Thursday, June 05, 2014

Volunteering and Learning Along the Migrant Trail in Southern Arizona

This past week I visited Southern Arizona to immerse myself in border issues. The US-Mexican border in Arizona crosses the Sonoran Desert, which is hot and inhospitable, but for many it is an important path to economic survival.  Current immigration policies and the border fence erected since 9/11 have made what many longtime Arizona residents told me was a routine crossing into the US for seasonal work into a dangerous activity.  In fact, between 200-400 migrants die each year in the Tucson sector of the border while making this journey.

It takes migrants about 6 days to walk from the border to Tucson where they can slip into anonymity and travel to their final destinations around the US. As they begin the journey they can carry about a day or two’s worth of water and after that they are often forced to drink from cattle troughs and other dirty water sources that can make them sick and even more dehydrated or not drink at all.  This dehydration slows them down and can lead their coyotes to leave them behind as to not hold back the rest of their groups. Left alone in the desert with out water or food or a guide has led to at least 2,666 migrant deaths in the Tucson sector according to No More Deaths, an organization  whose mission is to end death and suffering on the U.S./Mexico border.  They and other social justice groups have sprung up in Southern Arizona to try to help with this crisis. 
I volunteered a day with both the Tucson and the Green Valley Samaritans hiking into the US desert leaving bottled water and food along known migrant routes.  These groups, along with No More Deaths, also do searches deep in the desert looking for migrants in need of help, carrying food, water and providing basic medical care.

I also spent a morning serving food to the recently deported at El Comedor, in Nogales, Mexico, where I had the chance to hear many stories.  El Comedor run by Jesuit nuns and the Kino Border Initiative feeds migrants who have just been dropped back into Mexico by US Immigration. Each day American volunteers come across the border and join the nuns to serve breakfast and dinner to up to 100 migrants a day.  They also provide medical care and advice on how to re-group and figure out what to do next.  They help migrants get bus tickets home, get money wired to them, take testimony of any abuse they may have suffered in the hands of Border Patrol and most importantly offer kindness.  I met people from all over Mexico and many from Honduras, whose countries political challenges as well as the rising ravages of the drug war have forced them to search for better economic prospects.

I was most struck by hearing the stories of those who have lived their whole lives in the US, but are victims of the rising deportations happening these days.  I really hadn’t thought as deeply about the implications of these deportations.  The two men I spoke to for the longest both lived in the US since they were young children.  They said they have no family or ties to Mexico anymore and instead have wives, children, mothers, fat hers and siblings in the US.  Clearly they were going to keep trying to cross back to their loved ones until they succeeded and who could blame them.  (Anyway, it really gave me the faces to remember, when I hear more about the debate about not ripping apart families. It just doesn’t seem like a good policy in many ways.)

During the week, I visited the Federal Courthouse in Tucson to observe Operation Streamline, where the US prosecutes about 20% of the migrants caught near the border, who have tried to cross before, and sentences them to time in a US detention center before they are sent back over the border.  This was the most painful hopeless stop of my week.  62 migrants with shackled hands and ankles shuffle up to the judge and plead guilty to crossing into the US and then are taken away to basically serve prison time.  Many advocates are enraged by this process, but honestly, I saw judges, lawyers and prosecutors making the best of a bad situation.  Until our immigration policy changes, a system like this will have to exist and I was just glad to see a judge that addressed each migrant with compassion. (I’ve heard that some judges do not show the same kindness.) Hearing one migrant address the judge and tell of the immense financial duress his family was under and another say he was so afraid to go back to Guatemala that he would rather serve a long sentence, made clear the urgency many migrants face when they decide to leave their homes in search of economic prospects.

One night, I participated in a vigil held by the Border Patrol Victims Network to bring attention to the 42 people who have been killed by Border Patrol and ask the US government to investigate the murders rather than the total silence they have found so far.  To date, not one person has been prosecuted for any of these deaths.  (Last Friday, after yet another Border Patrol shooting, they finally published a few suggested guidelines to attempt to deescalate situations between Border Patrol and migrants and prevent future deaths.)

To experience a totally different side of the border issue, I took at cross border tour to learn about the Mexico side of Nogales, which has a vibrant community. You can read more here, but in short there is a lot of effort to make sure they build a cohesive community. Splitting Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico with the border wall took a toll on the community, but it continues to live on and for me it was fun to get a solid dose of Mexico spirit.

All in all, as usual with all these things, I leave more confused about what to do then when I arrived. There are definitely no easy answers.  The US economy is hungry for more immigrants to work our low paying jobs, that American’s don’t seem to want to do, so we lure them north. Our economic policies, like NAFTA, have decimated their small farms and our voracious need for drugs has led to a painful drug war spreading into Central America. Most of the Arizonans that I spoke to really believe that we need to provide more temporary work visas so that the migrants can come work in the US and then go back home, like they did before the border wall.  Residents in Southern Arizona are fed up with the militarization of the border area with Border Patrol vehicles zooming up and down all the roads and checkpoints stopping them in multiple places.  It truly feels like a war zone at times, with vehicles swarming and helicopters buzzing overhead. I was particularly horrified to learn that so many people are dying due to the harsh conditions of the crossing.  Something just has to be done.


I was very touched by the experience and from now on will be able to understand what is behind all the rhetoric in Washington about sealing the border.  I also was moved by the incredible dedication of volunteers in the border area to fight for migrant rights and offer water, medical care and kindness.  It showed the best of the human spirit. I leave wishing there was more I could do and I will keep looking to figure out what that might be.

Arizona/Mexico Border Trip


I had an amazing, eye-opening, moving trip down to Southern Arizona to immerse myself in the migration issues in the border communities in both the US and Mexico.


Click HERE to see pictures from my trip

Volunteering at El Comedor, Nogales, Mexico


In May, I spent a morning serving food to the recently deported at El Comedor in Nogales, Mexico, where I had the chance to hear many stories. El Comedor, run by Jesuit nuns and the Kino Border Initiative, feeds migrants who have just been dropped back into Mexico by US Immigration. Each day American volunteers come across the border and join the nuns to serve breakfast and dinner to up to 100 migrants a day. They also provide medical care and advice on how to re-group and figure out what to do next. They help migrants get bus tickets home, get money wired to them, take testimony of any abuse they may have suffered in the hands of Border Patrol and most importantly offer kindness.


Click HERE to see a few pictures

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Visiting South of the US/Mexico Border Fence in Nogales, Mexico

I headed down to Southern Arizona to immerse myself in the migration issues in the border communities in both the US and Mexico.  Since 9/11, efforts have been made to close the border and it is affecting life on both sides.  Before this time there were many border towns that that functioned jointly on both the Mexico and US sides with people working, living and going to school together. When the US decided to put up a wall, families were split, workers were on the opposite sides as their jobs, students were on the opposite side from their schools.  Unfortunately this border fence has sucked the vibrancy out of many communities. One example I explored was Nogales, Arizona, US and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico where many efforts are being made to keep both sides vibrant.

I took a tour with the Border Community Alliance and FundaciĆ³n del Empresariado Sonorense A.C. (FESAC) to learn about the efforts to make sure Nogales, Mexico continues to be a vibrant, healthy community with economic activity and a civic life and doesn’t suffer the fate of cities like Juarez and Tijuana that have been torn apart by the drug war. Unlike other parts of Mexico, the border towns face different challenges. 

People travel there from all over the country for jobs, and don’t have the family roots and the support network they are used to, so great efforts are being made to build a cohesive community and help help people make connections. 

My favorite organization helping to build connections and economic activity was a place where they were teaching women to sew.  As men find themselves settling in Nogales, often because they are deported out of the US there or migrating up for jobs at the factories n Nogales, they send for their wives and kids to come join them in the community.  These wives need to find ways to make money.  Sewing is a skill they can use at home bringing in tailor work from their neighborhood while being able to have a flexible schedule to look after their kids.  FESAC hired a sewing teacher and invited the

women in to learn sewing while they waited for their kids who were at school across the way.

On the tour we explored the community and drove around to see some of the factories lining the Mexico-US border.  Nogales is growing by leaps and bounds and the Mexican government is trying to keep up by building houses and creating city services.
 

Since the border fence has been erected though, there has been a large drop in travelers from the US to Mexico and tours like this also show a safe charming community in effort to encourage travel again.  Many Arizonans told me, prior to the fence they went to shop and eat in Nogales all the time.  Interestingly one cross-border temptation still attracts US citizens to Mexico.  Medical care…  The streets right next to the pedestrian border crossing are lined with dentists, orthodontists, eye doctors and pharmacies. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Dear Cuba...


Dear Cuba:

I love you!  After my third trip to visit, I am even more in love than the first time I set foot on your shores.  I love your passion for standing tall against the US and the "normal" unbalanced relationship most Caribbean islands have with it.  I still love the ideals you have tried to maintain since the Revolution.  I do wish you could be a bit more open and give your citizens more freedom to make their way.  I have witnessed the energy and drive of your people and believe given the permission and a little help they would be able to help you with your economic woes.  I wish my country wasn't so threatened by you and could just let you be.  I wish the Cuban-Americans could just get over their anger and let policy normalize and see what happens.

But more than all those political and economic issues, I love your strength.  Your people are solid and strong.  I love your music.  There is a beat to every footstep in your streets and the music playing everywhere adds energy to everything. And I love that the music has so many ethnic roots. I love your vibrant rainbow of skin colors from white to black, with 36 gradations  recognized along the way.  I love that a group of boys hanging on the Malecon might have a very pale blond boy, a very black one and few of other shades.  I learned that its not that simple and of course, you, like all lands with slave holding history, still haven't quite figured out how to erase race, but still a walk down any street in Havana had so many diverse faces,which is a delight for a portrait photographer like me.  Surely with some more of the new dialogue on race and work to show more positive images of Afro-Cubans, you will be able to rise to be an almost racially neutral country.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Pictures from Cuba


Click HERE to see photos from my recent trip to Cuba

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

A Few Thoughts About Cuba

I leave this trip from Cuba with more questions than answers. Everything I thought on my last trip remains true. It's a beautiful country with impressive architecture and rich culture. The people have a warm inner spirit that makes me keep wanting to go back.

On each trip, I scratch a little deeper and since I was there for an NYU grad school class this time, I really dug in. We met with experts who explained the challenges Cuba is currently facing with its economy. They spoke to us about their healthcare system, where they train doctors from around the world and also send 1000s of doctors to work in other countries.  We also learned about their rich creative community, housing policy, work dealing with issues related to race, sexuality and gender issues. We heard about how they are preserving their historical architecture and are trying to develop a tourism industry that benefits and doesn't displace locals.

I continue to admire some of the values of the Revolution and all the efforts to even the economic landscape for everyone, but feel frustrated that even with so many interventions inequality exists on many levels and tourism and the influx of money from it and other outside sources is reopening old scars.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Classic Cars in Cuba


Re-posting from Cuba March 2005

In honor of my recent trip to Cuba I'm re-posting my write-up from after my trip there in 2005

It has been three weeks since I returned from my second trip to Cuba. I’ve been having a hard time putting what I saw onto paper. I know that a few minutes in Plaza Vieja in Old Havana drinking a fresh sweet minty mojito and listening to one of the many Cuban bands that play all over would bring it all rushing back to me. The slow pace, the comfortable feeling, the beauty, the warmth, the history and most importantly those big smiles that radiate out of every person you see.

The best I can do though is to pop in the cd from my favorite band there and try to gather my thoughts for you…

Cuba is a magical place. It’s both stopped in time and at the same time so very current. It’s got a rainbow multicultural mix of people. Locals could have long blond hair and pale skin, dark black African skin or most commonly dark hair and striking eyes of their Spanish ancestors. The cultural boundaries of racism that keep us separated in the US, seem to be gone there. It’s one of the good byproducts of the Revolution. 

(Unfortunately, I learned in my 2014 trip, that although Cuba is definitely a vibrant rainbow of race, racism exists here too more prominently than I could see on the surface. The ideals of equality in the Revolution came a long way to helping Afro-Cubans achieve equality in economic and educational attainment, but as I saw a prominent intellectual say "Black is still black." so more must be done to promote positive black images in society. The complicated implications of a post-slavery society are hard to erase.  The good news in Cuba though is that an vibrant discussion is finally taking place about this issue.)

Sunday, March 02, 2014

The Streets are Lined with Art in Philadelphia!


Somehow I missed this up till now but Philadelphia has an amazing assortment of street art with giant murals covering walls throughout the city. The Mural Arts Program began in 1984 as a component of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, an effort spearheaded to eradicate the graffiti crisis plaguing the city. The Anti-Graffiti Network hired muralist Jane Golden to reach out to graffiti writers and to redirect their energies from destructive graffiti writing to constructive mural painting. Now 30 years later there are over 3600 murals throughout the city.  I got a small taste of them by following the City Center walking tour, which is a self guide walk by 14 murals.  Each mural has a plaque and a phone number that you can call to listen to an interview with the artist about the inspiration for the piece and who helped them do it.  A big component of the project is to involve community members in the creation of the work.  It was a touching experience to listen to the stories.  

All in all, I have heard that Philadelphia has made great strides to attract artists by subsidizing housing and rehearsal space and seeing art EVERYWHERE showed they take this seriously.  I have always loved Philly, but I now feel a deeper excitement about its vibrancy. I can't wait to go back when the snow isn't falling and the wind isn't blowing and explore other neighborhoods and see their art.

Click HERE to see an online album of some of the marvelous murals on Philadelphia's streets

Monday, January 27, 2014

Travels in Tennessee

Hello Uncle Sam.  Please show me America.
The more I travel to other countries, the more I realize how hard it is to really understand a culture.  It has makes me want to dig deeper into America, because gosh, at least I should be able to to understand the nuances of my own country a little better! So in January, I set off to explore Eastern Tennessee, which was a great place to go see history, music, vast dramatic landscapes and eat lots of comfort food. I visited Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville.  I honestly didn't stay long enough to get a solid impression of each of the cities, but I enjoyed what I saw. You have to really dig deep to understand the subtle differences in American culture, but I did the best I could.  

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Understanding American Tour: Tennessee


Click HERE to see more pictures from my trip to Tennessee

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Extremes of American Tourism: Pigeon Forge and Dollywood

I hadn't planned it but it almost seemed like we were sucked towards Dollywood and Pigeon Forge, Dolly Parton's idea of how to bring prosperity to her home town. Even in the off season, when we had the roads to ourselves and the amusement park was closed, we found magic in the good old American excess: Mount Rushmore pop culture style with Roy Rodgers, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin; a possibly life sized Titanic with a big iceberg, that I guess you could go into and relive the story; a giant upside-down house imaging a crash after a tornado that is called WonderWorks. Anyhow, I doubt I can put accurate words to describe the craziness, but I enjoyed it in the same way that I love Vegas.  Americans are strange tourists!  I can't imagine actually paying to go into any of these places, but they were fun to look at from afar and certainly one part of the American travel experience.

Friday, January 10, 2014

My first trip to the New York State Capital

Yes, I know that it seems unfathomable that a person who has been to 56 countries and 40 states could possibly never have been to her own home state capital when she has lived in the state on and off since she was 7 years old!!! But its true.  So today I expanded a work trip to Albany into a tourist exploration.  I was up there putting on a forum about community college completion.  (Yes, yes, might sound geeky to some of you, but I embrace my geekyness and now get to work focusing on interesting topics like this.)  Anyhow, I digress, it was a chance to come to Albany and started me off on the right foot for any state capitol visit. At the event I made sure legislators and their staff, as well and other government and nonprofit folks learned about an important issue and hopefully were inspired to legislate to improve things.  So, by the time I set off on my Albany exploration I was in a legislative state of mind.  

Monday, December 30, 2013

Farewell 2013, its been great...


Hello Friends - 

Somehow December sped by, but I didn't want to miss the chance to send my holiday hellos, updates and warm wishes. 
It’s hard to sum up a year in a few sentences, but here are my high points. I started a new job as Deputy Director of the Center for an Urban Future, a think tank that focuses on economic and workforce development in New York City. I finally decided to take the plunge and start grad school and enrolled in NYU Wagner's Executive Master in Public Administration program. I traveled to Machu Picchu in Peru, out to explore the west in New Mexico and had a fun weekend in DC for Obama's Second Inauguration.

I continue to explore New York and have been trying to get my exotic travel fix in neighborhoods I can get to by subway vs plane. For me that has meant dining on Russian food overlooking the ocean in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, discovering a huge Hindu temple in Elmhurst, Queens, visiting a gigantic food court in Flushing, Queens selling every kind of Chinese food imaginable, rivaling any hawker stand I saw in Singapore, and much much more. It also means chasing Banksy and other street artists who continue to change NY's streetscape.  Walking around the city is more fun when I try to look at every wall and light pole to see if there is anything new.  And most importantly, I continued to help NY recover from Hurricane Sandy by volunteering in the Rockaways and helping the city's Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) by facilitating community workshops.  It has been incredible to follow the process closely and see just how hard recovery is.  The world moves on, but there is sooooo 
much to be done.
 
I really didn't plan to lead a life like this. I haven't gotten my white picket fence in the suburbs yet, but the black railing on my terrace between me and my skyline view seems to work for me too.  I'm doing my best to embrace the hand I was given and New York just keeps giving back.
 
I love watching your lives on Facebook and through other means. I hope you have found peace and balance in this endlessly stressful fast paced world.
 
Cheers!
Cordelia

Monday, December 16, 2013

"I'm often asked about the difference between a tourist and a traveler. To me, a tourist visits all the big sights, sees spectacles on stage, and returns home unchanged, with a suitcase full of knickknacks. A traveler becomes a temporary local, engages with the culture, and comes home enriched, with a vivid collection of experiences and a broader perspective"Rick Steves

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

New Mexico 2013 - Another Chance to Hunt for the Real America

This was my second trip to New Mexico, but this time I was looking at it from much wiser, more-traveled eyes.  After all my travels I know how to find the road less traveled and the quirky special places that are a little hidden.  I pick between the more touristy places and decide which are a must see and which can be passed to make time for a more local real neighborhood that might give me a little more insight into what lies below the surface.  Now when I go to a city like Santa Fe, I want to see where people really live more than the main square or seeing every museum.  I'd rather wile away an hour in a local coffee shop watching people then wander through endless galleries the city is famous for, though I try to travel at a pace where I can do a little of both.

The purpose of this trip was to go visit my brother in the north eastern corner of the state in Mora County, a poor, rural farming valley tucked in the
soaring, stunning Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  My brother and his family have relocated here to live a different kind of life.  They bought a plot of land and have begun homesteading there.  They are building a yurt to live in and collecting water from two streams on the property.  Until the systems are better set up, they spend short periods of time on their land, and also have been lucky enough to stay at a local farm on other nights in exchange for work there.  

Photos from Arizona and New Mexico


Click HERE for pictures from my trip to Arizona and New Mexico

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

- Mark Twain

Thursday, January 24, 2013

More Reasons Why I Travel (In No Particular Order)

At a World Food Program feeding site in Benin

Why I Travel #1: To Think, Process and Feel

The other thing about traveling alone is that I have a lot of time to think, process, write... In real life, I fill my time and my head so much that sometimes I don't let myself sit back and reflect and feel.  Reflecting is not always fun but it is necessary.  Every so often I need a check in.

When I travel my feelings are much more present. Sometimes I get really lonely, but then out of the darkness, I sit next to someone and have the most inspiring conversation and suddenly feel deeply connected.  Or I feel frustrated and lost, but just as I am about to crumble, I turn a corner and discover something magical and new. It teaches me about possibilities and reminds me how easy it is to survive the extremes.

Why I Travel #2: It Opens Me Up 

In my daily life in New York, I don't have that many chances to talk to random strangers.  We all know that it's a bit frowned upon to sit down next to someone on the subway and strike up a conversation.  It doesn't mean it never happens, it's just not encouraged and my behavior has adapted to it.

The opposite is true with the kind of travel I do.  When traveling I strike up conversations with everyone.  I have lots of short genuine interactions. I feel open and constantly connected.  I love it.  As an extrovert, I get my energy from others and fresh random conversations are like crack for me.

The funny part is when I get home and I find myself chatting in the subway with mixed results.  I try to find tourists to target, so that they think all New Yorkers are that open and friendly.

Meeting Iraqis in Iran.  Stereotypes be gone!
Why I Travel #3: To Meet People From All Over The World

I know that it might sound funny that living in New York doesn't put me in contact with people from all over the world, but it really doesn't.  I love travel because I not only get to meet people and learn about the culture of the country I am visiting, but I also get to meet people from many other countries.

Over the years I have learned that Aussies speak practically a totally different English.  That I feel deeply connected to Brits. That the French have a very inquisitive eye. I have heard about places I have never knew existed before. And I have made real friendships out of it.  I have visited friends I met traveling in London (2), China, Tunisia, Indonesia, and Greece.  Plus I have hosted people from Switzerland and Austria in NY. This past year, I loved getting birthday greetings from across the world and particularly from Australia so many hours before my birthday was even happening in my time zone.

And most importantly I have been able to share my reflections and examine my American bias. It helps me understand the world better and understand what I am seeing better.

Don't worry though, my volunteer activity with Big Apple Greeters taking tourists out on personalized tours of New York gives me a chance to meet at least a few folks in my home town too.


North Korea really blew my mind
Why I Travel #4: To See/Learn/Experience and Understand Other Worlds

The most obvious reason I travel is that I am an experiential learner.  I can read tons of books and watch lots of movies and tv, but I can't really understand a place till I've been there.  Suddenly when I set foot in a country everything I have read comes to life and I have a bottomless desire to read more and understand a country better.  History in books tends to go in and out of my brain too easily, but somehow if I am walking on the same ground as historical figures, I can absorb all the information. 

As a current events junkie, I love news, but often I feel the US news doesn't give enough context or cover the full story, so instead I fly off to Afghanistan to hear about life after the Taliban. Or to Israel/Palestine to see the wall and feel the distinct separate feeling on each side of it. Or to Iran, where I met Iranians and saw just how different they were from the way they are covered in our press.

It all started when I was in high school learning about the The Soviet Union and the Cold War and just having a hard time buying what I was hearing. My dad was Russian and had a PhD in Russian Studies so I asked him if I could go visit and meet real Russians.  He said yes and boy did I learn a lot. Yes communism was different and parts of the Soviet system were shocking to my American Capitalist self, but I also got to meet many young Russians who seemed to have dreams just like me.  I got to basically see that the world is very complex and nuanced.  I haven't stopped traveling since.