Posts Tagged ‘Tejano’

El Paso del Mundo

January 6, 2009
Las Americas Asylum Law Project

Las Americas Asylum Law Project

El Paso is closer to Los Angeles than Houston, closer to three other state capitals than its own, 12 hours from Brownsville, Texas.  It is part New Mexico, part Tejano, part Mexico, part Wild West, all frontera.  With a population of 700,000 and separated from a 1.5 million city by a tiny rivulet called the Rio Grande, El Paso melds with Juarez in culture, language, music, food, and la gente.

11 University of Minnesota Law School students arrived in El Paso, Texas, on Sunday, January 4. We came as part of the Asylum Law Project to volunteer with nonprofit groups such as Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project, and Las Americas Advocacy Center.  We came to volunteer, but as always, we assuredly will gain more than we give.

Our first day in El Paso, we attended immigration court and saw the inside of a client interview room.  The immigration court was informal, the judge joking about Burn after Reading and giving informal history lessons about Ellis Island.  The hardest cases were the pro-se ones, where we had to watch a 19-year-old boy with oversized clothes sit silently in front of the judge as he was told he had to wait for the LA judge to reopen his case.  Beside him, a Korean man was whispering prayer upon prayer, eyes closed.  Inside the interview room, the circle chairs and the square table were stainless steel.  A woman from El Salvador had been transported from San Francisco to Los Angeles to Arizona to Houston to El Paso.  Her son was watching her younger children and attending Stanford, and this meeting was to gather some last-minute details so that she could apply for a change of venue.  The steel room was empty and echoed, her small voice enunciated each word of Spanish thoughtfully and deliberately.

That same day, we were told by numerous attorneys and well-meaning citizens not to venture across the bridge to Juarez.  Granted there were more than 1,600 murders in Juarez in 2008 and a group of hueros would generally attract a lot of attention; however, it is that same sort of terror that has depressed the economy on both sides of the river and has lent credence to the drug dealers and thugs like the Zetas.  It is that same fear that led Congress to pass the Secure Fence Act of 2006, the same fear that drives Bill O’Reilly’s ratings, the same fear that enables shows like ABC’s “Homeland Security USA” to exist.  As we crossed the El Paso del Norte Bridge and were greeted by the smell of tacos al pastor and the sight of cheap meds and fast surgeries, none of us felt threatened.  Even as we walked by the federales with their automatic rifles and teenage faces, it was impossible to see much of a difference between one side of the river and the other.  We watched Texas beat Ohio State for the Fiesta Bowl as we sat in the Yankees bar, across the centro from the Kentucky Bar where Marilyn Monroe bought drinks for everyone the day she divorced Arthur Miller.  Both sides of this river are hopelessly interconnected.

We are staying in the Gardner Hotel/El Paso International Hostel, a hotel from the 1920s that has hosted John Dillinger and Cormac McCarthy. An old PacBell phone booth stands sentry at the doorway, and an old-time telephone switchboard stands next to the check-in booth.  With its high ceilings and transoms, old charm and new faces daily, many languages and few rules, this hostel is as good a metaphor for El Paso and Juarez as one can imagine.

Tonight we visited Casa Anunciacion, an immigrant safe house.  Dreamed up by 5 Christian men more than 30 years ago, this organization operates in the historically most impoverished portion of El Paso.  It serves as a home for immigrants, whether for one night or for 8 months.  Families, abused women, single teens, mothers and babies, fathers – the house is full to the brim with immigrants seeking shelter and a change.  This particular night Juan Carlos cooked dinner for all 55 tenants and all 11 of us.  We sat next to immigrants from Guatemala and Sinaloa, El Salvador and Lebanon, Juarez, and Honduras.  After dinner, I washed dishes alongside Federico as everyone worked together to clean the facilities.  Although the house was raided by ICE several years ago, it still continues to offer hope to many seeking a better job and life.

The border towns of El Paso and Juarez serve as a microcosm of worldwide immigration patterns.  When goods are freely transportable in a globalizing world, it only stands to reason that people will desire to move freely legally or not.  Border lines are human conventions, and as one looks at the picnic cloth of stars between the Sierra Madre and Rocky Mountains that is El Paso/Juarez at night, it is impossible to see where one ends and the other begins.  Perhaps that would just be a perfunctory exercise anyway.

Brownsville in Washington

November 7, 2008

Despite legislation like the 2006 Secure Fence Act, the Rio Grande Valley might now have a voice in Washington.  Dr. Juliet Garcia, the first Latino president of a four-year university, was just tapped as one of the key members in Obama’s Presidential transition team. (http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/news/garcia_91496___article.html/obama_president.html)

Prior to November 5, University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) President Garcia had been in the headlines for resisting the federal government. For months, Juliet Garcia had refused to compromise with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), who wanted to survey and conduct pre-construction practices for a border wall on UTB property.  Reports from the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) stated that the wall could be 18-feet high and consist of two thick concrete barriers. Unlike public institutions like Hidalgo County, which compromised with a levee-wall arrangement with DHS this past spring, (http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/news/border_85925___article.html/fence_security.html) Garcia refused even to allow government agents entrance to the university property.  By July 31, 2008, Garcia and DHS agreed to a compromise, wherein UTB would repair a chain-link fence on its property while DHS would bypass UTB property along the Rio Grande.  Garcia envisioned the fence with, “bougainvillea and vine growing all over it” (http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/news/utb_88804___article.html/fence_tsc.html). Either way, it was a partial victory for the entire border region in that at least one party successfully resisted the U.S. government’s efforts to forcefully acquire land and construct a border wall along the Rio Grande.

Obama’s choice of Garcia could suggest a host of possible reasonings. It could have been his successful visit to Brownsville February 29, when he participated in the annual Sombrero Fest during the international twin-sister celebration of Charro Days. (http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/articles/obama_84848___article.html/president_festival.html) Perhaps he got a good taste of the Rio Grande Valley, of this borderland he and McCain and Clinton all voted to build a wall through in 2006.  Perhaps he saw the community, the people, the Tejano music, rancheros, corridos, tamales, elotes, the friendly smiles across the transnational bridges, the grapefruit hanging heavy in the orchards, the happiness and the peaceful coexistence of two countries in a place traditionally framed as a point of friction but in reality is a land of cohesion.  Perhaps he plans to cease the Secure Fence Act of 2006 when he takes office in January, in exchange for true immigration reform which can yield lasting results.  The Valley, the US, and the entire world watching the construction of a border wall between two countries at peace can celebrate Garcia’s appointment to Obama’s transistion team.

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.

No Border Wall Walk- Day 2

March 9, 2008

No Border Wall Walk- Day 2

  Wake this morning to snoring, fit enough to wake the dead. Make my way over to the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Rio Grande City for an inspired message by el padre. The lectern forgotten somewhere behind him, this Padre walked the center aisle like the evangelical preachers of my childhood. His message about Lazarus woke me up far more than a cup of joe.

    “Levantante, Lazaro – Rise, Lazarus! Levantante a vivir, levanantante a caminar – Rise up to walk!”

    He could have been speaking to me and the 20 others waking up in the Immaculate Conception Parish Hall, readying for Day #2 of walking blacktop and tasting diesel because we feel compelled by a force every bit as compelling as Jesus’ voice outside the tomb that Sunday. There was a jounce in my step when I came down the front steps in the pre-dawn.

Sisters Fran, Nancy, Luella blessed us with a blessing we could taste. Their contribution highlights the philosophy of Cesar Chavez, the philosophy we are trying to follow. Chavez writes in 1978’s “He Showed us the Way,”

We can gather the support of millions who have a conscience and would rather see a nonviolent resolution to problems. We are convinced that when people are faced with a direct appeal from the poor struggling nonviolently against great odds, they will react positively. The American people and people everywhere still yearn for justice. It is to that yearning that we appeal.

