Las Patronas

Irony is often lost on me…but in the case of immigration and more specifically the current immigration of young Central Americans to the United States…not only do I understand the irony all too well, I am utterly disgusted.  Let me explain.

Since the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, the United States has maintained the practice of opposing European power when it interfered with independent nations in Latin American.  The policy could be summed up succinctly as—America for the Americas.  While the United States challenged European powers who meddled in the affairs of Latin American independent countries, the United States, even then as a burgeoning nation, interfered, manipulated, and controlled the outcome of the politics and the economy of many of the independent states in the Caribbean and Central and South America.  During the cold war, U.S. presidents acted under the perceived threat of communist expansion or perhaps at the very least the fear of another U.S. loss like those in Vietnam and Cuba.  For example, Ronald Reagan supported the Contras in Nicaragua by providing them money and weapons as they fought what he perceived to be a communist government, the Sandinistas.  In what is now a very well documented time in history, the Contras (and the U.S. military) used Honduras as a staging area, some claiming that the U.S. was inciting war between Nicaragua and Honduras. The decades long war in Nicaragua between the Contras and the Sandinistas devastated not only Nicaragua but also Honduras.  In approximately the same time period, internal war also devastated both El Salvador and Guatemala.  In all cases, the U.S. intervened both directly and indirectly in these countries or created conditions that led to the wars themselves.

During the Reagan administration, Central Americans fled their countries because of the violence and political instability and escaped to the U.S. in search of refugee status.  Unlike their Cuban counterparts, Nicaraguan, El Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan migrants were overwhelmingly refused entrance as political refugees. As a result, religious organizations throughout the United States opened up their sanctuaries as safe havens for these Central American refugees.  Several of the religious leaders did, indeed, face federal prosecution as a result.

Fast forward to 2018.

Last week I visited a group of women (about 10) named Las Patronas in the state of Veracruz, Mexico outside the small town of Amatlan de los Reyes.  In February 1995, they began to pass out food and water to Central American migrants who were riding atop the freight train called La Bestia, the beast, as they travelled north to the U.S.  Depending on the trains, this journey can take more than 20 days.  During the summer months, the heat is excruciating and during the cooler months, the temperatures can drop to freezing. Hundreds of thousands of migrants travel on La Bestia every year facing all sorts of dangers–including the beast itself.  Many migrants fall off or get parts of their bodies trapped, crushed or severed.  All face extreme sleep deprivation, hunger, thirst and violence from gangs and others who seek to take advantage of them. For every passing train, Las Patronas prepare 20 kilos of rice and copious amounts of beans, and tortillas to distribute in the 10 minute opportunity they have as the train passes less than half a block from their center.  Sometimes the conductor slows and more food and water can be distributed. Other times the train stops for 20 minutes or so. And still other times, the conductor speeds through.  Unless the train stops they do not have the opportunity to feed everyone.  Often the migrants who have been injured or are facing extreme hunger, thirst or exhaustion find their way to Las Patronas to stay in one of about 10 beds they have for migrants.  When there are more than 10 migrants at one time, they pull out foam pads and everyone sleeps on the patio. No one goes hungry and everyone is safe. Las Patronas do all of this through donations only.  When a migrant is injured on the journey, Las Patronas not only seek healthcare for the individual but also strive to secure the individual a visa for Mexico. Mexican law favors injured migrants and with a visa they are able to work in Mexico and/or take safe passage to the U.S. border.

The day I visited, there were about 8 young men all from Honduras living with Las Patronas.  All of the young men had been injured.  I spoke with one young man, aged 24, whose ribs and internal organs had been damaged on his journey.  Speaking with his mouth half-covered, yet with piercing eyes, he told of the violence and lack of economic opportunity in his home country, the family he left behind, including a wife and one daughter, and his hopes for reaching the U.S.  He was recuperating and anticipating a Mexican visa so that his passage to the U.S. would be more secure and less traumatic than the more than 7 days he had left on La Bestia.  As we sat together, the irony fell on me with all the weight of the racist, imperialistic legacy that is the United States.

First, I am not permitted by law as a U.S. citizen to help this young man within the borders of my own country.  Yet, here I am in Mexico volunteering with Las Patronas.

Second, this young man is the same age as the number of years Las Patronas have been giving food, water and shelter to migrants as they travel on La Bestia.  Though to be clear, at various times more migrants come from different countries than at others.  And to also be clear migrants from Central America have been travelling through Mexico for more than 24 years and have also been using trains and other means for their passage.  It is safe to say, though, that this young man has only known his country as violent and in economic ruin where people seek refuge beyond its borders.

Third, if this young man, as many migrants do, was travelling with his daughter he may in fact be separated from her upon reaching the U.S., as the more than 1,900 migrant children in the U.S. have been in the last six weeks.

Fourth, the U.S. has no understanding of the political and economic mess it created, sustained and then left in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua.  Rather, U.S. policy makers and law enforcement personnel use a victim blaming stance that seeks to punish the migrants for the conditions that lead them to undertake an enormously dangerous, life-threatening 20 day journey across Mexico.  In other words, leaving their home, undertaking a hazardous journey, facing an uncertain and precarious life as an undocumented immigrant or political refugee in the U.S. is better than remaining in their home country.  Many leave, quite frankly, because there is nothing left to lose—because staying is worse than the chances one must take as a migrant.  Yet, U.S. policies punish the migrant turned refugee or immigrant rather than examine the causes and the U.S.’s role in what leads thousands of people a year to choose this journey rather than remain in their homes.

Fifth, the U.S. has already played this immigrant nightmarish policy for Central Americans, Mexicans, Dominicans and other Latin Americans during my lifetime and it didn’t work; so, I am not really sure why it will work today.  Is it, once again, up to religious groups and other human rights organizations to protect and give sanctuary to immigrants and refugee seekers while politicians use humans as hostages in their game of power?

 

 

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And what of poverty?

Poverty remains a difficult topic for me to write about.  Mostly because I have not experienced anything close to what it means to live without modern comforts or the security of my next meal.  Even in recognizing my privilege, I am not immediately dissolved of my position nor from the danger of speaking for people.  I also run the extreme risk of romanticizing poverty and the situation or lives of those in poverty.

I also hesitate to lay bare the factors that create, sustain and perpetuate the system because often people interpret this critique as a personal attack or as ungrateful for what I have or even as un-American—sometimes going so far as calling me a communist with all the force of an insult.  I approach my critique in the hopes of doing two things: the work of a sociologist and seeking justice.  As a sociologist I am compelled to think critically about the system and structures that lead to poverty and trap people while also being honest about how poverty shapes people and their life choices.  In seeking justice, I hope that my critique leads people to understand that poverty is not something that people create for themselves and that changes to a system can in fact lead to a society that not only eliminates poverty but enhances everyone’s standard of living.

Over the years I have had multiple opportunities to be invited into homes, share in community events, and talk with regular everyday people, who also happen to be poor.  Always in my interactions I am struck at how clearly one can see the larger structural systems that create the poverty that directly affect their lives and how clearly people articulate these factors.  While structural factors may shape peoples’ lives, they are not duped by the system and clearly understand how they are used.

So, what is the system that creates poverty?  In the United States it is an economic system coupled with political will that strives for continual growth within a finite reality.  Economic growth and expansion become that which is desired and valued.  Success is measured by how much growth there is.  In order to make more products, more money, more power, resources (both natural and human) must be squeezed and squeezed because there is no way to create something new in a finite system.  When something cannot be squeezed any longer to generate the growth desired, other resources are located and then those are squeezed.  What does this mean in real terms?

During the 1900s much of the resources for U.S. car manufacturing existed in the U.S.  Steel was made in the U.S. as were many of the durable goods necessary to produce automobiles.  The factories were also located in the U.S.  The securing of resources, production of durable goods and the manufacturing of automobiles employed hundreds of thousands of individuals in the U.S.  As U.S. steel and other durable goods became too expensive to use, relative to the growth that was demanded of the system, car manufacturing sought other markets for these products in order to continue to grow economically.  In the same way, in order to grow economically, U.S. employees became too expensive to pay, again relative to the growth that was desired.  Other markets for human resources were found and these folks were paid a wage that secured the economic growth desired.

The result in the U.S. is not only the loss of a huge manufacturing sector, but also the creation of poverty within whole communities where once good paying jobs existed.  In the new markets, the desire for growth followed and humans there face the same existence…growth trumping their well-being.  When growth is valued, searching for cheaper and cheaper resources and then squeezing and squeezing continues.

So, what happens if we transform the paradigm and choose something else to value?  And, recognize that continual growth cannot happen in a finite system?  Everything changes.

What if, instead of growth, we desired human well-being? Maybe in something so basic as everyone having work that is sufficient to thrive at the current middle-class level?  What would that goal do?  Immediately a shift occurs. The basis of the economy becomes human well-being in the form of jobs, not growth.  We have often made the argument that growth must happen in order to provide jobs.  In this manner, the focus is not human well-being but growth.  As the system stands now, jobs exists only as they fuel growth.  Jobs are sacrificed, wages are sacrificed, humans are sacrificed for the benefit of growth. When we place human well-being foremost, then we are willing to not grow in order to provide jobs.  At the same time, we remain fiscally sound because human well-being is our goal and we so we secure jobs instead of sacrificing them.  Decisions are made to secure the goal of human well-being.  When human well-being becomes our goal a healthy economy always follows since we have committed to everyone having work.  And what happens to poverty? Collectively our goal of human well-being eliminates it.

 

 

Aren’t you scared to live in Mexico?

The question most asked of me by people in the U.S. is this—”Aren’t you scared to live in Mexico?”  I am baffled by this question.  At root, I think I doubt the motive of the question.  I wonder if there is another question that they’d actually like to ask but don’t dare.  I speculate if what people crave to ask is “Isn’t everyone in Mexico a criminal, because after all poverty floods the country?”  Or maybe they are thinking of the evening news and the latest Netflix series that tells the stories of the drug trade and cartel life in Mexico and want to demand “Aren’t the cartels everywhere?”  Or perhaps they are thinking of the Mexican elite and long to say, “The wealthy live behind electric fences and security guards, are you sure you should be there?”  Or possibly they really are concerned about sanitation and truly want to pose the question, “What can you eat without getting sick?” A narrow and limited view forms each of these questions.  At play also is an ethnocentric perspective and perhaps a false presumption that life in the U.S. is safe.

To be fair, life is safest in every country in the world for those who can buy their safety and for those whom society seeks to protect.

We need to be honest and recognize that society does not seek to protect us all equally.  And, we might assert that money cannot buy happiness, but with certainty it can buy a place to be safe (even if we might be miserable).

As a woman, I face a risk everyday regarding violence.  As a lesbian woman, I am sometimes even more exposed to society’s hostilities in multiple forms.  However, I am white and this gives me an invisible shield that I am often unaware exists.  I also have a decent amount of money.  I don’t live my life in pieces, though, nor do any of us.  So, I do not actually experience a moment only when I am a woman without the other qualifiers of my life.  Every moment is an intersection and depending on the situation the matrix gets formed anew.

In the U.S., I could never afford to live in a gated community or purchase a house in most of the major U.S. cities.  And as much as I might want, I can’t afford to eat in socially responsible restaurants all the time.  I can, however, walk into any public establishment and be accepted and know I belong to the point that no one looks twice when I use the public restroom.  I know explicitly that the sign “Restrooms for customers only” does not apply to me.  In this same breath, though, depending on how I am dressed, I can experience visual assault if a customer perceives me to be using the wrong restroom.

If I want to understand violence, I need to understand what this means for me and the privilege I have that frequently protects me from that violence.  I then must turn and recognize from where the privilege comes and how it gets sustained.  Then, I can move on to address the larger questions of systemic violence.

The question, “Aren’t you scared to live in Mexico?,” neglects this complex experience and reduces Mexico to a unidimensional reality while also presuming, perhaps, that everyone in the U.S. experiences the same level of safety as the speaker of the question.

I think there might be folks who really want me to address the violence of Mexico or for me to write about my own level of daily comfort.  I can certainly do this.  Though I won’t without also recognizing the multifariousness of the U.S., Mexico and the dynamic relationship between the two that creates situations in which we must live.

We are the call to democracy and we must answer

I wrote the below about six months after the 2016 elections.  I didn’t post it.  Perhaps because I wasn’t certain it was appropriate or that it might not be received well.  Then I came to recognize this is my blog, I started to write and to engage folks…so, here it is.

I haven’t been able to write for the last six months or so as everything I write comes out angry, dismayed, and frustrated with the world.  I have been putting despair and disbelieve above other things like hope and action.  I am not entirely sure that this blog will be about anything in particular other than me sorting out how to write again in a world that seems so very different than it did six months ago.

I often tell my students that while sociologists study the social world, there is a day when I’d like to be able to tell them about how we became an egalitarian society, how we abolished hunger, how universal healthcare came to pass, and how we resolved the issues of borders and immigration.  I look towards a day where I will no longer need to teach about social inequality to a classroom full of students who will have more debt from student loans and less opportunity to earn a living to pay those debts than any generation before them.  I’d like a break from having to teach about the insidious patterns of racism, the fight for women to control their own bodies, and the persecution of people from non-Christian cultures.

I’d like to give a lecture about how democracy works in practice and not just in theory especially in a country where more than 3 million votes were cast for someone other than the person in the white house.  The same country that might criticize the democratic process of other countries or interfere with their democratically elected governments.  We spoke at the ballot boxes in November 2016 and then again on January 21, 2017 and then again on March 8, 2017, and….

At what point do we stop pointing the finger at other nations and turn the examination on ourselves.

I’d also like to write something that is smart, maybe witty, that gets us to think about where we are and what we’ve done…then it occurs to me that I don’t have that kind of power…yet, maybe I do have a clear directive to speak out in a democracy.  I had said that this blog wouldn’t be political; perhaps what I should have said is partisan.

I am amazed at how little I know and yet how what I have studied, explored and helped my students to understand about the past is here present before us.  Our breath has been squeezed out almost to the point of abandon.  Yet, we are here and we are breathing.  We must find strength in this moment to act–for in acting we save ourselves.  We are the call to democracy and we must answer; if we don’t, history cannot be written because our stories will not be told.

“Did you vote for Trump?”

Even though I noted that this blog was not a political platform for partisan politics, it seems crucial that I address something.  Prior to my Fulbright Scholarship which has brought me to Xalapa, Mexico for six months, I had traveled quite a bit in Mexico since Trump’s election.  Everywhere I have been I am asked questions, but the questions I have been asked the most are: “How did Trump get elected?,”  “Did you vote for Trump?,” and “Will the wall really be built?” Sometimes they are asked by people I know, like my friends in Puerto Vallarta, who really do want me to explain from a sociological perspective the details of the electoral process and my theory as to how it actually happened from a demographic and ideological perspective.  Then there are those complete strangers who I literally meet on the street, the bus, or the beach, who after discovering I am from the U.S., ask me these questions right on the spot.  Then there are the university students I have met while in Xalapa, who tentatively ask me because they are intensely curious yet recognize there is a level of distance and respect between professor and student.

So, why these questions?  And, why with the Mexican presidential elections happening this year in July, is there not the same level of interest by folks in the U.S. over Mexican politics?

In answering these, I recall the first time I heard about Arizona’s State Senate Bill 1070 which sought to “discourage and deter the unlawful entry and presence of aliens and economic activity by persons unlawfully present in the United States,” signed into law by Governor Brewer in 2010.  I was in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico hanging out with the women at Centro Tonantzin in Colonia Plutarco.  One of the women had heard about the passage of the law on the news that morning and asked me what I thought the implications were going to be.  I was speechless (temporarily) because even though I knew of the potential law, I was unaware of its passing.  In that moment, I recalled my first trip to Bogotá, Colombia decades earlier when I learned more about the U.S. influence in Central and South America then I ever learned in school, save my year of studying with Liberation Theorist, Frederick Herzog at Duke University.  Everywhere I have travelled in Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, the interest in U.S. politics is intense.  From my vantage point, the average citizen in Latin America and the Caribbean knows more about U.S. politics and economy than the average U.S. citizen knows either about Latin American developments or the politics and economy in the U.S.

An obvious accounting of this disparity emerges if we recognize the power and economic differentials between the U.S. and Latin America.  The citizens of those countries with less leverage need to be keenly aware of the shifts in the U.S. because these often have more impact on their lives than the political and economic processes in their own country.  This assertion has validity (and many annals of academic writing have fleshed out this position).  And, in turn, we could say that because there is less effect on the average U.S. citizen regarding the developments in Latin America and the Caribbean, the average U.S. citizen may only know if they are news or political junkies.  Yet, missing in this, I would purport, is the answer to the question, why does the average U.S. citizen know so little about U.S. politics and economy?  And, further, why do we not understand how the decisions made in Washington D.C. and the 50 state capitals across the U.S., which do impact Latin America and the Caribbean, then come back to impact us as well?

The politicians and business leaders grasped the importance of this impact and, in the mid-1960s after the Cuban missile crisis, universities across the U.S. opened Latin American and Caribbean Studies programs in the hopes that through studying these countries more deeply, they could identify the steps that needed to be taken to keep another crisis like that from happening again.  Clearly this is a protectionist move and we might be able to justify this stance.  Though we might want to investigate thoroughly it’s impact on us.  How do these decisions impact our daily lives?  Our interaction with the economy such as wages and the price of goods?

More importantly, though, I would encourage us to ask if we can morally justify decisions being made in our democratic nation that profoundly impact folks who had no say in the decision being made?  How do we morally defend not being aware of policies and decisions that affect people whom we probably will never meet?  In asking this, I hope we can understand the urgency in which people ask me, “Did you vote for Trump?”

 

 

 

Live to Work / Work to Live

Over the next several months, I will be teaching U.S. history, culture, and politics in Xalapa, Veracruz at the Universidad de Veracruzana as a Fulbright Scholar.  Specifically, I will be teaching acourses on U.S. Interventions in Central America, U.S. Regional Differences, and U.S. Latinos.  As I am settling into a routine here in the capital city and as I have multiply social interactions, I am struck by a statement a friend’s sister said a while ago after she had moved back to Mexico: “In the U.S. people live to work; in Mexico, people work in order to live.”  As I prepare my various classes and reflect on the theory that seeks to explain the emergence of the U.S. as an entity distinct from its European ancestors and certainly from that which it conquered, I realize anew that both Weber and Tocqueville are correct in their assessment of the United States made over 100 years ago. Our Protestant roots built the cultural value of hard work as a means to be recognized, as a means to be valued within the community, and as the primary reason for living.  This value has shaped our behavior–formed our institutions, our ways of relating and our relationships (both familial and non-familial), and ultimately what we want and desire out of life.  What do I mean?  Values in a society set the base for what is prized.  And from that belief, we set the standards of expected behavior.  And, we then positively or negatively reward people based on how well they exhibit behavior that embodies what we value.  I would purport as some of the founders (and many of my contemporaries) in my field of sociology claimed, hard work is a central or core value in the United States.  We value hard work as good, right and true.  Therefore, we reward those who exemplify this behavior.

The U.S. has other core values as well.  And, yes, sometimes these values clash and are counter to one another.  Sometimes we say we value one thing and do not reward it accordingly.  For instance, a worker in the service industry may work 60 hours a week and fully exert themselves throughout their time at work, but the wages for that type of work are not commensurate with the quality or quantity of work.  In this case, other cultural values enter in and crosscut one another.  Still, we do value hard work and reward it (enough of the time, anyway), which in turn compels us to work hard and order our lives around our work.  This value of hard work informs other aspects of our life and shapes our behavior and attitudes in those areas.  In turn, we use this value (as well as our ethnocentrism) as a means to evaluate others as well as other cultures.

Many U.S. tourists to Mexico note the laid-back relaxed attitude.  They muse that this is the life and relish in the time away from it all.  Yet, this very delight often does not carry into a complete or positive evaluation of the culture as a whole or of Mexican immigrants to the U.S.  We often forget that the experience we are having is rooted in a living culture fueled by values, which hold the same level of importance as the values in our own culture.

As I begin to teach classes about the U.S., in another country, it seems vital that I help students to understand the core values of the U.S. Without this knowledge, we fall short of understanding the basis for our actions and behaviors—including even the course of action of our own government.

Cultural Leveling

In the last couple of weeks, the first commercial flight to Santa Clara, Cuba from the U.S. landed.  While other flights from Miami to Havana had already taken place earlier in the summer, this flight into the interior of Cuba continues to make history as there are now more than 300 flights from multiple airports in the U.S. to numerous destinations in Cuba.  Touted widely are the economic changes that await Cuba and the potential trade opportunities for U.S. companies and businesses.  What has been less discussed are the potential cultural transformations that will occur in Cuba—how Cuba’s values and norms will shift and change.

