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.


  1. Hey, cyclistas, that's some great ridin' n writin'. Really interesting and inspiring to hear about Enrique and Christain. Cuidense mucho!

  2. Hi, I'm enjoying your journey, I heard about you from the actually physically printed Mariposa Musings - the newspaper of Casa Mariposa, sent to me by Rachel! I've read most of the blog, but I wanted to comment here because I grew up in San Diego, as a very conservative Evangelical, who has now through the emerging church movement has become an activist for immigrants, the environment, etc. I remember driving on the highways above Chicano Park when I was young and seeing these foreign looking paintings down below and feeling like it was probably dangerous down there and just generally feeling those people are so different than me...many of my friends from those days are probably still stuck in seeing "the other" as a threat, I'm so glad I've come to see them as my family, and I'm so glad you are on this journey. Please show us the way:)