There is No Restoration in Dehumanization


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.


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.


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.

The Meaning of Life in Prison, Part I


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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:



Fandango Fronterizo 2016

I want to acknowledge my daughter,Carmen,  for having introduced me to this beautiful event and reawakened my passion for the music I grew up watching my grandmother sing and dance to.

Photos from my experience at this year’s fandango:

This is a son I have written in Spanish.  See explanation of the son and translation into English below.

Aqui yo vine a cantar

Bajo esta cerca traídora

Con lagrimas que perforán

Mi alma undida en el mar

La migra no borrara

El amor de mi querida

Intenso como la vida

Sones, cultura, y amor

Las huellas de mi corazón

Raíces empedernidas


Veo tu cara en fragmentos

Se me a olvidado tu olor

Mis recuerdos llevan dolor

Es sofocante el lamento

sin tocarte un momento

Esta reja nos separa

Quisiera yo tener alas

Para volar hacia ti

Interrumpir tu sufrir

Pa’que en mis brazos soñaras


Mis ojos sufren angustia

por no poderte tocar

Como espinas de un rosal

Que florese rosas mustias

Mi amor no te renuncia

Te toco esta jarana

Con estos versos mi Jiliana

Pa’que te acuerdes de mi

Tu pretendiente colibrí

Cuando tu amor por mi reclama

Son Jarocho is a style of music from Veracruz, Mexico with its origins rooted in Indigenous, African, and Spanish influences.  Son is a kind of song, Jarocho is the name given to people and things from the Mexican state of Veracruz. The verses of a Son Jarocho usually follow one of a few metric and rhyming forms. A typical form, called décimas, is a ten line stanza of verses that follow a predictable metric and rhyming pattern. Between or directly before beginning a son, participants in a fandango may verbally recite a décima. Using the décima or similar structure, whether spoken or sung, the speaker may improvise verses. Improvising means making up your own words, melody or rhythm that still fits the piece you are performing. In Son Jarocho, the improvisor (called the pregonero if the lead singer) often refers to something or someone in the community. They may comment on a beautiful woman on the tarima, or poke fun at some other member of the community.

The jarana is a central instrumental component in Son Jarocho. It is a small, guitar-like instrument with 9-10 strings, most of them double. It provides rhythmic and harmonic body to the son.

Fandango, the traditional context of Son Jarocho, as a community celebration, where a great many members of the community gather around a tarima (raised wooden platform used as dance floor with percussive resonance) and participate singing, playing and dancing. As the whole community knows the songs and dances, they take turns singing, dancing and reciting verses, often into the wee hours of the morning.

Translation of verses in English:

I came here to sing

Under this fence of betrayal

With tears piercing

My soul drowning at sea

Border Patrol cannot erase

The love of my dear

Intense as life

Sones , culture, and love

Footprints of my heart

entrenched roots


I see your face in fragments

I have forgot your scent

My memories carry pain

I am suffocating in regret

Without touching you for a moment

This fence separates us

I wish I had wings To fly to you

Interrupting your suffering

So that you will dream in my arms


My eyes suffer anguish

Without being able to touch you

Like thorns of a rosebush

That blooms wilted roses

My love will not resign

I play this jarana

With these verses my Juliana

So that you’ll remember me

Your hummingbird suitor

When your love demands for me








Desert Water Drop (Borderlands)

The work of the Border Angels (Angeles de La Frontera) is driven by the following words: “When I was hungry, who gave me to eat? – When I was thirsty, who gave me to drink?” (Matthew 25:35). They operate from an uncompromising core spiritual belief that all people must be treated and received with humanity and compassion.  One of their missions is to reduce the number of deaths of the immigrants crossing into the United States through the dangerous and almost inhospitable desert terrain along the Californian border.

Over 11,000 immigrants have died since the militarization of the U.S./Mexican border began in 1994.  Every summer, more migrants die on this border than the entire history of the Berlin Wall.  Border Angels leads water drops in which volunteers hike into the desert to strategically place gallons of water for migrants making the treacherous journey into the United States. This water can be the difference between life and death for many adults and children crossing.  There are many vigilante groups that slash these water containers, but there are many more angels that continue to protect and fight for the most vulnerable.

Continue reading after photo mosaic.


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, one of the most venomous creatures in the area.  These creatures hide 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 a 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, and headaches. 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 crimson.”

It’s a painful, horrific way to die, yet many immigrants understand it’s a necessary risk to escape the violence, poverty, and injustices back home.  One of the volunteers I walked with, I’ll call her Socorro, is a 23 year old woman whose mother crossed the border when she was eight months pregnant with her.  I asked her what had made her mom take such a risk, to which she responded, “The risk of dying with me in the desert was worth the life of misery we were escaping.”  Socorro said the first time her mother attempted to cross the border, a border patrol vehicle had been stocking the area in which her and another woman, who was approximately 5o feet away, were walking.  They’d prowl, sometimes turning the vehicle’s lights off and then unexpectedly turning them back on.  She serpentined between shrubs and gullies trying to avoid being caught.  The woman in front of her was detained and raped by border patrol officers.  She could hear her struggle as she swerved in the dirt and made groaning and whimpering sounds.  Socorro’s mom recalls this event as one of the most powerless moments she has experienced in her life.  She stood there still as the night with every cell in her body wanting to jump out and stop the rape, but there was another life in her she was more obligated to protect.

Another volunteer talked about her brother being lost in the desert for three days after the group he was crossing with had scattered to avoid being caught by border patrol agents.  I’ll call her Daniela.  Her brother was deported when he was 17 years old and wanting to reunite with his parents and siblings in the United States, made the perilous journey through the desert.  Approximately 2 days into the trek, Daniela’s brother and another migrant became separated from the group and went on to roam through the desert for three days without sufficient food or water.  After three days of fear and uncertainty, Daniela’s brother and the man he was with were picked up by border patrol in a state of confusion and exhaustion.  Relieved, they told one of the agents their biggest fear had been not finding their way out.  The agent smirked and told them it had only been three days.

In case you are wondering why people don’t just apply to come to United States legally and wait in line like “law abiding” citizens, here is a link you may want to read:

“We can tell people to wait their turn in line, but, for example, for a Mexican (or a Guatemalan, a Filipino, a Pole, or any other country) who does not have a college degree and has no close relatives who are U.S. citizens or green card-holders, there is almost certainly no line for them to wait in: without reform to the legal system, they will not be able to migrate “the legal way” to the U.S., not if they wait ten years, not if they wait fifty years”

Immigration is a human right.  Humans have been migrating from the beginning of our existence.  Most people who make the trek to leave their homeland, family and friends do so because there is no other option for their survival.  Most do so with a broken heart and heavy spirit.  In their circumstances, escaping their conditions, there isn’t anything different those who have the fortune to have been born on this side of the border would do to give their families a better life.




La Linea (The Border)

“La Linea” they call it – bars of steel

built to disrupt the natural order of migration.

There are no borders for politicians,

corporations, or narcos. Not for the

grey whales migrating from the Beaufort Sea

to the warm waters of Baja California.

Not for the Monarch Butterfly’s 2,500 mile

journey from Michoacan over the Great Lakes.

Only for the poor, the people with

skin like dusty, sun-baked clay.


We are born with dreams in our hearts,

looking for a better life for our families.

We make the trek to the country of dreams,

where the opportunities are vast and possible.

With hearts as heavy as our hunger and

as fearful as the incessant violence, we

kiss our children goodbye, imprinting their

faces in the softest part of our memories,

recording their voices into the sounds of our breath,

the only sounds that will puncture the suffocating

stillness of the desert whose unforgiving peaks

and valleys we attempt to conquer.


We leave for the country where streets

are paved with gold, hard work leads to

success, and education is the pathway to freedom.

Our expectations are high: back home

they talked about steady, abundant work,

about being able to save money to build a house

and start a little business for our family.

Not long after we get to the land of dreams,

we find ourselves toiling the fields for three

dollars an hour, working as dishwashers in

fancy restaurants where we can’t afford

a meal, competing with each other on

a corner for a day’s work like hungry ants.


We pay our life savings to the coyote, and

sometimes we pay with our lives, lured by

naïve expectations to 2,000 border-miles

of decomposed aspirations and desires.

“La Linea” they call it, an infected gash,

ripping lineages apart, disregarding cultures,

traditions and stories once told in the mother tongue.

T-shirts and tennis-shoes strewn about like

wilted wild flowers are a reminder of the

forgotten ghosts still wandering the parched sea,

trying to find their way home one last time.


We come here to escape government corruption,

officials taking our land because we don’t have

the right deed; to escape trade agreements pricing

out our crops and our labor, where the cost

of a coke is cheaper than “un kilo de tortillas”;

to escape the blood-drenched streets from

a war on drugs with endless consumption.

But it’s no different here. Just more insidious.

We’re slaves of the land our ancestors once owned.

and our spirits fade like the promise of a better life.


We walk in silence through the desert, talking

makes our mouths dryer. The crumbling of the earth

under our feet alerts us to the bones left behind

as a fine for dreaming and desiring more. The sun

lacerates our neck, face and arms like whipping flares.

The moon stings with cold, numbing our bones deep

into our remembrance of a place once familiar.

There’s fear in our eyes, but we don’t acknowledge it.

We simply glance at each other with brooding eyes,

praying for ”them bones, them bones, them dry bones.”


Some of us will make it to the other side, “al otro lado,”

with grit in our hands and determination in our feet.

Some will die in this merciless landscape with

no last name, no history, no DNA, to show we were

once here. Some of us will go on living, but slowly

die of heartache and disappointment, drinking away

the bitterness, stagnant in our throats. Some of us will

have a new dream, to go back, just one more time,

it will be the only thing that keeps us alive in this new

world made of competition, acquisition, and status.


With the help of volunteers, Border Angels leaves dozens of gallon jugs of water in the desert along high-traffic migrant paths. Why? Since 1994, more than 10,000 sons and daughter, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives have died from dehydration in their attempt to across our increasingly militarized border. Our water helps reduce the 475 plus deaths every year, that is at least one death per day. This past Saturday I was honored to volunteer for a desert water drop. I got a more intimate view of the life and death struggles that my brothers and sisters must overcome to escape hunger, state, narco, and gang violence, and to reunite with loved ones.

One of the most poignant and heart-breaking stories told to me during our water drop was of a 5 year old boy traveling with 19 men including his dad.  The little boy kept asking the men for water, but he was only met with head shakes.  The boy was the last to die, taking his last breath next to his father, who along with the 18 other men had already died.  This trip was not only about saving lives, it was also a powerful opportunity to invigorate me to continue the fight against borders, against policies that put profit over people, and laws that criminalize people who are simply doing what we would do in their shoes.


For more information about border angels visit:

For Further Reading: