I am not a visual person. I often don't notice detail. I don't have a sense of space. In my fifties, for the first time I noticed that light changes subtly during the day-- and someone had to point it out to me.. A couple of years ago, I decided that it was time I developed my eye. Instead of seeing just the broad strokes of what was around me, I wanted to understand how to really discern what surrounded me. So I began to study the works of artists who inspire me and whose work evokes emotions and ideas and memories. I didn't study in an academic sense but in the sense of sitting with an image, noticing the details, the colors, the angle and the relationship of these to each other. I try to sit still and listen to the feelings and thoughts the photo evokes. When I decided to learn to see, I chose fronterizas and fronterizos-- photographers and artists-- who I knew could teach me because we share both the beauty and the difficulty of living on the border. They embrace the contradictions of living on the margins and the center at the same time.
Federico Villalba is one of my teachers and I have never told him. An art photographer/ street photographer from El Paso, he said in a 2016 article that "it is not [his] intention to photograph an image that does not genuinely exist, nor alter it into an illusion that it is not." That is one of the aspects of his work that resonates with me. Here on the border we don't have to alter reality-- it is already remarkable. People who come here either love it or hate it. People who grew up here try to leave but we usually come back. If you love the border, you can see the astonishing place that it is. If you love the border like Federico does, you find a way to document it.
Federico's photographs are evidence of his love for la frontera, the people, the buildings, the relationships, the history, and the culture. Whether it is a photo of matachines dancing in front of a mural of la Virgen de Guadalupe or a poignant image of an elderly couple sitting on a bench, his photos bear witness to this constantly changing place where the ancient and the modern live side by side. Each time I hear that he is exhibiting his work (and he has exhibited widely), I am happy because others will see his vision of the border.
It was difficult to chose the photographs for this post. There are so many. So I decided to post those that spoke to me today. Every time I look at Feredico's IG account, I see new photos that speak to me. The captions below are Federico's; I've added some comments throughout in maroon font. Please note that all photographs are ®Federico Villalba, All Rights Reserved.
Federico, thank you for your work and for being an inspiring and generous maestro.
The border is full of movimiento and life. On December 12 of each year-- the day of Our Lady of Guadalupe-- matachines, dancers devoted to her and to the Catholic Church, move in ancient patterns that remind us our culture existed for millennia before European contact. The ancient dance illuminated by neon lights- that is la frontera.
Durangito OCT2015. Save the neighborhood, save part of the history of El Paso, Texas. Photo: ®Federico Villalba, All Rights Reserved.
The couple sitting on this bench, facing their home, had lived here for many years at the time Federico took their photo. Each afternoon, they sat outside talking, often accompanied by their neighbors. During the summer of 2017, the couple were forced to move by their landlord because he intended to sell the building to the City so they could build an arena. On September 12, 2017 the City of El Paso allowed the property owner to demolish a portion of the building despite an existing court order saying no demolition could take place. A few days after the illegal demolition, she returned to the neighborhood to see her home. She said it would "always" be her home.
Procession of newsprint and wheat paste superheroes in South Central El Paso, Texas. Crazy for El Loco. Photo: ®Federico Villalba, All Rights Reserved.
What can I say: on the border, we are always on the move!
Comida Corrida $5.49 @ Sr. Benjos: Ringside to life on Alameda Ave. Photo: ®Federico Villalba, All Rights Reserved.
Alameda runs from southeast central El Paso to the Lower Valley. Once lined by álamos (cottonwood trees), the street cuts through what used to be east El Paso, a Mexican barrio that grew along the river at the turn of the 20th century.
Clay, mortar, and steel. Memories of El Paso's past fading into ruble. Photo: ®Federico Villalba, All Rights Reserved.
In 2016, this 107-year-old former flour mill was demolished to make way for a new highway. Federico's photo brings me comfort in its absence. Driving down I !0, I always felt connected to our city's history when I saw this old building, a reflection of El Paso's early urbanization..
Photo: ®Federico Villalba, All Rights Reserved.
In September 2014, 42 students from a rural teachers school in Guerrero, Mexico were kidnapped. They are still missing. El Pasoans held a vigil to call for their return. Activists and families on both sides of the border continue to demand their return.
Posada at historic Barrio Duranguito, Dec. 20, 2017. Photo: ®Federico Villalba, All Rights Reserved.
Federico has been a steady presence in Barrio Duranguito for the past year and a half as residents and supporters fight for the survival of this historic neighborhood. The posada, the re-enactment of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter, is a particularly potent symbol in the barrio since people began to be forcibly displaced from their homes last year.
You can follow Federico Villalba on Instagram here:chancla_rodriguez or on Facebook here: federico.villalba.1804.
Photo courtesy of Cynthia T. Renteria
Yesterday I stood at the border fence that divides El Paso, Texas from Ciudad Juárez watching the birds glide back and forth above it, drawn to the puddles of water in what once a raging Rio Bravo/Rio Grande. Against the backdrop of the desert sunset, they looked graceful as they flew effortlessly between the United States and Mexico, transcending the ugly man-made fence. The fence was built here in 2008 under the Obama administration. The Democrats agreed to build a taller border fence because the Republicans agreed to consider broader immigration reforms if the administration agreed to stricter border enforcement.... so the ugly fence was built between our cities that have been one community in myriad ways for most of our history. Our economies are tied together. Our culture. We have family members on both sides.
My former student, Gus, used to tell me that when the fence was being built, it sounded like it was crying as the desert winds blew through it. I've always remembered that image of the fence crying. Our current mayor, our local Trumpish millionaire, calls it a "freedom fence" and talks about immigrants as riff-raff.
These were my thoughts yesterday as Movimiento Cosecha and their supporters gathered to talk about the 11 million migrants in the United States without status in this country. As the border action got underway, with the backdrop of the fence and a Border Patrol car parked watching the river behind it, we heard the testimonies of the organizers who volunteer full-time to work for respect, dignity, and permanent protection for the millions of migrants living in the United States. The oldest organizer is 25. It is a movement led by young people fighting not just for themselves but for their parents, the original dreamers who came to this country with hopes for a better life. They fight for the 11 million who work in the fields, in construction, in meat packing, and kitchens.
The demand for respect and dignity was highlighted this week when The Albuquerque Journal published this racist cartoon portraying Dreamers as criminals. Under national public pressure they issued an apology.
Movimiento Cosecha emerged in 2015, choosing the word "Cosecha" (harvest) to honor "the long tradition of farmworker organizing and the present-day pain of the thousands of undocumented workers whose labor continues to feed the country." The Movimiento is non-violent and uses non-cooperation "to leverage the power of immigrant labor and consumption and force a meaningful shift in public opinion." You can read more about them here.
The testimonies yesterday included the story of Jose Luis and his family, Zapotecos from Oaxaca who migrated to Florida. The migration of Indigenous people has been growing in recent years but it is a movement of people across this continent that predates the fence and the border by millennia. We heard from Nancy whose family came from Chihuahua. We heard from Cat who grew up in New Jersey. Others shared their stories. Supporters included artists, community organizers, professors, students, and other community members who support the work of Movimiento Cosecha because we all want a more just nation and a more just world.
Mid-way through the action, organizers clipped three huge banners to the border fence. "Dream without walls-- Aquí los sueños no conocen fronteras" the message announced. I thought about my family who crossed the border without papers in 1914 and their dreams of finding work and a peaceful life. I thought about the Mr. Avila, a former Bracero who I interviewed recently. Now in his 80s, he talked about coming to the US, suffering as he worked under harsh conditions in the fields but the hopes he held for his family. "Me, I can be anywhere. But my family, here," he told me.
Through their fearlessness in the face of ever-growing threats, despite the efforts of politicians to use them as bargaining chips, and in spite of the racist rhetoric that has found a safe place within our country since the election of Trump, Movimiento Cosecha and the mostly young organizers nourish those dreams. Respect. Dignity, Permanent protection.
If you would like to support Movimiento Cosecha, go here.
Photo courtesy of J.E. Meyers
Last night, Professor Emerita Angela Y. Davis spoke to an overflow crowd at the University of Texas at El Paso. Her hour and a half presentation, organized by Dr. Michael V. Williams, Director of African American Studies, was thought-provoking, engaging, humorous, and profound. As I took notes on my cell phone, I thought of the many blog posts that could come from her comments. I woke up thinking about one thing she said, however: Universality can come from below.
Dr. Davis spoke of the ways in which white and male are seen as universal and recalled challenge to this by the groundbreaking 1982 book, All Women are White and All Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave. Before we knew the word "intersectionality," we lived it, as women, as lesbians, as people of color, as poor people, as immigrants. I remember in the 1970s carrying a sign at a gay pride march in Austin where I had written simply "We are not all white." I doubt many of the participants paid much attention to my homemade statement but as a 20 year-old trying to figure out how to not just live but politically organize a life of intersectionality, it was something I felt I had to state. We are not all white.
What Professor Davis said last night challenges us to take it even further than the "We are not all fill in the blank" of my youth. To understand that universality can come from below is to understand who we are rather than who we are not. To understand that universality can come from below is to uncover the connections among us that link us across our limited identities of members of nation-states and that transcend borders. To know that universality can come from below is to see ourselves in others. It is to honor our ancestors and to take all actions with the generations to come in mind.
I would love to hear your thoughts on universality from below. What do you think? Do you have examples? Does the concept of universality benefit us? I hope to hear from you!
2000 people went to hear Angela Davis at UTEP. This is the crowd waiting for her to appear an hour before the talk.
Twenty-seven years ago, opioid addiction devastated my familia. It is a pain that I have rarely spoken about for years, and one that I have never written about. In the midst of the nation’s current and highly publicized opioid epidemic, I felt like the time had come. Throughout my life, writing has helped me comprehend my experiences and to heal from many of them.
In an episode this weekend, Latino USA reported on the opioid crisis in the Bronx, a crisis going back to the 1960s. Focusing on the courageous and compassionate people who advocate for folks addicted to heroin (including those who provide on-the-street medical care and distribute clean needles), the report talks about risk reduction and the ways in which it saves lives even if risk reduction may be illegal. Angie Camacho, a sociology professor in Criminal Justice at John Jay College, is heard on the radio broadcast helping an addict who is moaning with pain. Professor Camacho provides some basic medical care. John Jay College faculty and students visit people addicted to heroin to provide life-saving help. It was listening to this report that spurred me to write about my long-held pain.
When I moved back to El Paso in the 1980s, heroin was widely available, perhaps the most available drug in the city. I was not interested, but my long-time partner was. She was a “functional addict” who could excel in many parts of her life while using.
As the partner of a heroin addict, I alternately tried to ignore her addiction and to stop it. I was afraid constantly. When she unexpectedly disappeared one day, I went to the police to help me find her. She was gone for a week, returning finally when she encountered a group of Christian missionaries who told her to go home to her family where they knew she would be welcomed. In the middle of an agricultural area just across the New Mexico state line, they found her with her heroin-using friends who I never knew. They didn't proselytize or try to convert her. They told her that her family loved her and worried about her and to go home to them.... to me.
I did welcome her. I begged her to go into rehab. The morning I drove her to the rehab clinic in a largely rural area of eastern El Paso County, she stopped for one last fix. Sometimes, I drive by that place, now abandoned, where she went to buy her last fix and I remember that morning of anxiety, anticipation, fear and hope that rehab would help our family. We drove for miles in complete silence to the rehab center.
After a couple of months, she returned home and all seemed better although I knew deep inside that she had stopped using for us, her family, and not for herself. I knew, although I could not admit it then, that it could not last. She could not do it for us. It had to be for herself, a commitment to lead a clean life whether we existed or not.
It worked for a couple of years…. until it didn’t work. The call of the heroin dream was too strong. She returned to using and when I confronted her, she made me feel stupid and guilty for even thinking she had relapsed. Her addiction made her into an extremely effective manipulator. Within two months, she was using more than she ever had and she was no longer the “functional addict.” I didn’t know how her addiction had escalated because by then, I was living in another city, waiting for her to join us. When I learned that she had stopped going to work, I made a trip back to El Paso to look for her. I never saw her again.
I remember the morning the police knocked at the door. She was dead. I recall the next few days with an amount of detail my memories rarely possess. The friends who cooked for me. The anger of my parents. The funeral arrangements and the funeral itself. And most of all, our young son's confusion and distress and pain. At the funeral home, her shell-shocked students spoke to me about what a wonderful teacher she was. One young woman gave me a rosary to put in the casket. It is both like another lifetime and like it just happened.
For years afterward, I felt defined by her death. For years, my memory of her and of our relationship was defined by her death. Writing this now, I am hesitant to reduce her life, her brilliance, her love to her heroin addiction but it's difficult to do otherwise. Addiction and the pain it brings are so overwhelming.
Listening to that NPR report yesterday about people who see the humanity and the suffering of addicts, I thought about those people I never knew who in 1989 convinced my partner to come home so we could confront her addiction as a family. I hadn't thought of them for many years. Remembering what they did for her and for us felt good-- I felt it deep inside my heart, I am still grateful. I wished back then that I could thank them. I still do. Although her addiction ended in death, what those strangers did so many years ago made a difference in our lives, showing compassion and love in the midst of darkness.
Thank you to Lucia Martinez for helping me think out this very difficult blog post. You are a wonderful friend.
Recently, I read an article about Jedidiah Brown, a 30 year old pastor and community organizer in Chicago. If you Google his name, you find articles about his work with youth, how he stormed the stage in 2016 at a Trump rally, how he served as President of the Young Leaders Alliance, and was former candidate for alderman for the 5th ward. He is a beloved leader in his community, fearless, outspoken, and eloquent. A year ago, he made the news for something else, however. On Facebook Live, he threatened to commit suicide. He reportedly said, “I’ve always loved this city and I love my family — I love everybody and I’m so sorry, but it’s over, I can’t recover from this.” He later said that the death of a family member had triggered the suicide attempt, but it is clear that his all-out dedication to the community also played a role. “Every relationship I had, I lost it because I was too busy fighting for y’all,” he cried into his FB Live feed. Brown was part of a growing group of predominantly younger activists who took on the problems of their communities, who took the struggle to heart and into their lives. In an article on Brown that appeared in HuffPost, writer Ben Austen writes that, "Many of these activists were unprepared for the emotional anguish, the self-recrimination and financial burden, the media spotlight, the attacks from outside and within the movement."
I have seen the toll that activism has taken on younger activists as well as older activists. I see working people put their money and time and energy and their hearts into fighting for justice while the wealthy take vacations and hire employees to do the dirty work for them. The imbalance is undeniable; its effects are physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual depletion for activists. Sometimes our wounds as marginalized people under attack fester and we don't take care of ourselves because we are taking care of everyone. It is overwhelming.
We begin to attack each other, to hold each other to unrealistic standards, to act in judgmental ways. I know because I have seen others turn to these responses and I, too, have fallen into this abyss of the anguish of activism. It can tear apart movements from the inside.
What can we do? After so many years, I don't have the answer except I do know that is has to do with love and compassion. It has to do with acknowledging each other's humanity, with our failings and contradictions. i know it has to do with gratitude. And acknowledging that we do what we can. A couple of months ago, Omar Garcia, a young indigenous activist who survived the horror of Ayotzinapa, visited my city. He said one of lessons that he had learned since the kidnapping of 42 of his classmates in 2014 in Guerrero was to be grateful for whatever help someone offered. If someone works and can give a hour of her time every week, that is good. She is giving all she can. In our desperation to do our community work, sometimes we criticize her for not doing enough.
There are folks talking about compassionate activism now, which gives me hope. Compassionate Activism is a website with a free webinar on healing marginalization through love and justice. There is a wonderful blog post here that lists "10 Key Points for becoming a Compassionate Activist." One of the points states that "Compassion is rooted in an understanding of the connection between all living beings." It is a concept that I have long understood and practiced in my spirituality, yet somehow it has not been forefront in my politics.
Love, justice, compassion, anguish, pain, despair- they swirl around in activist circles. For me, it's time to untangle them and to learn how to bring compassion into activism in my own life.
Traditional Mexican foods by Project Chicomecoatl. Photo by Mercy Salazar.
What makes Intangible Cultural Heritage significant to Chicanxs in the 21st century? Our community needs to preserve our culture for our own well-being. According to UNESCO, ICH contributes to food security, maintains good health, sustains livelihoods, respects a sustainable environment, resolves disputes, and strengthens social cohesion. As researchers explore what they label “the Latino paradox,” a somewhat controversial theory that Latino immigrants have lower mortality rates and better mental health than non-Hispanic whites, despite poverty and fewer economic opportunities. We need to look at what our culture can teach us, and others. At a time when Mexican and Mexican American culture is under attack, often under the guise of controlling immigration, we need to know that our culture has something to offer.
In El Paso, a city with an 80% majority Mexican American population, resistance to Mexican American cultural preservation among the “keepers of history” is still strong. Our city tells its history as a story of Spanish conquistadores and cowboys. In 2007, the City of El Paso unveiled the largest equestrian statue in the world, a statue depicting "the last conquistador," Juan de Oñate who passed through what is now El Paso in 1598. Supporters, both Euroamerican and Latino argued that it was about time that the city highlighted Latino history. Opponents argued that spending $2 million dollars (40% came the City) on a monument to genocide and Spanish colonization was a travesty. During recent debates over the creation of a Hispanic Cultural Center, funded by a quality of life bond sale approved by voters in 2012, the chair of the El Paso Historical Commission opposed the designation of the center as Hispanic or Mexican American because the city’s cowboy culture and gunslingers should be highlighted. When the Historical Commission recently developed a plan to create a historical district that included El Segundo Barrio, they did not consult with anyone from the barrio, asking instead for a blessing of barrio leaders after the fact.
I am the director and cofounder (with Dr. David Romo) of Museo Urbano, an award-winning public history project of the Department of History at UTEP. We are a museum without walls focused on reclaiming, preserving, and interpreting the history of the borderlands. Through our work, which involves everything from museum exhibits and historical booklets to community dialogue and pachangas, we invite people to think critically about history, their place in history, and to act. What I have learned over the past decade of working with Museo Urbano, both in its grassroots form and at the university, is that cultural preservation without action, history without social justice, has a hollow ring to it.
Museo Urbano started on the streets of El Segundo Barrio in El Paso, Texas, grounded in the values of respect, reciprocity, responsibility, and social justice. We emerged in 2006 as part of a grassroots struggle against a wealthy group of real estate developers, who with the backing of the City of El Paso, planned to demolish one of the most historic Mexican immigrant neighborhoods in the United States—the Second Ward, the Ellis Island of the Mexican diaspora. It was in El Segundo Barrio that hugs the US-Mexico border, where Spanish is heard more often than English, where half the residents are immigrants, where 60% of the people live below the poverty level and 42% live below half the poverty line that we learned most poignantly about Latino heritage preservation and its meaning to our community. It began with two questions asked over and over “Why do you care about this barrio?” and 'What’s so important about this barrio?”
Once when David Romo and I were leading a group of our students on a walking tour of S. Oregon Street, in the heart of the barrio, we stopped in front of the Pablo Baray apartments, telling the group that the run-down two story tenement had once housed a number of literary presses and Spanish language newspapers. We told them it was there that Mariano Azuela wrote and published the first great novel of the Mexican Revolution, Los de Abajo. A man who had stopped to listen asked somewhat incredulously, “Can anyone live there now? Why doesn’t anyone know about this?” He couldn’t believe that such an important historical place stood unknown and unnoticed in the middle of his neighborhood.
As we researched that one street, building by building, learning the stories of Mexican revolutionaries and refugees from the Cristero Rebellion, of Don Tosti (Edmundo Tostado) the first Latino musician to sell a million albums with his song “Pachuco Boogie” in the 1940s, the African American jazz musicians who in the 1950s and ‘60s performed in small night clubs to a mostly Mexican American audience, to the great Chicano poet Lalo Delgado, author of “Stupid America,” and the Chinese immigrants who lived on the periphery of the barrio, we saw that this one street was connected to the nation and the world. We understood that this history was the patrimony of two nations. One the border, stories always transcend the political dividing line.
Like Kuatemok, the last great leader of the Mexica who during the Spanish occupation of central Mexico in the 1520s urged his traumatized people to “hide all that our heart loves, that which is our great treasure,” until “our new sun rises,” our abuelas and abuelos have often kept their stories and their histories held close to their hearts. The time has come to teach our youth and to allow ourselves to remember, to bloom with the histories that we hold in our memories, in our bodies, in our language, in our food, and in the urban streets of our city. The time has come to enact Kuatemok’s great desire that his people would never “forget to guide your young ones/ teach your children/while you live/how good it has been and will be.” In the midst of war, disease, and death, the children were not forgotten. Then, as today, youth are our hope, the dreams of our ancestors. We have an obligation to remember and to protect the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of the borderlands as a gift to future generations from past generations.
To begin this work, we must answer: What does cultural preservation mean along the border? What do we do now?
Pachucos Suaves, mural by David Flores, 2010. Painted over by property owner now.