Willow Wonderings

Define the borderlands.


There are many ways that people have asked me to describe my experiences on the U.S.-Mexico border.
What did you see? Was it hot? Did you eat lots of Mexican food? Why is there so much conflict there?
Or my personal favorite: What were the people like, you know, the Mexicans?
Many times, people want a definition of what the situation looks like currently. They want to know why the wall keeps showing up in our newspapers and why ignorant members of our xenophobic political parties want to make the border the site of next of America’s genocide, if it does not qualify as such already.
My experience in Tucson, Arizona is limited eight weeks of a summer internship in a church that has a legacy of being involved with immigration reform. My job as a ministry intern was not only to learn about the intricacies of worship liturgy and pastoral care, but also to be immersed in the justice movement of the borderlands. I am by no means qualified to give an in-depth political analysis nor can I provide an indigenous perspective. I am not one who has walked the border wall since I could crawl, let alone one who had to cross with my children clinging to me at the risk of being caught. I do not know the border except by the privilege of being able to go and to leave again, which may not be any real knowledge at all.
But if you want to know what I saw, what makes me angry and keeps me awake, then here it is. I write because there are human beings being treated as if they were animals, hunted down in their tracks by our government, while they risk their lives for the sake of their families. Those human beings, I believe, are our brothers and sisters in God’s family, and deserve more than definitions. They deserve stories, and these are just a few of them.
1. Jornaleros: Day laborers, typically men between the ages of 17 and 55 or older working daily as they are able to support their families. The day laborers at Southside taught me everything from Spanish idioms to the importance of flexibility in lesson plans. One day, when I asked them to describe their dreams, most of them told me that they dream to return to Mexico to be with their families, to have freedom, and to love well.
At the Southside Worker’s Center, they also have self-organized to learn about their rights as laborers in the face of workplace raids, a lack of insurance, and robbed salaries. They are eager to work and ask nothing more than the opportunity to let their voices be heard.
2. Polymigra: Local police in Tucson who have worked in conjunction with national Border Patrol agents. The police, “poly,” has overstepped their bounds of authority to enforce immigration law. The “migra” refers to the 4,200 Border Patrol agents in the Tucson sector who are known for targeting brown skinned people at checkpoints and anywhere 100 miles from the border. Once, I met someone was stopped on his way home from the hospital shortly after his daughter’s birth. He was arbitrarily stopped and detained for three months, unable to see his daughter’s first days of life. Whenever someone comes in contact with la policia, there is a risk of being permanently torn apart from family. With tremendous courage, the undocumented community has rallied a protection network to alert one another when someone has been pulled over so that the community can document police’s human rights abuses. They also have banded together to petition to an end of indiscriminate deportations.
3. Raspado: Paradise on a hot day; a Mexican fruit treat resembling shaved ice that makes the world a bit brighter. I personally love the mango flavor. I could talk for hours about Mexican food and the way it nourished my whole being this summer.. especially the tamales. And the fruit with chile and lemon. And the horchata. And the tortillas made right before my eyes. And everything that was natural and beautiful and put life in perspective when eaten in community, especially with my friend Josue who never failed to make me enjoy the sweetness of the present moment.
4. Dreamer: Term used by more progressive U.S. legislation to define a young person who has been in the United States over five years and entered the U.S. before the age of 16 (usually people of my generation). If the DREAM Act had passed, it would have been granted a path to citizenship and equal tuition prices to university for these students. Currently, dreamers are only afforded work permits and “deferred action,” a program which has been threatened by congress. Since President Obama proposed an expanded program along with protection for dreamers’ parents, it has been held up in the courts system, leaving millions in limbo & forced to live in the shadows.

Currently, 2.5% of undocumented students are able to attend U.S. colleges due to a lack of affordable aid and opportunity. What does it say about our education system that we deny access to millions of students for their lack of a single piece of paper?

My friend Josue prays at the border.

My friend Josue prays at the border.

There is nothing just about the way dreamers are treated unequally, and for most, forced to fight tooth and nail to fulfill their parents’ hopes and support their families. In the words of my friend Judith, “We deserve a shot at our dreams.”
5. Illegal alien: A derogatory label used by standard U.S. legislation and policy that has the effect of dehumanization against migrants, especially Mexicans and Central Americans; it associates people with criminal activity, terrorism, and foreignness to make one’s mere existence a crime. No human being is illegal — yet when we call others “aliens,” the feeling, spirit, mental capacity, and shared humanity also becomes stripped away. No human being is illegal — yet when we live in a country that puts nationality over human rights, we feel justified. The point is that this term needs to eradicated forever – especially if the US wants to continue to call itself a nation of immigrants.
6. Operation Streamline: The daily federal court process that convicts 70 migrants in an hour (and sometimes less) as guilty of the federal crime of ‘illegal entry’ or ‘illegal re-entry’ in Tucson, making these ‘crimes’ the most common federal charge today. The system of Operation Streamline condenses initial appearance, plea, and sentencing to one day, averaging as little as 25 seconds per case. The system works as part of a “zero tolerance policy” against immigration, and has made illegal re-entry the most commonly filed charge federally. In Arizona, Streamline costs an estimated $120 million in court charges annually, not counting the cost to the multi-billion dollar private detention industry.

Men awaiting sentencing at Operation Streamline. Image by Laurence Gipe.

Its purpose was deterrence. Its effects have been disastrous of permanently separating families by putting a scar on thousands of migrant’s records that are forever held against them. I saw men and women my own age be convicted, innocent of any crime except crossing the most trafficked border in the world without documents. I watched them stand before a judge and watch him give them a sentencing to a corporately-funded jail and one by one, be sent away in chains as a symbol of the modern-day slave trade.
Two years ago, in October 2013, a group of activists chained themselves to the courthouse gate and to the buses that were used to transport migrants in order to shut down Operation Streamline. You can read my friend Maryada’s statement here on the love of God that compelled her to drive a spoke into the wheels of injustice.

7. Selena:  The goddess of the borderlands, a phenomenal Mexican American singer, songwriter, philanthropist, spokeswoman, and fashion designer who is known as the queen of Tejano music. She was well known for her albums in Spanglish that captured the hearts of thousands before she was tragically murdered in 1995. Her legacy carries on as a symbol of empowerment, especially for Tejana and Chicana women. She said, “Be strong minded and always think that the impossible is possible,” a statement that embodies the courage of many people I came to know this summer.

Selena depicted as a saint of the people

8. Oak Flat: A sacred historic land site of the San Carlos Apache Tripe that is also part of Arizona’s Tonto National Forest. In a piece of 11th hour legislation, Senator McCain traded 2,400 acres of Arizona, including Oak Flat, to a subsidiary of two of the world’s largest private mining companies for underground mining. The land had been protected by executProtect-The-Sacredive order up to this point, and now it is being protected by protestors who refuse to let holy land be torn from their people’s hands. They have even taken a caravan to Washington, D.C. to protest at the capitol that we cannot destroy Native temples. In the words of the Huffington Post article, “The swap is believed to be one of the first instances of federal land being given to a foreign corporation.”
9. El Muro: The wall, defined by legislation as the “US-Mexico barrier,” symbolizes the attempt of the image2U.S. government to push migrants to the farthest extreme of danger in order to deter them from crossing the desert. The wall, in some places, is now double-backed with two barriers and barbed wire, costing an average of $4.3 million per mile. The flow of goods from Mexico’s factories enters the U.S. freely, while the wall keeps out necessary laborers who are treated as transnational terrorists. Effectively, the wall has strengthened the cartel’s business by making migration so difficult that it requires a hired coyote (member of the cartel who works as a trafficking agent) to pass; in other words, “A coyote exists because a border patrol agent exists.” The wall has also made for international military conflict, such as the murder of sixteen-year-old José Antonio Elena Rodríguez by Border Patrol agents.
Artists have made the wall into a piece of canvass for their reflection. People have played volleyball over the border and held fiestas at the wall. Even the wall cannot stop the life of Mexico from flooding over.
If you look carefully, you will see a black cord, a remnant of a person's crossing.

If you look carefully, you will see a black cord, a remnant of a person’s crossing.

I learned this week that the wall was built of the metal from the Twin Towers – a remnant of America’s fear of terrorism and its diehard clinging to “security.” And, for the worst of ironies, it was built by the hands of undocumented migrants.
Tanya Aguiñiga and Michael Schnorr. “Cuantos Mas?,” installation in Tijuana. Mexico. BAW/TAF. November 1998. Photo courtesy of Tanya Aguiñiga.

Tanya Aguiñiga and Michael Schnorr. “Cuantos Mas?,” or How many more? installation in Tijuana. Mexico. BAW/TAF. November 1998. Photo courtesy of Tanya Aguiñiga.

10. Sanctuary: Known as “The New Underground Railroad,” the Sanctuary Movement caused a heyday in the 1980s and is doing so again. The religious and civil movement from the 1980s included 150 congregations and synagogues who openly defied the U.S. government by welcoming hundreds of thousands of Central Americans fleeing violent civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala into their sacred spaces. Today, the New Sanctuary movement has brought national attention for faith and immigrant communities standing between the government and those at risk of being deported. Men and women who are threatened with deportation orders have been welcomed into a dozen churches nationwide until their cases are closed. The movement cites the 1,000 deportations that occur daily as a moral crisis tearing at the fabric of our communities and families.


Rosa teaches me to make poblano peppers, photo courtesy of Tucson Daily Star.

Sanctuary uplifts the ethical responsibility to protect and accompany those who are fighting their deportations, offering the sacred space of church grounds as a support “for those lifting their voices to transform our damaging and unjust immigration laws.”
Rosa Robles took sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church on August 7, 2014, as a last resort to keep her family together and as a statement that she would not hide from her deportation order. She remains at Southside, awaiting a response from the U.S. government, while her two boys, Jose Emiliano and Gerardo Jr., begin a new school year. She waits each day to hear news that she will be able to go home, and until then, she prays with more fervor and faith than I could ever imagine to claim. She is one of my personal heroines.

Image by Favianna Rodriguez

11. Indocumentalismo: An emerging socio-political ideological identity whose manifesto was written by my personal hero Raúl Alcaraz Ochoa and Daniel Carrillo. Indocumentalismo traces its roots back to the oppression, slavery, and genocide against Indigenous communities since the onset of colonization. “From the very foundation of the United States of America, Native and African people were completely excluded from freedom and citizenship,” Alcaraz and Carillo write. Indocumentalismo changes the narrative of “Mexicans aliens occupying U.S. territory” to “Europeans as the first undocumented/ ‘illegal’ group in the hemisphere.” The term is a call for a transformation and rebellion against the colonial, capitalist order to unify el pueblo and claim its sovereignty. The term reminds me of a phrase that I often heard from migrants this summer: “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” Indocumentalismo defies the logic of colonialism; it is the kind of world-reversal that I think calls us to pay attention.

12. Xenophobia: The current state of American politics. I can hardly describe to you the anguish that I feel in reading comments like Donald Trump’s. I cannot handle the depth of ignorance and the brash hatred that is completely unfounded on any evidence.
Now, more than ever, we are in need of immigration reformers who have lived in the desert of Arizona who have seen and heard migrants’ stories. The most common question people ask me is, “Why do they come here illegally?” To them, I share the story of thousands who have been denied visas to the U.S. or who could not afford to pay year’s wage for the applications. I tell them that passports are a privilege unavailable to the vast majority. I tell them that the current waitlist for a visa from Mexico to the U.S. can take up to 25 years, and the current estimated wait is 20 years. In effect, there is no legal way for people to enter the United States. It is impossible.image1 (1) And so, thanks to transnational capitalism, they are left with the choice to move north to work in U.S. factories paying $4 a day, or to take the risk to cross and provide for their families back home.
When you consider the situation of a family member needing enough money to receive life-saving surgery, a loved one who has crossed the border and cannot return, or a death-dealing situation of the cartels in your neighborhood, then crossing the border – no matter the risk – becomes the most human of choices. And once we recognize migrants’ humanity, there is no excuse for the ignorant, hateful, and unwarranted remarks of our politicians.

In the words of Ricky Martin, “Xenophobia as a political strategy is the lowest you can go in search of political power.

This is an issue that unites us and we need to battle it together, not just for us but for the evolution of humanity and those to come.”

13. El pueblo: As seen above, el pueblo is more than a neighborhood or a community. It is a people of shared blood ties, shared generations of bloodshed, and shared experience of living under oppression in militarized states on both sides of the border. El pueblo is now, more than ever, awakening to the equality of all sexes and gender identities. El pueblo is mobilizing for the protection by documenting human rights abuses at the hands of law enforcement on both sides of the border. El pueblo has a colorful, indestructible, dancing, loud and revolutionary spirit that lives across generations. El pueblo is marked by multiplicity and a thousand experiences under the same sun. El pueblo, unido, jamas sera vencido — the people, united, will never be divided. El pueblo es el futuro, the pueblo is the future, whether the US is ready for it or not.
 Image Source: No human being is illegal, and each one has a dream.
It became increasingly obvious to me this summer that the border, and its people, do not fit into categories. To come to know the border is relational knowledge that seeps in and is expelled in sweat and tears. It meets you at the limits of language and begs you to occupy its uncertainties, its frustrations, its deepest hopes.
There are many borders that threaten to divide us – psychological, racial, national, spiritual, linguistic, physical. These walls are based in fear of the Other. And fear, especially based upon encounter with another, is the absence of love.
We need to search inside ourselves to find the root of this fear, and terminate it. We need to be fearless to test the borders of our understanding and occupy the gaps that have been ruled impossible to fill. We need to know that our liberation is interdependent, and none of us is crossing this desert alone. So long as migrants are dying in the desert, and so long as human beings are tied in chains, none of us is free.
The borderlands are where we meet the limits of definition, the limits of autonomy, the limits of rationality, and in turn, can surrender ourselves to the real, arduous, journey of building mutual understanding. We seek a beloved community where no one race nor one creed nor one nationality has its place over another, but we sit at table together. It takes someone to cross borders to get there.
And once we begin to cross, there is no turning back. Let us begin.

Rosary found on a migrant trail


3 thoughts on “Define the borderlands.

  1. Reblogged this on Desert Discoverings and commented:
    My motivational, outspoken, wise friend, Elizabeth shares her wisdom about the border. There is still a lot for me to learn about the “legal” yet inhumane ways of our society yet this blog captures the racial, social, economic and overall plain injustice that lines the border.

  2. Pingback: Define the borderlands. | Tucson Borderlands YAV

  3. Thank you for your words, Elizabeth. 🙂 Love you, Grace

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s