These past two weekends in Tucson have felt like a month. Right from day one, we hit the ground running. Our tour around the city brought great excitement due to the rich history that could be seen from the countless murals, signs, and old establishments we viewed while walking and bussing around. I was initially struck at the landscape of the city; every time we got off a stop, I felt as if we had reached the end of the world. The horizon seemed just out of reach, yet I knew what I was seeing was hundreds of miles into the distance before the interruption of a mountain. The location that stood out the most to me was the Revolutionary café, a place where rows of books all centered around revolutionary authors and thinkers were housed. Although I have yet to return to this space, I know I will be spending some time browsing their collection within the next few weeks. One of the largest discrepancies I have come across during my time here is the juxtaposition of appreciating everything about the city and what opportunities it has given me, while holding it with some contempt from working alongside and learning about some of the most marginalized members of the city’s population. I take each moment of appreciation with a grain of salt, since the reason I am here is due to the structural forces that prohibit the livelihood of people that seek shelter and livelihood.
The first two days gave me some doses of cabin fever. We spent them within the same room as an entire group, holding many hours of talks all centered around incredibly heavy topics. Some were a continuation of the talks held at DukeEngage academy centered around ethical dilemmas in service learning, but most pertained to the specific history of immigration within Tucson. The documentary “Immigrants for Sale” was one that left me particularly speechless. I felt my jaw drop as I watched a man auction off a prison within a local community, ensuring that the investment would be highly profitable because there would always be bed spaces filled with a steady inflow of prisoners. The men and women were being treated as commodities or assets, and the prison comparable to any household or antique one would find at road shows.
Soon enough, we were out into town seeing the many issues within Tucson firsthand. My experience with Operation Streamline entailed extreme discomfort from the moment we walked into the prosecution room. I immediately felt like I was in some type of play, though I was unsure who the audience was at different parts of the performance. When the doors opened, fifty heads immediately swiveled around to look at us, the people that would soon watch them stand with cuffs around their ankles and wrists and headphones in their ears to plead guilty down a line like machines. The whole proceeding took no longer than an hour. Questions towards migrants were compounded together, leaving their answers confined to a single word, such as “sí,” “no,” and “culpable.” I was personally left completely lost as to what exactly they were answering, and so I could only imagine what they were listening to given the intense stress of the hearing, and a small voice inside their ear rapidly translating the legal jargon that the judge was giving them, as if they had grown up and learned about the basics of the American legal system and their Constitutional rights. With every group that stood and walked out the door, I felt disheartened. The process was a well-oiled machine rehearsed well by those in power, and picked up quickly by those new to the show. Then again, it is quick to pick up when a role is confined to three words with no chance towards self-expression or understanding of each individual’s situation.
We were fortunate in our trip South to the Sonoran Desert. Overall, the weather was actually quite bearable- I got away with wearing jeans and long socks along with carrying a pack of supplies. But as I write this, I have experienced days where the weather has climbed up to one hundred degrees, and in locations that offer little to no shade, the time spent trekking over sand and rocks and mountainous terrain must be unbearable. I was very thankful to join No More Deaths in a water drop. My biggest hope is that those who are crossing can find these spots or others throughout the desert, since they contain inspiring messages that we have written and necessary food. In addition, the poems and stories that we heard at our different stop points allowed me to think about these issues in a humanitarian light, instead of as a purely political issue that is thrown around in the media. Seeing these location firsthand carries this odd sensation to it- you know that the places your steps imprint are the same as other people that carry intense hope, fear, sorrow, and baggage, both emotional and literal.
I was thankful to have a portion of the weekend off in preparation for our first week of work. I am highly thankful to have Ethan as my work partner; there is a certain level of solidarity that we have obtained in waking up so early every day. The dynamic of the Southside Worker Center is extremely interesting. We essentially are doing the white-collar, behind-the-scenes technology work that is needed to help the center run, but on occasion does not pertain to the day to day functioning of the center itself. The workers mainly stay outside the building after they have been assigned a placement number that indicates when they can head out for work. Considering that Ethan and I sit inside the office, we often do not interact with the workers aside from delivering Orientations to new members and fielding questions over to our boss David Pacheco. Pacheco is always running around as the sole coordinator/person in charge of the center, since the only board member that stops by is Sarah once every week. Although our interactions and direction towards the work we are doing for the center can be limited, Ethan and I still feel like we are making a great impact as the only individuals who are currently trying to understand and develop the technological possibilities for the center, and what services it can utilize and implement.
Aside from accomplishing some of our long-term project goals, I also wish to have greater connections with the workers themselves. A few days back, I sat down with one for an hour in an incredibly heartfelt conversation in which we talked about the different issues we had within our families. Our similarities on certain things really brought us together, and he made me feel like a part of the center’s cohesiveness. Despite some of the internal drama that the center contains, there is a large feeling of camaraderie and brotherhood that has been developed in the collective struggle to find a life within Tucson through day work, and I hope to see and interact even more of this in the coming weeks.
The last thing I’ll end with is one thing I am trying to understand and work on. In helping these vulnerable populations, there have been moments in which they have shared very personal details with me, often in moments that I do not expect them. I was giving an Orientation to a worker that opened up when he heard I was 20, because that was when he was imprisoned. After 4 convictions and 7 years time, he had arrived at the center ready to make money in a different way. I truly had no words to offer, and even less when he told me that his sister had been murdered. In another instance, I was working out at the YMCA when a person stopped me to ask about my t-shirt. Within 10 minutes of conversation, he told me he was a prior heroin addict who was now taking classes in hopes of studying alternative medicine and becoming a doctor. Hopefully with more exposure to these types of conversations, I will be able to think more quickly on my feet to respond in a way that is empathetic, encouraging, and productive to the conversation.