Nukewatch Quarterly Fall 2014
By John Heid
Through the Prism of Nonviolence
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. — Newton’s Third Law
The US-Mexico border is una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the First and bleeds. A 1,950 mile-long open wound dividing a pueblo, a culture running down the length of my body, staking fence rods in my flesh, splits me… splits me…. — Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands
“The border wall tells us Mexicans you are scared of us. But what does your wall tell you about yourselves?” This from my conversation with an unidentified Mexican man in Nogales, Sonora.
At first the phone calls from the ticket clerk at the Tucson Greyhound bus station came about once a week. The conversation was simple: “Do you have room for a mother and her children tonight? Their ticket hasn’t come in yet.”
“Yes, we do.” The bus station closes nightly. That was over two and a half years ago. Gradually the number of requests increased. Most of the families were Guatemalan. All were indigenous. Every family had relatives in the US. All had come across the desert. Their stories were nearly identical. Rampant violence, death threats and extreme poverty had forced a choice: flee or perish.
One Saturday night last September a dam, of sorts, broke. The bus station clerk, Juan, called frantically saying he had 19 people who needed a place for the night. From then on the number of Central American refugees coming through our doors was consistently high. Night after night we heard the familiar story with different names.
Guatemalan society is being ripped apart at the seams. Late in the night I could hear the women talking across the hall in their native K’iche and Mam. Melodic languages filled the bedrooms of our small community, Casa Mariposa. In the past year, over 2,500 guests came through our doors; another 3,500 or so were offered food, clothing and comfort at the Greyhound station as they awaited their bus. A veritable flood of humanity. A contemporary exodus.
As this unprecedented displacement began to attract media attention, so did the random gestures of support. Our phone rang all hours of the day and night. Local women and children would show up at our door with bags of clothing, food, coloring books, diapers, whatever. We’d often wake to find boxes of toiletries and sundry items left anonymously on our front porch overnight. Others called to say they had space in their home to host a family. A construction worker called from Chicago offering to come down to Tucson and build houses for these families. Tucson witnessed its own kind of surge — a surge of compassion.
Before long the analysts and spin doctors pronounced the causes of the surge with nauseating monotony and finality: Poverty and violence. End of sentence; end of discussion. Yet the gristmill of poverty and violence is merely a symptom of a deeper phenomenon: the physics of domination. When digging deep to find its source, we will discover its gnarly roots in the dynamics of unequal economic, political and power relationships. Income disparity indeed.
Rarely mentioned in mainstream media is the history of strong US support for violent regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador. Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, the US poured over $1 million of military aid every day into El Salvador alone, a place where 85% of the war crimes were attributed to the government. Over 100,000 civilians were killed. Guatemala’s story was similar during those years. In 2009, the US supported a coup in Honduras which deposed the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya and led to an epidemic of violence against civilians. Honduras now has the highest per capita homicide rate in the world. Is it coincidental then that of the tens of thousands of children and families coming into the US this year 28% are Honduran, 24% Guatemalan, and 21% El Salvadoran? Nicaragua is the poorest country in the region, yet only 194 of the 63,000 unaccompanied children who entered the US this year are Nicaraguan. Poverty is volatile. Violence trumps.
Also, rarely mentioned by commercial news media is the devastating impact of international trade agreements on the village economies of Central American nations. After two decades, the tourniquet of the North American Free Trade Agreement and its structural adjustments has finally gotten a choke hold on the hemisphere’s most vulnerable populations. This impoverished environment has been fertile ground for recruitment by cartels, thus exacerbating the cycle of violence and justifying the infusion of even more US arms into the region. I never heard any of the hundreds of families coming through our doors talk about coming north in pursuit of the fabled American dream. I only heard stories of people in flight for their lives. Survival.
Yet, this “urgent humanitarian crisis,” as the President called it, is not acknowledged as a refugee crisis, but rather just another twist on northern migration for upward economic mobility. Children and families are treated as criminals, not refugees. Detention centers for youth were opened on three military bases. A detention facility for families was reopened in New Mexico, with more planned. Thus, incarceration of refugees and persons without status is normalized. The National Guard was mobilized in Texas. Governors from Maine to Arizona decried children coming to their state. Calls for even more border enforcement were raised. Vigorous efforts were made to rollback legal protection for vulnerable children under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act — which passed both Houses of Congress unanimously and became law in 2008.
Scant, scattered attention, let alone analysis, is given in the circles of power to the causes and conditions of the current movement of people into the US. In classic blame-the-victim reaction, young people become the scapegoat, with children, not the border, seen as the problem.
There is an open wound. It’s source is the clash of power and identity. Whose identity crisis is this? Not the Central Americans’. Refugees know exactly where they stand and why. It is our crisis and it has two faces: one, the humanitarian; the other, the wall. The earlier question echoes in the back of my mind: who does that wall tell us we are? Who does it say I am?
In my darkest moments I have found comfort in recalling the soft song-like cadence of the Guatemalan women talking that night in our home. They have a passion and a hope that nurtures mine. I am heartened too by the likes of that fella from Chicago, whoever he is, who roused me out of bed early one morning to say, “I’m coming down to help build homes for these families.” He and the women have the kind of fiber and spirit that can and will change the world. That’s some place to stand. May we all be there one day — together.
— John Heid lives and works at the Casa Mariposa in Tucson, Arizona.