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 MaƱana. 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:


  1. This entry was amazing - really informative and beautiful. I love you guys. Keep it up! CHIPS

    P.S. Eric, what was that book about Juarez that you recommended to me when we were holding down camp?

  2. Hummmm...Perhaps a Charles Bowden book?