Friday, March 9, 2012

Day 41: Brownsville, TX to Boca Chica, TX (the Gulf of Mexico!)

Tuesday, February 7   Brownsville, TX to Boca Chica, TX    Miles:  42 (2035.5)  Flats: 0 (11)  Elevation:  33 ft- 0 ft (wahoo!!)

Unfortunately, most our days in Brownsville were cloudy and cold. The weather channel forecasted rain every day for the week of our stay, but after 4.5 months, rain or shine, we had to get to the Gulf.

We took a long scenic route to get out to Boca Chica State Park, an undeveloped park located where the Rio Grande river reaches the Gulf of Mexico. We were especially interested in checking out the border wall in this area, because it often runs quite north of the actual international boundary, placing houses and farms on the south side of the massive fence.  And then because there are residents on the other side, there are lots of holes in the fence, to allow the passage of vehicles.  So...What is the point of the fence?  We weren't the only ones questioning this rational:

Nice sign on our ride out to Boca Chica

After riding through some nice residential neighborhoods, we stopped at the Sabal Palm Sanctuary and took a look around. Sabal Palm is a beautiful 527 acre nature reserve which is home to one of the most biodiverse habitats in the United States.  It has the last sabal palm forest in the country and is a favorite stop for birders as it is a breeding habitat for many endangered and/or migratory species.  Eric and I don't know much about birds, though we enjoyed pointing them out to each other every day of riding, so the only one I can say we saw was the lovely green jay.  We hiked around on several of the trails, stopping in a blind on a reseca, visiting the observation deck over the Rio Grande, and we even saw two bobcats on one of the trails!  How cool!

wetland bridge in Sabal Palm Sanctuary

On our way out, we chatted with a couple who was passing through the area and who was really curious about our bike trip and what we thought of the immigration issue.  After chatting for several minutes (including getting a good laugh from them when saying the classic "I will believe that corporations are people when Texas executes one of them"), I found out the woman grew up in my hometown, small Minneapolis suburb of Robbinsdale!  It really is a small world, folks.

We also asked an employee of Sabal Palm what he thought of the border fence, because Sabal Palm is on the south side of the wall.  What he said surprised us:  that has actually benefited the park because the animals can still pass through, but southbound Americans can no longer trespass on the property!  I don't think that is what ICE had in mind, but it was nice to hear a perk of the border wall!

After Sabal Palm, we stopped by the Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve, part of the internatioanl Nature Conservancy.  The preserve is over 1000 acres and staff there does a lot of work trying to restore the native plant species in the area.  We spoke with the Preserve manager, Max Pons, but unfortunately we didn't have enough time to look around.

It was already after 3:00pm and we had 24 miles to bike to get to the beach.  This was our last eastward stretch and maybe we should have been savoring it, but it seemed to go on forever!  Finally, we saw the end of the road.

On October 6th, 2011 (day 13 of The Trip) we dipped our rear wheels in the Pacific Ocean from the Parque de Las Playas in Tijuana, Baja California.

2600 miles later, on February 7, 2012 (day 137 of The Trip), we dipped our front wheels in the Gulf of Mexico at Boca Chica State Park, Texas (where there was absolutely no one to take a picture of us).

What an incredible trip.  Traveling by bicycle has been an incredible way to slowly traverse this part of the world that has our interest peaked, but more than anything, we will remember the people we have met, the hospitality we have received, the work we have witnessed.

More reflections later, for now, we must celebrate:

Is that a bottle of Cristal, mi Eric?

And set up camp on this lonely, barren beach that is such a sight for our sore legs eyes:

We wanted to have a dinner of steak and champagne, but neither of us have much experience cooking meat and we didn't have a cooler so we settled for veggie burgers accompanying our cheap bubbly.  It grew dark as we fried up our burgers and took swigs from the Andre bottle and soon enough, we climbed into our tent.  Moments later, it began to rain and it continued all night, with the wind pushing our tent from side to side.  We awoke to find our things covered with water and sand.  One night camping on the beach is always enough.

beach camping = gross

The rain had stopped momentarily and we forwent breakfast and scurried around packing as fast as we could.  Just a couple minutes before we were ready to pedal back to Brownsville, the drops began to fall.  After judgement from so many cyclists, Eric and I had purchased the cheapest, cheesiest rain suits we could for $10 each and as we turned back west, we pulled them on.  And inevitably tore them immediately.  For the 26 miles back to our hosts' home, the rain fell and we got soaking wet.  This was probably the time for us to revel in our accomplishments and reflect on our experience, but all we could do was dream of hot showers and clothes dryers for the two hour jaunt.

But we did it.  From Tijuana to Brownsville.  We departed.  We arrived.  I can hardly believe it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Extra! Extra! We were on The News in Brownsville!

Watch it!  Even though you already know what we are all about.  And it isn't riding "for immigration reform" although that is something we would love to see; We rode to educate ourselves and we wrote to educate others.  Enough bathering. Enjoy:

(Okay, a bit more vain blathering: when they played this on the news, it didn't just end with creepy silence and us riding in circles, they talked a little more, telling people to check out the blog. We liked that.  But this is funny.)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Tamaulipas

On our way into Brownsville, we swung by Proyecto Juan Diego, located in the colonia Cameron Park.  Cameron Park has around 8,000 people and is about 2 square miles, surrounded by the city of Brownsville. Because of its location and unincorporated status, Cameron Park is site that attracts drug activity, with the sheriff's officers rarely in the vicinity.  Sister Phylis, the director of Proyecto Juan Diego, shares with us some other statistics of Cameron Park's population:  60% live below the poverty line.  30% have diabetes.  10-20% is undocumented with 30-40% of those folks currently in the process of getting papers. 50% are 18 years old or younger.  Cameron Park ranks 39th on the list of the poorest places in the Unites States, with a per capita income of $4,103.

Cameron Park has long been a very poor colonia, often the first home of immigrants to the United States.  Advocacy work for Cameron Park began 16 years ago in the local parish with the leadership of Father Mike Seifert.  He and others worked to advance this community, getting the residents basic services like paved roads and street lights.  As Mike Sefiert prepared to leave the Cameron Park parish, Sister Phylis Peters, a Daughter of Charity, stepped in and continued the work, starting the organization Proyecto Juan Diego, now in its 8th year.  
Proyecto Juan Diego works with approximately 5,000 people each year, primarily in four program areas: education, diabetes, community action and family.  The education program offers after school tutoring and classes in early literacy, parenting, GED, immigration, and citizenship.  As one in three residents of Cameron Park have diabetes, the diabetes program offers health education, support groups and classes focused on cooking, gardening, nutrition and aerobics. The community action program encourages cleanups within the neighborhood, education in recycling and getting the residents to register and vote.  

The impressive family program is more involved--they enroll 20 families each year in a 3 year program with the goal of getting them to "grow" and become community leaders.  The first year is spent learning values, the second year focuses on relationships and in the third year the focus is on community.  During the entire program, there is an education of systems knowledge and participation in local politics.  One of the struggles of the program, which echoed the words of Ann Cass at Proyecto Aztecta in San Juan, is keeping people invested in their community, instead of just moving on after they are empowered.

Proyecto Juan Diego is run by 2 sisters and 10 staff members, several of whom are from Cameron Park.  When budget cuts shook the organization recently, instead of laying off staff, the employees' hours were cut so they work only 20-30 hours per week. With this knowledge, we really appreciate Sister Phylis taking time out to meet with us and share with us their great work.

After getting treated to lunch and that awesome visit to Proyecto Juan Diego, we rode into downtown Brownsville and over to the home of our latest and last hosts, Gene and Ruth.  Gene and Ruth are writers, poets, activists, cyclists, etc. and they are just plain awesome. Ruth is a nurse and Gene tutors college students.  They moved to Brownsville in the late 80's and a few years ago they decided they didn't want to have a lawn anymore, making their whole yard into a garden.  Now they are the only backyard garden to sell at the local farmer's market.  Gene and Ruth welcomed us into a casita in the rear of their home for our week in Brownsville and we often joined them in their house for lunch, dinner or just to chat.  We loved staying with them because we basically want to be them--energetic, enthusiastic, and sassy.  

Generous Gene and Ruth
The day after we arrived in Brownsville, we hitched a ride back to Weslaco (McAllen area) to attend the seventh annual Peace and Justice Gathering.  Several organizations we met with in the area had tables (like L.U.P.E. and Proyecto Aztecta), but we also spoke with people from many other groups who's issues ranged from the Occupy Movement to the environment to the death penalty to reproductive rights.  We heard some great speakers and participated in lively discussions and we greatly appreciated seeing a substantial part of the activist community of the Rio Grande Valley.

The keynote speaker: Professor Justic Akers Chacon 

Back in Brownsville, one of our first stops was a visit to Hope Park.  In its last few miles before reaching the sea, the Rio Grande snakes widely to the north and south, and at this downtown park in Brownsville, you look east and see Matamoros, Tamaulipas.  Once a beautiful park, residents of Brownsville protested the construction of the border wall passing through Hope Park, and ICE appeased them, saying they would place the wall along the riverbank which is about 50 feet lower than the park. This way, immigration would get its fence and residents would get their unscathed view.  However, residents continued to protest other sections of the fence, and they believe, when all was said and done, immigration placed the fence right through Hope Park to spite their efforts.  Aptly, I don't think people call it Hope Park anymore...

Looking at Matamoros through the fence of Hope Park

Adjacent to the park is Galeria 409 and Mark Clark warmly welcomed us in.  Mark is an artist recently settled in Brownsville after retiring from the Smithsonian museums in D.C.  His current exhibit was from female artists of the Valley, but he generously showed us his apartment upstairs and his art there, much of which was border themed.

an unfinished painting by Mark Clark of the U.S.-Mexico border

La Mojada / The Wet Woman / The Wetback

La reconquista (Eric's title) by Mark Clark 

Chatting with Mark was awesome and we loved his art and he was kind enough to let us park our bikes in his downtown gallery when we crossed over to Matamoros the following day.

We had only one destination in Matamoros so our trip into Tamaulipas was very short.  Following the instructions of the manager of the shelter, we caught a bus downtown that headed to the outskirts of the city.  There we found the Casa del Migrante.  There were a few guests in the house, about 6 men and 3 women, a few deported from the U.S., others from Central America hoping to cross in the Valley area.  We chatted for a couple hours with them, sharing a simple meal of soup and tortillas.  The woman in charge of the house during our visit told us that Matamoros receives over 100 deportees per day, but that most try and leave the city as soon as possible because, due to the Zetas, it has the reputation of being the most dangerous on the border.  The other thing preventing deportees from using the Casa del Migrante?  In January 2010, members of the Zetas entered the house and kidnapped 15 migrants. We can't find this event reported and we didn't ask much about this incident, not wanting to linger on such a scary moment, knowing it was best to quickly move on to a more benign subject. The number of migrant arriving has plummeted, but in the face of danger, they continue to open their doors to those who have no other option.

After our trip to Matamoros, we met up with our host Gene at University of Texas at Brownsville to attend a meeting for cycling advocates. The meeting included several representatives from the city of Brownsville who talked about how they want to make Brownsville a bike-friendly city.  This involves a lot of city planning to get funding and support for bike paths, lanes, etc.  It was really cool to be at this meeting and see how this beautiful community we were visiting was working on making the streets safer for cyclists.

Eric and I decided to go on this bike trip to explore the border and see the issues of the area.  We also figured we could scope out projects that we might want to be involved in and cities that we may want to reside in in the future.  With Tijuana and Tucson close behind (and not including El Paso), I think Brownsville is the most livable city on the border.  After growing up in Minnesota, I appreciated the presence of water the resacas provided, how green the city is, and that you could have a garden without the guilt of watering in the desert.  The people were humble and inspiring and welcomed us back to help them to set up a Catholic Worker (A ver!).  It is a true bordertown, located right across the river from our beloved Mexico, and it is only minutes from the beach!  I am so glad we got to end our trip with such a wonderful town that we keep us dreaming of return.

Next up, our ride to the Gulf.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Day 40: San Benito, TX to Brownsville, TX

Friday, February 3     San Benito, TX to Brownsville, TX    Miles: 30 (total: 1993.5)  Flats:  1 (11)  Elevation: 36 ft - 33 ft  

On Friday, we packed up our bikes, said our goodbyes to the Sisters and guests of La Posada Provedencia and we headed out into the wind towards Brownsville.  The wind in the Rio Grande Valley comes predominately from the Gulf, so it was slow going, but that was probably good, as it gave us more time to let our destination really sink in: Brownsville.

Keith Bowden, author of Tecate Journals who we met in Laredo, wrote about heading into this wind as he neared the Gulf of Mexico in the chronicle of his journey traveling down the Rio Grande in canoe: "It seemed as if the winds had wished to prolong my trip, to keep me from reaching my goal, and now I had a feeling that these same winds, which had seemed adversarial all trip, had in fact been my ally. It was as if they knew that I didn't want to reach the end, and they just complied by prolonging the trip."

(this actually wasn't on our way into town.  Shhh!)

We had been talking about Brownsville for months.  Probably close to a year! About then we had this kooky idea to go on a bike trip from San Diego all the way to Brownsville, and here we were, riding into the final city on our map (though one more day of riding out to the Gulf is coming up):  Brownsville. Brownsville.  We just kept saying it, with a mixture of awe and excitement, and perhaps a little apprehension: Brownsville.

Our tires are excellent (Schwalbe Marathon) and aside from my string of flat tires in Sonora, we had very few problems with flats.  And there was one phenomenon that Eric and I would only whisper about between ourselves when there was wood to knock on nearby:  Eric didn't get a single flat from San Diego to San Benito. Well, the gods could not let Eric have such divine luck, so I finally heard the fateful words, shouting in the bustling streets of Brownsville, shortly after our arrival: "Shit! I got a flat!"  Well, 1 flat in 2600 miles isn't too bad, eh?

Even with the flat, we received a warm welcome into Brownsville.  We had an appointment with Proyecto Juan Diego in the afternoon of the day of our arrival (more on that next post), so we stopped at a Chinese restaurant for some lunch.  After leaning our bikes on the building, we strut inside, with our spandex on, amazed to be in Brownsville.  After being seated in view of the bikes and ordering, a woman came up and asked us about our trip.  She was a nurse, had previously lived in Minnesota for 15 years, and had fallen in love with cycling after her move to the Rio Grande Valley--her husband even owned a bike shop in town. She was so excited about our trip and it was so sweet for her to come over a chat with us, welcoming us to Brownsville.  After a few minutes, she left to pay for her meal, and we continued to wait for ours to come.  A few minutes later, she poked her head by our table again and said "Your lunch is taken care of!  Have a great trip!"  Such generosity!!

Brownsville. Brownsville. Brownsville.

Day 39: Edinburg, TX to San Benito, TX and our stay at La Posada Provedencia

Tuesday, January 31    Edinburg, TX to San Benito, TX    Miles: 43 (1963.5)   Flats:  0 (10)  Elevation: 95 ft - 36 ft

For some reason, when chatting with other cyclists, the topic of rain gear would inevitably come up, and folks were shocked to hear that Eric and I didn't have any.  What is a staple on a touring cyclist's packing list, we decided we didn't need to have because hey, we are going through the desert, right?

Well, we were pretty much right.  On one of our non-riding days in Tijuana, there was a little sprinkle of rain, and we didn't see it again until the Rio Grande Valley.  The day we planned to leave Edinburgh was raining so we postponed a day and instead made some necessary post-trip, job-inquiring phone calls.  

The next day, we crossed our fingers and headed out towards San Benito, and we got a little more drizzle.  We got a bit muddy, but our stuff didn't really get wet so it wasn't a big deal. 

I'm muddy, if you can't tell

We arrived at La Posada Providencia, a house of hospitality for people being released from Immigration custody. The house is run by sisters of Divine Providence and provides short-term housing while the guests contact friends and relatives in other parts of the U.S. with whom they will go live.  Frequently guests just stay overnight, but others spend a few months at the house, and the Sisters do not allow for much idle time. In addition to daily chores to keep the house running, all longer-term guests must attend 4 hours of classes each day that the Sisters and outside volunteers provide.  If the guest does not know English, the Sisters focus on English language acquisition, and if the guest knows English, they may do G.E.D. studying or U.S. History in preparation for the citizenship test the Sisters hope all the guests will have the opportunity to take. 

Each school day at LPP ends with songs
The primary teacher needed to go to an appointment one of the mornings we were at the house, so Eric and I were asked to teach the English classes.  Eric worked one-on-one with a more advanced student and I worked with the four beginners.  Between living with the Teach For American folks and this experience, I respect teachers more than ever, because it is hard. I wish I had had time to plan a good lesson, but it was fun too and my four pupils were eager to learn and very forgiving so that helped a lot.

The guests in the house have been released for a myriad of reasons--perhaps, they won their asylum/immigration case, or they are being released on their own recognizance and will fight their case from outside the detention facility, and/or they are being released on humanitarian parole (this often happens to families, because though the U.S. does have detention facilities for families, they are few (see here)). When we arrived, there were 7-8 male guests, most of whom were Cuban (and therefore eventually must be released), and three others--a Mexican, a Honduran and a Ghanaian--who had won asylum cases. Also, during our stay, a Ecuadorian woman, a Honduran woman, and a Guatemalan woman and her 8-year-old child were released to the house, and each only spent one or two nights, before catching buses to Washington, Connecticut, and New York.

On the date of our arrival, after hosing down our bikes and taking quick showers to wash off the mud, we were given an orientation of the house and then we were set loose to hang out with the guests.  After checking out the beautiful garden complete with several papaya trees, we headed out to the resaca that runs along the edge of the Sisters' property.  Resacas (oxbow lakes) are bodies of water which were originally carved out by the Rio Grande, but when the course of the river changed they essentially became lakes.  They make the Rio Grande Valley really pretty.  One of the Cuban guests loved to fish, so he was out at the resaca every night casting his lines.  Our first night there he caught two big carp which we had the next day at supper--they were pretty tasty!

A guest of LPP fishing in the resaca
We spent three nights at La Posada Provedencia and one of the days we rode into Harlingen. We met with Lisa Brodyaga who has a law firm in the area and operates El Refugio (the refuge) out of her home.  During the 1980's, El Refugio welcomed thousands of refugees and Lisa and her colleagues tried to get it established as a legitimate refugee camp.  Though working with the same population, the founders of El Refugio did not associate themselves with the Sanctuary Movement because the Sanctuary Movement folks openly opposed federal law, but the El Refugio folks believed they were not breaking the law of harboring undocumented people because they were very public and open about it, inviting congresspeople to visit, etc.  El Refugio is still in operation and accepts asylum seekers from all over the world.

We also met briefly with Meredith Linsky, director of the legal organization ProBAR.  ProBAR primarily works within the Port Isabel Detention Center providing legal orientations to new detainees, giving them an idea if they may have a means of relief in immigration court.  ProBAR then will represent detainees when seeking asylum or other recourse, and they do a lot of work for the juveniles detained in the area.

We really enjoyed our time in Harlingen/San Benito, and we are especially grateful to have been invited to stay with the Sisters and guests of La Posada Provedencia. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

McAllen/Edinburg, TX and Reynosa, TAM

Eric and I realize we are just getting a glimpse of these border towns as we are zipping by and much of what we see has to do with where we stay. Our first night in McAllen, Texas, we got to stay on a grapefruit and orange orchard with Sister Marian Strohmeyer and her family.  Staying with Sister Marian Strohmeyer was a great introduction into the Rio Grande Valley as Eric and I were really interested in the Sanctuary Movement in south Texas in the late 1980's.

Sister Marian Strohmeyer
Sister Marian grew up in McAllen, became a Sister of Mercy at age 16, and studied nursing and public health. In 1979, she was living with her elderly father in her childhood home (which was then owned by her brother, David) and working for the diocese of Brownsville when she began to offer hospitality to Central Americans who were fleeing the U.S. funded wars that had erupted in their home countries.  For refugees who had just crossed the river, Sister Marian's Casa Merced, one of a few similar houses in the area, was a place to rest up and connect with family members already established into the United States.  Over 5,000 refugees stayed at the Strohmeyer residence between 1979 and 1992, some of whom Sister Marian still keeps in touch with.

After 1992 and the Salvadoran peace accords, Casa Merced transformed into Comfort House, offering hospitality to folks with HIV/AIDS. Jesuit and Mercy Corps volunteers came and lived with Sister Marian and assisted with the operation of this new ministry that helped people cope with their diagnosis.  Comfort House remained in operation until 2000.

In the 1994, Sister Marian's brother, David, and sister-in-law, Beverly, planted an organic orange and grapefruit orchard to provide a source of income for their retirement. However, the days we visited, they looked far from retired.  They were running around, managing the operations of their two orchards--one in McAllen and another in Harlingen.  We were really impressed with their set-up and their delicious organic grapefruits. I never liked grapefruits, but these were AMAZING. And unfortunately, they are not able to sell scarred fruit, though it tastes fine, because people in the supermarket won't buy it. So a good percentage of their fruit goes to the juicer just because of aesthetics, and a good portion while we were visiting got gobbled up by us.  If you want to try some incredible organic grapefruit or give some away next Christmas, look up G and S Groves here.

Eric and I got to see part of the grapefruit harvest while we stayed at the Strohmeyer farm and we got to chat with the workers, many of whom cross over from Reynosa each morning to work.  The two pickers have been doing agricultural work for most their lives (they are in their 60s) and they travel throughout the year and throughout Texas and New Mexico to pick watermelons, chiles and onions. They seemed fearless and proud as they leaned their ladders on the swaying branches, climbing up to fill their bags with the tasty citrus.

Two grapefruit pickers at the Strohmeyer Orchard
Most of the packers were women who lived in McAllen and who just did this seasonal work to supplement their income, especially during the holiday season.  They were a bit more shy in talking to us, but it was interesting to see how the fruit was washed, sorted by size and bagged up by these women who spend all day on their feet.

When we planned to spend the night with the Strohmeyers, we had no idea the orchard existed.  It was a wonderful surprise to see how this family farm works and to talk to farmworkers, the invisible workforce that feeds us.  Of course, spending time with Sister Marian was an honor and we hope to visit her and the farm again soon.

After our day at the orchard, we scooted over to Edinburg and the home of our next hosts--four teachers doing a second year with Teach For America.  We stayed with Gustavo, Leeann, Sam and Ashley for the next week, often sharing delicious meals together and hearing about their latest adventures in teaching.  After hearing just a few days worth of teaching stories, I tip my hat to them for their courage! I'll just stick with riding my bike 2500 miles--so much easier.

Ashley, Sam, Gustavo, Leeann and Nala
The biggest surprise (and cause for complaint) for us in the McAllen area was how spread out everything is. We heard about organizations we wanted to visit in Mission, San Juan, McAllen, Hidalgo, Pharr, Alamo, Edinburg, etc. and they are all in the same general area, but seem really spread out when you are on a bicycle.  And there was practically no public transportation.  So, when we decided we wanted to go to Reynosa, McAllen's sister city in Tamaulipas, our only real option was to bike the 20 miles to the border and 20 back home that night.  Of course, it was totally worth it.

Eric with Martha Ojeda, the director of CJM (far right)
and the family we visited in Reynosa)
Similar to Nuevo Laredo, our contacts in Reynosa were involved in the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras.  Ernesto and his toddler son picked us up from the bridge and brought us to his house where we met his wife, Gume.  Both Ernesto and Gume are from the state of Veracruz and they moved to the border as teenagers to work in the maquiladoras. They met working at an autoparts factory, with whom they now have a lawsuit. Currently, Gume runs a store out of their house and takes care of she and Ernesto's three children while Ernesto is working in the fracking industry of Mexico, which, of course, pays a lot less than it does in the U.S.

Ernesto and Gume live in housing built by the government. Compared to where we stayed in Nuevo Laredo, it could seem really nice, but it is teeny and they will be paying for it for the next 30 years.  There are two bedrooms, one of which has been converted into a store, and the other, where all 5 family members sleep.  The third and final room is more of a hallway that contains the kitchen, dining room and a tiny space on one end that fits an armchair--I guess that makes it a living room.  There is no yard, and it is exactly 8 meters wide.  Ernesto drove us around the neighborhood and it is just block after block of these crammed together concrete structures.  In a way, it is great that people have basic services that are lacking in so many colonias, but Ernesto says they are very poorly made and in the end they will be paying for much more than they are worth.

We spent a good portion of the day with Ernesto and Gume, talking about Mexican presidential candidates, all the places they have traveled with CJM, and their struggles with finances in Reynosa. One really interesting thing that Ernesto told us was about how the Zetas control all the vices and black market in Reynosa--alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, human smuggling, drugs, and, surprisingly, also used clothing.  With the recent laws that make it difficult to bring second-hand clothing into the country from the U.S., individuals must pay taxes on the imports (yay free trade that allows multinationals to cross good without tariffs, but prevents poor folks from bringing in used clothes!) or they can pay a smaller fee to throw their load into a truck driven by the cartels, which, of course, will breeze through customs.  We had no idea the control ran so deep.

A memorial for migrants in Reynosa, Tamaulipas
After a few hours with Gume and Ernesto, Martha Ojeda, the director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, came by.  She had flown up from Mexico City that morning, had already attended a meeting in Reynosa and she met us shortly after lunch. She is a really incredible woman who after many years working in the maquiladoras of Nuevo Laredo began to organize the workers. Now she is internationally known and honored for her passion and devotion for the plight of factory workers. We had a wonderful conversation with her and she was very encouraging of our travels along the border.

On our way back to the bridge, we passed a memorial for migrants near the Casa del Migrante of Reynosa. Unfortunately, due to time and the fact that we were staying 20 miles from the border, we were unable to return to visit this house for migrants.

Later in the week, in San Juan, Texas, we visited with Ann Cass, the director of Proyecto Azteca, which was formed in 1991 by the United Farm Workers, Texas Rural Legal Aid and the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.  Proyecto Azteca's mission is to build healthy communities by assisting low income families construct quality homes.

Ann Cass, director of Proyecto Azteca
Eric and I were shocked to hear that Hidalgo County has over 1200 colonias, neighborhoods that lack basic services.  It is one of the poorest counties in the country with a per capita income of $9,899. Ann also told us that 61% of children in colonias are obese, probably in part caused by the fact that they often do not have sidewalks, street lights, public transportation, nearby grocery stores, and no garbage collection so trash is in the street.

Proyecto Azteca works in over 120 colonias with families that make less than $10,000/year.  They construct 35-60 homes per year and give the new owners a 0% interest mortgage.  Each family assists in the building of the house (550 "sweat hours") and must attend classes on being homeowners, financial education, home repair, organic gardening, etc.

In trying to create sustainable communities, a big challenge for Proyecto Azteca and the residents of Hidalgo county is economic.  Proyecto Azteca has assisted people in entering technical programs, but carpenters, plumbers, eletricians in Hidalgo County only make $7.25/hour, so after people receive the training, they often leave the valley and head north, where they can earn a better living.

One of Proyecto Azteca's major projects right now is to build an entire community from scratch.  The neighborhood consists of 32 houses and each will receive silver LEED certification, the rating system for environmentally sustainable construction.  The neighborhood, complete with community center and garden, will be mixed income with diverse types of families.

