The Drive

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I was driving home during evening rush hour after picking Carmen up from school on a seemingly uneventful weekday. She was in 10th grade. We were listening to music, moving at a fairly moderate speed and chatting away about blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…It became quiet, but I didn’t really notice until she sheepishly said, “Mom, I have to tell you something…” and nothing prepared her for the hysteria that would take over me. I mean it wasn’t that She couldn’t date or have a boyfriend; it was more about having to confront that she wasn’t my chiquita anymore. Even though I kinda knew this as she had been in full blown puberty for some time. Needless to say, I lost my marbles and let go of the steering wheel, put my hands over my face and screamed, “Oh My God!” More times than God could tolerate. Somewhere in there I could hear Carmen’s drowned out screams, “Mom, grab the wheel! Mom, please, you need to drive! Mom…!” All while trying to steer the car. I imagine this was a very traumatic incident because Carmen didn’t attempt to get her driver’s licence ’til years later when she was 21.

Viejo Cara de Hacha

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I was in 8th grade, roughly 14 years old.  I lived in San Ysidro, a border town on the U.S./Mexican border.  We moved a lot, but the one thing that had stayed constant in my life was the school I attended.  So when my grandmother, Tita Carmen, finally received approval for low-income housing, we found ourselves in a little apartment in San Ysidro, about 13 miles away, and an hour-and-a-half on public transportation from my school. Every morning, I woke up before the morning star cast its arms across the sky and boarded the trolley no later than 4:45  in order to arrive to school before the bell rang at 7:30.

There were many men that rode the trolley during that time, mostly construction workers and day laborers or men who worked at the naval shipyard. There were also students who woke up earlier than me, who came from Tijuana and went to school on this side of the border, chasing the American dream. Most morning, my Tita walked me to the trolley station, but some morning, the cold made her bones swell up. I got lots of stares, a few cat calls and whistles here and there, but most of the time, I didn’t pay attention and focused on finishing my school work.  Until one day, an older man, whom I perceived to be around fifty or sixty years old, started to harass me.  He wouldn’t take his eyes off me. I was like a birthday gift that he couldn’t wait to unwrap.  His eyes glazed over with lustful craving, he’d lurk around the trolley station making sure he was always a few feet away from me.  He’d make noises like psst, psst to catch my attention, and when he’d catch my eye, he’d lick his lips or make some kind of nod with his head.

He started to creep me out enough that I told my Tita about him.  So the very next day, my grandmother accompanied me, but told me to stay a few feet in front of her and to pretend that we weren’t together.  As we anticipated, the old man was waiting for me and began his perverse behavior toward me.  When the trolley arrived, I got on as I always did, but I wasn’t sure where my Tita had gone.  I sat down and as soon as the doors closed, I heard a loud commotion a few seats behind me.  That’s when I saw my grandmother with her cane whacking the shit out of the old man! People all around watched as if frozen onto their seats.  At first I turned back around and pretended not to know what was happening.  I could hear my Tita screaming profanities in spanish. “Pinche viejo cara de Hacha!  Porque no se mete con viejas come yo?  O que, estoy muy vieja, por eso le gustan las muchachitas!  Pinche limon chupado! I was scared for my Tita, but more scared for the man.  He had his hands up in the air, trying to block every blow, screaming, “Ya, senora! No mas!”

A passenger stood up and tried to stop my grandmother, telling her to calm down because she could hyperventilate.  But he was no match for her fierce anger and strength.  So a couple more passengers pulled her off from the old man, and with commanding, sweet language helped her to have a seat, as she loudly justified why the old man deserved to get the shit beat out of him.

He got off at the next stop. So did my Tita.  I don’t know what else happened, and she never talked about it, except to ask me once in a while if I had seen him again.  But I never saw that man, and no one at that station or on the trolley, not so much as looked at me.  That day, my Tita taught me that all women have a roaring tiger inside.  And that it was okay to let him out.

 

*Viejo Cara de Hacha – old man with a face shaped like an ax

There is No Restoration in Dehumanization

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A bird flies over barbed wire on top of fences at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, California. In 2014 when this photo was taken, California was under a federal court order to lower the population of its prisons to 137.5 percent of its designed capacity after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling that inmate health care was so bad it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Photographer, Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This past weekend, I had the honor of serving inmates a Donovan State Prison through restorative and healing work.  In the process, I connected with a Samoan brother, Utu, who’d been incarcerated for nearly two decades and, most recently, spent four years in, what the inmates and prison guards refer to as, the hole, solitary confinement.  Utu held a type of innocence that is very difficult to maintain in inmates who’ve experienced and perpetrated the most tragic and heinous acts of violence.

There was an immediate spiritual connection that occurred as he began to share pieces of himself in a place where even a little bit of vulnerability can get a man killed; one that allowed me to see we are both greater than our experiences and our choices.

