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:

Days 34 & 35: Eagle Pass, TX to Laredo, TX

Day 34:  Sunday, January 15    Eagle Pass, TX to Catarina, TX    Miles:  67 (total: 1699)   Flats: 0 (10)  Elevation:  730 ft - 550 ft

These two days of riding to get to Laredo were a bit chaotic due to the recent fracking boom in south Texas.   Leaving Eagle Pass, we traveled on a quiet road toward El Indio, intentionally taking time to appreciate the peace and quiet which we knew would end abruptly as we turned to head towards Carrizo Springs.

People told us that just a couple of years ago on this second stretch of road, one would at most see 5 other cars.  Now, lucky for us cyclists, the road is filled with trucks and semitrailers, several passing us each minute.  On land that was recently uninhabited, we saw all sorts of machinery and lots of RV parks.

Look! An RV park!

While fracking is widely protested in Pennsylvania, New York, and many other places, it doesn't seem that many people in south Texas are complaining.  As an environmentalist, of course, I am opposed to fracking, even though I don't even know that much about it.  I understand people's desire to harvest the natural resources, but making water, the most necessary of our natural resources, toxic in the process seems like a horrible idea.  But these jobs are boosting the south Texas economy so it's happening.

For the most part, the shoulder of the road was ample, so we weren't too afraid of getting crushed, but the sight and sound of all that traffic did make our ride a bit less pleasant.  Apart from all the trucks, the other big eyesore on this stretch (probably also as a result of the fracking boom) was how littered the highway was with garbage.  During most of our riding in Mexico, I would have to remind myself that I was south of the border, because it really looked like I could be anywhere in the southwest. One difference I did notice was that Mexico has much more litter on the road. I love you Mexico, but it's true. Up until this point, I would say highways in the United States are pretty clean, but after riding near Carrizo Springs, I can no longer attest to that fact.  Interestingly (or not), the bulk of the litter on both sides of the border is the same: beer cans, beer bottles and beer boxes.

As populated as the area near Carrizo Springs has become, it is not much of a destination for vacationers or traveling cyclists, so we had hoped to just find a yard or park in nearby Catarina in which we could pitch our tent. Catarina is a teeny spot on the map, most widely known for a run-down, but cool looking hotel and restaurant that president Taft frequented.  We rolled by the hotel, and it looked like people were working inside, but it didn't look like they were taking in guests.  Down the road and across the street, we saw some folks bustling around so we pulled over and asked if they knew a place we could camp.

They are a family from San Antonio who is venturing to make a little money in the midst of the fracking boom by opening a little restaurant and bar in Catarina (the only bar in 50 miles--I think they just might succeed).  It was Sunday evening when we arrived and they were fixing up their rental, getting ready to open to the public the following Friday.  At first they shook their heads when we inquired about a place to camp, but quickly they looked at each other and offered us an air mattress in the apartment adjacent to the restaurant!  Not only that, but they had some burgers on the grill--did we want one?  How about some potato salad and pickles and carrots and chips and cherry pie?  Yes, please! What a pleasant surprise! (We probably shouldn't be surprised by the generosity of strangers at this point, but we always are!)

Charlie playing guitar
After a delicious dinner with this kind family, most of them packed up to head back to San Antonio for a couple days, leaving us and the restaurant in the care of one of the sons, Charlie.  Charlie was a great guy and we were delighted to stay up late with him, playing Monopoly and music.  He even got Eric to bring out his harmonica for the first time on our trip. An amazing aspect of this tour is that you just never know who you are going to meet next.

while Eric plays the harp

Day 35:  Monday, January 16   Catarina, TX to Laredo, TX   Miles:  63 (1762)     Flats:  0 (10) Elevation:  550 ft - 415 ft

The next morning, a south wind was blowing strong and Charlie wanted us to stay and keep him company, but we were eager to get down to Laredo.

It was certainly a struggle against the cool wind, but we pushed it stopping only for lunch and to admire the scenery:

Exhausted from fighting the wind, we had lunch and a nap at the first gas station we could near the junction of highway 83 and highway 35. For some reason, I romanticized the idea of riding the last 20 miles of highway 35 before it enters Mexico because I have ridden on the first several miles many times as 35 originates in my college town of Duluth.  However, it was just a busy interstate and we were glad we only had to get on the freeway once to travel less than half a mile when our frontage road suddenly ended.

I don't know what I was expecting of Laredo, but it is huge!  Highway 35 is the major artery for commerce between Mexico and the United States and it seemed like it to took us ages to get to downtown.  We later learned that Laredo once served as the national capital for the short lived Republic of the Rio Grande, which was an attempt made at sovereignty around the same time Texas ceded from Mexico in 1840. So while there are theme parks named after the six flags that have flown over Texas, Laredo flies a seventh flag.

For lodging in Laredo, we again enlisted the assistance of couchsurfing.org and thus met our host Shawn who teaches at the Texas A & M International University.  We met him at his house near downtown and celebrated our arrival by going out for tacos.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Eagle Pass, TX and Piedras Negras, COA

Sculpture in the Piedras Negras Plaza
Eric and I got a short tour of Piedras Negras with Sister Ursula the day of our arrival, but it was pretty dark by then, so we were really surprised to actually see the city the next morning when we crossed over on our bicycles. Right at the foot of the bridge, there is a really fancy plaza with beautiful sculptures and a lovely running/biking path along the Rio Grande.  East of Tijuana, this was the nicest, most modern looking plaza we had seen on the border, and Sister Ursula told us it all had been done in the last few years.  While I probably agree with Sister Ursula that the money used could have been used better, I hope that it created some jobs for Piedras Negras (which is what is most needed in Juarez right now: non-narco jobs) and I hope that it will bring in tourists that will boost the economy.

Bikes Across Borders sign on their bike trailer 
Eric and I had hustled down to Eagle Pass right when we did because we heard of another group of cyclists who were traveling to Piedras Negras from Austin, Texas and we just had to meet them!  It was a group of ten cyclists, many Austin peddicabbers, who built bicycles and rode them down to the border to donate in an annual migration of the group Bikes Across Borders. Very Cool.

We were fortunate to meet up with this group to hear a bit about their ride down, but also because we got to learn about the organization they stayed with and donated the bicycles to--Comite Fronterizo de Obrer@s/Border Committee for Workers.  The CFO consists of current and former maquiladora (factory) workers who organize for workers' rights in six cities along the border.  Through education and empowerment, they support workers and are trying to get better working conditions and pay in the maquiladoras.

One part of the CFO that is really impressive is a small factory that promotes the values of the organization, aptly named Dignity and Justice Maquiladora Company.  They are really small, only a group of 6-10 workers, all of whom were fired from their jobs after standing up for their rights. Unfortunately, there is currently not enough demand to provide the workers full time work, but they hope it will continue to grow. They make t-shirts, sweatshirts and tote bags, often from organic cotton.  If your company/organization is in need of t-shirts or totes, this would be a fantastic cause to promote and their U.S. distributor is right in St. Paul, Minnesota, North Country Fair Trade.

The small but impressive Dignity and Justice Maquiladora

After getting riled up about worker justice, we stopped by the Casa del Migrante of Piedras Negras.  Frontera Digna is operated by the diocese, the same as Casa Emmaus, which we visited in Ciudad Acuña. Though similar, we had an excellent visit, due in great part to the woman in charge, Elizabeth.  She took a good chunk out of her day to explain to us the situation of migrants in Piedras Negras and also told us her personal story of being an undocumented laborer for 20+ years in the San Antonio area.

One interesting trait that distinguishes Frontera Digna from all the other shelters we have visited is that they are receiving more migrants traveling northward than being deported.  65% of their guests are immigrants from Central America, while 35% are people of Mexican origin being deported.  The reason for this distinct reality is that the U.S. is not currently deporting many people from Eagle Pass and most Central Americans travel through a series of houses of hospitality in Mexico that lead to this house on the border in Coahuila.

Elizabeth, the encargada at Frontera Digna migrant shelter
After speaking with Elizabeth for more than an hour, she encouraged us to go speak with the migrants.  While Eric headed outside to talk to the men, Elizabeth invited me into the women's dormitory.  I squeaked open the door and timidly asked the four ladies inside if I could come in to chat.  I felt bad entering their domain, but they invited me in and I felt honored with all they shared with me.

There were three young women who had traveled up from Honduras and one older woman who appeared to have some mental health disabilities but was deemed "the grandmother of the house" and now permanently resides there.  I mostly talked to the younger women as they were so kind to share bits of their lives with me.

The women were 32, 24 and 22 years of age and all have previously lived in the United States.  The oldest woman was staying at the house with her three children including her 12 year old son, a U.S. citizen, who dreams of being a Border Patrol agent so he can "let all the Central Americans through."  The younger two women had children in Honduras and they were also several months pregnant.  While the woman with children traveled through Mexico on buses, the two young pregnant women rode the trains through Mexico.  As previously mentioned, the route through Mexico is extremely dangerous for Central Americans and they are often targeted due to their vulnerability.  These young women had witnessed lots of abuse, but one elaborated with a particular story of several men pulling women off the train to sexually assault them.  She begged the men, showed them her pregnant belly, but they demanded she get off the train.  Crying loudly, she began to slowly descend the ladder she clung to and only then did her harasser give up and leave her alone.  She saw many other women that did not have her luck.

I talked with these women about where they previously stayed in the U.S. (a good sampling: Los Angeles, Kansas City and Boston), about how they previously crossed, and why they wanted to cross again.  Though they had been there previously, none knew about the tight security not just at the physical border, but also at the Border Patrol checkpoints on the roads going northbound.  They were all disillusioned with the difficulty of crossing, yet determined to do so.

When it was time to go, I thanks these women for their stories, and as I often do, I apologized for the policies of my government that won't allow them to legally cross and give more opportunity to their children.  I really appreciated being invited into their world momentarily and reminded of each individual's struggle.

There doesn't seem to be a whole lot going on in Eagle Pass as far as border-related social justice worker, but accompanying Sister Ursula, we saw a lot of the good work being done in Piedras Negras, much of which is supported by the Eagle Pass community.

Sister Ursula is an RN and she works at a diabetes clinic 3 days per week and spends her Wednesdays helping out at the chemotherapy clinic at the Eagle Pass hospital.  Her three day weekends allow her to  cross the border and run around to all the organizations over there that she is supporting as part of the Benedectine Sisters of Boerne, Texas program Caridad de Corazon, Charity of the Heart.

Benedictine Sisters Germaine and Ursula
The house we stayed in with Benedictine Sisters Ursula and Germaine is their mission house and they host several groups per year that travel down from other parts of the U.S. to do service work on the border.  It is a big house, but we were surprised to see how a great portion of it is currently devoted to storing donations to go to Piedras Negras.  With the tightened restrictions on what can go into Mexico (for example, the government taxes bags of used clothing, raw chicken, milk, etc.), the Benedictine mission house has become a donation center. On Friday, we accompanied Sister Ursula on her deliveries to Piedras Negras and she was excited not only to show us around, but also because more people in the van meant that she could cross the international boundary with more donation items!

We were very impressed with all the ministries that we saw and for the most part, we were just in and out. Our first stop was delivering food to the Comedor where school children can go to get a full meal before or after school. After that, we dropped off some food and winter jackets to a small shelter for the homeless. Next stop was to bring cloth to the CFO Justicia Maquiladora (see above), because when they are not cranking out orders, the workers can use the sewing machines to make other items to sell locally and try to make a living.

After lunch, we stopped in for a visit with a man and a woman, Memo and Egla, who previously managed a Baptist children's orphanage in Piedras Negras.  The orphanage recently closed, but luckily there were only three children living there at the time, and the two boys were accepted into the other orphanage in the city and Memo and Egla adopted the little girl, Lupita.  Sister Ursula will often visit them and check to see how they are doing, because after the orphanage closed, the father was out of work for a long time and now they were supporting a little girl too!  Fortunately, Memo recently found work and they seem to be doing well.  It was really nice to be invited in this home and to see this sweet family.  The man and woman have several other children, but all are grown and, though they could be her grandparents, they are providing a stable home for little Lupita.

Hugs all around at Casa Bethesda,
home for people with disabilities
Next up, we stopped by Casa Bethesda, a group home of sorts for people with disabilities.  We had spent about an hour here on the day of our arrival into Eagle Pass, and I am very impressed with the work of this house. There are at least 15 residents, with a vast range of disabilities and needs, and there are only a few staff members who are often by themselves with all the residents. My sister is severally disabled and I simply cannot imagine this workload, but they seem to manage and thrive, with the higher-functioning residents taking greater responsibility in the cleaning and care.

We brought them food and diapers and all the residents who were able ran to greet Sister Ursula, many asking when they were going to go to Soriana again.  With such a small staff, the residents very rarely get to leave the house, but Sister Ursula has recently taken van loads out to eat or to go shopping at Soriana, a Walmartesque store. I just loved this and wish I could accompany them on one of their outings!  Though they may not often get out into the greater community, they have a beautiful yard space, including a basketball hoop and large playground, and Eric and I tossed a ball with a couple of the residents.

Eric plays with the boys at the children's home

After Casa Bethesda, we had longer visits at the boys' and girls' orphanages which are operated by the diocese of Piedras Negras.  At the boys' house, there were about 12 boys, all under the age of ten, so we ran around and played with them for a while.  At the girls' house, there are currently only 6 girls, all but one under ten.  The older girl, 12, Jennifer, appears to have some disabilities and isn't too verbal and she was just the sweetest girl in the world.  After a few minutes there, she took my hand and she pretty much did not let it go for the next two and half hours. The afternoon of our visit, a large group of education students from the university came over and threw a party for the kids. They brought balloons, pizza, a couple of them dressed as princesses and they played all sorts of games. It was a lot of fun, though Jennifer and I stayed on the sidelines as she preferred to just watch. When we were leaving, I had to let go of her little hand, but I can still feel her warm presence in my heart.

Story time at the fiesta at the children's home

Our last stop was at the home of a woman in a poor colonia on the outskirts of the city.  Sister Ursula told us about a trend she has seen in these small neighborhoods: that one woman of the colonia become the go-to, the unofficial representative, whom the residents bring their questions and needs to.  The woman we visited had this role and Sister Ursula spoke with her about the needs of the kids in the community, as the Benedictines give grants to many of the children in the neighborhood, enabling them to go to school, a privilege that unfortunately is not free is most parts of Mexico. After Sister Ursula delivered some tuition money and received a request for hair clippers for a student in a cosmetology program, we headed back to Eagle Pass.  What a day!!

Though we were only in town a few days, because of Sister Ursula, we were able to see a huge portion of the social work happening in Piedras Negras, giving us great insight into this area of the border.  We are so grateful to have been able to witness all the work that is currently happening and we can only hope it continues to receive all the support it needs.