaca, a state in Southern Mexico, had been from a documentary called Un Poquito de Tanta Verdad that we watched that week about the 2006 social uprising in the region. Our first day, it became clear that resistance runs deep in Oaxaca as we were chauffeured around on a contrast tour of the city; political posters and graffiti proclaiming “Sin mujeres no hay revolución” pepper the city. Later we walked to the Zocalo, or central square, where teachers on strike are perpetually camped out. Certainly the legacy of the 2006 uprisings live on, as protest seem to be a routine activity in Oaxaca.
One of our first visits was to COMI, Oaxaca’s migrant shelter. It is quite different from the shelter we visited in Altar, CCAMYN; only one man was staying at COMI, whereas CCAMYN had been bustling when we visited in September. We had an informal conversation with the nuns at CCAMYN, while the two women working at COMI described migration in a more structured way aided by a powerpoint. Both shelter visits, however, included an emphasis on the increasing dangers faced by migrants. Similar to, and perhaps inspired by, the U.S. border policy of deterrence by death (forcing migrants into more dangerous terrain), Mexico has been making it more difficult to ride “la Bestia” (the train has been an integral part of migration for folks from Central American and Southern Mexico) by installing concrete posts along the tracks, along with adorning walls with barbed wire. Neither group tries to dissuade people from crossing the border into the U.S., but they do inform folks of the dangerous realities they’ll encounter.
The mural at COMI, as well as art at other organizations we visited, depicted indigenous people, reflecting Oaxaca’s large indigenous population. In contrast, almost every ad I saw around town featured white-looking people, an observation our guide’s 15-year old son made our first day in town. The disconnect between the smiling light-skinned people on billboards and the actual mezcla of indigenous inhabitants of Oaxaca was stark, and represents attempts at cultural colonization that have to some degree achieved internalized racism.
Cultural colonization visibly manifested itself through the strong presence of Catholicism in Oaxaca, especially in the smaller towns we visited. There was little mention of what indigenous spirituality was prior to colonization, despite the strong preservation of many cultural aspects. For example, we attended a beautiful parade in the town Teotitlán where women carried pictures of Catholic saints while wearing traditional Zapotec outfits. On our free day Lena and I took a bus to Monte Albán, the awe-inspiring remains of a prominent Zapotec city that flourished between 500 BC and 500 AD. Just 20 minutes from downtown Oaxaca where colonial architecture reigns, it was a clear reminder of the changes that colonization has brought to the region.
Many of the people and groups we met with focus on indigenous rights, fighting to preserve agency and autonomy. On our autonomous study visits Brandon and I went to Ojo de Agua Comunicación, an indigenous media organization that empowers communities to produce their own radio stations in addition to making documentaries on local issues. Hector, the man we met with, explained that their focus is on helping indigenous communities build capacity so that they can produce radio programs themselves. He emphasized that “what we learn from a community isn’t ours, but is the community’s.”
Afterwards, I joined B, Meg, Lena, and Rosalva at Consorcio, an organization for indigenous and mestiza women’s rights. Yésica, a lawyer and director at Consorcio, met with us and shared some of her considerable wisdom. She said that one of the organization’s most important aspects is collaboration with other social movements, a point I hope to carry with me in future organizing work. Social movements are unfortunately as prone to instances of sexism and sexual violence as the rest of society, and Rosalva and Yésica shared their respective experiences dealing with these issues while organizing in Tucson/Oaxaca. This, to me, is the basis of solidarity work. By recognizing shared struggles, Rosalva and Yésica had an opportunity to support each other and one another’s work.
Being at Consorcio offered important insight into different forms feminism can take. Gender was a common topic during our Oaxaca trip, and most people we talked to brought up gender equality as being a component of their work. In some cases, such as a man who told us that “el machismo no existe” in his community, mentioning gender seemed calculated to pander to what they thought we wanted to hear. In most cases however, including our meetings with Consorcio, anthropologist Tajëëw Díaz Robles, rapper Mare Advertencia Lirika, and the Vida Nueva weaving cooperative, the people we met with were doing incredible and inspiring work around gender. I approached the trip with many questions about what gender roles are like in Oaxaca and how they have been changed by the large out-migration of men, but learned over the course of our time there to put aside objectives and listen to what people were saying, not what I wanted to hear them say. One important lesson came from Tajëëw Díaz Robles who stressed to us that there is no one model of community, and that different communities have changed in different ways over the years. Regarding my question about migration’s effect on women, I’ve learned that there isn’t a simple answer that applies universally. Tajëëw mentioned that the government often co-opts feminism in order to pass laws that ultimately undermine the sovereignty of communities, reminding me of pinkwashing in the U.S. and abroad. Communities have made their own decisions over time, some of which we saw in the Zapotec village Teotitlán where we spent one night in homestays with women from the Vida Nueva weaving collective. My host mother, Isabel, recounted to me that her father had woven tapestries, and that it wasn’t until she was an adult that she learned to weave from her husband. Previously a male-only trade, weaving has now become a tool for women at Vida Nueva to empower themselves and achieve a degree of independence and autonomy.
