wizdUUm Blogs on Social Justice

Border Trip: Monday, Nov. 9th

Part 4 of a series of posts devoted to a trip to the U.S./Mexico border. This was written on the 9th, but, due to lack of internet access while in Mexico, is being published now. Photos can be found here.

Monday, November 9th. Rising early, we visit Southside Presbyterian Church at 7am. Southside played a pivotal role in the Sanctuary movement of the 1980s and is still deeply involved in border immigration issues. It is early for us but the volunteers there have already been hard at work, cooking and laying out food, coffee, milk and pastries for whoever shows up. It’s quite a spread. In addition to normal breakfast items such as cold cereal and pastries (donated from Starbucks), there is a buffet of hot foods. This morning’s fare included salad, rice and beans, pasta and pork chops. Southside Presbyterian does this twice a week, Mondays and Fridays, while other area congregations provide similar meals on other days. The church also provides clothing for those who need it.

We visit their sanctuary, which has been built in the shape of a kiva. The most obvious difference from a normal church is that there is no “front,” – only the center of a circle. The niches of the walls contain kachinas and other native sacred objects, and the light covers are decorated with petroglyphs. This is (Borderlink instructor) Elsbeth’s home church and her face lights up as she describes the congregation’s call to ministry surrounding the border. Outside the kiva is a memorial to those who have died in the desert. The trees are decorated with bandanas found in the desert and small stones are inscribed with the names of the dead.

For a little while, I help serve milk and cereal alongside Jesse, a regular volunteer at the church. We are told it is a light day – only 75 or so show up, as opposed to the usual 200. As the crowd thins, I wander back over to the memorial. One of the guys who has come here for a meal asks me what our little group is about. I explain that we’re here to learn more about border issues. From the looks of him, I suspect he is a veteran. Many of those seeking aid from Southside are. As the conversation unfolds it becomes clear that we do not share the same views about immigration. In his view, Arizona should be even tougher on illegal aliens than it has been – as they take our jobs and present a threat to homeland security. My pointing out that no suspected terrorists have been caught crossing the U.S./Mexico border (unlike the U.S./Canadian border, yet we’re not building a wall up north) does not move him. Nor does my pointing out that people are dying. I point to the pile of stones in front of us, 209 so far in the Sonoran this year. “We think Bush did a good job. What is your opinion on him?” he asks as he made his way to go. “Not so much,” I replied to his turning back. It was a reminder that just because someone comes to Southside for assistance doesn’t mean that the person agrees with Southside’s views, nor should he have to. And a reminder of how complex these issues are.

Afterwards, we speak with Rev. John Fife. Rev. Fife served Southside Presbyterian for 35 years before retiring 4 years ago to work for the Samaritans and No More Deaths. Much of that time was during the 1980s, when Southside became heavily involved in the Sanctuary movement, in response to the extreme need that they saw from people coming to their doors. U.S. policy was supporting repressive dictators in Central America – mainly El Salvador and Guatemala. People fleeing to the U.S. were clearly political refugees but the U.S. would not recognize them as such (despite evidence of torture) because that would require recognizing that we were supporting oppressive governments. The worldview of President Regan did not allow for anything more nuanced than “us” versus “them.” So Rev. Fife, along with Quaker Jim Corbett, recognized that they were required by conscience to take more active measures – helping refugees cross the border safely and providing sanctuary. He explains to us the difference between “civil disobedience” and “civil initiative.” When the government is violating human rights, then it is both the legal right and moral responsibility for citizens to take civil initiative to protect the victims. True then; true today. Rev. Fife thanked the Presbyterian Church of Canada for their part in moving refugees through the U.S. and into Canada at that time, and acknowledged the UU Church of Tucson’s sponsorship of No More Deaths today.

After, we watch documentary on border issues/immigration called, Crossing Arizona. It gave different perspectives, including those of ranchers who are losing thousands of dollars a year due to broken fences, trash clean-up, water left running, cattle being killed for food or accidentally killed when they ingest trash left by migrants. One woman talked of her fear of working her own land in case she ran into trespassing men. My heart went out to the ranchers even as I recognized that migrants are just trying to survive. A particularly interesting point made was that when the U.S. signed trade agreements with European countries, it caused the collapse of local economies that resulted in the mass migration of Irish, Polish, Italians, etc to the U.S. to work as cheap labor. The parallel between that and NAFTA not lost. I had known that it was U.S. economic policy that was causing the current massive immigration of Mexican-Americans. But I did not know that this was just the most recent chapter in our long history of economic refugees. Under NAFTA, U.S. subsidized corn and other crops are sold to Mexico for cheap, forcing Mexican farmers out of business. They could not make enough to support their families, resulting in pressure to migrate to the U.S. for work. NAFTA created a situation where goods move freely across the border but the workforce that creates those goods cannot.

