viernes, 28 de diciembre de 2007

Our Final Week: Looking Ahead, Looking at Hope

One of many hugs shared during our final week

By Janet Crenshaw

If there are two things I learned this week, its that we have to have hope. And that re-entry into the U.S. is going to be, well, hard.

“We will have to talk about you going down there, I wouldn't be real interested in having one of my daughters in jail!!” he said.

After I emailed my Dad my final project, in an attempt to not have to explain all that we did and learned in our 10-day travel seminar in El Salvador, I received this reply in response to my comments on the School of the Americas. Immediately after to a talk we had a couple of weeks before with Sister Kathy Long about the School of the Americas, I immediately called my Dad and told him he should go to the protest that weekend at Fort Benning – just an hour from my hometown of Atlanta. Sure, we joked how if I went and was arrested, that the phone reception would be worse in jail than it is with the Casa Verde phone, but I’m starting to realize that I am going to face some tension in integrating my experiences here with my life in the U.S.

In our last few hours of the program, during our Social Change Lab Group, Julie gave us a big warning and very detailed suggestions to help deal with this re-entry concept and the whole “How was Mexico?” question. One typical reaction she talked about that scared me was the “reversion reaction” – where one just closes up and doesn’t talk about their experiences and just falls back into one’s old life as if the past semester had never happened.

After a day filled with final presentations that are intended to educate those at home about El Salvador, I have faith that our group won’t forget. With Elsbeth’s beautiful “rompe cabeza” (which translates into “head-breaker”, but it is a puzzle), I know she will get people looking closer at the images that make up the history and current situations of El Salvador, and also encourage others to “speak their own truths” as those we met also did. And Kathryn is bound to get her tune parody of School House Rock actually on the School House Rock program – maybe kids will start to learn the real U.S. history, about the U.S. role in El Salvador, and that “guerillas aren’t just monkey’s anymore.” Oh, and Dan, he might just start a [insert swear word here] revolution.

All of the speakers we’ve had, families we’ve lived with, the staff and professors at CEMAL, and all of the students – all of them have given me hope that maybe this big concept of “social change” is something we can actually tackle. Yes, I did think I would found out what to do with my life, I thought I’d be fluent in Spanish (ask Megan, I’m not – but the Spanglish is going well), and yeah, I thought maybe we would get the answers and formulas on how to change our world.

But no, believe it or not, there is no cheat sheet for Social Change 101. But in order to make efforts to change our world, we do need hope. And each other.

“If you don’t have hope, you die. And there are a lot of dead people walking around,” said James Cone, a black liberation theologian.

At our closing ceremony at Ann’s house this Friday, we all read a pledge as to what we are going to do once we return home.

“I pledge to not lose hope,” I said.

I pledge to not lose hope that one day maybe Licha will change the church from working within it with Liberation Theology, that I can go to a School of the America protests and have my voice heard and not get arrested as my Dad seems to worry about, and yes, that maybe the Casa Verde phone will one day work better.

My mom told me this would be a radicalizing experience. I thought she was just exaggerating. I believe Mexico changed us all, and the most important thing I’ve learn from this dynamic, silly and thoughtful group is that we can’t change the world alone as individuals. So why don’t you all join us?

As Dan quoted in his final project, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

–Margaret Mead

In addition to her “Ask me about El Salvador” shirt, Kathryn also sang three song/tune parodys for her final project to sing to her music fraternity and friends (and maybe in concert one day, right Kathryn??)

El Salvador: Our 10 day travel seminar

The full Crossing Borders 07 group on our last day in El Salvador

By Elsbeth Pollack

In the past two weeks, we spent our time in the country of El Salvador, focusing on social change and historical memory by visiting with over 15 people who shared with us their stories and passions from the past and the present.

Students in the ARENA office during our visit. The man in the photo at the left is Roberto D’Aubisson, the founder of ARENA

One of the most challenging parts of the trip was our visit to the Legislative Assembly where we met with deputies from the ARENA and FMLN parties, the two major parties in El Salvador at this point. What made the visits so difficult for me was that, taking into account their history and their politics, it is hard to place them as political parties.

Take ARENA, the National Republican Alliance, for instance. It was founded 26 years ago by a man named Roberto D’Aubisson, who graduated with high honors from the School of AmericasFort Benning, Georgia (a combat training school for Latin American soldiers, that teaches such “great” skills as counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics, to be used against their own people in [1]). The School of the Americas, now known as the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation,” was started in attempts to “promote democracy and keep out communism”[2] in the countries of Latin America, who the United States saw susceptible to this form of government. This mindset goes hand in hand with the platform and beginnings of the ARENA party. As ARENA deputy Mariela Pena Pinto shared with us, “D’Aubisson saved us from being a communist country into being a nationalist country….He brought an awareness of the danger of communism”.[3] Although I disagree with the School of Americas wholeheartedly, if a country wants to fight against being communist, that is fine with me. What scares me the most about D’Aubisson is that he was the intellectual mastermind behind the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980. Romero was a major leader in the liberation theology movement in El Salvador, and spoke out strongly against the treatment of the poor and marginalized by the powerful. The ARENA party is also a heavily conservative Christian party. As their deputy shared, “that the party believes in God is one of the principles of ARENA. Our people are Christian here and that gives us hope to win in the 2009 elections.”[4] Coming from the United States, where the separation of church and state is a highly important and debated issue, for someone to be so outright about this connection, especially when there are other religions in a country, is a bit disturbing.

And don’t forget the FMLN! The party started as a guerrilla group in 1981 but was institutionalized as a political party with the UN Peace Accords on January 16, 1992.[5] They came together for many reasons, but one of the major reasons was that they saw a lack of democracy in the country. To go from fighting this to being a part of a democratic system is something that seems a bit contradictory, although I can understand how they are able to make change in different ways now. FMLN deputy Blanca Flor Bonilla, who took part in the guerrilla struggle during the war, shared this same problem of vision, saying that the “transition from military guerrilla group to political party has been very difficult” in that some of the members thought that the FMLN should no longer be a revolutionary force, but should be transformed into a social and democratic party, while others maintained that they should stay as a revolutionary group because that would be the only way to obtain the rights they were seeking.[6] I tend to look at the situation like the latter group of people and have a hard time seeing how real change can take place when there are restrictions and when a group is fighting within a structural institution. Many former FMLN members, when discussing the FMLN as a political party, have pointed to their differences of opinions, although never explicitly, mentioning that while they respect the party as people, they don’t share their opinions.[7] There are some, like Hector Ibarra Chavez, former comandante of the FMLN, that are “ashamed of comrades who fought together but are now big politicians”.[8] It just makes me wonder if institutionalizing a social movement is the best way to enter into change. The FMLN deputy also shared that although during the war, the FMLN really knew how to give personal attention, but with the onset of the government party, it is hard to give personalized attention because they have so much more to focus on as a group. In speaking with Hilda Parduchi, a member of Las Dignas, the first feminist organization in the country that emerged out of the FMLN, there are still major problems with the structure of the FMLN as a patriarchal institution with the ideology that “when all class issues are resolved, then we can focus on women’s issues”.[9] This focus on economic struggle without much regard for sexual and bodily rights comes right from Marxist ideology, of which the FMLN is heavily influenced by.

Even though I feel contradictions between ARENA and FMLN serving as political groups, I am very glad that they are fighting in a democratic political front for electoral change, and not in another war. Leslie Shuld, director of The Center for Exchange and Solidarity with El Salvador (CIS for short), however, presently sees a situation with similar conditions for war which she feels could result in a social explosion, fighting against the increased poverty and “unbearable economic situations” that the country is presently under.[10] These conditions are such that, half of Salvadorans live on $2 a day[11]; the price of beans, a staple in the Salvadoran diet, has increased over 100% from 50 cents to $1.25[12]; common crime has risen, resulting in beatings and killings for little more than $5-$10 dollars all throughout the country[13]; and remittances from the United States have become close to 20% of the Gross National Product of El Salvador, reaching $3.5 million every year.[14] Through all of this, however, there are still groups living and working for change, such as the cooperative community Nueva Esperanza in the south of El Salvador.

[1] The SOA Watch:

[2] Sister Kathy Long, 11/13/107

[3] Mariela Pena Pinto 11/23/07

[4] Mariela Pena Pinto 11/23/07

[5] Carlos Garcia, 11/22/07

[6] Blanco Flor Bonilla, 11/23/07

[7] Rolanda Cazeras, 11/27/07

[8] Hector Ibarra Chavez, 9/24/07

[9] Hilda Parduchi, 11/22/07

[10] Leslie Shuld, 11/22/07

[11] Leslie Shuld, 11/22/07

[12] Carlos Garcia, 11/22/07

[13] Carlos Garcia, 11/22/07

[14] Leslie Shuld, 11/22/07

jueves, 15 de noviembre de 2007

Week 12: Participatory Democracy, Collective Consciousness and the Call to Action

¡Sí, se puede!- Members of our host families and residents of San Salvador Atenco

By Dan Staples

For me, the highlight of this week was our trip to San Salvador Atenco, located in the eastern part of Mexico state. Atenco is a town that has been in a 7-year struggle against the federal government over their plans to construct an international airport over the community's vast ejido (communal) farmlands. We traveled to Atenco to meet with a group of organizers and hear their story of resistance.

Atenco ejido territory

As an agricultural community, the people have a very intimate connection with the land. The earth not only serves as means of subsistence and trade, but very much constitutes a historical and collective identity. Called tierra madre, or “mother earth”, land is the source of life to the campesinos: the life of their children and the legacy of their grandparents.

The expropriation of this land would mean the destruction of a lifestyle, identity, and history of an entire community. The people of Atenco brought us to the top of a hill overlooking the expansive ejido territory to teach us the history of their continuing struggle. To see this beautiful, undeveloped farmland from horizon to horizon, in contrast to the urban sprawl I'm used to, really added an emotional impact to their story.
As you might expect, the federal government met organized resistance from the people of Atenco, who fought in self-defense of their basic human rights to land and self-determination. After a long and violently repressed campaign which started in late 2001, the town celebrated victory as the plans for a new airport were officially called off. However, this victory was not long lived. On May 3, 2006, a small quarrel between local flower vendors and the police over vending permits escalated into a two day terror campaign of unprecedented violence and human rights abuse perpetrated by federal troops.

We learn the history of the struggle

Dozens were arrested and severely beaten, and many women, including the flower vendors, were raped and sexually abused in transport to prison. They were denied health treatment in jail, resulting in the death of one community member. Today, more than 20 compañeros remain in jail without access to a fair legal process, 3 of whom are serving near-life sentences in a maximum security prison. Still the people of Atenco, with the support of neighboring communities and international solidarity, remain strong and united in the face of brutal repression.

One thing that stuck out to me during the talk was the way various community members described how Atenco organized “naturally” and spontaneously in response to the government repression. Having read firsthand accounts and studies of various historic revolutions, the same spontaneous nature is always mentioned; revolutions are never planned, but are the result of collective consciousness provoked into action. However, this always arises from an active, informed citizenry invested in their collective interests and identity, not an apathetic or pacified public. In addition, the speakers we heard described the non-hierarchical, consensus-based organization in Atenco: from each according to their ability. This is part of the concept of participatory democracy we have been studying in class.

Glorieta [name changed for privacy], wife of one of the imprisoned compañeros, said, “We are fighting against the government, because the government is the enemy of the people. The government is ours.” I would add that the government is not just theirs, it is them. Autonomy, self-determination, egalitarianism, solidarity, and an active, informed citizenship: to me, Atenco represents what a true, participatory democracy can be. One that isn't based on institutions, political parties, and government “representatives”, but rather derives its power from below, in the people themselves.

Students, host families, and Atenco organizers ascending the hill of the ejido land

By Megan Vees

Sociologist Alberto Arroyo speaks to the class on the subject of democracy in Mexico.

This past week, our group received a talk from sociologist Alberto Arroyo[1] about democracy in Mexico and the presidential elections of 2006. He explained a great deal about the nature of fraud within the Mexican political process, emphasizing the point that fraud is not just something that happens with numbers and figures on election day. He gave various examples of illegal practices (like the current president supporting a particular candidate) that were neither subject to penalty nor used as grounds to annul the elections as well as practices that were legal but illegitimate in his eyes (like procedures for selecting members of the boards that oversee elections). He discussed the use of a “politics of fear” in the slander attacks against the PRD candidate Lopez Obrador. This brought to mind something we heard the first week of the program, when the human resources director of a maquiladora in Ciudad Juarez described Lopez Obrador as a “Fidel Castro type”[2]. Though Arroyo clearly supported Lopez Obrador over the PAN candidate, Calderón, who “won” the election, he acknowledged that Lopez Obrador was not perfect and was perhaps at best the lesser of the evils from which the Mexican population had to choose. In relation to this, he noted a common saying in Mexico: “We have power for a day to vote for somebody who is going to oppress us.” Though this is often said in jest, he acknowledged that there is truth in it in that there are no means within the legal system to hold politicians to their promises.

Human Rights Activist Juliana García discusses the effects of militarization on social movements.
This brings me to our next talk of the week with Juliana García of the Comisión Independiente de Derechos Humanos[3] (the Independent Human Rights Comision). She spoke of the means used outside of the legal process, specifically social movements, to get politicians to respond to the needs of the people. In addition, she discussed the role of the government and military in the cycles of weakening and strengthening of social movements. Poverty and impunity, she explained, are the main obstacles to a democratic society. She elaborated on this by addressing poverty as a human rights violation and by describing how the government’s increasing (and unconstitutional) use of military forces to suppress social movements has been accepted by a large portion of the population as inevitable and even necessary.

Though both Arroyo and García see the impunity of the Mexican government as a major obstacle to a democratic political system and a society free of repression, both hold out hope for a more just and democratic future in Mexico. And though both also see how fear tactics have been used by the government and those in power to justify oppression or win political seats, both also express a belief that reform and education can help to diminish the use of such tactics and their effect on the public. After listening to these two speakers, I reflected on how the situation in the US compares to that here in Mexico when it comes to the liberty of social movements and the justice of the electoral process. Americans seem to have a lot more trust in their government and in the electoral process than do Mexicans, but I personally doubt that this trust is entirely warranted. In addition, I think Americans perceive a greater amount of liberty when it comes to participating in social movements in criticism of the government. While the US government may be less likely to violently suppress social movements, other forces – like the media – work to portray some movements as extremist or radical, damaging their credibility and allowing them to be easily dismissed by the American public. I believe that both the US and Mexico have progress to make when it comes to allowing for the voices of their people to be truly heard and represented.

[1] From a talk given on November 6th, 2007 at Casa Augsburg in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
[2] From a talk given on August 21st, 2007 by José Vidal, human resources director of ADC maquiladora in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
[3] From a talk given on November 9th, 2007 at Casa Augsburg in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

jueves, 8 de noviembre de 2007

Week 11: El Dia de los Muertos-- Then and Now

By Amanda Sneed
This Friday, November 2 was El Dia de los Muertos. All of Mexico and CEMAL joined in the celebration and festivities. We students celebrated with our families by going to the Zocalo (at the center of the city), visiting ofrendas (alters to the dead) in the city of Ocotepec, and by helping to set up ofrendas in our homes with our host families. The following my reflection on putting up the ofrenda with my host family.

El Dia de Los Muertos—Then and Now

I celebrated my first Día de los Muertos in my freshman Spanish I class. I was fourteen and hadn’t yet developed a strong aversion to the gendered label of “freshmen”. I was too focused on geometry proofs to bother with considering the social construction of gender. My Spanish class, which was right after geometry, was a welcomed refuge from the world of right angles and protractors. My first taste of El Dia de los Muertos was especially exciting in my fourteen-year-old world because it meant one glorious day with no verbs, no conjugating, and no vocabulary. On this day, we put aside our notebooks and pencils and dutifully grabbed the markers, construction paper and glitter provided by Senora Brown (bell-to-bell as she was more fondly known). As instructed, we made skulls and paper cut-outs to hang from the ceiling. Working on our creative masterpieces and talking (but mostly talking), we ate candy from black and orange packages only half noticing the ofrenda (alter) Senora Brown was constructing at the front of the room. As she called for our attention, we hurriedly shoved the last bits of Kisses chocolates and Reese’s cups into our mouths and turned our attention to the ofrenda. Our teacher explained that the ofrendas are erected to celebrate and honor the dead. She told us that the food, flowers, and photographs (like those on our make-shift classroom ofrenda) offered the gift of remembrance. All I could think of at the time was how it was wasteful to put out on the ofrenda food that “would not be eaten”.

Fast-forward six years to the present day—to last Thursday night. I am putting my brother’s picture and a miniature candied plate of fish for my uncle on the ofrenda in my house here in Mexico. Lighting the candles, I think that I should also set out an angel for my grandmother and a pack of Marbol Lights for my grandpa. Flower petals cover the whole of our ofrenda and crepe paper decorations surround this place on our front porch where we have decided to honor our dead. In total, my family sets out fifteen candles which will invite our loved ones from different countries and cultures to be remembered together. Throughout the night, I find myself troubled by how the veladoras (candles) covered in paper bearing the image of Jesus will not stay lit. I wonder if there exists any significance in the fact that the Jesus candles refuse to hold their flames. And then I start to wonder about the dogs, especially Anel, who has made a habit of illegally sneaking into the house to demand our attention, petting and admiration. Anel, I thought, would surely eat the food, sweets, flowers and probably the Jesus candles too.

Amongst such worries, I had yet to see the ofrenda. I had, of course, looked at it while we were placing the flowers and hanging up the crepe paper, but I only saw with my eyes. Fortunately, my consumption of water afforded me the opportunity to awake from sleep to see the ofrenda with more than my eyes alone. On my way to the bathroom, I was drawn in by the dimming light of the two Jesus candles which had managed to survive. I relit the less successful Jesuses, then stood to see the display before me shadowed by the moonlight and candles (three of which had somehow already managed to self-extinguish). I saw my brother and the fish and faces of my family’s loved ones smiling at me. And I started to cry. Not tears of sadness or happiness—just tears. The eatable kind that slowly make the voyage from the corners of your eyes to the corners of your mouth where they become a salty treat. I saw the ofrenda. Our ofrenda. My ofrenda. It no longer represented an enticing alternative to verb conjugation. Instead, the ofrenda before me represented the beauty and frailty which is our human experience. And so I stayed there for a while looking into the shadows—just me, the Jesuses, and our visiting dearly departed.

The following poem was written for Dolores who was murdered in Ixtlilco on Friday, November 2. Dolores’ murder was a result of ignorance and homophobia. She was a friend of CEMAL and of my host family and is dearly missed by all. Please keep her friends, family, community and her partner of more than forty years in your thoughts. I write these words because I do not know what else to do besides tell the little bit I know of Dolores’ story in hopes that such acts of hatred and injustice are not repeated.

A Dolores

I saw you in pictures only
Collared shirt, jeans, boots, sombrero
I would have thought you were male
If not for your protruding chest
Definitely female in the way it filled
Your collared shirt
I heard the stories told by my sister
With affection and laughter
I heard them told by others later
After they lowered you into the earth
I hoped to meet you
To shake your hand and see the land
Your land, her land
Which you sowed and labored
I never knew you, Dolores
But I met you there in the church and cemetery
In the crying and wailing
I felt the love they have for you
The love she has for you
They cried for you, Dolores
We cried
So that someone would hear the injustice
Which echoed the streets of Ixtlilco
That Sunday night
They killed you, Dolores
Because you couldn´t fit into the box
Because you danced on the lines
Ignorance and fear guised as violence
For which we will never have the answers
She continues and will never have the answers
And so they buried you, Dolores
Without arrest, without investigation, without media
Only the cries and metallic soprano voices linger
In the petal-covered cobblestone streets
To tell your story
To seek out justice which will not come
-Amanda Sneed

miércoles, 7 de noviembre de 2007

Week 10: Homestays, Speakers and the exciting (and sometimes awkward) road of experiences

By Emily Papke-Larson

It’s been about two weeks living with our host families and from what I’ve experienced and heard from other students, all is well. It’s becomeincreasingly easier to communicate using words, not only hand gestures, Cuernavaca no longer has the most intimidating bus system in the world, and by now we’re all well acquainted with Mexican food.

The only bump on this otherwise exciting road of experiences is what I consider to be my continued level of unease with living in a language, culture, place,and family that are not my own... which is to say that things have gotteneasier, more fun, and a little more relaxing, but often I let my worries takecontrol spend far to much time planning things to say when I get off the bus andworrying about what I’m going to say during dinner, instead of spending my timesoaking up the experience of living in a different country.Through some friends, I recently discovered that there is not a word to describethe feeling “awkward” in the Spanish language. There are, however, several words in English that cover that uncomfortable, delicate, tricky, cumbersome, and dicey “awkward” feeling that we all get when wondering whether it’s actuallyalright for us to eat the leftover papaya in the kitchen or use the familytoothpaste in the bathroom once in awhile. It’s been an interesting journey,feeling my way through those moments where I would give anything to be swallowed by the floor on the spot, and instead learning to recognize culturaldifferences and, at the least, to laugh my way through them.

The theme for the section which we are studying dictates which speakers we will meet and talk with. We have begun to study Queer and Indiscent LiberationTheology in one of our classes and one of the most interesting ideas presentedthus far is a reinterpretation of Genesis 19:2, the Soddom and Gemmorah story,which has so plagued those who identify as GLBTQ. This interpretation finds the sin of those living in Soddom and Gemmorah to be a lack of hospitality for the angels who visit, not a sexual sin involving two men. What’s interesting about this interpretation though, is that it still leaves this text intact as a “Text of Terror” in which the daughter of the host is offered for sexual favors to themen of the city in the place of the two angels. As a result, this text has beendiscounted by many Feminist Liberation Theologians because of it’s violent andextremely oppressive attitude towards women. So, with thoughts ofreinterpretation and inclusion in our minds, we attended lectures and lessonstaught by a variety of people.

One of the most interesting activities this week was a monologue entitled“Transdaddy” written and performed by Giselle Stern-Hernandez, a former staff member at CEMAL. The monologue dealt with her experiences, reactions, and responses to her father’s physical, emotional, and mental transformation from male to female. It was well written and well performed, beginning with some of her mother’s experiences growing up in Mexico City and the relationship her parents shared after moving to the United States, along with the experiences of her younger brother and herself. This was understandably a difficult monologue to perform as it dealt with the private lives of real people and was complete with pictures from Giselle’s youth. It was well received by the CEMAL audience.

We also met with Rev. Alfonzo Leija of La Iglesia de la Comunidad Metropolitana which is a church focused on the inclusion of the GLBTQ community in the Catholic community. Alfonzo presented alternative interpretations of the Catholic doctrine, telling us of his beliefs that science and religion must unite so people can find themselves together with God. Alfonzo also talked with us about the HIV/AIDS crisis here in Cuernavaca and from 1987-2001, the existence of a shelter for people terminally ill with the disease. He said to us: “We didn’t have any money, but no one should die in the street.” In 1999, 30 people died in the shelter, the majority members of the church. Cuernavaca has the 3rd highest infection rate in Mexico and the church spends time focusing on giving free tests, talks and seminars in schools. The talk was ended with a reminder that information (and condoms) are the best resources for protection against HIV/AIDS.

miércoles, 24 de octubre de 2007

Week 9: Gender, Sexuality, and Latin American Feminisms

By Shana Rubenstein

Camille and I taking a walk during a birthday party for a three year old host relative in Tejalpa, Jiutepec (Photo by Daniel Staples)

In addition to experiencing our first week with our host-families, we also had the opportunity to speak with three women who engage in the fight for social change and structural justice from different perspectives: struggling against patriarchy and oppression within the Church, working within a feminist organization to empower women and youth and recognize the socio-historical constructions within society that value men over women, and working towards the recognition of people of African descent within Mexico, as well as the deeply engrained racism in Mexico that is often denied. Elsbeth is going to talk about the first speaker, Alicia Arines, so I will focus on the other experiences of this week.

At CIDHAL (Comunicación e Intercambio para el Desarrollo Humano en América Latina) we spoke with Flor Dessire, who shared with us about both the work of CIDHAL and various interpretations of feminism. CIDHAL has existed for over thirty years and was the first feminist organization in Mexico. Today, it provides a number of services including medical services that understand the specific needs of women, workshops within schools to open up dialogue around gender and sexuality, and a documentation center where information regarding the fight for women´s rights is available in Spanish and English.

One factor she mentioned that echoed the sentiments of other speakers and readings is that feminisms in Latin America are very different from the early feminism of the US. While feminism in the US has a history of being individualistic, representing for many only liberation for middle-class white women which often reinscribed patriarchal systems by relying on the domestic work of women of color and women from lower classes to allow time for jobs and feminist organizing[1], feminism in Mexico, although influenced by US and European feminisms, also stems from a class struggle and recognized the interplay of oppressions on women’s lives. Flor explained feminism as a theory and a social movement, as well as an instrument of analysis that allows us to explain the realities of women[2].

Much that we learned here reiterated and personalized what we have been reading in Barker and Feiner´s Liberating Economics, Feminist Perspectives on Families, Work, and Globalization, where the historical split between the public sphere of men and private, domestic sphere of women systematically devalues women’s work, despite the fact that it is integral to the reproduction of society. Women as caregivers is a view that has been naturalized and is now often seen as women´s essential role, but Barker and Feiner outline how ¨the development of this essentialist view of gender led to a system of laws, conventions, and social customs that ensured the subordinate status of women in the family, the church, and the state¨.[3] A feminist analysis, however, recognizes the historical construction of such beliefs as those benefiting a patriarchal culture, and attempts to dismantle this type of power relation.[4]

Flor also stressed the importance of recognizing diversity within the category of women, saying that women of different nationalities, social classes, races and ethnicities, ages, etc. will all have different experiences as women, but that all women are united by the common experience of the female body.

While we spoke mostly in broad terms of women’s experiences of oppression stemming from the devaluing of domestic labor, Nadia Alvarado, a woman of African and Indigenous descent working to reveal the presence of Afro-Mexicans, spoke extremely personally of her experiences of racism in Mexico. During her childhood through both her family and larger society, she witnessed and received overt racist messages where people with lighter skin were consistently favored and those with darker skin were devalued in assumptions of their intelligence and ability.[5] Meanwhile, while people in Mexico will admit that classism exists, many assert that there is no racism despite the fact that many of the poorest people are indigenous or of African descent[6]. Connected to the denial of racism is the denial of people of African descent in Mexico, for the history of the slave trade, the creation of communities of people of African descent who escaped slavery, and the historical contributions of Afro-Mexicans has been erased. Nadia outlined various parts of Mexican culture that have been influenced by different African cultures, and added that despite the denial of an African cultural presence in Mexico, the permeation of negative stereotypes about black men and women are pervasive.
Through her talk, Nadia also showed a side of Acapulco that tourists remain blind to, where people, economically strangled by the situation in Mexico created by neoliberal globalization spearheaded by the United States, are forced to work in the service industry for tourists, many of whom are American, who come to enjoy the beach and sample another culture. She shared with us about her struggle against internalized racism and her fight to raise children who take pride in and understood their background. Now, her thesis is about her father’s life as a man trying to reconcile his African and Indigenous heritage in the midst of a racist world. Although Nadia did not speak of feminism, she seemed to embody the feminist notion that the personal is political, and conversely, the idea that the political is personal, for in her life she both politicizes her personal experience of racism as evidence of the larger culture’s destructive biases, and realizes the personal affect of erasing from Mexican history the contributions of Afro-Mexicans as people of African descent.

[1] Flor Dessire, Talk at CIDHAL on Friday, October 19, 2007
[2] Flor Dessire, Talk at CIDHAL on Friday, October 19, 2007.
[3] Barker and Feiner, Liberating Economics, Feminist Perspectives on Families, Work, and Globalization (University of Michigan Press, 2004) p. 26.
[4] Flor Dessire, Talk at CIDHAL on Friday, October 19, 2007
[5] Nadia Alvarado, talk at CEMAL, Friday, October 19, 2007.
[6] Nadia Alvarado, talk at CEMAL, Friday, October 19, 2007.

By Elsbeth Pollack

A friend of the family, my host mom, Mariana, my host sister Abi, and me, walking in Puebla.

I was especially struck this week by our visit with Alicia “Licha” Arines, a feminist activist and leader of a Base Christian Community. She talked with us about feminist liberation theology and the participation of women in politics. This discussion pulled together a lot of issues that I have been struggling with lately, especially when Licha was asked why she continues to work within the church when there are so many challenges to her political and social involvement and to her identity. She shared that in the end, she believes that you have to struggle from within, as hard as that might be. As a priest once told her, “If our mother is sick, we aren’t going to abandon her, we are going to look for a way to cure her.” Alicia sees her participation in the church as giving her a right to follow and a right to question what she wants to, even though she struggles with being involved on a daily basis.

An article by Daphne Hampson, who discarded Christianity coming from a theological perspective, brought up a lot of the same struggles that Licha talked about. “The challenge of feminism,” she shares, “is not simply that women wish to gain an equal place with men in what is essentially a religion which is biased against them. The challenge of feminism is that women may want to express their understanding of God within a different thought structure…. While men (and some women) consider whether women can be full insiders within the church, women debate whether or not they want to be.”[1] There has been, for Licha, a reinterpretation of what being a religious person who loves God means.[2] She now sees God with a masculine and a feminine face, something for which she has been questioned about immensely, especially by priests and religious leaders.[3] It is not that she wants to be a man, she shared, but that she wants to be recognized as a strong and intelligent woman working for change. “I’m not a man,” she told us, “I focus on my family and their health and education [unlike most of the men that I know]. Don’t compare me to a man.”[4] Licha shared, however, that it has been hard for her to work within the church because while the communities talk about political and economic oppression and liberation, there are few spaces where she can discuss women’s issues from a theological, religious perspective. She no longer feels fulfilled by the retreats with the priests and the hierarchy with the “padrecito”.

For many of the authors that we have read this week, the fact that there has needed to be a re-interpretation, a re-reading, or a re-anything for that matter, brings up the question of the validity of Christianity in the lives of women, especially those with a feminist agenda, when there is such a struggle against the history of patriarchy and male-centeredness of Christianity.

These ideas really hit home for me this week. I have been struggling with patriarchy and inherent power that this brings to the people who benefit from it, whether in the church or in the larger society. And sometimes I get to the point where I think that you can no longer work within the system; that some things need to be radically changed. And I see so many people outside of the church, or the system in general, that accomplish so much for the world, a lot more than many people who call themselves “Christian” accomplish, that I start to wonder about the benefits of the church for women. As Licha shared with us, she has come, like I have, to the conclusion that “race and religion don’t matter if you are searching and struggling for justice. Your presence can say a lot, your presence of searching for justice. Solidarity doesn’t have a frontier or borders, a religion or a race.”[5]

And at the same time, I value so much the power of not just the institution of the church, but of the people of the church. I have been influenced greatly by strong Christian women in my life that have empowered me and shown me a place for intelligent and inspired women to have a voice within the Presbyterian church, of which I am a part. Like Licha shared, she stays a part of Catholicism because she feels that she has to fight to “create a space for women in the future so that they can discover their own liberation.”[6]

On a very personal level in dealing with identity and placing oneself within a system, I, along with everyone else in our program, have had big changes and experiences in the past week with our homestay families. It has been a great way to break down the stereotypes of the “typical Mexican family,” because there really isn’t one. Our families come from different economic, religious, ethnic, sexual, and social backgrounds, and have been giving us great insights into the sometimes unrecognized complex diversity of Mexican families and what that means. I have had the chance to attend a Quincineria and to visit Puebla with my family, which have been great bonding times. Laughter has been the sustaining piece in our time together, whether over a miscommunication or an inside joke.

I look forward to the upcoming challenges and laughter that we are all sure to experience, whether from speakers, classes, or our informal time together. Love and peace.

An example of Talavera pottery, native to Puebla. This is probably one of the most common phrases in Mexico!

[1] Hampson, Daphne. Theology and Feminism. Blackwell, 1990. p.4
[2] Hampson, Daphne. Theology and Feminism. Blackwell. 1990. p. 1
[3] Alicia Arines, 10/16/07
[4] Alicia Arines, 10/16/07
[5] Alicia Arines, 10/16/07
[6] Alicia Arines, 10/16/07

Week 8: A Week of Departures

Students getting acquainted with their new host families at the Homestay Convivio

Students having dinner with their new families

By Camille Hart

This past week was one of a few departures. Monday we departed CEMAL for the morning to visit the Benedictine Convent of the Hermanas Guadalupanas. Wednesday we departed for a two day seminar excursion in Mexico City and Friday we departed good ol’ CEMAL for our long awaited home-stays. Each departure was different in what we experienced. Some experiences will be longer lasting than others but over all, this past week was one of the most important ones of our semester abroad in Mexico.

During each excursion I learned about something I had never given thought to before but after experiencing each I have been more attentive to things that are or should be happening in the present and things that have happened in the past. For instance, Monday we met with two sisters, Hermana Fabiola and Hermana Teresa, of the Benedictine Covent of the Hermanas Guadalupanas. Hermana Fabiola gave us some history about the relevance of the name of the group and their beliefs. She said that both are Christ centered and that ties them together. The most interesting part of her speech to me was about what the Virgin of Guadalupe symbolized. One example of the symbolism is the sun that surrounds the Virgin of Guadalupe represents her being another god, which is interesting in itself because the group sees the Virgin as a reincarnation of God. Hermana Teresa’s part of the lecture reminded me of the Base Christian Community meeting we had attended a few weeks before. One student read an excerpt form the book of Exodus and then we discussed how the story of Guadalupe was similar to the story of Moses in Exodus. (Exodus 3:6-8) That was one interesting conversation. From there we talked about the periphery which another speaker had discussed during a previous visit to CEMAL. I can truly say that during that earlier talk I had no idea what was being said about the periphery but Sister Teresa had a way of making thing clearer. To her, the Virgin of Guadalupe was in the periphery along with different liberation theologies and in the center where people like the Bishop in the Catholic Church and institutions that marginalize others. One of the most important things to me that Sister Teresa said involved the formation of Liberation Theologies. She said that Liberation Theologies start with those who are in need but in no way is it saying that the poor are the best there are. So when we hear that the church needs to have “preferential option for the poor” it is not trying to exclude others.

As eye opening as the talk with the Sisters were on Monday I had no idea how I would analyze things differently after a couple of our visits in Mexico City. Our first speaker in Mexico City was Dr. Patricia Contreras, a Mexican psychologist, Baptist pastor, and professor of Women’s Studies & Pastoral psychology at the Communidad Teologica. Dr. Contreras spoke to us about the Mexican family and the different ways women are viewed within the Mexican culture. The “Mexican family … is the absence of father, excess of mother and many children.” Her reasoning for this composition of family in Mexico is due to the conquest by the Spaniards. Men were made slaves or killed if they resisted and women were used for sexual pleasure by the conquistadors. The mothers are left only with their children. I really liked that explanation. Dr. Contreras later shared her research with us about the four types of women in Mexico. We spent most of our time discussion the Mother figure which has some characteristics of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The other three figures were the Amazon who tries to defend her femininity so much that she ends up losing it. Then there is the partner who’s life in intergraded with her man. Last is the medium who apart of the universe making it difficult to be in touch with her self. The mother figure is valued the most in the culture because of her similarities with the Virgin of Guadalupe. She is caring, protective, and nourishing. This at times can become overbearing and detrimental to her children by making them dependent on her (the son) so she will never be alone. An example of that was shown to me later in the week.

While in Mexico City we also met with Catholics for Free Choice who are doing great things to educate others about such things as violence against women, contraceptives, safe sex, and the decriminalization of abortion. The goal of the group is the make others informed and empowered. They are an organization made up of young people. The organization is based in the United States but is doing much work in Latin America. We also met with Rebeca Montemayor, a feminist theologian & Baptist pastor. She discussed women’s role in the church. According to her women read the Bible through different lenses and their class also has a role in their interpretation. In some churches in Mexico women are not allowed to participate. Some churches even make men and women sit separately. In the church service I attended Sunday I viewed the opposite of this. Women, men, and children read scripture and lead songs for the congregation at the podium. I really enjoyed her answer to a question of how to keep youth involved in the church. Mrs. Montemayor said that the church needs to give youth the opportunity to talk about the issues they wish too and be open to listen to them. That is something that all churches should take heed to. The church should be a safe place for youth as well as adults to discuss different issues from the Bible to sex. If one can not talk about it in the church, then it should not exist. Therefore I feel everything should be free to be discussed there in my opinion.

Our last meeting in one of the most populated cities of the world took place at El Closet de Sor Juana (a lesbian organization). There we met with Gloria, one of the founders. The Closet of Sor Juana is currently an open safe space for working class women to come and relax. Originally according to Gloria it was to be a political group but the late eighties there was lack of interest in political involvement. They are involved in national groups. Gloria felt that the group needed to be more focused on political action (working to change policies) than social action such as providing workshops for the women.

Friday was a day that everyone has been looking forward to with mixed emotions of excitement, fear, and nervousness. It was the day we met and moved in with our host families. Friday afternoon began with a ice breaker then small group discussion with students and host families. You can only imagine the nervous but friendly tension in the air. We all had tamales and chocolate together before closing with a group meeting about the expectation and vulnerabilities of students and families. This was where I first encountered the mother figure that Dr. Contreras Ulloa as spoke of earlier during the week. The mother figure was my host mom! During the final orientation, I viewed my host mom urging her daughter in law to take her son a napkin for his eye because they were watering. The daughter in law refused but the mother kept urging. I remember thinking that is still her baby. It was neat revelation to have and keep having during my home stay. My eyes will stay open for more examples. That mother figure crosses many cultures. I think most of us can view our mothers that way-- always wanting to take care of us even though we are old enough to take care of our selves.

Emily and Dan getting to know their new families before departing CEMAL!

Crossing Borders students Jess and Janet talking with new family members

By Emily Schaffer

Frida Kahlo´s house in Mexico City

On Wednesday we woke up bright and early and traveled through the cold, rain, and fog to the largest city in world, Mexico City. During our time there we heard from many interesting speakers on topics such as marianismo and machismo, reproductive rights, feminist liberation theology, and also a visit with a lesbian organization. All of these speakers gave us helpful insight into the function of radical women in Mexican society and some of the ways they themselves try to empower those around them. The two that I keep referring back to in my daily thoughts occurred on our first day there.

Our first talk was from Dr. Patricia Contreras, a Mexican psychologist and professor of Women’s Studies and Pastoral Psychology at the Communidad Teologica, on marianismo and machismo. Her talk gave us a psychological insight about what forms the typical Mexican gender roles. The conquest was a mile stone in shaping the family and before this time men and women both had work which was equally valued in their communities. At the time of the conquest indigenous had difficulty relating to Christianity because of the fact that God would sacrifice his son. The story of the Virgin of Guadalupe helped to relate Christianity to many indigenous people of Mexico and provided a strong influence in the role of women in Mexican society. Dr. Contreras told us that through her studies she found that in Mexico there are two main female figures, the Virgin and the mother. She used Jung’ opposites model to show how the emphasis on the mother over partner and medium over amazon influence the make up of the “typical” Mexican family. Too much emphasis on one aspect can turn that positive aspect into a negative. The idea of the “good goddess” in which a woman does not act out against her husband’s abusive actions, instead she deals with it calmly gains her respect in the community and makes him look worse, even though she must deal with the abuse. Another extreme occurs when mothers are too controlling of their children, when this occurs the mother is most likely fostering the perfect environment to raise a “macho.” This is because the son is always babied and taken care of by their mother and as a result never gains independence.

We then left and went to Coyoacan for some free time. Coyoacan is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Mexico City. It has colonial buildings and is the town that Frida Kahlo grew up in. Across the street from the Frida Kahlo museum we visited the offices of Jovenes Catolicas por el derecho a decidir (Catholics for a Free Choice). One of the youth leaders, Elva Garcia, informed us about the way the organization functions and how they work within and against the Catholic Church. The organization uses the feminist liberation theology lens which allows women to use their sexuality for more than just reproduction. The organization passes out condoms to youth because they believe people have the right to protect themselves from AIDS and to decide when they want to become pregnant. The Bishop came out and excommunicated the group and said it was wrong for women to say these things and preferred the companionship of dogs over women. This is an example of the oppression and disrespect that women face within the Church and what Catolicas and other organizations are fighting to change. Abortion has been decriminalized in Mexico City, but every state and city has different types of people and some areas are more progressive than others, so it is hard to legalize all over the nation. Elva quoted the late Pope John Paul II saying, “if you are following your consciousness, you are taking the best option supported by God.” This is the manner in which the organization functions because the members truly believe and are conscious that women should have the right to decide to use contraceptives and to protect themselves in anyway from having a baby.

I believe that these two speakers complimented each other well because one dealt with the traditional make up of women and family and the other was a younger, more progressive manifestation of the traditional. During Pat´s talk I was a little confused and frustrated at the way in which women have been influenced to be quiet and calm and serve their “macho.” Our talk from Catolicas was totally different because it showed that some women are tired of being forced to sit there and not stick up for their rights and their bodies. I always find it reassuring to see people fighting for their rights and standing up for what they believe even if it is challenging one of the strongest powers, religious leaders.

Virgin of Guadalupe at the Cultural Museum in Coyoacan, Mexico City.