Friday, November 16, 2012


If the people walking around the streets of Tucson right now weren’t bundled up in jackets and close-toed shoes, I’m not sure I would remember that three months had passed since I arrived in August. The Border Studies Program Fall 2012 semester kicked off during the monsoon season here in southern Arizona when daily highs were still upwards of 100 degrees and sunsets were often accompanied by heat lightening.

When we received a schedule of the semester on one of our first few days here, I remember being told to prepare for how quickly the next 14 weeks would pass. I tried my best, but even so, I’m not sure anything could have adequately prepared me for the strangeness of finding myself faced with the reality that in less than a week, my peers and I will be saying adiós to this semester and to one another. El tiempo ya se fue rapido, pero rapidíssimo!

For the past week or so, I’ve been expecting to be hit by the wave of sadness that usually engulfs me at around this point when I’m preparing to say a big goodbye. And there have been moments when I’ve felt that sadness creep in, but it’s hardly been anything unbearable. And I’m starting to suspect that there’s a reason for this. Here is how I see it: this semester may be coming to an end, but the fact that this is happening is hardly an ending. I suppose maybe I’m just parroting that old cliche about endings-as-beginnings, but this time, I think there’s something to it. Here’s why.

In the first place, I no longer believe that endings exist, gracias a the way that the Border Studies Program has exploded my understandings of time and space. One of the primary modes of learning we have engaged in this semester, as I understand it, is a process that I’ve come to know as “naming the world.” To me, that means listening deeply and looking closely, both inwardly and outwardly; it means telling a story about how things are and why they are that way. It means searching for history in the present and imagining the future. In other words, it means connecting all senses of “time” together, seeing past, present, and future as a whole, not disparate parts of a timeline. In this sense, this semester is much more than a semester. My experience here in the borderlands was shaped by every experience that had come before it in my life, and everything that is to come will bear its marks. I believe that every moment is this way.

This BSP’s tagline is “a semester in the US/Mexico borderlands.” I know that this semester is not really ending because I know that even after I leave Arizona, I won’t have left the border. The world we live in, the world that we create and that creates us, is a border world. And as it stands, those borders represent a cruel and inhumane logic that determines who can move, who cannot, and who is forced to move. No matter who you are or where you are, you are implicated in that grand system of controlled movement. In this moment, that fact is heavy in my mind and in my heart. And one of my greatest hopes for myself moving out of the semester is to continue feeling that way: to be conscious of borders and the unfreedoms that they create for the rest of my life––and to act in solidarity with those are demanding that those borders come down, so that we may all begin to heal from the ill-logic that made them possible.

Finally, I know that this semester is a beginning rather than an ending because the friendships that I have formed over the course of the past three months are ones that I hope will continue for a long, long time. I know that any learning I did this semester is owed to all of the incredible people I interacted with: my ten fellow students, our four classroom instructors, the family I stayed with here in Tucson, and all of the people who so generously shared their time, stories and knowledge with me and my peers. I believe that as we students transition into life after the Border Studies Program, we will be able to turn to one another for support of all kinds; we are in this lucha together now and we still can be in spite of physical distance.

And so as I think about what it will feel like next Tuesday when the Border Studies Program semester is officially over, when we students begin to go our own ways, I feel strong, not sad. It’s true that the world now seems a whole lot more tangled-up to me than when I first stepped foot in Tucson in August, and I feel despair about that in a more real way than ever before. And it’s equally true that I now feel better prepared than to act in that world, and do so in a way that’s in accordance with the convictions that I’ve come to name this semester. I am looking forward to seeing how our stories spiral out from this point, far but near, apart but connected. Siempre estamos juntos, todos nosotros en este mundo. Conectados. We’re always together, all of us in this world. Connected. I leave the semester with that knowledge guiding my feet, my hands, and my heart.

- submitted by Roxanne Rapaport

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Dia de los Muertos: A Binational Procession

On Friday the 2nd of November, el Dia de Los Muertos, we gathered at the BSP office at 3.30 in the afternoon with instructions to dress in white. We were headed to a cross-border procession in honour of the recent deaths of José Antonio Elena Rodríguez and Ramses Barrón Torres, Nogales natives who lost their lives to the guns of Border Patrol agents in October 2012 and January 2009 respectively. The vigil also intended to protest the crime of their deaths, the lack of a thorough investigation into them and the lack of justice for the families of the deceased. The procession would begin from two points- one from Nogales, in Arizona, and another from Nogales, in Sonora. They would converge at the massive row of rust coloured bars- the wall that prevents both cities, and both countries, from merging into one.

It was here that José Antonio Elena Rodríguez was shot at the age of 16 by an American Border Patrol officer through the slats of the wall, on Mexican territory. The details of what happened are not that clear- officers allege he was throwing rocks. What is clear is that he was shot seven to eight times in the back through one of the four inch gaps in the wall.

We gathered at a street corner a short walk from the Border wall with images of the dead, placards, banners, candles and lilies and walked mostly in silence to the area where José Antonio was killed, walking alongside the wall. The wall in Nogales, and the fact that you can see through it, are becoming a familiar sight to us. We came to Nogales on our second day of orientation and walked alongside it, on the other side, during the day. It was the first time any of us had seen the US/Mexico border. To repeat that after having been to Nogales a number of times, and having seen the Border in its differing manifestations in El Paso and Big Bend National Park, is to realize that the militarization of this Border is both an uneven but ongoing process and a brute fact.

Another group gathered on the Mexican side of the Border and when we reached them everyone stopped walking. We pushed our faces through the gaps and said hi. People handed flowers and candles back and forth. Banners from one side were hung from the fence on the other. Many spoke to Jose Antonio’s family through the bars. Guadalupe Guerrero, whose son Carlos Lamadrid was killed by US Border Patrol in March 2011 as he attempted to scale the wall to enter Mexico came out of the crowd and gave her condolences publicly to Jose Antonio’s mother, Araceli Rodriguez. Songs were sung, solemnly, and both sides joined in with the same chants, speeches calling for accountability on the part of Border Patrol given.

We have been reading, in Dying to Live by Joe Nevins, about the maintenance of a state of what he calls “apartheid” between Mexico and the US, and about the human tragedy of that. Nevins states that there has never been a time when this Border has been so militarily blockaded as it is. And yet there has never been a time when more people and goods, legal and illegal, have crossed it. The tragic irony of the situation is that this wall ostensibly enforces national sovereignty when it has never been more irrelevant to the way the global economy works. Labour in the US will be sourced from the enforced idleness of dispossession in Mexico because third world desperation works for less pay, but workers can work in one country and live in another. It makes sense. The US government, and its associated corporations, calls the shots whatever side of the border we might talk about. Imperialism that pretends.

To militarize the Border is to pretend to the ordinary people of the US that their sense of besiegement that comes from ever lower wages, loss of livelihood, and no net of security to be caught in when you fall is unavoidable, and not engineered. It is also to make desperate, and quiet, the people who circumvent the walls and walk through deserts to work in secret at jobs it pretended didn’t recruit them. Standing at that procession equally close to people on both sides, only with obscured vision, it seemed inconceivable not to think that this “apartheid” could be said to be the pretence of sovereignty in an era when there is none. How can it be anything but a farce when a Border Patrol officer can walk to the line between countries, clearly demarcated, poke his gun through it, and shoot a teenager dead?

- submitted by Sophie Gregg

Monday, November 12, 2012

Tohono O’odam Nation- wisdom from our past, solutions for our future

For our last critical issues class of the semester we traveled about 60 miles southwest of Tucson to the Tohono O’odam Nation and had the privilege to meet with members of TOCA, Tohono O’odam Community Action in Sells, AZ. The Tohono O’odam, meaning “desert people” reside in areas of the Sonoran Desert in both southern Arizona and Sonora and are divided by the Mexico-US international border, drawn across their lands in 1853 by the Gadsden Purchase. The reservation is the second largest in the United States, is comparable the state of Connecticut and home to 70 miles of the international border.

Considering our previous study of the border in other contexts and geopolitical locations and having read a couple of articles about the Nation, it was clear before our visit that one could study interaction between native nations and the border alone for at least a semester.

As TOCA’s work does not center around issues of the border and with the brevity of our visit, we held in mind that a deeper understanding of the ways the border affects life on the reservation would have to wait.

We met with Anthony Francisco Jr. of TOCA at their office in the community/shopping center of Sells before heading out to TOCA’s farm, which employs traditional flood plain agricultural techniques. Ak chin farming, which utilizes rains of summer monsoon season is well adapted to the climate of the Sonoran desert. Traditional crops that the Cowlic learning center grows include tepary beans, O’odam squash, and native “60-day” corn. The farm works to reintroduce traditional crops and make them available to the community aiding with health and the preservation of existing traditional knowledge. One project of TOCA’s related to farming and native foods efforts is “A New Generation of Farmers” program which aims to train youth in traditional O’odam farming methods to promote a cultural, environmentally, economically viable way of life.

In speaking with Anthony about his work with the farm and youth of the nation, he emphasized the value of TOCA’s work being in large part helping young O’odam create strong connections to the land and their cultural heritage. He emphasized the importance of speaking to identity to inspire positive growth and its widespread success empowering youth, in contrast to efforts from outside organizations. I was reminded of the work of the Ethnic Studies Program once in place at Tucson High by its similar approach and success. Of the traditional language, song, and ceremony, Anthony highlighted the importance of the principle s-wa:gima, which celebrates an industrious lifestyle in which one’s strength is drawn from the sun.

After visiting the farm, we made a short visit to the Nation’s annual Diabetes Fair and were able to learn about many community organizations providing information and services from flu shots, to crafts including jewelry and baskets, to information about domestic abuse.

We concluded our visit at the Desert Rain Café where we were able to speak with Tristan Reeder, co-founder of TOCA, and Rhonda Wilson, a basketweaver who has been involved with TOCA for many years and works with TOCA’s Desert Rain Gallery. We were also accompanied by Julia Munson, former student of the Border Studies Program, and currently a Food Corps member with TOCA. The Desert Rain Café is another project of TOCA is dedicated to preparing traditional healthy O’odam foods such as tepary beans, saguaro fruit syrup, and cholla buds.

Tristan spoke of TOCA’s guiding focus as a community based organization, not affiliated with the tribal government, being on empowerment not service, working with not for. TOCA works to employ a systems change model for social change, which views policy change alone as ineffective. Their focus on working to improve local food systems stems from their belief that healthy and sustainable eating habits cannot be made out of “individual choice” as they are prevented by systems constraining choice. They are working to make traditional healthy foods more accessible and make growing these foods profitable on the Nation, while embracing the O’odham Himdag principle which they see to mean: wisdom from our past, solutions for our future.

I found TOCA’s work in many ways inspiring and seeking to effectively address issues affecting the nation, but I am left with many larger questions about the context for their work, the border, and the Tohono O’odam Nation in general:

Considering histories of colonization and identities of colonizers what does it mean for privileged white folks to work on the nation? In contexts where they serve in a teaching role, a role of knowledge or of preaching ‘the right way of doing things’?
How does the Arizona state and US federal government relate to the O’odam nation’s tribal governing body?
What does it mean for a ‘sovereign nation’ to exist within the continental united states?
How does a militarized international border crossing the nation affect felt senses of security?
How do effects of drug trafficking change relations to ‘security’ provided by the Border Patrol?
In reacting to high numbers of migrant deaths in the remote desert landscape how would the nation be able to both reject the presence of this issue that has been forced upon them while also saving lives?

It seemed from our short visit that the additional layer of complexity present when considering the O’odam nation’s stretch of border differed greatly from the particularities of the border we have considered in ambos Nogales, Douglas/Agua Prieta, El Paso/Juarez and in Big Bend National Park.

- submitted by Elizabeth Tipton

Monday, November 5, 2012

Inverted Particularities

Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore spoke at the University of Arizona on October second about the proliferation in this country of enclosures; of those not documented to work, and those documented not to work. These are the “inverted particularities” of the lives, the movements, the meanings of the undocumented and the incarcerated. Our boundaries grow denser, more embedded, and our institutions eat more bodies every day. “The border” the professor said, “waits as quietly as a land mine.”

The Border Studies Program found the border last week in the bleak and thirsty prison town of Florence, Arizona. The town is host to seven prisons and jails, including a state prison, two private prison complexes, and the Florence Detention Center, an ICE facility. It is to this institution that we paid our visit. The site once held detainees from Fidel Castro’s prisons and asylums. Before that, it was an internment camp for Japanese-Americans. In the room where we are screened for weapons, a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization sign hangs on the wall; a picture of the World Trade Center, and the words “We will never forget.”

Our host is the Assistant Field Office Director, Martin Zelenka. Mr. Zelenka meets us in a conference room prior to our tour of his facility. On the wall, a screen flashes through a series of video-feeds: men sleeping in bunk beds, men folding sheets, someone being processed, men playing cards, watching TV. No one explains why it is there. A security measure? Insurance against accusations of mistreatment? A selling point? The loop appears endless-the entire time we sit there I watch the same people go about their daily activities inside the facility. Mr. Zelenka begins his presentation. He explains that he is in charge of a very dynamic facility. “I think,” he tells us proudly, “that you’ll be very surprised at what you see.” Indeed.

The Florence Detention Center (FDC,) processes roughly 5000 intakes a month, and cages around 1500 people on any given day-the count is shaky because the Center’s administration often doesn’t account for the population in transit-those just passing through on their way to being deported. These inmates, we learn, can be identified by their green jumpsuits. Other inmates wear white, blue, and orange uniforms. This system marks each man according to his “level of criminality,” ranging from “none” to “some but not too much criminality,” to “habitual criminal.” Inmates hail from 80 nations, though 48% of them are Mexican, 25% are Guatemalan, and the majority of the rest are from Honduras and El Salvador.

After the presentation, we are led on a tour through the facility. We are shown the kitchen, the dormitories (row upon row of tiny beds, shoes sticking off the edge of each one like disembodied feet,) the dining hall, the tiny courtroom for on-the-spot trials, other rooms that smell the same. We pass by men staring at us from their cells, men doing laundry (for which they are compensated at a rate of $1 per day,) men being marched in rows from one part of the complex to another. When we venture outside, we can see rows of National Guard tanks lined up across the street, waiting. Next door, a training facility in “desert warfare” is being erected. It’s hard not to think about war. It’s hard not to wonder what purpose these casualties in color-coded jumpsuits serve.

2.2 million people are currently incarcerated in the United States-more than any other nation on the globe. Of these, detained immigrants (numbering 33,300 as of 2011) are the fastest growing population. Cycles of militarization, detention, and incarceration ravage communities of color in the United States, and perpetuate racial partitions that resonate with this country’s legacies of slavery and colonization.

Perhaps this is not lost on our cages’ keepers. As we say goodbye in the parking lot outside of the detention center. Mr. Zelenka wants to make sure we know in whose name the apartheid continues; “Thanks,” he says, “for coming to see what your government’s doing for you.”

- submitted by Sofie Ghitman

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

1,500 miles...

bags on bags of snacks, hours of naps in vans, very few showers, and numerous placticas later, we have returned to Southern Arizona from our second travel seminar. The premise of the second trip was to understand how the border functions differently in different parts of the southwest. I can’t boast a complete, thorough understanding of what the entire US-Mexico border encompasses, but I can say that the time we spent in Agua Prieta/Douglas, El Paso, and Big Bend National Park gave me a sampling of the ways in which Mexico and the US are unavoidably neighbors, and conflicts that exist within that relationship.

Our trip began in Agua Prieta, Sonora. Mark Adams, US Coordinator for Frontera de Cristo, took us to the fence one morning to give us a brief synopsis of the relationship between Agua Prieta and Douglas. Douglas’ economy, he explained, is based on the residents of Agua Prieta – Walmart, Food City, and all the fast food chains that are on the US side of the border in Douglas (pop 16,000) primarily serve the folks on the other side of the border (who number between 100,000 and 125,000.) With a crossing visa, Agua Prietans can pass through the check point, do their shopping, leave the sales tax in Arizona’s economy, and go home with their goods.

The fence that we were all standing next to was an excellent example of border hysteria and American tax dollars being poorly spent, he pointed out. The fence used to consist of chain link with barbed wire on top. It was incredibly permeable, and people used to cross for weddings, funerals, lunch and/or shopping. Next, it became a cream-colored picket fence with pickets pointed towards the US, ostensibly so that Mexicans didn’t feel like they were in jail. As Mark sees it, the direction of the pickets are representative of how border policy really just makes it harder for people to go home to Mexico. He also mentioned that US Border Patrol has started checking documentation for folks heading south across the border and detaining the folks as they’re trying to return to Mexico. While this could be explained as “teaching them a lesson,” to me this merely exemplifies how border enforcement, at the end of the day, is mostly about profit – the more bodies we incarcerate, the more money is made in food contracts, contracts with doctors, contracts with construction companies, contracts with folks who was prison garb, etc etc etc.

Mark also explained to us how the communities of Douglas and Agua Prieta started to feel very differently towards each other by the mid 1990s, when traffic through their section of the border increased because bigger cities like El Paso and San Diego were sealed off. Residents of Douglas hadn’t even wanted the wall in its current manifestation because they were well aware that they were financially supported by undocumented crossers. However, as more migrants passed through the region, resources got squeezed and “the illegals” started to be blamed. Even residents of Agua Prieta turned hateful towards other Mexicans who were trying to cross through the region. Additionally, the culture of fear that we’ve seen so shamelessly propagated in Tucson reared its head in Douglas, too, as the border became militarized. As Americans saw a huge fence, lights and cameras as prominent parts of the border, it was harder and harder to believe that there was nothing to be afraid of on the other side of the fence.

Our time in Agua Prieta/Douglas had a religious bent to it, and left a number of us thinking about how religion can span the border and motivate people to be allies in the name of brotherhood and sisterhood. While this left a few of us (including myself) feeling pretty conflicted, I found myself able to push past my discomfort to appreciate the weekly vigil that was held by Frontera De Cristo on the Douglas side of the border. Beginning in the parking lot of the local McDonalds, Mark distributed 100 some-odd crosses to participants of the vigil. Each cross was inscribed with the name, birth date, and death date or date of discovery of a migrant found in Cochise county, where Douglas is located. We set off south on Pan American Ave, arms full of crosses, walking single file towards the border and designated port of entry. Every few feet, the person at the head of the line would turn around, raise the cross bearing the name over their head, and say the name as loudly and respectfully as possible to the line of cars waiting to cross the border. After each name, everyone else in line shouted “presente!” After some time, each person would leave their cross in the street, leaning again the sidewalk, and return to the line. In this manner we leapfrogged all the way to the border, all the while inhaling the exhaust of those waiting to cross the border. Despite my discomfort with the repetition of crosses and the visual of people raising crosses over their heads, I recognized this form of remembrance as vital and healing. Shouting “PRESENTE!” into the night over and over again gave me an outlet for some of the frustration and anger that has grown inside me at how migrant deaths are repeatedly forgotten in American media and culture. Additionally, standing so close to the border while remembering those that had perished not too far away made it real to me that wherever I find myself in the borderlands, people are dying trying to reach this country and its economic opportunities. And while I may feel in the current recession that those economic opportunities are few and far between, I remind myself that largely because of my country’s actions, the economic opportunities in Mexico don’t hold a candle to those that I have daily access to in the US.

El Paso/Juárez blew me away. The cities (which are indistinguishable from each other after sunset, see photo to the right) have a combined population of 3 million – 2 in Cd. J, 1 in El Paso. A huge shift in population from south to north occurred between 2007 and 2012, when violence south of the border skyrocketed due to Calderón’s misguided war on drugs. (When I say skyrocketed, I’m talking about 3,600 murders in 2010, which is just under 10/day in a city of 2 million.) As a result of this violence, 1/3 of Juárez’s population moved north across the border. As that population moved north, business also moved north, resulting in Forbes rating El Paso as one of the best mid-sized cities in which to find employment in 2010, the same year that 10 people a day were getting murdered just south of the wall. The way that El Paso was able to remain one of the safest mid-sized cities in the US while Juárez was the most dangerous city in the world is through the incredible border security industry that we tasted briefly. With Border Patrol agents stationed every 500 feet in the urban area, tens of people manning the port of entry between the two cities, motion sensors built into the ground in the suburban area outside of the city, video cameras all over the place, and thousands of wattage in enormous lights that shine on the border all night, the border in El Paso felt like a low-intensity war zone.

The question of how we take care of our neighbors and each other as human beings became real to me in a very different way during our time in El Paso. UTEP professor Kathy Staudt talked about the femicides that have swept through Juárez in the last two decades in the context of being in El Paso’s backyard. If tens of women were being raped and murdered across a state line in the US, would the state without a rash of femicides fail to offer support for the other state in the same way that the US has failed to offer any support to Mexico?

Annunciation House (a shelter and comedor for migrants,) Maternidad de la Luz (an extraordinarily low-cost midwifery,) and Centro de los Trabajadores Agricolas (an eatery and community center for farm workers) are organizations that are supporting undocumented folks in El Paso. It was interesting to think of their work in the context of the responsibility I believe we have to take care of each other. It was also interesting to think of the work those organizations do as a means of resistance to the US’s profiting off of migrant hardship and subordination, and, in the case of those organizations that were run by white Americans, as a way of putting one’s privilege on the line, exercising the responsibility that comes with that privilege, and using one’s social capital as a tool of defense for those subjected to unjust laws.

To avoid being written off as a crazy radical when I say things like the US is coresponsible for and profits off of Mexico’s problems (and I can go off with examples like this all day, so let me know if you need more): Also in El Paso, we got to talk to the Labor Justice Committee, which is a group that fights wage theft in El Paso. Wage theft is a pretty large problem there for a number of reasons: 1) non-nationals sometimes don’t know that they’re entitled to minimum wage, even if they’re undocumented. 2) as the recession has hit and jobs have become more scarce, wages have fallen lower and lower (sometimes to below minimum wage level.) 3) undocumented status – it’s harder for undocumented folks to organize and fight because employers can threaten them with deportation. So essentially, there are plenty of people in El Paso (and across the country) who are being ridiculously underpaid (if paid at all) and they’re unable to fight for their wages due to their status. Furthermore, American employers are the ones benefiting off this cheap labor.

I left El Paso both in awe and infuriated. I was even more in awe when we got to Big Bend National Park. Did you know that Texas is huge? Turns out it is. We spent all four days there wallowing in nature: We camped all three nights by the Rio Grande – one of the only parts of the border that exists without a fence. There was something completely mind boggling about sitting on the banks of (and occasionally in) that river and thinking about how we’d be fined $5,000 and potentially sit in jail for a year if we were caught crossing it (as US citizens. The consequences are much steeper for non-citizens, of course.) We hiked around some of the most overwhelming canyons I’ve ever been whelmed by that serve as the border, yet didn’t cost millions of dollars to create. We met men on horseback who had just gallivanted across the river, as they did every day, to see if visitors to the park had purchased any of the beaded animals they left on the bank of the river. We heard, yet again, about how the hardening of the border post 9/11 (on 9/18/2001, to be exact) had ravaged cross-border communities. Did you know that on the aforementioned date, Border Patrol agents disguised as river runners entered Presidio, another town that straddles to border and had a thriving bi-national community, and rounded up and deported hundreds of people? The park ranger who told us this story said that the day when most people cluster around the fence, having conversations through it with people on the other side, is Mexican Mother’s Day.

Y así regreso a Tucson: angrier, more confused, a little sunburnt, and my understanding of the border, the Mexico-US relationship, and what it means to care for people complicated and strengthened.

- submitted by Mariel Cohn

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Raza Studies

In a lecture at the University of Arizona as part of Ethnic Studies Week, renowned geographer Ruth Gilmore told us that one of the goals of ethnic studies is to rewrite and challenge the mythic geographies, ancient and contemporary, that characterize the way we are taught to see the world. Her lecture, "The Birth of Ethnic Studies," dealt with the history of the epistemological question of who are we and who does what--the history of describing difference--tracing it from the Greek historian Herodotus to the banning of Mexican American Studies in Tucson. The lecture laid an interesting context for the rest of our week, which we spent learning about Mexican American Studies (MAS), its history in Tucson, and the resistance and organizing surrounding it. We watched the documentary "Precious Knowledge," met with teacher José Gonzalez, and hung out with four representatives from UNIDOS, a group of former Ethnic Studies students and their allies who are fighting for autonomous education, political analysis, and outreach surrounding Ethnic Studies in Tucson. It was a wonderful opportunity to dedicate a short but intense amount of time to a big topic.

The Ethnic Studies Program was created in the late 1990s in order to counter devastatingly high dropout rates among Latino students in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). During its 10-year tenure, the program was incredibly successful, lowering dropout rates from around 56% nationwide to 2.5 % in Tucson.

We had the privilege of meeting with former TUSD Ethnic Studies teacher José Gonzalez. José spoke to us about the content of the classes, and why they were so successful in engaging students. First and foremost, González told us, MAS classes are based on philosophy that humanizes students and teachers. Rather than ignoring the differences in background that make up the TUSD student body and instead following a deficit model of teaching, MAS classes teach identity - teach students to know, respect, and love who they are. A lot of Latino students have never been encouraged in school, so intentional spaces must be created for them to share and to make mistakes. This is because, González says, "as teachers you have the ability to build or destroy. And Frederick Douglass says that it is easier to build a child than to repair a broken man."

José also spoke about the influence of Paolo Freire, author of "Pedagogy of the Oppressed," in MAS classes. Freire emphasizes the important of critical thinking. Critical thinking, as opposed to magical thinking ("put it all in God's hands," or "She is a lucky person and I am not") or naïve thinking ("there is an achievement gap because some students are lazier than others"), teaches students to look at systems with a critical consciousness, and to think about their thinking.

MAS classes were successful in boosting Latino graduation rates because they dealt with material that was important to the students. For many students in the classes, this was the first time they read books by people from similar backgrounds, about topics that are alive for them each day. And they learned to love and respect their communities, and to harness that pride and build something positive with it.

Then it came crashing down. In 2006 and 2007, Tom Horne, then Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, began claiming that TUSD's MAS programs promoted anti-American and anti-white sentiments. By June 2009, Horne introduced state legislation to attempt to ban Ethnic Studies courses.

This is where it gets more interesting. We got the chance to talk and have dinner with four young activists from UNIDOS (United Non-Discriminatory Individuals Demanding Our Studies), who provided a perspective on resistance in the context of the MAS controversies. On April 26th, 2011, student activists took over a TUSD meeting and chained themselves to the desks on the dais, preventing school board members from being seated. "We felt voiceless, like our voices didn't matter. Taking the schoolboard was the only thing we could do," said Denise, one of the UNIDOS students who spoke with us.

The efforts of MAS students prevailed in this moment, but Horne, his successor John Huppenthal, and Governor Jan Brewer, succeeded in passing lHB 2281, which decreases state funding from schools found to be promoting "classes that advocate overthrowing the government…or advocate ethnic solidarity," and MAS was officially suspended on January 10th of this year.

It's hard to describe the fury that I felt while watching "Precious Knowledge." It was incredible to me to see scenes of love and learning in the classroom -- learning that truly engaged students, that made them feel important and made them think critically about their world -- and devastating to see that taken away by a few powerful white men in suits who did not even deign to visit a classroom, or, in the case of Huppenthal, visited the classroom once and then misrepresented his experience to prove his erroneous point. I can't really imagine what it would be like to be a student in the classroom when the books were banned, when, as Erin from UNIDOS put it, "these books that reflect you are put in a box and taken away."

The UNIDOS students that we met are inspiring models of community organizing. They've acquired a casita, which they are in the process of fixing up, and are planning to have teach-ins, classes, a garden, a library, and tutoring. Their goals center around autonomous education, political analysis, and outreach. They've organized rallies and marches, had alternative school days with teach-ins, and work to provide for the educational needs of their community. On a personal note, I valued the opportunity to converse with people our age and hear their journeys towards activism. BSP student Roxanne put it best when she said that it seemed to her that activism her in Tucson is based around the heart: people are acting because it directly affects their life, or their neighbor's life.

Here are some helpful resources on MAS in Tucson:
Raza Studies Background and Timeline
News article from January 2012: Tucson School Board Eliminates MAS Program
Daily Show Clip about MAS Ban
Precious Knowledge Documentary ad
Mexican American Studies statistics show that the program works, from

- submitted by Rachel Adler

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Imagining Borders Following Watersheds / That’s a Resource in Your Toilet

A watershed is “that area of land, a bounded hydrological system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.”
— John Wesley Powell

Did you ever consider that we pee into clean drinking water? No, really, it’s clean and you can drink it. That’s why your cat does – it’s probably fresher than the water you leave out for her. Not only is this a common practice, in the United States we are mandated by law to turn clean water into toxic waste however many times a day nature calls us to, without considering what sort of impact this has on our community or environment.

Brad Lancaster is a Tucson native who has spent the past 20 years turning his property into a rainwater harvesting system and teaching others to do the same. We walked over to his house from our classroom last week, and came to think a little differently about borders.

Tucson is in a water crisis. The water table here has dropped 300 feet in the past 100 years, and continues to fall at an average rate of 3 feet per year. 44% of the energy the city of Tucson uses goes to pumping and filtering water. According to Brad, if Tucson used its rainwater as a resource instead of shooting it out of town through sewers and drains, this city in the desert would no longer have a water crisis, and we’d be more connected to the land and each other.

On Brad’s property, he uses very little or no city water; from what I gathered, the only energy used in the consumption of water is the energy used by his washing machine, which functions as a community laundromat. He gave us a tour of his composting toilet, his natural clay water filter, and his sunken garden beds, which collect water, rather than shed water like raised beds do. He led us in a “sun dance” to teach us how he developed passive heating and cooling systems for his house without blocking his neighbors’ winter sun. He also showed us the systems he’s created on his street to reduce flooding, by directing rain into roadside gardens of native plants. Brad’s house is a living laboratory of how Tucson could reimagine the way in which it uses the water that floods its streets every time it rains. “Turn a problem into a solution,” Brad says.

Brad took us on a virtual tour of neighborhoods in Portland, OR and Seattle, WA which have changed the way they interact with rainwater by narrowing streets and planting native plants that use the rainwater that falls into the soil that has replaced pavement. It is worth noting, however, that in these neighborhoods in Portland and Washington, innovative flood-control implementation has coincided with gentrification. I don’t personally know very much about these areas, but the question of access to the resources that allow these rainwater harvesting systems to be implemented and maintained was definitely in my head throughout Brad’s presentation. Most of the techniques he showed us rely more on community organizing, observation, and creative thinking than spending power. Still, “green living” is a buzzword these days, and when a neighborhood becomes more environmentally conscious, property values come up, and it becomes more difficult for low-income people to continue living there.

But perhaps if Brad’s methods were to become the norm, access wouldn’t be a problem anymore. Radical shifts in how we think about water are hard to imagine as reality, but around the world, as water becomes scarcer, people are beginning to think differently. Grey water harvesting is now legal in Arizona, California, and New Mexico, and the composting toilet in Brad’s yard is actually part of a trial to see if that specific composting system can become legal in Arizona.

Radical shifts in the way we think about water also require reimagining the way we think about borders. The way water rights work, especially in the southwest, where water is both scarce and in high demand, is a complicated maze of laws and dams and regulation, because state and international lines cut straight through watersheds; sometimes they are rivers themselves. Reimagine: borders drawn along watersheds, as John Powell said. If we imagine our communities as all of the people living within our watersheds, political borders fall away. Suddenly, we’re not only connected to Tucson, but we’re also connected to the greater Arizona community, and beyond, into Mexico. Water doesn’t stop at the border wall. If our borders come to be about the resources within an area whose bounds are defined by nature, we can start to think about working together to use those resources in a way that makes sense: harvesting the rain, only making use of what an aquifer can recharge on its own, and not peeing into drinking water, but rather into a pile of sawdust that can become compost for fruit trees.

- submitted by Maddie Taterka