A group of people, young students and idealistic teachers, mothers and fathers, filmmakers and journalists and people of faith – a diverse group making a positive statement on a crucial issue at a crux in history cannot but call out sympathetic positive outpourings of love from all those around them. The Valley is an extremely warm place, but add to that the positivity of a unified nonviolent statement, and people react with offerings of love.

    The widow’s mite is powerful because it demands great sacrifice. Everything someone has, no matter how small or miniscule it may seem – that is true involvement, true dedication. That zealousness is what will make causes powerful. But the widow’s mite is also powerful because it begs a community of such widows. One cannot eat on merely a widow’s mite – one needs hundreds, thousands of mites. If we had received a generous donation from the UFW or the Mennonite Central Committee covering all the costs of this march, we might have been beholden to their interests out of a sense of gratitude. Plus, we would not have had the community support, investment, and involvement in our efforts; we would not have had to seek it out, we would not have needed la gente, the everyday people.

    As it is, we are receiving support from at least 3 churches in almost every leg of this trip. Today we had at least three cops from Rio Grande City, including Lieutenant Rodriguez, and then we were passed off to a constable and a sheriff for the next remaining stretch. The Beloved Community requires all people to give a little, not one or two to give a lion’s share but all to give a widow’s mite. For dinner tonight, a journalist from the Spanish-speaking El Informador treated us to pizzas. The Holy Family Catholic Church in La Grulla graciously opened their church facilities to us, and their large youth group gave us a warm welcome. Nancy Rivera from the Mennonite Central Committee and Andrea, who is a Mennonite Brethren board member, treated us to snacks and then came back to provide us dinner and stay for the evening’s discussion about Cesar Chavez, nonviolence, and the Mennonite Central committee statement on immigration.

Grassroots. Grassroots movements like this March Against the Wall are powerful because you talk to people at the BorderTown Foods grocery store when they generously let you use their staff restrooms. Grassroots movements involve people pulling off the highway, curtailing their Sunday drive to walk a mile in protest of an unconscionable absurdity such as a border wall. Grassroots nonviolent demonstrations mean that you interpret every honk as a smile, every wave as a slap on the back, every head nod as the most compassionate gesture of a Tejano cowboy. Nonviolent grassroots demonstrations mean that you make up songs like “It’s the end of the wall and we know it” to the tune of REM’s “It’s the end of the world” and “No al muro” to the tune of “Sha-na-na-na Hey Hey Hey Goodbye.” Grassroots nonviolent demonstrations mean you make your own signs on the back of bookcovers, you wear overalls and Canadian ties and Hecho en Mexico belt buckles.

    Grassroots nonviolent movements only work when people like you become passionate about the issues. It is not enough for one zealous high-school teacher to oppose the border wall because he is indignant that his students will be disrespected by such a symbol of division. It is not enough for a soccer coach to wish that his A+ students and soccer captains could actually attend the great universities they deserve to attend if only they weren’t trapped in the immigration lottery system. We welcome your support, in prayers and in car honks but also in donations of pizzas and votes of confidence. Most of all, we welcome you to walk with us, be it a mile or a day. Levantante a vivir, levantante a caminar.

Check out Day 2 on Youtube at:

Charro Days Without a Wall

February 28, 2008

Charro Days Parade Elizabeth Street     Charro Days makes me happy to live en la frontera. Teenagers too cool to read come to school dressed in native Mexican caporals and anguila boots. Their jangling galas harken back to the first Charro Days some 71 years ago. Charro Days celebrates Frito Pies and tostadas, the indiscernible difference between American tejano music and Mexican norteño songs, the wild festivity of a good grito, the seamlessness of real integration.

    Charro Days, Inc., is a sister-city celebration between Brownsville and Matamoros. With the three bridges and shared population between them, these two cities flow into each other like the lazy Rio Grande which separates them. Parades march through both cities, celebrating life and bi-cultural peace on the border. Sombrero Fest brings several of the best tejano bands to Brownsville, while tacquerias flout their best flautas, tacos, menudo, enchiladas, pozole, elotes, carne asada, barbacoa….

    This local festival flies in the face of the 2006 Secure Fence Act. This act, which calls for the construction of 700 miles of border wall, some of which will cleave Brownsville from Matamoros, cannot have been made by people who have celebrated Charro Days in Brownsville or Matamoros. No longer is Matamoros a potential haven for drug lords; no more is Brownsville the poorest city in the nation. For these few days, these cities are united in celebrating their history, their interconnectedness, their “inescapable network of mutuality.” The laughter, the bilingual children dancing in the streets, the cowboy hats and Mexican mariachi bands – what place does a wall have here? Even Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton weighed in on the wall’s effect on this tradition, saying, “”It is troubling to me that our country’s current border security plan threatens a South Texas tradition historically created to celebrate the sharing of cultures. As I discussed during the debate at the University of Texas at Austin last Thursday, I believe we need to re-evaluate the border wall as it is currently being implemented.” (Brownsville Herald)

 

    Coming from New York, I thought it strange at first that Brownsville schools do not celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I longed for a special day to honor my personal hero, and I wanted the chance to talk to my students about this supremely important figure of nonviolence and social activism. I could not understand why a celebration called Charro Days was replacing the MLK Day of Service I had always known.

    While Brownsville could certainly use a day of service, I now feel Dr. King would revel in the Charro Days’ festivities. Charro Days celebrates his concept of the Beloved Community. For one day, Mexicans and Americans join together to make real the idea that, “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds” (Martin Luther King Autobiography 189). The single garment of destiny Dr. King envisioned looks like a charra outfit worn by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans alike. In Sombrero Fest’s jubilation or the tremendous optimism of the Children’s Parade, King’s dream is realized as little white girls and little white boys hold hands with little brown boys and little brown girls. Immigrant and resident, legal and extralegal – none of these terms matter as the sounds and tastes of Matamoros and Brownsville mix in the February air.

Learning to Communicate

December 15, 2007

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Humans thrive on communication. To feel that your morals and ideas are understood and validated is a fundamental desire of all people.

It is precisely this desire for direct, clear communication which drives violence even in our modernized, technological world. Violence is direct and clear, if nothing else. War polarizes sides, forces people to have an opinion, clearly delineates right and wrong, and establishes lines of communication (granted, these “lines” of communication are bombs and bullets, but the message is still clear). Contemporary society is still most adept at voicing hate, and still clumsily silent or muddled with its other stances.

Ultimately, violence thrives because it is more immediately gratifying and seemingly more direct. And yet, no meaningful, substantive dialogue can be born out of the negative negotiations of military conflicts. Because we have been and continue to shy away from engaging in civil discourse, we persist in military engagements which only silence real communication. It is one of the most damning indictments upon our civilization that it killed because it was at a loss for words, that nuanced discussion was avoided in favor of seanced apologies and regrettable military conflicts.

Violence too often appeals to those who are passionate for immediate action. And violence itself can take many forms; the true definition of violence could be the physical combating of spiritual conflicts and moral issues. Read in this manner, violence is much more than the Iraq War – it is the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which seeks to physically impede immigrants we ignore in Congress. It is detention centers which strip detainees of human rights because of a lack of creativity and dedication to immigration reform. It is the over-funding of the Border Patrol and the under-acknowledgment of immigrants’ true contribution to America.

Overcoming violence, then, is simply learning to communicate. We do not need more divisive rhetoric, more negative nativism or xenophobic partisanship. We do need real immigration reform, we do need deep discussion about our business relationships with Canada and Mexico. We do need to bring our country to a unified whole which does not exclude 12 million immigrants nor the qualified millions waiting for their chance to work in the United States.

Let it be said of us that ours was a generation which learned how to communicate. Martin Luther King and Gandhi pioneered the modern era of true communication sans the ultimately distracting and self-defeating implements of violence. May we carry on this commitment to communication within these United States and to our neighbors of the world.


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