Posts Tagged ‘gente’

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.

Advertisements

UTB’s Esperanza or the Immediate Effects of a Nonviolent Campaign

March 19, 2008

    When in the course of human events, it sometimes seems that one’s voice is so small, one’s life only a seashell, one’s impact little more than a leaf here and gone. Some may have shouted the same about the No Border Wall Walk which occurred last week from March 8-16, decrying it little more than a symbolic demonstration. Many people we spoke to in communities like Granjeno, El Calaboz, and Los Indios had lost hope that the government would listen to la gente, the regular people.

    But the participants in the No Border Wall Walk persisted in both the symbolic and the pragmatic aspects of this nonviolent demonstration. One of our aims was most certainly to get national media attention to humanize the southern Texas which would be affected and highlight the beautiful river and wildlife which would be devastated by a border wall. However, we also came with a pragmatic aim to familiarize border residents with their rights and encourage them to avail themselves of the many law firms which would take their cases for free. We recognized that if we needed more than merely media attention; like Cesar Chavez said, “not recognition, but signed contracts; not recognition, but good wages; not recognition, bu a strong union.” We were seeking more than just a media blitz and recognition; we sought to unify and encourage the Valley residents.

    Because of the efforts of those nine individuals who walked the entire 126 miles, because of the more than 300 people who walked a portion of the walk, and because of 400-500 people who participate in the final rally at UTB’s campus on Sunday the 16th, we must claim some responsibility for the fact that today the U.S. government finally admitted the need to explore alternatives to a border wall. This admission came as a result of the settlement of a land condemnation suit between UTB President Juliet Garcia and the United States government. Garcia said, “They’re not allowed to mow a single blade of grass without our permission” (http://www.valleymorningstar.com/articles/university_21816___article.html/brownsville_federal.html)

    While President Garcia was unable to officially endorse the No Border Wall Walk or its final rally on the UTB campus because of her involvement in the lawsuit, she did seem to intimate that she hoped UTB students like Crystal Canales would participate in the walk and its mission. The main reason the nine-day march ended at UTB instead of the bridge or Immaculate Conception Cathedral was that we wished to show solidarity with the university’s efforts to curb the Secure Fence Act of 2006. Joining us in that walk and that show of unity was a UTB professor who was involved in a similar lawsuit of the government surveys and who actually filed a counter-suit. Eloisa Tamez spoke her encouragement for any and all affected parties, galvanizing them to take heart and take case with a government which has overstepped its legal bounds and forsaken its morality in proposing a border wall anywhere.

    Hillary Clinton’s visit to UTB, and her subsequent televised statement of the absurdity of a border wall amputating part of the campus, surely helped bring this case to a favorable conclusion for President Garcia and the rest of Brownsville. Garcia said she hoped this victory served “to test the outer edges of the rights landowners have.” Hopefully, the outcome of this case and Professor Tamez’s lawsuit will encourage the hundreds of residents on the fence right now. Over the coming weeks, concerned citizens will continue to speak with local residents in these border communities, clearly relaying their rights and telling them about free legal aid. If protests and media coverage like that of last week can be coupled with hundreds or thousands of lawsuits, perhaps those parties concerned will finally be made to admit the shame of the Secure Fence Act of 2006 and we can all begin to explore more sustainable, positive, lasting, and nonviolent solutions to problems which primarily stem from a lack of communication – precisely the communication which a wall would end altogether, precisely the sort of nonpartisan dialogue that was happening two years ago despite the Secure Fence Act legislation.

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: