- Get Involved
- Contact Us
Crossing Borders:A dialogue in Oaxaca on immigration and social movements
By Patrick I grew up and currently live in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. My grandfather’s family migrated from Germany over a hundred and fifty years ago and entered the local apple industry, whose orchards still bear fruit today despite encroaching development from the Washington, D.C. metro area. These seasonal jobs later attracted poor white immigrants from West Virginia, and as the effects of neoliberal economic policy took hold in Latin America, from Haiti, Mexico and Central America as well. I’ve been investigating the immigration history of my family over the last few years, in spurts of conversation with older relatives and periodic trips to the forgotten shelves of the local library’s historic documents. I don’t know the specifics of how it happened, but as my family threw off the remnants of their German language, culture and heritage to embrace American whiteness, they also ascended to positions of power and influence in the Valley. Three generations of men starting with my great-great-grandfather were professors at the local university, and each played a prominent role on their city council. We have apples in common, but beyond that, differences between my family and more recent immigrants pronounce themselves dramatically. I know that my comfort and condition here is largely dependent on the fact that my ancestors didn’t have to face repressive legislation, racist policing, or wages kept low by them both. Immigration, beyond simply the fact of its occurrence, and towards the whys and hows at its root, has been a force in the life of the place, the idea I call my home. Political and business leaders in the U.S. took advantage of the shock of 9/11 to create policy that pushes more money into the hands of private corporations paid to track and detain immigrants, and scare people into taking the lowest paying jobs around. This coercion affects us all as our expectations lower, and the richest among us climb and climb, putting profit before all of our lives. Before deciding to spend a few months in Mexico, friends and coworkers of mine told me about the connections they feel to their communities in places like Oaxaca or Guanajuato. They often reminded me that if social movements were to succeed in bringing a just economy, empowering education, and accessible, appropriate health care system to Mexico while actively acknowledging the autonomy of indigenous communities, not nearly as many individuals and families would feel it necessary to travel thousands of miles to a country where a powerful elite defines its nationhood through the exclusion of people like them. So when Oaxacan society revolted in 2006 against government repression designed in part to shock the population into the acceptance of development projects benefiting multinational corporations, and created new horizontal forms for running their capital city for six months, I took the opportunity to learn from a place that has become part of my daily reality, and support a movement that is simultaneously rooted in Oaxacan history and identity and branching out to have implications in how we move forward in creating honest revolution in the United States. Instead of trying to find these implications in the shade of my own experiences over a short four months in Oaxaca, I’d like to highlight the notes from a dialogue with Oaxacan activists facilitated by the organization, Colectivos de Apoyo, Solidarid y Acción (CASA), I volunteered with while in Mexico. We planned the dialogue for December 17th, and given timing that gets in the way of important celebrations, I was impressed that ten participants came to share their thoughts and experiences - representing a diverse array of groups - organizers within indigenous communities following the principles of Oaxacan anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón, supporters and producers of community radio all across the state, and providers of training and technical assistance in appropriate technology. We started with a brainstorm, asking what Oaxacan activists think of when they consider the immigrant justice movement in the United States, and also when they reflect on the affects of migration on social movements in Mexico. On the former, we heard key phrases like “Minute Men,” “Western Union,” and “Demands for equality.” In just a few words we have the reality of white supremacist organizing against immigrants, the vast influence that remittances have on Mexico, and the fact that many recent immigrants have organized across the country to demand rights and recognition. We also heard characteristics of this movement; that there are tensions within based in difference in class, country of origin and race. One participant commented that, “I’ve never been to a place where race is more significant than the United States.” I was surprised that these internal divisions were so recognized in Mexico, but it certainly makes sense as many leaders in the U.S. based immigrant justice movements come from histories of organizing in their countries of origin, and stay connected to organizers across the borders. Other organizing themes included recognition of the barriers that communication can present both between different immigrant communities, and reaching out to non-immigrant communities. One of the first things shared was the role students have played in some of the largest immigrant rights marches in the last two years. Lastly, corruption at the border (stories of border guards bribing migrants) and the perception that unions are a primary force in organizing immigrant communities made the free association list. The discussion on how social movements are affected by migration from Mexico was a bit slower in starting but nevertheless provided insight. We heard that the movement in Oaxaca in 2006 had inspired immigrant rights struggles in the United States – with APPOs forming in cities such as Los Angeles, and immigrants seeing that, “they could stand up.” We were told this inspiration came from following news reports, talking to relatives, and directly as many more people migrated from Oaxaca due to the crisis. We were told that marches in California that before had been cultural or religious traditions, became infused with a political focus as those coming from a state amidst intense struggle brought experience in resistance with them. Many Oaxacan activists were also supported financially by Mexican immigrant communities in the United States, with both barricades and individuals receiving the financial support to continue organizing. However, we also heard a sense of frustration in experiences that proved immigration a challenge to getting local people involved in organizing efforts. “They leave, and then stop fighting,” “Those that receive remittances are insulated from local poverty and aren’t as easy to organize,” “Community roles aren’t being filled in the same way, as immigrants just pay someone else to do what they’ve been elected to do,” and “Many immigrants just didn’t care about what happened here in Oaxaca,” were among the vocalizations of this frustration. However, there was general agreement that migration has transcended (and perhaps always has) the purely economic, “It’s become a rite of passage for young men,” “Indigenous communities have been crossing what’s now the border for thousands of years.” These contradictions gave me pause, and continue to challenge me as I think about how to be in solidarity with local immigrant justice struggles acknowledging the connections that immigration has with the strength or repression of social movements abroad. Author Kiran Desai, who has written on the legacy of colonization and reality of migration from northern India writes: There's no simplicity of truth at all. People are forced because of circumstances to lead lives of hypocrisy, of gaps, of fears - not whole lives; and yet we as humans tend to hope for simplicity of truth. And when you see the Himalayas in the morning, everything else falls away. And that kind of moment can literally save you. I think we need movements like mountains - that are rooted in one place, and reach for something far away from where we are. Forces that shelter us, and inspire something in us to move forward, knowing that while it may not always be clear, the path is hidden under the leaves and we’re making it with many others as we walk. Some of the actions that move us towards this mountain, suggested to us from our workshop’s participants: • Do political education work around the whys of immigration with non-immigrant communities • We need better communication between movements – through radio, forums, magazines, etc. • Create “sister city” relationships with communities in Mexico, forming face to face relationships that can inform our struggles • Block a transport road between the U.S. and Mexico, protesting the importation of cheap goods into Latin American while human beings aren’t nearly as free to move about. This dialogue has informed my work as I start to organize in Virginia, now returned from my time in Oaxaca. I know that we need more of them, and I’m enthusiastic about hearing the results from my compañer@s on both sides of the border.