Monthly Archives: January 2009

To cross or not to cross? Depends on who you are

**This is my first post with photos.  As you can see, I am slowly but surely incorporating technology into the blog :)**

Normally, when I have to meet my Mexican coworkers near the border, I walk right into Mexico through the turnstile doors.  Sometimes there is a guard, more times there isn’t.


Even though Nogales is a more tranquilo border city than the ones in the news (Tijuana, Juarez), I don’t usually linger too long near the line because as a guera (light-haired, light-skinned), I’m recognized as an American (which I am mostly), assumed to have money (which I don’t really), and solicited for a taxi, taxi or to buy pharmaceuticals or souvenirs “for your boyfriend”, as I’m told in impressively unaccented English.  This interaction, sort of amusing and novel the first time I crossed 5 months ago,  lost its appeal pretty quickly and I’ve trained hard to maintain an as-uninterested-as-possible expression on my face to reduce the rate of solicitations to buy stuff.  It’s sort of worked.  It also helps that I’m chaparrita (short) so I blend in more if I travel alone.

A few days ago I had the chance to linger for a longer while and observe the pedestrian traffic on the Mexican side.   I wasn’t exactly surprised by what I saw, since I have been a foot pedestrian for a while now, but standing there and doing nothing but watching, I became newly aware of the contrasts and different degrees of privilege before me, all coexisting for brief moments as they pass and don’t pass each other.  These are the people that I share foot space with on the Nogales border:

  • The most privileged crossers: American-passport carrying retirees venturing into Mexico on an excursion to try burros (burritos), buy cheap medicine among the sea of pharmacies and perhaps a mask or some animal horns (no joke, I saw retirees carrying this as a souvenir a few weeks ago).
  • The second most privileged crossers: Mexican-Americans with US passports, mostly residents of the border on the US side, going to visit their families, work, conduct business, and carry out the million other activities that link the two sides.  I think of this group as the second most privileged because they tend to have less disposable income than the retirees and are often treated rudely by Customs officials for being Mexican.
  • The semi-privileged crossers: A little known but large group totaling several million border residents who after proving their ties to Mexico (through business, employment, family, property, or other ties), i.e. that they are only entering the US for a temporary stay, applied successfully for border crossing cards that entitle them to enter the US, 25 miles inland, and up to Tucson 65 miles away in Arizona, for a period of 30 days.  This group, a huge chunk of border traffic, is semi-privileged because they have to jump through a lot of hoops to cross legally, and even when they do their movement in the US is limited.
  • The non-crossers: The majority of Mexicans do not qualify or cannot afford visas to the US and cannot cross through legal means.  (Mexicans who hail from areas south of the border do not qualify for the border crossing cards.)  Those who want/need to cross but can’t are forced to cross illegally.  When I lingered, I watched about 25 crossers in camouflage dark green, blue and black clothing.  It wasn’t clear to me which of them were preparing to cross and which had just been deported.  Some carried Homeland-Security issued plastic bags with clothes in them.  I’m not sure whose clothes they were.  Although I was intensely curious, I respected their privacy and held back from asking questions since they were either about to embark on a possibly deadly journey or had been forcibly returned from one.

I feel like it’s so obvious, but I still need to point out how incredibly unfair it is that people like me can cross on a whim, that the hierarchy of border crossers exists and that the “non-crossers” have to risk their lives to cross.  On a return visit to the border on Friday, I snapped these two shots.  The first is a small section of the wall in which Nogalenses have attached crosses to mourn the Mexicans who have died crossing.  You can’t see it in the picture but the crosses bear the names of the dead.


And this is the graffitied sentiment on the wall generated by unequal border policies and the resulting deaths.


For those who don’t know Spanish, the graffiti reads, “BORDERS, SCARS ON THE LAND.”

In an ideal world, I would advocate for the erasure of borders.  In the real world, I want to push for a sensitization of borders to people’s needs and wants, to be with family, to work, to travel, to move more freely.

The border crossing card that allows the semi-privileged crossers entry into the US may be the model that we need to build off of.  This card could possibly increase Mexicans’ and other foreigners’ access to the US and create reciprocity between US immigration policies and the freer immigration policies of countries that allow us unlimited entry.  Obviously the border visa card would need to be revised – 25 miles and 30-day restrictions just don’t cut it – but it is a start.  The border visa card could even win over conservative Americans.  Its laser technology means authorities can regulate who is entering, and because it allows people to come and go, it is likely to reduce “illegal” immigration.   This is by far not the only solution, but one that seems fairly obvious for this border resident.


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Mexico/US/immigration roundup

In a quick repudiation of two searing US reports (one which I discussed in “Bad News for Mexico”), the Mexican government has denied that Mexico is a “weak and failing state”, claiming that the drug violence the reports underscore is confined to select cities (mostly close to where I live, great) and that the war is being won (albeit slowly) against the cartels.

Although the government’s claims to progress against the narcos are iffy, it does appear that the narcos have calmed down in the last month or so.  Rumors are circulating and the latest is that narcos’ business interest has trumped their blood interest, and that a truce has been reached between the Chapo and Beltrán cartels to allow business as usual in supplying drugs to Mexico’s northern neighbor.  We’ll see.  As damaging as drug use is, I prefer by a thousand times that business continue uninterrupted and people are not shot in the process.

Though Calderon’s government may be off on the source of decreasing (?) violence, it is right to attribute partial responsibility to the US for the existence of violence at all.  It’s not breaking news but it doesn’t hurt to remind people that the US is both the biggest consumer of Mexican drugs and the biggest producer of the guns involved in drug-related violence (95% actually).  Sure, guns don’t kill people, people kill people, but guns make it a heck of a lot easier.  It would really help if the US lent Mexico a hand and actually curbed drug use and made it harder for the narcos to acquire arms. It’s cute that the ATF of the U.S. Department of Justice organizes “small arms trafficking training for Mexican officers” to each year show 40 Mexican officials how to identify gun smuggling and stop it, but it would be more fruitful for the US to directly tackle the easy availability of guns (2nd amendment) and their removal from US territory.


Hah, France is not alone!  A few-weeks old article from the L.A. Times reports that the US is inaugurating a policy to collect DNA samples of immigrants and criminals, clearly because the two are the same?!  This policy marks a troubling tendency to conflate immigrants and criminals, a tendency which we see played out in our rhetoric.  Immigrants who cross without documents are “illegal immigrants” in even mainstream supposedly left leaning publications.  The implication is that they are not only in the US illegally but that their personhood is illegal — they are illegal people.   It is upsetting to see the lexicon being mirrored more and more in the treatment of immigrants.  This DNA measure is just the latest. Immigrants are shot by border patrol (allegedly in self defense against the “dangerous” generally unarmed intruders) and jailed for entering illegally.  When will America start to understand that immigrants are coming not to commit crime, but for the same reason the growing ranks of unemployed Americans read the Classifieds?


Remittances to Mexico dropped in 2008 for the first time on record.  Experts are saying that the falloff in remittances, Mexico’s second income earner after oil, is due largely to a heightened crackdown on undocumented migrants and the deepening recession, with many unskilled workers especially affected by slowdowns in the construction sector.  The implications for Mexico, like most developing countries, are bleak.  Many families and entire communities depend on cash transfers from abroad, and the decrease in remittances, coupled with worldwide recession and increases in food prices, will probably translate into more poverty before there can be less poverty.

More general thoughts on remittances in a future entry…

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Local borders

In the US when we hear “border” we imagine the militarized US-Mexico border or the calmer border we share with our Canad-“eh”-an brothers.  These are our politically constructed borders, which over time, have converted into social borders as well.  But I’ve begun recently to think that these are only the borders we are most conscious of nationally, and that there are borders among us.

On a weekend trip to Navajo country in Arizona, I picked up the local paper (The Navajo Times) and, browsing, was startled to come across articles about “border cities”, which in my mind, were several hundred miles to the south.  Reading on I learned that these border cities are not the ones along the US-Mexican border, but rather those along the Navajo Nation boundary, which separate Navajo from non-Navajo Americans.

The border I read about, though distinct, struck a chord with the Mex border.  As with the Mexican border, the two sides have a long history of economic and social integration.   There is movement and exchange of goods, people, ideas across the border.  And yet there are layers of privilege and inequality across the línea, marked by the Great Wall where I live, and by a line on the map in Navajo country.  In and around Navajo country, I did not see the border patrol on the prowl for crossers from the other side, but I saw a more subtle, disturbing dehumanization taking place.  On the highway, I was greeted by cartoon images of the “friendly Indian” selling knick knacks, in facilities “with clean restrooms”.  Hundreds of years of rich culture boiled down to marketing propaganda.  Unfortunately as I learned from the same paper there is also more overt inequality.  The Navajo who live in the border cities are often subject to verbal harassment, discrimination in hiring and promotions, and in at least one case, gerrymandering of bus routes and student assignments to keep Navajo children out of the whiter school.

I reminded myself not to feel too sorry.  I met an artisan selling modern interpretations of traditional Navajo art.  He was related to the President of the Navajo Nation and told me, proudly, that the Navajo were improving their schooling system and reclaiming their culture through increased instruction in the Navajo language.  I took a picture of him and felt for a few seconds that I was like so many ignorant gringas seeing this Navajo man as a piece of art, rather than as a person.  I knew this wasn’t the case actually, that I really cared to know, but I couldn’t help feeling like I was reinforcing the line between Anglos and Native Americans.  It was also strange to speak English, in part I think because I am used to being curious south of my border.

Living in the Southwest, I am just starting to become aware of Native American cultures and the issues that they face; poverty, discrimination, dietary problems.  I will probably be writing more on Native Americans as this blog develops.


Native Americans apparently have high hopes for Obama.

The same edition of Navajo Times features letters written by Navajo fifth and sixth graders to President Obama.  Here are some of my favorites because of their poignancy and childhood innocence:

Dear Mr. Obama,

My name is Ian Hunter Burden.  If I was president I would be panicked.  But you don’t look panicked.  I wish there would be world pax.  It means peace.


Ian H. Burden


Dear Mr. Obama,

Hello, my name is Clarence C.  Our school is broke.  Please give us money.  We kids are in need of books.  I would like some new computers and a gym.  We all told everybody to vote for you.  I think we deserve some credit.


Clarence Champagne


Dear Mr. Obama,

My name is Shane Moran.  I am 11 years old.  I would like to ask you a few questions.  For my first question, what will you do about gas prices?

Secondly, what will you do about the second amendment?  Third, what will you do about our troops in Iraq?  Finally, (I know this question is silly but I’ll ask it anyway) are there really aliens in Area 51?


Shane Moran


Dear Mr. Obama,

Hello, my name is Alisa Talor Yazzie.  My maternal clan is Deer Springs, born for Bitter Water, and my paternal clan is Red Bottom clan, born for Towering House.  I am full-blooded Navajo and I am 9 years old.

At my school I voted for you, I wanted you to win.  I was also a princess at my other school but I gave up my crown.

There are a lot of things that are happening in my life.  My uncle has kidney failure on both kidneys, but he’ll be all right, won’t he?  I hope so.

I just wanted to say hi, and I hope I will be able to see you once.  When I get a new phone I will tell you my number.


Alisa Yazzie

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Across the Atlantic

Leave it to France and Germany to make America look good (or not so bad) on immigration.  In the latest move to keep the scary illegals out, France is instituting DNA testing of immigrants who apply for family visas.  Though forging on these documents is not uncommon, the new policy sets a dehumanizing precedent for Europe and creates yet another obstacle for families to pursue their “American”, or in this case “European” dream.  The cost of the test, a whopping £350, is passed on to the immigrant families.

In the meantime, in Germany, a recent survey shows that Turks, one of Germany’s most sizable immigrant groups, is still, after 50 years of cohabitation, poor, poorly educated and behind in wages and employment.  The study by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development attributes Turks’ second class status to firstly, their own reluctance to integrate and secondly, Germany’s discrimination and flimsy efforts to help Turks advance in German society, especially in the realm of education.

Though I can’t comment on Turks’ attitudes towards Germany, the lack of educational opportunities hits close to come.  In the US, we stereotype Mexican immigrants as being uneducated and lazy.  Then when they or their undocumented children aspire to higher education to become contributing members of society we close the door in their faces.  The DREAM Act, which would provide undocumented high school graduates with a path to a college education and legal status, has been stalled in Congress since 2001.  If you would like to learn more about the Act or how to support it, please visit the DreamACTivist site.

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Bad news for Mexico

Watch out, Mexico.  According to a U.S. Joint Forces report covered by the Miami Herald, it looks like your northern neighbor has lost total faith and actually believes you’re as likely to “rapidly and suddenly” collapse as Pakistan.

Now, the bad news  is that the bells of alarm have some reason to sound.  Drug cartels do rule large parts of Mexico, especially the north, and there were more than 5,000 drug related deaths in 2008.  I hate to say it but Mexico may have gotten in over its head going after the narcos.  It’s honorable to finally take a stand, but it may be too late for a conventional war against organized crime.  These are not thugs we’re talking about.  They are sophisticated military units, with grenades, Iran-trained fighters and their own convoys of submarines (which they can afford to destroy after a single delivery).  And they’re probably run by your Kennedy School classmates.

The worse bad news though is that doomsday and alarmist publications like the US report certainly don’t help things and probably worsen them.  Mexico admittedly has problems, but it is not heading for collapse.  People from inside Mexico, like exiting ambassador Tony Garza, say that while more days of violence loom, a failed state is not in Mexico’s future.  The worst that can happen, and it would be a tragedy, is increased militarization of Mexico (i.e., martial law).

Though Mexico has intense security threats, the more imposing and lurking threat is increasing poverty.  The Mexican economy is already on a downward spiral, with Calderón recently announcing Mexico’s entry into recession.  Prediciting a possible “collapse” is likely to kill the climate for business investment and job creation, the cornerstones of Mexico’s social development plan, Vivir Mejor, to help Mexicans out of poverty.

