Posts Tagged ‘Matamoros’

NEA Today Article: Border Crossing

August 19, 2008

BORDER CROSSING

NEA Today

By John Rosales

Throughout the year, Rivera High School custodian Ramón Tamayo fires up his grill to celebrate his children’s birthdays. In addition to standards like hot dogs and chicken, his inventive Tex-Mex menu might feature cabrito (roasted goat), menudo (tripe soup), and ceviche (marinated shrimp).

In 2006, when Tamayo’s friend from work, second-year teacher and native New Yorker Matthew Webster, attended the birthday party of Tamayo’s 12-year-old daughter, he learned a classic Brownsville, Texas, tradition.

“They grill on the front lawn here,” says Webster, 24. “In New York, we grill in back.”

Grilling traditions are just one of many differences between these unlikely pals: a teacher and a custodian from separate generations, with diverse backgrounds and a different first language. Yet, their friendship developed around what they have in common: a passion for soccer and a commitment to helping students deal with cultural barriers.

Webster would seek out Tamayo, 54, after school as Tamayo cleaned classrooms during his evening work shift.

“It was our time to talk,” says Webster. “After I found out that he played and coached soccer in Mexico, I asked for his help with the team.”

In addition to teaching English and ESL, Webster also coaches a speech club and the junior varsity boys soccer team.

“¿Cómo se dice esta palabra (How do you say this word)?” Webster says he would ask in one breath, then in the next, “Which is the best soccer team in Mexico?” Tamayo always took the time to answer.

“He took me under his wing,” Webster says. And that’s exactly what Webster needed. The lifelong East Coaster had signed up with Teach for America after his 2006 graduation from Penn State. Traveling down to the Rio Grande Valley, Webster imagined “tumbleweed and cowboy country.” In reality, he says, he found “America’s Mexico.”

He recalls the first time he came to the security checkpoint about 50 miles north of where he would be living. “I wondered what kind of place I was going to…a no-man’s land where they stop motorists and inspect their cars.”

The high school honors graduate and marathon runner who studied in Ireland found himself more than a little disoriented among the farms, fields, and sweat of Texas’ southernmost city.

“I didn’t know who to go to with language and cultural issues,” says Webster.

He felt fortunate that Tamayo was willing to help him navigate his new home, a place of many intersections, between First and Third Worlds, wealth and poverty, English and Spanish.

Tamayo has worked at Rivera for three years but he’s lived in the city for almost 20. He knows many of the school’s 2,000 students and most of the neighborhoods in Brownsville and its sister city of Matamoros, Mexico. Reflective and reserved but not without a sense of humor, Tamayo speaks little English and is known as an excellent cook and athlete who once coached soccer in Mexico.

“He is very important to me,” says Tamayo, in Spanish, of Webster. “We have different backgrounds, but once we got to know each other we found out we have a lot in common.”

It’s not unusual for a new teacher to find a friend or mentor who is an education support professional (ESP), says Laura Montgomery, president of the NEA National Council for ESPs.

“When new teachers arrive at school, there’s always an ESP around to help them get oriented,” Montgomery says. “Teachers and ESPs might have different roles [at school], but they have the same mission to serve students.”

In addition to classroom issues, Webster and Tamayo also enjoy talking about Brownsville’s border culture.

“I taught him to eat Mexican food with lots of chili,” Tamayo says.

A Last Stand on the Border

July 2, 2008

Gaining momentum from the Supreme Court’s refusal to examine their waiving of more than thirty laws in the construction of a border wall, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is continuing to up its efforts in an attempt to build the hotly contested border wall in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas within the month.

On Monday evening, the Brownsville City Commission met for more than three hours to discuss the DHS Secure Border Initiative, a plan to build 10 acres of “removable wall” until the city reinforces 2.4 miles of levees to DHS satisfaction. This comes two years after the Secure Fence Act of 2006 was initially passed and more than a decade after the first wall was constructed in California.

