Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Finding My Way - Nora Berson

We just had our Border Studies Symposium, an event to wrap up the semester, and give thanks to the people that made it possible. I remember being told about this event during orientation, and it seeming impossibly far in the future. Now it's over, and I have to come to terms with the semester being almost finished. I am excited to return home, but it is also difficult to think about leaving Tucson. It felt really good to see our teachers, host families, field study coordinators and various community members joined together, and have the chance to express our gratitude to them. The symposium took place in the same room as the potluck where we had met our host families for the first time, but the emotions were different. I remember feeling nervous before meeting my host family. Although some of us felt nervous today also, I felt more at ease that that first meeting, and filled with warm appreciation. I was happy to be looking out at smiling faces, and listening to my classmates share their heartfelt stories of inspiration, learning and thanks. I will share with you my piece of the symposium. I read it in Spanish, but I've also included the English version here.

Cuando salí del aeropuerto en Tucson, todo me pareció extraño. El aire de enero estaba caliente, el sol estaba deslumbrante, y el estacionamiento estuvo lleno de saguaros. Cuando nos estaba manejando desde el aeropuerto, Jeff nos informó que pudiéramos navegar con la ayuda de las montañas—las montañas de Tucson al oeste, las Catalinas al norte, los Rincones al este, y las Santa Ritas al sur. Recuerdo que sentía nerviosa. Tengo un sentido de dirección muy mal. ¿Cómo pudiera encontrar todo, navegando entra la casa, la escuela, el trabajo? Tenía miedo que me iba a perder. Y sí me perdí. Pero no estaba sola. Mis profesores, mi familia, mis supervisores del trabajo y gente que no conocía no me abandonaron en una ciudad desconocida. Me dibujaron mapas, me dieron direcciones detalladas, y incluso me llevaron a la estación de buses cuando me perdí. Y Flor me dijo muchas veces “Si necesitas cualquier cosa, llámame. No te preocupes.” Aunque puedo recordar unos momentos preocupados por la noche en partes desconocidos de la cuidad, sé que nunca estaba realmente sola. Por la generosidad de la gente acá en ayudándome a orientarme, y también mostrándome lo mejor que Tucson ofrece, estoy muy agradecida. Cuando regreso al lugar de donde soy, espero que puedo seguir su ejemplo de hospitalidad y amabilidad a la gente que están nuevo en mi comunidad. Voy a darles bienvenidos, aunque no puedo dar muy buenas direcciones.

When I stepped out of the airport in Tucson, everything felt foreign. The January air was hot, the sun blindingly bright, and the parking lot filled with saguaro cactus. As he drove us from the airport, Jeff pointed out how we could navigate by the mountains—the Tucson mountains to the west, Catalina mountains to the north and Rincon mountains to the east. I remember feeling nervous. I have a terrible sense of direction. How would I find my way around, between my home, class, and field study? I was afraid I would get lost. And I did. But I was not alone. My teachers, host family, field study supervisors and strangers did not abandon me in an unfamiliar city. They drew me maps, gave me detailed directions for the best bike routes, even accompanied me to the bus station when I got myself horribly turned around. And Flor told me time and again, “Si necesitas cualquier cosa, llámame. No te preocupes.” Even though I can remember a few worried moments in the dark in unfamiliar parts of town, I know I was never really alone. The generosity of people here in helping me find my way, as well as showing me the best of what Tucson has to offer, leaves me very grateful. When I return home, I hope to follow their example of hospitality and helpfulness to those who are new in my community, and give them my welcome, even if I can't give very good directions.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Alternatives and Resistance - Kira Cohen

Reflecting on the travel seminar, I was most struck by the ways that many individuals and communities that we had met constructed alternatives to the world they see around them, to try and strengthen their communities and worlds in the face of a governmental and economic system that doesn’t always make that easy. Obviously, one of the most extreme examples of alternative practices is the autonomous Zapatista community, whose members have created “another world” in the form of their community spaces. When I think about the Zapatistas, and the thoughtfulness and cohesion that goes into their internal workings, I get excited about the possibility of living life in ways that are completely different from those that may seem possible given the status quo. The autonomy the Zapatistas practice looks to me like a form of alternative living taken so much farther than I’ve ever seen it before, to the point of creating real structures that can be sustained, and that will continue to nourish a group of individuals for as long as they want.

At the same time, though, I have doubts about how much these autonomous alternatives work as resistance to an outside government that remains dysfunctional. I think that we have often equated alternatives with resistance, and it seems to me that there is a spectrum of ways in which resistance works. While the Zapatistas provide a wonderful example of how to function autonomously, they are not necessarily affecting change for those not within their world. Their work, their lives, doesn’t exert pressure for this outward change beyond serving as an example for others. I realize that affecting broad change is not necessarily the goal of the movement, and that the Zapatista community is doing what works for them and creating a model for other communities to create their own sustainable systems that are appropriate for that context. The Zapatistas work in a different way. However, if everybody simply opted out of the government, how would it ever change? That’s what has been on my mind lately.
I think the method that the Zapatistas have taken is incredibly inspiring, especially since their communities and services are so developed. I know that others have been inspired as well, and I believe that many more would be if they saw this “other world. ”While we are lucky enough to have been able to learn more about the Caracol firsthand, it seems a rare experience for outsiders to see in. As Mario at Promedios said, nobody cares about the health clinics or the schools. The broader public wants to hear about conflict. And when the Zapatistas are not rising up in arms, they are not a threat to their government, other than their occupation of space. Promedios is helping spread the message, but obviously the audience is limited.

I’m just not sure if alternatives always automatically equal a form of resistance that will create significant change. There is a big question to be asked about whether the dominant paradigm can shift in big ways, or whether it can happen in small steps by people opting out. I want to recognize what is and is not effective when it comes to acts of resistance. However, I think that the ultimate goal should be strong communities, and it’s not everybody’s responsibility to attack the government or to try and make big-picture change.

I can only truly speculate on the so-called “effectiveness” of this resistance, based off of my observations. But beyond that analysis, I have to say that being in such a thoughtful, autonomous space was incredibly inspiring for me as a sign that people can take what they see as being wrong and begin to make something better, in a countless number of ways. And that in itself is, to me, an act of resistance. There are many ways of challenging the government, challenging the static state of the world. And taking action, showing that “this works too, and this works better,” is one way to do that. I wish that more people could see the work of the Zapatistas firsthand, or at all, and begin to take action as well.

Border Views - Sophia Yapalater

My Field Study

As much as I have enjoyed my classes with my teachers and other students in the program, the most fulfilling part of my experience in Tucson has been my field study with Tierra y Libertad Organization (TYLO for short). Before my semester with TYLO, the only sort of organizing experience I had was on my campus. With my campus groups, it is almost as if we felt into a trap of focusing on the problems of the college rather than strongly demanding the administrators to implement our ideas for change. Even when we articulated our visions for a more meaningful and radical education, we were pushed by the administration to use their institutional channels such as writing up research reports and then presenting at administration meetings to explain why we think it's important to increase the numbers of faculty of color, justify the need for Latino/Asian American/ Native American studies, and increase the class and racial diversity of the student body. We never got anywhere because our college found ways to defeat the more radical actions in our campaign by forming committees that pretended to listen to us. As a result, when I arrived to Tucson I was pretty disillusioned with the idea of working for change either on my campus or in the larger immigrants' rights fights for the DREAM Act or "comprehensive immigration reform."

Although the struggles on my campus feel important to me, it has been through my experiences listening to people's stories of resistance in Mexico, Guatemala, and El Paso and most importantly learning from badass community organizers in Tucson, that I have been reminded that fighting for liberation and self determination, creating beautiful communities, and speaking truth to power are not academic skills one can learn. Considering that a majority white middle class campus community won’t be my reality after I graduate Swarthmore, it’s been crucial for me to absorb as much knowledge from TYLO’s small and local but deep and meaningful work in a barrio very similar to one I grew up in because then I can take what I have learned to start the process of change in my community. It's been through my experience with TYLO that I have truly learned to value the importance of creating a vision for change that is more compelling, nourishing, and transformative than simply fighting or attacking the injustices we see.

For those who don't know the work of Tierra y Libertad, its a grassroots organization based in the predominantly Chican@/Mexican/Native Barrio Wakefield community, working to build examples of positive social change and community transformation. Of course, this short description doesn't give justice to the amazing work by TYLO's members so I want to share a few pictures of the current positive change undergoing in the neighborhood as well a short description of TYLO's current campaign.

The pictures of the murals are part of what is known as the Barrio Alleyway project. There is an alleyway behind TYLO's centro comunitario that members of the community particularly youth decided they wanted to transform into a space that expressed love, art, safety, family, hope, and ownership of their community. And the transformation has happened through long and difficult work that included talking to the neighbors about what they wanted to see represented in the murals as well fundraising for the project. TYLO members organized several Saturday workdays where we first cleaned up the trash and then had skilled graffiti artists and other community members spray paint murals onto the walls. And in the very near future, we will plant some native desert plants and food producing trees. Already I have seen some many more people walking through the alleyway, taking their time to see and enjoy the murals, and creating connections with other people in the community by simply talking to each other. It is in those moments that I am most grateful for the privilege to have witnessed and been part of this community transformation. When I walk through the alleyway, my memories of the friendships I have formed and the images of the murals remind me of why we need to more intentional about building communities that are beautiful in every sense of the word.

TYLO has shown me that when we are trying to create another world that is free from oppression, violence, injustice, creating that world requires creativity and love for your home/family/friends and your barrio/hood. TYLO reminded me that community is everything. And I’m glad I’m not ending my experience in the borderlands just yet. I’m excited for this summer and the opportunity to continue sharing and learning with TYLO members and most importantly being part of their process of creating a beautiful community.

Rainwater Harvesting - Emily Pfleiderer

This week for our Critical Issues class we spoke with Brad Lancaster, who is a water sustainability activist. He spoke to us about methods to create an urban landscape that is like a sponge and not water-phobic. The idea that urban landscapes are hydrophobic stems from how cities are constructed; streets direct rainwater into sewers and away from the community. Essentially, urban designers do not welcome water from the sky but rather (especially in Tucson) spends absurd amounts of energy and money moving water long distances, or depleting easily accessible ground water. I had never thought about the type of water that I use for my daily activities but Brad pointed out the absurdities of common practices such as watering plants, flushing toilets, and washing clothes with purified drinking water. I highly recommend that you check out his website, and if possible, utilize some of the strategies. I want to point out that the ideas on his website are not just his, that what he writes about comes from a wealth of knowledge from practices around the world. I think Brad is a messenger trying to spread awareness about water practices and help others see how accessible it can be to change their lifestyle and their community.

This weekend my friend Oto and I talked with Primitivo (host family friend) about rainwater harvesting and we gave him a tour of the barrio. One of the benefits of how the Dunbar-Spring neighborhood has changed since Brad has been there is that it inspires other people and challenges the idea of what a typical neighborhood should look like. I think the neighborhood instigates small-scale projects, but as of yet, not national.

Friday, April 20, 2012

El Paso/Juarez - Chiara Azzaretti

We just got back from El Paso yesterday, and even though a weekend in Texas sounds much less dramatic than three weeks in Guatemala and Mexico, being there for a short time did a lot to change my understanding of the border. The experiences I've had in the Tucson border region have been wide-ranging and valuable, but having them doesn't mean I automatically understand the border as a whole, especially in places like El Paso that are so dramatically different.

The difference that struck me immediately was the close proximity of El Paso to Ciudad Juarez. I had seen the two cities on maps and heard stories of past Border Studies students crossing between them daily, but knowing those things didn't prepare me for actually seeing the border. From the view in the Franklin Mountains (which is the only way Border Studies students can see Juarez these days), the two metropolises appear to be colliding as they both expand along the Rio Grande river and into the desert. The border wall is constantly visible along the highway, along with the Border Patrol, who showed up in under five minutes when our group stopped to have a discussion by the Anapra section of the fence. Even the desert itself (which around El Paso is the Chihuahuan, not the Sonoran), with its lack of saguaros and a Saturday-afternoon dust storm, seemed more foreign to me than I had expected.

In Tucson, “the border” often remains an abstract concept. In El Paso, there is no way to think of it as something vague and distant. Just as I had on the travel seminar, I often had the feeling that I was seeing firsthand many of the issues I'd been studying all semester. There was economic inequality in the contrast between what we could see of Juarez and the suburbs and mansions of El Paso, and we saw the arbitrary nature of borders in the fact that a citizen of either US or Mexico could be arrested for stepping over a line in the middle of a public park. Over and over again, people we met in El Paso reminded us that while we were visiting one of the safest cities in the United States, Ciudad Juarez was experiencing an average of eight murders per day – a fact that made questions of privilege and injustice immediately apparent.

