Delegate Reflections

Solidarity Movement: Getting in Formation

By Ashely “Flashe” Gordon

On the frigid morning of January 8th, the inaugural ATCF delegation of 2017 sat in a circle with the compañeras of the Cómite Fronterizo de Obrer@s (CFO) at the La Quinta Hotel’s restaurant in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, México.  At the closing of each delegation, we have a reflection period to discuss the trip- the successes, needed improvements, and our overall sentiments about the sociopolitical climates of Mexico and the United States. This particular trip was more pressing than previous ones; it marked the last delegation before Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. Trump’s hate speech during his campaign had awakened intolerance and fears once buried with the ashes of Holocaust victims, only to be spoken of as a warning to the world of what happens when citizens are misinformed and persuaded by a common disdain for those deviating from the dominate race or ethnic group.

Per usual, Julia (CFO’s leader) and her primary support system did a good job at keeping the atmosphere hopeful, but we could only go so long without discussing what scared us most about a Trump presidency. One by one, delegates from Austin (majority Caucasian) spoke about their gripping fears with tear-stained faces. Finally the question floated to me, tapping my stoic shoulder. Everyone waited patiently as I drew in a breath to begin what some may have believed would be an echo of previous responses. Instead, this is what they got:

“I’m Black. There is nothing different that hasn’t always been for me and people who look like me. Black people have always been second class citizens in the US. We have very few rights. So this is not new to me or other Black and Brown people. This is only a shock for White people who are now afraid because they will be treated like people of color.”

The room was quiet, with only a few nods and shifting in chairs. I didn’t have anything more to say on the matter. There was no further explanation needed though. Everyone from both sides knew it was true. Our country was in turmoil across the board, but it only felt so heavy to many because it was finally starting to affect our White counterparts. The indigenous people whose ancestors had been massacred and infected with deadly diseases already knew. The migrant workers from Mexico and Central America already knew. Japanese Americans whose family members had been held in internment camps stateside already knew. And, of course, every Black person (aka slave, nigger, Negro, colored, and African American) has always known, from the inception of this so-called “new world.” Only well-meaning, “progressive”, White liberals feel panic because they haven’t been paying attention. Or, they only cared on the surface, but didn’t give much thought to the real plight of people of color until it was possible they were becoming partial citizens like us.

Inauguration Day spawned dozens of protests. From DC to LA to NYC and ATX, Americans took to the streets to call out fascism, sexism, and every “-ism” that directly affects White people. The day of the Women’s March, I picked up my college mate who was visiting Austin on UT’s campus and we headed to the lake. We waved and blew the horn at the protesters and went on to Mozart’s Café to enjoy tea and the fresh breeze coming off of Lake Travis. A [Black] feminist and optimist, she’d expressed interest in attending the march. I refused. I am physically disabled and I was not about to be in pain all day to stand with thousands of people who had never heard me or others like me shouting about our plight. When we said our lives mattered and our country wasn’t treating us like they do, we were called terrorists. We were called whiny. We were told that we live in a post-racial society and MLK Jr. had bought our freedom once and for all. You know, because he has statues and streets named after him. (We forget that when he started calling for economic equality and reparations he was assassinated. We wash over that history.) I didn’t want a “pussy” hat. I didn’t want to be photographed with nice White ladies for their Instagram posts to prove they are progressive (read: “Nigger Lover”). But mostly, I didn’t want to experience the frustration of White people telling me about how to go about my own liberation and they JUST showed up to the fight.

Speaking as objectively as one can when discussing global race relations, persons of European descent have the tendency to show up to a place and move around like no one was there before they got there. Take the United States, for example. How many of us learned that White Christopher Columbus discovered America? How can one possibly discover something where civilizations had been thriving for thousands of years? At some point the Europeans decided that the indigenous people were primitive so they were going to do them a huge favor by colonizing them… I mean teaching them a more “advanced” way of living. Concerned about the primitive, brutish nature of the natives, the God-fearing Europeans in all of their sophistication bludgeoned these primitive people and infected them with foreign diseases (sarcasm intended). Well, much like their colonizing ancestors, White activists are coming on the scene and trying to “save” historically oppressed people. Instead of coming to groups and sitting there quietly taking notes, they speak without being asked anything and they argue with those of us who have lived this life. For some of us, social justice and activism isn’t something we do. It isn’t a resume builder. We don’t participate to assuage any type of guilt or to feel morally superior to overt racists, misogynists, sexists, and all the other “-ists.” It is who we are. We cannot check out. We cannot decide not to be a part of the system of White and male and Christian and heterosexual and able-bodied supremacy. Some have tried. As soon as he or she feels disconnected from the movement that is our existence, some police officer or corporate boss reminds him or her of the station we hold in this country- sub-human. Our truest form of liberation, free of struggle or danger, comes only via death. And even in death we aren’t assured our limp bodies won’t suffer terror and disrespect (see: Sandra Bland).

Pointing out problems without offering solutions only leaves space for confusion and frustration. It doesn’t heal us. The following solutions are a short list of many. They are a good place to start though for those who wish to be true partners in the struggle and not just a more digestible form of oppressor:

  1. Read books that center people of color and are written by people of color (even when learning about feminism). Every struggle that exists looks different for people of color so it is important to read stories about and written by PoC. Other accounts have been written in a biased fashion to show the dominate culture in a favorable light. It is either only partial truth or a blatant lie. The writings of Ida B. Wells is a good place to start for social commentary that spans decades.

  2. Be quiet. Do not walk in assuming you know. You don’t know. You knowing a woman or a PoC or a member of the LBGTQIA community does not make you an expert. YOU DON’T KNOW. Listen, for once.

  3. Ask how you can help instead of making suggestions. When you receive an assignment, do not question it. Do it. Don’t come up with a “better way.” Assuming your idea is better because you are wealthy, White, a male, straight and/or cisgender is problematic and you are the issue.

  4. Go outside of your comfort zone, but make sure you are not appropriating culture whilst doing so. For instance, going to Mexico on a delegations is an incomparable experience. The compas there become family. However, just because you eat the delicious tamales, sing the solidarity songs on the way to and from Ciudad Acuña, dance to good salsa and bachata music at the party on Saturday night, and speak 5.6 words in Spanish, doesn’t make you Mexican. Even if you are low income, your poverty is NOT Mexico’s poverty. (I’m below the poverty line in the U.S., but spend without looking at my bank account in Mexico.) Immerse yourself in the experience, but don’t be so arrogant to believe that anything you’ve experienced could compare to a person who lives in perpetual systemic oppression.

  5. Do your own research. It is ok to ask oppressed people questions. In some instances, you can only understand the reality if you ask someone to share their experiences. However, we don’t want to relive our trauma for your complete education, not when Google is a thing. Use the Google and read more than one source.

At the end of the day, our country and our planet are only as strong as our most vulnerable populations so we must learn to bear one another’s challenges. To make this possible, we must be willing to push our egos aside, learn, and grow. If we keep on our current trajectory we will ultimately destroy one another. Living is solidarity is no longer an option for any of us; it is necessary for the survival of our species.

Let’s make it happen.

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Delegation to Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuña:

 NAFTA and Maquiladora workers

By Lissette Almanza

            I left Austin on May 26 with empty hands (manos vacias) to go on my first delegation trip to the border with Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera. Our group traveled as the 65th delegation to Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuña where many foreign companies have moved their factories for cheaper labor, primarily American-owned corporations.

            This delegation took place at a very pressing and historical time in the United States. On May 18, just a few days before the trip, the Trump administration formally announced plans to fast track the renegotiations on NAFTA, triggering a 90-day consultation period. Thus, bilateral negotiations with Mexico and Canada could potentially begin as soon as August 16 rolls around. Trump called NAFTA the “worst trade deal” during his campaign and promised to withdraw or renegotiate the trade deal, which unsettled many American multinational corporations. Now, his promise seems to be on the path to fulfillment. This is a thought that incites fear of the unknown among many who for the past quarter of a century have lived under the mechanisms of free trade in North America.

With all of this in mind, my desire to learn about the working conditions of maquiladora workers grew. I wanted to see first-hand the effects of free trade on Mexican citizens. I knew there was a side to the story that has been left out from the debate surrounding NAFTA – a story that the media, economists, and political leaders don’t tell.  

When we arrived on that humid Friday afternoon, we sat in a circle surrounded by delegation participants, maquiladora workers, and labor rights activists. I listened carefully to their stories. Their cruel reality did not match the economic and political rhetoric of those in support of NAFTA. The working conditions inside the assembly-line factories are inhumane. They work in unsafe temperatures during their 10-hour work shift, they barely get a short break for lunch, and workers are treated like machines. The extreme low wages that they are paid are also a form of exploitation. Unfortunately, everyone of working age in a household must toil to bring food to the table. Otherwise, their maquiladora wages are insufficient for survival.

There were other moments during the trip that left me with a mixture of feelings – feelings that I still can’t fully wrap my head around. The house visits to the workers’ homes were a clear illustration of the damages that NAFTA has done to working families. Their livelihoods reflect economic oppression. Their small decaying homes and the poor living conditions of the colonias where most maquila workers live indicate the exploitation of the most vulnerable populations across the border. How could I not feel anger and sadness at what I was seeing? The violation of workers’ rights is a violation of human rights, and Mexican maquiladora workers have had to struggle with this for the past 23 years. Those in the fight for their labor rights have had to suffer threats and intimidation because of their efforts to earn a living wage. How terrible.