The plan proposed by DHS would have the poorest city in the United States hand over 10 acres of taxpayers’ land, at an estimated $95,800, for free. While the City Commissioners were seriously weighing the decision of whether or not to surrender this land, the public made its voice known for more than three hours in the public comment session. Police officers made protesters leave “No Border Wall” signs outside the City Hall, signs which were carried 126 miles from Roma to Brownsville in this past March’s No Border Wall Walk. Still, the sentiments of Brownsville residents were made abundantly clear – No Deal. Texas Border Coalition (TBC) chair Monica Weisberg-Stewart advised caution and encouraged the public with the hopes of a successful suit recently filed by TBC. (http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/news/city_88091___article.html/fence_border.html)

John Moore, representing the Border Ambassadors, showed 123 signed testimonies from landowners opposing the border fence. Having personally accompanied him through many of these small, tight-knit communities, I can attest to the fact that this number is only a glimpse of the real opposition to this wall and the DHS strongarm tactics which have terrified so many border residents into acquiescence. John Moore and Kiel Harell and I have personally talked with border residents who were asked to sign blank documents, or were given waivers in English when they are pure Spanish-speakers. We have sat and spoken with women who were intimidated by the federal agents asking permission to survey and then buy their land. We have talked with several border residents who sold their homes and multi-generational lands for a measly couple thousand dollars.

Commissioner Troiani ended the meeting by trying to get Brownsville residents to focus on their immediate interests. He said, “It comes to this…either you’re going to try to solve the problems of the city or the problems of the world.” Troiani’s comment belies the underlying reason a border wall is being discussed and supported at all. The very idea that the issues of a city are not hopelessly caught up in the problems of the world belies one of life’s basic tenets, that in the words of Dr. King we are all “caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” A wall, removable or otherwise, in Brownsville, Texas, sends a signal not just to Matamoros on the other side of the Rio Grande. No, any wall sends a signal to the entire world, to the hundreds of thousands of immigrants waiting to legally migrate to our nation. Any wall whatsoever sends a signal to the 4 million displaced Iraqis that we do not want their problems to set foot in our nation. A wall or fence broadcasts to the European Union, China, India, Japan, and England our “Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them.” Any wall, fence, or border barrier which neglects to realistically solve the issues of globalization and movement of peoples inherently affects Minnesota, New York, and Pennsylvania just as much as it does the Rio Grande Valley or Tamaulipas Mexico. If you are reading this, you are affected by the decisions being made right now in this city of 140,000. Please write your senators, legislators, or add your name to the growing list compiled by No Texas Border Wall. If a wall is built in Texas, it will be to the shame of our entire country and, in fact, our globalized world.

The Closing of the American Mind

June 1, 2008

No one in Spain could believe that the United States was going to build a border wall between itself and its southern neighbor, in fact had already built and rebuilt portions of wall in Arizona and California. Most of them felt bad for Americans, thinking we had been swindled by a President dead-set on sending men to war. Most of them felt excited with us for our gripping primaries, elections which had gotten Americans to care once more about politics. But none of them could understand why Americans would allow, and even clamor for, a border wall.

While Cameron County still is debating the necessity of a border wall, Hidalgo County is pushing ahead with plans for a levee-wall compromise, slated to begin July 25 and be completed by the end of the year. Homeland Security is paying $88 million for construction of the wall, while Hidalgo is going to pay $65 million to repair the levee (a federal responsibility). After the construction, Hidalgo County will seek reimbursement from the State while also attempting to convince other counties to make a similar compromise. (http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/news/slated_87157___article.html/border_wall.html)

No one in Spain could fathom the outlandishness of a wall. When shown pictures of sister cities like Brownsville-Matamoros, they were aghast that a wall was going to be built to reinforce the “natural barrier” of the Rio Bravo and reinforce the feelings of resentment and/or racism between these two countries at peace.

As Hidalgo readies for the wall after July 4th, the rest of the world will be watching the effects of the hurricane on the border region. Little consideration has been given to the international repercussions of a wall and levee on only one side of the river. If Mexico fails to respond with a similar levee reconstruction project, the streets of Nuevo Laredo and Juarez and Matamoros will be swimming in hurricane rain at the end of every summer. The wall has been rushed, however, and so qualms about international laws and cooperation have been ignored in favor of expediting the process.

During hurricane season, the nation will also be focused on the Rio Grande Valley for another reason. When the calls for evacuation are made, hundreds of thousands of people are going to hesitate to leave their homes. Not because of stubbornness, not because of ignorance, not because of inability- no, hundreds of thousands of immigrants will not evacuate the Valley this year and in years to come because the Border Patrol has stated that it will be checking the immigration status of fleeing families. (http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/news/people_86708___article.html/cascos_hurricane.html)

The world must shudder when it hears of such inhuman, unfeeling policies. Surely, the Spaniards I met in Gallicia and Cantabria would have blanched to know about the dehumanizing, fear-inducing checkpoints 50 miles north of the Rio Grande, a militarized line which marks the northernmost progression of so many extralegal or currently legalizing immigrants. Undoubtedly, the Spaniards in Castelleon and Catalunia would be indignant to think that another Hurricane Katrina might hit South Texas any year, and that thousands and thousands of people might die or be injured because of their greater fear of deportation.

