Thursday, May 9, 2013

Ups and Downs

April was a pretty normal month around here.  No special events at work, no traveling, just regular life with my Mexico family.  As a result of this routine, I've been finding myself easily frustrated by many of the little things that help make up my life here.
  • Constant dog barking (generally from my family's dogs, but other dogs as well)
  • All-too-common catcalls and whistles on the street as I walk to and from the bus stop
  • Eating the same foods over and over and over again
  • Taxis honking at me when I'm waiting for the bus.  Unless you can take me across town for 6 pesos, I'm not interested!
These are little things that have happened with enough frequency this year to set me on edge quite quickly.  But at the same time, there are so many little blessings.

The day my host mom saw how tired I was when I got home from work, and immediately went to check the boiler so I would have hot water for a shower.

A walk to Walmart with Humberto and Maury.  It exhausted them but they wanted to spend time with me.  Maury affectionately called me hermanita, but when Humberto tried to do the same he was quickly reprimanded because I'm only his cousin.  Maury wants that brother title all to himself.

The chance to cook American style food for my coworkers.

 Nightly conversations with my host mom over dinner.

The joy of watching newborn kittens grow up.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Accepting Hospitality

ALEM is a pretty tight knit community.  Most of the team rides to and from work together, comida is eaten as a group, and there are occasional group outings that are always really fun.  It's also common for someone to bring or buy snacks and share with everyone.  Today, for example, Raul brought a package of donuts and a 2 liter of coca cola to share with everyone.  I caught myself this afternoon trying to figure out how I can reciprocate, what type of snack I can bring to share with everyone.
Now, I don't think it's a bad thing to want to share with my coworkers.  Rather it was the mindset I went into it with.  Thinking that I have to contribute something too, in order to be more a part of the team and not always on the receiving end. 
Receiving hospitality.  Why is that so difficult?  Why can't I just gratefully accept my cold glass of coke on a hot afternoon, rather than worrying about how I can pay someone back? 
It is one of the more difficult parts of my YAGM year.  Recognizing that accepting the hospitality of my host community is one of the best ways to truly become a part of this community, while also recognizing that my cultural upbringing in the U.S. has taught me to not be a bother when I'm a guest, to be self-sufficient.  But that doesn't work here.  It isolates me.  And I don't want to isolate myself here.

Special thanks to the Buller family, who financially sponsored this past week in memory of their daughter Sarah.  Happy 23rd Birthday Sarah!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Baking with my family

Although I really enjoy cooking and baking, I don't get to help with that in my house very often.  However, in the past week I've gotten to cook twice!  Last Thursday I asked Zury if I could cook dinner for us, so while they were at karate I started cooking Aggkaka, a Swedish egg dish that's common in my family.  Well, nothing in Mexico ever goes quite as planned.  First, I couldn't find the measuring cups or the pan I was planning on using.  So I mixed up what I could and thought I'd wait for my family to get back to finish.  My family got home about 45 minutes later than I thought they would, so I didn't get going on dinner again until about 8:00.  Once Zury dug out my measuring cups, I discovered that we needed a little more flour.  So I went to the small grocery store around the corner from my house with Stefi, Humberto, and Maury.  The whole way there they were asking what I was making.  Aggkaka is a difficult enough dish to describe in English, so I didn't really want to attempt it in Spanish, so I told them they would just have to wait and see.  That didn't sit too well, so they started guessing everything they could possibly think of that might contain flour.
"You need flour, so you're making bread, right?"
No, no, no, and no.
Back to the kitchen!  I can never predict how things are going to turn out with a gas oven, so I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised when it took twice as long as usual to cook, even with the heat turned up all the way.  This meant we didn't eat until almost 9, so the kids were practically falling asleep at the table.  I also never know how everyone is going to react to my recipes.  I bit into my dinner, and it just tasted like home.  Stefi, on the other hand, took two bites, and then politely picked at her meal before taking it to the kitchen and leaving for bed.  Humberto and Maury both apparently liked it, but were too tired to eat much.  More leftovers for me, I guess!
While walking to the store, Maury had also asked if I was going to use any of the pumpkin puree still sitting in our freezer (not for dinner, no).  But that was all the impetus I needed to decide to bake chocolate chip pumpkin bread yesterday!  All went well, except for needing two trips to the store because I didn't check my sugar supply well enough (turns out we only had powdered sugar, which wasn't going to fly with my recipe).  I used some of the precious chocolate chips I picked up in Arizona, and the bread turned out delicious!  Nothing beats homemade chocolate chip pumpkin bread, and it should be eaten all year long, not just in fall!
After sampling the bread, Maury ran into my room he was so excited!
"Kristen this cake is so good it's delicious what's the recipe when are you going to make it again!" (paraphrased, of course, since the original was in Spanish, but this is basically how it sounded)
I pointed to the recipe, in English, on my computer and told him we could make it again soon, which he was pretty excited about.  I also told Maury that he can help me make it next time, to which he responded, "te quiero, Kristen" and gave me a big hug.  Always nice to be appreciated!
On a somewhat related note, I feel like I'm finally starting to gel with all my relationships.  I have better relationships with my coworkers, and I'm able to joke around a lot more with my family.  It's a good feeling, and made even better by the note I received from Stefi, Humberto, and Maury last week:
Most adorable thing ever!  Life is good right now.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Border Immersion Part 4

Day 4: Ash Wednesday in the desert

As Andrea put it, Wednesday's activites were about hope, while Thursday's activites were kind of a downer for the end of the week.  We met in the morning with Ken Kennon at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson.  Ken was an instrumental leader in the Sanctuary Movement of the 1970s and 1980s.  During the U.S. supported dictatorship and wars in Central America, the U.S. didn't welcome refugees from Central America, so churches and other organizations declared their spaces to be "sanctuary" for these refugees and opened their doors, at great personal risk to themselves.  Thousands of asylum-seekers were housed in churches across the country: given a place to stay, meals, medical attention, etc.  Well, the problem came in the fact that individuals participating in this movement were committing felonies, guilty of 20+ years in federal prison.  It was pretty inspiring to be sitting in the church that started this movement in Tucson, and just really eye-opening to be learning about something I had never heard of before.
memorial for migrants who have died in the desert

each rock contains the name of a migrant who died in the desert, while those whose bodies were never claimed simply read "desconocido" (unknown)
In the afternoon we met with Gene from No More Deaths, a Tucson based organization that works to decrease the number of migrant deaths in the desert by putting water on migrant trails and providing emergency medical aid.  Gene spoke to us at BorderLinks for a little while, but then he took us into the desert to actually walk some of the migrant trails.  At one stop we pulled over by a freeway rest stop to duck through some barbed wire and gather items left behind by migrants: backpacks, empty water jugs, discarded items of clothing, all of it destroyed by the brutal sun.  We then drove way into the desert to climb a mountain on a different migrant trail.  An altar awaited us at the top, full of flowers, water (we also contributed two jugs of water for migrants), a migrant's ashes, a cross, candles.  We proceeded to have a short Ash Wednesday service.  
Receiving ashes in late afternoon on the top of a mountain in the middle of the desert was a powerful experience.  This key reminder of the frailty of the human experience, especially in the desert, helped to usher in the season of Lent.

Jesus also spent time in the desert.  He fasted and went through physical and spiritual trials, just like many migrants do.  Jesus walked the paths that these migrants walk every day.  I couldn’t help but think that Jesus must be on the side of the migrant – the wanderer searching for freedom from poverty or violence.  How is Jesus’ heart breaking at the injustice found in the borderlands?
altar on the mountaintop

our group with Gene after our Ash Wednesday service

some desert scenery along the migrant trails
 Day 5

Our last full day in Arizona was spent learning about some U.S. policies in regards to migration and immigration issues.  In the morning we met with an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officer at BorderLinks.  It was an interesting meeting, both because of the the nature of the discussion, and also because another group staying at BorderLinks was there for that session, and they were very emotionally invested in the conversation.  After living in Mexico for 6 months, our group has had experiences related to the migration side of the issue: knowing people whose family members are living in the U.S., knowing people who have traveled to the U.S. legally and illegally in search of work, etc.  The other group consisted of high schoolers from southern California who are involved in leadership activities at their schools, and who have been around communities of migrants who have been personally affected by ICE agents and immigration laws.  According to the agent giving our presentation, there is a lot of personal discretion that comes with being an ICE agent in terms of who to process for deportation or not, which can create lots of grey areas that can cause questionable situations.  There is obviously more to discuss with this, but it's more of a sensitive subject, so if you want more stories let me know!

In the afternoon we met with Heather Williams, one of Tucson's public defenders for Operation Streamline.  Operation Streamline is a federal program that aims to criminalize undocumented immigration in the U.S. by putting captured migrants through the court system and charging them with either a misdemeanor or a felony in a zero-tolerance policy as part of a larger plan to deter immigration.  In Tucson 70 migrants a day are processed through the court system, each one meeting with a lawyer for 30 minutes in the morning to discuss the case before pleading guilty before a judge in the afternoon.  Reactions to Operation Streamline are mixed, with many Republicans advocating for an increase in the size of the operation.  However, it sounds like the public defenders and many of the judges feel like it is a waste of their time and that Arizona's resources could be better spent elsewhere.  After breaking down the costs of the lawyers, courtrooms, and incarcerations, Heather Williams informed our group that Operation Streamline is costing Tucson alone well over a billion dollars every year.  What else could be done with this money?

Closing worship and reflection were held at this sculpture on the U of A campus

I'm clearly still reflecting on this intense week on the border, even a month later.  Some things that are still sticking with me:
-Operation Gatekeeper, which pushes migrants into the desert
-NAFTA, which has screwed up the Mexican economy and threatened a lot of livelihoods that could help to give Mexicans a livable wage in Mexico so they wouldn't migrate
-Operation Streamline, which criminalizes migrants for entering the U.S. and ultimately costs us billions of dollars in legal and prison costs
-the continued deportations of migrants who have lived in the U.S. for close to their entire lives, splitting up family after family
-drug use in the U.S., which encourages drug cartels by giving them a business, which in turn adds to the violence on the border
-American vigilantes who feel it's their duty to protect U.S. borders by shooting migrants crossing through the desert
-the legal system that has prosecuted Americans working to stop migrant deaths in the desert (both those giving medical care, and those who leave water in the desert so fewer migrants die of dehydration)

-the power of hearing migrant stories in their contexts, seeing the landscapes they are crossing, and attempting to understand the life they will have if they ever make it to the U.S. 

Well, that's the end of the border saga for now.  I have so many more stories and experiences to share, so let me know if you want to chat sometime!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Border Immersion Part 3

A continuation of previous posts...

Day 3

Most of the day was spent in the desert. After a brief visit to CRREDA (Centro de
Rehabilitacion y Recuperacion Para Engermos de Drogaddicion y Alcoholismo), we headed out into the desert with Agua Para la Vida (Water for Life). Agua Para La Vida is an organization that leaves water in the desert on known migrant trails in an effort to reduce the number of migrant deaths due to dehydration. In 2012 over 10,000 gallons of water were left in the desert, largely on the Mexican side due to threats of vandalism. Not only do migrants have to worry about all the dangers of the desert – extreme weather, Border Patrol agents, wildlife, drug cartels – they also have to contend with American vigilantes who want to decrease the number of migrants crossing the desert. There are stories of vigilante groups keeping watch over the border with guns, shooting any migrants they see (google the Minutemen, it’s shocking what news stories appear). There are also reports by migrants of vandalized water jugs and poisoned water. Some of the migrants we spoke to at the migrant resource center and CAME spoke about avoiding water jugs as a precaution. In recent years Agua Para La Vida has placed the majority of their water on the Mexican side of the wall, where it’s less likely to be tampered with.

We drove west along the highway from Agua Prieta before turning off into private land.  Agua Para La Vida has an arrangement with some of the ranchers in the area, so we drove through a ranch, past surprised looking cows, down pitted dirt roads, through empty stream beds, bouncing over rocks and plants for well over 30 minutes. Eventually we arrived at our destination: two 55 gallon water jugs within sight of the U.S.-Mexico border. After watching the guys fill the water jugs, we sat down for a quick picnic lunch before walking towards the wall.
Sarah and Joca examining the water jugs
It’s incredibly difficult to walk through the desert. Spiky plants that catch at your pants and stab your feet through your shoes. The unpredictable weather: one minute it’s warm enough to take off a couple of layers, the next an icy wind blows through. Pockets of snow left over from the night before. Knowing that the Border Patrol is possibly (likely) watching you arrive on their cameras. Continually running across items left behind by previous migrants. Then finally arriving at the fence. The sheer absurdity of a 20 foot wall in the middle of the desert.

some of the desert landscape

one section of the wall
 A Border Patrol agent drove by to see what we were doing at the wall, and we ended up having a fruitful conversation with him. He told us about some of the new techniques drug runners are using to get their goods across the border (they were probably the source of the small plane that kept flying above us), about how sections of the fence are opened during the rainy season (so the fence doesn’t get slammed with debris) and farmers have responded by putting up barbed wire to keep their cows in when this happens, about how excited new agents are when a group like ours walks to the wall, thinking that the Border Patrol is going to catch a big group of migrants, that the wall isn’t working like it’s supposed to.

the prickly plants that make walking in the desert difficult*

another section of the wall - you can see the floodgates with new barbed wire
 The one downside of this time in the desert at the wall is that we missed the weekly prayer vigil that Healing Our Borders hosts at the Douglas port of entry. I had been looking forward to this event the most, so it was kind of sad to miss it. But the rest of the day was pretty remarkable.
our group walking on train tracks to get to the wall*

part of a ladder left behind by migrants*
*Pictures taken by our fearless leader Andrea

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Border Immersion, Part 2

The Border Immersion was definitely one of the things that drew me towards the Mexico YAGM program when I first heard about it at DIP last April, and the excitement was reignited this past fall when Andrea told us again that this week is always one of the highlights of the year.  As a U.S. citizen, especially during the current political push for immigration reform, it was a little embarrassing how little I knew about U.S. immigration policy and what issues are going on in the borderlands right now.  I am incredibly grateful for the chance to spend a week visiting the border and learning many different perspectives about what is happening.

Day 1: Travel Day!

Excitement about having a short "vacation" from Mexico.  Excitement about travel in general, and the anticipation that comes from being in an airport.  Having someone else be in charge of travel plans.  The ease of getting through U.S. immigration and customs because I hold that precious, expensive, powerful, liberating little blue passport.  We were so giddy at dinner that night.  All the American food choices at the Phoenix airport!  U.S. money!  Ordering in English!  Putting my backpack on the floor (This doesn't happen in Mexico because the floor is "too dirty" or spirits will get into my bag and steal my money.  It's just another of those funny little cultural norms that I've had to get used to, but that I violate in the safety of my own bedroom every day).

We didn't arrive at Borderlinks in Tucson until 10:30 that night, only to discover that we were locked out and needed to wait for a staff member to arrive and let us in.  In those 15 minutes of waiting, I realized that we were going to have a cold week ahead of us!  It's about 90 degrees in Cuernavaca now, so the 35 degree winter night in Tucson was a bit of a shock!

Day 2: Douglas, AZ and Agua Prieta, Sonora

Our day started ridiculously early, with a 6 am departure from Tucson for our 2 1/2 hour drive to Douglas.  First stop: Frontera de Cristo.  Frontera de Cristo is a bi-national Presbyterian ministry that works to address physical and spiritual needs of people on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.  They're affiliated with a lot of non-profit groups in Douglas and Agua Prieta and helped connect us these groups.  Mark took us out to the wall and gave our group a basic orientation to the features of the wall and some of the challenges migrants face when attempting to cross the border.  Among them: sections of the wall made taller, security cameras that have a 3 mile radius, floodlights that keep the wall lit up in Douglas all night, sections of the fence that are only designed to stop cars.  The taller wall has done little, if anything, to deter migrants from attempting to cross.  Rather, it has made the crossing more dangerous and they are seeing more broken bones as a result of falls.  I was also struck by the design of the fence: it's made up of poles that are easy to see between, so people living close to the border can easily see their neighbors through the fence.

