Fight Back – the Battle to Save Ethnic Studies

Check out this important video documenting the efforts of Tucson students to save their Ethnic Studies Program. Unfortunately, since the time of this video, the program has been ended. I’m going to learn more about what efforts are being undertaken to keep Ethnic Studies alive in some way within the Tucson community.

First Glimpse of the Wall

I couldn’t help but think of the Truman Show when we crossed the US/Mexico Border in Nogales on Thursday.

I’ve seen the Truman Show exactly once, in seventh grade English class, I think as part of a unit on 1984.  The finer details of the movie escape me, but the concept of being in a manufactured lie of a world, oblivious to the world outside, stuck.

I don’t want to push this metaphor too far, because it’s certainly not a perfect parallel, but arriving at the US/Mexico border in Nogales felt like reaching the edge of a bubble that the “People In Charge” didn’t want me to find or know was there.  Because if more people could see this border town, with the border fence undulating along the hills, more people would surely be asking the question I asked, which was are you kidding me?

This wall, which isn’t a wall any more, because they replaced it with a 25-foot iron fence last year, makes it extremely hard to cross the border in the urban area of Nogales.  It is see-through, so the border patrol can more easily see what’s going on on the other side.  They are allowed to shoot through it.  To me, it seems like an instrument of violence, a roadblock for people who cannot survive on the Mexican side, pushing them out to the desert to attempt to cross, and quite possibly die.

It’s hard to wrap my head around, and to attempt to comprehend how we got here: to a place where a country which claims to promote freedom around the world has a fence around it.  It isn’t the first time I’ve wondered something like this, and I’m damn sure it won’t be the last.

Awe and Fear – An Introduction

I’m here! I made it to Tucson.  After a slight hiccup in which we had to deplane and replane a different plane in Minneapolis, I have arrived.

Last night, before we all crashed from travel exhaustion, we drove up to the Tucson Mountains to scramble up a field of rocks and watch the sky change and the clouds roll in as darkness settled over the desert.

I was not expecting to be as excited and exhilarated by the landscape here.  Imagining the harshness of the desert made me nervous.  I’m used to my relatively wet, relatively cold East Coast mountains which roll into each other and confuse my friends from Colorado who can’t figure out the difference between what we call a mountain and what we call a hill, and don’t think our mountains qualify as mountains anyway.  I’m used to feeling nested between mountains, contained by them.  Here, the mountains seem to punctuate the vast openness.  They jut up out of the flat plane, and when you go up to the top, you look down the other side at more vast openness.

I sat there, perched amidst red mountains and cacti, watching purple rainclouds meet pink sunset clouds, and then one of our teachers said, “Good thoughts to all those who are trying to cross the desert tonight.”

While preparing to come here, I had a difficult time with the paradox that kept presenting itself as people constantly told me about how beautiful it is here at the same time as I read about how many people die trying to get here.  I was particularly struck by that last night, as I found myself caught up in the joy and awe of seeing this landscape, while also trying to imagine what it must look like to embark across it on foot, without the shelter of an air conditioned building with a running tap to retreat to.

I think this is going to be a semester of paradoxes.  Let the grappling begin.

Hearing Silence

I walked the streets of DC yesterday, and I was horrified.

The last time I walked here, just over five years ago, I was awestruck, mesmerized by the grandeur of marble buildings housing my government and paying tribute to my country’s history.  I swelled with pride in what it was supposed to represent: freedom, liberty, democracy, and a citizenship and government equally invested in each other.  My government was big and powerful, and that’s because it was determined to do what was right.

This time, after two years of studying oppression and structural violence, organizing to smash patriarchy, and reading extensively about the impact of American and paternalism colonialism within and outside its borders, I saw something different.  I saw mammoth buildings and a city plan designed to intimidate. I saw museums selectively documenting a history dotted with injustice and tyranny.  And as I walked past the US Customs and Border Patrol building, tucked behind the EPA, just steps off the National Mall, I thought of the chapter of this nation’s history which is currently unfolding – one that happens out of sight of the Capitol, but that I am about to find myself in the middle of, when I spend my fall semester in Tucson, AZ studying the US/Mexico Border.

There is a missing piece of the American story that we don’t hear much of in the elementary school narrative that inspired me.  It’s the story of unthinkably brutal oppression: oppression that destroyed Native populations and culture, oppression that keeps racial divides uncrossable chasms, and the oppression of Latin@ immigrants, who come to this country seeking a better life outside their home countries’ economies, decimated by US economic policy.

People are dying in the desert, seeking a route north to a livable life.  People are starving in former agricultural communities in Central America, their corn worthless because of the flood of corn from American imports.  Children are separated from parents, detained after applying for food stamps.

And until I sought it out and did my reading, I didn’t know.  People crossing the border were just undocumented immigrants with undocumented stories, silent to me.

The girl in the upper-middle class classroom full of white kids has the privilege to not know that her government is not as awesome as they might have you believe, but Latin@ children in Arizona certainly don’t, and that is a problem – for everyone.  When injustices are silenced, they continue, and they grow, and they affect us all.  Fighting oppression is not about me going to Arizona to lift people up from the burdens placed upon them.  To fight oppression is to uncover it, to see where it lives and how it works, so we can challenge it in all of our lives.  We have obligations to each other to stand in solidarity.  If we don’t think the oppression of others affects us, we’re wrong.  Only together can we resist and seek solutions.

Break the silence, stop the violence.

Inspired to Think

Kiese Laymon is a professor at Vassar.  Though I’ve never taken a class with him, whenever I’ve heard him speak, and now after reading this, I am inspired to think.  I am so lucky to go to Vassar and to have had many professors that have inspired me to think, and rethink, and think again.

How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance by Kiese Laymon

“I want to say and mean that remembering starts not with predictable punditry, or bullshit blogs, or slick art that really ask nothing of us; I want to say that it starts with all of us willing ourselves to remember, tell and accept those complicated, muffled truths of our lives and deaths and the lives and deaths of folks all around us over and over again.”

The View from Wiseheart

Written June 24, 2012

“What would you bring along on a trek like this?  What is bringing you along?” – Adrienne Rich

I write this from Gail and Charoula’s front porch, beside the rainbow flag that flies from the post, and the woodpeckers that swoop between the suet feeder and a giant maple.  Charoula’s yellow car sits in front of me, license plate reading “HERBALS,” the tailgate adorned with bumper stickers with slogans from simply “Love,” to “May the Forest Be With You,” and “Stop the Republican war on women.”  Bumper stickers are everywhere in and around this house – “Defend America, Defeat Bush” stickers in the bathroom, “Earth Native” and “Live in Peace and Love” on the front door, and now, “I’ll be Post-Feminist in the Post-Kyriarchy” and “These Hands Don’t Hurt” on Charoula’s computer, courtesy of CARES and the VC Feminist Alliance.  Where there are no bumper stickers, there is art – goddesses radiating power and love, rainbows and other lesbian symbols, created by them and their friends, accumulated over 50 years.  When I arrived here, Gail was painting the stars of an American flag lavender.  “It’s the only way I’ll fly it in the parade,” she said.

Beyond the house are incredibly beautiful fields and thickets of bushes and trees and forest.  Their horse, New Moon, roams near the vegetable garden.  Asparagus, gone to seed, towers above the grasses – I had no idea asparagus grew to be tall and wispy.  The backyard is thick with herbs and wildflowers Charoula grows to make salves and oils and tinctures.  More sculptures hide beneath trees and in patches of flowers.

I’ve spent a week here, and my days here have been filled with long talks about feminist and lesbian life over the past 55 years.  I’ve also been moving mulch from the drive to the backyard in the hours before the temperature rises too high to bear.  My pants are now tucked securely into my socks, protecting me from the chiggers – tiny mites that happily nibbled my legs and torso when I didn’t worry enough about them yesterday.  Along with the chigger bites, another state checked off my list, fascinating stories, and two new Vassar friends, I bring home with me a new perspective on my life as a feminist lesbian.

Gail and Charoula came to this farm in 1990, after Gail had inherited the land and bought an additional 30 acres their house sits upon.  They moved to this house to start a farm and be landykes.  They’re up against a lot here, in rural Pickaway County, Ohio, which is the center of the state’s industrial agriculture.  When I drive the 3 miles to Gail and Charoula’s house from the old building I’m staying at in the town, I pass fields upon fields of perfect corn before I come to their land growing wild with diverse, organic species, buffered by a thick layer of trees and shrubs.  It would be easy for them to grow discouraged with the state of the land.  Gail grew up here, and she talks reverently about how the soil is so rich and the fruits and vegetables it produced were so wonderful.  She’s seen the family farms disappear, machines replace manual labor, Monsanto corn and soy replace cattle and tomatoes, and a quarry open right to the edge of their land, less than 400 feet from the log cabin Gail restored with a Time-Out grant from Vassar.  Despite this, here they have stood, firmly planted, asserting their right to the land, and the land’s right to be wild.  They’ve challenged those who spray pesticides too close to their land, despite the sign posted, “Please Do Not Spray – Organic Farm.” They’ve created wetlands. They’ve encouraged birds and cats and raccoons and other wild animals to find homes here.  This land has a strong energy; it is vital and whole.

As a part of Vassar’s contemporary community of queer feminists, I often feel like we are pioneers up against the forces of patriarchy, and that struggle can feel frustrating and hopeless.  Especially from my perspective, as a Women’s Studies and Geography double major, the problems facing the world can feel incredibly overwhelming.  I constantly study the oppression of women, structural violence, the decimation of the environment, and power being held in the hands of the few; it’s really easy to throw my hands up from time to time and say, forget it – the world is doomed, and no one is safe.  Here, on this 150-acre piece of land in Southern Central Ohio, there is uncertainty in what the future will bring, but these women, Vassar lesbians fifty years ahead of us, radiate so much hope and confidence in the Earth and in the power of communities of women to keep this land strong and safe for those who come to it.  That hope and confidence makes me believe in the future.  Perhaps that, as Adrienne said, “is bringing me along.”

Thanks, Charoula and Gail – see you again, soon.