I'm grateful for the space I have as a Border Studies student to learn about these issues and examine my own place in the systems that created them. However, I'm also grateful that I got to spend time in El Paso, where the border is a constant physical presence. Many of the people we met there were working in direct, pragmatic ways against the way these systems affect their communities, whether they were providing lodging for migrants, establishing a community center that fights post-NAFTA unemployment, or working to make low-cost childbirth available to mothers from both sides of the border. I often felt uncomfortable and overwhelmed by learning about the border in El Paso, but the trip also provided a reminder not to get lost in thinking about everything on such a large scale that I lose sight of the need and value of smaller-scale, more concrete work.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Learnings - Emily Pfleiderer

While in Chiapas Mexico, during the travel seminar, our guide Julio Cesar acted as a mentor and teacher. He gave plácticas (talks or lectures) as we were traveling. He talked both at an indigenous school named CIDECI and at Caracol IV - Morelia after we talked with the Junta de Buen Gobierno. The following is a summary of what Julio said and my reactions. Additionally, I write about the impact of these experiences on my future partially because the Zapatistas asked us about what we were going to do with our lives after this trip and because I am trying to figure out what kind of person I want to be (as corny as that sounds, in a capitalist society jobs can be used to define a person).

Driving in Chiapas we saw many military checkpoints and it fascinated me how the military is able to suspend people's rights by installing themselves in what ever territory they please. I learned from Don Julio that the military serves a territorial purpose, que pueden ver cuanta gente se mueve y quien...el ejercito es cerca de communidades indígenas y por eso hay menaza, repressión, y invasión de territorio. Apparently, declaring a state of emergency, while not constitutional, serves to further the military and government's goals. With time, military presence becomes almost normal, but citizens are not supposed to justify why they are moving within their own country. I had previously thought that paramilitaries were completely separate from the military, yet Julio Cesar said that the military recruits Indigenous youth to join paramilitary groups to create terror. Rules that are supposed to curtail military behavior, especially in regards to violations of human rights, do not seem to apply to paramilitary forces. In my life I want to learn the roles that paramilitaries have played in creating chaos whereas the official military is depicted as bringing order and security.

I want to learn more about the ways in which governments display and enforce their power; how seemingly innocent actions morph into a police-state. It was fascinating to compare what democracy and its ideal form look like: the Zapatista Junta de Buen Gobierno is actually democratic in the sense of who is represented, how decisions are made, which voices are heard and their impact, while the democracy Mexico and the United State espouse seems like a farce. Does reform come from the outside, such as the creation of numerous autonomous communities, or is large scale fair and just government realistic? Personally, I do value the idea of big government with social services (I am not an anarchist or a libertarian). I think the concept of guerra interna is helpful, that Mexico is in state of war, in that it reveals that the War on Drugs is not actually why the military is employed as it is. I will probably use the term to illustrate to others that the Mexican government is fighting against its own people, not drug runners from the outside.

In relation to migration, I will keep in mind throughout my future how intimately connected the military, neoliberalism, and the creation of fear and desperation are to creating the environment for migration. I had not realized the extent to which the Mexican military is implicated in indigenous migration; not only due to genocide, but also because of using territorial power to move people off of their lands and destroy (or attempt to) their cultural knowledge as it relates to their rooted place. I've realized that I can not view an action, such as checkpoints as an isolated issue, that they are indicative of how a government relates to its people. It speaks to how Mexicans are portrayed as helpless, poor, ignorant, drug users who simply need the help of their benevolent gobierno to rescue them. Julio Cesar made some comments about the PR campaigns in which the government appears to give indigenous people dignity and a better life. In my job and life, I want to be conscientious of how institutions depict people. I want to be critical of how I frame people or how I might subconsciously view their abilities as limited- that I don't view people as in need of saving, as the Mexican government does.

I don't know to what extent what I learned from Julio Cesar will impact my job per-say, but I will focus more attention on how norms are established and how governments can simultaneously bleed the power from their people, squelch autonomy and resistance, and view their people as inferior/needing the assistance of the government. Of course, governments are supposed to aid their people, but they are not supposed to destroy the ability of people to take care of themselves. It is not transparent of the government to act as if indigenous people are situated as they are, isolated from the military's actions. Erasing history is a powerful tool, but as Julio Cesar showed, there is enough resistance to overcome the government's attempts, and norms are not permanent.