Having traveled Spain for a month, I quickly realized as I talked about my home in southern Texas that the United States is in a terrible state of closing itself off to the rest of the world. Not that this has made it an isolationist in terms of military endeavors; in all positive meanings of the word “open,” however, the United States has ceased to work at diplomacy and mutual understanding. A border wall is a continuation of restrictive immigration policies which flatly say “No” to millions of willing workers every year. Immigration checks during hurricane season are in the same dastardly vein as checking library records and phone conversations of “suspected yet not convicted” terrorists. Child detention centers such as Hutto near Houston, Texas, are merely a continuation of Guantanamo Bay, waiving habeus corpus and countless humanitarian laws in the name of justice.

The whole world looks at the United States as we decide the future of our nation today. Can we afford to wall off our allies, the best the world has to offer, the solutions of tomorrow which perhaps are being formulated in some foreign land? Are we going to turn away willing workers from countries which lack sufficient quota numbers, and are we going to leave future generations of immigrants to a lottery system? And are we going to operate out of fear, fear of others, fear of ourselves, fear of foreigners and fear of Spanish, fear of change and fear of the future, fear of the globalization we have been instrumental in producing, fear of open lines of communication, and fear of real compromise? The whole world looks at Texas right now as a symbol of the United States’ resolve for tomorrow, and Valley residents pray that the U.S. is not compromised by the events of this year.

The First of May – the International Day of Workers for Everywhere but the U.S.

May 2, 2008

Yesterday was the first of May.  In the United States, the day would have passed like any other Thursday.  I would have gone to school, taught my immigrant students English as a second language, and would have returned to my house to lesson plan and prepare for another day´s work.  Here in Santiago, however, May 1 is an important holiday.  Not only does it mark the Ascension of Christ – it also is the day to celebrate workers all around the world.  All across Europe, this day is remembered, but here in Galicia El Dia de los Trabajadores is an important festival, all the more important now that immigrants have internationalized the Spanish workforce. 

The narrow cobbled streets here in Santiago are teeming with people, but it is hard to pay them mind.  Vendors are standing in their doorways, offering passersby free samples of the traditionaly Galician almond cookie.  Gaelic bagpipe bands march through the streets, their beautiful music reverberating off the ancient facades of Santiago´s downtown.  I am fortunate enough to witness a traditional Gallegos dance, where the men jig around women who balance a giant loaf of bread upon their heads.  The symbolism for the working class is clearcut, yet hauntingly beautiful – it would do the United States well to have a dance on MTV celebrating life´s simple gifts of our daily bread and friendship.

Above the plaza, the park is full of people.  Pulperias sell grilled octopus, churrerias hawk tasty churros in chocolate, and gitanos advertise their carnival rides to anyone who will listen. It is a veritable sea of people, a river of workers celebrating their collective productivity and diversity as they chomp on cotton candy and ride kiddie rides.  Atop the ferris wheel, I view the entire 100,000 people of Santiago from a vantage point on par with the highest peak of the Saint James Cathedral.  It is easy to be filled with awe when one stops to think about the magnitude of so many life-works going on right now, and I rededicate myself to advocating for the migrant workers who hope to contribute their life´s work to a new country.

The mass at La Cathedral de Apostolo Santiago de Compostelo is stunning.  It is part holy, part bazaar.  Hundreds and hundreds of people mill around the main wings of the church as the various priests conduct the mass.  Dozens of confessional booths are set up for busy workers to confess on this rare weekday holiday.  A red light above the booth intimates that a priest is ready and waiting to listen.  The interior of the church is amazing.  Gold, which must have taken thousands and thousands of workers´tithes to purchase, is shaped into the most impressive angels and saints and Saviors.  Granite walls echo the message of the Father, and the massive double-breasted organ takes up two entire walls.  When those pipes are filled with the liturgy, it is impossible to ignore the Spirit. 

During the service, I meander behind the cantors.  In the background of the priests, there is a passageway which crosses behind a figure of Jesus.  In keeping with tradition, I give him a quick abrazo like so many millions before me. After this warm hug, I pass beneath the cathedral into the crypt where James the Apostle is believed to be buried.  It is cold, stony, and I pray quickly before leaving. 