This section of the wall was recently made taller.

This was left behind by a migrant

An example of the vehicle obstruction fences - designed to stop cars rather than individual migrants from crossing
Our next stop was the Douglas Border Patrol Station.  The Douglas station is responsible for 40.5 linear miles of border and 1450 square miles of mountainous terrain.  Our visit to the Border Patrol was...interesting.  We were all a little disappointed with how rushed the tour felt; our tour guide (a public relations agent) didn't always go into a lot of detail.  But seeing the realities of the Border Patrol trucks, which sometimes carry up to 10 migrants in a small holding area in the back and hearing about the level of discretion each agent has in choosing what weapons to carry and how to supply their own truck made it easy to see how reports of abuse by Border Patrol agents happens.  Not that this always happens, but we were told that it's up to each agents as to if the holding area is air conditioned or heated, what amount of food is carried, what types of first aid supplies are on board, and what methods each agent will use to control a large migrant group.  This can lead to a large variety in the level of treatment migrants might receive.  The Border Patrol agent also explained that the official U.S. policy is to use the mountains and desert as a "lethal deterrent" to dissuade migrants from attempting to cross.  The theory is that this threat of death in the desert will slow the number of migrants, but this hasn't been the case.  Instead, there has been a spike in the death counts because migrants are being pushed further and further away from the cities into the most dangerous areas of the desert.

After meeting with the Border Patrol we crossed the border into Mexico for lunch and a visit to a community garden with DouglaPrieta Works.  Delicious chiles rellenos and a cold and windy visit to a community garden with crops, chickens, and rabbits. DouglaPrieta Works, along with Café Justo, a visit later in the afternoon, work to provide a more sustainable livelihood for Mexicans in the area.  Café Justo is a coffee roasting company that provides wages far above the level of fair trade.  By doing so, they hope to create more economic opportunities in Mexico so people don't have to migrate to the U.S.  A recurring theme of our visits to organizations was the fact that many Mexicans don't want to be in the U.S.  Many people would rather be home, with their families, in their home communities, but they can't because of the economic opportunity in the U.S.  By providing better economic opportunities in Mexico, Café Justo tries to allow more families to stay together in Mexico.

One of my favorite visits of the day was the Centro de Recursos Para Migrantes, aka the Migrant Resource Center.
It's literally the first thing you see after you get through customs and enter Mexico and is located just feet across the border.  The resource center is often the first stop for migrants who have been repatriated back to Mexico after being caught by the Border Patrol; they are escorted to the border by Border Patrol agents and then left to fend for themselves with no resources of their own.  That's where the resource center comes in.  Migrants can stop by for a warm place to sit, a burrito, water and coffee, a clean pair of socks, new shoelaces, free or reduced bus tickets back to their place of origin in Mexico.  Some migrants come in looking for a way home, others just stop by for a quick snack before looking to reconnect with their coyote for another attempt at crossing the border.  When we were visiting, there were 20 or so people waiting for their bus ticket from the Mexican government so they could return home to their families.

I still can't get the image of the pair of men who arrived near the end of our visit.  They appeared to be father and son, and it was clear they had just been returned by the Border Patrol.  As they sat down to eat a sandwich, I couldn't help but notice their shoes.  The younger man had on a pair of orange and white Nikes that were missing their shoelaces.  It's common for Border Patrol agents, when apprehending a group of migrants, to gather the shoelaces of the migrants as a deterrent to running away.  The image of the shoes without their laces stuck with me, and just made it that much more real.  U.S. border policies aren't an abstract thing.  They directly impact thousands of people every day, thousands of individuals who might be sitting down eating a burrito right about now.

Our last visit of the day was to CAME, the Centro de Atención al Migrante "Exodus," a migrant shelter in Agua Prieta.  We ate dinner with migrants, some of whom had been deported and were heading home, and others who were on their way to the United States.  We were so privileged to hear the stories of these people!  The man Casey and I sat with at dinner shared his story with us (we unfortunately didn't catch his name).  He's lived in Boca Raton, FL for over 20 years, and has a Cuban wife and an American-born son who both have U.S. citizenship.  A little while ago he returned to Mexico to help care for a sick family member, and was then returning to Florida to be with his family when his car blew a tire outside of Tucson.  A police officer stopped to help him with his car, discovered his immigration status, and he was returned to Mexico.  When we met him, he was in CAME working on crossing again so he could return to his family. 

This was such a heartbreaking story to hear.  It put an individual face on some of the injustice of U.S. immigration policy.  This man has lived in the U.S. for his entire adult life, but he must live in fear everyday that some freak event will occur that will allow him to be deported.  His wife is a Cuban immigrant, who received asylum simply by setting foot on U.S. soil.  His college aged son is a citizen by virtue of being born in the U.S.  This man was so calm and so quiet, but it was clear he was working as hard as he could to get back to his family and his home.  As we were leaving I had to wish him safe travels, and that I hoped he would make it home.  For me, in this case, U.S. border policy that intends to close our borders doesn't matter.  What matters is reuniting a man with his family.

More reflections from the border to come!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Border Immersion, Part 1

This is the first of many posts to come from the 2013 Border Immersion!  We traveled to Arizona to spend a week visiting and learning about the U.S.-Mexico border.  It was an intense and emotional experience, and one that will stick with me forever.  To start off the reflecting, here are a few pictures:

Our first morning in Douglas, AZ we visited the wall that marks the border between Mexico and the U.S.  It's incredibly intimidating, and stretches out as far as the eye can see.  On the U.S. side the wall is lit up by bright lights and closely monitored by surveillance cameras with a 3 mile range.  Border Patrol trucks are a common sight.  Douglas, AZ is the city on the right side of the fence, and Agua Prieta, Sonora is the city on the left side of the fence.  Due to its construction, you can see through the fence.  So people living close to the border can wake up every morning to literally see the homes of their neighbors on the other side of the fence.

Catie looking up at the fence.  This section of the fence was recently rebuilt, and was made even taller.  However, everyone we talked to, Border Patrol agents included, admitted that the fence doesn't stop any migrants from crossing.  It might slow them down, and there has been a drastic increase in the amount of injuries from the fence (broken legs, sprained ankles, etc.).  But the people who are crossing are so desperate that even the threat of injury from the fence, a criminal deportation, or death in the desert is not enough to dissuade them from crossing in search of a better life.
We woke up on Tuesday morning to snow in Douglas.  Coming from Cuernavaca's heat, the desert felt especially cold.  But we had met with migrants the night before who were planning on crossing, and most of them were just wearing a hooded sweatshirt and jeans.  No one was expecting snow.  Waking up to snow, I couldn't stop thinking about all the migrants who slept or walked through the snow in the desert the night before.  It must have been a miserable night.

Painted on the wall of a community center in Agua Prieta.  It reminded me of a quote that stood out to me in The Devil's Highway, that came from St. Toribio's "Prayer for Crossing Without Papers."  "I believe I am a citizen of the world, and of a church without borders."

Another view through the wall.  The landscape is exactly the same on either side.  Lethal desert that has killed thousands of migrants.

While walking in the desert we kept coming across items left behind by migrants as proof of their journey.  The most common items to see were bottles - bottles of water, of pop, of beer.  But we also ran across backpacks, clothing, deodorant tubes, combs, even part of a ladder.  Our guides could tell just by looking at jugs of water how long ago the migrant had passed through.

This is a political cartoon that was on the wall in Borderlinks, which was the organization we stayed with in Tuscon.  Our country's economy relies so much on undocumented labor.  Undocumented workers pick our crops and cook our food.  Without them, costs to consumers would be far higher than we are currently willing to pay.  But at the same time, we have in place a system that punishes workers for being undocumented while still desperately needing them.  The ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, formerly the INS: Immigration and Naturalization Service) agent we spoke to also discussed this a bit.  He mentioned that if we gave everyone papers, then they would move to a new job with better pay and better benefits, leaving behind a job that another undocumented worker would take.  It's a vicious cycle.

This is part of a monument for migrants who have died while crossing the desert.  Each rock holds the name of an individual who died, while the unknown deaths are marked simply by "Desconocido" (unknown).