In 2010, do to over crowded and under-equipped California prisons,  Utu was one of many inmates forcefully persuaded to sign a prison transfer request from California to Arizona. He was told it would be a temporary five-year arrangement.  While in Arizona, he discovered that what he had signed up for was “to live in hell,” and doubted he would make it out of Arizona alive.  Not only were tensions between prison guards and inmates more hostile, but racism and inequity were used to instigate more animosity and violence among the inmates.  Without going into details, he told me he got into a confrontation with another inmate, and beat him unconscious.  The next day, Utu was sent to the hole where he would live out the rest of his five-year incarceration sentence in Arizona.

A prisoner named Ahmad Al Aswadu wrote an essay titled “A Black View of Prison” in the April-May 1971 issue of the Black Scholar. In his essay, he describes the experience of living in the “hole” while incarcerated:

The “Hole” (called such because its locality is usually under the prison’s first floor) is solitary confinement. One could stay in the hole for a week or a lifetime depending upon his color and attitude. It is here in the hole that men are made and broken at the same time. It is here that the previous threat of getting “hurt” can realize itself all too quickly. And it is here that the seeds of Black Consciousness have been cultivated in the minds of many black men.

It is very difficult for a layman such as I to describe the atmosphere of the hole but I shall try. I believe that the very first thing that the brother notices about the hole is the desolateness and the feeling of utter aloneness. The first time that I was sent to the hole I felt as if my soul had deserted me. I don’t believe that I had ever experienced such a feeling of intense emptiness in my life before then. I had been sent to the hole to have my attitude changed, because, as they stated, it was not conducive to “good order.” 

His father died shortly after he was placed in the hole.  Samoans follow a code of living and culture called the Fa’a Samoa which means “the Samoan Way.” Central to this culture is the Fa’amatai. The family is the most significant socio-political element of Samoan society. Family responsibility and the care of family land are the keys to the culture. For Utu, not being able to be at his father’s funeral or with his family was devastating and a source of shame; and there was nowhere for him to escape this shame.  As he began to unravel into hopelessness and deep depression, a few months into his solitary confinement, he heard  a clank as someone opened the  small window of his iron cell door and asked if he wanted to find God.  God was nowhere to be found, he thought; that hole was the furthest he could be from God.

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Photo credit: Modesto Bee Newspaper/ Bloomberg via Getty Images 

A clergyman visited him once a week, on the same day, at the same time, like clock work. He learned to keep track of time by keeping track of his visits.  He’d be Utu’s only visitor for the four years he remained in the hole.  Utu was not allowed any possessions, but the clergyman somehow got the prison guards to agree to allowing him to have a bible, which he fiercely read and studied during his four years in solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement strips away anything that can possibly remind a man of his existence. There is no radio, no television, no books, no pencils or paper and no hobby-facilitating materials. Inmates are provided institution-issued clothes and possibly, but not always, sheets.  Personal hygiene provisions are reduced to only toilet paper, which some inmates may not receive.  Cells frequently have no windows and inmates are housed with a vacant cell between them to reduce the possibility of communication. The 23/1 rule (23 hours in your cell and one hour outside of it) usually applies, but only if the guards get around to it. This could mean that inmates may only get one hour every five days, and often during that one hour, inmates are not allowed to go outside or anywhere with windows, but are confined to a “common area,” alone. Depending on the institution, sometimes they are provided with golf pencils and paper to write during their hour, but may only be allowed to mail out and receive one letter a week. Utu felt his mind slipping away from him while in there, and reading the bible was the only experience that helped him hold on to his humanity.

No one is ever SENTENCED to solitary confinement – the determination of that punishment is made in each institution at their own discretion and for a duration they presume to be necessary. It could be because an inmate violated a rule within the institution or merely because an inmate is presumed to be affiliated with a gang. It also could be just cruelty and sadism on the part of the institution administrators.

Utu was transferred back to California a little more than a year ago.  His mother passed away three months ago, and though he wasn’t able to attend her funeral, he was close enough for his family to come visit him and pray with him. As he shared  glimpses of his life with me, I wondered how a man who has lost so much could still hold innocence and gentleness in his soul.

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During the three days of restorative and healing work, we delved into discussions and activities that pushed us to think more deeply about transformative power through forgiveness, empathy and consensus building.   One of the activities in which the inmates were tasked to practice the consensus building strategies they had just learned required that each select a photo.  The objective was for each person to partner up, and through consensus building, agree on one photo to represent both.  Once the partners agreed on the photo, they looked for another set of partners and the process of consensus building began again until one photo was selected to represent the group of four, which then joined with another group of four to repeat the same process.

I partnered with Utu who had selected a photo of a blueish-turquoise ocean gently swaying against black cliffs abundant with vegetation. That morning he had spoken of going home to Samoa where his heart had always told him he belonged. His family came to the Unites States when he was a little boy, but it seemed that leaving his motherland had been more of a curse than a blessing.  His family broke apart in the United States.  Upward mobility and the accumulation of things became a priority.  Home to him means returning to a place that nurtures family and community, something Utu feels he can no longer achieve in the United States. There was a profound longing in his eyes for home as he described the aspects of his photo that reminded him of Samoa. He is homesick for a feeling, an experience he hopes to find when he returns to Samoa.  One where his heart is full, his body loved, and his soul understood.

Then came my turn to explain why I chose the photo I held in my hands.  The photo reminded me of the purest love between a child and his parents or grandparents; the bond that exists when a child is nurtured as the one who will continue the wisdom and legacy of the elders, and in turn, of the ancestors. It is this passing on of knowledge that creates strong and dignified communities.  I told Utu that the photo reminded me of the unconditionally love my grandmother poured into me. When children are raised with kind love, veneration and respect, they grow up to be the keepers of the greater community.  Finally, I explained, that most of all, the photo reminded me of the importance of knowing how to give and receive, the collaboration that manifests in a beautiful way within families and communities when everyone is working together toward a common goal.

Utu timidly asked, “which one should we pick?” I told Utu that I had the privilege to experience home, and nothing would fill my heart more than for him to experience home, even if was just symbolically.  So I told him, “You choose.”  His eyes became watery and he said he’d choose the picture I held in my hands, because more than the beach and the tropical trees and the smell of the salty mountains, he missed the love of his mother and father.

Utu is due to be released in 2021.  In a place void of humanity, where vulnerability and compassion can get one killed, where suspicion lurks in every corner, and where brick, steel, cement and barbed wire remind inmates of the total aloneness of enforced solitude and deprivation, Utu was able to maintain an innocence and gentleness rarely found behind bars.  I pray he makes it out.

Another inmate whose been on a long, arduous path of healing said, “I’m thriving in prison. For the first time in my life, I am thriving.” If these men whose hearts have been hardened and hopes shattered can transform themselves in a place meant to annihilate what little love they remember from their childhood, imagine what could be possible if we created opportunities for healing and restoration.

Restorative justice and restorative practices are ancient approaches that are being revived in modern-day systems. Aboriginals around the world have used religion or tribal leaders to peacefully resolve conflicts or crime for hundreds of years. This traditional approach to restoration is rooted in the belief that there should be social harmony, redemption and a pursuit of absolute good for the individual and the community in the handling of conflict and crime. Rather than the punitive elements connected to shame, guilt, humiliation and dehumanization, aboriginal cultures around the world have focused on restorative elements of redemption, reparation, rehabilitation, healing and forgiveness.

 We have long known that in the act of destroying the other, we are destroying ourselves.  In Mayan tradition, there is a greeting that many people working with Mayan tradition know of. In Lak’ ech Ala K’in means I am the other you and you are the other me. It is an honoring for each other, for the sacredness of our belonging.  Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning, “my humanity is inextricably wrapped up in yours.” Bayanihan is a Filipino custom derived from the word bayan, which means nation, town or community. The term means being in bayan, which refers to the spirit of communal unity, work and cooperation to achieve a particular goal. In ancient Sanskrit Sarvodaya mean universal uplifting; the good of the individual within the good of the whole. So you see, we come from each other, to commune with each other, and to thrive with each other.  Even scientifically, we have discovered the presence of mirror neurons, which allow us to feel the other’s pain.  In essence, what we do onto others, we do to ourselves. This is who we were before colonization, industrialization and capitalism.  Who we were has been erased from history, but the memories remain in our DNA, and we are once again being called to rewrite our history, and re-right the injustices we have participated in.

I recently came across this:

Remember: Oppression thrives off isolation.  Connection is the only thing that can save you.

Remember: Oppression thrives on superficiality. Honesty about our struggles is the key to your liberation. 

Remember: Your story can help save someone’s life.  your silence contributes to someone else’s struggle. Speak so we all can be free. Love so we all can be liberated. The moment is now.  We need you. 

Remembrance and imagination are the greatest tools we have to create a world in which our children can love and be loved, fully and unconditionally.

AHIMSA – nonviolence in thought and action.

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AHIMSA INSTITUTE 

This is Dr. Sethia, founder of the Ahimsa Center and Institute for teachers. I am eternally thankful to her for planting the seed of nonviolence in my heart; for the grace I have received because of the opportunity she gave me. My whole life had been about violence, and that is the only way I knew to stand up for myself, to protect myself. She inspired me to sing the song of silence, and in its rhythms find peace, truth and a profound connectedness to all that is. When I attended  the Ahimsa Institute, I was a deeply wounded bird, searching for a reason bigger than myself, To Be. A nine year journey of forgiveness, healing and awakening lead me to discovering the greatest love within myself. A love that allows me to see I am everything, and everything is in me.

Nine years ago when I was teaching at Hoover High School, I received an e-mail from my principle around 4:00 pm, just as I was going to head home for the day. You know one of those all staff e-mails forwarded by your principle, so she/he can delete it from his/her inbox and quickly move on to more important matters.

The e-mail read something about an institute where I’d be learning about Gandhi and nonviolence. The words that most caught my attention were, “Nonviolence in thought and action.” There was immediately a call to action from deep within the seat of my soul. That night I sat at my computer to type a statement of purpose that was to be submitted with my application the next day when the application was due. I wrote all night. I found my pain taking over, and each time I attempted to write my statement, I’d end up writing about some of the most painful memories in my life.

Like the time I got in a fist fight with my mother.  I was so angry at her.  I wanted to show her that I was stronger than her; hat even though I wasn’t good enough to be loved, I could still stand up for myself.  So in that moment, I raged against all the times she left for months at a time, against all the screams and accusations, against the men that had been in and out of her life, because like me, she was also searching for love. We tossed and tumbled across the living room floor. She was my enemy. I pulled her hair as if I wanted to rip it off of her head and hit her as if to destroy every part of her that had ever hurt me.

Or the time I almost hit my daughter with a broomstick.  She was about 12 and her room, more and more often, looked like it had been shaken, upside down.  It was definitely a point of contention.  Later I’d come to realize that it triggered memories of instability and neglect, reminding me of dishes piled high in the kitchen sink, loads and loads of dirty clothes scattered everywhere, an empty refrigerator, and cockroaches scattered amongst it all. I remember quarreling with my daughter about why she couldn’t just keep her room clean.  Why she couldn’t just take the time to care for and be thankful for what she had. Subconsciously, I was reproaching my mother , “If you love me, you’d take care of me, you’d take care of our home.”  I grabbed the broom that had been propped behind the door all morning as she procrastinated to clean her room.  I saw myself holding the broom over her and she laying on the bed with her arm shielding her face.  I hit her once with the bristles, before putting the broom down and going to my room to cry.  I had always been so careful to not hit her or scream at her, and there I was becoming the very violence I had hoped to never perpetrate on her.

I turned in my application and was given a fellowship to the institute and a chance to transform my life in ways I could have never imagined.

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JAPANESE GARDEN 

When I came to the Ahimsa Institute in 2007, my wounds and pain were stripped raw. Often, during breaks or lunch, I’d slip away and come down to the Japanese garden to cry. I had so much anger, it hurt. The Koi fish were calming. Their slow movements soothed my angry thoughts, their patient proximity to one another comforted my anxiety, and their coloring warmed the parts of me that were void of nurture.

Many of the attributes of the Koi symbolize several lessons and even trials individuals often encounter in life. The Koi fish has a powerful and energetic life force, demonstrated by its ability to swim against currents and even travel upstream. That’s what the journey of forgiveness, nonviolence and healing I was embarking on felt like. Some of the characteristics associated with the koi include courage, perseverance, and ambition; all characteristics I would need to practice on this arduous path.

Many of the above described symbolic meanings of Koi fish stem from the Chinese legend of the Dragon Gate in which a Koi fish swam upstream, through waterfalls and other obstacles to reach the top of the mountain. At the top of the mountain was the “Dragon Gate”. The legend says that when the Koi finally reached the top, it became a dragon, one of the most auspicious creatures in Chinese culture.”

This past weekend after a nine-year journey of healing and after a powerful three-day Ahimsa conference on Giving and Forgiving, I visited the Japanese garden once again to cry. I didn’t cry from pain, but from extreme gratitude for the Grace I have received through my experiences with the Ahimsa center. For the grace I received that day in my classroom when I received the application. I came to thank the Koi fish for their support and unconditional love. To thank spirit for its guidance and lessons. I came here to remember, to renew my commitment to healing and non-violence and to set new intentions for the next beautiful stage of my life.

 

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HORSE STABLES 

One last stop before leaving…
When I participated in the  Ahimsa Institute, I stayed on the Cal Poly campus. Every morning I’d get up early enough to walk to the horse stables and commune with the horses. I’d often pick up leaves and the horses would eat them from my hand. At some point, the caretaker there started to expect me, and would give me alfalfa to hand feed the horses.

I visited them once again this past weekend, and I stood in silence while one of the horses ate. At some point, it cam closer to the fence and stood their with me. And that was enough.

My longing to be with the horses every morning came from the deep unconditional love I saw in their eyes. The first time I saw that kind of love in a being’s eyes was in my grandmother, and later I’d come to see it in my daughter. In those horses, I saw the love I’d ultimately come to discover in myself.  A love I’d come to understand connects us all. At some point in my journey, I realized that no matter what I had experienced, the wounds and trauma I carried, or the love I was still searching for, I was whole.

WHOLE                                                                                                                                                           

One day I became conscious enough to ask:

“Who Am I?”

To which a powerful, but at the time,
indistinguishable voice
inside of me responded:

“Everything.”

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F O R G I V E N E S S

Every autumn season, the eucalyptus tree sheds its bark, and the process is highlighted by a wonderful display of color and / or amazing patterns of strips and flakes.

I imagine this is what our bodies look like as we open our hearts in vulnerability and and allow the wounds and bruises to air out.

When the bark is shed, lichens and parasites that are toxic to the tree are also shed. And a smooth, bark appears, until the next autumn season when the tree sheds once again.

We have seasons of growth and we have seasons of letting go. Both forgiving others and forgiving ourselves is part of the process of learning to let go of things that no longer serve us.

Cleansing and grieving are important processes, so our pain does not metastasize as hate. Hate will ultimately destroy us.

 “A sufi holy man was asked what forgiveness is.  He said – it is the fragrance that flowers give when they are crushed.” – Rumi                                                                                                  

The Gratitude I have for Dr. Sethia, her work and commitment to nonviolence, and the opportunity she gave me to transform my life, I can only honor by dedicating to her my life of service and commitment to nonviolence. There are people whom I recognize as having saved my life – Dr. Sethia is one of them.

The Meaning of Life in Prison, Part I

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What is a sensible prison sentence when prisoners who have committed a crime, even a violent crime, are no longer a threat to society?

As I entered through the gates of Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, the irony of the word “correctional” didn’t go past me. I felt a sense of loss, a vacuum of emptiness in the pit of my stomach, a sort of erasing of everything that feels soulful, alive. Replaced by metal fences, circular barbed wire, concrete walls, and barren landscapes, the only thing that seemed to remind me of my humanity were the surrounding mountains and the chirping and chitter of birds that found shelter in the few cacti scattered around the perimeter and entrance. The sky was blue, the sun a little too warm, but still inviting. It’s October, the time of the season when Santa Ana winds give way to hot dry weather, often the hottest time of the year. As I enter through several gates, I am reminded that I am walking into a cage.

In a chapel, twenty-two men in baggy blue denim pants and light blue scrub-like shirts provided by the prison start to trickle in, sitting in a circle as they await for the start of the workshop. They seem to be in good spirits, shaking each other’s hands, some introducing themselves for the first time. They are handed an ice-breaker activity, which they immediately seem to engage in, enthusiastically, with each other. The chapel is sterile – white brick walls, a podium, a few bookcases with religious and spiritual literature and stackable chairs organized in a circle – with an unpleasant smell that reminds me of a combination of latex paint, locker room sweat, and hospital rooms.

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There are currently three facilities designated as Sensitive Needs Yard (SNY) and I was in one of them. SNY inmates are those inmates that are remanded to the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations (CDCR), but due to safety concerns, they are separated from General Population inmates to serve their term of incarceration. SNY inmates have the opportunity to work and attend education programs that include Adult Basic Education, college courses, GED programs, Career Technical Education (carpentry, welding, electronics, building maintenance), Inmate Work Labor and an ample offering of programs that afford the inmates opportunities for self-improvement such as the Alternative to Violence conflict resolution workshop, Project PAINT: The Prison ArtsINitiative, Playwrights Project, and the Pooch Program in which inmates train puppies to become service dogs.

There are lots of opportunities for the men to learn and grow. The men, in fact, sometimes find themselves forgetting the limits to their freedom, even if just for a short period of time. However, one is quickly reminded of this fallacy when you see the guards, rigid and distant in a militant-like stance, in the yards they patrol, in the towers from which they watch over everyone, or when they come in to round up inmates for cell count. It is to be reminded that this is a place in which one is not entitled to their time, space, or body. “A cage that allows someone to walk around inside of it is still a cage.”

Many volunteers come and go, but once the volunteers leave, the men are left to survive in a brutal, corrupt, and sometimes animalistic environment. Their participation in these programs is sometimes an escape from the violence and hopelessness that they often feel in prison. It’s the little bit of hope that feeds their determination to survive.

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I spent three days in this cage with men who are locked up and forgotten; left to rot under the fist of repression, oppression, cruelty, and dehumanization. Many of the men are serving life sentences, some without the possibility of parole, for murder, drug related charges, robbery, etc. Many are serving disproportionate sentences because of mandatory sentencing laws. These inflexible, “one-size-fits-all” sentencing laws undermine justice by preventing judges from fitting the punishment to the individual and the circumstances of their offenses. And for a number of them, the sentences they are serving are for crimes they committed when they were teenagers.

Immigrants in Our Own Land
We are born with dreams in our hearts,
looking for better days ahead.
At the gates we are given new papers,
our old clothes are taken
and we are given overalls like mechanics wear.
We are given shots and doctors ask questions.
Then we gather in another room
where counselors orient us to the new land
we will now live in. We take tests.
Some of us were craftsmen in the old world,
good with our hands and proud of our work.
Others were good with their heads.
They used common sense like scholars
use glasses and books to reach the world.
But most of us didn’t finish high school.
.
The old men who have lived here stare at us,
from deep disturbed eyes, sulking, retreated.
We pass them as they stand around idle,
leaning on shovels and rakes or against walls.
Our expectations are high: in the old world,
they talked about rehabilitation,
about being able to finish school,
and learning an extra good trade.
But right away we are sent to work as dishwashers,
to work in fields for three cents an hour.
The administration says this is temporary
So we go about our business, blacks with blacks,
poor whites with poor whites,
chicanos and indians by themselves.
The administration says this is right,
no mixing of cultures, let them stay apart,
like in the old neighborhoods we came from.
.
We came here to get away from false promises,
from dictators in our neighborhoods,
who wore blue suits and broke our doors down
when they wanted, arrested us when they felt like,
swinging clubs and shooting guns as they pleased.
But it’s no different here. It’s all concentrated.
The doctors don’t care, our bodies decay,
our minds deteriorate, we learn nothing of value.
Our lives don’t get better, we go down quick.
.
My cell is crisscrossed with laundry lines,
my T-shirts, boxer shorts, socks and pants are drying.
Just like it used to be in my neighborhood:
from all the tenements laundry hung window to window.
Across the way Joey is sticking his hands
through the bars to hand Felipé a cigarette,
men are hollering back and forth cell to cell,
saying their sinks don’t work,
or somebody downstairs hollers angrily
about a toilet overflowing,
or that the heaters don’t work.
.
I ask Coyote next door to shoot me over
a little more soap to finish my laundry.
I look down and see new immigrants coming in,
mattresses rolled up and on their shoulders,
new haircuts and brogan boots,
looking around, each with a dream in their heart,
thinking they’ll get a chance to change their lives.
.
But in the end, some will just sit around
talking about how good the old world was.
Some of the younger ones will become gangsters.
Some will die and others will go on living
without a soul, a future, or a reason to live.
Some will make it out of here with hate in their eyes,
but so very few make it out of here as human
as they came in, they leave wondering what good they are now
as they look at their hands so long away from their tools,
as they look at themselves, so long gone from their families,
so long gone from life itself, so many things have changed.
.
“Immigrants in Our Own Land” by Jimmy Santiago Baca, from Immigrants in Our Own Land

Desert Water Drop (Borderlands)II

Here are photos from yesterday’s Border Angels desert water drop. “Since 1994, more than 11,000 sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives have died from dehydration in their attempt to across our increasingly militarized border. Our water helps reduce the 500+ deaths every year.”

These water drops save lives and bring attention to this humanitarian crisis.

Jesus

The back of the Border Angels’ shirt reads: Who would Jesus deport?

These experiences allow me to reaffirm my role and purpose in how I serve as well as provide deeper conviction for my solidarity and work in education and social justice. Each time I participate in a water drop, I have the opportunity to hear new stories of the courageous and tragic plight of so many immigrants. Each story is different, but they all represent the unwavering human spirit of survival, strength, hope, and the determination and perseverance to obtain a better life.

On this most recent experience I had the honor to meet a father and son who were experiencing the desert water drop for the first time. The father, Luis, crossed through difficult border terrain six times with his mother starting from the early age of six. Desperate for access to quality health care and for a second chance for her son’s life, his mother decided to make the treacherous journey with Luis and her 18 year old son suffering form leukemia. The doctors in Mexico had given her son a month to live. Under the care of a compassionate and determined doctor from the UCLA Medical Center, her 18 year old son went on to live 16 more years.

Luis recalls walking all night with his mother and brother in the silent, darkness of the night; the only sound was the crumbling of the earth under their feet and the sound of their breath puncturing the suffocating stillness. He wasn’t scared, his mother told him everything would be okay, and he felt safe with her. It isn’t until now that he can recognize the extraordinary feat his mother was leading and how vulnerable his safety was on those treks.

Besides blistering heat, temperatures soaring as high as 110 degrees, and burning cold, temperatures falling as low as 20 degrees, migrants must also contend with dangerous creatures that roam this unforgiving and untamed borderland such as the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, the Arizona Bark Scorpion, and the Brown Recluse Spider, on of the most venomous creatures in the area. These creatures hid under rocks and shrubs where migrants hide from both the border patrol and the sun. The death of many of these migrants is not a painless death. Dying from exposure to the elements can be brutally elongated process.

In his award-winning book, “The Devil’s Highway,” Luis Alberto Urrea describes the stages of heatstroke in painstaking detail. “Those in shape will, sooner or later, faint. This is the brain’s way of stopping the machine, like hitting the brakes when you realize you’re speeding towards a cliff.” Initially heat cramps will develop primarily in the legs and abdomen area, followed by heat exhaustion, usually manifested by dizziness, blurred vision, head aches. Once heat stroke sets in, one will begin to experience fatigue, nausea, and vomiting. “By the last stage of heatstroke, hallucinations occur, and the body’s nerves are aflame” leading to convulsions and eventually unconsciousness. “You are having a core meltdown, “Urrea explains. “Your temperature redlines – you hit 106, 107, 108 degrees. Your body panics and dilates all blood capillaries near the surface, hoping to flood your skin with blood to cool it off. You blush. Your eyes turn red: blood vessels burst, and later, the tissue of the whites literally cooks until it goes pink, then a well-done crimsom.”

Maybe more difficult than the dangers faced in the desert, is the separation of family. Luis’ father was a migrant farmworker who left his homeland to work in the fields of the United States when Luis was too little to remember. Unlike his older siblings, Luis has very little memories of his father, who spent most of Luis’ life working in the fields. It was a beautiful sight to see the juxtaposition between Luis’ experience with his father and his relationship with his son, Ricardo. Luis told me he had been wanting to get involved in this type of volunteer work for a while now, but was hesitant because of the wounds it would open, so when his son told him he wanted to do this as part of his community service project for school, Luis realized that in order to support his son, he would have to confront his pain. In seeing their relationship, there was no doubt in my mind that when we listen and follow our hearts, our children come to help us heal and teach us profound lessons.

There is absolutely nothing I wouldn’t sacrifice for my daughter. There is nothing immigrants are doing when they come through the desert and traverse that border that I wouldn’t do in their circumstances to give my daughter and family a better life. We have a humanitarian crisis in our backyard and we need to join in solidarity with our migrant brother and sisters.

The story of immigration doesn’t just start with the deemed illegal crossing of thousands of people looking for a better life. If you want to understand the problem of immigration, you need to understand who profits from it, not just who suffers. Forced immigration begins with trade agreements, demand for cheap labor, privatization of natural resources, land-grabbing, maquiladoras (sweatshops) run by multi-nationals, the war on drugs, and mafias like the IMF International Monetary Fund creating debt greater than the moral responsibility we have to people’s well-being. You see, this is the very definition of structural violence – the erasure of parts of history in order to criminalize the victims of exploitation and dehumanization. It is through the work of organizations like the Border Angels that we bring light to the narratives that are erased, and begin to humanize the people that have become invisible.

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Dehumanization creates hate. Vigilante groups and some border patrol agents have been known to slash the water jugs left for the migrants.  Nineteen slashed water jugs were counted between the volunteers yesterday.  For every slashed jug, five more were left in its place.  As Jonathan, one of the volunteer coordinators for Border Angels stated in similar words, we can only fight death by saving a life.  “Be a sweet melody in the great orchestration, instead of a discordant note. The medicine this sick world needs is love. Hatred must be replaced by love, and fear by faith that love will prevail.” – Peace Pilgrim.

 

 

Laboring for the American Dream

Daylaborer

Photo by Maria Cristina Malo

On Saturday I participated in the Day Laborer Outreach event that Border Angels coordinates once a month. We headed out around 10:30 with food, drinks, snacks, and several flyers with information varying from health services to legal services and general information about the workers’ rights.

Immigrant day laborers make up 0.2 percent of the workforce in the State of California, or 40,000 workers – 120,000 nationally. About 80 percent of day laborers are undocumented (California Economic Policy, 2007). They typically begin to gather at corners and sidewalks close to auto parts stores, home improvement stores, and gas stations at 5:00 am. They stand there waiting for hours hoping to be able to obtain a day’s worth of work. Many stand there for hours not having eaten, “ni si quiera un café o un pedaso de pan.” Not even a cup of coffee or a piece of bread. After noon, those still standing around hoping for a few hours of work begin to feel frustrated and anxious, even desperate for they cannot afford to go a day without work, especially if they’ve already missed out on several days of work.

Many of the workers live day-to-day and the job opportunities are unpredictable, leaving them to face extreme job insecurity and volatile monthly earnings, which means they can’t really plan for a stable future when they don’t even know if they’ll make enough money to pay their rent this month, or eat. A day laborer would have to work every day of the month to earn approximately $2,000 dollars, and of course this doesn’t account for wage theft and non-productive seasons. On average, day laborers work 2-3 days a week, with annual earnings that rarely exceed $15,000 a year.

As I talk to Manuel about his rights and organizations he can go to for support, he continues to scan the street and the Home Depot parking lot across the way for any potential solicits by contractors. He tries to be respectful and listen attentively to what I have to say, but there is an underlying restlessness that comes with hustling for work.

Imagine the anxiety of being taken to different work sites everyday, not sure what kind of people you will encounter; whether you’ll experience humiliation, harassment, or threats of being deported at the end of the day. You show up to unfamiliar places, again and again, in hopes of obtaining a day’s work, competing with 20 other men as you approach the next truck, begging for work and knowing that an opportunity for you is a day’s loss of work for your comrade. Imagine being at work sites where you don’t know anyone, and you don’t even speak the language to ask for a glass of water. You work through the day not knowing when the day’s work will end, not knowing when, if at all, you’ll be offered something to eat. These conditions can be emotionally traumatizing, causing degrading feelings of self-worth compiled by the anti-immigrant sentiments of this country.

Manuel has been working as a day laborer for almost twenty years. Statistics show that some 42% of day laborers have been living in the United States for more than 20 years. While they wish to find more stable employment, many are unable do to undocumented status, lack of jobs, and lack of English or job skills. For Manuel, it has been a dream to one day obtain his contractor license and build a small business. He is in the process of “legalizing” his status and is excited about improving his English; I could tell when I saw a glimmer in his eyes as he continued to scan the cars that passed by.

day-laborers

Photo from The Linesch Firm Article Archives

Don Victor talked about his hometown, Toluca, approximately two hours away from Mexico City, with nostalgia and longing. He described the snow-capped volcano, Nevado de Toluca or Xinantécatl, which sits as the backdrop of the city, thinking about not having seen his family in over 15 years.   I wondered what fueled his motivation to continue to do such arduous work, separated from those he loves, and isolated in a country where being an immigrant and not speaking English is considered a crime. I would have asked him, except, in the middle of our conversation, he took a phone call, which seemed to be a job lead.

Then I met Don Sergio, a spunky, feisty older gentleman. He’d been doing this day-laborer hustle for over 25 years. He talked about being able to travel back and forth to Mexico and described all the places he had visited, like a real connoisseur of his country. But mostly he talked about the importance of getting an education, making sure we were all learning a skill to get ahead and not have to do hard labor for the rest of our lives. “Especialmente las nuevas generaciones.” Especially the younger generations.

Moments before, one of the Border Angel volunteers had been harassed by a man who asked her why she was “out here helping these illegal aliens.” He was very aggressive and proceeded to say Trump would win before leaving. He also asked the coordinator, “Why are you helping them – you’re White?” The volunteer was quite shaken up, and Don Sergio, who had witnessed the interaction, began to tell her that she needed to stand up for herself and not let people take advantage of her or push her around. He then went on to entertain us by giving accounts of times when contractors tried to intimidate him with insults such as, “Facken Mexican,” or “Estuped Alien” and he’d respond by saying, “No, fack you gringo, I no facken Mexican.”

He reminded me so much of my grandmother who toiled the fields along the central valley of California for over 14 years, and by the time she became elderly, had resolved to not take crap from anyone.   She never learned to speak or write in English, but learning the fundamental cuss words like “beetch, fack you, and estuped uss-ole,” gave her a great sense of empowerment and satisfaction, like it seemed to give Don Sergio as his chest and shoulders expanded and his spine erected tall.

Ninety-five percent of immigrant day laborers have reported suffering a violation. Seventy percent report their jobs to be unsafe or hazardous. They aren’t properly safety-trained, they don’t have any worker’s  compensation or even health insurance, so any accident at work will force them to run with the expenses, especially if they are undocumented, as they don’t have access to healthcare services. If thy die, there is no one to pay or to be held responsible. Day laborers and farmworkers are the folks that work under the harshest and most extreme conditions, but even then, they accept what they do in hopes of a better life.

Waiting_for_Work_Home_Depot6

Photo by Robin Rep

Wage abuse and theft is one of the biggest issues immigrant day laborers have to contend with. Often heard of are stories in which day laborers are not only not paid, but rather than being driven back to their pick-up location, the contractors will call ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to deport the workers.

These men are invisible and have very little to no recourse. They don’t know how to get services or who to turn to for advice and protection from predator contractors, and this is what makes this population so vulnerable. This is why the day laborer outreach work that Border Angels does is so imperative to protect the human rights of these workers.

The workers are financially insecure and because of their desperate need for money, will take almost any job at any wage. For many of them “something is better than nothing.” Workers are willing to toil doing the most undesirable jobs and rarely complain or argue, conditions under which most Americans would not work. The workers disappear at the end of the job; there is no HR hassle, no earned sick leave or vacation, no worker’s comp, no minimum wage to abide by or over-time regulations. Day laborers are easy to acquire, easy to get rid of, and easy to replace.

The laborer in the video below recounts of a time when a woman who took him to lay down a concrete slab offered him a job. He figured she’d pay him $100 for the day, which is a bargain for this type of work.

If you’ve ever laid down cement, you will know it is vary arduous work. If the area has not been prepped, this may entail clearing out grass, rocks, shrubs, and even old concrete, which takes a tremendous amount of physical strength and energy. Then there is evening out the area, filling in the area with stones as the subbase, laying down rebar, and preparing a wooden perimeter. As if all this work isn’t already taxing, mixing cement in itself is very physically demanding, even with a mixer, as you have to be able to lift the gravel, sand, and cement into the mixer, which can mean carrying anywhere from 50 to 100 pound loads, pouring the mix into a wheelbarrow, and wheeling it at a fast pace – all of this requires very heavy lifting.

He’d been working all morning and by mid-day he asked the woman if she had any water or food he could have, to which she asked him if he had any money to purchase those items. Forty-four percent of day laborers reported being denied food, water, and breaks while on the job (Center for the Study of Urban Poverty). At the end of the workday, she only paid him $40 dollars.

Ninety-five percent of migrant day laborers have suffered some kind of labor rights violation. Sporadic job opportunities, humiliating treatment, wage abuse and theft, and no one to turn to for protection, can leave many of these workers feeling lonely and like failures, many times going home feeling defeated and hopeless not knowing when they will rise above these oppressive circumstances.

At the day laborer soliciting spot we visited, I got the opportunity to meet a couple of guys from Cuba who had just arrived in San Diego three weeks before.  They have no family nor friends here, and they cited other workers as the source of information about day labor jobs.  One of the young men had a degree in psychology and was a therapist earning $30 a month back in Cuba.   This wasn’t even allowing him and his family to scrape by, so he made the difficult decision to leave his country.  He said he wasn’t sure how much better life would be here, but he owed it to his family to try.

Immigrants come here in hopes of finding a better life, one lived with dignity and pride. Those who make the perilous trek across hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles facing violence, hunger, and even death, do so because it is their last chance of survival. They don’t come here envisioning to stand on corners searching for job opportunities under precarious conditions and suffering through the type of domination and exploitation many of the day laborers experience.  But they do so because they have grit and an indomitable spirit of determination.

 

Sources and further readings:

http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/cep/EP_707AGEP.pdf

http://portlandvoz.org/wp-content/uploads/images/2009/04/national-study.pdf?phpMyAdmin=tYpXiWIhU6y6sfBbX4R7xljPl3e

https://nacla.org/article/immigrant-day-laborers-myths-and-realities

http://www.popcenter.org/problems/day_labor_sites/pdfs/valenzuela_1999.pdf

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2752800