We learned so much from Ann and loved meeting someone who was so passionate about such an important, but often overlooked, issue. We had to tear ourselves away to head to our next meeting which was conveniently right next door with another organization started by the United Farm Workers, L.U.P.E- La Union del Pueble Entero.

At L.U.P.E., we met with the director, Juanita Valdez-Cox, and one of the organizers, Daniel Diaz. L.U.P.E. is a member-based organization which serves to empower residents of the colonias to effect social change through community organizing and social services.  L.U.P.E. provides legal assistance in immigration cases, English and citizenship classes, assistance with income taxes, and translation of birth and marriage certificates.  As an organization, L.U.P.E. also has several goals: immigration reform, assistance in the recovery of unpaid wages, changing the requirements for getting a driver's license in Texas, and better living conditions in the colonias.

L.U.P.E. organizer Daniel Diaz
with director Juanita Valdez-Cox
I thought it was interesting that L.U.P.E. is a member-based organization, based on the idea that members of the low-income community have the responsibility and the obligation to organize themselves.  Membership is $40.00/year per person or $60.00 for a married couple, and I was concerned that those membership fees may discourage people from joining, but I also see that people will be more invested in the work of the organization if they are financially involved.  Also, the members dictate the work of the organization, so if you have an issue that you want the community to address, L.U.P.E. is a place where an individual can receive great support.

While navigating the Valley on bicycle may not have been our cup of tea, we were really impressed with the activists we met and with the outstanding work these organizations.

One of the murals at L.U.P.E.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Days 36, 37 & 38: Laredo, TX to McAllen, TX

Day 36:  Saturday, January 21     Laredo, TX to Zapata, TX   Miles:  52.5 (total: 1814.5)  Flats: 0   Elevation:  415 ft - 395 ft

Our riding day to Zapata was sunny and warm, and I pulled out my bicycle shorts for the first time since southeastern Arizona.  The first portion of the ride was calm, but we were moving quick. The second portion of the ride was scary due to road construction and we again kept a high speed to try and get past it.

I think this was our first major road construction and it made riding a lot more stressful.  For over 15 miles, the highway narrowed to two lanes with no shoulder and often times, we were riding along the temporary concrete wall, holding our breath when cars would pass us, praying they wouldn't meet oncoming traffic.

Our plan was to camp at Falcon Lake, a reservoir on the Rio Grande near the city of Zapata.  We crossed a bridge over a little finger of the lake and found the public road that led us to the shore where several people were down fishing.  We just hung out, ate Reese's Pieces, and waited for the sun to go down so we could pitch our tent.

This being our third time guerilla camping, I found myself a lot less nervous and I had a great night sleep.

Day 37: Sunday, January 22   Zapata, TX to Rio Grande City, TX    Miles: 57 (1871.5)  Flats:  0  Elevation: 395 ft - 175 ft 

The next morning, just as we were finishing packing up, a game warden stopped by our makeshift campground.  As he made small talk, I was just waiting for him to pull out a pad and write us a citation.  Finally, Eric broke the ice and said something about how he was glad this guy didn't come by last night to kick us out.  And the game warden tells us he isn't kicking us out, we were totally legal!  Because of the low level of the lake right now, more of the shoreline is actually property of the International Water and Boundary Commission and apparently it is totally legal to camp on their land.  Who knew?  Here we thought we were badass, but we were in total compliance of the law.

On our way to Rio Grande City, where we planned to spend the night, we stopped for lunch and a nap in Roma, Texas, and we also found a bird-watchers' deck and got a nice view of Ciudad Miguel Alemán across the river .

It was also interesting to us to blow right past Roma, while we have spent several days in other border towns that are half Roma's size. Perhaps if we did it again, we would slow down and explore this section of the Rio Grande Valley more, but we had actually heard of McAllen, so that is where we headed.

Unfortunately, there wasn't any formal camping options in Rio Grande City.  We got there mid-afternoon, thinking we would have plenty of time to come up with something, so our first stop was the H.E.B. grocery store.  After acquiring dinner ingredients, we lingered outside, chatting with people who inquired about our bicycles, laying heavy hints that we needed a place to camp, and any old lawn would do.  No one took our bait, so we headed over to the county park.  Lots of people were having cookouts and playing with their kids on this warm Sunday afternoon, but the gate locked at 9p.m. and, of course, no one answered when I dialed the phone number posted on the park fence.  I called the only motel in town and was told the cheapest room was $60--way more than we were willing to shell out.

It was getting to be dusk and we still didn't have many options to we did something that would make most our anarchist friends cringe: we called the police non-emergency line for help.  They asked us to come down to the station, which we did, and there we were referred to the fire department who had a great lawn they let us put our tent in.  Why hadn't we thought of this before?

The Rio Grande City Fire Department

Day 38:  Monday, January 23   Rio Grande City, TX to McAllen, TX   Miles: 49 (1920.5)  Flats: 0  Elevation:  175 ft - 121 ft

The population in the Rio Grande Valley has exploded in recent years, and this riding day, like the one before it, felt like we were riding through suburbia, only with signs every few miles letting us know which city we were entering now.

Because we were making excellent time getting to McAllen, we were able to make a short trek out of the way to see the only hand-drawn ferry on the Rio Grande, connecting the towns of Los Ebanos, Texas and Gustavo Dias Ordaz, Tamaulipas.   The privately run ferry began operating here in 1950, and now employees three sets of brothers, all cousins, to pull the barge across about 45 times each direction, each day.  The barge holds three cars and up to 12 people, charging $1 for pedestrians and $3 for cars.

It was fun to go see the ferry, well worth the $.50 they charged each of us just to go look at it, and it is surely the #1 tourist activity in Los Ebanos--we saw several winter Texans while we were there.
the team of ferry workers pulls the barge across the Rio Grande

We had the luck and privilege to spend our first night in the McAllen area with a Sister of Mercy, Marion Strohmeyer who lives on the farm where she was raised and where her brother and sister-in-law planted at grapefruit orchard in the mid-1990's to give them an income in their retirement.  More on those delcious grapefruits later.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Laredo, Texas and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas

After initially feeling distraught since most the people we contacted in Laredo/Nuevo Laredo were unavailable to meet with us the week of our stay, we jumped at the opportunity we were offered our first night in town to stay with a family in a colonia of Nuevo Laredo who is involved in the work of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras.

First, a word on safety.  Eric and I understand, to the best of our abilities, what is happening in Mexico right now.  We aren't burying our heads in the sand, we scour the news to keep ourselves up to date on recent events (though we know not everything is reported--more on that in a minute).  And though we live on the border and are generally concerned about US-Mexico relations, while on this bicycle ride, our desire to learn all we can is selfishly focused on our personal safety.

For the most part, we know that we are not targets and this fact has allowed us to continue crossing the bridge. We are not involved in the drug trade, we are not driving a nice car (or even fancy bicycles for that matter!), we are not wealthy citizens or even business or home owners of Nuevo Laredo/Whatever City who are more likely than not, extensively investigated before they are kidnapped and held for ransom.  Probably more importantly, we are white. There have been many U.S. citizens killed in the last few years on the border, but very few have them have been white.  And we really do think this is a protection, because no matter what your business is, the number one rule is pleasing your customers, and drug-consuming or not, Americans might actually decide to turn their attention away from the Kardashians for just a moment if more white people started being killed. (You are allowed to disagree with me.) In our opinion, this is also one aspect of why El Paso is one of the safest cities in the country, across the river from the murder capital of the world: Keep your customers happy (plus, what side of the river do you think the narco kings live on?).

We were really happy to be able to cycle in Mexico, but we very strategically decided that Baja California and Sonora would be the best states to ride in.  Not that there isn't violence and narcos there--they are completely controlled--but more importantly, they aren't currently as disputed.  Most people would be afraid of Juarez, but we knew Juarez already so crossing there was not a big deal.  But, probably as a self-defense mechanism and conversational prop, we also whispered about the Scary State down the river, Tamaulipas.

And our whispers are legitimate. Tamaulipas is a dangerous place, run by the Zetas, previously the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel, many of who's members had been trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Bennings, GA. While most cartels make the bulk of their earnings from drugs, we have heard that the majority of the Zetas' money is from ransoms. As everyone says, they don't play by the rules, they are known to be the most cruel and violent in their tactics. Everyone in south Texas is whispering about them.

As we traveled down the river it was interesting to hear what people who actively cross into their neighboring Mexican town had to say.  Most would say that their border town wasn't so bad, but the next stop on the map?  Don't cross there.  Eagle Pass residents told us not to cross in Laredo, Laredo folks warned us of Reynosa, and people in McAllen advised us against Matamoros.

The truth is, there is truth in what they say. People are being kidnapped, killed, tortured, and raped and, of course, I want to avoid these things. Everywhere I go. I wish everyone could avoid these things, everywhere they go.  But the larger truth is that that is not all that is happening.  These towns are not war zones with people hiding behind sand bags and dodging bullets. Horrible things happen, but so do mundane things like grocery shopping and changing diapers.  Can you believe it--even wonderful things happen every single day, like children are born and people make a huge leap of faith and get married.

We choose to acknowledge the larger truth, all while being cautious.  But I'm hear to tell you, we still got nervous as we headed toward Laredo, sister city of Nuevo Laredo, allegedly the organization base of the Zetas.  We can read all we want, but we had never been here and we didn't know hardly anyone here.  So, when we were invited across the river, into the home of former factory workers, Javier and Blanca, were we nervous?  Yes.  Did we go?  Of course!

A couple of the rules we try to follow are: don't be out after dark (not that the aforementioned horrible things don't happen at all hours of the day, but because it is mildy reassuring to actually be able to see your surroundings) and have a destination and get there quick.

Our destination was way on the outskirts of town, farther than we wanted to bike at dusk, so we enlisted the help of our contact who found us a ride from one of the employees of the largest newspaper in Nuevo Laredo, El Mañana. For his safety, I will call him Enrique. We met Enrique at the newspaper office, threw our bikes in the back of his truck and off we went towards the colonia of Blanca Navidad, White Christmas.  It was fascinating to be given an opportunity to talk with someone involved in mass media in Tamaulipas, because from we we had heard, not everything is reported.  Enrique confirmed this, saying there is no freedom of expression in Tamaulipas, the Zetas control all the media.  So, if a member of the Zetas is killed, it is not allowed to be reported.  If the Zetas make a big show of killing someone, the newspaper gets a phone call and invited to come take pictures so they can scare the world.  As an example of brutality and control, last summer in Nuevo Laredo, a woman and a man who had blogged and tweeted about the violence in the area were killed and hung from a bridge, and two months later a newspaper reporter was decapitated and her body was found littered with computer keyboards and mice, a direct warning to journalists. (In-depth article on this here.)

Enrique was very kind to drive us out to Blanca Navidad where we spent the next 24 hours with a very humble family.  May I be blunt? This family lived in the most abject poverty I have been invited to personally witness. They had no running water, stolen electricity, and most of the time we sat outside, as their inside spaces were not large enough to accommodate everyone.  And while it was nice to sit in the sun, several times I was overwhelmed at the odor of their outhouse just 20 feet away.  I know this is not uncommon, but write this because it hit me hard.  I have been fortunate enough to become very good friends with people living in hard situations in colonias of Juarez and even in El Paso, but sometimes an experience shakes you to the core and spending the night with this family fell into that category.

Some of the residents of Blanca Navidad
It was powerful for a myriad of reasons, but a huge one is that this family is powerful.  They struggle to get their basic needs met, but they are fully aware of the systems of oppression and injustice that they are victims of. They have been squatting on land for the last seven years, hoping in due time to get the deeds that they are constitutionally warranted (Mexican constitution says that if you squat peacefully on land for five years and the owner does not kick you off, it is yours).

water tank in Blanca Navidad
Squatting has not been easy and early on the whole community fought and protested as people came in with bulldozers and started knocking down houses. Blanca proudly told us how she jumped up on the bulldozer and stole the keys from the driver so they could not continue. Shortly after this battle, the community was visited by Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatista movement, who reiterated the need to stand up for their rights.  However, years later, the colonia does not yet have legal electricity, nor does it have water. However, one battle regarding water was appeased years ago when after demanding water, the city installed large tanks of safe water which they occasionally fill.

Both Javier and Blanca are part of the organization Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, an organization which strives to improve working conditions and living standards for factory workers internationally. In addition to support and empowerment, one incredible thing that CJM has given to Javier and Blanca is a larger view of the world, literally.  Both Javier and Blanca have traveled to Argentina and Blanca recently visited Morocco, as part of international conferences for factory workers.  Eric and I just loved to hear about their travels and what it meant to them to know that they were not alone--people all over the globe are in the same struggle. We would never guess that this humble man and woman in their very poor home were international guest speakers, yet after spending just a few minutes with them, we could understand why.

The other obvious reason why this visit was so momentous was a wave of realization of my own privilege.  A nice man across the river in Laredo who we had never met opened his home to us and I found that I cringed a couple times at the slightly-less-than-spotless kitchen. Then, I go across the bridge to another stranger's home, and am met with thin plywood walls and confusion on where I can wash my hands.  I take so much for granted.  And it is completely unfair that I have all that I have, just because I was born where I was born, while this family works long hours to come home to a warm, loving home that would in no way pass housing inspection standards a mere 5 miles away.

Another example of my privilege?  I "volunteered" for the last four years previous to the bike trip (August '07-July '11).  Because I didn't make a salary, but instead a stipend (and though I had all my needs met and I, in addition, am sincerely happy with my life) I was praised for all the sacrifices I made because I didn't have outrageous amounts of discretionary income.  Here's the kicker: during my last year at Annunciation House, I had climbed the stipend ladder and made $500 per month ($400 from A House, $100 from the St. Joseph Worker Program).  That "stipend" is more than TWO TIMES what a maquiladora worker who is making DOUBLE the Mexican minimum wage of $5/day earns on the border.  While I get praise for my sacrifice (which includes room and board!!), factory workers get 6 12-hour days on their feet with often times less than ideal working conditions.  AND even if the working conditions were pristine, even if they doubled their already doubled wages, it is not enough money to raise a family, yet I made that much money and didn't have to pay rent or buy food.  Does this not seem ludacris to you?  It boggles my mind.

And to tell you the truth, I don't really know what to do with all this information.  I hope to share it with you and make you stop and think about your privilege and maybe make some changes in your life.  I surely know I want to make some changes in my life, and I know it will be hard.  It is just all together too easy to get sucked into Facebook feeds, Republican debates, worrying about my non-existent retirement fund, caring about how I look/dress, watching reality TV, etc. Drastic changes need to be made because the way I live, and the way most my family and friends live, is (sorry to say it!) perpetuating a system of exploitation.  Don't get me wrong, I think the Occupy movement is cool, and the 1% in our country should not hold so much wealth, but do you know that if you make over $34,000 per year you are in the 1% of the world?  (citation)  We have too much.  We have an unfair amount of wealth, privilege, energy usage, etc, etc. I don't have the answers, but we must change.

As you can imagine, I got kinda knocked on my ass with feelings of guilt and responsibility in Nuevo Laredo, so it is probably a good thing that the rest of our stay in ambos Laredo was pretty chill.  We did get to talk to Sister of Mercy Maria Luisa who showed us their domestic violence shelter and low cost clinic operated by Mercy Ministries.  It was very impressive to see their work and especially to see the incredible education center they have created for survivors of domestic violence.

Keith Bowden shows Eric the river
We also got in touch with Keith Bowden, a professor of writing at the community college in Laredo, who, in 2004, spent 70 days traveling down the Rio Grande on bicycle, raft and (primarily) canoe.  He chronicles his journey in a book called Tecate Journals.  While Keith claims not to be poltical, he has great insight into the dynamics of the border which he appears to have gained from time spent in Laredo, on the river, and in the classroom, with students from both sides of the bridge.

One interesting story he told us was about the time he and a friend were standing on the river bank and they saw some immigrants crossing. One of the men in the group, probably the coyote, greeted Keith and his friend and even came over to talk to them.  This man was convinced that Keith and his friend were Border Patrol agents, amidst blatant denials from Keith.  Keith finally ask him, "If we were Border Patrol, why wouldn't we be arresting you right now?" To which the man crossing replied, "Because you are just counting to make sure more people aren't crossing than we paid for."  Corruption isn't just on the Mexican side.  Here is more recent proof of that.

We really enjoyed meeting with Keith, hearing his stories from the river and shore, and we also got some advice from him on the roads that lay ahead.

To conclude I will post pictures of adorable children from Blanca Navidad that didn't fit so well in the serious writing above.  But really, it's all about them: