Part 6 of a series of posts devoted to a trip to the U.S./Mexico border. This post was finished on the 13th. Photos can be found here.
Wednesday, November 11th. I rise early wanting to catch the view of Nogales from our hilltop. Casa de la Misericorida (House of Mercy) is actually a group of buildings sitting atop one of the many hills dotting Nogales. It is a community center offering a variety of services to residents, among the most important of which is the Children’s Food Security program. Assessing the needs of the community, they realized that in many families, the lunch served at the Casa is the only real meal the child will get that day. Next to the playground is a garden where fresh vegetables are grown. A row of composting toilets provides fertilizer for the garden. (I was fine with the composting toilets but the showers that yielded only a trickle of lukewarm water left much to be desired.)
After breakfast, is a session called the “Market basket survey.” The exercise is designed to show us how much buying power a Mexican worker at a maquiladora (border factory) has as compared to an American worker making minimum wage by showing how many hours a Mexican worker would have to work to pay for a dozen eggs (for example) versus how many hours a U.S. worker would have to work to afford the same. Here where our little group hit a bit of a snag. A couple members object to some of the items on the list. One member essentially says that if one is poor, one shouldn’t be buying corn flakes and coca cola. It is a statement laden with judgment, as if to suggest that the family is poor because it’s making poor buying decisions. As if to imply that we know better than the families do what they should and should not be buying. Reacting to the statements, other members of the group display frustration and the tension in the room is high for a few moments. But the situation does not last. Everyone in the room knows that everyone is here with the best of intentions. And regardless of what the particular items are on the list, the bottom line is that it takes much longer for a Mexican worker to afford the item than a U.S. worker. As is often the case, those who make less money actually pay more for basic essentials such as food. Not just a higher percentage of one’s income, but literally more money for the same or comparable items. (If you would like to try a version of the market-basket survey, this website has a great one: )
With the market basket survey behind us, we head over to the border wall again, this time Nogales style. A couple of activist artists – Guadalupe Serrano and Diego Taddei – are waiting to explain the murals that they have erected on the Mexican side of the wall. It is illegal to do so on the U.S. side. Two huge photo-collages greet us as we exit the van, both of them are composed of many small photos that the artists have taken of Nogales residents and migrants. One is most obviously of bare feet (the artists’) walking in the desert. Next to their murals is artwork by a different artist who has since passed away. Guadalupe and Diego explain that the colorful images borrow from Aztec and Mayan symbolism and Mexican Catholic “milagros” (miracles). Done as a triptych, the first piece is of life in Nogales, with a mixture of American tourists and Nogales residents. Most notable is the image of someone carrying their dead loved one back from the Sonoran desert. The images also convey the back-n-forth commerce that happens on the border, with one character carrying back a washing-machine. The second piece is of the crossing of the desert and images of death are dominant. But there are also images of Mexican culture, being brought by migrants into the U.S. – music and religion… The third piece is of migrants who have made into the U.S., living in the shadows and in fear of INS. I get the sense that the artist was warning would-be migrants that “the American Dream” isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. The murals are vibrant and inspiring, and despite the pervasive presence of the wall, there is a sense of optimism.
While we are at the wall, trip-leader Tracy recognizes someone approaching us. He is a migrant who had been brutally attacked, needing serious surgery to reconstruct his shattered face. People back in Tucson had helped him obtain the surgery but then he disappeared. It turns out that he had been caught in an ICE raid of a local grocery store and deported. So now he is in Nogales, still with screws in his jaw that need to be removed, but no way to get back to Tucson to finish the procedure.
The next stop is Grupus Beta, an organization run by the Mexican government to provide aid to migrants – both those who have been unsuccessful in crossing into the U.S. and those who are about to attempt to cross. We talk with Mario Garcia, who says that the Mexican government neither encourages nor tries to prevent people from crossing, but it does try to inform people of the real risks. Often times, migrants arrive at Nogales completely unprepared for the desert. They may have come from another region of Mexico or another country and have no experience with desert climates. A disturbing trend is that the number of migrant deaths on the Mexican side of the border has been increasing – people dying while walking in the desert (trying to get around the wall) before they ever reach the border. Mario points out that it isn’t just Mexicans who try to enter the U.S. from Mexico. He has seen people from Brazil, China, Poland, and even Somalia. Some come thinking that it’s a 30 minute walk to Tucson (it’s more like 3 days). Since Grupus Beta is a government-run organization, Mario’s perspective is a bit different than those of others we have spoken with. His attitude seems a little more detached from the suffering of the migrants, and a little more defensive of Mexican policies. (The Mexican government certainly shares blame with the U.S. in what has happened to its citizens.) At one point he asks us what we think of the wall. Before anyone can answer, he says that “people build walls around their property to keep themselves safe, no?” At first I’m not sure what to make of his statement. But then he makes his own feelings clear. Saying that if all Mexicans got up and left the U.S., the U.S. economy would fall apart, he asserts that it’s immigrants who built America. Looking at directly at me as he says this, it is clear that Mario isn’t just speaking about Mexican immigrants. He’s seen enough nationalities come through his office to know that migration is a global phenomenon. I think of Mom and Dad and what they went through to get to the U.S., and am grateful to Mario for recognizing our commonality.
After listening to the official (Mario), we get to spend some time speaking with migrants outside the office waiting for aid. I know that this is the main reason why we are here, to hear first-hand the experiences of the people most affected by the wall. Still, I am uncomfortable just walking up to someone and asking them to share their story. The awkwardness is made even worse by the fact that I don’t speak Spanish. So I stand there a moment, wondering whether I can’t just “take a break” and tune out for a bit, when I hear a conversation already in progress between Jeff and a man whom I’ll call Jose. At the point where I tune in Jose was telling Jeff how he had been mistreated by some Americans and Jeff was asking what he had experienced. Jose responded, “They call me Mexican shit, and they hurt me.” He shows us the numerous scars on his arms, presumably by knife cuts. He tells us that he had been in the Seattle area for years, where he was engaged to marry a Native American woman. However, lack of work had forced him to go looking in the Southwest. When he was picked up in an ICE raid of a convenience store, he had been buying supplies for himself and two others waiting for him in the desert. I imagined two people in the arid heat waiting for someone who would never return. How long do you wait before giving up? But leaving without supplies was not a good option either.
Lunch is at the Casa, a meal of rice and refried beans, a delicious tortilla soup, a shredded chicken dish, and these ubiquitous little snack cakes (kinda like “Little Debbie”). We were supposed to have eaten with the kids, but arriving at 1:30 pm, it’s too late for that.
After lunch, we pile back into the van to visit a maquiladora, or maquila for short. This particular one is named “Curtis” and manufactures electronic circuits. From the parking lot, I snap a photo of the tract housing on the hills opposite us, and note that tract housing in Mexico is just as ugly as tract housing in the U.S. What I did not know at the time was that the houses I was looking at belong to the maquilas, which they then rent to their workers (by automatically deducting the rent from their paychecks). Our guide at Curtis is Rosaria. She shows us the assembly floor and talks about production. At this point, however, it is so warm and my brain is so overwhelmed that I am not taking in very much. I’m just trying to stay focused and attentive enough so as not to be rude. What I get is that Curtis – an American company, originating in the Midwest – is a middle-sized maquila, both in terms of size and worker conditions. According to Rosaria,“Not the best and not the worst.” She talks about how workers at the maquilas are paid better than outside and how generally great the maquilas are. It’s not that I don’t believe her, but I know she’s there to represent the company. My attention waxes again, however, when she’s done with her spiel and starts talking about the wall. “When I was a girl,” she says, “we could walk back and forth across the border. My school was in the U.S. and if I forgot my pass the guard would say, ‘do you think you can get out of school so easily? Get to class!’” We all laugh, but there is sadness in the laughter.
In the late afternoon, we’re given our housing assignments for the night. We will be staying in groups of three with Mexican families who work in the maquilas, getting the opportunity to interact with them in a more sustained and casual environment. I am not vegetarian but seeing as I don’t eat beef or pork, I am assigned, along with Louise and Joan (a member of the Canadian Presbyterian contingent) to the “vegetarian” house. Carolina, our host, lives in a two bedroom dwelling with her husband Emmanuel (who works in a maquila), toddler son, father-in-law (Narciso), and a tiny chihuahua puppy named Muñeca (doll). Narciso has kindly given up his bedroom to us and will be sleeping on the livingroom couch tonight. I am wondering how much the family gets paid to host us and whether they rely on the money.
This Mexican home and surrounding neighborhood reminds me so much of Taiwan when I used to visit family as a child. The laundry hanging from balcony windows. Cooking fuel in a canister connected to a modern-looking stove. A hot-water heater that needs to be turned on before bathing. (Not that we bathed, having been warned beforehand what an expense that would be to our hosts.) A large color tv on a consul and Emmanuel Jr’s toys littering the unfinished, cement floor of the livingroom/diningroom/kitchen. The odd contrast between modern household items and “unfinished infrastructure” is exactly how I remember Taipei 30 years ago. (I do not know what Taipei looks like now but suspect that it’s quite different.)
This is Carolina’s first time hosting (her mother-in-law used to do it) and she seems a little nervous, uncertain. I’m sure it did not help that out of the three of us, only Louise speaks Spanish. What I do remember is that Emmanuel’s work in the maquila had something to do with vacuums, maybe. That Muñeca had cost $150 U.S. and was bought as a playmate for Emmanuel Jr. That Emmanuel Jr.’s cousin lives right next door and the two families often communicate through the two kitchen doors facing each other. And that the family was not “vegetarian” by choice, but rather because they could not afford meat. At some point, Louise and I realize that the refried beans that had been served with our enchiladas were cooked in lard. I take a few more bites, leaving what I hope to be an inconspicuous amount of wasted food. (The heat has made me decidedly unhungry anyway.) Louise, I notice, who is the real vegetarian of the two of us, finishes her plate. For future homestays, Borderlinks probably needs to explain to our host what “vegetarian” means by U.S. standards. Someone might get upset, or even sick. But it is hard to imagine explaining to someone who doesn’t eat meat because she can’t afford it that there are people who not only do not eat it by choice but also might object to even lard. To make the choice to abstain from meat (or any food for that matter) is the privilege of those who have more than enough to eat. And I wonder whether lard might not be cheaper than vegetable oil.