An Empire in Decline

A trusted colleague we met on the border recently sent me an article by Richard Rodriguez titled, “The ‘Great Wall of America’ and the threat from within”. I found the part about walls being a sign of an empire in decline particularly compelling. I remember reading an article as an undergraduate called “The Nervous System” in which the author asserted that much like headless chickens, the nervous system of a government is the last part to shut down. He used this metaphor of the nervous system to talk about the striking out (flailing or lashing-out violence– often perpetrated against the innocent) of a system that is dying or afraid of its death. He also extended the metaphor to talk about how such a system creates a nervousness that the populace embody–a low grade fear that is ever present, waiting to be triggered. As the immigration debate rages on a national level, and the debate about the Muslim center near ground zero rages in the city, I hear FEAR and in that fear I hear the lashing out of people who are afraid that someone is trying to steal something from them, that they will not have enough. My prayer for today is that we can let go of this fear long enough to witness one another’s humanity–finding compassion as we step forward into the inevitable changing future of this country.

In the Eyes of a Dreamer: One family’s struggle to educate their children in the United States


Ramona directs the van driver, Martin, through the pot-holed streets of Colonia Muniz in south Texas, guiding us to a bright pink building at the community’s center.  ARISE (A Resource in Serving Equality) is painted in bold letters on a sign outside, signifying the presence of the 23 year old non-profit. In their own words:

“ARISE is a grassroots organization of women for women. It is about building on strengths and respecting the dignity of each individual. It’s about spirituality, cultural values and personal growth. It’s about connecting women with each other and strengthening the fabric of their communities. It’s about teamwork and putting personal ambition aside in favor of common goals. It’s about inspiring hope and a sense of a possibility.”

Ramona, who has been involved with ARISE since its inception, leads our group into the building to show us where the magic takes place.  The humble, un-airconditioned converted house has colorful inspirational posters, a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, photos of neighborhood residents, shelves filled with children’s books and arts supplies for classes with area children, and the crowning jewel—a huge patio with tables for hosting community events, neighborhood birthday parties, dances and BBQs.  As Ramona and her co-worker Andrea tell us about the organization, hard rain begins to pour down and the patio feels like it has curtains of water enclosing us in as we learn about this sacred work.

Ramona explains that when families arrive to this country they come with big dreams.  After a few years of struggling to make ends meet, of scraping for work, of being treated like a nobody, those dreams begin to dissolve.  For many depression sets in and they forget, or are unable to raise their children with any dreams.  Ramona thinks that many of the community’s problems are born from young people who have no sense of hope.  Frustrated, stuck, unable to imagine a better future, they get involved in gangs, drop out of school, and at worst, begin to see themselves as nobody. Ramona says that the biggest job of ARISE is to give  the community hope—to remind them to dream and  raise their children as dreamers.

Ramona Casas at ARISE Office in Colonia La Muniz

When the sky clears we begin to walk toward the house of a local family whose story we have been invited to hear.  Their yard has only this week been emptied from the water left by last month’s hurricane. Today’s rain makes the yard refill with mud, further burying the cans, wrappers, and fruit strewn across the “lawn”.  The heat and humidity are stifling as we make our way into the small living room area, crowding around the single air conditioning unit as the family gathers to talk.

The mother, “Maria Louisa” stands against the wall, with her muscular arms folded across her chest.  She is a powerful woman with a strong square jaw line and deep, almost black, eyes. She and her husband make a living harvesting grapefruit for $7.25 a case.  On a good day, if they work together, they can fill 2 cases an hour.  Using this money they have put a $5,000 down payment on their house and are working to pay the remaining mortgage. They had saved up $3,000 over the last few years to pay for their daughters’ college education.  But that money is gone now, after what the family went through last month…

