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Returning to life amidst flu and indignation

Apologies for the long hiatus in posting.  Work and life have been keeping me busy, and at times, despite the strangeness that is the border, crazy events start to feel mundane.  Of course much has happened on the border and in Mexico since I’ve last posted, including a historic trip by Obama to Mexico, hopefully a start to productive work on immigration and drug policy and of course the swine flu.

Though the epicenter of the outbreak is 1500 miles to the south, I panicked sufficiently last week to evacuate a friend out of DF, more out of fear of an inept medical system than actual flu contraction, and went on a Nogales-wide prowl for masks and germex.  The mask wearing lasted for about 20 minutes, when, itchy, and cynical that it was doing any good with most people not wearing it, or wearing it symbolically around their necks or with mouth or nose exposed, I decided to take it off too.   I later learned that masks were probably not that useful, and in better news, that the flu is not seeming to be too virulent or deadly yet.  You just need to get medical care when you notice symptoms.  Therein lies the potential issue for Mexico and other developing countries with less than desirable healthcare systems and streched resources.  There have been reports in Mexico of hospitals actually turning away patients out of ignorance or fear to contract the flu themselves.  Very auspicious.

Taking a break today from refreshing the drudge report on the swine flu, a friend and I took a trip to Kartchner Caverns near Benson, AZ.   Approaching a Border Patrol checkpoint we hadn’t seen before, we slowed to a halt, but since the cars in front of us weren’t stopping or rolling down their windows, we slowly started moving forward.  The Border Patrol officer peered into our window, and noticing that my friend was “driving while brown”, indicated for us to stop and roll down the windows. “Are you both citizens?” she asked, and my friend shook his head, pulling out his resident card.  Suddenly, presumptively, she switched into halting Spanish.  “Si tiene esta tarjeta, tiene que parar, siempre.  Para esto está el letrero.  Si es ciudadano, le voy a dejar pasar.”    (If you have this card, you have to stop, always.  That’s why the sign is there.  If you’re a citizen, I’ll let you go by.)  She turns to me, “¿Y usted?” (And you?).  At this point, I was seething.   “Actually, we speak perfect English, and yes, I am a citizen.”  A bit startled, she said “Oh, that’s great,” and waved us through.  It was offensive beyond belief.  She had assumed, by looking at us and despite our residence in the States, that to communicate her point, she would have to speak in Spanish.  It was racial profiling at its finest, and a call to take up the baton again and sound injustices on this blog.


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Living on the US side

My coworkers asked me a few days ago why I live on the US side of the border when the Mexican side is so much cheaper: I could probably save a few hundred bucks renting a flat in Nogales, Sonora.  I agreed that financially they had a point, and thought back to when I made the decision in September.

Back then, when I first arrived, Nogales was turning into the next hotspot for drug-related violence.  There were several shootings a week, and based on reports coming out of Tijuana and Juarez, I feared that Nogales would follow suit and turn into the next war zone.  Fortunately for me and all Nogales residents, the violence has dropped considerably in the past few months, I’m guessing because either one of the cartels won the Nogales turf or they came to an agreement.  Even the retirees have returned to shop for curios.

Why, then, am I still in Nogales, Arizona?  The truth is that despite the improvement in Nogales, Sonora, the pueblito on this side still feels a heck of a lot safer and more comfortable.  When I see the police on this side, I don’t think, drive by quickly because the police could be a target and I could get caught in the crossfire, but rather, I slow down to avoid getting a speeding ticket (whoops, already got a warning).  Unlike in Nogales, Sonora, in Nogales, Arizona, army jeeps with mounted arms are not a daily sight (and hopefully will not come to be amidst talks of militarizing the border), nor do I see guys walking around in cholo garb looking all tough and menacing.

To its credit, Nogales, Sonora is not as scary as it first appeared when I arrived and obsessively read about the shootings in the papers.  As I go about my field work, I am getting to know normal middle-class neighborhoods where kids and dogs play outside and street activity brims.  But there is still something sinister and unfriendly about Nogales, Sonora… perhaps a certain lack of community, a pervasive distrust that everyone acknowledges and probably stems in part from the large contingent that’s immigrated to Nogales to work in the maquiladoras, but hasn’t integrated into the community.

I am privileged to have the choice of which side to live on and this disparity between me and my coworkers — that I can choose and they can’t — makes me feel embarrassed, like I ought to be living on the Mexican side so that we’re more equal.  I know this is not the solution, since it doesn’t actually rectify the inequality or make my cowokers safer, but it’s what I quietly think about as my coworkers do the math on how much money I would save living al otro lado.

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La Rusa and La Mexicana in Brighton!

Last weekend I visited my grandparents in Brighton Beach in New York.  For the uninitiated, Brighton Beach is like Russiatown, a Russian/Ukranian/Soviet immigrant mecca settled by Russians in the 70s/80s.  In Brighton business and daily life are conducted entirely in Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet is a must-know.  (Here is a good primer on the sights and sounds of Brighton Beach).