The social sciences focus a great deal of attention on a culture’s (or society’s) values and norms.  Values function in a variety of ways.  One thing they do is tell us what we, collectively, (that is our culture) hold to be right/wrong, good/bad, beautiful/ugly, etc.  For instance, in the U.S., by in large, we hold the value that politeness is a good thing.  The only way we see evidence of politeness is through behavior.  The norms of a society are our expectations of behavior.  So we believe that politeness is good and we measure this politeness through behaviors.   In our society, we expect people to say good morning, ask how someone is, and respond to that individual.  Right now, we are still in a transition around what behaviors are considered polite or impolite regarding cell phone use.  Cultures do change and establish new norms of behavior around a value.  We still believe that politeness is good; though at the moment what evidence counts as politeness is shifting.  We might ask, “Is it polite to talk on our cell phone in a restaurant?”  “Is it polite to text at the dinner table?”  These questions help us define boundaries of behavior and reinforce our values.  Sometimes it feels as though our values are changing when shifts in behavior begin to occur.  In this case, it isn’t so much what we value that is changing as how we see evidence of those values through our behaviors.  So, before, there was a clear line of behavior around phone use.  Now, as accessibility to phones has changed we are in a period of readjusting what behaviors constitute politeness in regard to phone use; we are deciding what constitutes new norms.

Values do change in cultures, too.  New values are added and others do begin to slip away.  Shared values are crucial to a culture.  Shared values help us to feel integrated and a part of our culture.  When we all believe the same or similar things we feel a sense of belonging and unity.  What we value and how those values are manifested through behaviors identify us and bring us together.  As values change and new norms of behavior are established, we often struggle as a culture.  Ideally this is a give and take process as groups negotiate for a value and definition of behavior.  Yet, as we struggle collectively we may wonder or notice if one group has more influence than others in terms of the way we change those norms.  In our modern society, media always plays a role in shaping new values and norms.  Other entities influence values and norms, too, such as policies, laws and economics.  In turn, one can see how each entity folds into the other with the influence of each magnifying—such as the commercialization of media.

As various commercial flights land in Cuba, many suggest that the influx of capital is a good thing.  Capital brings Cubans a wide variety of products from which to choose. And, this, in turn, is believed to enhance their life.  While in the U.S. having name-brand cereal to choose from may be of importance, for the current populace in Cuba name-brand food is not valued and subsequently buying it matters very little.  Yet, as media opens up and trade policies change, what is valued and consumed will undoubtedly change as that which is available changes.  Some may argue that the change in types of goods matters very little and that the abundance and the abundance of choice is what is significant.  Two things seem important here—one, that the change in products available comes from outside the culture itself and two, that the value of variety and choice (and the subsequent value of competition) gets infused into a culture whose values have been making sure everyone’s basic needs are met.

A direct result of focusing on basic needs, and manifested in Cuba, is the belief of everyone as equal or as every life having the same worth.  Worth is not measured by material goods, name brands, or individual achievement.  Rather, the whole is esteemed by attending to an equal measure of society’s resources for everyone.  Enter the conversation of media.  At present citizens of Cuba do not have access to the global media as we do.  Yes, there are national television stations and yes, there is access to the internet—though only in public spaces and nationally serviced—individuals are not wired continuously.  At the moment there is not a commercial market for cell phone service, internet access or cable television…though all of this is changing as I write.  I understand that media, especially the internet, can offer a democratization of information and access to cultural productions.  For instance, I can now watch the Metropolitan Opera on YouTube.  I no longer need to have the money to travel to New York and purchase a ticket.  Yet, in a culture, like Cuba, where this democratization of goods has already been occurring, what will the effect of global media be?  And, how will the opening of trade change existing values and norms?  Perhaps more importantly, will there be space to manage and control this development?  Or will the influx of the global market via the U.S. and global media produce the same effects that we have seen before?  That is, the loss of a unique culture with distinct values and norms and a cultural leveling whereby the rest of the world looks and acts increasingly like the U.S.?