A Comparative Border Trip: El Paso, TX

El Paso Day 1:

For the first ten years or so of its existence, Border Studies was based in El Paso, Texas. When violence began to increase in Ciudad Juárez, the program moved to Nogales, Arizona and then finally Tucson where we are today. In order to compare the border between the cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez to the border we see in Arizona—and partly due to the sentiment of BSP’s old roots in El Paso—our group took a four day trip to El Paso.

Leaving Tucson early Wednesday morning, we make a brief stop in Columbus, New Mexico for lunch. In 1916, Columbus was raided by Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, an event that raised American fears of Mexican radicalism and prompted some of the first border militarization. We visited Columbus’ tiny museum before pushing on to El Paso.   Welcoming us to El Paso is Naomi Fertman, a Border Studies alumni and former BSP instructor now teaching Women’s Studies courses at the University of Texas El Paso, who lead our visit to El Paso. Our home in El Paso is the First Christian Church, where we attempt to arrange the couches and cushions in a comfortable manner to avoid sleeping the floor. After a struggle with the coffee machine, we head up the Franklin Mountains to see the city.

El Paso 1

Downtown El Paso, with Ciudad Juárez behind it, as seen from Franklin Mountain.

As we look over El Paso and just south of the Rio Grande River we see Ciudad Juárez; Naomi explains the background of the two cities. El Paso is dwarfed by Juárez, a city nearly three times its size, yet the cities remain closely connected. This makes for a unique border unlike anywhere else along the US-Mexico border. Up until 1994, the border was open here. Even after NAFTA, only a driver’s license was necessary to cross. It wasn’t until after 9/11 you needed to show a passport to enter El Paso from Ciudad Juárez. Many people have family in both cities, particular those who live in El Paso’s Segundo Barrio neighborhood. The new requirement for passports has made it prohibitively expensive even for US citizens in El Paso to visit Ciudad Juárez.

El Paso Day 2:

Our first stop on Thursday is the El Paso Farm Workers Center, located just across the street from a bridge connecting El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. Carlos Marentes, co-founder of the center, describes for us the daily life of a farm worker. At midnight, farm workers wake and begin looking for work. The earlier you wake up, the better job you can get. By 2am, they will be on their way to the fields, arriving between 4am and 5am. After waiting for enough light to see the plants, the workers begin their workday. Between 3pm and 6pm, the workers return to the center to eat, talk and organize before going to bed at 9pm.

The main product in the region is chiles. Last harvest season workers were paid $0.65 to $0.75 for each 5 gallon bucket they filled. To make New Mexico’s minimum wage, a farm worker would need to fill 100 buckets a day—an utter impossibility. On average, a farm worker will earn $6,700 a year. 80% of all farmworkers in the US come from Mexico. Carlos explains the goal of the center is recovering the dignity of these workers. To change the working conditions in the fields, Carlos argues we need to change the US food production system. Movingly, Carlos points out that if we feel driven to wash our vegetables before eating them, what about those who handle the food while picking, handling or shipping it?

After a few hours to explore downtown El Paso, find a burrito for lunch and visit Cinco Punto Press, we arrive at the Annunciation House. Carmen, a recent graduate from Swathmore College, gives us a tour. The Annunciation House or A-House is one of the few migrant shelters in the US. Started in the 1980’s to help house refugees from El Salvador; the house today is filled with asylum seekers fleeing Mexico and Central America, recently released detainees and a few migrants who successfully crossed the border.

Six volunteers currently live in the house, along with anywhere between 30 and 100 migrants. A-House does not accept long term grants, instead depending on the generosity of the community of El Paso. During the massive increase in families migrating last summer that overwhelmed ICE’s detention, A-House coordinated additional housing among a network of churches and local organizations. 175 people arrived in the first week alone seeking housing, with over 3000 in the last year. Unlike the shelters we’ve visited in Mexico, the A-House is a long term shelter, providing families a place to stay during the months of waiting that accompany an asylum case.

El Paso Day 3:

We start off day 3 in El Paso with an early morning run to Bowie Bakery in Segundo Barrio for some delicious pastries. Next we meet with Taylor Levy of Las Americas, a legal aid organization. Taylor has been in El Paso for five years, first as a volunteer with A-House and now working with Las Americas. When ICE became overwhelmed last summer in Southern Texas by the sheer number of families migrating to the US, it first tried shipping everyone to Arizona for processing and then release because it had nowhere to detain them all. After a backlash, ICE then started sending families to El Paso, where they would be released to A-House. Again, pressure mounted on ICE to be “tough” and start detaining these families.

In response, on July 24, 2014, ICE opened a temporary family detention center in Artesia, New Mexico. It was completely arbitrary who was released to A-House and who was sent to Artesia. ICE needed to prove they were doing something by filling detention center beds. For the first three weeks, no structure had been set up to provide legal aid to the detained families. The US government is not required to provide a lawyer to immigrants and as a result, most families had no idea how to answer the complicated questions about their asylum and were deported.

Taylor, Las Americas and several other organizations stepped in to end that absurdity. Lack of childcare for mothers, lack of translators for indigenous languages, refusal to set bail and having to conduct court over Skype were only some of the countless obstacles to helping these families stay in the US. Many of the young children, immensely stressed by their long time in detention and drastic change in diet, stopped eating, became sick or engaged in self-destructive behaviors. Artesia has since closed, replaced by new family detention centers in Karnes, Texas and Dilley, Texas—both converted prisons. 78 women in Karnes recently went on a hunger strike, demanding to be released.

For lunch we went to Mercado Mayapan and were met by Rubi Orozco. El Paso is historically a textile town, with 30,000 mostly immigrant women employed at its height. These women came together in 1982 and founded Mujer Obera. In the 1990’s, El Paso’s textile industry collapsed and the factories left. Mujer Obera, already organized, was able to successfully sue Levi’s for the loss of their jobs. The funds went to create Mercado Mayapan, a market and café to celebrate their Mexican roots and begin rebuilding the neighborhood the factories had left behind.

Rubi returned to El Paso after grad school, creating nutrition programs that emphasize the importance of traditional Mexican foods. Rubi explained that the usual stereotypes of Mexican food—greasy, lots of cheese and frying, unhealthy—are all post-colonial changes. Before the conquistadors, the Mexican indigenous diet was much more balanced, with more vegetables and no dairy.   Amaranth, a grain and staple of the diet, was even banned by Spanish colonists because of its military and religious importance to indigenous Mexicans, resulting in the destruction of the knowledge system of raising and cooking it.

Rubi’s goal is to link food to history, culture and medicine. As part of this, she has begun blogging traditional recipes and commentary on food. For white foodies, traditional Mexican foods like amaranth and chia are just the new fad. For Mexicans, Rubi explains, these are foods we’re trying to reclaim as important and meaningful parts of our diets. The region surrounding El Paso grows mostly cotton, hay and pecans, but over the last five years El Paso women have been leading a push for more locally grown food.

Our last stop of the day is to talk to Shalini Thomas at Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services. Shalini originally came to El Paso for labor organizing before beginning working at Diocesan. As immigrants are not given lawyers, Diocesan helps provide legal aid, including trainings in detention centers and visiting unaccompanied migrant children at shelters.

We often hear the old comment “Why don’t they come here legally?” To help us understand how wrong that question is, Shalini walked us through the impossibility of the US immigration system. Current backlog for visas for family members means that currently applications from February 1995 are being processed including some visas for Mexicans. These applications are processed in such a way that for legal residents originally from Mexico to receive a visa for a child over 21 it would take an estimated 115 years. How long can we ask people to wait?

Asylum cases face similar impossibilities. The criteria are strict and even successful criteria can be denied as risking letting too many people in. The most forgiving judge in El Paso denies 92% of the asylum claims he hears. Somehow the Soviet Union consistently manages to rank above Mexico or any Central American country in number of asylums granted (see page L2). Shalini makes it clear the system is designed this way and according to the desires of the US, functioning well. The US spends $126 a day per detained immigrant, for $5.5 million total every day for adult detention and removal alone.

Why does the US willingly spend so much? First, there is money to be made in those prison contracts. Private prisons are big money makers right now and US law mandates a certain number of beds be filled, ensuring a constant flow of money. Even in “public” prisons, nearly all the staff, the phones and even the religious services are outsourced to private contractors looking to make a buck off the detention of immigrants. The companies that run these prisons and contract these services work hard to lobby against any reform that might reduce the number of detainees. Second, there are votes to be won by looking “tough” on immigration. Both Democrats and Republicans compete to see who calls for the strongest, most secure border because talking about scary, criminalized “illegal” immigrants who threaten to change what American looks like is good politics.

For our last night in El Paso, we join what seems to be a good portion of the city in cheering on the local minor league baseball team, the Chihuahuas. Despite their disappointing performance, losing 5-13 to the Tacoma Rainers, the city is so excited to have the team it demolished its own city hall to build the stadium. The city envisions the publicly funded stadium sparking new downtown development of condos and Starbucks with the goal of creating a “downtown experience”. So far it’s raised fears of gentrification and lined the pockets of many consultants.

Border Studies at the new Chihuahuas stadium!

Border Studies at the new Chihuahuas stadium!

El Paso Day 4:

Before returning to Tucson, we meet with Jesus Alvarado, a local muralist who gave us a walking tour of Segundo Barrio’s murals. Jesus started with graffiti before taking up murals at the urging of his high school art teacher. The murals capture the deep pride Segundo Barrio takes in its culture and history, depicting local religious leaders, folk heroes, the complexities of identity of being Mexican (American) and living in El Paso and the AIDS/HIV crisis. Jesus explains these murals are community “development”, a different type than the development represented by the new stadium.

Jesus Alvarado in front of a mural he painted.

Jesus Alvarado in front of a mural he painted.

 El Paso 4

El Paso 5


El Paso 6

El Paso 7


El Paso 8As we left El Paso, we stop in Sunland, New Mexico to see the border fence there. Ten feet tall, lined with flood lights and made of climb proof chain link, it represents the point where the border stops being marked by a river and becomes just a random line in the sandy desert. The permeability of the wall is demonstrated by several children from Ciudad Juárez who wander over to chat with us.

The border fence in Sunland, New Mexico.

The border fence in Sunland, New Mexico.

In Tucson, despite the ever present impacts of the border, it remains 60 miles to the south. The border in El Paso is some ways more visible—the wall can be seen at the end of every street, the crossing bridges hang over the city and trains rattle north constantly—but at the same time is more invisible, as El Paso’s neighborhoods feel so similar to Mexico and the connections between the two cities remain so strong.

–Luke Mielke


Kitt Peak and the Tohono O’odham Nation

If you’ve spent time in Tucson you know that it gets very dark at night. There are very few street lamps or lit-up buildings. At first I thought of this as some sort of mistake or Tucson defect when really it is an effort to reduce light pollution so that researchers at observatories around Southern Arizona can view the sky better.

It was a sunny and breezy Friday at the Kitt Peak National Observatory, one hour southwest of Tucson. We met our guide, Amy Juan, at the top of the peak. The buildings and surroundings looked like a tourist hiking and science destination. I was confused why we were going to Kitt Peak at first—what would a mountain with an observatory on top have to do with the Tohono O’odham and the week’s theme of border militarization on Indigenous communities? Amy, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation who works at the observatory, gave us the low-down. In 1958 the Tohono O’odham entered a perpetual agreement to essentially give the peak’s territory to scientists in the form of a one-time payment lease. O’odham leaders had said no three times before they were convinced the establishment of the observatory would bring jobs and education to the community and were promised no militarization or commercial business in the area. Now, Kitt Peak is sprinkled with white observatory domes, roads, and even dormitories for astronomical researchers. The Tohono O’odham are still involved in Kitt Peak after the perpetual lease began in 1958. Amy told us the Nation keeps an eye on the projects at the peak, and she sees herself as part of this effort. She believes that we should be able to produce Tohono O’odham astronomers, especially as there are only a handful of TO employed at the observatory. Amy sees her involvement at the observatory as her way of watching over her people’s land and as good reminder of the continuing struggle of Native American tribes and nations to reclaim their original territories.


A vista from the top of the highest observatory’s 360 degree sky view on Kitt Peak.

Throughout our tour of the site we saw impressive works of man and nature: the world’s largest solar telescope and its view of the daytime sun along with the impressive surrounding landscape. Amy led us to a beautiful vista of valleys and dry riverbeds, with the Nation just behind the mountains, and thirty-seven miles beyond that, the border. With the view behind her, Amy shared some history of the Tohono O’odham Nation in the context of the creation and militarization of the US-Mexico border.

The Tohono O’odham were here before anyone else we know. They have remained in the same lands through Spanish missionaries and conquest, Mexican independence and revolution, and US expansion, which ultimately split the Nation’s land between two countries. The O’odham unofficially have dual-citizenship but in practice that is not the case. Unfortunately, those on the Mexican side of the Nation do not enjoy the same privileges as those on the north side of the border, having significantly less medical access or ability to cross back and forth. The biggest changes on the border began after 9/11. Amy remembers crossing the border without knowing the border was there. Now, a series of vehicle barriers line the border, checkpoints block all roads exiting the Nation, and Border Patrol agents harass those who have every right to be there. There was a point when Border Patrol was not involved in the Nation’s territory, but after drug smuggling and violence threatened the community, they called for the Border Patrol to come in. Since then, la migra has never left.

A lot was left to the imagination as Amy told us current struggles and concerns surrounding border militarization for the Tohono O’odham. During her main talk, the landscape behind Amy seemed vast, quiet, stagnant, and empty. The peak seemed to be the nearest site of human activity for miles—but I knew this was clearly inaccurate as Amy spoke to us. Even though I was overlooking just past the first couple of mountains, the very areas where these relatively recent changes in the Tohono O’odham borderlands occurred, it was hard to imagine how close we really were. For me, physical proximity often makes what I’m learning more real. In this case, the physical separation between the Nation and us represented how hidden the Tohono O’odham are to most people, which is surprising since they are one of the largest Native nations in the US.


After our talk we saw the sun through a solar telescope nearby. We then walked to a telescope called the McMatt-Pierce Solar Telescope, which looked like a giant white escalator going towards the sky. Later we went into the visitor’s center, which was a small interactive museum and gift shop. There was a small exhibit wall in the center meant to educate visitors about the Tohono O’odham people. At the beginning of our tour Amy mentioned that this exhibit misleads people to think the O’odham live the same today as they did hundreds of years ago, and that it desperately needs an update. It was mostly old photographs of O’odham people, their homes, and their daily living. The other exhibits were more about the science and technology related to the kind of work at the observatory, along with astronomical information. Inside the gift shop, next to the key chains and t-shirts, there were O’odham-made crafts for sale. Amy said this was another part of the deal they have with the observatory, that the O’odham could sell products of their own on-site.


A mural on the Kitt Peak Visitor’s Center

After the visitor’s center and museum we drove to a building higher up the peak that has a 360-degree overlook at the top. From there we could see Tucson, different mountains, and mining. It was very beautiful and gave a nice scope of the land we were in. It also gave us more of an idea of how spread out things are, for example, Amy works at Kitt Peak, lives in Tucson, and has family that live on different parts in the Nation’s territory, so she drives a lot. Looking at the land made me think more about the resource development (extraction) projects in general in the area, and how common it is for indigenous nations to constantly fight for their right to land and resources. Right here in Arizona an Apache group and leader have an ongoing encampment that began in February, protesting the Oak Flat land exchange (thanks Obama), which would allow for the creation of a huge copper mine and the destruction of a piece of forest and sacred land for the Apache. To read more about Oak Flat and the initial march, go here: http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29428-the-apache-way-the-march-to-oak-flat.

We had lunch at a picnic area on another part of the peak with Amy and she spoke to us a little more about her beliefs for social change and involvement in activism. She’s in a group of younger people called the Tohono O’odham Rights Network (TOHRN). They do things like know your rights workshops and are committed to sharing information in a community language that is accessible to the every-day working person. Amy said you could think of it as trying to explain decolonization to your grandma. And I don’t think you have to be native to this land to believe in decolonization. Another thing that Amy said that stuck with me is that resistance is not “just for us” (the natives), but for everyone to survive and have a healthy, good life. In my view the destruction of resources, violent harassment and surveillance, and the creation of borders in general denies freedom for anybody’s life and movement, but especially those who are indigenous and Latinx.

On the ride back to Tucson, I thought more about one of our readings for that day that focused on the history of European conquest of the indigenous Americas and looked towards a revolution in the future (the zine is called Colonization and Decolonization: A Manual for Indigenous Liberation in the 21st Century). The author argues that social/political change occurs in times of crisis, and that right now we are in the “calm before the storm.” To me, border militarization and its deep impact on indigenous nations is a clear continuation of colonization (the invasion, destruction, and control exerted over original peoples and natural resources), and it has arrived to or is at least approaching crisis. This crisis impacts Native Americans and Mexican and Central American immigrants differently, but in the end the creation of borders and its militarization infringes on both groups’ human rights of (what I believe to be) freedom of movement and residence. Just like how the border crossed through the Tohono O’odham nation in 1854 (the Gadsden Purchase) and over Mexicans in 1848 (Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo), imperial borders and control of movement and citizenship began throughout the Americas with the arrival of European colonization.

–Gaby Hurtado-Ramos

Cafe Justo: From Coffee Bean to A Cup of Coffee

During our travel seminar to Guatemala and Chiapas, we traveled to a coffee growing community in Salvador Urbina, Chiapas, Mexico. After having visited the organic coffee growing community of Santa Anita, Guatemala as well as other initiatives such as the Cajola women’s cooperative and the Communidad de Veintinueve, our visit to Café Justo in Salvador Urbina provided an opportunity to continue learning about the possibilities for sustainable community development.

In Salvador Urbina, forty families form part of the cooperative Café Justo. They grow and harvest different varieties of coffee on the mountainside of their community. This productive land, once under ownership by elite landholders, was distributed to the families during the presidency of Làzaro Càrdenas, between the years of 1934 and 1940. Càrdenas implemented radical land reforms in Mexico, which expropriated lands from the elite, and facilitated the possibility of peasant control over the agrarian production through the creation of these “Ejidos”. Ejidos were often collectively farmed plots of land and were provided with some financial support by the government.

Upon our arrival in Salvador Urbina we were handed fresh cups of coffee and then given a tour of their coffee production center. A member of the cooperative demonstrated to us the stages through which raw coffee goes to be processed. We watched as already dried coffee was sent through a variety of machines that shelled the coffee beans, and then later separated the “oro” kernels by quality. Better quality coffee – the larger and denser beans – was set aside to be stored while waiting to be sent to the cooperative’s coffee roasting processing center in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. Smaller coffee beans remained for sale within the surrounding community.


In conventional coffee trade, small growers sell green coffee at low prices to middle men, from whom the commodity passes through a chain of hands before being sold commercially to consumers. However, the community of Salvador Urbina operates under a “fair trade plus model”. The coffee produced by growers does not pass through any middle men: it is sent to the cooperative’s own roaster in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico, and is sold directly to its buyers, the majority of which are Christian religious organizations in the United States. Coffee growers in the community of Salvador Urbina are therefore compensated fully for their coffee and all of the profitable stages of coffee production remain within the hands of the cooperative and within Mexico.

One can see the effects of this model throughout the community of Salvador Urbina. In the coffee processing center, we were shown a water purification system, whose construction was facilitated by the profits generated by the cooperative. People from Salvador Urbina can fill their house jugs of water for 3 pesos, with each peso going back into maintenance of the system’s equipment. Profits from the cooperative have also helped improve infrastructure and provide more support for agriculture within the community. Furthermore, various spaces have been opened to visitors, facilitating education of the community to others. After a day of seeing the community and talking to cooperative members, we spent our evening celebrating Mercedes(one of our guides) birthday in a beautiful visitors cabin on the side mountain.

Alisha, Emily and I spent the night with one of the families involved in the cooperative. Our hosts, an older married couple, lived just down the street from Café Justo’s processing center. One of them was born in Salvador Urbina, and worked on a plot of the ejido’s productive coffee land. During dinner, a procession of family members who lived in the surrounding areas stopped by the house to visit our hosts. The couple’s daughter arrived from Tapachula after a visit to her nephew who was hospitalized for a brain tumor. Our conversation turned to the effects of the changing food systems within Mexico. One of our hosts blamed the replacement of local chicken for grocery-bought chicken as reason for increased illnesses such as cancer throughout Mexico. He noted that fewer and fewer people in the community raised chicken, and that the price of local chicken was very high.


A view from our host family’s house in Salvador Urbina

The chicken conversation along with others that we had in Salvador Urbina, were explicit of both the subtle and pronounced consequences of neoliberal developments in Mexico. Neoliberalism is the globalized economic theory that markets should have no government interference to stand in the way of capital accumulation. Neoliberalism emphasizes “free trade” in which trade barriers, such as tariffs to protect internal industries from foreign competition, are reduced, allowing for the unregulated movement of goods across borders. Mexico, within these developments was pressured to create an export economy that relied on cheap labor and impending low living standards. The “production for export” model moved away from a preceding model of production for internal consumption – families began to stop producing multiple crops or raising local chicken. Instead, communities throughout Mexico have focused recourses on producing single export crops, such as coffee. This has perhaps helped establish a reliance on the imports from corporate agriculture in the United States, whose prices also cannot be competed by small local providers.

Developments that led to increased consumption of chemically mass-produced chicken in Mexico fall under the same category of neoliberalization that has undermined the economic stability that coffee producers found up until the 1980’s. Deregulation under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) included getting rid of a quota system, which had supported a stable coffee market. NAFTA also plummeted coffee prices by opening markets to investment and competition by transnational coffee companies. The community of Salvador Urbina is impressionable, as it has not only created a mode through which to resist the massive destabilization of rural economies, but has also succeeded in resisting loss of its community lands to transnational corporations through privatization, or the transfer of state-owned land to private enterprises. The community continues claims over its ejido land, despite continued pressure to sell it to private interests. Salvador Urbina exercises “a right to stay”, or a right to create and access life chances within its community, thus offering an alternative to the out-migration forced upon most other communities in Mexico.

Just a week and half after we visited Salvador Urbina, we crossed the border once again from Tucson to Mexico to see Café Justo’s coffee roasting center in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. Agua Prieta has been a significant border town in Mexico, in the past, seeing over a thousand migrants enter each day. Many people traveling through this town were from southern coffee growing areas, with coffee growing knowledge, yet looking for work in maquiladoras or factories on the Mexican side of the border. Many people from Agua Prieta also have left the town due to its proximity to the U.S border. Frontera de Cristo, a Presbyterian border ministry in Agua Prieta and in Douglas, AZ, has long taken note of the dangers that migrants face when attempting to cross the border. Frontera de Cristo was vital to helping develop the Just Coffee cooperative model, as well as in providing a micro credit financing for start up of the business.

Café Justo’s building in Agua Prieta receives raw coffee from Salvador Urbina, as well communities newer to the cooperative in Veracruz and in Oaxaca. Daniel, a member of the cooperative and who is originally from Salvador Urbina, explained that the more the cooperative grows internally, the more space opens for other families to participate in the initiative. The three different locations also complement each other, as they occupy different seasonal areas, and thus are able to provide coffee at different times of the year. Daniel gave us a tour of the machines in which the coffee “oro” is roasted at up to 480 degrees Fahrenheit. In the same room, the coffee is stored in blue plastic bins, ready to package.


Coffee in Cafe Justo’s Auga Prieta toasting facility.

Smelling different mixes of Robusta and Arabica coffees, I thought back to the coffee trees we had seen in Salvador Urbina. We were all excited to have seen both the beginning and (nearly) end points of the journey that this coffee had taken. Our entire trip had been facilitated by an incredible amount of access, something we were reminded of once again when we walked easily through immigration at the border between Agua Prieta and Douglas, AZ. A trip to Dairy Queen immediately after our crossing, begged to question the contradictions of our arrival and departure in spaces like Café Justo. There were many benefits to a trip that included even more than a frame through which to understand the crisis of neoliberalization in Mexico, or a way to learn about what alternatives to the dominant global model of development are possible. Café Justo also largely values visits as providing opportunities to spread knowledge of and create increasing familiarity with its project. One of the driving factors in placing the roasting center in Agua Prieta was to create easy access for costumers that were supporting the initiative, as part of the pillar of forming sustainable, strong relationships in the cooperative’s ideals. However, the trip to Dairy Queen reminded me of how we are implicated daily in the growth of a world in which the profit accumulation of transnational corporations is favored over the well-being of communities through out the globe. Our cups of coffee carry heavy weights that we must begin to question how we can hold ourselves accountable to.

–Eva Chaitman

Travel Seminar 2015: Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico

Skirting around elderly people in wheelchairs at the Tucson International Airport, I’m trying to make my flight departing for San Francisco. I’m a little peeved – fuming actually, because I just went through security twice. It was my fault. I packed an exquisite jar of mango marmalada from Chiapas, Mexico in my backpack and was forced to throw it away at the discretion of TSA. My decision to drink half of it before tossing it landed me on the other side of TSA for a moment, only to go back through again. Why is this important? It fed the contempt I had for traveling after having been on three planes in the last 24hrs. Enter the Roots & Routes Travel Seminar.

For the last two weeks, we had been traveling through the Guatemalan states of Quetzaltenango and Huehuetenango and the Mexican state of Chiapas; these countries are separated by a political border. While there, we met and spoke with several organizations and individuals resisting Capitalism and Neoliberalism in various ways, as it exists in Mexico and Central America. From fair trade, organic coffee cooperatives to a Zapatista beach community, we experienced the flavors and snippets of life we were able to witness as we maneuvered through long windy roads past volcanoes and ríos.


Volcanoes Santa Maria and Santiaguito (spewing ash)

Beginning in Guatemala City, the group landed as evening had already settled in, emitting dots of orange glow in the city and bringing the 747 down with a jolt. Upon arrival, these individuals who were to be our guides for the next few days greeted us – the warm, smiling faces of the organization called DESGUA: Desarollo Sostenible de Gente Unida. DESGUA “is a grassroots organization and network of community groups in Guatemala and the United States working to create economic and educational development with and for returned immigrants and Mayan communities in Guatemala. DESGUA sees the promotion of cultural identity and historical memory as integral to a sustainable development process,” (DESGUA).

Gabriela, Santiago, Jorge, and two choferes, Lukas and Gerson, welcomed us and ushered us into vans heading towards a surprising Guatemalan Chinese restaurant. At that time, I was simply recognizing the fact that it was my first time ever in Guatemala – a dream of mine ever since I had first known that one of the women who helped raised me since birth, Liz, was from there. Preoccupied with this thought alone, I had no expectations of how wonderful the individuals of DESGUA would be in leading us on our tour and how much the group would come to love and appreciate them. I’ll go ahead and say here that for the remainder of the trip post-Guatemala I often heard, “I miss Jorge,” or “I miss Gabriela,” and the infamous, “Hola Wendy.”





santiago dancing


My introduction to Guatemala, day 1: NISGUA & 29 de Diciembre

Guatemala, a sacred stretch of Earth with deep Mayan roots, unique traditions & graciousness, incredible natural beauty (rainforests, temperate weather, trees, rivers, volcanoes, two oceans, and the like) – a sacred stretch of Earth infiltrated by oily American greed of the political and economic variety. Who is to blame for Guatemala’s recent tragic history? Guatemala endured a long, brutal civil war lasting from 1960-1996. In 1954 an American backed coup overthrew democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz and put in place Carlos Castilla Armas. In 1960 left-wing guerrillas began to battle the government, commencing Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. For the next 20 years, stability and power had their moments mostly in the hands of the military-dominated government. It wasn’t until General Efrain Rios Montt seized power in 1982 when the most violent years of the war happened. An estimated 200,000 died or went missing, and 40,000-50,000 were disappeared. The majority of this population were indigenous people. This civil war has its context in Guatemala today as the people of Guatemala are still fighting for recognition of the genocide that happened, as well trying to secure other basic human rights in their daily lives which are challenged by international, namely the U.S., corporate-led development among other factors.

guate war

On that first day we had a talk by Ellen of NISGUA, Network In Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, and learned about the accompaniment work that they do in order to lessen violence and support organizing in Guatemalan towns. After the talk, we were whisked away out of the ciudad to a community called 29 de dicembre. 29 de dicembre is a community of ex-guerrillas and their families, living together and supporting one another through the community. While there, a woman named Leticia (among other community members), gave us a tour around town and told us about her life. Leticia is a teacher for the children of 29 de dicembre. They have a philosophy, which is to teach the children of their community their values, in order to give them the best education possible, which is not guaranteed at Guatemalan public schools. Moreover, the parents of these children are ex-guerrillas, so they teach their children about Guatemala’s history and why they are where they are today. History regarding the civil war is not widespread in Guatemalan public school classrooms; this is something that hardly exists in Guatemalan historical memory, perhaps because of the taboo subject matter (since little has been done to reprimand the government-backed military that caused the genocide) as well as the pain associated with these memories. Later that evening, we continued on our drive to Xela, the second largest city in Guatemala and a beautiful mountainous town with colonial architecture and a large town plaza. That night we had dinner at the awesome Café R.E.D.

cafe red   bridget and gaby

Days 2-3: Xela, Café R.E.D., & Cajola

The existence of Café R.E.D. can be attributed to the hard work of co-founder Willy Barreno. But he is not the sole man behind the project; Santiago, one of our tour guides from DESGUA and Ceasar were also founders. Willy once lived in the United States seeking work, but decided to return to Guatemala as an “ex-migrant,” because the lifestyle and greater overarching goals of the metanarrative of the American dream did not align with his personal motives. He did not like living in the U.S., and though his son still lives there, yearned to get back to his roots, back to his country. Café R.E.D. “is a social entrepreneurship venture, seeking to address the difficulty of return migrant re-integration; supporting the local economy by buying and marketing local furniture, food and fair tradecrafts; providing a space for people to trade their experience with local economic experts; and working to build and strengthen a local sustainable economy,” –DESGUA.  Café R.E.D. is composed of a restaurant, a training program which teaches locals who wouldn’t otherwise have access to a several years of schooling how to cook and work in the restaurant business, and an in-house store which sells local artisan crafts. The organic/fair trade/local model is apparent throughout the business model, and Willy is a master of facilitating this entire process. As of late, he is working to take his hand out of the “everydayness” of Café R.E.D., hoping that the people will take it on more as their own. And everyday, his contacts increase, adding more life and energy to the Café and the training program. Café R.E.D., while successful with foreigners and tourists, remains of ambivalent interest to the local population. Its competition are the Dominoes Pizza and McDonald’s around Xela. These are the most popular restaurants in town. Unfortunately, this phenomenon speaks to the results of neoliberal globalization in the area, but also the fact that there are many foreigners living in Xela.

mas amor

A message inside Cafe R.E.D.’s walls

Over these few days we were lucky enough to have talks on the subjects of the hegemony of capitalism in Guatemala, the work of DESGUA, and a talk by three “ex-migrants,” (the stories of their lives, their very different journeys to and from the U.S., and experiences being back in Guatemala). Jorge, one of DESGUA’s guides, gave us a lecture on the MEGA-PROYECTOS that are putting Guatemalan land at risk in terms of ownership, resources, and environmental damage. Jorge told us that we cannot think about Guatemala in terms of a nation-state, but instead as una finca. To the government, those in power, and foreign interests, Guatemala is an untapped natural resource, seen as a giant plantation. The families of the old oligarchies continue to be in power with their own businesses at the center of their political and economic agendas. When it comes down to it, there are 8 central ruling families in Guatemala who have all the power in the government. In fact, Guatemala has the most conservative, extreme government in Central America. Bearing all this in mind, we ventured to a town outside of Xela called Cajola the next day.

hist memory

A museum in Santa Anita, Guatemala to keep the historical memory alive surrounding the Guatemalan Civil War.

About 30 minutes to an hour outside Xela lays a little bit of a more rural farming and agricultural town called Cajola. Here, we were given a tour of the town and were able to see how this town 1) makes a living 2) forms a community and 3) educates their youth. Starting off our tour in a traditional Mayan loom producing area, we saw how women in Cajola specialize in Mayan weaving to make textiles, clothing, and accessories. We made our way to the houses where eggs and chickens are kept, as well as a wood shop, where furniture and woodworking is done. What is notable about Cajola is the fact that the community is made up of mainly women – most men have migrated north to look for work. One woman, Leticia, was able to talk with us about the women’s role in the community. She claimed that women here are not appreciated enough for their economic role in the household. Furthermore, women are not waiting, sitting around for their husband and their husband’s money – they are working very hard to provide for their families. It’s also the men who migrate, not the women, and this reflects on Guatemalan culture and society. Women here technically need their husbands “permission” to leave the house and to go out. Men don’t. Men are able to migrate.

weavingweavin 2Women in Cajola weaving

Another thing we learned in Cajola is that the Megaproyectos are a huge cause for migration. Indigenous people are losing their land and foreign capital is coming into the town via mega corporations purchasing land to pursue infrastructural projects, which boast “success” for the country yet degrade the environment and disrespect the local needs of rural populations. Northern Guatemala is especially susceptible to these infrastructural projects being on the border with Mexico. The Guatemalan government believes that building projects such as trade routes in the area will provide more jobs, better services, and further increase investment. Those who suffer the most are those who have lived on and from the land without modern infrastructure since before corporate interest grabbed hold of the region. A great percentage of those who migrated and continue to migrate are indigenous – it’s in some ways a mass exodus. But that doesn’t mean the people who live in Cajola aren’t fighting for the rights to their land. In fact, they organize to keep their mountains, rivers, and skies free of industrial invasion. I felt as though we were witnessing a Guatemala on the cusp of being taken over by Megaproyetcos, yet at the same time a strengthened Guatemala unwilling to let this happen at all. Sadly, as we were traversing the roads between Xela and Cajola, Gabriela, one of our DESGUA guides, noted how much more construction there is in the area, creating new roads and waterways in the spaces between towns.

Last days in Guatemala: Santa Anita

Leaving Xela on our way to Santa Anita, we had the special opportunity to participate in a Mayan ceremony at some Mayan Temples called Takalik Abaj. Takalik Abaj immediately transported me into another world, or so I imagined. It was calm, beautiful, and dispersed throughout the park were very ancient Mayan ruins. It was so cool! DESGUA’s spiritual leader shared a Mayan ceremony with us. He set up what was to be the ceremonial space for the session. Using a variety of flammable items, he had us each take a candle to place in the pit. We are also ascribed our own Mayan astrology nawals. Mine is Aj, whose symbol is a sugar cane stalk or reed and is recognized by the nawal animal of the armadillo. The Mayan ceremony specialist recited many prayers, asked us our intentions, even encouraged us to make a wish, and invited us to the fire nawal by nawal to light our candles. It was a spiritual experience, and one that felt necessary in this sacred land. As the ceremony came to a close, we were able to tour Takalik Abaj for a bit. One of the coolest things I saw was a rock which served as a stand for the Mayans to star gaze – there were engraved footprints in the rock which pointed the person in the correct direction to observe a particular planet.

fire at Takalik Abaj

Onward from here, we circled montañas and forests full of life to arrive at Santa Anita. Santa Anita is a community of 45 families founded after the peace accords were signed between the guerrillas and the Guatemalan government. The community was founded by ex-guerrillas who needed to find a way to support themselves and their families after the war. Santa Anita has vast amount of coffee growing land where they grow and sell fair trade, organic coffee. Their motto is more or less “fighting with shovels, not guns”. Within the community, they also have a school so that they can ensure their children can get an education. Santa Anita is organized so that everyone in the community has a job, which rotates every two years. They change the jobs around so that everyone knows how to do each others job, making it an equal society. Moreover, they get paid based on how many people are in their family rather than how much they’ve worked. Together, the people of Santa Anita work collectively to create a healthy, educated, safe and economically viable living situation.


At a waterfall outside of Santa Anita

hikeOur final evening in Guatemala culminated with Santiago, an ex-guerrilla member of DESGUA, telling us the story of his life from before he decided to join the guerrillas. He told us of how when the U.S. intervened in Guatemala, many people were saying how the guerrillas were communists. Back in those days, Santiago told us, you couldn’t talk about socialism openly. Many of the guerrilla fighters were young people and farmers. However for him la lucha sigue. It was “a just and necessary war,” Santiago says, that lasted 36 years. In rural areas, injustice and poverty continue and his generation has survived to see Guatemala after the war. 80% of Guatemala is indigenous, so this means that there is still a fight to be won for those who are today systematically denied power in a country ruled by 8 wealthy oligarchical families.


Youth in Santa Anita dancing

dance luchaLater that night in the now seemingly haven-like community of Santa Anita, we were surprised by having a big show put on for us by the children of the community! A number of exciting routines in homemade, fabulous costumes were performed in the spacious backyard of the community’s hotel we were staying in. It was truly a treat to watch the dances performed by the kids there. They clearly had put a lot of time into the performances, and it meant a lot to us to see this message of gratitude for our presence. We all felt extremely grateful to have been there and to have been so welcomed by the community – also to have heard stories from community members who were also ex-guerrillas. The very next day, we were to cross the border from Guatemala to Mexico and say goodbye to our friends at DESGUA. The Guatemala trip was over!

My personal theme song for this trip by UB40… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-DE6J3hunoc

–Bridget Thompson

….Entonces, MEXICO…

We started our journey Northward, to gain some perspective on the migrant journey; though clearly our camino would be much different. We left Guatemala with our luggage on our backs, walking across a bridge that overlooked the river choked with rafts crossing, children swimming, bright shirts dotting the light waters. After we crossed the bridge, we bypassed a large line of people waiting outside of the immigration office at the border. I did not know what they were waiting for, but I did feel strange as we breezed past to fill out our visa forms. We wrote our country of origin “USA”, put our luggage through a metal detector and were promptly out on the other side in Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas, Mexico.

We met up with our guides Julio César and Mercedes outside of an agency that advertised trips to popular crossing cities to go North. We drove to the market to find Diego, a human rights worker in the area, and with him wound our way through the crowded market down to the river. This was known as the “informal crossing” within sight of the bridge we had crossed to officially enter the country. The river was low and the crossing was busy- mostly commercial crossing taking goods between Mexico and Guatemala, especially the cheaper products from Mexico going across. People walked out onto man-made peninsulas and took rafts with their goods across; there was no way to tell who were migrants heading North and who was accompanying their goods to Mexico. “This is what free trade looks like,” Riley remarked. Currently, there is very minimal police and military presence—this part of the border is still porous, like the US-Mexico border used to be when people crossed daily to go shopping or go to work. But in 5, 10 years, will the idea of informal crossing still exist? As we traveled deeper into Mexico, we saw the efforts to formalize, militarize, and ultimately, close the border. (Check Todd Miller’s thoughts on the Mexico-Guatemala Border)

We weaved our way back through the riverside market and Diego took us next to another crossing point between Guatemala and Mexico, a more formalized one where vehicles often cross. He told us this was where many used cars from the US crossed into Guatemala; cars that had been in accidents in the US and were taken to be fixed and sold in Guatemala. We walked up to the crossing and Diego told the agent he was with una coalición de derechos humanos and we were all from the US; we just wanted to cross quickly to check out the other side. She waved us through, none of us showing a paper or ID or anything. We simply walked over into Guatemala and saw large coach buses lining the streets—a city of deportation where many Guatemalans are taken, just barely across the Mexico-Guatemala border, into the unknown. Central Americans from other countries farther South are deported just over the border line of their country, into unfamiliar cities, but certainly far from the US-Mexico border, in line with US anti-immigrant interests. This can mean being dropped off in the middle of the night, without money or your belongings, in a city you have never been to. And unlike our experience, you can’t just walk across the border to try again.

zoe 2

When we walked back to cross into Mexico, we were stopped immediately and told we couldn’t enter without passports. We explained we had informed their compañera that we were just going to check it out and she should tell her fellow agents we’d be headed back across soon. But he said he hadn’t heard anything about this; sorry we can’t cross without passports. My heart started to beat faster…our passports were in the van, literally yards away! The bureaucracy of border crossing definitely has a way of making you feel powerless, even when you yield the passport with the most privileges. The agent went to ask her if we really had just crossed and returned with a smile, waving us across.

We drove to Tapachula that afternoon, after passing through 9 interior checkpoints, a technique the US also uses to make certain that even if migrants can cross the border, they can’t move into the interior of the country. Julio described the checkpoint as a recepto, a sacred and respected place that in this case, apparently proved the Mexican’s government’s dedication to the security of its people. Many of these checkpoints had just gone up within the past 10 months, very new developments as part of US-backed policy like Plan Frontera Sur, which encourages increased militarization of the Mexico-Guatemala border. That way, the US-Mexican border is just the “last line of defense.” We passed a detention center, with 9 buses outside deporting Central Americans to the Mexico-Guatemala border. Julio told us that often, Mexican campesinos can’t prove they are from Mexico without official ID and are deported further and further South, some all the way to Nicaragua. Because as we heard quite a few times on our trip, the belief is that the problems come from the South. Therefore, the troublemakers are sent back to the South. All of this felt very reminiscent of the US: increased militarization and border security is something to be respected and treasured and those who it stops, those who it kills, are criminals anyway.

In Tapachula, a major staging ground for Northward migration, we met with El Centro de Derechos Humanos-Fray Matías. As a promoter of the rights of migrants, they work with many Central Americans seeking refuge in Mexico, as well as migrants seeking the right to work and earn a livable wage. When talking about the Mexican government, I heard a lot of the justifications I hear in the US, namely social control in the name of national security. The representative told us that the view the US has of Mexico is echoed in Mexico’s beliefs about Central America: todo malo viene de más el Sur (everything bad comes from further South). Tapachula used to be a major place to board trains going North, until 2005, when a hurricane destroyed the tracks. Now, getting from Tapachula to one of the next stops along the way, Arriaga, takes about a week, instead of a day and a half. And the Mexican government claims it is protecting migrants from danger by detaining them and preventing them from boarding the trains, as well as running ads addressed to Hermano Migrante about the rights migrants have. But the government, migration authorities, narcotraffickers, assailants, and others clearly abuse these rights, as shown by the need for the work of this group.

After a night in Tapachula, we headed to Salvador Urbina, a rural community home to Cafe Justo. To create an alternative to migration, community members have created a coffee cooperative in which farmers get a fair price for their coffee, as well as a share in the profit of roasting, packaging, and selling the final product. This means that 100% of the final product value remains in the community, creating a viable economic alternative to migrating North. We toured their facilities and saw how the coffee beans are sorted by size and quality; the biggest ones headed to the US and the smaller consumed within the community. The beans for exportation are sent to Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico right on the US-Mexico border to be toasted. We saw their water purification system that provides potable water to the community. Then we went to see the coffee plants, beautiful red berries alongside white flowers, the green of the leaves completing the colors of the Mexican flag. We finished our tour and went to swim in the nearby river before heading to our homestays for the night.


I was so grateful to be able to stay with a family from Salvador Urbina and talk with them about the Border Studies Program and their experience being able to stay in the community where they were born. No one wants to leave their roots, their family. As we have seen on this trip, resisting the forces pushing people North takes organized community resistance that can serve as an example to us all for contesting the forces of capitalism that have bolstered the divide between South and North. Tyrian and I played about 20 rounds of Uno with the kids, and I went to bed so grateful for all the communities who had embraced us over the course of the trip.

Early the next morning, we headed back to Tapachula to have breakfast at Casa Belen, the migrant shelter there. As soon as we entered the shelter, 3 kids yelled and ran past, playing a game of tag. I exclaimed how nice it was that they even had a playground there and Anne pointed out how sad it is that that’s necessary at a shelter; it speaks to the populations who are forced to travel North. Though the majority of migrants were young men, one of the directors told us they have rooms available for families traveling through. Just like in the US, so many people are risking their lives to plea for refugee status only to be told that their experiences aren’t worthy of fleeing, that their fear is not great enough, or that the threat to their lives is not strong enough.

As a jarring and poignant reflection of our privilege to be visitors in the migrant shelter and in many locations along our trip, we headed to Boca del Cielo, a beach town. The landscape was incredible—we took a lancha to cross the river to the island surrounded by the river on one side, the ocean on the other. We all felt tense, sad, confused. How much was this travel seminar a vacation? We stayed with the Guiri Guiri Collective, started and maintained by European ex-pats that supported El Consejo Autónomo de Chiapas, an organization that defends rural territories against development projects and other destructive neoliberal interventions. So what was our role as visitors from the US in the struggle to retain territory and autonomy in a region where the Mexican governments wants to build more highways to increase tourism and where transnational fisheries are putting fishermen out of work?


Boca Del Cielo, Chiapas, Mexico

El Centro de Derechos Humanos Digna Ochoa, as well as representatives from other organizations working for a more autonomous Chiapas, came for a plática with us. They told us about their efforts to support community resistance to investment projects and increasing military capacities. They described the national conditions as perfect for a dictatorship, ripe for violations of human rights. The government uses fear to force communities to sign contracts that allow for desarollo: more hotels, more highways. One of the biggest fights is against paying for electricity, which is set at an exuberant price for Mexican citizens, while it is very cheap for transnational corporations. Communities in Chiapas have stopped paying for their electricity, but the government has not cut their lights because these communities have organized in resistance. Even though the government has responded to Digna Ochoa’s community organizing efforts by jailing their leaders and vigilantly monitoring their offices, they keep fighting to show people that atrás del miedo, hay la libertad (beyond fear is freedom).


We also had the opportunity to talk with Julio César about el otro mundo of Zapatismo. Zapatistas have told the state they do not want a part in their corrupt system of high electricity tariffs, investment projects that destroy local communities, and state-sanctioned discrimination against indigenous people. And therefore, they have created and continue to create the world they want to live in. Caracoles govern Zapatista communities, made up of members from each municipality, whom they consult regarding every decision. The caracol is a Mayan symbol, a spiral that represents the process of dialogue, the necessity of conferring with each and every person. A slow process, but maybe that is just what we need in a world that leaves behind the humanity of so many.

The next day, we took off for Arriaga, one of the next stops on the Northward migrant journey. We spent the morning at a migrant shelter, a brief place of refuge for those who have not been lucky enough to be a part of a community with the resources to resist migration. A man from Nicaragua had traveled the furthest of any migrants there that day, en route to hacer la diferencia, to make the difference for his family by sending money back home. He was making the journey we had quickly bypassed, barreling through interior checkpoints with American citizenship and plenty of mangoes to snack on. He had been going to school, but realized there was no point, that he would just end up a jornalero (day-worker). He had made friends along the journey, but told us he couldn’t trust anyone and couldn’t become too close because everyone will have to go their separate ways very soon. And even after having to leave behind everything he knew and loved, watching helplessly as assailants snatched young girls and filling with fear when he thought of having to board a train northward, he emphasized the beauty and positivity of his journey. He had bathed in rivers, seen the most beautiful mountains, and proved his faith is greater than just his word. His positivity amazed and inspired me.

Lastly, we went to the train tracks of Arriaga, where migrants board the barreling bestia, home to narcos, assailants, and nighttime migration raids. We talked with a train driver waiting out by the tracks and a railroad security guard, who seemed resigned to the reality of the tracks. They said they couldn’t do anything about it, couldn’t stop migrants from boarding the train, and couldn’t stop gangs from separating the train cars in order to kidnap all the migrants atop the car. And the reality they have accepted is one that will never affect them or us like it will the hundreds of thousands forced North in the most dangerous ways possible, as the once porous borders of Guatemala and Mexico, Mexico and the US, are sealed. As we piled into the van, a man ran up to us, pointing to his piel negra (black skin) and ours, mostly blanca, and saying we look so different, could we please give him some food for the children he is traveling with? And we had one mango we gave to him, but that clearly was not enough.


At the train in Arriaga, Chiapas, Mexicozoe5

En route back to Tucson, I thought of the migrant from Nicaragua, leaving everything behind to hacer la diferencia. Of the inspiring resistance of communities that stand up to the state and of those who do not have that choice. Of our predictions confirmed that the Guatemala-Mexico border was being reinforced to mimic that of Mexico and the US, that the state continues to criminalize migrants who are seeking safety and the right to live. Of our journey, so fast, so painless across the borders and of the need to slow down like the caracol and listen, to unlearn what we have been told about migration and national security and our safety because I don’t feel safe living in a world where the lives of so many are devalued because the cardinal direction they come from.

