Time is Running Out

It’s hard to believe, but I have barely two months of my fellowship left. If I haven’t expressed it enough, the last months have been joyous. If I haven’t qualified this joy enough, it hasn’t been met without its challenges. Processes like Casa decision-making and community-living, finding work-life balance (there’s often not even a clear line between the two) have made my experience one that constantly forces me to reaffirm my priorities, my values and at times, to make difficult choices, take difficult stances. The challenges are what have helped me grow and find light in myself and in others. The process of community building at the Casa is on-going and constantly requires thought, reflection, intentionality and commitment.

With long-term staff and volunteer team members leaving in this week and next, some of our work in the Casa has been put on hold to give sufficient thanks, appreciation and celebration of all that these individuals have given to the Casa over the last year (or years). The Casa has a special “closing” for each volunteer who leaves, where we gather together in silence and speak directly to the person who is leaving. Once each person has spoken, the person leaves the group and the rest of us discuss how the community will compensate for the loss of that person–as much in regard to their professional talents and abilities as to the personal loss of a unique community member. It’s an important moment of reflection and recognition in the process of saying goodbye to someone who up until that moment, made up an integral part of the team. It’s sad to see people go, but each time a person leaves, there is an understanding that the moment has arrived for them to continue along their path in life.

Joy comes from simple things. A long bike ride or walk, a big supper made for and by the a member of the Casa family. Just a couple of weeks ago the Casa had its annual picnic in Chapultepec Park. We took a group photo outside the Casa and then rode bikes/walked/publicly transported ourselves to a little bit of green space in a big park to share food, play Frisbee and soccer and hang out. I had the honor of giving Maru her first bike riding lesson on a tandem bike borrowed by a Casa friend. I’d never ridden a tandem bike before either– it’s harder than it looks!

foto anualThe shape of life lately has been triangular. I’ve been working on a perfect trifecta of life in Mexico City: Casa-Escuelita-las Mártires Art School. It’s hard knowing I’m putting so much of myself into communities that I may not be part of for much longer. It’s crazy how fast time goes by, but I now know that these processes will never stop being a part of me.

In the Escuelita, a couple of the last sessions have been Right to Water and Right to Non-Discrimination. Both of these sessions had a huge impact on me, but for opposite reasons. Right to Water for my ignorance about the incredible impact water shortages and poor water quality has on communities in D.F. and in the State of Mexico, and Right to Non-Discrimination because of direct impact on our work in the Casa–we have recently been directly engaged in a conflict with the Government-run shelters who have systematically excluded migrants from their services.

Water services, as it should not be surprising, correlate to extreme inequality throughout the city. In some parts of Mexico City water is virtually potable, it comes out of the tap crystal clear and without a trace of ill. In other parts of the city, the scarcity is made worse by poor quality and political corruption. Services are over-priced and do not meet even adequate standards. One political and environmental question is, how much water is there to go around? The next is, who is water made available to? Due to corruption, poor infrastructure and marginalization of poor populations in Mexico City, there are many communities that do not get water, period. There are still others that intermittently receive water services, but the water that comes out of the faucet is murky and causes rashes, allergies and chronic illnesses. In the State of Mexico, many people are charged exorbitant prices for a water service that barely reaches them, and the water they are provided can barely be used for anything.

We then looked at the gender-dimension of the right to water. In many of the marginalized communities where water accessibility is unacceptable, women, because of the division of labor are left responsible to acquire water for domestic uses. Women are unequally effected by lack of accessibility and quality of water because they often are the ones to have to stand in lines for water, to wake up in the middle of the night to fill water tanks, and who seldom have the mobility to consume water in other parts of the city where it is of better quality.  In the spirit of popular education, we formulated a map of water problems in Mexico City and Mexico State through the personal experiences of each one of us. One compa’ in the Escuelita shared water problems characteristic of a community near the border between Ecatepec and the State of Mexico. Neighbors will call in the middle of the night to let families know the water has been turned on–and probably will only be on for a short while–so that they know to collect water. Of course Mexico City’s Center–where wealth is vastly concentrated–has the least of the problems. If you are living in the Center the shortages might barely reach you. And although there might still be shortages, we talked about how shortages are not necessarily correlated to availability of water. For example, in Iztapalapa, one of the poorest borroughs in Mexico City, water accessibility is political. Services are highly privatized and water services are denied to populations with little political sway.

The Non-Discrimination workshop was particularly visceral because of recent struggles for migrant rights in D.F. Attending a migrant in the reception this past week, I called the shelter we have traditionally sent migrants to, and was interrogated about who this person was, why the person was on the street, and where his family was. When it finally came out that he was a migrant, I was informed that “he doesn’t fit the profile” of someone they could attend. I was angry; it wasn’t just. But at the same time I didn’t feel empowered to react in any productive way. File a complaint? With whom? Send the migrant anyway, hoping they might not check his identification when he got there? Tell him where a quiet, safe street where he may safely pass the night without robbery or violence? None of the options were particularly constructive. (The irony is that many people say sleeping in the street is better than going to that shelter, where drug-addicts and people with psychological illnesses create a hostile and dangerous environment. And yet the migrants have been blamed for “causing trouble,” and for that reason are no longer taken.)

The Escuelita session, even if it didn’t directly answer my questions about what to do in this situation, made us do a lot of critical thinking about language, interactions and prejudices about marginalized, stigmatized groups of people, and opened up a dialogue about discrimination which later can serve as a basis for how to approach these issues. Here’s a picture of us working in small groups about three topics: prejudice, stereotypes, stigmatization and discrimination.


We also played soccer after last class. Apart from being stared at because of our… unconventional technique, we had a blast.

Tune in next time for updates about the arrival of the Haverford interns, my big move, and more art-in-progress!


I Was Going to Post About Water, But…

Instead I wanted to share my newest print. It’s a portrait of the block of Puente de Alvarado right in front of Metro Revolution facing northward. There are many elements here, the most prominent being the fliers of missing girls pegged up to the street post. It is an everyday moment in Mexico City, filled with movement, commerce, poverty, inequality, objectification and above all, a survival-driven force of life.

violencia de genero

re: The Spiritual Side of Human Dignity

I went to Querétaro this week for a forum on migration hosted by the University of Querétaro (UAQ). It was a unique experience given that 1) it happened during the Migrant Viacrucis Caravan, and 2) I was tagging along with a student group from the University of Chapingo. On the first day of the Conference, the perspectives of migration came from religious/spiritual leaders of the migrant rights movement. The panelists were Padre Solalinde of “Hermanos en el Camino” in Ixtepec, Padre Pedro Pantoja of Casa del Migrante “Frontera con Justicia” in Saltillo, Fray Tomás Castillo of Casa del Migrante “La 72″ in Tenosique, and Martín Martínez of Estancia González y Martínez in Tequiquipan, Querétaro.

All Catholic, these religious figures are of the most prominent in offering aid to and demanding human rights for Central American migrants in transit across Mexico. This is because the migrant shelter network in Mexico is largely operated by the Catholic diocese. The implications of the involvement of the Catholic Church are political, social and economic. While the church has struggled with lack of transparency, social conservatism, and corruption, it has also offered an unwavering hand to migrant “brother and sisters.” Although the diocese has replaced Catholic organizations such as Catholic Relief Services as the principle authority behind migrant aid projects, a smattering of non-Catholic religious organizations (e.g. the Jesuits, Quakers) and NGOs also contribute to migrant aid, and one change taking place is that the priests in charge of the Catholic-diocese-run shelters have more independence now than ever.

Of the panelists, Padre Solalinde is the most well-known. Characterized by his pristine white robes and the simple cross around his neck, his human rights work and management of the shelter in Ixtepec is known all over the country. He is of the most prominent symbols of the struggle for human rights in Mexico. (He has been at attendance at almost every major event related to migration I’ve attended in D.F., including CAFEMIN during the Viacrucis.) As an outspoken critic of cartel abuse and violence against migrants in Mexico, he puts his life at risk.  And, as with the other panelists, his work is rooted in his Catholic faith. In commenting about the context of Mexican Catholicism, he said “Conservatives tend to separate the heavens from the earth, religion from faith,” abandoning the work of God in their daily lives. He also decried the current state of violence against migrants, calling attention to the recent Migrant Viacrucis and the urgency of humanitarian aid for Central Americans fleeing violence.

Pedro Pantoja, after sharing a presentation about the massacre of 72 migrants in Tamaulipas in 2010, shared his perspective about migrants, “a new social subject,” who comprise a constantly shifting “ciudad itinerante,” or “itinerant city” of people who, due to conditions of violence or poverty are not able to survive in their place of origin. These populations are transversing this part of the globe more than any other. The spiritual implication is a moral responsibility to aid in the protection of these “itinerant” populations. Where a political border does not imply a lack of responsibility in protecting other human beings. And the recognition that political boundaries do not determine the dignity or worth of those living on one side or the other.

Fray Tomás had the most overtly radical stance of the speakers, and his radicalism made him the speaker with the biggest impact on me. He called for revolution, revolution in the way we conceive of transnational borders and calling for a restructuring of the inequalities and violence that are forcing people to migrate. In Fray Tomás’ vision, “love is the only act of violence,” and is what is needed to transform the slavery-like conditions of the modern migrant workforce. He compared the current Catholic work in migrant shelters to the religious order of the 16th century, which sustained slavery by keeping people alive simply in order to work in exploitative conditions. The aid that is provided to migrants, just as was given to slaves, is followed by brutal acts of violence and systematic poverty. “We are talking about people who work from “el gallo to el grillo,” from sun-up to sun-down (literally: “from the rooster to the cricket”), pointing out that migrants aided are often killed in further along in the migrant route. (“La 72,” is named after those killed in the Tamaulipas massacre, many of whom had stayed in “La 72″ just days before. This name reflects a consciousness about failure of migrant shelters to truly protect or help their vulnerable, invisible migrant populations in the long run. The aid they provide is immediate, and thus the needs met are only immediate.) And it’s not just the migrants who are on the train tracks, he said, it’s all of us. More and more of us are finding ourselves on the wrong side of political, socioeconomic, cultural, religious borders. Finally, he insisted that “believing isn’t enough, you have to act.”

In most contexts in Mexico, religion and spirituality lay the basis for hospitality and relief provided to migrants. It’s true of the Casa as well. Although it might seem impossible to have faith in the face of mass extortions, killings and corruption, the closer one gets to the frontline of migrant activism, the closer you will find yourself to God, even if only vicariously. Close proximity to this commitment to faith offers light amidst ever-present acts of irreverence for human life.