The “Other End” / Rostro y Dignidad

migrante muralA mural on the wall of COMI. Translation: The migrant isn’t a statistic; he has a face and dignity.

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.

monte alban brightMany 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.”

media muralPart of the mural at SURCO depicting the importance of community controlled media.

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.

mural at ConsorcioYet another beautiful mural in the courtyard of Consorcio.

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.

weaving loomMy host mother’s loom. Tapestries can take weeks, even months, to complete.

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.

group at AnalcoAnalco, a town in the mountains, with our “ecotourism” guides.

To find out more about the people and places we visited, visit:

Analco Ecotourism-



Mare Advertencia Lirika-

Ojo de Agua Comunicación-


Vida Nueva-

-Kaïa Austin


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