Pankizaske in Action!

This weekend the Casa had the special privilege of visiting Zautla, Puebla, the home-base of the cooperative Tozepan Pankizaske. They are from a community in the Sierra Norte of the state of Puebla, although the majority of the producers live in Contla, a community just outside of Zautla. The cooperative has its roots in the Center for Rural Development Studies, CESDER (shown below). The center provides administrative, educational and financial support for various projects in the region, and helped to found the cooperative. We happened to be visiting during a workshop on Defense of Land and Human Rights, which many local campesinos were participating in as a response to recent struggles against foreign mining companies. Zautla itself is currently facing a struggle against the extractive industries. The participants of the workshop were mostly campesina women, many of whom were indigenous, and who shared their testimonies of exploitation and deception on the part of mining companies. One woman told the story of her community, which rests on a mountain with precious rocks. A mining company came and promised development and employment, and so the community agree to let them in. Years later, the community had still received no direct benefits from the mining company but the land was destroyed. The woman said, “our grandmothers cried, saying there was no reason to take those things from the land. The land belongs as it is and there was no reason to let them take it away from us.” It was an unexpected and moving experience to listen to these stories while taking in the fresh mountain air and understanding to what extent their livelihoods depend on their connection with a land that is not contaminated. Learning about the struggles for economic self-sufficiency in the region in this way- with a community organizing together for justice-was powerful and the setting made it that much more so. In the meeting some of the women worked on their handmade textiles, others shook their heads in sadness and many others still had not lost hope. I had also not to this point visited a community in Mexico which such strong ties to indigenous culture. Many people in Zautla that we met over the weekend spoke Nahuatl, and the philosophy and spirituality surrounding the cooperative also has distinct indigenous influences. (Tozepan Pankizaske means “Together We Will Grow” in Nahuatl). After visiting CESDER, we got an introduction and description of Tozepan Pankizaske and all of the producers that form its cooperative.

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On Saturday, we went around to various communities visiting the people that make the marmalade, chiles, honey and recycled paper that we sell in the Casa through our point of sale. One of the highlights of the whole experience was to better understand how the cooperative works, what types of perspectives and experiences the people who make the products have, and above all to put a human face and story to the products we sell in the Casa.

The first woman we visited, Magdalena, has her chipotle canning micro-business on the road going out from Zautla toward Contla. It’s along a gorgeous stretch of road that winds between mountain and canyon. The corn and agave plants dominate the landscape with waves of yellow and specks of green.

When the bus let us off in front of her house, we’d never have imagined that it was the place from which all of our salsas and chiles comes from. It’s a modest concrete house with a stove, a table and many stacked boxes of canning supplies. In the time when Magdalena is not preparing canned chipotles and salsas, she works in the fields. She only prepares chipotles when she has to prepare an order with Pankizaske. With her other time, she works the land, and takes care of her children and her house. The chipotles workshop was infused with the smell of roasting chile. It was warm with the spiciness, a little haven of warmth from the brisk wind outside. Magdalena shared with us that when she first started working with the chiles she would get burned from the spiciness of the plant. Now she’s gotten used to it her hands are strong and used to it. As we sat listening to her story of how she got into canning chipotles and how she makes them, she brought out a bucket of tamales and said, “Eat.” We hobbled out of the door when it came time to go because we were so stuffed with homemade green and red chile tamales.

The next stop was the recycled paper and bakery workshop, combined in the house of a mother and son-in-law duo. Climbing up the road to their house, we were awestruck by the beauty of the valley and the sound of animals all around us. Arturo laughed and made fun of us (himself included), city-slickers that stopped to look at every moving and/or green object as if we’d never seen a cricket or heard the sound of a bird chirping in all of our lives. On the way, we bumped into a campesino and his wife who gave us a mini lesson in Nahuatl. They were intrigued to meet three travelers on the road to Contla (surely convinced we were lost), and especially one that looked like someone “he knew from television” (me) and who could speak English. It was 10 minutes into his animated introduction that we realized the jug of clear liquid he was carrying was in fact pulque, an alochol extracted from the agave plant, and he was in fact no quite sober. Still, he had all of us laughing. Once we learned “good afternoon” and “goodbye” in Nahuatl phrase, we continued along our way on the road toward Contla.

The second home we visited was equally as humble as the first, with a small garage space for drying paper, a small bakery, and a little room for packaging. The producer was really friendly and we tried to express to him how sincerely we live off of his cookies while in the reception. He gave us a little tour and we bought a hefty bag of his delicious baked goods and we were off to visit the woman that dehydrates dried herbs and spices such as mint, epazote, oregano, thyme and cilantro. There we saw her little grinder and dehydrator and were in a bit of a rush to make it to the thrill-seeking part of the trip: The visit to the beehives that make our honey!

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I have to preface this part with the fact that I am no way comfortable around bees. I’ve never been stung, and for that reason am paranoid that I harbor an unknown deadly allergy. In considering where I want to settle and live the rest of my life, I have at times briefly contemplated cooler climates for the lack of these bothersome but-wholly-necessary-for- all-things-ecological creatures. But I put these fears aside and put on the bee suit. I must say I felt pretty okay in there. Also we had three factors in our favor for not getting stung in the process of extracting the honey. One was temperature–it was cool and cloudy, making the bees lazier and less active. We used a special device to blow smoke into their boxes before trying to take the honey, making them disoriented and less aggressive. Finally, we had the beekeeper suits, by far the #1 contributor to the fact we were able to enjoy (and survive) the visit. The colonies are up on a hill in another part of the hills outside of Zautla, in a tiny community with about 10 families.

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Last but not least, we got to visit Don Willy, the producer of the marmalade the Casa serves at breakfast, and which the volunteers eat every day of the week. Like the other micro-businesses, the marmalade is made in a house, by a family operation, though this time we only had the chance to meet Willy and his daughter. He also makes fruit and herb based wines, which we had the chance to try–delicioso! Of the challenges Don Willy spoke of to his business were the seasonal limitations of producing marmalade and finding local markets for his products. Mangos and plums, for example, are of the most popular marmalade flavors, but they are only available for a few months of the year. Also, because of the artesenal quality of their “all-natural” product, it is more expensive that other brands available in the area. He also said there is less appreciation for such a product, and little money to pay the difference of what a larger brand can sell marmalade for.

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Most of the producers in some moment mentioned the difficulty of working in a cooperative. There is at times internal strife, competition, and the difficulty of marketing and making an earning from ones labor-intensive work. When it comes down to it, these people are in fact running small businesses out of their homes, on top of other work, responsibilities, and with many financial limitations. At the same time they are making a great effort to produce environmentally conscious, natural products at an incredibly fair price. I will never taste our breakfast the same way after having met the people that put so many hours of their work, and so many sacrifices into trying to eke out a meager living. Hopefully it won’t be long before we will be back, or before we can invite some of the members of the cooperative to an event in the Casa! Thank you Pankizaske for an unforgettable weekend!

An Ocean of Trauma (Makes the Casa a Little Raft)

One of the key components of the Migration Peace Program in the Casa is called Hospedaje Solidario, or Solidarity Lodging. It was created to house the refugees fleeing the violence of the Guatemalan Civil War in the 1970s. Over the decades the demographics of the guests that stay in the Casa through this program has shifted from predominately Latin American refugees to include, more recently, people from the Middle East and Africa. Many of the recent waves of refugees are escaping violence spurred by religious and political causes, (and an increasing number of LGBTQ people also escaping persecution). Mexico, contrary to what one might think, has one of the most favorable policies in the world toward refugees. In response to situations such as the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 and religious violence in Nigeria, Mexico has opened its doors to a remarkable degree.

The Casa, through its Solidarity Lodging program, houses a mix of refugees and asylum seekers, migrants, and formerly, victims of crime. At the moment, we only have the capacity to house up to four guests through this program at one time. They are channeled here through a partner organization called Sin Fronteras, which aids with food provisions, rent, and the legal process in soliciting asylum. Still, the limited number of non-profit organizations and the tenuous economic situation in Mexico makes it difficult for refugees here to find work and support their families. They may have refugee status in the country, but refugees in Mexico still face tremendous challenges to gain economic self-sufficiency.

