Windows and Mirrors: Reality tour of the U.S./Mexico Border
by Sushanna Ellington
While many of their peers were celebrating the 3-day Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend with downhill skiing and snowboarding at the Lake Tahoe slopes or with overtime employment at local businesses, a group of intrepid Amnesty International student activists from Vintage High School, Napa, California explored the effects of NAFTA on the status of human rights in Tijuana, Mexico. Guided by capable Reality Tour leaders, Lisa Russ and Fabiola Tofolla from the San Francisco-based Global Exchange, the students explored issues of globalization and economic justice in a city which is arguably the busiest border in the world, with an estimated 40-50 million legal crossings a year. With possibilities for border crossings in either direction, the U.S. Border Patrol has dubbed this area the war zone.
For Fabiola, the border is everywhere. For Lisa, the border is complex, real, and beautiful with the amazing work that groups are doing there. Known for its boom-and-bust business cycles, Tijuanas rapid growth in assembly plants (maquiladoras) and the citys relative prosperity have invited internal immigration from all parts of Mexico, exacerbating the kinds of problems which accompany rapid unplanned growth, such as lack of housing, clean water, and health services. The added stress of local flooding has caused the city to relocate itself over and over, relegating its poorest population to the most unstable hillsides and low spots where torrential rains wash away these communities.
During the tour, Tijuana-based activists briefed the group on current economic conditions that affect the relationship between labor and immigration. Long-time organizer Jaime Cota of Centro de Información para Trabajadores y Trabajadoras articulated many of the socioeconomic trends that characterize a modern Tijuana in transition: We have to do what we must do where we are, and lets not turn a blind eye to it. Women activists from Casa de Mujer related stories of conditions in the maquiladoras and the reprisals that women identified with organizing face from their employers. Cesar Luna of the Environmental Health Coalition, who works on both sides of the border in communities most affected by the maquiladoras, described the challenges of binational organizing. Minerva Najera of Procuraduria de Derechos Humanos de Baja California addressed the group on the status of human rights at the border and the relationship between labor and immigration. She also accompanied them to a settlement occupied by people displaced by flood and development.
In addition to formal presentations, students traveled to industrial sites and spoke informally with workers. On the second day of the trip, Laravic Flores, a high school senior who immigrated to the United States from the Phillippines, found a profound personal connection in the story of a Mexican gardener who described in detail the struggles of his family. His wife works for the equivalent of $10 U.S./day for eight or more hours in a maquiladora that assembles electrical cables. Despite the many hours of work, she is allowed only three fifteen-minute breaks including lunch, during which she must go out and buy food because there are no meals provided at the assembly plant. Not only does she suffer from back pains due to the continuous strain of manual labor, but he added that his wife suffers from a bad heart due to the death of their six-year old daughter. In reflection, Laravic explains: Real education comes from real experiences. It comes from making connections, and this definitely happened with my conversation with this humble, yet noble man. With my eyes, I saw his humility. With my ears, I heard his sentiments. And with my heart, I felt his struggle and was able to share in his life.
Navek M. Ceja, a junior whose grandparents are the only Mexican-born vineyard owners in the Napa Valley, described the experience as exciting, depressing, and powerful. I feel angry about the conditions we saw. Diana Velazquez, a senior, added that the journey was an emotional adventure filled with learning. Mexicos poor live a tragedy of broken promises. Still, the people continue to look for a life free of despair and human rights violations. They continue to face new borders of all kinds. If there are no housing materials, they will use cardboard to shelter their children. If there is isolation, they will seek community.
Mother-daughter travelers, Esther, a school nurse, and Natalie Yialilis, a senior, lived ten years in Greece and have visited twenty countries on three continents. Mrs. Yialilis was deeply moved by the Mexican peoples courage to make it work one-by-one with limited resources. Each one validates the power of one. Of the opportunity to travel with her daughter, she said: This was my opportunity to see through young eyes, to watch her process. My future depends on her. I wanted to feel what she was trying to experience. Mrs. Yialilis complimented the facilitators who, in her view, made sure everyones feelings and thoughts were considered even if different from the majority opinion. They have wonderful people skills.
Natalie remarked: On the trip I saw what made man content with his life, move to the point of revolt, be afraid, laugh, and love in a world of risks. The men in El Niño with their ability to laugh, the women with their inner strength and resilience, and the children with their smiles all made me want to return . . . . The displaced town of El Niño reminded me of Grapes of Wrath. The city of Tijuana had the residents of El Niño evacuate due to the flooding and told them that if they didnt move they would bulldoze the houses anyway, people inside or not. The injustice appalled me.
Since returning from the border, students meet regularly with the group leaders and
with students from San Franciscos Lick-Wilmerding High School to debrief and
collaborate on a booklet describing their experiences. Vintage High School students are
also working with other campus activists on a performance work entitled Lives on the Line
that invites the audience to travel along the borderlands of our times. Drawn from
personal stories, academic studies, and travel experiences, the interconnected dramatic
episodes explore the central metaphor from multiple perspectives in order to redefine
Sushanna Ellington is a Western Region Human Rights Educators Network member,
artist,teacher/activist, and faculty advisor to the Vintage High School student group,