Sunday, March 11, 2012

Adios Arizona!

Hi's Maggie and Autumn.  We are currently in the Columbus airport after arriving back in Ohio at 1:30 A.M. (2:30 A.M. if you take into account daylight savings).  Our bodies and minds are finally ready to relax and truly internalize the events of the past week.  It's been a whirlwind of emotions, as well as intellectual rigor that has brought to life all the material we have studied for the last seven weeks.  Yesterday, we wrapped up our journey with a morning visit to the community house of the Tierra Y Libertad Organization (TYLO), and a "leisurely" hike up Mt. Tumamoc. At TYLO, we learned about the power of community organizing and its differences to the notion of activism. We were also briefed on the positive effects of environmental sustainability within a community that liberates them from their reliance on corporations.

After this engaging and informative discussion, we traveled to Mt. Tumamoc, where we would hike two miles to the top of the mountain to oversee the beautiful city that served as our home for the last week.  Before embarking on our hike, we stopped and briefly reflected at The Luminous Mother, which was a site of offering to ensure our safety on our adventure upwards.  We all lit a candle while sitting in silence and taking in our surroundings.  We then commenced our treacherous hike at a nearly 90 degree angle until we reached the top (several asthma attacks later...joking!). The view from the mountain peak was breath-taking, and served as the perfect space to contemplate the week's happenings and bring closure to our experience.  To finalize our time together, we each placed a hand on a pot and offered a name of someone we met on our trip that we wanted to carry with us after our departure.  On the count of three, we simultaneously thrust the pot onto the rock beneath us and each gathered a broken piece in remembrance. Our hike downhill proved much easier, and was a peaceful ending to our time in Tucson, Arizona. 

Our lit candles to ensure our safe journey.

McKinley next to The Luminous Mother. 

Snack break/party with Jenny and Michele on Mt. Tumamoc.

Autumn and Maggie (us) smile for the camera. 
The view. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

S-ke:g Taṣ! (“Hello” in Tohono O’odham!)

Hello from Michelle and Emma! The wind whispered us awake this morning. We arose and gathered around the long wood table to munch on granola, cereal, oatmeal- you name it. After satiating ourselves, we plopped into the white van and headed towards Sells, AZ. We were Tohono O'odham Nation bound.  The Tohono O'odham Nation is a Native American reservation that spans across the United States and Mexico border. We took in the expansive desert scenery as we drove. Mountains sprawled across the land, shaping the bright horizon.

Tohono O'odham means desert people.
We arrived at the museum; the building was beautiful and the people exceptionally hospitable. We met with a docent who shared Tohono O'odham traditions, customs, and history with our group. He explained the nation's strong oral tradition, stating that the nation did not have a written language until the 1980s. He also detailed the relationship between tradition and modern life. After the docent's talk, we toured the museum and learned about the Miss Tohono O'odham Nation pageant. Our tour guide grew up on the reservation, and broached topics ranging from language to indigenous food.

All the talk of traditional foods made us very hungry! We were excited to travel to the Desert Rain Cafe to taste the foods of the Tohono O'odham with our own tongues. The meals were delicious. Many of us tried the chia berry smoothies- WOW! We lay in the sun and sipped away.

Simon is loving that smoothie!
Afterward, we headed back to Tucson to visit the Peace Supplies store. Peace Supplies is an organization devoted to locally printing politically charged items. The atmosphere was exciting-music drifted into our youthful ears as young artists created new designs. Many of us purchased stickers, shirts, and buttons with messages related to immigration reform and other pressing issues. 
Buttons in tow, we returned to Casa Mariposa for a free afternoon. Some of us took the time to relax at home, while others hit the town. We made stops at local thrift stores, herbal stores, and small art galleries. The streets of Tucson were bursting with life, and we were thrilled to be immersed in the vibrant area.

Later in the evening, we walked to a nearby restaurant, La Cocina, for a fun last meal! We sat around an outdoor space heater that radiated wonderful warmth and listened to the live blue grass band. Some tots danced around to the beat of the folksy fiddle. We ate like queens and kings, even enjoying some delicious ice cream at the culmination of the meal.

The gang having a ball at La Cocina.  

The day was quite relaxed, and we were all happy to have a break. We had time to reflect and time to enjoy each others' company before we part ways tomorrow. 

If you would like some political swag of your own, visit

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Lost in Legal Limbo

Today we split into four groups to visit several individuals being held in immigration detention centers in Arizona. These detainees, many of whom are seeking asylum or have only committed administrative violations of residency, are held in various prison-esque complexes across the country. Because there are so many of these detainees, and so few judges to oversee their complicated immigration proceedings, detainees can spend anywhere from several months to several years in custody awaiting a decision on their case. The remainder of this post is divided into sections with each group's thoughts on their encounters and experiences during their visits to these facilities and interactions with detainees. All names have been changed or redacted to protect the privacy and anonymity of the detainees.

Maggie, Nathan & Jenny: The three of us went to the Eloy CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) detention facility to attend a trial for a female detainee seeking political asylum based on sexual orientation. While nominally a detention center, the building eerily resembled a prison. Two tiers of barbed wire lined the chain-link fence outside the building and we had to be buzzed in for each set of doors we passed through. Once inside, we met up with two fellow activists who were also waiting to attend the trial. The six of us were led into a waiting room (a tiny holding cell with all white walls and a bench) where we met an elderly woman who had traveled all the way from LA to attend her son's trial that was also occurring today. After waiting for twenty minutes, we were ushered into the courtroom by the bailiff, who reprimanded us for not sitting down quickly enough. Inside the cramped courtroom sat a judge, the detainee, the bailiff, and a translator. The trial did not last long. Due to a procedural error, the judge had to reschedule the trial for a later date. While the judge's decision to suspend the trial was the proper legal procedure, and might ultimately help the woman win her plea, it means that she will have to spend significantly more time waiting in detention. We left the detention center feeling frustrated. Detainees lack access to computers and legal books, so collecting evidence and presenting their case before a judge is extremely difficult. Furthermore, since detainees in these facilities are not being charged with criminal offenses, they are not guaranteed access to legal aid. Fortunately, there are some non-governmental organizations (namely The Florence Project) that is able to help detainees navigate the legal proceedings. The woman whose trial we observed did not have this minimal legal assistance and it was upsetting to see her detention extended due to an avoidable procedural error. Unfortunately, such postponements are routine and many detainees in these facilities choose voluntary deportation over constant uncertainty and isolation.

Simon & Michelle: Today, we went to the Pinal County Jail (PCJ). This detention center was contracted by the U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE). It is generally recognized that this facility is the worst detention center in Florence; it has the worst food and worst record of treatment by officers. For instance, "outdoors time" for the detainees (arguably, prisoners) consists of one hour each day in an enclosed concrete room with a single window high above their heads. In fact, the detainees end up rotating who gets time in the sun. During our interactions with the guard, we were met with unprovoked hostility. He was looking for the most minute "infractions" in order to discourage our entering. In addition to this unfortunate situation, the detainee we were scheduled to visit had unexpectedly been sent to an ICE facility nearby for a hearing. The guards were unable to give us information beyond that, which reveals how uncertain and often tumultuous life can be for the detainees. Hopefully, however, this could mean that Davi's (the detainee we were supposed to meet with) case is moving forward. Mind you, his stint in detention has lasted six years already. After realizing we couldn't meet with Davi, we contacted our group leaders, who gave us the name of another detainee we could meet with. At first, we were apprehensive. We had been in slight correspondence with Davi, whereas this person had no idea who we were or that we were coming. Since PCJ does not allow direct contact with detainees, we met with Daniel through video conference. This meant that we were sitting in front of a quasi-TV monitor with a camera, and a phone receiver. Once cued by the monitor, we were able to speak with Daniel for precisely thirty minutes (the monitor and sound cuts out immediately after the time runs out). Despite our nervousness, Daniel seemed excited to talk with people, and he seemed relieved know that he is remembered. The conversation flowed smoothly, and the thirty minutes flew by. Upon reflection, we were truly inspired by his positive outlook and pragmatic hope.

McKinley & Professor Johnson: While I expected today's visit to the detention center to be absolutely hopeless, it was almost the opposite. Professor Johnson and I visited a detainee, Felicía, who was seeking asylum based on gender identity. Though we were apprehensive beforehand about finding common ground and making conversation, the three of us chatted with ease. It turns out that speaking with a detainee is like speaking with anyone else; the assumption otherwise now seems silly. We chatted about nails and hair (girl talk!), Felicía's country of origin, what university in America is like, and the quality of life in detention. Our conversation with Felicia also turned personal at times, but for privacy purposes we can't rehash her stories here. Overall, Felicia seemed to be holding up in SPC, having formed somewhat of a community and keeping busy by acting as a hairdresser and helping new detainees adapt to the facility. Felicia was enormously appreciative of our visit, but I think we benefited from the afternoon just as much. Though it was, of course, depressing to see such a wonderful person locked up indefinitely in detention, Felicia was also incredibly inspiring.

Emma & Autumn: Today we went to the detention center in Florence, AZ to visit a detainee with Katie. Before entering the facility we had a small mishap. Katie and Rachel had told us in advance that the dress codes at the facilities were strict. We had no idea how strict they really were! Autumn wore a green shirt and a pair of black leggings, but this was not enough for the guards. After giving our passports to the check-in guard, he called Autumn back to tell her she needed to find more suitable "britches". She was forced to race back to the Florence Project in the van to find some. When Autumn arrived back at the center, Emma had already entered- she scurried into the facility in a pair of jeans borrowed from one of the Florence Project workers, who was generous enough to walk around the office in her underwear.
Once we had sorted out the britches situation, we were ready to meet the Florence detainee. A guard lead us into a small cement room where we were issued badges in exchange for our identifications. We waited alongside a family with a young daughter. An officer came to lead us to a door marked "visitation". After a short, sharp buzz sounded, we were escorted into a small, cafeteria-like room. It was here, in this brightly-lit room, where we spotted a man glancing at us expectantly. Before this encounter, we had no previous contact with this detainee aside from a brief letter he had not yet received (he will probably receive it tomorrow). We tentatively approached him and introduced ourselves. Although the conversation lasted an hour and a half, the time flew by as we discussed subjects ranging from pop culture to politics. He was a spirited man who was as eager to discuss the issues facing his home country as he was to talk about Beyonce. He was incredibly open and willing to share himself, leaving us with many insights and a lasting impression. We were sad to say goodbye, but hope to stay in contact by exchanging letters. While his life seems frustrating, he remained hopeful and expressed many wonderful plans for his future in America after detention. This experience has made us feel connected to issues of immigration on a much more personal level. It further affirmed the need to change the system that allows for the criminalization and dehumanization of people like the detainee we connected with today.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Youth in Action

Hey folks! McKinley and Simon back to you from the border! Today was a welcoming relief after our challenging day yesterday. Our morning consisted of exploring the ways in which individuals can stimulate change in their communities. We visited a local charter school, Ochoa Elementary, that is renowned for their unique learning and teaching practices.

They abide by a progressive educational philosophy known as the Reggio approach, which views all learners as teachers and all teachers as learners. The moment we entered the pre-kindergarden classroom, we knew we had stepped into a beautiful space. The curriculum is based on an understanding that each child has something valuable to contribute, but this contribution is not constricted by traditional academic pedagogy. In the words of Pauline, the school's art teacher, "each child has a hundred languages, but education and culture steal ninety-nine."

The vegetable garden at Ochoa.

Despite the Ethnic Studies ban in Arizona, this school continues to actively affirm and appreciate all ethnic identities in the classroom. For instance, the class begins by reciting a poem in English, Spanish, and an indigenous Mayan language.

One of the many books banned by the legislation against Ethnic Studies.
We spent most of our time at Ochoa playing with the kids; this included coloring, reading, playing with clay, and building with blocks. In the short time we were there, all of us developed genuine connections with the children, and a deeper appreciation for the Reggio approach.

Following our time at the school, we headed over to a Mexican restaurant for lunch with two college-aged student activists who devote much of their time to protesting the Ethnic Studies ban. Their insights expanded upon the thoughts we had while watching Precious Knowledge, a documentary about the ban.  Our discussion ranged from the unfairness of bureaucracy to their personal experiences in the classroom. Overall, it was inspiring to meet such passionate and engaged people our own age.

The crew, lookin' fly as usual, joined by Erin and Alfonso.

After a morning of uplifting connections, our afternoon took a turn for the serious. We observed Operation Streamline in action. Sitting in the federal court, we watched as row after row of migrants were sentenced for jail time and/or deportation. Operation Streamline is the antithesis of the individualized criminal justice system that America prides itself on. Much like our experience yesterday, we found ourselves face-to-face with the systematic dehumanization of migrants.

After a quick reflection with a public defender, we headed home to prepare for Casa Mariposa's weekly community dinner. Upwards of thirty ravenous people descended upon the house, including groups of students from Georgetown and Detroit Mercy University. After a couple hours of convivial socializing, the eight of us headed out for a night on the town.

Until next time!

Returning Home

Hello friends,

Yesterday was rough. In fact, rough is a bit of an understatement. First things first though, we woke up bright and early (6 AM... maybe earlier due to the cacophony from the menagerie outdoors - roosters, stray dogs, etc.) After breakfast at HEPAC, we crossed back into the US on foot.

A sign at the border crossing points the way to the United States.

This is where things become interesting.

Crossing back into the United States as obviously middle class, Caucasian, American students may have gotten us preferential treatment by customs and border protection, but after everything we have learned and experienced so far, we felt slimy about our privilege. We crossed in two groups, one of which was Simon, McKinley, Nathan, Maggie, Jenny, Autumn, and Professor Johnson. The other group consisted of myself (Michelle) and Rachel. The first group encountered a customs official who became animated and congratulated them for being among the few (crossers) to have US passports. After which, customs officials waved the group through without searching/scanning their large bags. My crossing was uneventful - my officer confirmed I was from Tennessee and waved me through. During that time I tried to get a sense of the average person who typically crosses the border on foot. Everyone around me was Hispanic and middle aged. For those of you who have traveled abroad, what were your experiences crossing the border back into the US?

People wait patiently in line to cross the border.

Once we had crossed back into the US and made a pit stop at McDonalds (I think we were extremely happy to see flushing toilets and drinkable water), we made our to US Border Patrol Tucson sector. I was excited to see what happens at Border Patrol, but also nervous about just what exactly I would see and hear. Throughout our visit to Border Patrol, we faced ideas that contradicted what we encountered in Mexico.

A Border Patrol agent explains the checkpoint system to the group.
Many of us felt uncomfortable because of the dehumanizing language used about migrants by Border Patrol agents as well as the way they casually invited us to hold and pose with their weapons. At the start of our visit we met five agents who showed us short films of smugglers and migrants crossing the border through underground tunnel systems.

Emma and Autumn look on as Border Patrol agents answer our questions.
These videos made us aware of some of the dangers Border Patrol faces; despite this, the agents were clearly passionate about their jobs. The agents were friendly and helpful in answering our questions, but pointed out that while in uniform they were representatives of the state; therefore, there were some questions they could not answer. Much like the people we encountered in Mexico, the agents wanted to share with us the "reality" of the border.

After a quick lunch, we met up with Norma Price and Leesa Richardson, both of whom volunteer with Samaritans, a group that places water and food in the desert for migrants. Besides being two of the feistiest older women we've ever met, Norma and Leesa's work was incredibly inspiring after our unsettling visit to Border Patrol.

Norma and Leesa speak to the group.

After discussing their humanitarian aide work and exchanging stories of the border, we hiked one of the many migrant trails in the area. Both women talked about how they have recently seen an upswing in migrant crossings through more dangerous areas of the desert due to the buildup of infrastructure and manpower at the border. While hiking the trails we saw several empty water bottles, food tins, and even an abandoned backpack. In addition, Leesa also found a 2 liter soda bottle filled with cattle tank water - water contaminated with cow feces that migrants drink out of desperation.

Water left out by the Samaritans. Each gallon is dated and tagged with a number that corresponds to a GPS-mapped trail.
Hiking the extremely rocky trail and getting pricked by thorny bushes and trees, we tried to keep in mind that most migrants cross the desert at night, unaware of their surroundings and location.

While the scenery in Arizona is beautiful, we were often reminded that it can also be deadly.

 Though this day challenged the group, we have to bear in mind that no one at the border has the full picture. Today we saw two parts of that picture, but we were left wondering about how to get the whole image.

*post by Michelle and McKinley; photos by McKinley

Crossing the Border

Hola amigos! Don`t worry, that`s the only Spanish you`ll have to struggle through today. Autumn and Nathan reporting here to give you an update on our journey.  Today (March 5, 2012) was as busy as it was complex and meaningful. After getting up early we made the hour drive from Tucson to Nogales, Mexico. En route we observed U.S. Border Patrol taking several young men into custody on the side of the road.  As we passed by we saw the men face down in the median with their hands behind their backs.  Taking place just minutes from the border, this violent scene served to highlight the sharp contrast between the warm welcome we received from our hosts in Mexico and the reality of border enforcement in the United States.
The wall stretching off into the distance...

The border itself gives physical form to this boundary.  Massive steel bars, nearly a foot thick and rising some 20 feet high, mark the divide between the city of Nogales, Mexico and Nogales, Arizona.  It was troubling to contemplate our own sense of easiness knowing that we could cross back through this boundary at any time, but that for many people it is a far less permeable barrier.

The border wall.

At the point where these two cities meet, small homes on the American side sit just yards away from the main streets of the bustling Mexican city.  And yet, despite this physical closeness, they are quite distant from one another.  As soon as one moves across the border this separation becomes obvious.  All of a sudden the architecture and building materials change dramatically.  Houses and businesses crowd the streets of the city in a haphazard manner.  The stark obviousness of the contrast in quality of infrastructure highlights the disparity in economic power between the United States and Mexico.

Our first stop in Nogales was the Grupos Beta station not far from the border.  Grupos Beta is a Mexican government agency that provides humanitarian aid and information to migrants crossing the border north to the United States.  While Grupos Beta does not encourage migrants to make the journey, they do attempt to convey the risks involved and provide the most basic aid possible to migrants.  Generally, the people they interact with have been recently deported from the United States.  We were fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with some of the migrants seeking aid at the station.  Their stories, which were both painful and inspiring, were similar to some of the anecdotes we had studied from afar in our classroom in Gambier.  The human side of this issue is sometimes lost in our more academic studies.  Being able to interact and listen to these stories, related by individual people, helped personalize and humanize the plight of migrants while cementing them in reality.
Looking out into the Colonia from Marycruz's porch.

Our next stop in Nogales was the home of Marycruz Sandoval. Marycruz provided us with a delicious lunch at her home in the Flores Magon colonia and shared stories about her time in the city and her experiences as a maquiladora worker.

A print-out hanging on the fridge.

Following the generous hospitality of Marycruz we met Kiko Trujillo, a local humanitarian and former maquila manager.  Kiko currently helps run a vocational school in Nogales which provides unemployed residents with free training in several trade skills.  Kiko spoke to us about some of the political dynamics which contribute to and reinforce major economic imbalances between the United States and Mexico.  These imbalances, combined with ill-conceived legislation such as NAFTA, have contributed significantly to the rapid growth of migration (authorized and otherwise) northward.  Mr. Trujillo's tremendous knowledge and passion made his presentation engaging and left us with a clearer understanding of the complexities of migration.

Our last activity for the day was a purchasing power exercise at a local grocery store.  The activity began as an investigation into the differences in pricing between Nogales, Mexico and Tucson, Arizona.  While racing through the aisles of the grocery stores, some of us (Autumn, Michelle and Simon) had difficulty finding the items on our list.  Eager to beat the other groups to the finish line, Simon attempted to question some of the other shoppers as to the whereabouts of chorizo sausage.  While his inquiry was met with only limited success, we did learn a valuable lesson about the difficulty of communicating and interacting in a foreign country.  The language barriers continued when Simon attempted to order Autumn fruit-filled frozen yogurt.  This task proved particularly difficult as both Autumn and Michelle speak Chinese and Simon chose that moment to choke on his Spanish.  Fortunately, the day was saved when a bystander politely interceded and translated for them.

Entrance to the HEPAC compound.

The final stop was the HEPAC dorms where we spent the night.  After we arrived the whole group took a break and experienced first-hand the ecological compost facilities at the compound (and boy did we need it!).  Before dinner we played with some of the children who attend the school at HEPAC.  Maggie and Autumn represented KCWB on the basketball court and impressed their competition... Mexican youths 10 years their junior.  Meanwhile McKinley made friends with a dog, Emma climbed a tree, Jenny wandered around aimlessly snapping photos, and Nathan reached new heights on the swing-set. Before bed we were treated to an energetic guitar performance, ranging from flamenco to Led Zeppelin, the Eagles and America, by one of the professors. Exhausted from our long day, we fell asleep to the sound of dogs barking and roosters crowing. 
The captive audience.
The day draws to a close in Mexico.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Sanctuary and Scenery

Hello all! Maggie, Jenny, and Emma here to catch up on our blogging!
We woke up yesterday, Sunday, for our first full day in Arizona. We
enjoyed a delicious breakfast of oatmeal and raisins, and of course,
coffee! Yum all around! Then we all piled into the 12-passenger van
(our wheels for the week) and headed to Southside Presbyterian Church
to experience a church service and talk to local activists involved in
the Sanctuary Movement.

This is the migrant memorial created out of the shoes of migrants found in the desert.

Here is the area where we gathered before the church service. 

 We gathered around a migrant memorial and
listened to two members of Southside speak. They explained the
church's history and the significance of the Southside community as
one that embraces diversity and strives for social change.
The place of worship, called a kiva, was filled with welcoming faces,
eager to get to know us and share in worship. A 30-person
group from Vassar College was also in attendance. The congregation was
remarkably diverse, but unified in a common spiritual energy that
embraced three different languages and cultures. Most of the service
was in English, but there were portions in Spanish and the native
tongue of the Tohono O'odham nation. The worship space promoted a sense
of communal identity in its circular layout. Everyone could be seen.
We joined together in lively song and engaged in a sharing of
peace. People mingled across aisles and benches, warmly welcoming
visitors and embracing friends. Overall, we were struck by the open
and genuinely kind nature of the Southside congregation. After the
service, we were approached by several members of the church who were
interested in getting to know us and understanding our purpose.

Reverend John Fife.

After lunch, we met up with the group from Vassar to hear a talk from
John Fife, the former Reverend of Southside Church, who played a major
role in the formation of the Sanctuary Movement. The Sanctuary
Movement arose in the early 1980's in reaction to the government's
unjust treatment of migrants claiming political asylum from their
homes in Central America. Reverend Fife describes their movement as
one of ´civil initiative'. He defines civil initiative as the civil
society's obligation to uphold the laws when the government fails to
do so. Reverend Fife told an inspiring and engaging story of his own
relationship to the movement, and its implications today. Reverend
Fife was very willing to answer our questions and engage with us on a
personal level.

The raptor in flight!!!
The desert landscape...the mountains you can see in the distance are in Mexico.

From Southside we drove to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. We were
greeted by Steve, a long-time volunteer at the museum and a nature
enthusiast. Our leaders, Rachel and Katie, know him through his
volunteer work with humanitarian aid organization, No More Deaths. No
More Deaths provides water and other necessities to migrants
attempting to cross the border through treacherous desert terrain. The
organization is also involved in reuniting migrants with their

We arrived just in time to see the raptors on their daily flight
across the desert. Steve gave us a behind the scenes tour (VIP
status!) of various flora and fauna. Some of us took the opportunity
to pet a tarantula and a snake! Others, however, stayed as far away as

We had some free time to walk around the grounds, and we all remarked
on the beautiful mountain scenery. This image was tainted by the ugly
reality that many migrants die trying to cross through the landscape
that from afar appears so serene.
At the end of our day, we enjoyed some soft serve ice cream (Yum all around Part 2!!!)
The class observing desert fauna. 

When we returned to Casa Mariposa, Maggie, Michelle, McKinley, and
Nathan got to work cooking a delicious vegetable stir-fry in the
kitchen. Autumn DJ-ed. As we all sat around the table we shared our
reflections on the day and enjoyed some laughs. After we cleaned up dinner, we
gathered in the living room to write letters to the detainees we will
be visiting on Thursday. We told them about ourselves and sent them a
few pictures we had taken at the museum.

Exhausted from the heat of the desert sun and anticipating our
adventure to Nogales, Mexico the next morning, we all nestled into our
cozy beds and slept soundly.

The whole crew!