The zenith of the trip came on Sunday morning as we sat and reflected on all that we had learned that weekend. Questions from delegation members kept arising and the desire to know more about the struggle of our Mexican counterparts was still there. There was so much more to learn and many more stories to hear, but our time in Ciudad Acuña was coming to an end. I sat there listening as delegation members, maquiladora workers, and labor rights leaders shared their thoughts and their feelings. Yet, I still could not process exactly what words I wanted to say.

I felt thankful for such a unique opportunity to learn directly from maquiladora workers about their working conditions under free trade and their struggle in the fight for their labor rights. Despite endless labor violations and threats, Mexican workers have found the courage to fight for their rights for many years. I find that admirable and inspiring, which is why I committed myself on Sunday morning to their cause. Their stories were so impactful that I realized that uniting with the maquiladora workers’ fight is the only way to help bring about change. I will start by helping to raise awareness about the damages of free trade through sharing their stories with others. Given the pressing times for NAFTA renegotiations that we are seeing, it is important now more than ever that people know about the real effects of trade policies. As a student in the Global Policy Studies Program at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, this experience will also serve me to challenge the free trade economic theories we are taught in class. It’s not just about the statistics of trade gains and losses that economists teach us, it’s about the people who suffer through it too.

In the words of Nelson Mandela: we need to know with a fresh conviction that we all share a common humanity and that our diversity in the world is the strength for our future together. I will take action against free trade agreements that take advantage of vulnerable populations, promote fair trade, and do my part to ensure everyone enjoys the right to live a dignified life. 

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Cristina Gonzalez (October Delegation, 2016): 

My name is Cristina Gonzalez & I am one of the ten delegates who attended Austin Tan Cerca’s 62nd delegation to the Mexican border cities this past October. Attending this delegation definitely provided me with a new perspective on the differences in the way the U.S. & our local communities respond & operate around forms of trade.

I am deeply grateful for being able to meet all those women of the CFO who are achieving real changes in the workplace through their commitment to the dignified rights of Mexican workers. The CFO in Piedras Negras, the union group Los Mineros in Ciudad Acuña, & the maquiladora laborers that I had the opportunity to meet, are genuine inspirations to the work that I do as a coordinator at ATCF (www.atcf.org) and the work that I hope to achieve in my future careers.

After this visit to our friends, I am moved to take action by attending a discussion to negate the affects that the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal is supposedly providing for the wage worker in the partnering countries. This is one of many solidarity projects I plan on participating in as a result of ATCFs delegation and WOB’s financial support to help me and others make changes in their lives through such experiences.

Going on this delegation was truly something I believe everyone needs to attend whether they want to pursue business, governmental policies, or simply want to stand in solidarity with people who hold the dignity of human beings above profit. Again, I extend my deepest gratitude for your contribution to this cause & I hope that I will one day be able to pass on the power of sparking a change to others just as you have for me. I wish you well on all of your future endeavors.

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PRISCILLA LUERA  (October Delegation, 2016)

“We just got back from our 62nd delegation to Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuña in Mexico! I would like to personally thank you for making this life-changing experience possible. It was an amazing trip where all of the delegates bonded with each other, and took immediate action by attending the Texas Tribune to put pressure on Congressman O’Rourke to vote “NO” on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement which will effect laborers worldwide. As for the delegation, the best way for me to express my feelings is through a poem I wrote on the way back to the U.S.

 

I’ve crossed American soil

The fine line that divides poverty between the land of opportunity

I’ll always remember my Mexican sisters across the border, but will I practice what they preach?

Or pretend I’m someone I’m not cut out to be?

Forget my identity and sell my culture

For more money, more power

Y todo para qué?

For white recognition and my goals met

Because when I cross the border all anyone sees is a nopal on my forehead

And when I’m in Mexico all they see is proud to be an American

Because they’ve oppressed my ancestors and this is why they fight

For their children to have a better life

Yet, I’m already living the American Dream and still don’t feel white

A Xicana girl living in a “i’m not good enough” world

Lost in my own identity with a foot in each door

But, this is why solidarity exists

To break down power structures

And stand together, in justice and peace

For a better world to exist

I am Mexican American

And no one can take this from me

Born into a cruel world, but we are all human beings

This is our commonality that lets us stand in solidarity. 

I believe everyone should be able to personally experience a border delegation.