Maria Louisa proudly introduces her two eldest daughters, Elizabeth (19) and Veronica (17), who are as striking as their mother and both studying at the local University.  Elizabeth is studying to be an RN but one day hopes to be a doctor.  Veronica will be starting college this fall and plans to become a teacher, a vocation inspired by the wonderful teacher who taught her English when she first arrived to this country.  Both of these young women immigrated with Maria Louisa and her husband to the U.S. 10 years ago and are un-documented.  The family’s younger daughters and son who are 5, 7, and 9 years old respectively, were all born here in the United States.  The 7 year-old daughter wanted to become a border patrol agent, but that too changed after last month…

Last month, while driving her mother to work, Elizabeth saw the flashing lights of the border patrol in her rear-view mirror.  When the agent approached the car Elizabeth asked him why she had been pulled over.  The officer did not answer.  Elizabeth repeated the question and the border patrol agent responded (I am paraphrasing) that he knew what to do when he saw a car full of people who looked like them.  He told them to get out of the car.  He did not wait for Maria Louisa to grab her younger daughter’s papers from her bag.  Maria Louisa and her four daughters were taken in for “processing” by the border patrol.

Once in custody Maria Louisa and her elder daughters were asked to sign “voluntary departure” forms stating that they were being “voluntarily” deported to Mexico.  Maria Louisa instead signed the part of the form that said she could request a hearing with a judge.  This was taken as an act of defiance—an affront to the arresting officer who began to yell at Maria Louisa. “Do you think you are special because you have been here for 10 years, do you think the judge cares?  Do you think you are special because your little girls are citizens?  Do you think you are special because your older girls are in college?  Do you think owning a house makes you special? None of this matters to the judge.”  In the retelling of the story she said that his tone was “muy golpeada” or abrupt—literally like being hit with words. He asked Elizabeth to help him convince the mother to sign but she instead told her mother not to sign the form—to hold out for a judge.  Maria Louisa continued to insist that she could not leave her young daughters, who are citizens, alone in this country—she wanted a chance to talk to the judge.

Maria Louisa held out for four more hours without signing the form, until they took her to a separate room without her daughters.  There the agent told her that if she didn’t sign the form he would call child protective services to pick up her youngest daughters.  He promised that she would never find them again.  He told her that Elizabeth would go to a women’s prison and that Victoria would end up in a juvenile detention center.  He told her that she would spend months in an immigration center awaiting processing and that in the mean time her family would be separated and it would take forever to find them all again. He told her again to sign the form and out of fear she finally complied.  Even then, after the form was signed, another officer saw the paper with her original request to see a judge along with the “voluntary departure” waiver.  This officer spoke to Maria Louisa’s detaining officer and told him that the form was no good if it had her request for a judge on it.  He tore the paper up and told her to do a new one.  She signed the form again.

The officer now asked Maria Louisa again if she had anyone for the little kids to go home with.  She knew she could not call her husband and risk his arrest too, so she decided to call ARISE to pick up her daughters.  Once the little girls had left tearfully, Maria Louisa and her daughters were deported to Mexico.  There, through a contact from ARISE, the family found a place to stay for a few days as they formulated a plan to come back.  Elizabeth recalls that she was not afraid, she knew they would get back “home”—she was pissed that it would set the family back financially, but this would not ruin her chances to become a doctor.  Maria Louisa felt more fear as she imagined crossing the border with her two beautiful teenage daughters.  She had heard stories of what happens to young women crossing the border in the hands of corrupt coyotes or at the hands of border bandits.  With this in mind she found a reputable coyote to cross the three back to the United States.  The midnight trip across the river in a little raft cost the family $2,700– almost everything she had saved for her daughters’ education.

