Woolman Semester Email Update – March 14, 2009

Dear Friends,

I started writing this update on Monday – two days after I flew back to Philadelphia for a week of vacation – but, alas, I am only sending this out today. In my last update, I mentioned that the Woolman Semester was taking a trip to Mexico. The trip was part of our World Issues class. We went down to look at issues of immigration, migrant labor, and the US-Mexico border. We spent six days in Mexico. Each day was packed full of tours, experiential learning activities, and community service. We did so many things and took in tons of information that it would be virtually impossible for me to recount everything in this update. I will, however, touch on the most exciting activities and the most alarming facts.

The trip and all of its components were planned through an organization that is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. This organization works on both sides of the border to bring school groups from the US to Mexico to look at the reality in the country that is directly south of us. We stayed at a church in Agua Prieta – a city just across the border from Douglas, Arizona. We ate some of our meals at the homes of members of the church. (Mexican food is so good.)

The day after we arrived in Mexico, we spent some time at the wall that separates Agua Prieta and Douglas. We reflected on the fact that a satellite image would show one big city. The wall separates two life styles and symbolizes discrimination, but on both sides, it is the same soil, the same air. We also reflected on the fact that the wall is “our wall.” We, citizens of the US, are responsible for the wall and for all it represents. When we touched the wall from the Mexican side, we were touching US property. These were interesting facts to acknowledge.

We then drove away from downtown Agua Prieta but remained along the wall. One of the people who organized the trip gave us a comprehensive lesson on the history of the border and current border policy. Before the wall was created and security measures were implemented, there was a steady flow of legal Mexican laborers between Mexico and the US. These laborers would go north and work for a period of time before returning to their homes. Fear and racism sparked the tightening of the border and the end of this legalized mass migration. The US economy still needed the Mexican workers, though, and the Mexican economy still was in dismal shape. Migrants keep crossing the border, even though the wall and the US Border Patrol try to stop them.

The rest of the week was filled with trips to various places in Agua Prieta and Douglas. We took a tour of a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. The center was run entirely by the people who need it. The person who manages the center is a former drug addict and does not have any formal training in rehabilitation or counseling. The center is thriving. Once people have recovered, they go into Agua Prieta and get jobs while still living at the center. A portion of their income goes to supporting the center.

After our tour, a few of the people from the center led us into the desert. We parked and walked the remaining mile up to the border as if we were migrants. We walked in a dry streambed, which was open to camera surveillance from the US side. Migrants would either go through the desert brush or walk at night to avoid being seen. We saw where local Mexicans leave water for the migrants who go through the desert. Once they cross the border, it is a three-day walk to the closest interstate where they are picked up and taken into cities to look for work.

The next evening, we ate dinner at a shelter that houses migrants who have just been deported from the US. We got to talk to them and hear their stories. Most of the migrants had crossed the border multiple times and were planning to cross again. The shelter where we were only houses men. Other facilities in Agua Prieta accept women and children.

On several mornings during our time in Mexico, some of us woke at 5:30 and went to volunteer at the Migrant Resource Center. This center is located directly across the border from the US and is on the path that pedestrians take when they cross legally into Mexico. All the deportees who are released from the US into Agua Prieta pass by the center. The center is open from 6:00 AM to midnight every day; the US Border Patrol commonly deports people at all hours. Migrants who enter the center receive food and coffee as well as information about their rights. If they express interest in returning to their hometown within Mexico, the center can help arrange for a discounted bus fair. The volunteers at the center can also document any abuse that the migrants report from their time in US detention. While we were volunteering at the center, passing out hot burritos and coffee, we did not have many chances to dialog with the migrants. Most of them were tired and simply happy to be eating food and sitting down. We got the feeling, though, that many of them were planning to cross the border again.

The day before we left Mexico, we visited a coffee roasting plant in Agua Prieta. The plant is part of a large cooperative called Just Coffee. In the 1980s, the price of coffee beans fell drastically while the price of the end result remained constant. Reacting to this, Mexican farmers banded together and formed this cooperative. Now, this organization completes all aspects of the coffee processing and sells the coffee directly to consumers in the US. We saw a gas-fired coffee roaster in action in Agua Prieta and toured the business office in Douglas, AZ.

I apologize that it took me this long to complete this update. As you can see, our trip to Mexico was so full and packed with new information. At points during out trip, it was overwhelming. This week of vacation has been a nice break. It was so good to see those of you who I did see, and I am sorry that I did not see more of you. I return to Woolman tomorrow, and classes resume on Monday. We will dive right back into the curriculum, and I expect to be able report more aspects of this wonderful education soon.