During a brief introduction to the history of the wall, the presenter tells us that the first U.S. law specifically excluding immigrants of a particular origin was the Chinese Exclusion Act. It reminds me of why I’ve felt this issue so personally.

Finally, in the afternoon, we make the three hour drive – first along highway 10 and then 90 – to Agua Prieta, Mexico, a small border town who’s population exploded after NAFTA. The desert is as beautiful as I remember it. Through the van window, the passing landscape of saguaro and opuntia cacti, ocotillo, and yucca reminds me very much of the Mojave desert in California. By the time we get to Agua Prieta, it is after sunset and we cross the border in darkness. Our host for dinner and lodging is a Catholic organization called CAME (pronounced “kah-may”). CAME provides food and shelter, a shower and change of clothes, and even a phone call for migrants, most of whom have recently been caught in the desert and sent back to Aqua Prieta. But the most important service that CAME provides is that its volunteers listen to the stories of the migrants, all of whom have been traumatized by their experiences in the desert, whether running out of water, being violently assaulted, or stumbling across the dead bodies of fellow migrants. After being deported, CAME is usually the first kind experience the migrants get. Its staff of 56 volunteers is run by a sweet-faced, soft-spoken 20-something named Ricky. He explains that many of the volunteers are young adults, called to service by the suffering they have witnessed. Suffering that is increasing. In 2007, CAME served 1,040 people. So far in 2009, it has served 2,500, and the year is not over yet.

Dinner is rice and refried beans, a delicious spicy potato mixture, and of course, steaming hot corn tortillas. Brian (from Canada) and I sit next to Diego and Jose Luis. Diego speaks some English while (Borderlinks trip-leader) Tracy needs to facilitate the conversation between us and Jose Luis. Both of them are from Sinaloa, the same state that (Borderlinks trip-leader) MaryCruz is from. Jose Luis had been caught and “processed” in front of a judge. If he comes back and is caught again within the next 20 years, he will go to jail for 6 months. But he will try again, because there is no other way to put his two children through school. Diego had been picked up by border patrol trying to cross and dumped via bus in Agua Prieta. He has a girlfriend in Dallas and three teen-aged children in Mexico. He’s already made the crossing several times and knows the way by now. No need for “coyotes” (who take you over the border for a price). He tells us that tomorrow he will try again, walking four days in the desert (assuming that he isn’t picked up by Border Patrol), which means that he will be walking on his birthday on Friday. No one should have to walk through the desert on their birthday just for the opportunity to earn a living. Diego has worked as kitchen staff in a Chinese restaurant in Dallas. We joke that he probably cooks better Chinese food than I do. Then I ask him, “You’ll be turning 44. How many more years do you think you will be doing this?” He shrugs off the question with a sad, resigned smile. At that point, Jose Luis asks us a question, “Why does the United States want to keep us out?” The question breaks my heart. Through Tracy, I tell him it’s because the U.S. still sees itself as a white European nation with a few “minorities.” It is afraid of losing that status. Brian and Tracy also talk of economics and other factors. But really, no answer seemed adequate to explain the pain we were causing him and thousands of others.

Border Trip: Sunday, Nov. 8th

Part 3 of a series of posts devoted to a trip to the U.S./Mexico border. Photos can be foundhere.

Sunday, November 8th. Spent the morning attending service at the UU Church of Tucson and speaking with volunteers at No More Deaths (NMD) afterwards. The people there were a mixture of NMD activists who know of the church through the partnership and/or congregants who got involved with NMD as the church did. When I asked how it is that UUCT chose to sponsor No More Deaths, everyone agreed that while the exact organization wasn’t decided upon until relatively recently (when Walt Staton brought it to the congregation), the church had known for years that it wanted a social justice ministry around which to coalesce and was pretty sure that it would be around immigration and the Border. As congregant Helen O’Brian put it, “When you live in Tucson, people turn up in your backyard who need water.” On this particular day, the congregation just happened to be assembling food and first aid packs. People had donated items such as sports drinks, socks, aspirin and then children and adult members put them together into 123 packs that will be taken to the desert. It was clear that support for No More Deaths came from the entire congregation. As we talked about the need for volunteers, a vision emerged of UU service groups coming from all over the country to volunteer in the desert the way that we do in New Orleans. I haven’t even started our Border trip yet and already I’m thinking of coming back for more.