For the communion prayer, the ancient priest invites several other priests to say prayers in their language.  It is beautiful to hear bequests to God in Spanish, Gallegos, Italian, German, and French.  The priest closes these prayers by stating that God knows the language of our hearts; every worker in the crowd nods with understanding at this.  Watching the people take communion, I see pilgrims who have walked over 100 miles to finish here at the cathedral in Santiago. I see persons who are obviously staying in the finest hotels, and local workers who have not had a holiday in ages.  I see devout women who remind me of my grandmothers, and proud fathers similar to my own. 

The service finishes with a trademark tradition.  As a traditional zither plays music, 5 priests maneuver a long rope which runs up to the very top of the cathedral´s spire.  A holy incense box swings back and forth, gaining momentum like a kid arcing heavenward at the schoolyard.  The aroma of prayer wafts over the crowd, all of whom snap pictures as if the incense container were a death-defying trapeze artist.  Incense everywhere, all the workers looking up, music harmonizing to the sounds of people praying – every one of us is overwhelmed.  Whether this is the last thing a peregrino pilgrim will see on their Camino de Santiago, or this is merely the capstone of the International Day of Workers, it is a memory which will always mark the first of May for me.  How overwhelming, to think of workers the world over clinging to faith in order to derive meaning from each day´s labor.  From Santiago to San Francisco, from the twin cities of Brownsville and Matamoros to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, my heart goes out to immigrants working thanklessly, yearning for recognition of their work and their lives, longing for basic rights and hope of citizenship.  When next I celebrate the International Day of Workers, I pray that we all will have done something more for the voiceless workers of our world. 

 

Pontevedra, Day 1

April 26, 2008

One of the most beautiful things about traveling is that it absolutely opens ones´eyes to the Imagination of God and the inherent Good in all people.  Whether it´s the stewardess who helps you up to first-class seats and then showers free food on you, or it´s the friendly stranger who takes an inordinate amount of time making sure you understand his directions, it is good to travel because it puts you at the mercy of Providence. 

I find I understand most of the Spanish spoken here in the verdant city of Pontevedra.  My freshman English students, my primary teachers of Spanish over the past two years, would most certainly be proud.  It is humbling and thrilling to put myself in the place of my students coming across the bridge from Matamoros for the first time, to immerse themselves in a language and a culture alien to their ears and hearts.  Everything here in Spain seems new, as it surely must for many of my students the first time they realized that our public schools provide free food for lunches and have a surplus of computers.  As an ongoing Spanish-as-a-Second-Language student, I will try to make my ESL students in Brownsville, Texas, proud of their teacher. 

The chance to study immigration and education with Rotary International is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  New as I am to Rotary, its ideals of worldwide community, peace, and brotherhood sync with my own life philosophy of nonviolence.  As we were greeted at the airport gate by Rotarians Jose and Alejandro, we immediately felt welcome in this new land.  I am struck, though, by the fact that this welcome should not be peculiarly noteworthy if we truly believe in the ¨inescapable network of mutuality.¨ It is sad that so few immigrants receive such a welcome when they come to a new land.  May I learn how to extend this welcome to all.

Quinceaneras and Coming of Age as a Mexican-American

April 22, 2008

It is hard for my students to understand that Mexican is a dirty word in some stretches of middle America. Here in Brownsville, most of my freshman prefer Mexico to the United States in terms of life – not living standards, not poverty level, not economic potential or educational excellence, but vida life. Many of my high-school children do not understand why Brownsville is so quiet at night, why no one walks the streets after dark, why there are so many cul-de-sacs and so few nightclubs. Though they complain that Matamoros always floods after rain, these 14 and 15-year-olds prefer its untidy reality to the American sprawl they see in the strip malls and the vacant 30-story hotels in Brownsville’s historic downtown.

The wall proposed for the Rio Grande Valley and, locally, between Matamoros and Brownsville, would force my students to make a choice they should never have to make – between their cultural past and their economic future. The Secure Fence Act is selective division, and while none of us want a similar wall with Canada or on our Atlantic beach front, the wall seems to be a pointed affront to Latino culture. A border wall through la frontera here in Texas would make the hyphen between Mexican-American more like a minus sign than a symbol of cohesion.

Each xenophobic nativist and any anti-Mexican Minuteman would surely change his/her mind about a Mexican border wall if only they were invited to a quinceanera. This past Saturday I had the profound privilege to attend a the fifteenth-birthday celebration of one of my freshman ESL students. As is a rite of passage when driving in Mexico, my fiance and I got hopelessly lost. Every person we spoke to was very understanding of our direction-less driving, as well as the green coolant leaking out of my tired ’94 Dodge Spirit. Finally, we followed a kindly man and his wife to the Salon de Santa Fe.

