Learning in a Taxi

During this semester, I have been taught to expand the boundaries of the classroom. Our first classroom was at the peak of “A” Mountain at sunset; we could see all of Tuscon as we learned about the semester we were about to embark on. During the first week on a trip to Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, our classroom was the home of Nogales resident Maricruz who fed us delicious lentil soup and spoke about her experiences living on the border. Since orientation week our classroom has taken many shapes like a detention facility in Florence, a courtroom in Tucson, and a marketplace in Teotitlan, Oaxaca, Mexico.  This Friday, my classroom was a taxicab. On trips to and from a fancy hotel in North Tucson, two separate taxi drivers, both Tucson natives, engaged me and two fellow BSP students in conversations that expanded on topics of indigineity, immigration, and place-making in the borderlands.

tori1Overlooking Tucson at our first “classroom” in Tucson. Photo courtesy of fellow BSPer, Kaia

 Our first taxi driver’s name was Rob. Rob explained how he has lived in Tucson all his life, his family is from Tucson, and his ancestors have lived in (what is known today as) Tucson for hundreds of years. Because of this, he was well-versed in the history of indigenous people in the area. He explained that if you dig anywhere around the Santa Cruz River in Tucson, you uncover remains from irrigation canals that were established over 1000 years ago. He commented on the diminishing water table, saying 50 years ago you could dig 40 feet and hit water and now you have to go at least 180. He pointed at plants that we passed on the drive and explained how they have all adapted to the desert climate. His favorite part of Tucson is the historic downtown area because he said even though there are a lot of changes to the downtown, that area still has a lot of character.

I wasn’t planning on thinking about school during this taxi ride (it was Friday for goodness sakes!) but I couldn’t help it. I thought about the politics that had kept Rob, a dark-skinned man, in a service job all his life while a certain sector of Tucsonans have been accumulating capital, filling skyscrapers with profitable business, and settling in the hills. I thought about the time outside of school he had invested in learning about his indigenous roots and the students who do not have access to learning about their heritage in high school because of laws like SB2281 in Arizona that ban ethnic studies. I thought about the diminishing water table and how the hotel we were heading to (which boasts 7 swimming pools and golf course) and the lifestyle that this sort of hotel caters to are contributing to that decline. I thought about the historic downtown and who has access to the restaurants and housing in that area now that it has been “cleaned-up” or gentrified.

As my mind swirled around with these thoughts and we reached our lavish destination, I recalled a comment from class a week prior. A young woman, a Tucson native and ethnic studies activist, came to our class to talk about her participation in protests against the ban on ethnic studies. She was in high school before the Arizona State Legislature banned ethnic studies classes, which were some of the classes that really engaged her. In response to the ban, she was part of the group of student leaders to organize and act against it. Towards the end of her talk, someone asked her how taking ethnic studies has influenced her life and she poignantly responded, “Honestly, ethnic studies ruined my life.” The knowledge she has learned through ethnic studies and her subsequent participation in a radical protest movement against its ban has plagued her life. She can no longer go home and chill with her family without thinking about the way that the system is failing them. She can no longer see a dude without thinking about feminist theory. Ethnic studies granted her all this knowledge and she was no longer able to ignore injustice, whether it was with her homies or with TUSD.

I felt that way as the taxi driver shared his story. As we rolled up to the hotel I was thinking to myself, “Ok Tori, stop thinking about this stuff. Just enjoy yourself, its the weekend.” Then as we walked through the large marble lobby, passed couches decorated with dozens of silk pillows of all shapes and sizes, gazed through a two-story window that framed the Santa Catalina Mountains, and passed fellow customers with fancy jewelry, shiny shoes, and white pants I got the urge to scream,”Chinga La Migra!”

“Chinga la migra” is part of the refrain of a song called “No Mercy” by a really radical Phoenix-based  hip-hop duo that we met this week for class, Shining Soul. I wondered if I screamed it if anyone would know what I was talking about. At the swim-up bar, I had the impulse to ask the bar tender about his immigration stance or if he had every heard of Shining Soul but I shied away. In their song they say they are, “saying the shit that you can’t say” and I definitely felt that I could not say this “shit” at this country club which made me want to scream it even more. And I did, twice, while sliding down a water slide.

This all sounds ridiculous,* I know. Just check out the music video below to be inspired to say something in spaces where these issues do not come up.

(*Also, just as a side note being radical should not be synonymous with being ridiculous. But it is for me. That’s a problem.)

“we from that ground zero, anti-heroes, saying that shit that you can’t say like smash borders, chinga la migra, middle finger to the linea.”  – excerpt from “No Mercy”

The former ethnic studies student’s inability to go home and act normal and my urge to scream “Chinga la migra!” at a fancy hotel are both examples of ways that our learning liberates us. Oftentimes, when we think about liberation we think about rainbows and butterflies and happiness. That surely is the end goal, but the process of liberation looks more like internal struggle, tension, teaching moments, and overcoming difference. It sure isn’t pretty.

After an evening at the luxurious hotel, a fellow BSP student and I got into another cab to head home. This time our taxi driver was a really nice and chatty woman. After our obligatory discussion about the weather, we explained that we were in Tucson for a semester studying border issues. She asked us to share a bit about what we were learning. I told her that today we learned about the plans to construct CANAMEX, a international highway to promote free trade from Mexico, through the US and to Canada. She thought that sounded pretty good until I explained the tension between the private-public partnerships (P3s) that have mapped out its route and the people the road will impact. For example, Loop 202, a section of CANAMEX near Phoenix, is set to go right through South Mountain, or Moadak in Akimel Oo’dham, which is sacred lands for the Gila River indigenous tribe. Read more about CANAMEX here. Our cab driver was thankful for the knowledge we shared and glad that we were here in Tucson and thinking about these things. She said she hopes that we can do something to make some changes around here and I replied discouraged, “Well, another thing we are learning is it is really hard to make change because off all the power that big corporations have.” She laughed and replied, “So you learned that the hand with money holds the power.”

In that moment, the taxi driver had synthesized the queasy tension that I have been feeling between being liberated by all the knowledge we have learned this semester and finding ways to transition this knowledge into practical strategies to change the system. The sacrifice of fighting against this system and not making money while those benefiting from the system get richer and more powerful. And again I come to the conclusion that liberation is not happiness and rainbows and butterflies. It is a struggle. It is resistance. It is rice and beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It is attending community meetings after a busy day at school or work. It is where critical thinking and chilling are inseparable. It is learning in the classroom, on the streets, and in a taxicab. It might be a plague…actually I hope its a plague because that means its going to spread.

The only way that we can help this plague of liberation spread is by sharing it. Sharing it involves solidarity. I think of solidarity as the ability to relate over things that we agree on despite the many ways that we are different. For our Critical Issues class this week, we attended an event to show solidarity between the Borderlands and Palestine. Throughout the night I learned more about the Israeli-Palestinian border conflict, ate some delicious Palestinian food (which, ironically is very similar to Israeli food… food solidarity?), and heard from: our very own Professor/activist/mujer fuerte about disability and its relationship to the conflicts; Shining Soul about Tohono O’odham and Chican@ border struggles; and Amy Juan, a young Tohono O’odham rights activist about the US-Mexico border splitting their land and causing difficulties for her people. At the end of the event, all parties danced together to a lively Tohono O’odham band, the Pick Up Kings. As I reflect on it now, the combination of people from all walks of life dancing together was a beautiful picture of solidarity. We all had our own style but we picked up the rhythm together as well as we could. It wasn’t pretty, some toes were definitely stepped on, but the important part was that we were all in motion together.

to learn more about the Solidarity event, click here.

tori2-Tori O.


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