Monthly Archives: February 2009

Old and new border rats

A self-proclaimed border rat, Tom Miller writes in the Washington Post about the culture of border rats:

There are lots of us border rats, really — most from the U.S. side but many from Mexico as well. We share music, food and a language. Some live within a few miles of the line and know it intimately, while others, like me, are chronic visitors. For decades now, I’ve maintained that the entire border is a third country no more than 20 miles wide and about 2,000 miles long. We border rats can navigate this 40,000-square-mile turf far more easily than we could the interior of our own homelands. We know where the tortillas are thinnest, where the music is jazziest, where the cops are friendliest and where the crossings are easiest.

As a border visiting veteran, Miller is nostalgic for the dynamic-amorphous-glittery-and-absolutely-unique place that the border used to be, and saddened by its emptying out and silencing in light of recent drug-related violence.

But that was yesterday. Today the United States-Mexico border has been pancaked between a collapsed economy to the north and brutal drug thugs to the south. Most Mexican border towns have endured at least one horrific moment recently in which a ranking police officer or journalist or político of some standing has been murdered or kidnapped in public, often with a number of innocents unfortunate to be near him — almost always a him — as collateral damage. Then there’s that ugly wall scarring our beautiful borderland, whose repulsiveness will surely outlast its short-term effectiveness.

Miller writes that due to the drug war, tourists have stopped coming and border economies are drying up.  The mystical border has turned into a no-man’s land for former border galivanters like Miller.

Miller’s commentary gives an interesting personal-historical narrative of what the border used to be like, from the perspective of a privileged crosser of course.  While he and his possee of border rats have left, at least one new border rat has come in his place and I can tell you that while the razzle dazzle has faded in the smoke of grenades and AK-47s, there is still much to study, appreciate and learn from the border.  What distinguishes the border for me is not its food or sin city potential, but its symbolic quality, representing our worst (the wall, keeping “the other” out, arms and drug trafficking) and our potential for best, via the coexistence and intermingling of different cultures, languages, currencies and ways of being.  Ojalá that the best triumphs, and that in the meantime Miller &co come back.  The economy sure could use it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Lifebytes, 1st edition

So many of the things I see and experience on a daily basis don’t necessarily inspire involved posts but do make me smile, grimace, and think.  From now on I’d like to share these ever so often in a feature I’ll call “lifebytes.”

***

Those of you who’ve been to Mexico have most likely seen and heard aged ladies with aprons and big pots vocally persuading you to buy their “TAMALES!!.”  There’s all sorts of street food for sale, but probably my favorite from the metro stops of Mexico City (my last home) is the ALEGRÍA, which in English means “happiness” and you can buy two of for 10 pesos!  The seeded molasses treats are actually not that bad ;), though eating too many of them will probably result in obesity rather than ecstacy.

The thing about Nogales, Mexico that makes me miss southern Mexico is the relative absence of economic activity in the streets.  Some sweet and salty treats are sold, but I can’t buy them in good conscience because for some reason here they’re served in styrafoam instead of regular plastic.

I was really amused this week when I encountered a 21st century version of street life not on the Mexican side, but on the US one!  While loading up groceries in the Walmart parking lot, a car pulled up and an old Mexican woman leaned out and yelled something.  At first I couldn’t make out what she was saying because the context suggested that she was asking something about the parking spot.  But then I realized all of a sudden that she was yelling “TAMALES, TAMALES” to see if we wanted to buy any from the back of her nice silver car.  AMAZING.  It reminded me of a recent trip to the Yucatan Peninsula when my boyfriend and I saw a traditional Mayan palapa being used as a car garage.  Just goes to show that traditions will persist and mold to the times in the most unexpected ways.

**

After doing a training, I was giving two participants a ride home when we started talking about (in)security in Nogales.  In the span of a 5-minute conversation, one participant told me that a friend of hers had been shot the week before, and that though it was sad, los que andan de malo acaban mal, those who are involved in bad activities meet bad ends, kind of like people get what they deserve.  (The friend was an ex-cop.)  It was partially surprising to hear it said so plainly, but only partially, because I hate to use the term in two subsquent blog entries, but I’ve noticed a sort of cognitive dissonance in Nogales such that people think that those involved in the drug trade will get what they deserve, so therefore they think and hope, I will be okay.  Turns out her husband is also on the sidelines — as a towman he’s towed several cars after they were shot up in gun fights.  Scary stuff.  It seems like everyone in Nogales is just one degree of separation away from someone who is involved in the drug wars.

**

As I pulled into the gym today, I saw the most curious thing.  There was a parked SUV with the guy in the driver’s seat dressed in what I always imagined to be traditional Native American clothing.  He wore a small headdress, was shirtless and his chest bore small probably symbolic tattoos.  I parked right in front of the car and saw that the license plate said Cherokee Nation, Alabama.  I got out and purposefully walked around the car on my way to the gym.  As I got a better look at the vehicle, I saw that it had a ladder on the top and on the side it said Media.com, a local cable company.  I walked into the gym and asked the guy at the counter if he knew anything about it; he didn’t and only said that this man’s partner was inside fixing the cable.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Reflections on the Border Patrol

When I was in college, 3,000 miles from where I am today, I was really stunned and distraught to read that many Border Patrol agents were Mexican-American.  Though I knew very little about border dynamics at the time, I was struck by the lack of ethnic compassion and recognition of shared immigration stories.   Deciding and then undeciding to do thesis research on the topic, it’s ironic that by the force of fate, I ended up living and working on the border 3 years later and once again thinking about this tension.

What I initially found puzzling now makes a lot more sense.    Although the explicit aim of the BP is to intercept illegal immigration, my conversations with BP agents have led me to believe that they are not consciously nativist in their aspirations.  Rather I’ve found that they’re focused on their personal goals for the job, “securing America” and “securing their jobs”, their versions of doing good and doing well.

Yesterday I spoke with an aspiring Border Patrol of Mexican descent.  He told me that as a kid in Nogales, Arizona he was really confused about who “illegal aliens” actually were.  He would say, “I’m not an alien”, in a childhood recognition that the term was being applied to Mexicans like him, but that he wasn’t an extraterrestrial.  Now, he is aware that if he would get into the BP he would be involved in preventing “illegal aliens”, Mexicans, not little green men, from entering the country.  When I asked him about his feelings on the matter he responded very genuinely that he would be working against “my people” in some ways, but that he would not be in it for that, but rather for security purposes.  Like many border residents in the US, he’s concerned that drug violence may spill over to this side.

A few months ago, I had the chance to talk to another BP, half-Mexican, while checking out at Walmart.  During that time, I still saw BP agents as the manifestation of their agency and anti-immigrant policy so I maybe interrogated him too hostilely.  I walked away from the conversation angry and indignant, after he had said matter-of-factly that many illegal immigrants were coming to the US to commit crimes, and that the Border Patrol prevents tons of drugs from making it to the US streets (yeah, but the interceptions wouldn’t be necessary if the US controlled demand in the first place!).   As time passed though, I became less angry.  I’ve realized that this guy, like the aspiring agent, is motivated by the desire to do what he sees as good, a service to his country.

I am definitely not saying that all causes are equal, or because someone feels good about what they’re doing that it’s a good cause.  Nor do I pardon these guys’  involvement in the BP.  I think that cognitive dissonance has clouded many BPs’ judgment in acting correctly and ethically, and actually taking into account that yes, in fact working for the Border Patrol is a betrayal of la gente mexicana.  (With reason, many Mexicans call the Mexican-American BP agents pochos, roughly translated as Mexican American traitors.)  But I do at least understand where they’re coming from and how they see their jobs.

Of course, the wish to do their version of good is only a part of the story, and not the main motivation.  The fact of the matter is that the Border Patrol is an attractive job, materially speaking.  Salaries start around $40,000 and come with generous benefits and retirement after 20 years.  And the BP is always recruiting.  Even now, despite the ailing economy, recruitment events are happening around the country.  According to my gym buddy, they are currently hiring 11,000 new recruits, and he wants to be one of them (even if he’s number 10,999, he says) to have better pay and job stability.  And while money is not everything, I can’t entirely blame him.  For many residents on the US border, not the most thriving part of the country by any means, it is one of the most lucrative options available.

The desire to do well economically, what I believe to be people’s main driver to apply to the BP, is the same desire that propels people along the border to get involved in another very unsavory activity, the drug cartels, which like the BP, are said to offer great pay, cars, houses and even insurance to their henchmen.  The comparison I think is an apt one, as both those involved in the BP and the drug cartels work for their personal and familial well being first, and above eveything else.   It is highly unfair that, because of the way the system is set up, the BP’s pursuit of material well-being is predicated on hindering those south of the border from pursuing theirs.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Home, sweet home

Finally, the NYT has given Nogales its due attention.  Welcome to my home, where the drug cartels are continually getting more ingenious in transporting drugs.  I’ve known now for some time about the narcotunnels built underground but “ramping” is a new one for me.  The lead-in to the article describes the technique:

Drug smugglers parked a car transport trailer against the Mexican side of the border one day in December, dropped a ramp over the security fence, and drove two pickup trucks filled with marijuana onto Arizona soil.

The site hosts a video demonstration.

I’m sorry if anyone is offended.  I don’t mean to be so tongue-in-cheek about it, especially with the disturbing numbers of shootouts between cartels, police and their families.  But you have to admit, the sophistication and creativity of the cartels are impressive.  The article also reports,

But these are not the only new tactics: the cartels are also increasingly planting marijuana crops inside the United States in a major strategy shift to avoid the border altogether, officials said. Last year, drug enforcement authorities confiscated record amounts of high potency plants from Miami to San Diego, and even from vineyards leased by cartels in Washington State. Mexican drug traffickers have also moved into hydroponic marijuana production — cannabis grown indoors without soil and nourished with sunlamps — challenging Asian networks and smaller, individual growers here.

Ahh, if only the brains behind these operations applied their smarts to doing good.

The good news is that, despite the article, violence along the border has been down since December.  Ever since returning from the holidays in January, I’ve been pleased to see Nogales back to a sort of normal.  Whereas a few months ago the streets were empty, with people spending just the amount of time necessary on the street to move between their home and the workplace, now the streets are bumpin’ again with locals, street vendors and of course retiree tourists.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Deport those darn tax payers! (Seriously?)

The desire to get rid of “illegals” runs so deep that now authorities in at least one state  are trying to detect and deport undocumented immigrants who pay their taxes. The NY Times reports that police from the Sheriff’s Office in Weld County, Colarado, in October entered Amalia’s Translation and Tax Service and confiscated thousands of confidential tax returns.  The seizure, a violation of property rights according to the American Civil Liberties Union, was part of, get this, Operation Number Games, to find migrants using fake Social Security numbers to pay their taxes.  Is this a game?  Because the ridiculousness of this is beyond me.  Authorities are on a mission, to deport hard working people, who are paying taxes, people who, working informally, could avoid paying taxes if they wanted to, but who still pay their share because they want to contribute and prove their place in America?  With our hemmoraging economy, we should be grateful for the income tax base (undocumented immigrants paid $50 billion in taxes from 1996 to 2003), not to mention the other economic boosts borne by undocumented immigrants who by the way always pay sales tax.  The existence of Operation Number Games can only be explained by xenophobia.

*For more commentary on this story, please visit Citizen Orange.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Oye, Border Patrol is recruiting!

Despite the financial crisis and massive layoffs, the Border Patrol is doing just fine.  On Saturday, the BP hosted a job fair in Tucson in the hopes of recruiting between 1,500 and 2,500 new officials for Arizona alone.  That’s our tax money at work, people.  The most tragicomic part of it all?  I saw the announcement in ElImparcial, a Mexican newspaper operating out of Hermosillo, Sonora, and read on both sides of the border.  Mexicans are being recruited to stop other Mexicans from coming in.  Unfortunately this absence of fraternity sounds about right, as many of the Border Patrol are of Mexican or Latino descent and still speak English with accents.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Rising anti-Semitism in Europe

Spiked, an independent journal about prejudice, recently published this very troubling article on the spread and increasing acceptability of anti-Semitism throughout Europe.  Ranging from virulent anti-Jew statements to boycotts of Jewish businesses, anti-Semitism is becoming rampant and according to the author Europeans are responding with a “see nothing, hear nothing” attitude.  The sociologist author attributes renewed hostility towards Jews to many causes.  These are some that struck my attention:

  • Mutation of anti-Israel sentiment into anti-Jewish sentiment, even before the most recent events in Gaza, and despite the fact that the majority of Jews are not Israeli, or strongly Zionist,
  • Overt expressions of anti-Semitism by some Muslim youth, who don’t subscribe to Europe’s historically hush hush approach to anti-Semitism following the Holocaust,
  • The need to find a scapegoat during the economic downturn and the supposed association between the financial crisis and American Jews.

Regardless of Europeans’ feelings on Gaza, which as a thinking Russian Jew I have mixed feelings about, it is abominable that Europeans are using Israel’s latest policies as a pretext to turn against Jewry in general, not to mention, to contend that Jews got what they deserved during the Holocaust!  (I lost most of my family in the Holocaust and we have nothing to do with Israel’s policies).  Of course such extreme proclamations are rare, but it is problematic that they are not being called out and denounced.  At moments like these, I thank the lucky stars (and my parents) that I’m in the US where I never feel like I am hated for being Jewish.

Below are excerpts from the article, which I recommend reading in its entirety if you have the time.

There is considerable evidence that in recent years anti-Semitism has acquired greater visibility and force in Europe. Over the past decade, and especially since the eruption of the conflict in Gaza, anti-Israeli sentiments have often mutated into anti-Jewish ones. Recent events indicate that in Europe the traditional distinction between anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish sentiment has become confusing and blurred.

So recently, during a demonstration against Israel’s actions in Gaza, the Dutch Socialist Party MP Harry Van Bommel called for a new intifada against Israel. Of course he has every right to express this political viewpoint. However, he became an accomplice of anti-Semites when he chose to do nothing upon hearing chants of ‘Hamas, Hamas, all Jews to the gas’ and similar anti-Jewish slogans. Many people who should know better now keep quiet when they hear slogans like ‘Kill the Jews’ or ‘Jews to the oven’ on anti-Israel demonstrations. At a recent protest in London, such chants provoked little reaction from individuals who otherwise regard themselves as progressive anti-racists – and nor did they appear to be embarrassed by the sight of a man dressed as a racist Jewish caricature, wearing a ‘Jew mask’ with a crooked nose while pretending to eat bloodied babies.

Increasingly, protesters are targeting Jews for being Jews. They have agitated for the boycott and even harassment of ‘Israeli shops’, but in practice this means boycotting and harassing Jewish-owned shops, such as Marks & Spencer (some of whose stores have been barricaded by anti-Israel protesters) and Starbucks (a number of whose coffee shops have been attacked in London and elsewhere). Some protesters in Italy don’t share the linguistic subtlety of those ostensibly calling for a boycott of ‘Israeli shops’. Giancarlo Desiderati, spokesman for the trade union Flaica-Cub, has called for a boycott of Jewish businesses in Rome. A leaflet issued by his union informed Romans that anything they purchase in Jewish-owned shops will be ‘tainted by blood’.

Here, there is an almost effortless conceptual leap from criticising Israel to targeting Jews. Desiderati pointed out that his organisation had already called for a boycott of Israeli goods before taking the logical next step of demanding a boycott of Jewish shops. He said that his union was drawing up a list of Jewish shops, ‘though it might be better to publish a list of streets in which a majority of the shops are Jewish and ask people to avoid those streets when shopping’ (2).

Anti-Semitism in Europe is not simply a rhetorical pastime of Islamists or pro-Palestinian protesters. In Britain, Jewish schoolchildren have been castigated for belonging to a people with ‘blood on their hands’. Their elders sometimes face intimidation and regularly report being subjected to verbal abuse. What is most disturbing about these developments is the reluctance of European society to acknowledge and confront acts of anti-Semitism. Take the riots that broke out in Paris on 3 January. If you relied upon mainstream media reports, you would never have known that groups of youngsters were shouting ‘death to the Jews’ while throwing stones at the police. In this instance, expressions of anti-Semitism were not even properly reported, much less confronted and challenged in public debate.

Probably the saddest example of this accommodation to anti-Semitism comes from Denmark. Historically, Denmark has been one of the most enlightened societies in Europe. During the Second World War, it stood out as a country were the Nazis could find virtually nobody willing to collaborate with their anti-Jewish policies. It is sad, therefore, to read reports today about Danish school administrators who recommend that Jewish children should not enrol in their schools. It began last week, when Olav Nielsen, headmaster of Humlehave School in Odense, publicly stated that he would ‘refuse to accept the wishes of Jewish parents’ who wanted to place children at his school, because it might create tension amongst the Muslim children. Other headmasters echoed his refusal to school the children of Jews, claiming that they were putting children’s safety first. Whatever their intentions, these pedagogues were sending the powerful message that, in the interests of ‘health and safety’, the ghettoisation of Jewish children can be an acceptable and even sensible idea.

The most worrying dynamic in Europe today is not the explicit vitriol directed against Jews by radical Muslim groups or far-right parties, but the new culture of accommodation to anti-Semitism. We can see the emergence of a slightly embarrassed ‘see nothing, hear nothing’ attitude that shows far too much ‘understanding’ towards expressions of anti-Semitism. Typically, the response to anti-Jewish prejudice is to argue that it is not anti-Semitic, just anti-Israeli. Sometimes even politically correct adherents to the creeds of diversity and anti-racism manage to switch off when it comes to confronting anti-Jewish comments.

Many public figures blame Spain’s economic crisis on America’s influence over the global financial system. This outlook appears to be underpinned by a diffuse sense of frustration about our uncertain world, where invisible forces can come to be personified in the image of the caricatured Jew. This sentiment is inadvertently fostered by the Spanish Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, which is profoundly hostile to Israel, and by the Spanish media’s frequent reluctance to distinguish between Israel and Jewish people. Cartoons that are critical of Israel in Spanish newspapers and magazines sometimes depict medieval anti-Semitic caricatures. At a dinner party in late 2005, Zapatero let rip against Israel. He was overheard saying: ‘Es que a veces hasta se entiende que haya gente que puede justificar el holocausto.’ In English: ‘At times one can even understand that there might be people who could justify the Holocaust.’ (10)

According to one interesting study of anti-Semitism in Europe, prejudices are ‘projected backwards to justify behaviour towards Jews in past conflicts’. The study says that ‘in this context, anti-Semitic arguments today frequently serve the purpose of rejecting guilt and responsibility for the persecutions of the Jews [in the past]’ (13). This approach is most notable in societies that were deeply implicated in the persecution of Jews during the Second World War; according to various surveys, the idea that Jews were responsible for their own persecution was supported by 30 per cent of respondents in Russia, 27 per cent in the Ukraine, 35 per cent in Belarus, 31 per cent in Lithuania, and 17 per cent in Germany in 2004 (14).

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized