This past weekend, I returned as part of a team to Tlapacoyan, Veracruz for what is likely my final outreach trip during my time here. We were in Tlapacoyan before Christmas and managed to get in some rafting and awestruck gazes at a waterfall around our workshops and meetings. Tlapacoyan is a community where CDM has done a lot of work in the past and where there are a number of migrants who travel on temporary visas. It is difficult to find anyone in these communities whose life hasn’t been touched by immigration in some way and, during this trip, we learned of busloads of workers who had gone to pick oranges in Florida and a bus leaving the next day to bring carnival workers to the northeast United States.
We gave five workshops while we were there, traveling to small communities on the outskirts of the municipality, up winding dirt roads into the mountainous jungle. The area is strikingly beautiful with banana and orange groves pressing close against the highways. The air was thick and humid and, one night while I sat in the hotel lobby, I watched the plaza fill up with low-hanging clouds before a tremendous rainstorm.
As we spoke to workers, it became obvious to me that, while cases of abuse are rampant (from illegally low wages and wage garnishing to racially motivated assault), workers are not easily convinced to pursue their damages. The internalization of their condition is profound and there is a hesitancy to speak out as they believe this might endanger their ability to get one of these temporary jobs, even with these abusive conditions, in the future. I sat in on several interviews with Silas, our legal director, who with time and careful explanation, was able to convince these men to accept help. I witnessed a stark transition in these interviews. When we would knock at their doors and introduce ourselves, we were told there was no time, “I was just leaving,” or “I’m busy.” With persistence though and a few questions about their life in the United State, the tone shifted dramatically from insisting “No, no… no problems…” to excitedly bringing out battered folders to show us their pay-stubs and carefully collected documents and calling their brother on the phone to see if he would be interested in joining the case. We spent hours in their homes, drinking juice out of tall glasses, and listening to their stories while Silas guided them to reveal their own experiences.
This, I believe, is what we study in development as empowerment. It’s a tricky phrase that we dance around defining academically. It’s frequently a part of mission statements, a goal of development organizations, and appears as an objective in logframes. Is it something you can teach or something you can facilitate? Is it formulaic or always individual? I don’t know, but something lit up in these interviews with patient legal questioning about schedules and pay and living conditions. I believe it was the unspoken phrase that these men could hear, an undercurrent to the interview that they understood: What you experienced was not right, but there is something that can be done.