After the meeting, Helen and her daughter were kind enough to give me a ride over to Borderlinks, the organization that will be facilitating our journey. I am the first to arrive. Our small group from All Souls DC initially had a problem. There were not enough of us to meet the required minimum number of sojourners. However, a group from the Presbyterian Church of Canada were in the same boat so we decided to join forces. The American Unitarian contingent consists of Rev. Louise Green, Jeff, Ron, and myself. The Canadian Presbyterian contingent consists of Stephen, who serves the Presbyterian Church, Mary, Joan, Christine, and Greg. Gary, a researcher from the University of Arizona who is studying religious experiential learning trips, fills us out to ten. When everyone eventually arrives, we are given a brief orientation to both Borderlinks and the trip. We learn how Borderlinks was born out of the Sanctuary movement, a religious movement in the 1980s offering refuge to immigrants fleeing political turmoil and violence in El Salvador and Guatemala. (No More Deaths was also born of the Sanctuary movement.) It exists to facilitate experiential learning through immersion trips to the Border, so that we can better understand the complex issues and bring that new-found understanding back to our communities. Historically associated with the Presbyterian church, Borderlinks is now ecumenical/interfaith. It is also bi-national, with offices in the U.S. (Tucson) and the Mexican side of Nogales. For example, our group will have three trip-leaders, two from the U.S. – Tracy and Elsbeth – and one from Mexico – MaryCruz, who is from Nogales and speaks primarily Spanish.

We’ve only spent a couple hours together so far, but already I can tell that what we had originally approached as a compromise – the pooling of Americans and Canadians – is truly a gift. We Americans will be able to see the Border/immigration not only from our own eyes, but through Canadian eyes as well. As fellow religious progressives, we share many views in common, but as the Canadians are in many ways a third party to the U.S./Mexican “dispute,” their perspective can be quite different at times.

 

By the time everyone assembles and we go through the logistics of how to share cramped communal space, and the brief introduction to Borderlinks history, and some exercises designed to help us get to know both each other and the issues better, it is already quite late. But we can’t miss the Day of the Dead. Dia de Los Muertos is a time to remember and celebrate our ancestors, particularly those who have passed in the last year. A colorful alter is decorated with pictures of the deceased and their favorite foods are laid out. In other parts of the world (particularly Latin America) Dia de Los Muertos was observed last week during All Saints Day and All Souls Day. In fact, last week Taquiena Boston (of the UUA’s Identity-based Ministries) and I had attended a Dia de Los Muertos observance at the National Museum of the American Indian. But in Tucson it is celebrated one week later, today, with a parade – the Alls Souls Procession. Started by a local artist who had lost her father, the community puts together a parade to remember and celebrate those who have passed from us. In this U.S. town close to but not on the Border, the festivities are obviously syncretic. The sound of bagpipes mingles with more traditionally Mexican images of skeletons. I think of how I lost my mother in May. Unfortunately, I think her Chinese sensibilities would not have approved of all the carrying-on, but for me and our group, the atmosphere was intoxicating. At its climax, a giant urn was hoisted up via a crane and set on fire. Trip-leader Elsbeth explains to us that it contains pieces of paper bearing the names of the deceased – names that were written by people in the crowd. While done on a fantastical scale, the ritual is similar to what we’ve done at All Souls DC, similar to what the Chinese do to honor the dead, similar I’m sure to the rituals of so many cultures. Our group stood lost in the crowd and watched the giant urn glow in the night sky, and I felt like all the ancestors in world must have been there watching affectionately too, even Mom.

Border Trip: Saturday, Nov. 7th

Part 2 of a series of posts devoted to a trip to the U.S./Mexico border.

Saturday, November 7th. It’s the eve of our Border trip. I am flying into Tucson a day early in order to attend service at the UU Church of Tucson and speak with some of the people there who run No More Deaths. Ever since I first heard of the arrest of Walt Staton for leaving bottles of water in the desert, I have been enamored with the organization and its volunteers. It is one of many reasons why I wanted make this journey to the Border. Regardless of one’s feelings about undocumented immigration, the idea that someone could be arrested for humanitarian aid is unfathomable.

But that is tomorrow. Today on the eve, I am excited and also a little apprehensive. It’s not that I think anything will go wrong per se. It’s just that I’ve invested a lot personally into this trip, and I’m worried that it may not be what I expect… although I’m not even sure what it is that I expect. Already I have realized a disconnect between my perspective and the realities of the Border. Being the daughter of non-Euro immigrants myself, I had been approaching the trip as an opportunity to explore identity – the “border” identity of someone who lives in more than one culture. Growing up in California, I have felt some affinity with Mexican-Americans – we are both often overlooked as the national discussion on race focuses on black and white. And when we are noticed, it is often as “foreign invaders.” As a kid and even a few times as an adult I have been told to “go back to where you came from.” I thought this put me in the position to better empathize with people whom our country is rounding up and deporting. That may still be the case. However, in reflections with our group in preparation for the trip, I’m also aware that there are many differences between the experiences of the migrants who cross the Mexico/U.S. border and my Chinese middle-class family.

For one thing, the border is right there, an artificial boundary between two nations sharing the same continent. Mexican immigrants can travel back and forth between their county of origin and their adopted country. In contrast, my parents had only their memories to compare to their new homeland, and I can count on two hands the total number of visits I’ve made to Taiwan and China – a divide so wide that it was another world to me. I’ve been proud to hail from California, a “border state” with a large Mexican-American population. But now I realize that San Francisco is a world away from the border compared to Los Angeles, which is a world away compared to San Diego, which is a world away compared to San Ysidro. I do not know what it’s like to physically live on the Border. How different it must be to see every day the difference in wealth. How could one not wonder why?

Second, while my parents lacked money when they first arrived in the U.S. and some my earliest memories are of Mom calculating how much food we could afford, we were never truly poor nor really desperate. Education is a kind of wealth and my parents had the security of knowing that there would be better days ahead. Of course, I have always known that my family is middle-class while the people who brave the desert are driven, not just by a desire for a better life for their families but often by a dire need. It’s just that, it’s one thing to know this difference intellectually and another to know it experientially. This point was made clear to me while our group read a poem about crossing the desert at night.

I love the desert. To me it is a place of calm and stark yet delicate beauty. Yes, water is scarce and life is fragile, but that only makes more real the sense of being alive. Some of my most spiritual, mystical experiences have been in the desert – watching the lizards sunbathe, staring up at night skies creamy with stars. The quiet. The promise of being in the desert again was yet another enticement for me to make this trip. But I have always been in the desert as a tourist, with plenty of water, and food, access to shade in the day and to warm clothing and shelter at night. A car never far away, and with the security of knowing that I could call for help. Reading the poem, “La Ruta de Mujeres,” by Rev. Delle McCormick, which talked of furtive crossings at night, snakes and coyotes, rape and death… I was reminded of how dangerous and terrifying the desert actually can be. Again, I knew this intellectually – why else would it be necessary for the volunteers of No More Deaths to place water bottles in the desert? Why else is the death count so high? But there was a disconnect between the facts that I have learned and even repeated to others in arguing for more compassionate immigration policies, and my own middle-class sheltered experiences. It was a humbling realization.

And so here I sit on the eve of the trip, excited and yet apprehensive. Did I remember to pack my passport and proof of insurance? Check. Digital camera and cell phone charger? Check. I had been (and still am) excited to blog about our experiences and share them with you. Only a few days ago did it occur to me that we might not have internet access for much of the trip. Another disconnect. Oh well. No matter what I am here to learn and grow. I can already tell that it will be more than I imagined.

Border Trip: Pilgrimage

Part 1 of a series of posts devoted to a trip to the U.S./Mexico border.

A few months back I spied a notice in my congregation’s weekly bulletin about a trip to the Border being organized by Rev. Louise Green, our social justice minister here at All Souls, DC. It said that participants would be going to part of the border between Mexico and the U.S., with the possibility of also visiting Native American nations in the area. The trip, organized by Border Links, would feature immersion experiential learning and we would be expected to reflect and write on our experiences. I knew immediately that I had to go. But I also felt tremendously guilty at the idea of going. Both for the same reason.

Some of you may remember my post about bitter experiences with the health care system as my mom was taken by cancer. With Mom’s passing, the thought of taking a week to go anywhere other than San Francisco where my family is seemed incredibly selfish. But on the other hand, with Mom’s passing, I have been thinking more than ever about the journeys that she and Dad took from China to the U.S. – the many obstacles they had to overcome to get here, some recounted on this blog and others not. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be Chinese American – to be both Chinese and American and yet not fully either in the views of many.

Does one cross a border? Or does one straddle it? Or does one go back and forth?

Both the Border Links website and Louise in our group discussions leading up to the trip have asked us why we are interested in going. Fair question. Complicated answers. I am going to better understand my neighbors – their perspectives, their stories, their roots – but I am also going to better understand myself. I am going with the assumption that although our families come from different countries, different cultures and different circumstances, there will be at least as much that we have in common in the immigrant family experience as there will be differences. I also expect that there will be surprises, perspectives that I assume we share in common but are not the case. In any case, the process will be informative.

If you are interested, I invite you to stay tuned. The All Souls DC trip to the Border will take place Nov 8th – 14th and I plan to be blogging about it before, during, and after our pilgrimage.

Border Trip: Wednesday, Nov 11th

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