All in Today’s Work

In the last couple of weeks in the reception, I have either encountered a disproportionate number of difficult situations to face, or, this time of year people’s desperation has tended to be closer and more poignant. Maybe the season of giving has made people unable to give feel more vulnerable, causing them to show up more at the Casa’s doorstep for help or donations. Maybe my own focus on how fortunate and grateful I am has made me emotionally available to those that have very little. The last few shifts I’ve worked in reception have been difficult, and left me feeling gentle and conscientious when handling people off the street.

Today as I was working, we brought a 20-ish year old guest with a baby-face to tears as he received the news that he could no longer stay in the Casa if he is unable to pay. He had already racked up a $1400 peso debt staying in the men’s dormitory for two weeks. This news was reality hitting him like a ton of bricks. I tried to find out a little bit about his situation–who he has for support and what his next steps will be–and all of these questions were met with a shy, bewildered series of “No one,” and “I don’t know.”

I thought maybe asking the right question might reveal an answer for him; I didn’t want to accept the fact that given his situation he’s going to have a really difficult time supporting himself alone. He came to Mexico City from Northern Mexico, with not a soul in the city to stay with, confide in or call upon for help. No friends, no family, nothing. It’s hard to believe that such a well-dressed, well-kempt, handsome young kid was on his way to some of the City’s ugliest public shelters, but there are some indications that he may have a damaged relationship to his family and really has no one left to help him out. After several questions revealed this kid really did not know which way to turn, there was nothing but silence left between us. Having given him three pretty deplorable options–the Salvation Army, a government-run shelter which, according to descriptions from migrants may be worse than staying in the street, and a fifth-rate hotel one colonia over which offers lodging for $40 pesos a night (although you run the risk of robbery or violence), I started running through a list of possibilities in my head of what might happen to this kid in those places or what kind of fear he might be facing in having to leave the Casa and find his way. Even though he has a part-time job, Mexico’s $65 peso a day minimum wage doesn’t offer much to survive off of. It was just hard to send someone so young off to meet the hard face of the world, maybe harder after a week of being pampered and spoiled by my own parents. How incredibly, incredibly lucky I feel.

Just after he left, a group of  students arrived as part of a mountain climbing/life goals course, along with an 84 year-old woman they found crying in the airport because she was unable to find her daughter. After bringing the woman back to the Casa and telling her where she was, it dawned upon her that this was not the first time she had been in the Casa de los Amigos. In the 60′s she had stayed in the Casa with her children, and had not been back since. It turns out her husband dedicated his life to a well-known social justice organization, and it seemed to be fate that she had be brought, by complete coincidence, back through our doors.

It’s an incredibly unique experience to the Casa to receive this type of divine synchronicity, to be demanded so much presence day in and day out.  In the city or out, we learn each day how small and how connected the world is, making our place within it that much more essential.

LISTEN // SPEAK OUT (Lessons from the Caravan of Mothers)

We spent so many hours of planning for the reception of the Caravan of Mothers that when they finally trudged through the door of the Casa last Monday I wasn’t prepared for the rush of emotion that would accompany their arrival. All of a sudden there were over sixty mothers and press and Caravan volunteers squished into the tiny reception and dining room of the Casa. There were young and old and radiant and fragile old ladies lugging backpacks and duffel bags. There were injured Mothers, smiling Mothers, exhausted Mothers, totally silent Mothers. For those of us who hadn’t experienced their company in years prior, their presence took away our words and left us to run around them in circles, doing everything in our power to make them comfortable and to prepare a good meal for them.

Later that night during the dinner, one of these Mothers would be reunited with her daughter after 13 years right in the Casa’s reception (see photo below). Another had been reunited with her son after 10 years a few days earlier along the Caravan’s route. There was an sense of symbolic importance in the Casa as well, as their arrival to the Casa marked their reception in Mexico City and the start of three days of press conferences, visits to the Senate and demonstrations in various parts of the city.

Madre se reencuentra con su hija en el DF después de 13 años. Foto: Antonio Cruz, SinEmbargo

Mother is reunited with her daughter in Mexico City after 13 years. Photo: Antonio Cruz, SinEmbargo

The second night the Caravan was in Mexico City they made an appearance at Amnesty International’s Celebration of International Human Rights Day. Some of the Casa volunteers (myself included) had the honor and privilege of being swept into the full momentum of the Madre’s march when we accompanied them to a presentation at the grandiose hall of the Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana. Interrupting a presentation with their cries for justice, the Mothers and fathers entered chanting, “The Mothers are united! We can’t be defeated!”with the photos of their missing loved ones around their necks. Riding in the press entourage and walking alongside the Motheres gave us a glimpse of the energy and intensity of accompaniment along their incredibly poignant journey.

The next day, at the Zocalo, the demonstrations took on new visibility and symbolism as a model train of La Bestia with photos of missing migrants was led in circles around the historic plaza. The Mother’s refrain echoed that of the days before, “¿Dónde están, dónde están, nuestros hijos dónde están?” [Where are they, where are they, where are our children?] chorused the mothers and fathers from the Caravan. They were making a plea for justice to be brought to the cases of their missing family members, that the Mexican government would begin to recognize the great scale of tragedy and violence that is being incurred against Central American migrants and their families. These few words were enough to make some of their voices raspy with weariness and tears. Some wore expressions so serious and so solemn and so tired that I was left feeling paralyzed, in disbelief of their strength. I learned later that during an event at the National Book Fair in Guadalajara, complete strangers were moved to hug and cry with the Mothers, embracing them and pleading for understanding from officials that threatened to remove them from the crowd. (Below: The Caravan of Mothers marches around the plaza at the Zocalo, carrying a model of the cargo train that carries many Central American migrants through Mexico, and with the images of their missing children around their necks.)

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The Mothers left Mexico City on Thursday morning, with a shower of thanks for the Casa team that gave our best effort to accommodate and accompany them through the last few days. Having them here was a powerful testament to human perseverance. For almost all of them this journey will not be over on December 18th. Some of the women have been on the Caravan repeated times, and will never stop looking for their children. This years Caravan was done in homage of a Mother and human rights activist, Emeteria Martínez, who found her child in Mexico after 20 years of looking, and who continued to participate in the Caravan in subsequent years with the images of other people’s missing children around her neck. They are a visceral message about the violence occurring in Mexico and the actions of a few strong-willed people dedicated to changing those conditions.

After spending just three days hosting the group and attending some of their events I got a dose–however small–of how exhausting and intense these last weeks have been for them and the hundreds of people impacted by their presence all over Mexico.

I wish that I had had the chance to sit down and talk more with some of the Mothers or to listen to their individual testimonies; their cause reminded me so much of the tremendous struggle of the Mothers of the Fallen after the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua with whom I’ve had the amazing experience of working with in past research. Still, it was equally as powerful to hear the mothers yell in unison, to hear the chorus of their voices silence a crowd of professional human rights workers, and their shuffling steps recounting the thousands of kilometers they have traversed in the hope that they may learn of the whereabouts of their loved ones.

Through my experiences at the Casa and friendships and encounters with those effected by or working in the area of migration in Mexico, shadows are cast all about the country. Veracruz, Coahuila, Michoacán, Jalisco, Tamaulipas, Sinaloa, etc. have been stained with horrific stories of violence. These images mount up and meanwhile the Mothers walk right into it, fearlessly, with their heads up, soulders back. My job is to listen and listen and listen although there may be so many experiences that remain unheard and so much emotion left to be transmitted. The act of be present to these types of experiences has this piling-up effect in which images and emotions float around my consciousness in a semi-state of realness that has to find its way out into something concrete. The final step, to process, truly process, and thus act, is to give this reality the weight in the world that it needs to be altered. Or else there’s no hope that the thousands of “invisible people” migrating through Mexico will ever be found.

The Caravan of Central American Mothers Looking for their Disappeared Migrant Children “Emeteria Martinez” and Other Work

There is a flurry of excitement, anticipation, and work happening in the Casa while we gear up for what is undoubtedly the busiest month of the year. The combination of winter holidays and events such as the annual Caroling party hosted by the Quaker monthly meeting, the Christmas Posadas, preparations for two college delegation field studies in January, and the arrival of the Caravan of Mothers looking for their disappeared children in Mexico, we certainly have our hands full. In the midst of all of these ongoing projects, the team is also doing workshops to sharpen our interpreting skills, continuing to develop collaborations with partner organizations such as Casa Refugiados and working to expand the reach of our Economic Justice and Migration projects as part of the Casa’s Peace Programs.

The Caravan is going to be one of the most intense parts of the next couple of weeks. 48 parents (predominately mothers, but there have typically been several fathers as well) from Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador have traveled to Mexico to look for their missing children and denounce the human rights abuses of migrants in Mexico. On this trip, some of the mothers and fathers will be reunited with family members they have not seen in decades. This is due in large part to the work of organizations such as Movimiento Migrante Mezoamericano, an organization that dedicates itself to protect the human rights of migrants in Mexico and Central America. They have led investigations in search of missing migrants, some of whom have been located and will be reunited with their family members during the Caravan.

The response of Mexican society has a huge range–from weariness and empathy to complete disinformation and ignorance about the topic. Responses such as, “Why didn’t they just call?” reveal the extreme lack of understanding about the types of dangers and obstacles migrants face in Mexico. If only it were that easy.

The three days when the mothers will be in Mexico City are from December 9 to 12. Here at the Casa we will be preparing a huge dinner to serve the Mothers and to share space and time with them while they will be staying in the Casa for three nights. During their time in Mexico City they will be hosting press conferences (we are also facing a storm of journalists at our doorstep), and doing a pilgrimage to the Basílica de la Virgen Guadalupe.

It is an incredible opportunity to have the Caravan of Mothers staying with us, and we are so looking forward to participating in their events for the first half of next week. Our ability to offer hospitality to this group is symbolic of our solidarity with such families that have lost children, spouses, siblings, etc. to the violence that is plaguing this country and transformed migration into a gruesome phenomenon of kidnapping, extortion, and murder (in large part for economic ends). The ripple effects for countries all over Latin America has been extreme, and these Mothers have come to Mexico, despite enormous odds, to do something about it. Stay tuned for updates about their visit to Mexico City next week.

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.

The Need to Breathe Fresh Air (And Where to Find It When You Need It)

There comes a moment amidst all the inconveniences, all of the stimulation, all the many beautiful and startling encounters with humanity provoked by living in the center of the almost-largest city in the world, that the glimpses of green between buildings or slivers of sky out the window just don’t cut it. It’s that smog-induced claustrophobia that causes you to realize you haven’t exhaled in over 20 seconds. It’s that empty feeling when you realize you’ve been chopping vegetables in silence for a long time, and all of a sudden you’re regurgitated out of a lonely mind-space onto the kitchen floor. You pick yourself up startled and wondering where you are.

These sensations have hit me abruptly a few times since I’ve been living in Mexico City, with an occasional burst of dismay at the agitation of hyper-urban life. The need for air and space has led me to some unrivaled scenery and some of the most mystifying and glorious terrain I’ve ever seen in my life.This has become important, especially as the climate shifts away from the rainy season into the drier colder months, which means the dust and pollution will continue to hang more intensely over the city.

This past weekend, Cassandra, Emma, Mara (all Casa volunteers) and I went to Parque Nacional Desierto de los Leones. It is a gorgeous tall pine forest nestled in the southwestern corner of the city. Despite our attempt to get there solely on public transportation, we ended up taking a cab for the second half of the journey. After over two hours, and a series of winding, mountainous roads through Mexico City’s periphery, we wound us up at the doorstep of a convent in a misty, tranquil bliss. I donned my hat and gloves and let the frigid humidity sink into my skin. It felt so amazing to breath fresh, chill air, to eat tlacoyos not doused in exhaust from Puente del Alvardo (the highway that borders our neighborhood), and get some divine silence while wondering through the ancient stone walls of the convent and its impeccably maintained gardens. By far a highlight of my time here so far, and a much needed break from the city.

Convent at Parque Nacional Desierto de los Leones

Convent at Parque Nacional Desierto de los Leones

Another couple of my favorite refuges so far in the city are only a metro ride away. This park is in Coyoacan, about 45 minutes South of the Casa on public transportation.

Parque Viveros

Parque Viveros

This is Parque Bicentenario, a industrial wasteland turned park/skatepark/playground. It has great running trails and space to play soccer.

Parque Bicentenario

Parque Bicentenario

A few weekends ago, I also had the chance to visit Puebla, a beautiful colonial town only 2 hours outside of Mexico City. There we visited the Great Pyramid at Cholula.

Great Pyramid

Great Pyramid

Finally, I have the little bit of life I have brought to my own room. My very own bonsai!

Bonsai

Bonsai

 

Mexico City’s Corn Universe

Enough of the heavy stuff. Well, emotionally heavy stuff. This post is about corn. I eat corn every day here. Often multiple times a day. Whatever thickness, color, texture or fat content it may have, I am eating it regularly. And I’m proud to say I’m even starting to think corn isn’t corn without chiles. (Before I’d hardly go near them.)

Let’s start with the tlacoyo, a personal favorite because it’s one of the few foods you will find on the street that is not deep fried in oil. It is a simple, delectable blue corn dough, stuffed with mashed beans, either black or fava, grilled and then topped with cheese, chile, cactus, mushroom, etc. You can find them on the street or at the outdoor markets. Once I tried them I was hooked for eternity. They are also a food specific to Mexico City/Estado de Mexico, the state surrounding the capital.

Tlacoyo

Tlacoyo

Next is the sope. Below are the sopes that Sara, Blanca and Paola made for the rest of the Casa staff to celebrate Nico’s birthday. It’s a round tortilla folded up on the sides with mashed beans, cheese and chile on top (noticing a pattern?). Also incredibly delicious.

Sopessss

Sopes

The last feature is the tamal. The most elusive of its corn counterparts, the tamal is only found at early hours of the morning or at night. The tamal man with his barrel of steaming tamales oaxaqueñas comes riding through our neighborhood and stations himself at the nieghboring Edison Bakery. They are made of a corn dough which is steamed inside the corn husk and filled with chicken, pork, mole, green/red salsa, etc. There are also sweet ones that taste like strawberry corn bread to break the sweat after te enchiles (a verb literally meaning to get burned by chile).

Tamales Club

Tamales Club

As with all agriculture today in a corporation dominated market of produce, there are raging debates in Mexico currently about the introduction of GMO corn into Mexican agriculture.

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This flier advocating against GMO corn says,

“Corn has been a part of the life of Mexican pueblos for more than 7,000 years. Since then, small men and women farmers have been responsible for the cultivation of the plant, which includes more than 60 types of maíz.

GMO corn and patents for seeds threaten the biodiversity of corn and the work of thousands of years of farmers in Mexico. Its use risks the end of maíz criollo and the cause of damaging health effects.

Corn is the most important part of Mexican life and table.

¡For the life, health and economies of our Mexican pueblo, fight against the use of GMO seeds!”

The social justice element of corn is similar to the emphasis of local food movements in the U.S., and the rejection of monopolies such as Monsanto over the production of our crops. This image, taken from estudiosecumenicos.org.mx exhibits this point succinctly. In Mexico there is also an annual “World Day Against Monsanto,” which Mexico City celebrates with a march ending at our very own Monument of the Revolution.

¡Rechazamos Monsanto!

¡Rechazamos Monsanto!

Last Week in Brief

The Breakfast Table

When asked about the Casa experience, guests often recall one time/place during Casa stay that stands out above all others: breakfast. Monday through Friday 8-10am and Saturday, 9-11am, a Casa volunteer makes breakfast for other volunteers, program coordinators, guests, solidarity hospitality lodging guests (refugees that stay at the Casa free of charge), and miscellaneous members of the Casa community.  On any given morning it’s an interesting and diverse mix of people–and therein lies the impact. It’s the opportunity to meet and talk with new people who are each learning about and experiencing Mexico often in a deep and meaningful way.

Lately, it’s been dark when I wake up to make breakfast. The house is still, and my first mission is to by bread at La Universal, a bakery just around the corner. On my way to pick up the breakfast rolls, I pass a steady stream of morning commuters and the bare bones of street stalls that are in the process of being set up. In that moment I’m thankful that the donut man is just barely rolling out the dough–still, I look away to resist the temptation.

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Breakfast Granola

Breakfast Granola

So far for breakfast I’ve made chilaquiles, latkes, home fries, carrots, and dozens upon donzens of eggs. Other volunteers have made pancakes, sopes, molletes, vegetables, and many other (simply) delicious breakfasts. Volunteers typically cook once a week, and it’s become one of my favorite parts of the week. I get to put on music and cook as the sun rises, while look forward to serving the house it’s first meal of the day.

“La Bestia”

Standing by the train tracks at Tultitlán on Friday, we waited in the hot sun for “La Bestia” to pass by. Looking south, we searched for any sign of an oncoming train, the infamous passage for thousands of migrants traveling through Mexico from Southern Mexico and Central America. The cargo train passes every few hours in the small town just North of Mexico City, carrying up to hundreds of people at a time. This time when the train passed we scanned carefully for signs of life. We spotted three or four sleeping people, as the train rattled by accompanied by the haunting sounds of steel against steel.

We went to the train route accompanied by two Hondurans, both who originally came to Mexico with the intention of continuing on to the U.S. Due to the escalating situation of violence in the migration route in Northern Mexico, both were halted in Mexico City unsure of their next step. The rise in cartel violence in Mexico has been accompanied by an exploding economy of extortion, kidnapping and robbery of migrants. The train, which was once the only cheap way to get across Mexico is now under surveillance by competing forces of private train security details (with the job of forceably shoving people off the train), cartels, coyotes, and any number of other dangers which make the trip perilous at best.

bestia

bestia2

It was difficult to take in this horrifying reality of mistreatment and abuse, in what seemed (in the moments before the train passed) to otherwise be a quiet Mexican town. Just miles down the tracks the areas of Lechería and Huehuetoca have become overrun by gang activity which has forced shelters and food pantries for migrants to shut down. It seems unbelievable that so many would risk their lives so perilously on a train hurtling into the unfamiliar and impossible geography of life as an undocumented person (either in Mexico or the United States). But what is made clear by these patterns of migration is that for those that choose to attempt the trip from Central America, especially Honduras, even the threats of migration beat the hunger and violence faced back home.