Since we first immigrated to the States in 1989, I’ve visited my grandparents in Brighton often, and never missed an opportunity to buy Russian goodies, i.e. black bread, Russian chocolates, buckwheat, eggplant spread, and caviar for special occasions (yum!).

I started noticing that Brighton was not entirely Russian about two years ago.  Living in Costa Rica and then in Mexico, I became attuned to Spanish and started noticing that some of the stores employed Central Americans.  It was just this weekend though that I really tuned in to the fact that my “Russian” enclave is attracting immigrants from all over and especially from Latin America.

When I arrived to my grandparents’ house, they introduced me to their temporary home attendant (their normal home attendant, Valentina, had fallen and sprained something).  This replacement home attendant was not Russian, but Cuban according to them, and on future investigation, actually Nicaraguan.  She told my grandparents she was Cuban because as former Soviets, they knew Fidel and were more likely to recognize Cuba than Nica..what…!

My grandpa, proud and mystified that I speak Spanish (sometimes better than I speak Russian), told this lady that I speak Spanish and was really amused when we began to converse en español.  The home attendant told me much about her life, including that she had lived in Brighton for 36 years and raised her kids here with many other Spanish speakers.  She’d been working as a home attendant for a while and since most of the senior citizens in the area are Russian, she’d learned “the important” Russian words: towel, spoon, fork, eat, etc.  I loved it!

When I went for a stroll with my mom and boyfriend, it was confirmed.  The phone card store advertised cheap calling rates to Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, El Salvador and Mexico!  Uncanny and interesting, but I guess not that surprising.  When I did some online research, I found that Brighton is also experiencing a lot of immigration from China and the Middle East.

I’m down with all of it, as long as I can keep getting my Russian candy 🙂

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Finally, a reasonable proposal for drug policy

I’ve been frustrated for a while by the finger-pointing at our southern neighbors for bringing drug violence to our borders.  The buck stops on this side of the border and more specifically in Washington, D.C.  Finally, three former Latin American presidents (Cardozo of Brazil, Gaviria of Colombia, Zedillo of Mexico) have produced a report that places blame on insatiable drug demand (aka, the US), and advocates for a rethinking of drug policy.  An editorial in the Wall Street Journal explains the failures of the status quo approach and the advantages of a new one, based on decriminalization:

Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalization of consumption simply haven’t worked. Violence and the organized crime associated with the narcotics trade remain critical problems in our countries. Latin America remains the world’s largest exporter of cocaine and cannabis, and is fast becoming a major supplier of opium and heroin. Today, we are further than ever from the goal of eradicating drugs.

In order to drastically reduce the harm caused by narcotics, the long-term solution is to reduce demand for drugs in the main consumer countries. To move in this direction, it is essential to differentiate among illicit substances according to the harm they inflict on people’s health, and the harm drugs cause to the social fabric.

In this spirit, we propose a paradigm shift in drug policies based on three guiding principles: Reduce the harm caused by drugs, decrease drug consumption through education, and aggressively combat organized crime. To translate this new paradigm into action we must start by changing the status of addicts from drug buyers in the illegal market to patients cared for by the public-health system.

The idea is to stop wasting resources on eradication efforts which do nothing to diminish supply (there is a lot of land in Latin America to cultivate), and on imprisonment, which doesn’t reduce demand and oftentimes produces harder addicts.   The responsible alternative, which will work for Latin America, is to attack drug use in the US through prevention and education.  People, especially kids, need to know the harms of drugs and they need to know that a joint is not just a joint.   Getting high has moral and social consequences and fuels a dangerous and bloody industry.

The document put out by the Latin American Commission is an overdue and necessary proposal, and one that the US should take seriously if it is to really make inroads in the war on drugs.   The US should also heed the mention at the end of the Wall Street editorial to by the way, not just stop demand, but stop supplying Latin America with easy arms.

We’ll see how Obama responds.  Obama has declared publicly that the war on drugs is a failure, but whether he takes on the politically, morally, religiously sensitive issue of decriminalization in a time when Americans want the economy fixed first remains a big question mark.

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PUSHED out of Mexico

In the last post I wrote about what happens to people once they’re deported.  I realized that I’ve never examined on this blog why people leave in the first place.

Studies of migration always consider pull and push factors.  With migration to the US, the pull factor is obvious: jobs, which exist, in contrast to parts of Mexico and Central America, and jobs that pay hourly wages which often exceed the daily wages available to workers in Mexico and Central America. The main push factor is the inverse of the pull factor.  Too few jobs and too-low incomes.   However, there are a few other push factors that were not as personally obvious until I lived in central Mexico and now on the U.S./Mexican border.

