Once again, it was time to cross the border for a whirlwind 48-hour trip throughout the northwestern state of Sonora, Mexico. Our first stop was at Border Patrol in Nogales, Arizona. Yes, that’s right, we spent three hours with la migra, touring the largest border patrol station in the Tucson sector, which also happens to be the second largest station in the country. Upon our arrival, we were led through what looked like an oddly sterile office building to a conference room, where we were given a lengthy PowerPoint presentation by several of the agents detailing the mission of the agency, various statistics, and a narrative justifying the necessity of their presence on the border. About fifteen minutes into the presentation, I began to feel sick. Nothing made any sense to me; it was all so violent, militaristic, patriarchal and bizarre.
As thoughts and questions began to race through my mind—none of which I felt comfortable voicing—I chose to stay silent and focused on listening carefully to the language that was being used by the agents. I concentrated on what was being said, and what parts of the dialogue were omitted or glossed over. In doing so, I found the victimized rhetoric that the officers used to be rather alarming. I mean, who knew that “rocking” was so prevalent? Certainly not José Antonio. Is the job so dangerous, that it is only fit for males? Does that explain why 95% of Border Patrol agents are male, and why we did not see a single female-presenting person other than those in our group for the entire duration of our tour? (Side note: when I asked a question about the ratio of male-identifying to female-identifying Border Patrol agents, I was promptly recruited to join the force, as they are desperately trying to increase the number of female agents, or so the agent told me. I politely declined.) Does that explain why we were invited to hold a gun that had been used in the Iraq war that is now used for day-to-day patrol work, even though the officers told us that the use of lethal force was “rarely” necessary? You may ask, what is the rationale for all of this? To answer this using a direct quote from one of the officers, “our main goal is to apprehend terrorists and terrorist weapons.” Mentions of ISIS and drug cartels were thrown around, which reiterated the post-9/11 fears and nationalistic ideology that they attempted to instill upon us.
Yeah, I can think of a few…. (spotted in the staff area of the Nogales, AZ station)
Perhaps what was most striking to me was that in spite of the mandatory cultural sensitivity training that the agents boasted about, there was little to no mention of the actual people who truly suffer from these policies—the migrants who traverse the desert, risking their lives in search of family reunification, economic opportunities, or refuge from violence and political instability in their country of origin, among countless other reasons for migrating. Those were the narratives that were (unsurprisingly) silenced, even as we briskly passed through the location where they detain migrants after capturing them, which was one of the most somber places I have ever seen in my life. I mean, the agent’s general lack of awareness for basic human dignity was jarring—apparently that is only something that US citizens are deserving of. In fact, according to my tallies, the agents referred to migrants as “aliens” at least 24 times, and they were never referred to as humans, people, individuals, people who are undocumented, or any other term that would allow migrants to have some sense of human dignity. Each utterance of the term “alien” felt more hostile and alienating than the last, and by that point, I simply couldn’t wait to get out of there. Fortunately, eventually it was time to go on to the next stop, por el otro lado.
After crossing the border from Nogales, Arizona in to Nogales, Sonora, we visited the Kino Border Initiative’s comedor, which provides two free meals, some medical care, clothing, a women’s shelter to migrants, and is largely funded/run by Jesuits and Catholic nuns. There, we were given a presentation by a Jesuit who was volunteering there as a part of his ministry training, and I was very impressed with the work that they’re doing, particularly within such a small physical space. The presentation was nice, but I think that we were all still reeling from our previous stop, so we probably weren’t the liveliest crowd at that point. However, that turned around as one of the hermanas (Sisters) taught us a few brain teasers before we headed back into the vans, which we proceeded to attempt to master for the remainder of the trip; naturally, most of us were successful, but we shared a lot of laughs in the process!
We then headed to Altar, Sonora a two-hour drive south of Nogales. In our classes leading up to the trip, we learned how Altar was known as the main staging ground for migrants coming to the US through the Sonoran Desert throughout the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Currently, it’s no longer as well trafficked as it was in its heyday, but a significant economy geared towards migrants remains. Even in our brief exploration of the somewhat sleepy town, I noticed the omnipresence of coyotes, polleros, hotels geared towards migrants, and various vendors selling all sorts of necessities for surviving the desert, such as the shoe coverings used to mask footprints in the desert, pictured below.
In Altar, we stayed at a migrant shelter and comedor, CCAMYN, which provides up to three free nights worth of shelter, food, safety information, and assistance for migrants crossing the border in either direction. It was a wonderful, albeit heartbreaking place. We had the opportunity to chat with a group of twenty or so migrants, all but one male, and nearly all from Mexico. We listened to their stories of deportation, subsequent failed attempts to cross, of their families living on ambos lados, and how deeply they just wanted to be able to provide a better life for themselves and their families. I found it to be difficult to speak with them at times, not because of a language barrier, but rather because I couldn’t find the words to express how sorry I was that they had been victimized by the U.S. immigration system. I was at a loss for words when a man told me how it wasn’t as easy to cross as it was when his parents took him with them when he was six years old, that the US was basically the only country he’s ever known, and now, he’s risking his life to get back to the wife and daughter he was forced to leave behind upon his deportation. It was hard to know what to say when statistically speaking, I knew that I was sharing a meal with people who will be gone by the next morning, but hopefully not forever, although there’s a possibility that it will unfortunately be the case for a few. Despite the painful stories that were shared, I couldn’t believe the fearlessness, courage, and hope that were common threads throughout all of the migrant’s lives. It was an incredibly humbling experience, and one that I’m still processing.
Next thing we knew, we were off again, this time towards Arivaca, a small ranching town in Arizona that has been thrust into the national spotlight due to the border checkpoint that has strategically been placed within the town’s limits. We met with Sophie, who works at People Helping People, a humanitarian aid center for migrants. Like many of us, she attended a well-known Midwestern, small liberal arts college, and is trying to make a difference in this country, so it was pretty neat to have the opportunity to candidly speak with someone with a similar background to mine and see her dedication to praxis, especially post-graduation. I was super impressed with her activism, and I aspire to have just an ounce of her ability to integrate herself into a community that was not her own, and to create positive change there by providing humanitarian aid to migrants and resisting the border checkpoint. I definitely related to her admission of her initial naïveté that emerged once she got to Arivaca. She told us how she believed that she had the “right” knowledge and preparation because she’d read the “right” books, talked to the “right” people, taken the “right” classes at school, but none of that knowledge was very relevant once she began to actually live life in the borderlands, which is a barrier that I’ve come up against numerous times in my first month here. I came to Tucson with Gloria Anzaldúa poems memorized by heart. I’d read every book I could get my hands on that focused on immigration, chatted with my favorite professors for their advice on activism to the inevitable anxieties that arose as I began my preparing for this journey, but truthfully, nothing could have prepared me for this experience. I think that the single most important thing that I gained from the trip was starting to figure out how much I have yet to learn about this place, this system, and the people it affects—myself included. I know that this trip was just the beginning of my personal learning/unlearning, and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how this will all unfold throughout the course of the semester. Stay tuned!
This was taken way too early in the morning at CCAYMN. #BSP2015
On Friday, February 6, our Spring 2015 BSP students had their first Critical Issues class. The goal of this first class was to introduce students with the tierra known today as Tucson and its history and relationships to border activism. Our guiding questions included, “What technologies have supported Tucson’s growth?”, “How are racist laws legally justified?” and “Who has ‘owned’ Tucson?” Long-time activist, native Tucsonan, and founder of La Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, Isabel Garcia, talked to us about the history of state and federal legislation criminalizing racialized “others” in the United States and how that relates to our modern border condition. After Isabel’s impressive recounting of a widely untaught history, the 11 students and myself packed into our 12-passenger van for a tour of Tucson to contrast living in different sections of the Old Pueblo.
As we approached the intersection of Swan and Speedway, I told the van filled with Spring 2015 BSP students that to me, this is the geographic center of Tucson. In my estimation, Speedway and Swan is equidistant from Marana to Vail, Casino Del Sol to the base of Mt. Lemmon, the make-out spot that is the northern tip of Campbell Ave. to its southern counterpart Kino Parkway by the airport (Kino turns into Campbell or Campbell turns into Kino), from Oro Valley’s cookie-cutter gated housing to the San Xavier Reservation where the pale white Mission has stood since it’s completion in 1797 (but remember, Father Kino arrived to “missionize” these lands in 1692). And although our van was only out on Tucson’s Friday rush-hour aggravated by Gem Show traffic for 2 hours and we didn’t get to see Tucson’s extremities, my hope is that BSP Spring 2015 better understand how vast and heterogeneous Tucson is. I don’t mean vast only in terms of its geography, but vast in terms of who has claimed ownership of the land.
