I just got here, and it’s already time to leave.
I don’t know how I can go when there’s so much left undone… but that’s what I’m doing. Now we need to write a blog summarizing our thoughts and experiences of our time in Chiapas, Mexico and Tucson, Arizona. I’ve never been great at blogging, and summarizing everything that happened won’t be easy, so bear with me.
I grew a great deal this summer, so I’d like to start by going through the opportunities that I’m really grateful to have had. First, I’m so thankful for my home stay; our host mom, Marujenia, immediately brought Cole and me into the family. We went to all sorts of family gatherings: birthday parties and gender unveiling pre-birth parties and were paraded around to the extended family as Maru’s new sons. Maru spoiled us; there was not a day without a delicious home cooked meal or a new movie to watch. I learned a lot from her too. Maru was very active as a Promotora, an active female member of the Latino community that undergoes basic health training in order to raise awareness and to educate others on prevalent health issues in their community. I learned much from late night talks about her work, politics, and life in Tucson, but I probably learned the most from how she treats others. She won’t stand for fighting or mistreatment anywhere, and at her house she always makes sure everyone is perfectly comfortable. It’s obvious why her neighbors, family, and lifelong friends flocked to our house; she deeply cares for everyone in her life. Even after we left her home she would tell us that it was still our house – we were still her sons. It was a privilege to stay at her home and to be a part of the family, and going forward I definitely want to try to emulate her attitudes about family and relationships.
Second, I’m grateful for the welcoming atmosphere of the Southside Worker Center, and all of the responsibilities I was given there. At the center I was allowed to teach English, one of the most important skills to have in America. The ability to speak and understand English is pretty essential – in our class we teach practical phrases like how to ask a boss for a water break, how to ask for a price in a store, as well as basic English sentence structure and vocabulary. There are additional workshops taught by professionals from the University of Arizona on knowing your rights as a worker and how to defend yourself in English. I was also entrusted to interview workers about their involvement in the center and listen to their incredible person stories, and to develop outreach materials and distribute flyers for the center.
When I started working at the center I was actually fairly anxious – I love learning and speaking Spanish but by no means was I comfortable doing my job in the language on day one. However, our coordinator, Eleazar, set me at ease. At the first weekly assembly he introduced my partner Anthony and me to the workers and explained that I was still learning Spanish and that everyone should be cognizant and respectful of that. He basically runs the center – he gets there every morning at 6AM for the morning work raffle and stays until 12PM when it closes. He comes on weekends too, and teaches OSHA clinics when they’re offered. When someone comes to Southside looking to hire a worker, he is the person who approaches them with the first worker on the list. He diligently notes their name and phone number on the list he carries on his clipboard. He asks about the type and length of the job and how many workers they need. Finally, he negotiates the price after explaining that we ask for at least $10 an hour as a fair wage for our workers (Arizona minimum wage is $8.05). He’ll ask for more than that if the job is less than three hours or requires a specialized skill.
Eleazar is the face of the center, and to me he symbolizes exactly what the worker center is all about. Eleazar is a jornalero (worker) himself. When the center closes at 12, he drives to his own job where he works the rest of the day. This is just so cool – the center does so much, and still day to day it is independently run by the workers themselves. The Southside Presbyterian Church, members of which helped to originally found the center, is filled with amazingly smart and kind people whom it has been an honor to work with. They donated the space for the workers and are currently helping to plan the benefit dinner, but for the most part now the two organizations operate as distinct entities. The worker-run aspect of the center is crucial. I’m not and will never be a day-laborer in Tucson, AZ. I don’t know what it’s like to live as one. The jornaleros are the ones that see the world as workers and live as workers every day of their lives – they are the experts. Having anyone besides them as the primary actors and organizers in the organization would just increase the distance from relevant experience and knowledge to make a difference, and I’m glad Southside recognizes this.
Eleazar is so grateful for the opportunities he has been given – now he gets to speak about the center to the many educational groups that come to the center. In his speeches he outlines how the situation for undocumented immigrants in Arizona has deteriorated over the past few years after the passage of SB 1070, but what resonates with me most is how hopeful he is for the future. SB 1070 allows law enforcement (not normally involved with border patrol) to ask for the immigration status of anyone they suspect to be undocumented – it allows the police to racially profile. This new overlap of the duties of the police and la migra, known as la poli-migra, helps to create a culture of fear surrounding normal situations like driving to work or talking to the police.
I’m leaving now, and I want to dispel the notion that the worker center is only about getting a job – it’s way bigger than the work. It’s about combatting this fear and empowering workers. After SB 1070 in 2010, the center shifted gears to emphasize activism and self-improvement in the face of these oppressive laws. They stepped out of the shadows and protested SB 1070, began “know your rights” workshops, and started to collaborate with other worker centers nationwide. When I talk to my friends at the worker center, they are optimistic. There’s an incredible strength of spirit and will that exists there – they rightly fear the police, but they do not waver. They go to work every day. They form part of a multi-organizational group called the Protection Network. They goof around and crack jokes. They constantly challenge themselves to become better through leadership workshops, English classes, and OSHA safety training. They will not give up, and they will not be broken by fear and this sweeping structural oppression.
Most of all, I appreciate that I was simply allowed to observe and participate. In Chiapas, we visited human rights groups, migrant shelters, and autonomous communities. In Tucson, we participated in protests against the Mexican government, walked along a migrant trail, and visited people in detention centers. I was exposed to new ideas on the role of government, of borders, and the effects of massive trade agreements like NAFTA and the TPP on those marginalized worldwide. I learned a bit more about what it’s like to live in Arizona as an undocumented worker. There’s no guarantee of getting work, and when you get it the work is hard and long and under the hot Arizona sun. You will never speed or run a red light – any minor traffic stop could mean a run in with police and then possible deportation. I did hear about people who were deported – they were detained for months and then forced to leave and sent back home. Back home. What’s home? Is home back in Honduras when your daughters, your wife, your job, even your soccer team are all here in Tucson? When you haven’t been back in eighteen years? There’s nothing for you there.
This past Friday before we left Tucson, we had a going away party to thank our homestays and internships. I got to thank Maru, Eleazar, and our awesome coordinators Sabina and Cathie for everything they’ve done for me. Of course, now it was time to say goodbye. I’ve never been good with goodbyes, but my conversation with Eleazar helped me with out. “The world is small,” he said with a smile. “Keep it up – we’ll meet again. Pa’delante.”
Pa’delante. I’d heard the phrase before – we had just chosen it as part of the motto to advertise the center’s 10th anniversary dinner. It means “Forward”.
When I leave here, I don’t want what I’ve seen to go unseen. I want to talk to other people about what’s happening in Tucson and the work being done here. I want others to hear what members of the center have to say. I don’t want to stop being involved with worker centers and the fight for a fair and living wage and improving access to resources like English classes, skills workshops, or whatever.
I’m so grateful to have been given the chances I’ve been given and to have met the people that I did. I hope that I was able to help out and that my presence here really was a positive thing. Thank you Southside. Thank you Borderlinks. Thank you Tucson. It’s over, but it’s not the end. Pa’delante!