What is needed to stop drug violence is not reports, but rather serious reconsideration of strategies and cooperation between the Mexico and the US.  Though it may be unpopular in two very socially conservative countries, it is time to put decriminalization on the consideration table, and actually do something to curb the bloodshed.  It is also high time to beef up anti-gun regulations in the US, especially in southern states where guns are easily available, and at least put up an effort to stop the massive influx of guns from the US to Mexico (where guns are illegal).  As it stands now, my coworker and I, who drive into Mexico without the Mexican authorities as much as flinching, could be bringing in arsenals of AK 47s in our trunks daily.

And the good news? … Obama is being inaugurated today, and maybe, maybe, he and Calderón, who met for the first time last week, will begin to address these issues with heads on their shoulders, and not like chickens running around with their heads cut off, clucking “collapse, collapse!”

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Reflections on Walmart

I used to hate Walmart.  When I was in middle school and high school, Walmart was where I had to accompany my mom  to buy sponges, shoe deodorant, towels and other etc items.  I always dreaded going.  The lines were long, people pushed and the sales clerks didn’t smile or say thank you.  I only went because the Walmart stop came at the tail end of the shopping mall run, and I couldn’t teleport from Wet Seal to the house.

All the scandals surrounding Walmart broke when I was in college.  At the time Walmart was decried as the money mongering giant that crushes small businesses, exploits workers (especially of the female variety) through overwork and underpayment, and busts any attempts at unionization.  All of these charges have truth and in the last few years Walmart has paid dearly for its abuses, with several multi-million payouts to employees.  But what’s interesting in all of this is that today Walmart is still doing well.  Unlike many businesses in our current economic clime, it isn’t tanking anytime soon.  Walmart Inc. must be doing something right.  And since moving to the US-Mexican border, I’ve gotten an inkling.

Walmart on the border is nothing short of a phenomenon.  Tens (hundreds?) of thousands of Mexicans, permanent border residents with visas (more on border visas soon), cross daily just to visit the store.  They come by foot, in personal vehicles and in shuttles, converted old school buses that continually go back and forth between the border and the nearest Supercenter.

Inside our Walmart 3 miles north of Mexico, you forget which side of the border you’re on.   Spanish is the lingua franca of the all-Mexican shoppers and sales clerks, and merchandise includes an assortment of chili peppers, tortillas and salsas.  Guacamoles are 3 for a dollar.  Mexicans bring the kids, the significant others and the grandparents and leave with carts brimming with groceries, sodas, kitchen devices, clothes and electronics.  On a good day you wait 15 minutes to pay because the lines are so long and people so chatty.

That Mexicans cross to the US to shop might be surprising.  After all, isn’t Mexico supposed to be cheaper?  Don’t we go to Mexico to buy cheap crap?  Well, yes, Americans do go to Mexico to buy cheaper souvenirs and knick knacks.  But, that’s where the cheapness stops.  In our illogical and unfair world, it seems that the poorer the area, the more expensive the merchandise.  This holds true on the border.  On the Mexican side, a maquila worker makes 100 pesos a day and spends half of it buying lunch for one.   Forget buying wholesome groceries for a family – it would absorb his whole income.  Enter Walmart.  Cheap and quality, especially compared to supermarkets al otro lado.  Even with the dramatic fall of the peso (from 10 to the dollar half a year ago, to now 13.5 to the dollar), it’s still cheaper.  People wouldn’t be crossing in droves otherwise.

Living here, I have come to see the value of Walmart for border residents.  Although there’s little extreme poverty here, people are poor (even on the US side, 30% of residents live below the poverty line) and stretched for cash.  Walmart helps them feed their families well, and (I hope) may help to lower sky high obesity rates by offering affordable produce.  I am only a temporary border resident, but for me too, Walmart has been a saving grace.  Living on a nonprofit salary just above food stamps makes me appreciate Walmart prices, a lot.

Here too, Walmart has a sparkling reputation as an employer.  A friend of a friend’s whole family proudly works in Walmart.  A  coworker from a nearby border city talks about Walmart jobs as being the most coveted, respected and well paid in the area.

My hunch is that the border is not the only place where Walmart is helping.  There are so many poor areas in the US that are and could be served by low prices.  Of course, Walmart is far from perfect.  And there still swirl the questions of whether a world with megalopolies and multinationals is one we want to live in.  For now though, I can’t help but think that Walmart is more good than evil.


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Addendum to chess and identity

After posting yesterday, I spoke with my dad on the phone and he confirmed that 8 or 9 (all) of my grandfathers’ brothers and sisters were killed in ghettos and concentration camps during WWII.  I thought about the significance of this now.  Had they lived, I would have a big, Mexican sized family, with lots of second cousins…  It’s a sobering thought.

I am lucky though because both sets of my grandparents survived the Holocaust and have written memoirs in the last few years detailing our family history and experiences.  I am guilty of not having read them, of always leaving it for another day, especially since they’re in Russian which I’m not too good at reading.  I think though that day is today, or as soon as I get my hands on the copies.  As I read, I will share impressions.

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