During our time in Teotitlán we met with Charlie, a man from the town whose mother moved with him to California while he was a baby. An eloquent storyteller, Charlie shared his life story with us from growing up in the U.S. to being deported several times due to a combination of bad luck and nonsensical laws. Eventually he returned to Teotitlán where he’s been putting his life back together, but his daughters still live in California and it has been five years since he saw them. His story is complex and unique, while also mirroring aspects of other people’s narratives. Hearing Charlie talk about being detained in ICE facilities, including the center in Eloy I’ve visited with my field study, shook me up. Before going to Oaxaca we’d visited the Florence Detention Center, observed an Operation Streamline trial, gotten a tour of a Border Patrol station, and eaten dinner with migrants at the shelter in Altar. These experiences each gave us a piece of the bigger story, but it wasn’t until hearing Charlie that I saw the individual components connected in a holistic and real way.
In Tucson we encounter many people fighting for the right to migrate, either for themselves or people they love. In Oaxaca, it became apparent that people are also fighting for the right to stay. Leaving behind your home and community is far from easy, and most people migrate only because they feel they have no other choice. Understanding this aspect of migration is crucial to envisioning a world where people have the freedom to migrate, or to stay home. Flying back my temporary home in Tucson, I reflected on the goals I set for myself in our trip-processing meeting: build connections within my home community / do more than just show up to events- participate and be engaged / learn more about my own family histories and traditions / ask questions without an agenda and truly listen to the response / share what I’ve learned and experienced with people in a meaningful way.
To find out more about the people and places we visited, visit:
Analco Ecotourism- https://www.facebook.com/AnalcoEcoturistico
Mare Advertencia Lirika- https://soundcloud.com/mare-advertencia-lirika
Ojo de Agua Comunicación- http://ojodeaguacomunicacion.org/
Vida Nueva- http://www.mexicoartshow.com/vidanueva.html
Hometown: Portland, Oregon
School: Whitman College
BSP Year: Spring 2013
– What role did the Border Studies Program play in your undergraduate education?
It’s hard to answer this question because I have a hard time imagining my life without having done BSP. I came back to Whitman College invigorated, with a mind on fire. I came down to the border knowing that immigration interested me as a single issue, but I left with a more complex understanding of how migration is intricately tied to nearly every other element of social justice. While my BSP semester undoubtedly centered around migration, it gave me the tools to be able to see every aspect of the world around me through a more critical (and maybe heavy-hearted) lens, whether it’s environmental justice, indigenous rights or patterns of global apartheid.
The BSP also turned me on to issues of mass incarceration and criminalization, which completely transformed my senior year and my future career interests. I worked as a youth counselor at the Walla Walla Juvenile Justice Center, participated in a community-based research project on a tattoo removal program for former gang members, and wrote my senior thesis on immigrant detention as a contemporary form of slavery. In each of these experiences I was able to think in depth about the intersections of crime, race, identity and power through a more astute political backdrop because of the conversations and experiences I had in the borderlands.
– What are your post-graduation plans and how do you think the BSP helped prepare you for these experiences?
I am working at Posada Esperanza, a transitional housing shelter for women and children migrants in Austin, Texas. BSP, in particular the travel seminars into Guatemala, Chiapas and Sonora gave me an incredible window into what the migrant journey entails. Meeting these families in Austin now I think I have much more empathy and respect for what they went through to get to where they are.
Something I hadn’t anticipated was how well BSP would prepare me for any career, even one outside of immigration. At the end of the semester, I had brief worries that if I were to devote myself to anything outside of what we directly studied that semester, I would feel some sort of guilt for leaving those issues and populations. But I quickly realized, with help from the BSP staff, was that the semester had exposed me to such a wide range of possibilities that I now feel blessed with how overwhelming my interests and choices for careers appear. Far from limiting myself, my interests and passions expanded wildly after spending time on the border.
– Is there anything in particular you would like to share with undergraduate students considering the Border Studies Program?
I was initially somewhat hesitant about participating in BSP. No one from my college had ever done it before, and before starting there was a part of me that wished I had chosen a study abroad program in a foreign country. However, what I quickly realized was that BSP gave me something that no other program would be able to: a critical window into my own country in what almost seemed like an alternate reality for five months. I went to school in a small town in rural Washington state, encompassed by the proverbial “bubble” that I’m sure many other schools like mine share. Living in a large metropolitan city allowed me to not only engage in new politics, but also have social experiences that were unavailable to me at Whitman or in Walla Walla.
BSP will completely transform the way you look at the world, your own communities, and your place within either. It was definitely not an easy semester, but it was by the far the most rewarding of my time as an undergrad.
– You’ve left Tucson twice now, once after the program and once after your time here this past summer. Is there something about the Borderlands you miss most when you leave?
I miss the feeling of urgency that coursed through every facet of my life in Tucson. There was this constant sense that something important was happening today and tomorrow. It makes for an incredibly fertile ground to study just about any issue of political/social importance. Whether it’s police militarization, racially imbalanced school closures, immigration or the environment, it always seemed that each came to the forefront in the borderlands in a way that was so tangible and immediate that it made constant engagement not only possible, but often necessary. I will admit, life in Tucson can sometimes feel exhausting to me as a result. But there is something really incredible about being surrounded by such a strong community of activists who are seeking to combat injustices in each of these arenas on a daily basis.
“you can’t come in like that.”
After entering high security gates that looked like they came out of a movie in Star Wars, the entrance security officer distastefully uttered these words to our Critical Issues instructor, Alisha, as she talked about our scheduled tour at the detention center. In disbelief, we all thought the officer was ableist, referring to Alisha’s crutches, but she was referring to Alisha’s shoulders being visible. This started off the beginning of our trip to the I.C.E. detention center in Florence, AZ. After getting clarification and explaining that we have been in contact with I.C.E. officials for a tour, we then heard the words:
“we don’t do those here.”
Our group eventually learned that we walked into the wrong detention center. Something most people do not know is that Florence, a very small town in between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, is actually a prison town. They even have a prison store, where folks can buy things made by prisoners, and depending on the item 75% of the proceeds goes back to the artist. Florence has 11, yes ELEVEN, incarceration facilities in the area. We walked into a Corrections Corporation of America CCA facility, which is privately owned. Apparently, they are “America’s leader in partnership corrections. [They] provide solutions that combine public sector oversight with private sector efficiency.” Except, given our experience, their prison was not really public.
After following some advice, we made our way to the I.C.E. detention center. At the entrance, we exchanged our state I.D.s for visitor’s passes, made our way inside and passed through security before going upstairs where we would wait for our tour. It was during this wait where I made myself a cup of hazelnut coffee from a very fancy coffee machine. I figured my tax dollars were paying for this horrible facility to exist, so I might as well drink its resources, literally. After waiting a few short minutes, we met the director of the facility, who informed us that he was “kinda the detention guy”, along with a few other folks, whose names I cannot remember but who did not leave our side during the tour. The director gave us a brief history of the detention center, teaching us that in 1942, this facility was a prisoner-of-war camp; in 1963, a minimum security prison where prisoners made brooms; in 1983, a service processing center for U.S. Immigration Naturalization Services; and then in 2003, the present day detention center.
Throughout the director’s lecture, I listened very closely to how he talked about the migrants in the detention center. Was he calling them illegal aliens? Was he referring to them as migrants? For a while he used respectful and politically correct language. Then, we began to talk a bit about policy; these migrants/detainees/immigrants became illegal aliens instantly. He explained the differences between refugees, asylum seekers, and the migrants crossing the border on non-U.S. checkpoints. Apparently, the media has got it all messed up. These people crossing the border illegally are not refugees or asylum seekers. They are not doing things the right way. Apparently, the right way was going through federal ports of entry, approaching an officer, and stating that you are seeking asylum. But what is the right way when officers are will actively turn you away?
“Welcome to the Jungle”
I heard a detainee say this as we continued to learn about how tolerable this particular I.C.E. facility was. These words stuck with me. Jungles. They are so complex and elegant in pictures, green trees and bright plants, exotic fruits and beautiful animals, but to survive within them is a struggle. There are constant negotiations that need to take place in order to make the right decisions. When is the right time to eat to avoid getting preyed on? How can one move in order to avoid as many problems as possible? Although I will never be sure about his exact thoughts when saying this to our group, whether he meant that we would be looking at them as exotic creatures or this was a comment on their survival within this facility. This man’s words have stuck.
How does the saying go?
a gold cage is still a cage.
This I.C.E. detention center is very well kept. It is environmentally friendly, with very expensive technology used to ensure the garbage weighs as little as possible to save as much money as possible. Every migrant is “allowed” to sit wherever they want, even though everyone was in two tables when we passed them for lunch. They kept a separate sterile space for folks with TB to make sure that it was not spread throughout the facility. Their version of solitary confinement was not in a hole, but in a very public space. Folks worked and even got paid $1 a day. A whole dollar is given to folks at the end of the each workday for doing laundry, kitchen work, garden etc. One may even end the tour thinking, “well this place is not too bad. It’s clean. Hey. They have ping-pong and basketball tournaments.” But again…
a gold cage is still a cage.
“It costs money to take away someone’s liberty”
That is correct Mr. ICE facility director! It certainly does cost money to deprive someone of their freedom. Of their human rights. This detention facility does just that and on tax-payer dollars (something folks seem to care a ton about). We are paying to detain people until their cases get processed. In fact, we are holding people just because we want to hold people. Folks plead guilty through Operation Streamline, and instead of getting released and sent back to the countries which hold their citizenship, they are held for up to 180 days, six months in US prisons! I say “we” because it is us. Our money is going to fund the increasing number of detention centers, minimum and high security prisons, and juvenile detention centers, instead of going towards public health, welfare, and education. Someone is getting rich off of someone else’s misery. I say “we” because it’s important to hold ourselves accountable. I say “we” because as people who know about these injustices, it is our job to fight to end them.
I believe that we will win.