Although we missed the religious ceremonies at La Iglesia San Juan de los Lagos, I was immediately struck by the profound meaning of the quinceanera. It was a beautiful event, less like a Sweet Sixteen birthday party and more like a full-blown wedding. Each table had elaborate floral arrangements, hors d’oeuvres, and decorations. We were escorted to our table by the mother of my English-as-a-Second-Language student. She speaks no English, but she is entrusting me and my fellow American teachers with her daughter’s education every week. Her daughter Vero leaves their Mexican house on Sunday evening, not to return until Friday night. Her mom can visit Vero on a day-visa, but she would be outside of the law if she tried to make a permanent residence north of the Rio Grande. Vero is torn between her mother’s love and her aptitude for academics, and so she makes the long trip across the narrow river every week. And all this at fifteen years old.

I beam with pride to see my young student say goodbye to childhood through several dances with her father, her tios, and her childhood boy friends. The Vero who waltzes with her father is the same Vero who aces my vocabulary tests in English. The same girl who giggles and screams unabashedly as she pulls out a kitten from her giant birthday box is the same staid student who always is on time, always helps others, always gives her all. The same girl going table to table to thank all her family friends of Mexico is the same Vero who blesses her newfound American community by volunteering many hours each month.

La frontera is more than just the last home for endangered animals like the ocelot and Sonoran Pronghorn; this borderland is also one of the few places in the United States that celebrates quinceaneras. The quinceanera is a proud moment where a girls’ entire community is able to affirm her life and celebrate her maturation into womanhood. It speaks to the best in Mexican culture. As we snack on avocados and pickled peppers and watch a slide show of her life, I wish all America could witness this beautiful celebration. Dancing cumbias and salsas alongside my students and their vecinos, singing corridos and romanticos with grandmothers and granddaughters, I realize this culture calls out the best in family. The world would do well to look to the Mexican mode of making events significant. In 2007, the Catholic Church officially recognized this profound event with its own liturgy; America and all people of faith could learn a lot about community from this Mexican tradition.

Loving God,
you created all the people of the world
and you know each of us by name.
We thank you for Vero,
who today celebrates her fifteenth birthday.
Bless her with your love and friendship
that she may grow in wisdom, knowledge, and grace.
May she love her family always
and be faithful to her friends.
Grant this through Christ our Lord.

(Quinceanera Liturgy)

Driving back across the Mexican-American border checkpoint on the international bridge, past the barbed wire and racial profiling, past the sniffing dogs and warning signs, I ponder why anyone would want to wall off the culture of quinceaneras. While the United States is busy enacting bills like the REAL ID Act and the Secure Fence Act, students like Vero will continue coming of age in a multi-cultural community which is best when it learns from all its immigrants.

Something there is that doesn’t Love a Wall- Part 2

April 15, 2008

Berlin Wall, 2004

Walking along this wall, I am a ghost among ruins. It lacks a roof on the other side, to shelter a family or a friend. It is only one long wall, which doesn’t serve to protect those enclosed inside. Though it only continues a couple hundred yards, it is easy to imagine it going on forever, past light posts and stop signs, past bakeries and magic shops, past bookstores and groceries, past schools and prisons. How strange it is to come across a wall which does not contribute to a home.

Between East and West Berlin, the Wall ran 26 miles with 302 watchtowers and 20 bunkers. It was almost 12 feet high and made primarily of concrete. It was constructed by the Russian forces occupying Berlin after the end of World War II. More than 2.6 million people had fled Communist East Berlin in the 12 years leading up to 1961, a number which represented close to 15% of the total German population. Its purpose, then, was unlike almost any other walls. Its sole purpose was to keep its citizens locked in, rather than outsiders without. It was the walls of a prison more than a buffer of defense.

The 700-mile, 18-foot border wall currently mandated by the Secure Fence Act of 2006 would lock some 12 million extralegal residents inside our nation’s borders. Citizens like Selena, who came here at 15 as a house-maid but has also managed to graduate high-school, are trapped in the United States, without a legal means of advancement but also scared enough not to return to Guadalajara for her grandma’s funeral.

Typically viewed as a solution to our nation’s immigration issues, the wall has some damaging side-effects. Compounded on the environmental devastation and economic backlash of such a wall, the immigrants here in the U.S., both legal and illegal, will be adversely affected by such a wall. For legal residents, who successfully won what can be a ten-year lottery system or who fast-tracked in on a highly-skilled workers’ visa, the border wall is an affront to their homeland and a clear nativistic symbol. For extralegal residents, the border wall means that they are stuck here in a nation which does not afford them basic human rights and protections. As Douglas Massey wrote in the New York Times on April 4 this year,

America’s tougher line roughly tripled the average cost of getting across the border illegally; thus Mexicans who had run the gantlet at the border were more likely to hunker down and stay in the United States. My study has shown that in the early 1980′s, about half of all undocumented Mexicans returned home within 12 months of entry, but by 2000 the rate of return migration stood at just 25 percent.

Despite the fact that from 1980 to 2000 the chances of getting caught decreased from 33% to 10% because border-crossings were funneled through barren, under-patrolled areas, the wall is still touted as a way to cut down on the number of illegal entries while doing absolutely nothing positive for the assimilation of these immigrants or compassionate return of extralegal residents to their native countries.

192 people died, and over 200 were injured through this militarization of the border between these two Berlins. The wall separated families from families, neighbors from neighbors, fathers from children and wives from husbands. First erected overnight on August 13, 1961, some West Germans went out for a loaf of bread and didn’t return home for 30 years. Children sleeping over at a friend’s house were separated from their mothers for 3 decades, coming back to them with Rip Van Winkle beards and bass voices changed through the passing of life. The saddest thing about the Berlin Wall is that it obviously did not separate one people “group” from another. The inescapable network of mutuality, that interconnectedness of people that Dr. King referred to as the Beloved Community, was clearly there in the living, breathing city of Berlin.

To this day, countless Valley residents will say that the border crossed them. When Rio Grande replaced the Nueces River as the newest border between the Texas and Mexico, hundreds of families instantly became unwanted American citizens. Being land-rich but money-poor, many of them lost land to big ranchers, Texas Rangers, or mob persecution. The remaining Mexican-Americans were treated as subhuman for many years, with the first Mexican-American government official being sworn in almost 100 years after this change in nationality.

Watching boys and girls swim in the muddy Rio Grande, it is impossible to tell from which side of the river they leaped. Pesos and dollars are accepted on both sides. Spanish, English, and Spanglish are used interchangeably in stores, churches, city hall meetings, and television shows. Many of my students commute from Matamoros, Mexico, everyday, further blurring the lines between either side of la frontera. A wall would not only be a militarization of a border; it would be the rigid enforcement of a line that exists only on paper, not in hearts, culture, language, or souls. In his New York Times Op-Ed piece, Douglas Massey writes,

The number of Border Patrol officers increased from around 2,500 in the early 1980′s to around 12,000 today, and the agency’s annual budget rose to $1.6 billion from $200 million. The boundary between Mexico and the United States has become perhaps the most militarized frontier between two nations at peace anywhere in the world.

The “peace” introduced by a border wall would be a negative peace, an absence of tension in a few scattered square miles, whereas the Secure Fence would be replacing a positive peace where two cultures have been able to coexist and mutually benefit each other.

Digging in the summer grass, I look for a shard of evil. In the zealot’s fervor and the tourists’ hurry, I hope to find a forgotten piece of this long wall of shame. Berlin’s new motto – “Never Again” – is both a call to memory and a cry for forgiveness. When I finally clutch a broken piece of wall, no bigger than the palm of my hand, I hold it tight. It is cold. It is harmless. I can almost imagine it belongs to a home’s foundation rather than an internationally despised symbol of division. I fly it back across innumerable national borders, vowing “Never Again.”

Nopales, Enemies, and Assets…

April 6, 2008

Gandhi once wrote, “In the dictionary of the non-violent there is no such word as an external enemy” (Satyagraha, 93). This concept is key to understanding the dynamics of India’s liberation movement, King’s civil rights movement, and the ongoing use of nonviolence. For Gandhi, an “enemy” is just someone who doesn’t realize they are his friend yet. If one views opposition as a potential ally, then reconciliation is the aim rather than victory. Victory is achieved together through mutual progress.

Relocating to la frontera, one is confronted with a host of new cuisine. Barbacoa (stewed beef cheek), tamales veracruzano (corn paste baked in a banana leaf), elotes (roasted corn swimming in mayonnaise), menudo (spicy stew made of cow intestines and touted to be the ultimate hangover cure) – all these new foods astound newcomers to the border and remind us all of limitless creativity.

But the food I love best here in Brownsville and Matamoros are nopales.

Nopales are prickly-pear cacti. Their fruits, tunas, are a delicious mix between honeydew and pomegranate. But it is the spiky cacti themselves that are a delicacy here on the border. De-spined, the green fleshy vegetable is diced and stewed for hours. It is often served with eggs for breakfast – mmmm, huevos con nopales in the morning.

I am struck by the nonviolence this food embodies. Most people when confronted with a cactus write it off as something to be avoided, a painful and dangerous plant. Other people would try to clear these cacti from their land, equating them with weeds and scrub. But the Mexicanos and Tejanos on this border look at these short, spiky plants and see nourishment. Instead of a nuisance, nutrition; instead of an enemy, an asset.

In life, there are those who view people as assets, and those who view people as liabilities. Those who call for the mass deportation of 12 million people, even at the staggering cost of $100 billion dollars, see people as liabilities. Homeland Security currently views people as liabilities and threats so much that it is willing to disregard 39 laws protecting men, women, and animals in order to rush the construction of the border wall. Nativistic dialogue from xenophobic showman highlight the worst in us humans, while neglecting to show the millions of individuals committed both to their family and this country.

We must recognize that every person is an asset to our nation if this is truly to become a fully-integrated Beloved Community. As a teacher and a nonviolent social activist, I must look at people and see their potential for goodness rather than their capacity for evil. In the end, everyone’s a nopale – it simply depends on how we look at them.

Who will speak for the students?

March 30, 2008

    Today one of my students celebrated his 17th birthday. This bright senior also managed to win first place in a South Texas Informative Speech District competition. As his coach, I will be traveling with him to San Antonio for the UIL Regional Meet. The event is sure to be packed with fawning friends and proud parents, as well as hundreds of other young high-schoolers dreaming of making it to States. However, this lad, for whom I wrote a recommendation to Rice University, will not even have his mother there. The only two roads north out of the Valley, Highways 77 and 83, both have checkpoints which temporary residents are not permitted to pass. While his mother can legally reside in border towns like Brownsville, she cannot witness her son’s beautiful speeches nor visit her talented hijo when he attends Texas Tech this fall.

    This young man is not alone. In my high school of 2,200 students in a city of more than 12,000 high-schoolers and almost 49,000 students, countless kids deal with this and more every day. Some students live with aunts and grandmothers during the week, separated from their biological mothers in Matamoros across an International Bridge. Others live lives of solitude in sparse apartments, forbidden by their parents to leave for fear of getting deported. Some students drive from Mexico every single day, others cook and clean for a family they traveled a thousand miles from the heart of Mexico to serve as a maid. Thousands and thousands of students shift codes every day as they make the long journey from their father’s espanol and their English classes, such as mine.

    Countless of my students benefit from positive immigrant legislation every single day. A trip to my classroom would show you boys and girls coming of age in Texas, the same boys and girls who are finding themselves in Pennsylvania and the same boys and girls learning their potential in Minnesota. Extralegal residents, endowed with the same souls and minds and dreams as children everywhere, are allowed to sit in these desks and listen to my lectures because of a landmark court case. In the 1982 Supreme Court Doe v. Plyler case in regards to “Alien Children Education Litigation,” Peter Schey helped prove it was a violation of the 14th Amendment to deny public education to undocumented children. Along with hundreds of students who have stepped foot in my classroom of F114, 100,000 children are annually admitted to Texas schools because of Peter Schey’s successful advocacy.

    Peter Schey is one of the preeminent lawyers in our nation today, and he is currently tackling further injustice toward immigrants and border residents by readying a class-action lawsuit against the government’s attempts to enact the Secure Fence Act of 2006 in Texas. He is defending UT-Brownsville Professor Eloisa Tamez as she opposes the government’s desire to survey and sequester part, if not all, of her Spanish land-grant acreage. Obviously, the border wall lawsuit is about more than just an unsightly barrier. At its heart, it would have the same crushing effects as denying 100,000 children an education. Schey realizes that building a wall between the United States and Mexico is an affront to every legal immigrant in this nation. Schey recognizes that the Secure Fence Act of 2006 is a distraction from the real negotiations about immigration which must take place if my students are going to have the opportunity to attend university. Peter Schey is filing lawsuits because the DREAM Act is a law which helps people achieve their dreams, while the Secure Fence Act’s sole purpose is deterrence. Schey understands that the border region and its unique way of life are under fire, that the Secure Fence Act would affect la frontera exponentially more than any other region of the country, that asking border residents to make this staggering sacrifice is akin to Napoleon asking the chickens to sacrifice their baby chicks for the good of the cause in Animal Farm, a sacrifice none others are asked to make.

    My students are watching this nation. They are inspecting us adults to see if we really are trying to make the world a better place for all and not just a few. Students like those on Speech Club are contemplating careers in politics and law, so they are encouraged to see that famous attorneys like Peter Schey are willing to stake their reputation on cases which affect their lives. My students are watching me, waiting to see if I am willing to advocate for them in meaningful ways, waiting to see that I care enough to speak out. We must not disappoint these dreamers nor frustrate our future leaders; we must not leave a wall as a legacy for them to tear down.

Border Wall California by Jay Johnson-Castro

Good Friday’s Implications

March 21, 2008

    In Matamoros, Mexico, on this Good Friday, the plaza is full of people watching the Via Crucis enacted before our very eyes. This passion play has been reenacted annually for well over a thousand years, yet it is still charged with emotion and meaning. A young man is beaten and hung to a wooden cross directly in front of the giant Catholic church, while centurions with over-sized helmets look on and a voice recants the Gospel narrative. Offstage, a woman cries in the heat of the day. In the crowd, everyone of us has forgotten our sunglasses, the glare off the tops of police cars, the smell of elotes and raspas nearby – all of us are focused on this ultimate story of redemption.

    I enter the cool of the church, my mind filled with memories of Easters past. The palpable memory of gumming the bread and swirling the grape juice around in my mouth, newly cognizant that these elements of the Communion represented the body and blood of a man 2,000 years ago. These memories from almost 20 years ago come back to me, just as I am sure memories came to Mary as she stood at the foot of the cross. My eyes adjust to the lighting within this cathedral. Mary is at the front of the church, head down in mourning for her son lofted up on the cross. I bow my head and am overcome with the feeling of hopelessness that must have swept over the disciples. What if this were the end? What if the kingdom of God ended on Friday and was never followed by that joyous Sunday?

    Tears drying on my sunburned cheeks, I sit in the plaza reading Why We Can’t Wait by Dr. King under a gazebo. Tamale vendors, shoe-shiners, whistling chiflado kids, men selling sweet dulces. As I read these words I have read before in a new context, I am struck by its perspective on Jesus’ death that Friday so long ago. King writes,

    Suddenly the truth was revealed that hate is a contagion; that it grows and spreads as a disease; that no society is so healthy that it can automatically maintain its immunity…The words of Jesus ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of my brethren, ye have done it unto me’ were more than a figurative expression; they were a literal prophecy…We were all involved in the death of [this man]. We tolerated hate; we tolerated the sick stimulation of violence in all walks of life; and we tolerated the differential application of law, which said that a man’s life was sacred only if we agreed with his views…We mourned a man who had become the pride of the nation, but we grieved as well for ourselves because we knew we were sick.” (145)

Fresh meaning to this Gospel story I’ve read hundreds of times. In Jesus’ day, just as in our own, the poor and the stranger were being exploited by those in power. To the extent that people of faith tolerate this immoral profiting from the pain of others, we are condoning hate and the hurt of the least of these. If Jesus is present in the least of these, we must recognize his face in every stranger, legal or extralegal, every person, regardless of race. When we give into the fear and hate of our fellow man, the passion of Christ happens once more.

    The best definition of sin that I’ve ever heard is an “absence of God.” For those 3 days while Jesus lay entombed, the whole world was stuck in this negative peace without the very Son of God. In this Plaza Mayor, it occurs to me that the word for without in Spanish is sin. Without. Without.

It must be a sin that so many of these men and women around me here in this border town of close to 500,000 are without basic necessities and without hope of fair wages. Without.

It is surely sin that when these people come looking for a better life in the United States they are refused legal means, repeatedly denied family reunification, and queued in a quota system that can take from 10 years to never. Without.

It cannot be anything but a sin that 12-20 million U.S. residents live without papers, without protection of law, without insurance, without welfare, without legal protection, without basic human rights, without a means to earned citizenship. Without.

It is a shameful sin that so many bright students of mine look at a bleak future, unsure of whether they will have the right documents to attend the best universities in this country, schools they have earned the academic right to attend. Without.

May we all use these 3 days leading up to that blessed Resurrection Sunday to think of those around us who are “without.” As James 4:17 so clearly states, “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” If we know the good which needs to be done, if we see the calling of God in the strangers around us, if we recognize the face of Jesus in our neighbor and do nothing, our lives are sin- sin meaning, sin purpose, sin faith, sin love, sin the chance to bring the hope of Sunday to the “least of these,” or ourselves.


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