Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Coalicion de Derechos Humanos / The Human Rights Coalition

On Wednesday, Eric and I met with Kat Rodriguez, the director of the Coalicion de Derechos Humanos.  We had met Kat in El Paso when she presented at Annunciation House's Voice of the Voiceless forum last April, so we were very eager to learn about the Coalition's work in Tucson.

Kat Rodriguez, director of Derechos Humanos

Derechos Humanos has existed in one form or another in the Tucson area since the 1970s and it became an official organization to document abuses by the Border Patrol after Dario Miranda Valenzuela was killed by a Border Patrol agent in June of 1992.

The Border Patrol agent shot the fleeing Valenzuela who was unarmed and not carrying drugs.  Valenzuela was shot in the back and instead of calling for medical assistance, the agent dragged Valenzuela and began to bury him though he was still alive.  The agent asked his partner to help him, at gunpoint, and it was the partner that turned him into the authorities.  Valenzuela was found to have died in agony, his hands clutched, and for the first time ever, a BP agent was brought to trial for murder.  In court, the agent claimed to that the border was a war zone and immigrants crossing were the enemy.  He was found not guilty. Even though this was just months after the Rodney King riots, the murder and trail hardly made the news. (Full article here that includes previous murders at the hands of BP agents and speculation on their lack of training--all written in 1993 and BP has at least tripled in size since then!)

So, originally funded by the American Friends Service Committee, Derechos Humanos began to document abuses committed by Border Patrol, the police and other authorities.  They also started to do Know Your Rights presentations in the community.  Though funding sources have changed, much of their work remains the same.  Twice a week, the office stays open late and has an abuse clinic, where people of all documentation statuses can come in and report human and civil rights abuse.  Derechos Humanos then works with the appropriate authorities (Attorney Generals' Office, Tucson police Independent Auditor, Labor Commission of Arizona, etc.) to investigate and prosecute the claims.

Derechos Humanos believes education is the best weapon to fighting abuse, and in addition to basic know your rights education, they do 3-4 hour trainings to go into detail about individual rights and how the system works.  One part of that training is on immigration laws and the difficulties of attaining legal status, because there are many lawyers or notarios who will steal people's money and assure them they can fix their papers.  Another focus of the training for those without papers is on having an emergency plan--If you get picked up by immigration at your home or workplace, who can pick your kids up from school?  Who can your children live with?  Being a community based organization, with only 4 staff in the office, these trainings and a lot of the work of the organization is lead by community "promotoras" who are the trusted eyes and ears in the community. 

With new immigration laws getting passed left and right these days, Derechos Humanos also fields lots of questions about these laws.  They are ready to drop everything to find out everything they can about the law and its enforcement and they will make flyers and have workshops to spread the knowledge to the community.

No Human Being is Illegal

A few years ago, Derechos Humanos started publishing on their website the number of human remains that were found in the desert each year.  Because of this, they started receiving phone calls from friends and family members of people that have gone missing while crossing.  Since then, Derechos Humanos has expanded their work to fielding these calls and building relationships BORSTAR and the medical examiner's office. They call BORSTAR - the Border Patrol Search and Rescue unit- if they believe there is still a chance the person is alive and the medical examiner's office to try and identify found human remains.  Kat and her staff will do extensive interviews with friends and family and migrants the missing person crossed with to try and get all the details.  As bodies in the desert decompose quickly, some of the most important information to obtain is dental records, either professional X-rays or just descriptions of teeth from friends and family.  Kat said, "I always ask for a photo with the person smiling. Though I don't tell them why, but its because I want to see their teeth."

This last year, the remains of 183 people have been found in the desert and hundreds, if not thousands, are still missing.  This year's number includes 110 men, 20 women and 53 that gender was not able to be identified.  I don't know much about anatomy, but I was confused to hear that one would not be able to identify the gender, but Kat informed us that often times animals find the remains and all that is recovered is a sternum or skull or other body part.  How terrible.  And that only makes this work of Derechos Humanos more commendable because so many families are suffering with no answers, no idea where their loved one could be.

Every year, Derechos Humanos makes a cross for each person's remains that were found in the desert and has a pilgrimage in memory of those people around Day of the Dead.  This past Saturday, while Eric stayed home icing his sprained ankle, I participated in the 11th annual pilgrimage, solemnly walking almost 8 miles in memory of those who died this year. 

Opening rituals - about 80 people participated

I don't love to yell at rallies, I would rather have some time to dive into the issue in my own mind, so I really like participating in silent/quiet marches or processions.  This pilgrimage gave me some quiet time to think of the 183 people who's remains were found in the desert this year.  I carried crosses representing 4 of those people--Julian Conde Romero, age 43, an unidentified woman and two people who's gender was unidentifiable--and as my feet began to ache and as I began to feel thirsty, I tried to consider their lives, their families, their stories as we walked through the streets of Tucson.

What was their name?  Who are their children?  Where are their parents?  What is their favorite food?  How many days did they walk?  Were they abandoned or assaulted on their journey?  What does their family think?  Were they in love?  Did they have a house?  Where did they call home?  Did they find water on the trails?  What kind of music did they listen to?  When were they happiest?

I carried 4 crosses: Julian Conde Romero, 42 years old, an unidentified woman,
and two people who's gender was not identifiable

Walking with those questions was very powerful.  And I think about it now and want to cry and scream.  It is all so useless.  So many people missing and so many people dead and it is so avoidable.  Why do we push people into making this journey?  Why is walking for days in the desert their only option? 

These were family members of a 19 year old kid that was killed by a Border Patrol agent 9 months ago in Douglas, AZ

The pilgrimage ended at the beautiful mission of Tucson, San Xavier.  There we gathered in a circle around the crosses from the previous 11 years.  We read each of the names from this year, saying "Presente" after each one.  We ended by reading a prayer for migrants.  It was simple and beautiful and powerful.

The pilgrimage ended at San Xavier Mission,
where the crosses from the last 11 years pilgrimages were spread in a circle.

Talking with Kat and the folks at Derechos Humanos blew our minds.  They are a really incredible organization and we are so honored they took the time to meet with us.  Also, I am so grateful to have been here to participate in the pilgrimage, such a powerful experience that will continue to inspire me for quite some time.

Prayer for the Migrant
Creator, full of love and mercy,
I want to ask you for my migrant brothers and sisters.
Have pity on them and protect them, 
as they suffer mistreatments and humiliations on their journeys,
are labeled as dangerous, and marginalized for being foreigners.
Make them be respected and valued for their dignity.
Touch with your goodness the many that see them pass.
Care for their families until they return to their homes,
not with broken hearts but rather with hopes filled.
Let it be.


  1. Katy,

    This entry moved me to tears. It also makes me want to cry and scream at the way human beings can destroy each others dignity. Thank you for participating in this and helping to remember those who passed from the earth so brutally. As a nurse working with hospice patients the number one request I've heard so far is "please don't let me die alone"; I can only imagine how scary and agonizing these migrants deaths were.
    Helping you remember those that have passed...

  2. Wow, very powerful and very sad. That is courageous work.