Although this all took place six weeks ago, the after shocks are still wearing off. Maria Louisa says that her younger daughters cry each time she tries to leave the house, even to buy groceries, “They grab my legs and tell me ‘no mami, no te vayas, te agaran la migra’”(no mommy, don’t go, border patrol will get you).   The youngest, who sleeps with Victoria, wakes up almost every night with nightmares that her family is being taken away.  The 7 year-old no longer wants to become a border patrol agent.  When we asked her why she shyly answers, “hablan muy feo” (they speak in a very ugly way).  The family will have to work for years to rebuild their savings, and everyone wonders what they will do if they are caught again—but Elizabeth and Victoria must continue to take classes and Maria Louisa and her husband must take whatever work they can find.  Whenever anyone is running late, they are all thinking of the worst possible scenario, that they may not see that person again.

We ask the girls about their involvement with ARISE.  How has the organization affected their lives.  Elizabeth and Victoria have both spent dozens, possibly hundreds, of hours volunteering.   They teach classes for the little kids and help to put on events in the community.  They have participated in the myriad trainings  offered by ARISE and this connection has helped them to dream big.  These young women have no doubt that they will succeed—no matter the obstacles set before them.  Maria Louisa says that her children “van a ser alguien” (are going to be somebody).  It is clear that they already are, and that they take after their mother.

There is a hope that the family clings to, that the “Dream Act” will become law.  Both Elizabeth and Victoria are the “dreamers” that the act would cover.  They arrived here young, they were schooled in this system (this country invested many years in their education and they excelled), they have great career potential, and they want an opportunity to work, live and serve this country.  They are the embodiment of the American Dream—hard working, persistent, eyes set on a brighter future for themselves and for their family—all they need is a chance.

As we leave the house I lift my eyes to the clouded sky above Colonia Muniz.  The sun is pressing against the clouds and giving the sky a hazy brightness.  I begin to pray—for these women, for this country, for ARISE and the inspiring work they are doing here. I pray that God will continue  to bless us each with the ability to continue dreaming—imagining something better—transforming our world with grace and hope against the greatest of odds.

Buenas Noticias

In our time here on the border we have been working with Ed Krueger, a minister, community organizer, and passionate advocate for justice.  For the last 30 years, since before I was born, he has been organizing with women in northern Mexico spreading the “Buenas Noticias” or “Good News” of workers rights (already laid out in Mexican Labor Law) to the people of the region.  At nearly 80 years old Ed has dedicated a long life to activism serving missions in Latin American, working with the UFW, and most recently running this organization called “Comite de Apoyo.”   Carolyn and I have been honored to bear to witness his work.

We crossed the border last Tuesday, snaking through the industrial parks of Reynosa Mexico where huge billboards advertise the products being built in big gray factories running on either side of the highway: LG, Emerson, Brunswick, Zennith, Kohler, Eaton, the names look familiar and I think of my cell phone sitting in the bag on my lap.  When I bought it I remembered to ask about radiation levels, about the warranty, about the rebate—I did not remember to ask where my phone had been assembled, nor where the packing foam was produced (dangerous work that results in many steam related injuries), nor how much the workers were being compensated.  I did not think about it until the moment we drove past the LG maquiladora (or foreign owned factory) and made our way into one of the surrounding colonias (unincorporated housing developments).

This neighborhood, like dozens of others in the city, house some of the thousands of workers who come to northern Mexico to work in factories like LG where they will make between $1-2 an hour.  Tight square houses stand shoulder in this new development, the nicest I have seen in Reynosa.  The houses are identical except for the laundry hanging out front on makeshift clotheslines. I feel huge as I walk toward the house and am sure that if I pressed myself against the front  I could reach across and touch the outer walls on either side, but I resist the urge as a young woman beckons from the front door inviting us in.  She has an infant in her arms while a 2 and 3-year-old dart around her legs.  She sends them to play at the neighbor’s house and the girl complies, leaving her brother behind.  He is curious and hides behind the sofa watching as our meeting starts.

The woman, we will call her “Carla”, is a “Promotora” (or promoter) of worker’s rights.  She has been working with Ed for several years and while she already works a 48-hour a week job in a maquiladora, she spends her free time learning about Mexican labor law so she can advocate for her rights (and those of her fellow workers).  Carla presents us with case reports, each carefully handwritten (2 copies) with the vital information highlighted in bold yellow.  She goes through case by case, explaining to us the injustice she saw (or heard about), how she turned to the law to find support, how she brought the policy to the attention of the employer and ultimately (in many cases) how the injustice was rectified.  There were other cases, ones still open, that she discussed eagerly with Ed to get his second opinion.  In one case, women at the factory had to go through a metal detector to get into work.  For many, their under wire bras set off the detector.  These women (many as young as 16) were told to remove all of their clothing from the waist up for inspection.  Many of the women were very uncomfortable and Carla wondered if this would constitute sexual harassment.

Late in the meeting Carla’s neighbor made her way over and told us about the factory she used to work in.  51-hour weeks with no overtime compensation, only one 15 minute break for the entire shift, and if you refused to work extra hours or change your shift (say from day to middle of the night because it would leave your kids home alone) you were fired immediately.  Ed took down the name of the company and details– he and Carla would look into it later.

After leaving we met up with another promotora, we will call her “Pearla”.  She is the only full-time organizer for Comite, traveling from one neighborhood to the next by bus, listening to people’s stories. She takes us first to a house where a couple live with their 9 year old son.  The husband was laid off from his job last year during the economic recession.  He had worked in the kitchen of a maquiladora for years and was surprised when he was told he no longer had a job.  According to Mexican Law, if you are laid off the company must compensate you according to the length of time you have been employed with them– in addition to paying out unused vacation time, sick days etc.  When he was told he no longer had a job the company offered him an amount that he knew to be far too low.  He and his wife, having heard of Pearla, consulted her about the situation.  She advised the man not to sign anything and not to accept a check until it was for the appropriate amount.  They worked for months, fighting for meetings, conciliation and arbitration,  each time insisting upon the amount this man knew he deserved.  After four months the company finally agreed to compensate him appropriately, a sum 6 times higher than their original offer.  Many of his co-workers, unable to hold out without some sort of compensation for their families to live on, did not wait through the months of negotiations and were not compensated fairly in the end.  This gentleman and his wife explained how grateful they were to have learned about the process.  When asked how this process had changed his thinking he explained that he felt empowered to stand up for himself and his family.  He also felt aware of how the company attempted to wear workers down, threatening that if they did not take the money offered they would get nothing.  He said he would never again trust blindly in what management told him.  He has the tools to protect himself now and is willing to fight for just treatment.

At the next house the family (Mother, Father and teenage son) had all just arrived from work.  They insisted we sit on the only available couch with the only available fan pointed at us.  The husband was sent with an empty coke bottle to a local shop to get it refilled and cold drinks were poured all around.  Each member of the family shared the details of their work experiences.  The wife works at a place with no transportation, no cafeteria, no toilet paper in most of the bathrooms, low wages and insufficient lunch breaks—she hates her job but goes each day to contribute to the family’s finances.  The husband works at Emerson and expressed that his work was different, they got lunch included, transportation, potable drinking water and coffee.  He was very happy to work where he did and seemed content to picture himself there for years to come.  I couldn’t help but think that Emerson was smart to implement these simple measures to so drastically improve workplace satisfaction. The son was working at another factory and trying to pay his way through school.  He said he would be an engineer in five years and could make many times what his parents were paid.   As we sat in the blazing heat of their small home listening to the details of family finances, I was struck by the reality that this is how Ed and the promotoras have done three decades of activism—one story at a time, sitting on couches or perched in doorways drinking coke from Styrofoam cups and listening to people who have taken a leap of faith by inviting them in.

This work is not something easily captured in glossy promo materials or a regular training schedule. There is no website, as most of the people working in the maquiladoras have no computer.  The promotoras do not pass out pamphlets at factories or protest on the sidewalks outside the big buildings as this could endanger the livelihood of the workers, many of whom desperately need this income.  They do not arrive with food, clothes or toys for the kids—they come only to talk—case by case, home by home, person by person spreading the “Buenas Noticias” of Mexican Labor Law—and in so doing transforming the community through empowerment and hope.

Photo:  Ed (in the very front) with some of the Promotoras at a gathering we attended this Saturday!

In the calm before the storm…

It is less than 24 hours until Hurricane Alex makes landfall and residents here in the Rio Grande Valley (“the Valley”) are preparing for the worst. Lines at grocery stores snake through the aisles as residents stock up on water, sand bags, coolers, and anything else they might need if the power goes out or rain begins to pour in during the storm. McAllen, TX is expecting between 12 and 18 inches of rain in just a few hours. The city has opened floodgates to lower the river and buses and various emergency vehicles are being readied to evacuate those hit hardest. But despite the best preparations, some families have more to fear as the clouds roll in.

The Valley is home to over 1,200 of Texas’ 2,294 “colonias” or unincorporated subdivisions. While colonias exist in New Mexico and Arizona, Texas with more than 400,000 people, has the most residents living in colonias. More than 65% of colonia residents, and 85% of those under 18, are U.S. citizens. So what does an “unincorporated subdivision” mean? Well, much of the land that the colonias were/are built on is what Texas Secretary of State, Hope Andrade, calls “worthless land”—land that is too full of pesticides to continue to farm, or is located on a floodplain. Starting in the 1950s this unusable land was sold, lot by tiny lot, to low income families with little or no infrastructure in place. Developers, not required to provide potable water or sewage connections, leave new residents to fend for themselves. The result is often dirt roads, home-built outhouses or shallow septic tanks, hoses and extension cords snaking through windows to share water supplies and electricity between neighbors and makeshift homes barely holding together even in the best of weather. Residents build their homes on this land using scrap materials, tar paper, packing crates, old RV’s and whatever else can be found. This land, while cheaper than most, is sold at much more than it is worth and families who can not pay for it outright (and most cannot) face interests rates as high as 30%. Decades later, many families struggle get out from under the burden of this debt, and find themselves still unable to improve their homes. During floods it is these communities, the Valley’s poorest, who will suffer the most. Outhouses and makeshift septic fields are prone to overflow. Roads wash out. Roofs leak and whole houses collapse in the wind and rain. Today’s news warned that low laying areas can expect 3-5 feet of water tomorrow.

During our stay in the Valley, Carolyn and I will be working with Proyecto Azteca, a non-profit that helps provide affordable homes and repairs to families in the colonias using a combination of 0% interest loans, sweat equity hours, and small repairs grants. We will be walking door to door with Proyecto Azteca staffers administering questionnaires to determine what condition homes are in and what level of assistance they qualify for. During our visit in January 2010 we were privileged to witness as family, a mother and her two young sons, visiting their new home as the finishing touches were being applied. The boys raced around the house laughing and explaining to anyone interested that “this is our new home”.

Ann Cass, Proyecto Azteca’s executive director called us a few hours ago to let us know that they would be closed tomorrow and most likely Thursday and Friday because of the storm. Staffers who are able, will be joining Valley volunteer teams at local shelters to care for those that are displaced by the storm. She promised she would call on us as soon as soon as the worst of the storm had passed, expressing gratitude that two extra sets of hands would be on board.

Yesterday a front running gubernatorial candidate was murdered along with three aides just over the border in Mexico (one of 23,000 is the last 3 ½ years who’s lives have been lost to the drug related violence in Mexico). Tonight patches of blue sky are still visible and hummingbirds flit around the orange tree as neighbors return home with gallons of extra water. An hour away along the coast, people continue to watch for oil to wash up on Gulf beaches. As the sunset over the borderlands we sit and wait for what tomorrow will bring. Grateful to be here, bearing witness as life unfolds.

- link to video made in January about the colonias by a Union student: