Thursday, September 29, 2011

Border Angels and the American Friends Service Committee

Tuesday, September 26, Eric and I met with representatives from a group called Border Angels and from the American Friends Service Committee.  After those two meetings, in which much more was shared than just their organizations' work in the area, we were left reeling with information and really excited about the next few months.

(the following is my understanding of all that we discussed, and I hope that it is mostly accurate.  If I had more time, and a computer, I could do some more research to verify the information, but I don't have those resources at the moment.)

In the morning, we met with Enrique Morones of Border Angels.  The work of the organization started in 1986, in the Carlsbad Canyon area where we went to the mass on Sunday.  That is when the mass started happening, as huge amounts of people at that time were camping in the area--men, women and families.  They started their annual walk back in the early days to raise funds, 50% of which stayed to keep up the work in the area, the other 50% being used to finance microloans and such back in the pueblos of Oaxaca to give people the option not to migrate.  This was the bulk of their work for the first 10 years and in 1996, the group also started to place water in the desert for migrants crossing.

Prior to 9/11, most of the deaths of migrants crossing happened in California, so this was very important work.  Enrique has been widely recognized for his efforts, and has been featured in all sorts of television shows and films.  In 2001, he was brought on a Mexican TV show called Sabado Gigante (Giant Saturday) which is a show that includes interviews and skits and circus acts and anything you can think of and has a duration of 3 or 4 hours each Saturday morning.  It was there that the host called Enrique and the other volunteers border angels, and thus their name was born.  Shortly thereafter, they gained 501c3 status under the name Border Angels.

Since then, Border Angels (Enrique and volunteers) have continued to place water, though less and less as there are now around 20 organizations doing water drops along the border.  It seems a large portion of the Border Angels work is about raising awareness around the issues.  In 2005, they begun an annual Migrant March, the first of which went from San Diego to D.C. via 40 U.S. cities.  The Migrant March has happened annually since then, always beginning on February 2 which is the Dia de la Candelaria (the day when the person who got the baby in their rosca de reyes' has to make tamales and throw a party) and the anniversary of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in which U.S. gained/stole 50% of Mexico's land.  The march always has a different route and focus, all of which can be found on their website.  The theme for 2012 is Cesar Chavez and the route will go along a farm worker trail in California.

Border Angels has also undergone initiatives to disrupt the Minutemen Movement, who formed in April 2005.  The Minutemen tore through the migrant camps in the canyons, destroying all the people's possessions and Border Angels created an initiative called Gente Unida, a coalition of organizations against the Minutemen.  On the Border Angels website, you can read hateful emails from Minutemen and watch videos of the Minutemen movement in San Diego (I have not read/watched them). Much to the contrary, also on the Border Angels website is a huge list of migrants who have died crossing.

Meeting with Enrique was really amazing.  His passion and knowledge in the area of immigration is astounding and it helps that he has a great sense of humor.  It seems that Border Angels is almost a one-man operation and he is constantly traveling and speaking and working all over the world.  Before we came and since being here, he is the constant name that we were told to contact.  It was really great to be able to have the chance to meet with him. We hope to be able to go on some excursions with him later this week.

Enrique Morones of Border Angels

After being totally amped up by Enrique, in the afternoon, we met with Christian Ramirez of the American Friends Service Committee, which is the activist organization of the Quakers. We met at Chicano Park and he started our meeting by telling us a little of the history of the area. 

Restoration is finally underway on the Chicano Park Murals after 10 years of struggle to get the necessary funds

One of the oldest murals of Chicano Park

Old meets new with these stenciled murals

In the late 1800's and early 1900's, Barrio Logan, where Chicano Park is located, used to be a Japanese fishing community.  After Japanese residents were forced into internment camps during the 1940's, the area became mostly inhabited by Mexicans.  The community flourished until the late 1960's when plans for the Coronado Bay Bridge took root, and the bridge was due to go right through Barrio Logan. The residents have long struggled to keep their neighborhood and their last stand took place at the site of Chicano Park when they learned that the area was going to be bulldozed to build a highway patrol station and parking lot.  On April 22, 1970, the community took over the park and occupied the space for 12 days during which they negotiated with the city to end the construction.  They succeeded and in the following years, murals were painted upon on the highway supports in the park. 

In the mid-1990s, the city of San Diego wanted to reinforce the bridge supports to make them safer during earthquakes and the people once again had to fight, this time to protect their murals. Negotiations were reached, but after years and years of bureaucracy, the Chicano Park Steering Committee only this year received the funds necessary to do the restoration work! 

Chicano Park was a really great place to see and we were even able to see one of the original muralists who was doing the restoration work, 30+ years later.  We also met with the president of the Chicano Park Steering Committee who has taken minutes for the group since the beginning in the 1970s.  We told her we can't wait to come back and see the Chicano History museum near the park one day!  Is has to happen, right?

Christian also gave us a general idea of the politics and policies of the City and County of San Diego in regards to immigration.  He seems to have done extensive travel of the border and was able to compare San Diego to other places we have been: Tucson/Nogales and El Paso/Juarez.  While San Diego is only about 15 miles north of the border, Christian explained, it has really turned its back on the border--it doesn't embrace a border identity the way other cities along the border do.  San Diego is a wealthy city and very conservative, even today the city council is mostly if not all white, while on the last census the Latino community made up 35% of the population.  It is slowly changing and leaning left, but policy change especially is slow.  It is interesting too, because San Diego has a much more diverse immigrant community than anywhere else along the border.  There is one community here, City Heights, where it is known that over 40 languages are spoken.  As the immigrant community expands, and especially the Latino population grows, there is increasing rates of anti-immigrant sentiment.  This is especially apparent in Northern San Diego County, in places like Escondido and Oceanside.

I also asked Christian about detention facilities and he said the CCA does have a facility in the county and CCA and Geo Group are currently bidding to build another facility in the area. Similar to what has happened at the Tucson and Las Cruces offices, the ACLU here has written reports on the human rights violations occurring at the San Diego CCA facility and has been pressuring the government to take action to monitor better the actions of these private prison industries.  As is also true in many other places, people detained in San Diego County usually don't stay in San Diego County, but instead are transferred to Las Vegas, Florence or Lancaster.

Of course, Christian also talked about the work of the American Friends Service Committee. Amidst many objectives including withdrawing troops, shaping a just federal budget and eliminating nuclear weapons, AFSC also aims to humanely reform immigration policy. The main work of AFSC in San Diego is documentation of abuse by authority and to bear witness to patterns of immigration and to promote legislation for immigration reform.

I really like that after spending almost 2 hours with Christian, he shared with us the challenge and joy of working with a Quaker philosophy.  He has been with the AFSC for 11 years and is not a Quaker himself, but appreciates and has been challenged by the process of discernment involved.  While other groups and people are quick to demonize and judge, they assess their actions to assure that they are non-violent.  They also are committed to being behind the scenes support, not pushing themselves to the front and center of the struggle.

Eric with Christian Ramirez of AFSC at Chicano Park
After filling our minds with so much incredible information, Christian gave us one more little tidbit:  where we could fill our stomachs:

Best fish tacos of my life!

What a great day.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

First days

Date: Saturday, September 24      Miles: 51       Temperature: 64-76 degrees     Flats: 1

Lessons learned:
1 - Leave early. Especially when it is your first day, you haven't trained and you don't know where you are going.  Trying to find houses in suburbia at night is not awesome.
2 - Google maps sucks for cycling routes.
3 - Watch out for surfers. Southern California is crawling with them. Also, it is pretty darn chilly here!  Who knew? Prob everyone but me, eh?

So, yesterday afternoon this crazy dream became a reality (too early to say?). Amidst crashing waves, families playing volleyball, sandpipers scurrying, and two wonderful friends wishing us the best, we loaded up our bikes with altogether too much stuff and we just started riding. After months of talk, we finally took action.

Taking our fully loaded bikes on a spin!  photo by Alicia Quiros

Our first mile!  Along the Ocean!

We could not have picked a prettier place to start. We rode along the coast for a good portion of the day and it was beautiful. As the trip continues, I am sure we will remember this day of riding and want to go back in time.

Mile 8ish

The ride was alright, we just should have left earlier.  We didn't get to jump in the ocean at all!  And we need to plan our route better, especially in such a big city.  Fortunately, we won't really be in a city of this size again for a while.

The not so great news is that Eric is having trouble with his Achilles tendon.  We went on a 60 mile ride a couple weeks ago, and it was sore for days.  We don't really know what to do about it, and are open to suggestions and advice, so please send it our way!

Today we went to a migrant mass that Mount Carmel parish offers and it was really nice.  I haven't been to mass in a while, but it was outside and in Spanish and Father Farrell (who we are staying with) did a great job of dumbing down the gospel for me/us.  There wasn't a big crowd, but basically all the guys there were from 3 pueblos in Oaxaca, and I was surprised to hear that most of them camp in the area to save money while working 6 days a week for their families back home.  I have never heard of migrants camping while working in a city, but I suppose in an expensive area like San Diego it makes a lot of sense.

Before mass, some students from the University of San Diego were offering English lessons to those who desired it and after the mass, the team from the parish in charge this week served a huge meal and it was wonderful to just sit and chat and joke around with these guys.  At first, people seemed leery about speaking with us, but sitting down at a meal together, we were able to talk about jobs, soccer, milking cows, and of course, the most talked about Oaxacan cuisine: grasshoppers.   

This afternoon, we met with a woman from Catholic Relief Services who was able to tell us a bit more of the work happening in the San Diego area in regards to immigration.  While they do not do any direct service in their area (that would be Catholic Charities), Catholic Relief Services focuses internationally to do development work and to respond to natural disasters.  That said, CRS's partnerships include the Scalabrini order of priests in Mexico who operate the Casa del Migrantes, Justice for Immigrants in Washington, D.C. and the San Diego Immigrants Rights Consortium.  It was also interesting to hear that CRS was recently asked by the bishops of Mexico to organize peace building efforts and this project is currently under development in the San Antonio office.  

While the CRS office is a very small operation and they don't do any direct service with migrants in San Diego, it was really good to hear about work being done on a national and international scale.

More meetings tomorrow!  Contacts and connections are really falling into place --Thank you if you have helped!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The last couple months...

So, we haven’t hit the road yet (just a couple more days!), and that is probably what you are here to read about, BUT we have already done/seen some awesome things that I can’t help but share.

After leaving Annunciation House, Eric and I went our own ways for a few months and we reunited in late July in El Paso just in time to pack our bikes and catch a bus to Tucson.  In Tucson, we received orientation from No More Deaths where we committed to volunteer for the month of August.  

No More Deaths is an organization which is known primarily for putting water in the desert for migrants.  This is certainly the driving work of No More Deaths, but there are several other things NMD does, including human rights abuse documentation, a We Reject Racism campaign and aid stations in Mexico.  Their mission is "to end death and suffering on the U.S.-Mexico border through civil initiative."

We spent most the month of August at an Aid Station on the border south of Tucson.  We lived in Nogales, Arizona and we would cross the border into Nogales, Sonora, everyday to offer services to people who had just been deported and others who were preparing to make the trek northbound through the desert.  Our primary service was offering phone calls to the U.S., Mexico or Central America.  Lots of people who were deported needed money to get back home and many of the people headed north had not spoken to their families in weeks.  We saw around 10-20 new deportees every day and most had been living in the United States for many years and were leaving behind spouses, children and/or other family members.  Most the people heading northbound were from Central America and had spent about 4 weeks traveling already. (Did you know that 500,000 Central Americans migrate to the United States every year?! 150,000 of them from Honduras!)

Besides offering phone calls, we documented human rights abuses (NMD just released a huge report called A Culture of Cruelty--more on that soon) and tried to get people back their possessions that were confiscated by ICE/Border Patrol/Customs and Border Protection/etc.  The volunteers who were qualified also offered medical services, mostly treating dehydration and doing blister care--those traveling north often are often dehydrated and have foot problems, but also those who have been deported often were crossing the desert just days before and very often do not receive any treatment in Border Patrol custody.

A huge part of the work, between dialing numbers and swatting flies, was accompaniment.  This can be a hard task for folks like me who want to make a To Do list and check it off.  But one of the most important things that we can do is just sit down next to someone, listen to them, be with them, find some commonality and hopefully a way to lighten the mood and laugh together. (And I admit, to ease my own conscience, I often felt it necessary and right to express my disdain for the actions of my government, the consequences of which were strongly felt by those with whom I was conversing.)

Similar to my experience at Annunciation House, people at the aid station in Nogales were, for the most part, really trusting and open to sharing with us.  And we had the fortune of hearing some really hard stories, some harsh realities, but we also played soccer, told jokes and laughed at whoever was attempting to play guitar at that particular moment. It was a real privilege to just be with such a vulnerable community.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Who are we?

Eric and Katy at Hueco Tanks, Spring 2011

I feel like I can't just jump into blogging without some proper introductions.

I, Katy Brandes, will be the primary writer, hoping to get Eric involved once and a while. I was born and raised in Minnesota, graduated from the University of Minnesota in Duluth and have spent the last 3 years living in El Paso, Texas.  In El Paso, I was a live-in, full-time volunteer at a shelter for migrants, Annunciation House, and it was quite a transformative experience (I will probably write about it more when we arrive there).  I met Eric there last summer and after hearing about his traveling adventures, I pushed him into committing to go on one with me.

Eric Wright is a carpenter who was born in New York, raised in an intentional community in the Catskills, and considers his home to be San Antonio.  After spending a year in El Salvador, and going on a 10 month motorcycle trip around Latin America with his brother, Eric moved to El Paso to work at Annunciation House where he spent a year.

After spending significant time working on the border, Eric and I knew we wanted to explore it.  “The Border” seems to have its own culture and people, and with that come certain issues and complexities.  We want to see more of this culture, meet more of the people and see more of the work that is being done, primarily in the area of immigration.  In general, we want to travel and see the world, but on this trip we are hoping to visit people who are working for the greater good in border cities in both Mexico and the United States.

Katy and Eric in San Antonio, February 2011

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Ready, Set, Blog!

Disclaimer #1:  This is my first blog.  I am not really sure if I like writing or sharing my thoughts with the world.  That said, I really want to try.

Disclaimer #2:  We will not have a personal computer on the trip and while I would love to share our experience, I also want to be living the experience, so I might not always prioritize finding a computer so I can blog.

Disclaimer #3:  Language is really important and I love to strive to be the most politically correct with my language.  So, please feel free to give me feedback on the language used in this blog, but please give me the benefit of the doubt and know that I am being intentional with my words.  

(I know that people struggle with the word “migrant” and prefer to use “traveler,” etc.  As of yet, I am not swayed.  We are witnessing one of the largest migrations in human history and while language is limiting, and perhaps the language used is not ideal, I think there should be vocabulary specific to this forced phenomena. I realize I am also a traveler, a migrant, you may say, on this journey, but I am not part of this forced mass migration.  It's different.  But I would love to hear your argument; You may just change my mind.)

Disclaimer #4:  Please don’t tell us to be careful.  Everyone and their brother sibling have already given us that piece of advice and guess what?  We have decided to follow it.  (If you have specific advice about certain regions of the border because you live there, etc, please feel free to share with us.)