–Zoe Martens

ICE Detention Center


ICE facility aerial view

Florence, Arizona. Pinal County seat, midway between Tucson and Phoenix. A locally born and raised Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agent tells us that everyone he knew growing up now either works for or does time in a prison. Meanwhile, the largest proportion of the town’s population is made up of involuntary residents held within 11 carceral institutions. These county jails, private prisons, and federal detention centers bring in independent contractors, driving the regional economy while constructing a bizarre desert landscape of barbed wire and security towers.


Florence, AZ partial view from Google Earth

Before entering the detention complex, a gate guard checks our state-issued ID’s, exchanging driver’s licenses for red visitor’s passes marked “requires escort”; we are duly escorted to a conference room in the administrative building for a revealing presentation about the facility. The property has been a site for politically driven imprisonment since 1942, when it served as a POW camp. In 1963, the space was converted to a minimum-security prison; twenty years later it became a processing center for Cuban immigrants arriving en masse at the time of the Mariel Boatlift. During this period, resistance by detained Cubans led to destruction of the facility’s main building: some of the rioters were sent to Oakdale, Louisiana, setting the stage for the larger uprising that would take place there in 1987. The detention center that now occupies this carceral footprint was established in 2003, but remnant structures invoke its history. Most strikingly, the “Main Jail” unit, in contrast to more recent buildings, retains barred windows and cages. This “special housing unit” contains the isolated cells where detainees are sent as enhanced punishment, or for “protective custody” and suicide watch.

During the initial presentation and question session, we learn that Florence houses those who ICE considers as adult males (including transgender women like Nicoll) , and that the average length of stay is 20-21 days unless a detainee attempts to pursue an immigration appeals process, which can take years to move through the courts. When they arrive at the ICE facility, via Border Patrol stations, hospitals, or other prisons, detainees enter a 72-hour staging facility, where they undergo orientation and classification. New arrivals are given uniforms that correspond in color to their security status: blue indicates a low security individual, orange medium-low, white a kitchen worker, green as yet unclassified. Classification is based on records of prior criminality, which may include any previous apprehensions for unauthorized entry. Medium and high security prisoners are sent across the street into the custody of the privately run Corrections Corporation of America. Later in the process, deportations, now officially dubbed “removals,” occur through chartered flights to Central American nations and buses to Mexico. ICE also contracts with various private companies for kitchen, maintenance, and security personnel, as well as technology firms for surveillance and telecommunications syndicates for (expensive) contact with the outside world. These myriad contractors are supervised by a limited number of federal staff.

The man in charge urged us to take note of cleanliness and high air quality around the facility, and of the recreation area in particular. “Detained aliens,” he reminds us, aren’t sedentary: they may work in the kitchen or laundry room for $1/day, and are allotted three hours of outdoor recreation. The recently installed turf soccer field, he boasts, has prevented sports injuries, effectively saving taxpayers’ money.

ICE prides itself on careful spending of taxpayers’ money.

ICE prides itself even more on security and the defense of America. Upon entering the detention area, I slouch against the chain-link fence, and am waved off by security agents for setting off “the sensors.” I had ignorantly assumed that height, barbed wire, and constant surveillance were enough.

ICE also prides itself on harm reduction. In the cinderblock bathrooms, shower and toilet stalls have no doors, allowing guards to walk through for “cursory checks,” ensuring that no one is trying to hurt himself. Suicide smocks and padded isolation cells are available for depressed detainees. Hunger strikes are carefully documented, and force-feeding occurs when necessary. A Spanish-language sign on a cinderblock wall warns that attempting to cross the desert into the United States may result in death.

At first, this warning puzzles me: aren’t we already on the other side? Don’t the men incarcerated here know firsthand the dangers of the desert? But then I remember the deported migrants we met in Altar, many of whom crossed the border long ago, and have lived in the U.S. for a decade or more. They would have been held, I guess, in a facility like this one after being apprehended by ICE. The cautionary sign, perhaps, is meant for them. Crossing has grown exponentially more deadly since their original journey, but we know that these men will no doubt still be tempted to rejoin their families, reclaim their lives.

The migrants within these walls know all too well that crossing may also result in loss of freedom and human dignity.

At the beginning of our tour, I notice that the outside walking paths within the detention complex are marked with two sets of parallel lines, to control human traffic (elementary school teachers take note).


As we pass a group of detainees flanked by security guards, our guide directs us neatly into one lane. When possible, I make eye contact with the men moving past in plastic yellow sandals, and sometimes we nod at each other, a gesture of mutual affirmation. I try to smile. I wonder, as always, what they think of our presence. Here, I regret theirs.

Most vivid in my memory are the sights of a group of new arrivals sitting on the curb in dusty street clothes; the emptiness of the soccer field; the tiny, barren metal bunks in 64-man barracks; the holding cells in the medical clinic; the bustling cafeteria where men sit joking at crowded tables, faced with Styrofoam trays of catfish patties and iceberg lettuce.

We walk through courtyards, past men staring out the windows of “day rooms” full of detainees. I wave. It feels too casual, too cavalier. But nothing about any of this feels right.

I am acutely conscious of my white, female, documented body passing through the health clinic, the kitchen, the laundry room, the quarantine unit, medical intake, “administrative segregation” (disciplinary) cells, the recreation yard, sleeping bunks, group bathrooms, common spaces with programmed TVs and rows of payphones on the wall.

I am acutely conscious of walking out of the gates when our visit is over.

Our penultimate stop within the facility is the contact visiting room, where two detainees sit across from their respective visitors, sharing lunch and talking in hushed tones. We linger, interrupting their time together. I wish that we would stop asking questions. This is not the place to be a student.

Last, finally, we enter the attached courtroom. It smells of clean blue carpet. We take seats on wooden pews, facing the judge’s bench, for one more round of questions. The courtroom, where immigrants represent themselves in hearings, is well furnished to uphold the appearance of justice.


A license plate from the detention facility that reads “IDPORTM”

Our drivers’ licenses are returned at the gate, and we climb into the van for a driving tour of Florence. The downtown looks like it’s straight out of a Western. A few blocks over the highway is flanked by prison compounds. We stop at the prison outlet, which sells art made by “inmates.” The craftspeople are paid 75% of sales for crafts made out of paper or bread. If they use tools and materials such as metal or leather, they are paid an hourly wage (one I can only assume is under minimum wage); restitutions for criminal charges are deducted as well. In my mind, this little store becomes symbolic of a thriving economy that depends on and profits off of the mass criminalization, immobilization, and incarceration of low-income people of color.


The Prison Outlet store where detainees can sell their creations on consignment

On the way out of town, we stop for road snacks. Tyrian runs across the street to a Subway patronized by customers in various law enforcement uniforms. In the van, we eat chips and peanuts and cookies and plan our Friday evenings. I process, slowly. I can’t accept this pattern of policing and detention as normal or logical, because I did not grow up in this town. But still I can’t leave it behind.

–Emily Belle