Today’s Tucson is not the Tucson from my childhood. Today, Tucson includes the rapidly expanding suburbs, not just the city limits. But my family has been in these lands we today call “Tucson” long enough for me to know that my Tucson was not my Tata’s Tucson or his Tata’s Tucson (Tata is a náhuatl word common in the Sonoran borderlands meaning “abuelo” or “grandfather”). Buildings rise and buildings fall, neighborhoods change demographics, and capitalism is always at work with its creative destruction of the past in favor of future profits. Even though my Tata is no longer with us in his physical manifestation on earth, the land his father was born on still exists and atop it sits the Ronstadt Bus Station. Stone Ave. is no longer made of dirt nor is it Tucson’s main drag as it once was. Prince and Flowing Wells is not “the country” where mis abuelos brought their first and only home, but rather it’s merely another neighborhood that helped fashion an urban sprawl so common among cities in the West.
I drove the BSP van with my Spring 2015 students north up Stone Ave. passing the street (Geronimo) that my parents brought me home from the hospital to, my high school (go Panthers!), my second job (Samurai), the Tucson Mall, and the apartments me, my mom, and my sister lived at from the ages of 11-18. The BSP van with a La Llorona bumper sticker above its tail pipe cruised up Oracle Rd. and several students noticed the newly renovated Whole Foods before we turned east onto Ina Rd. to pass one of the numerous resorts tucked away into the Sonoran Desert’s beautiful landscape, sprinkled with suburban housing’s gated communities and mini-McMansions. We passed “the rich mall,” La Encantada, where Tucson’s only Apple Store, Tiffany’s Jewelers, and Anthropologie attract a certain strata of Tucson’s population. The van turned north onto Campbell and we drove past the mowed-down desert only to be stopped by a sign that warned “guard on duty,” meaning we did not have the permission to access what lies beyond the gate, so we stopped.
From our vantage point we could see “A” Mountain, the spot where just the week before BSP Spring 2015 received a welcome on their first sunset in the Borderlands. We saw the flat section of town where Tucson International Airport welcomes students, military, those who call this area their home, and visitors alike. From the top of Campbell Ave. we looked east to the Foothills, west to the Tucson Mountains, north to the Santa Catalina Mountains, and south where most of our student’s homestays are. And then I yelled in Henry Rollins fashion, “get in the van!” and we continued our tour.
The BSP van continued east on Ina Rd., passing Catalina Foothills High School, the high school for the wealthiest school district in Tucson, until we hit Swan Rd. and turned south. We crossed back over the Rillito River, a dried, dusty wash, that serves as a natural barrier between Tucson’s City Limits and the ‘burbs. The Rillito also signifies the economic inequality that has historically existed in Tucson; once you cross north of the Rillito home prices jump. We drove through (lower) middle class neighborhoods until passing 29th St., when I asked the van, “What industry has impacted Tucson’s economic growth?” My students’ answers varied ranging from mining to airplanes to prisons–all correct answers–but I was looking for a specific answer. “The military” someone finally shouted out just as we were approaching Davis Monthan Air Force Base located at Golf Links and Swan. Once hitting Golf Links you have three options: turn right, turn left, or head straight into the Base. Much like our experience atop Campbell Ave, we would not have been granted access through the gate, so we turned right and began our return stretch west to the BSP classroom. I pointed out the Border Patrol Head quarters located inside the base. My students were astonished at the plentiful migra-green trucks. I thought the parking lot looked a little bit empty.
We continued down Aviation Highway heading towards downtown until we hit Broadway’s new rush hour traffic jam. A downtown whose gentrified facelift distorts my memories of spending my adolescence at punk rock shows and coffee shops near 5th Ave. and Broadway. We drove through Amory Park, Barrio Santa Rosa (where my Tata grew up), and by the Ronstadt Bus Station. I shared that one of my earliest memories took place where that bus station stands:
Circa 1988, the City of Tucson was excavating the land before building the bus station. My Tata and Nana took me with them to see what the archeologists unearthed because they were digging up the tierra where the house that my bisabuelo (great-grandfather) was born stood. Plates, dolls, cups, and silverware from my Tata’s childhood, dusted in dirt were uncovered–memories of a different Tucson. It was at that moment that I realized my roots run deep in Tucson.
We arrived back to the BSP classroom just before 5 pm. I loved sharing my hometown and history with my students. And I hope that they can figure out what Tucson means for each of them individually. I also hope that their time in Tucson complicates their understandings of a reality that few outside of the borderlands ever get to experience.