One push factor comes from the inadequacy to date of Mexico’s development policy.  Recognizing that remittances are Mexico’s third income earner after petroleum and tourism, a federal program called 3×1 matches remittances that are oriented towards social or community purposes.  This is pragmatic, but doesn’t raise education levels (still really low in Mexico with most people not completing high school) or generate job opportunities in Mexico.  Admittedly other government programs focus on job creation but these programs thus far have had limited success.

There’s another factor that’s personally upsetting.  There is a built up picture in many parts of Mexico of the US as an Eden  and of the trip to the US as a rite of passage for young men, a sort of adventure to prove that you’re tough.  It is true perhaps even in a time of crisis that wages in the US are higher, but as I’m learning through conversations with deportees, the mystique often turns into disillusionment when immigrants arrive to a racist country that violates their rights and where they lack the support of loved ones back home.  A friend of mine wrote his college thesis about the devastating effects of parent migration on children’s attitudes, school performance and job prospects. It’s hard to grow up without a mom or a dad.

Migrants have all the right in the world to come and seek better opportunities but this is not a sustainable solution.  What we need are initiatives that create opportunities for people in Mexico, Central America, and the world over, and not just in the USA.  People should be able to do well for their families by bringing the bacon home, in person, and not through wire transfers.

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What happens after deportation?

What happens to undocumented people when they’re deported to Mexico? I’ve decided to investigate this question firsthand by volunteering at the local soup kitchen for recent deportees in Nogales, Sonora.


The soup kitchen, or comedor, is run by a few Catholic orders on both sides of the border and visited by volunteers from numerous groups including No More Deaths in Tucson.  Entirely funded by donations, the soup kitchen serves two meals a day to deported migrants — who have to demonstrate their deportation document at the door — for 14 days after they arrive if it is their first deportation, and for 3 days if it is any consecutive deportation.  The idea is to prioritize recent arrivals while they figure out next steps and to discourage deportees from hanging around Nogales for too long and getting involved with drugs and smugglers.

The cheery and dedicated nun and missionary who run the place arrive at 7am to start making preparations and by 8:30 people start to line up.  At 9am, around 150-250 people file in.  Once everyone has had their fill of beans, eggs and tortillas (seconds are allowed until the food runs out), if volunteers from No More Deaths are present, they invite anyone who is willing to share their experiences in detention facilities, as part of the organization’s ongoing documentation project.  Also between meals if there are clothes donations, deportees, many of whom arrive unequipped for the summer heat or winter/night cold of the desert, can collect socks, sweaters, jackets, t-shirts and hats.

The soup kitchen plays a crucial role in a broken system.  To the people that are deported to Nogales, and who don’t have an immediate plan, or oftentimes any more money or possessions besides the clothes on their back, the soup kitchen offers a respite.  It is a peaceful place, and even to a nonreligious person, feels holy.  No cursing or loud music, and each meal begins with a prayer for the food that the deportees at least don’t have to worry about for a little while while they gather up their heads and their hearts and decide whether to cross again or to return to family in Mexico or farther south in Central America.

Though a sanctified place, and one I’m grateful for, it’s been an eye-opening and depressing experience speaking with the volunteers and the deportees themselves.  My first time volunteering two weeks ago, as I was passing out cake slices (someone had donated it for Valentine’s Day), many people were addressing and thanking me in English.  Initially tempted to respond in Spanish, selfishly wanting to practice, it dawned on me pretty quickly that many of the deportees spoke English and wanted to speak it to connect with what they’d recently been uprooted from.  A conversation that afternoon confirmed my intuition.  One of the priests told me that probably around 60% of the people coming through the comedor had been living in the States for years: five, ten, thirty.  They had families, many US-born kids, and stable jobs, and bam, one ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raid and detention facility stay later, transported to bumblefuck Nogales, Sonora, often thousands of miles from their US home and once-Mexican or Honduran home, and oftentimes estranged from their families, since ICE doesn’t kindly think of families when it deports a parent or child.  After serving the cake, and then trying to unserve it from all over my jacket, a young guy, about 20, approached me and asked me in perfect English my name and story.  Turns out he had been rounded up in LA, where he’d lived for over 10 years since his parents brought him there.  He barely spoke Spanish.  When I asked him what he’d do now, he said he was going to look for his cousins in Guadalajara though he didn’t yet have their contact info.

So what next, I asked the priest.  Where do the deportees go from here?  Many, he said, especially the ones who had lives in the States and feel more American than Mexican, cross again.  Multiple deportations are common, but people continue crossing to be with their families, as any of us would want to be.  And as for people who were caught in the desert while crossing, or arrived to the US recently, some will brincar (“jump” is interestingly the word that’s used) to the other side again, and others, short of money to make the trip or now downtrodden, will return to their states, mostly to Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas, Michoacan, in the words of one deportee today, los más jodidos because of lack of jobs, worse now with the deepening crisis.

Eventually, after a few days or weeks, most leave, northward or southward, and the soup kitchen does not know what happens to them unless they’re deported again.


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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.

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