U-C: What I See

Friday, September 10, 2004

On life on the border


Lots of people have been asking about our work here on the U.S./Mexico border. There's nothing I love to talk about more, but I thought you might appreciate a reflection written by a friend of mine named Tim Doherty - from Albany.

Tim came down just before Christmas to volunteer with BorderLinks for a couple of weeks, and he ended up staying through the end of July. This is a letter he wrote to friends and family to give them a sense of what he found so compelling here.

If you're interested in more info., check out www.borderlinks.org and www.nomoredeaths.org.

So here's Tim's letter:

What I Did While I Was Away
Tim Doherty

For the past year I have been working and living in a part of the US where people are seriously questioning many things people in other parts of the country take for granted. These experiences took place in the border region between Arizona and Sonora, Mexico where the notion of “border” itself is a daily, multi-faceted and deep concern. I have no fear of exaggeration when I talk about the problems that exist here. Likewise, I have no fear of irrelevance. The US/Mexican border, especially in the Tucson area, contains all the same cultural, economic and social issues and conflicts at work across the globe. The difference is that here they are most obvious and stark and it is here that the organization known as “BorderLinks” does its work.

I first heard about BL 10 years ago but didn’t get directly involved with them until 5 years ago when I joined two of their delegation groups as a volunteer and participant. In brief, what BL does is educate northerners about how their ways of life affect those of others. Emphasis is placed on the effects that economic policies, e.g., NAFTA, have on life in the border region.

The BL delegations are, on average, groups of a dozen people, usually from a college or church in the US. They arrive in Tucson, are introduced to staff and their itinerary, and soon set off to Nogales, Mexico. In Nogales they visit the Casa Misericordia Community Center, in Colonia Bellavista, where the Mexican BL staff and programs are based. It is here that the real learning of a trip begins. It is here that the northerners have their first concrete contact with Mexican folks, their plight and, hopefully, some of their own attitudes and perceptions. It becomes clear that policies, like NAFTA, are as much an expression of certain biases as they are a cause of them.

My work with BL this past year too began at the Casa Mis. I arrived a few days before Christmas in time for the annual party and local celebrations. After this I had about three weeks to myself to read, write and draw since during the holidays many people return to their hometowns in the south. In the middle of January I began helping with various projects at the Casa, the new ecological toilets particularly. The last two weeks of the month were dedicated to improving my Spanish in a BL language program which included home-stays with a local family and was organized along the lines of delegation trips.

After completing the language “camp”, and for the next three months, I helped to get the garbage to the landfill, maintain the organization’s vehicles and water filtration system, construct a daycare center, improve security of the property, develop a community ecological awareness program, repair basketball hoops, organize painting projects with volunteer groups, bring supplies and donations from across the border and whatever I could to assist the overall running of the facilities and programs at the Casa. I lived and worked at the Casa, so it was very easy to find ways to be useful and involved. The more I did and understood, the more I realized needed to be done and understood. But this is the story of border itself.

During this time I had also been working with a coalition of groups, churches and people concerned with deaths in the desert of migrants trying to relieve the poverty of Mexico by working in the US. This coalition calls itself “No More Deaths” and meets Thursdays at the Southside Presbyterian church in Tucson. Our most pressing concern was with addressing the coming hot weather months, when most of the deaths occur. But the whole migration picture was addressed, from supplying migrant centers in Mexico to proposing new legislative economic, migration and border patrol policies to Congress. All of which fit perfectly with what I was learning and doing with BL at the Casa.

At the end of May, with the understanding of everyone at BL, I shifted my attention to the activities of NMDs beginning with a 75 mile walk from Sasabe, Mexico to Tucson in the first week of June, part of a series of kick-off events for the NMDs summer that occurred in several locations along the US/Mex border in AZ. For the rest of the summer my main job was to help locate migrant centers in Mexico in towns along the border and to transport donations of food, clothes and whatever else they needed. However I also became involved with the activities at the “desert camps” which were established in several places in the AZ deserts to give humanitarian and medical assistance to distressed migrants. Needless to say, the US Border Patrol was not warm to this activity, although it was not illegal, and it was at this point that I became truly aware of what it means to stand up for other people.

Still, I was by no means uninvolved with BL during this time. Since my Spanish had improved sufficiently and I had by this point a fair understanding of the situation, I was able to assist with leading delegations. I also continued to help maintain the vehicles and made a lot of people happy by keeping the swamp coolers running at the office. Then there was the relocation of the BL operation in Tucson, to a recently purchased building on the south side of town, with which I was able to participate and which continues to this day. This has required a tremendous amount of thought, organization and heavy lifting but will bring many benefits to the BL’s work and mission.

There are countless other aspects of my experiences over the past year that I have not mentioned but have great significance. Among them, BL founder and International Director Rick Ufford-Chase’s campaign and election as Moderator of the Presbyterian Church was and is an ongoing, serious and exciting factor. BL’s Semester on the Border program also has an important and hopeful place in the organization’s future as do the developments of educational and community programs at the Casa Mis. On a more personal note, the “Christian Peacemakers Teams”, who were part of the NMD coalition and who have projects in several places around the world, including one in Colombia, have given me an even greater understanding of how the factors and dynamics at work on the US/Mexico border are part and parcel of problems everywhere and, moreover, that something can be done about them. This has also given me an idea for work and travel in the future.

I returned to Albany a week ago after driving a scenic route along the west coast and northern US border. On this trip I visited places and met people in parts of the country I had never seen before, logging about 6000 miles on my poor truck. Since I even dipped into Canada for a few hundred miles, to avoid the traffic of the Chicago area, this last leg of my travels has made my past year a true North American experience. As you can imagine though, I had a heck of a time selectively explaining to Customs on the Canadian border what I had been doing the past year, in response to their questions. Now I’m back. Not to where I started exactly since the world looks a bit different to me now. For one thing, I’ve come to realize more fully that I am, indeed all of us are, in no small way, migrant-workers. All of us are on journeys, individually and as a community. We’re all struggling to find happiness and meaning in our lives. What’s different is that, now, after this past year, I’m much more able to acknowledge who and what it is for which I am working and to relinquish privileges that keep others from doing likewise. These have been hard but wise lessons about faith and love, God and humanity and I have my friends at BorderLinks to thank for it.

So let us know if you want to get your church involved in border work. A BorderLinks trip really is designed to help folks see their own communities in new ways.

In Peace,