Looking for Feminism in Oaxaca

As a woman in a program comprised of mostly women, studying a phenomenon that has a huge effect on women, I have found myself growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of attention paid to how the political economy of migration has affected the lives of women.  So in Oaxaca, I took every opportunity I could to ask questions about how women are affected by shifts in population and social dynamics due to migration.

I asked one of the few women we did meet about how she saw gender and sexuality issues intersecting with her activist work.  She said, because it was mostly women working to help other women, men weren’t involved, so it was hard to see if there were inequalities between genders.   I didn’t really know what to ask after that, because if women don’t see their work as something feminist or radical, and they just see it as the work they do, then what business do I have trying to name that with language I’ve learned in a classroom at Vassar?

I’m conflicted, because on the one hand, when I look at a situation where women help women, I can see how it fits into a broader framework of the US as a paternalistic colonial power.  But on the other hand, women who are just trying to keep their families alive probably don’t have time to think about how their lives fit into some theoretical framework that I’ve worked out sitting at my computer in my dorm. Imposing my feminism is not contributing to their self-empowerment; it’s just a different kind of colonialism.  So how do I leave that mentality in the dorm room?

I’m inclined to think it’s not as simple or straightforward as asking some women I just met about how they see gender intersecting with their lives.  My instincts tell me that in order to understand how women negotiate the gender dynamics in their lives, I need to just be with them, listening, asking questions, sharing what I know and learning what they know, so the inherent power dynamic of interviewer and interviewee dissolves.  I think feminism works better when it comes from a place of mutual sharing and trust.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this.

Taking Responsibility to Know My Neighbors

So I just got back from a two-week trip to Mexico.  We went to Oaxaca, which has the largest indigenous population of any Mexican state, and recognizes indigenous forms of self-governance.  Out-migration has a huge impact on Oaxaca, particularly as a result of US corn imports and industrial agriculture practices, which rendered subsistence farming obsolete.  Rural Oaxaqueños migrate to the cities of Oaxaca, Mexico City, and to cities all over the US, including Poughkeepsie.

Ten days of our trip was devoted to an academic seminar, in which we visited various projects around rural Oaxaca which are trying to develop alternatives to migration.  Seeing the different projects and talking with individuals who worked in the organizations was, in some ways, really special.  I met a woman who had lived in Poughkeepsie and came back to Oaxaca after spending seven years as a cleaner at IBM and other office buildings. She showed us the stream by their community, and we shared a joke about its being like the Hudson.  I think it was valuable to have the very real and emotional experience of meeting someone who I could’ve easily crossed paths with at some point in my life.  We were, in essence, neighbors.  If I meet Oaxacan immigrants in Poughkeepsie in the future, I’ll tell them I was there, and that will probably make our relationship stronger.

But it also felt kind of icky to be in Oaxaca.  I felt a disconnect between conversations we had in the States before we left on our trip about building solidarity, and the reality of what we could be as visitors in a place for a very short time.  In a few hours, all an organization can really do is give a brief outline of what they do.  I felt very aware of my ability to choose what I did and didn’t see.  Being in my position as a white woman in a group of Americans visiting these organizations which were compelled to answer to us felt complicit in the overarching mechanism of American colonialism.

And what this made me feel was a whole lot of guilt, and that’s a problem.  After some conversations in Oaxaca post-seminar, I feel like guilt is probably one of the most powerful weapons against solidarity and the kind of movement I think is necessary in order to break down systems of oppression.   As much as it is my responsibility to check my privilege and the ways in which I participate in the oppression of others, it is also not my fault that I have some privileged identities (my race, ethnicity, nationality, class background, ability status, cisgenderedness).  I have felt the way guilt affects how I participate in communities: when I’m thinking about privilege as a guilt thing, I start to judge myself and others, and both that entirely defeats the purpose of checking privilege and keeps me from forming meaningful relationships.  There is potential in this world to cultivate a really beautiful community of people who celebrate each other for the work that we do and stand in solidarity with each other.  I hope that when this semester ends, I leave Arizona with a broader network of people around the country that I will collaborate with throughout my life in different ways.  In order for that to happen, though, I need to do my best to shed this feeling of guilt, and instead celebrate myself and celebrate others, and do so out of love.

Check back later this week for my thoughts about being a feminist in Oaxaca and on this program.

SB 1070 In Effect

SB 1070 section 2(b) began to be enforced last week.  This is the part that the Supreme Court didn’t strike down; the one that allows local law enforcement to ask for people to show them documentation of their authorization to be in the US if they have “reasonable suspicion” that they are in the country without documentation.

Watch Jeff Biggers discuss 1070 on Democracy Now! here:

http://www.democracynow.org/2012/9/24/as_anti_immigrant_papers_law_takes

Sanitized Injustice

Prison relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.

— Angela Davis

Operation Streamline embodies this quotation.  I saw it in action today in a courtroom in Tucson.  Operation Streamline resulted from the creation of a “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, in which people entering the US for the first time without documentation are charged in criminal court with a misdemeanor, and people entering for the second (or third or fourth) are charged with the felony of reentry after deportation.  The “Streamline” part of the Operation is that 70 people are tried and sentenced in the space of 2 hours, in the same courtroom, within days of being detained.  If that doesn’t sound constitutional to you, well, it doesn’t to me, either. Apparently the courts that have addressed the constitutional question have said effectively, “no harm, no foul, let Operation Streamline continue.”  The Supreme Court hasn’t said anything about it. Yet.

“Special proceedings” like Streamline happen in a large courtroom.  There is an eerie sterile nature to the courtroom.  Hand sanitizer pumps are all over the room, on every table.  The ceiling is brightly colored because someone thought that would be appropriate for a desert courtroom.  I sit in the back corner with the other Border Studiers. The people on trial that day sit in the gallery and in the jury box, the chains at their wrists and ankles clinking as they shift in their seats.  Between the vaulting ceilings and the muffled whisper of the Spanish/English interpreter speaking into her microphone, the judge’s words are lost. I can’t really hear him, though I do notice that he calls the defendants, “gentlemen and lady.” 

He calls groups of eight forwards. They are chained at the wrists and ankles, wearing the same clothes they were detained in, earphones for the Spanish interpretation dangling from their ears.

The process is fast: they say “sí, sí, no, no, culpable, no,” affirming their names, giving up their rights, admitting their guilt, and away they are led, through a door, but not before their attorneys pull the earphones out of their ears, because most can’t reach, thanks to the chains. Most are sentenced to time already served.  They will be deported.  Others are sentenced for any number of days: 30, 60, 100.  Afterwards, they’ll be deported.

At one point, the prosecutor speaks up.  “Your honor, this defendant has past charges; the state requests that he be sentenced to five days in a correctional facility.”  The judge grants the request. 

Why? Why bother? What does five days in a jail matter?  Or 100, for that matter?  What’s the mentality behind sentencing these people to prison or deportation for entering the country illegally?  These people aren’t coming to play a sneaky trick on the citizens of the United States. They’re walking through the desert for days to find jobs to feed their families, because it’s the only way to have some hope of survival, thanks to the US decimation of the Mexican economy. Incarceration doesn’t solve the problems of economic policies like NAFTA allowing the US to flood the Mexican market with subsidized corn, outcompeting Mexican farmers and leaving them with no means of income.

Operation Streamline meets no logical end to an actual problem.  Instead, what it does is feed the prisons – prisons owned by for-profit, public corporations, which depend on the US government paying them millions of dollars per month to hold inmates.  These corporations can build huge correctional facilities and then lobby for new legislation that fill their beds. The legislation is popular because it “fights crime” and builds the economy. The southwest economy is built on border militarization.  Prisons and law enforcement agencies and the US Marshall create jobs.  Jobs that rely on racist and dehumanizing operations like Streamline.

6 Hours

There aren’t many people who meet with Border Patrol agents in Nogales, Arizona and people preparing to migrate at a shelter in Altar, Sonora within the same 6-hour period.

And it’s hard to figure out what it means to be one of the few who has.

I saw a lot and I heard a lot in that period.  At the Border Patrol, I mostly heard them telling us that they were out there trying to stay alive.  They showed us the rocks that “rockers” had thrown at them, and asked us pointed questions: “Would you throw that at me?  Do you think that could do some damage?” And pointed to a picture of 14 Border Patrol apprehending 140 people trying to cross: “10 to 1, they outnumbered us.  Who do you think would win, if they decided to turn on us?  Think about that.”  The agents showed us all the guns they could bring in the field.  We got the chance to hold them.  They wanted us to be excited about getting the chance to shoot their “less than lethal weapons.”  They told us about all the drugs they apprehend.  They told us they had seen the effects of immigration “in their communities” but didn’t elaborate on what those effects were.  They wanted us to be scared of the people crossing the desert.

I think the tour was designed to make us leave there feeling psyched about the Border Patrol, and how awesome their guns were, protecting them from the migrants who were going to assault them at any chance they got (They actually said this – “Any chance they get to assault us, they do.”)  I left feeling shaken from being confronted with the grim reality that protecting a country that is “free” involves heavy militarization: M-16s, x-ray vision goggles, drones, huge detention facilities, and whatever else the Federal Government decides might be useful.

About ten minutes passed between leaving the Border Patrol and arriving at First at Kino Border Initiative, an organization for people recently deported, just on the other side of the border. We heard stories from two women there, each of whom was desperate to find a way into the United States: one, to be reunited with her family, the other, to escape from the husband she had been forced to marry.  The stories they told starkly contrasted against the Border Patrol’s narrative of migrants being violent and aggressive, and revealed a different truth of people wanting to get to the US in order to survive.

From Kino, we continued on to Altar, a hub for migration further south of the border, where people meet up with Coyotes to guide them North across the desert.  There we met men with a huge array of stories.  Some had tried ten or fifteen times to cross, trying to get North to find work, any work.  Others had been deported after putting down deep roots in the States, and were trying to get back.  They all wanted to contribute to their families in some way, whether it was by working to send money home, or to go back home and reunite with their loved ones.

It’s hard to figure out what it means to be one of the few who has met migrants in Altar and agents at the Border Patrol in a quarter of a day.  What do I do with this sort of perspective?  I write about it here, and I hope that you also see the major discrepancy between the narratives of the “dangerous illegal aliens” that pervade through out the US and the narratives of the actual people who are trying to live.  And then I continue to be here, and I continue to listen, and I continue to learn, and write and ask questions. I try and find the place where I fit in the powerful work for resistance happening in Tucson to secure a future where some day people will be able to live in community, on either side of the border, without fear.

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.