In Solidarity, Priscilla Luera

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Tu-Uyen Nguyen  (October Delegation, 2016)

[I attended] the October border delegation with Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera with Amy, Ashley, Gus, Andi, Sam, Courtney, Priscilla, and Cristina. I have volunteered only twice with ATCF so far, so this delegation has been a long time coming since I learned about the organization as an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin. It was a privilege for me to meet some of the members of the Comité Fronterizo Obreras y Obreros: Julia, Johanna, Herminia, and Isabel. These women continue to inspire me to find a more humane and compassionate path towards stable employment. They taught me that I need their GEMA workshop for myself because there is still a lot to be done about raising awareness about workers’ rights on the U.S. side of the border. I have learned so much from the margaritas, the organizers of CFO, as well as from my fellow delegates who continue to inspire me today as role models. I am grateful that first time I have ever been to Mexico was to learn more about labor organizing and female empowerment in the context of La Frontera. When we first arrived in Piedras Negras, one of the ice breaker activities at the CFO office involved a fun picture matchup game about our universal human rights. This was the first time I had ever been exposed to these rights on an individual basis, actually sitting down and walking around to discuss the meaning of the rights in Spanish and understanding them in English with the other delegates. Meeting these CFO members in their homes and their hometown of Piedras Negras helped me appreciate their commitment and efforts to organize and empower one another. As a former server and current library assistant, I do not know any unionizing workers here in Texas and know very little about unions in general. The only union I know of and am the “most” exposed to is the Texas State Employees Union. My ignorance about workers’ conditions in our “right to work state” is embarrassing, but also understandable because in public schools, we are not prepared to be workers who know their own rights and must work together within a profit-driven, hierarchical organization. Through the delegation, learning about unions and workers’ rights no longer seemed to be like esoteric knowledge, reserved for footnotes in standardized textbooks. Learning about workers’ rights can be accessible to a regular person like me. The delegation helped me continue working towards my goal of learning how to be a better U.S. citizen and community member. I learned from mothers, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers, that female empowerment nourishes the entire community, despite the stigma and discrimination they face. I continue to relate my daily life in Austin back to the delegation at the border towns of Mexico. I am grateful for the lessons I have learned about finding dignity in our work no matter the circumstances. Sincerely, Tu-Uyen Nguyen October 2016 Delegate

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Natalie Villarreal (January Delegation, 2016): 

I am writing this letter to sincerely thank you for sponsoring my trip with Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera’s delegation to Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuña. The trip has been one of my most perspective-shifting experiences as a young adult, but not in the way I expected. I did return with a greater appreciation for the privileges I possess, but the stronger impact involved returning with a powerful grasp on the term “solidarity”, and what it means in contrast to “charity”. A few abstract ideas came to light that were only possible through immersion, though brief, into the lives and discussions of those from much different backgrounds than my own.

Grasping the meaning of solidarity shifted my perspective from one of guilt to empowerment. The gravity of the difference between my life here and the lives of these women (and workers) is not defined by a feeling of pity or obligation, which seemed to be my default setting, but rather a sense of understanding of their struggle and the necessity of offering solidarity through action.

Arriving with Manos Vacios:

"If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."

-Lilla Watson, Mirri Aboriginal artist and elder

It was explained to us that strength and a sense of solidarity is as simple as listening without guilt, advice or opinion. There is much to be said for shutting up and listening, and I experienced the power of these actions. The women of the CFO (Comité Fronterizo de Obreras) explained that seeing that people in the States are interested in hearing about their struggles and getting involved brings their people a powerful sense of unity and community across borders.

I grew to appreciate the sense of pride their people have in their country and the desire to empower their community to keep fighting for their rights as workers. A part of me thought and misunderstood that the workers longed to cross the border in search of the American Dream and did not want jobs in the maquiladores. After several conversations I understood that this perspective was incorrect; the struggle is not with the jobs they hold but the conditions they are subjected to, which make providing a decent livelihood for their family and community near impossible.

 One woman mentioned that most of her community recognizes that life across the border is not as prosperous and privileged as many make it out to be, and that the women and workers in the States are fighting similar battles. One struggle is no less important than the other, and we all need to work together to build a stronger community across borders. Julia Quiñones explained that the struggles the women in the maquiladores face include women across the world, and the fight is not confined to one area of the globe, a perspective reinforced by meeting the women of Fuerza Unida in San Antonio. GEMA (Género y Empoderamiento de la Mujer para la Acción) is a project that I feel particularly drawn to as a solid, hands-on method that has helped women across the world find strength in their voice.

The fight for unity across borders struck home for me and I hope to develop a better understanding of how my particular set of skills can help. Being with these women for a weekend offered one perspective on the struggles that we as women and people of color face, and I am interested in expanding that view. My current plan is to brainstorm ways in which I can contribute to the movement with my skills in the arts and non-profit marketing and event planning. I would very much like to return to Piedras Negras, participate in more delegations to other areas, and push to bring these women to our side of town to get to know the women facing similar struggles in the States.

Thank you, again, for sponsoring my trip to Piedras Negras. I can say that I have learned a great deal about the movement from these beautiful, powerful women and tengo ganas to get involved in whatever way I can.

 


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