The escalation of drug and gang violence in Central America has profound implications for the traditional distinction between refugees– those that are forced to leave due to threat of physical harm–and migrants – those that choose to leave their country. Mexico is currently seeing a boost in the number of migrants that face similar dangers as those of refugees. In the case of Honduras, for example, migrants are forced to leave due to homicides, extortion, gang and drug related violence and other violent crime. Although these migrants can also solicit asylum once in Mexico, Mexico still faces many of the same problems as those in Central America, (a Guatemalan escaping extortion might not be safe from threats in Mexico), and to solicit asylum one must physically be in the country in which one wants asylum status. So if that same Guatemalan were to receive threats while in Mexico, that person would not be able to turn to the United States for help without crossing the border. The transnational nature of violence n the region and the fluidity of the borders between Central American nations and Mexico make Mexico a counter-intuitive place to seek asylum. Also, although its laws are in favor of receiving and offering refuge to these vulnerable populations, it has not shown the bureaucratic resources to implement these laws effectively as it will need to in order to keep up with demand for international protection.

Another option migrants in Mexico have when responding to situations of violence in Mexico is a Humanitarian Visa. It is only temporary and applies to people who have experienced crime or injury while in Mexico. This applies to the migrants mutilated by riding “the Beast” (the cargo train) or by gangs along the migrant train route. The humanitarian visa has been used to give people time to report crimes or recover from injury, but does not work effectively in reuniting families or granting temporary asylum to family members with whom the victim was traveling. This creates difficulty in terms of employment and emotional stability during this temporary period of refuge in Mexico.

Refugee or migrant, those that come to the Casa are escaping situations of violence in their home country (or in Mexico) that has left them with no choice but to pick up and leave. There is little to ensure their survival, even here in Mexico. They come with broken hearts, mutilated bodies; with active fear and open wounds. Many also come with hope, be it to start a new life in Mexico, or to have a moment of refuge amidst what is otherwise a storm of threats and chaos along migrant path through Mexico. Here, some realize that Mexico, just like their country of origin, cannot offer them the protection they need to make a better life. Or they got hit with bad luck and cannot continue on. Talking with these people, its the invisible traumas glaze over their eyes, held back by a wall of numbness.

When the truth starts to come out, when the stories emerge with the power of a levy breaking there is nothing but horror and more silence to speak for the injustices they have endured. I have seen, in the past three months, the power of these situations to break couples and families apart, to shatter dreams, to change people irreparably and I don’t know how they begin again. Even here, away from the danger, I don’t know how they begin again. I watch with awe at the vitality of the human instinct for survival, for courage and humor against so many odds.

We do as much as we can here as volunteers, be it accompanying our Solidarity Lodging guests to the doctor, helping them find apartments, offering donated clothes and sharing our communal meals. We try to make the space open and safe while realizing our limitations and all that stands between them and a stable, fulfilling life. After reaching out and extending our arms, sometimes there is nothing left to do but pray that they can stay afloat.

A New Borderland: Tapachula and Soliciting Asylum in Mexico

Sometimes while working in the reception, after a few dozen calls with requests such as “Extension 112, please,” or is “_____ there,” you let your guard down, forgetting that a really incredible opportunity can emerge in an instant. Such a scenario happened to me just last week, when ACNUR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, called to invite two members of the Casa’s team to a workshop on Migrants Soliciting Asylum in Mexico in Tapachula, Chiapas, the very next week. I was excited to take the message and to pass it along to the rest of the team. I had the great honor and pleasure in attending the workshop, entitled “International Protection and the Right to Solicit Asylum in Mexico’s Migratory Context,” this week with Arturo, our Peace Programs Coordinator.

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The site of the workshop, Tapachula, is 30 minutes from the Guatemalan border, and has historically been the primary entry point for Central American migrants crossing the border into Mexico. The participants in the workshop were migrant shelters from all over the country–Baja California, Coahuila, Monterrey, Nuevo León, Chiapas, Tabasco, and D.F.. The main purpose of the workshop was to learn about the legal rights of migrants to solicit asylum, and ways that migrant shelters can best defend the human rights of vulnerable populations, such as Unaccompanied Minors, the LGBTQ community, victims of human trafficking, and other victims of crime (gender violence, extortion, kidnapping, robbery, sexual assault, etc.).

The presence of so many shelters from all over the country, in what are loosely connected by the network of railroads that the poorest of migrants use to travel across the thousands of kilometers of Mexico, was hugely informative, as we each applied ACNUR’s methodology to our specific migrant contexts. The shelters in Chiapas, for example, experience massive waves of Central American migrants passing over the Guatemalan border, whereas in Tijuana, the vast majority of migrants in the shelters are Mexicans deported from the U.S. In Mexico City, the shelters receive a great number of refugees seeking asylum in Mexico as opposed to migrants in transit.

Factors that complicate the ability for Mexico to protect populations such as Unaccompanied Minors, is the fact that the U.S. has not signed the Law for the Protection of Children and Adolescents, which asserts as its main priority to protect the “Greater Interest” of children. Massive U.S. deportations have meant splitting up parents and children, such as deporting parents to Mexico and Central America while the children remain in the U.S., or deporting the children while the parents remain in the U.S. This has created problems for Central American migrants that are sent to be reunited with family members. They slip into a web of international laws that, even if there were enough resources to apply the law in Mexico, it wouldn’t be enough to protect their primary interest (generally, keeping the family together). Other issues on the border include deported Mexicans who are mistreated in the U.S. (abused by police, in deportation centers, etc.), who up arrival in Mexico can do very little to denounce U.S. authorities.

The workshop also gave insights into the complicated relationship between international organizations, such as ACNUR, and Agencies of the Mexican government, such as COMAR (Comission for Migrants and Refugees), which processes all the applications for asylum. For shelters, there is the added complication that the laws are changing all the time, and many shelters do not specialize in handling petitions for asylum, which take months and require institutional support from the government which is not always present.

I got a ton out of this experience, as did the Casa, (such as a nation-wide inventory of migrant shelters in Mexico, which will aid communication and support among our various organizations). It widened my knowledge of regional migration patterns in Mexico, and my knowledge of International Protection. While being aware that many of the human rights we discussed in this workshop are ignored by local authorities, national institutions and require a tremendous amount of structural change to implement, the ability to conceptualize human rights through concrete application of international law will help in receiving migrants and refugees in the Casa. In the meantime I are thrilled and so appreciative to have been given this opportunity and to see where it will lead in the future!

Supporting Solidarity Economies: La Feria Multitrueque de Magdalena Mixhuca

One of the three committees formed under the Casa’s Peace Programs is the Economic Justice Committee. Supporting solidarity economies is one of the main ways the Casa empowers local cooperatives and producers. The Casa forms part of the Red Tlaloc, which is a network of producers that exchange goods and services using an alternative currency called the Tlaloc. They host bartering-based markets (trueques), of which artensenal crafts and food products are sold based on an alternative system of exchange to the traditional monetary system. Below is an example of one of the currencies, the Mixhuca, which used in such exchanges.

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Today, Mara, Carlos and I went to see and experience this type of commerce firsthand–at the Mixhuca Multitruque. The Mixhuca, like the Tlaloc, is an alternative currency. At this particular trueque, there were two types of currency, the Mixhuca and the Cacao. The Mixhuca is the currency used between producers, and it has no exchange value in pesos. Alternatively, the Cacao is the external currency, the way that people who have not accumulated Mixhucas can enter into the system of trade. Products are often set at a combination of Mixhucas and Cacaos, for example, 2 Mixhucas and 3 Cacaos, 4 Mixhucas and 1 Cacao, etc. Because the Casa accepts Mixhucas as a form of payment for Cinemoneda (our monthly film screenings on themes of economic justice), we arrived at the trueque with 4 Mixhucas already in hand. (The value of 1 Mixhuca is 5 pesos.)

For this trueque, we took about 10 bags of our earthworm-rich compost, some unwanted books, and fresh rosemary from the tree in our patio. We set the price of the compost at 2 Mixhucas a bag, and the rosemary at 1 Mixhuca for a small branch. The first trade I made, was with a vendor just to one side of our stand. It was with a man with a table full of old books. I approached him about a Juan Rulfo book I was interested in, and asked if there were any books we had that interested him. It turned out that he wanted an old Art History book, so I traded him our book for for El LLano en Llamas by Juan Rulfo, and Los funerales de la mamá grande by Gabriel García Márquez! With that preliminary success I felt invigorated to talk to more producers and see who would be interested in what we had to offer. We had great success with the compost as well–trading for some homemade soy veggie burgers, wholegrain bread and two cactuses. The experience altogether was exciting–we got to interact with all of the vendors, find out about their products and learn how to think in terms of trueque.

Proudly holding up our first Mixhucas obtained during the trueque!

Proudly holding up our first Mixhucas obtained during the trueque!

Overall it was an amazing experience, and got us thinking about all the products the Casa potentially has to offer, and the way that it feels to interact with others in the circle to create a sense of solidarity and community between us.