Chiapas incited a bit of an existential crisis in me, in a good way. I probably should have expected something like this, since DukeEngage is known for being “life-changing” and whatnot, but frankly I was caught by surprise. I stumbled onto the plane anticipating some frustration about the Mexican government’s blatant impunity and the US government’s maddeningly complacent disregard for human lives, especially those of migrants. I did not, however, show up ready to question the foundation of our society or deconstruct our most beloved social constructs, and I didn’t like it at first either. It’s disorienting, it’s challenging, and it’s uncomfortable.
For instance, I was actually freaked out by the borderline idolization of Che Guevara at many of our stops in Chiapas. Of course he was brilliant, but that usually doesn’t excuse the murder of one’s political enemies. I still don’t condone Che’s method of dealing with folks trying to squash his insurgency, but if the good people at Derechos Humanos think his poster is worthy of wall space in the hallowed halls of a dance club-turned-nonprofit office in Tucson, maybe there’s something I’m missing. So, I’m going to read about it and think about it and find out. I’ve been doing the same thing with liberation theology, the private prison industry, and Operation Streamline. Actually, it’s kind of been that way with a lot of things since we arrived in Mexico. I think maybe that was the point.
From Arlington to Arriaga
It’s dangerously easy to gawk at pictures of poverty-stricken Latin American cities, wholly different from what most Duke students are accustomed to, without really acknowledging that we live in the same world. It is much more convenient to believe that those scenes exist and those people live in an alternate universe, completely independent of our own.
But of course that’s not true. Everything’s connected—Arriaga’s poverty contributes to Arlington’s prosperity and vice versa. In 1994, international negotiators finalized NAFTA, which made it cheaper for Mexico to import subsidized American corn than it was to grow their own, which drove small farmers out of the Mexican market and up to the US for work, which encouraged their families to follow, which spiked immigration numbers from Mexico, which spurred lawmakers to crack down on undocumented immigration, which funded a bigger Border Patrol force, which resulted in more arrests, which created a demand for more detention centers, which birthed private prison corporations, which suddenly made expedited conviction through Operation Streamline necessary, which….
The chain goes on forever in a million different directions. It’s impossible to compartmentalize or dismiss migration as irrelevant to one’s life, because as one of the most intersectional challenges in our world, immigration (and its myriad tangential issues) impacts us all. Policies and practices that make life harder for migrants are not just anti-immigrant, but anti-human.
Arizonans spend a lot of time trying to assure other people that the objectively brutal heat here isn’t really that bad. “Sure it can get hot, but it’s just a dry heat!” they insist with a desperate undertone in their voices, probably trying to convince themselves too. Despite their valiant efforts, the thermometer doesn’t agree. 117 degrees Fahrenheit is definitely “that bad.”
I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon in Arizona and throughout the country. Rather than acknowledging problematic immigration policies, American society seems to just ignore them while we convince ourselves that everything’s just as it should be. When pressed on the matter, we jump to justify the human rights violations at the border with arguments of nationality, law, and politics. I’ve heard many times in my hometown, “Well it’s a shame that people die crossing the border, but I didn’t make them do it illegally. I didn’t write the law.” Of course we sit idly as these tragedies happen, but we’re not the ones actually killing them. It’s just a dry hate.
Staring down centuries of oppression is pretty intimidating. As I learned more about the chillingly pervasive nature of the issues surrounding migrants (and all of us) and the public’s general ambivalence towards them, I felt increasingly overwhelmed. Where do I even start? Can one person really make a difference anyway?
Now that we’re nearing the end of this experience, we’re asked almost daily what we plan to do with what we’ve seen and learned. The Rachel Fox Vision for America™ isn’t quite finished yet, so this question (and the ones asked above) really worried me. Thankfully, my homestay mom, a Mexican-American migrant, lived the answer. She acknowledges that she can’t change the entire world herself, but she can surround herself with good people, and they can fight together and keep each other strong. She can refuse to be intimidated by Border Patrol and ICE, and she can live well and be happy instead of living in fear (as our border policies intend). Resistance is in the little things.
So with Lupe’s guidance, I finally have an answer to those questions. I probably can’t fix everything alone, but I’ll start small. I can spread the word about what I’ve seen, engage people in conversations about immigration rather than just agreeing to disagree, and continue to educate myself and others about migration. Maybe someday I’ll be in a position where I can make big changes too, but for the time being, I’ll work with what I have. Either way, I’ll stay busy—there’s a lot to be done.