Archive for the ‘Immigration’ Category

Last week was an important milepost for me in my practicum process –a meeting with the Open Societies Foundation to introduce my project, a labor rights curriculum for community organizers, to a new and perhaps future donor. The week leading up to the meeting involved a lot of final proof-reading, making of last-minute changes and corrections, then printing and assembling a prototype of the curriculum and creating a presentation. It was helpful to me to remind myself of the understandings that were agreed upon at the outset of the project and to feel as though we had fulfilled the objectives we set out to fulfill.

The curriculum is seven modules and I’m currently finishing writing a workshop for training the comite (our community organizers) to use it. Each comite member will get a toolkit consisting of a binder with all the materials, handouts, laminated posters, dry erase markers, etc. and some training on how to facilitate, how to present, how to organize a meeting, which CDM will support to as needed. Below is the slide I presented on regarding my underlying understandings as I undertook the project.

OSF Presentation.

The points down the side in the blue arrows read: Accessible, Participatory, and Flexible.

Accessible: Detailed facilitator instructions, Clear and simple bullet-points of information, and Visual resources. I knew that individuals with varying skill levels would be using the curriculum including our promoters, new volunteers with CDM, and the community organizers themselves. I also knew the materials would be used in communities with variable levels of literacy and so it was a priority to create visual resources in each module to be as inclusive as possible.

Participatory: Questions to access participants knowledge and encourage them to share their experiences, Activities for small groups, Interactive activities. Everyone has been to good workshops and bad workshops (classes, professional development, etc.), but for some reason we often act as though what makes them good or bad is a mystery. Research has demonstrated again and again that people, regardless of age, learn more when they have the opportunity to engage with the material. Consistently participants say they enjoy attending events when they have the opportunity to network and share their stories with others. Finally, at the heart of this point, is the development dogma that participatory is better. I happen to agree. Often in a workshop you find that the greatest resources are the attendees and facilitating a space where they can share and interact around important themes is a much better role than lecturing. Designing workshops that are participatory is a moral obligation and it also happens to make them better.

A few pages from the curriculum --Module 5 is on reprisals or employers taking punitive action against workers for speaking up or organizing. The document on the right we printed in poster size as well and had laminated. It is a four-cuadrant reflection asking participants to consider the power dynamics between employers and workers.

Flexible: Options to change activities depending on the size of the group, Modules with interchangeable parts. Outreach is unpredictable. Often we go places where it is difficult to find someone by phone. Organization and promotion sometimes happen and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we arrive at a site to find the entire municipio, men, women, and children, turned out waiting for our presentation. Sometimes there are only two or three attendees. Additionally, communities vary widely by what is most relevant –in some communities in Oaxaca there have been many cases of illness due to pesticides, so a presentation on health and safety with an emphasis on toxic chemicals is needed. The curriculum was designed so that any block of information or activity could be pulled from any module to create a workshop with the most relevant parts or so that, in the case of a community we have visited many times, there is new material to use.

The Curriculum: A thematic guide for promoters of U.S. labor rights.

It was a big project for me. It ended up being over a hundred pages of materials and it’s taken the majority of my time here. Initially I was able to see a few CDM workshops in action and we shared the first few drafts of the modules with our comite members to collect their feedback and incorporate their suggestions. And last week, we printed up the draft and presented it to a donor. This week, thirty copies arrived from the printer in big boxes and this weekend we’re supposed to have our first training with a community organizer. I am thinking about what kind of sustainability plan I want to leave behind as I’m concerned that the project needs sustained engagement and support to be successful.

Presentation Morning: Lilian reviews the presentation while Brenda and Jesus pose.

Brenda and Jesus pose with curriculum binder and posters.

Jesus and I with my practicum project.

In any case, I can’t help feeling that this practicum has had a very nice arc –from the comite national reunion in September where I got to meet the organizers, plan workshops and activities, and then immediately see them in action and get feedback, to presenting a comprehensive and (largely) finished project to OSF. I’m truly grateful for having had the opportunity through CDM to undertake this work.


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.

Our new rights-promoter and outreach worker, Brenda, in Zapote Redondo, Tlapacoyan, VER.

I spoke briefly about minimum wage and overtime in San Pedro Buenavista, Tlapacoyan, VER.

Brenda and Lilian display a minimum wage map as part of the curriculum I've been writing in Novara, Tlapacoyan, VER.

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.


Sometime right after Thanksgiving I went to the field to work. In Tlapocoyan, Veracruz and the surrounding communities. The outreach team split up into two groups, but I managed to get in on every workshop we gave. In total we spoke to about a hundred people about the workplace rights of migrants in the United States. Everyone came on invitation. Here I am reading aloud a part of a case study. The guy in the red shirt had a pretty sad story of being badly injured working for one of the traveling carnivals in the northeast United States.

Taller in El Jobo, Veracruz. Participants read a case-study of a migrant fair worker.

Right after Christmas, I came back to the office and to my project. I’m writing a curriculum for CDM’s basic workshops.

Workshop titles include:
Wages and Hours
Health and Security
Temporary Visas
Civil Rights (which includes things like ones right to remain silent and speak to a lawyer and ones right to be protected from warrant-less searches in the home).

Writing a whole curriculum with content and facilitator instructions in Spanish has been a challenge and I have been at it since mid-September. It is finally coming together. I’ve drafted all seven of the presentations and one of my Mexican colleagues has made track changes in Spanish. We’ve introduced them to comité members (who will be receiving and giving the trainings and learning to facilitate using these materials) and gotten and incorporated their feedback. Once I finish incorporating all of the track changes and doing some formatting, I’ll be done with this significant part of my project.

Also, when I went to Veracruz, the outreach team took a brief detour to go rafting to and swimming in an amazing waterfall. I feel very blessed entering a new year.

The team rafting. It's hard to look cool in this getup, but who cares?

El Encanto cascada/waterfall.

Good for perspective. This cave was huge.


Looking good in those rolled up pants. I know everyone in this photo felt so happy just then.

Vamos 2012, let's see it.



I’ve been asked several times recently to explain the story of Thanksgiving. Of course, the people asking are my Mexican peers, not American 3rd graders… So, I tell it with lots of disclaimers.

Well, the holiday was only institutionalized 200-years after the supposed event.

But, it’s about the first English pilgrims to America suffering incredible hardship… And then the Natives show up and teach them how to farm and give them food…

Of course, it doesn’t acknowledge any of the anti-Native treachery or conflict in our history.

So, they had a big feast to celebrate their survival and give thanks to their god and they invited the Natives and everyone ate a lot…

Which for then, probably meant that everyone got something to eat. Not that they put themselves into a food coma in front of the ballgame.

Amazingly, Mexicans have a painted history of this early colonial period in the slightly more southern Americas in their Palacio Nacional –done by the master, Diego Rivera. It is not one bit saccharine or glamorous. Rivera may have sweetened Native culture a bit, but he is raw and honest about the human cost of conquest. This would be like having a wall-sized mural of the 1622 Virginia Colony Massacre juxtaposed with the Trail of Tears in the White House.

Pre-Columbian society as imagined by Rivera.

Spanish conquest and the twisted, sickly Spaniards enslaving and murdering the Natives in their quest for gold.

I explored the Palacio Nacional a little more thoroughly with my guests and walked through the portrait gallery for the first time. Mexicans have stunning portraits of Aztec kings hung next to Spanish dictators and Mexican revolutionaries. The portrait of Emiliano Zapata is striking (Vincente Fox, on the other hand, should ask for a do-over while he has the chance).

So, in more than a few cases, you have portraits of the people who killed and overthrew the people in the potraits next to them. That blew my mind. There’s a certain honesty there about history that I think we’ve come not to expect in the United States, but that we should be striving for.

When we’re able to talk honestly about ourselves, where we’ve come from and what’ve we learned, only then, I think, are we truly able to move forward.

I haven’t been blogging –first I was hosting, then I was traveling, then I was sick. Now I am less sick, back from my travels, and once again alone in my apartment.

First, some general updates on my work here.

Practicum: I am halfway done with this six-month obligation for my Masters. As promised, my work has focused on improving education and outreach materials for community empowerment, self-advocacy, and leadership development in migrant communities and tracking these efforts. The organization I have partnered with, CDM, is a fantastic entity filled with great people who are working vigorously on a number of interesting and important fronts for migrant rights. For me, there are two main challenges here: working full-time in another language and spending too much time alone with my computer writing curriculum. When I am out in the communities meeting with people and hearing their stories, the work feels very real, vibrant, and significant. When I am stuck in the office day after day trying to figure out how to structure a particular presentation, things feel pretty dull and it is easy to forget the broader fight and the gross injustices that propel the work. I remember when I said something like this to my brother about the monotony of the work-day after getting my first job out of college. He wrote back, “Hey, if it was supposed to be fun, they would charge you tuition!” …Wait a second…

To go back in time and then attempt to catch up, I had guests here from November 17th until the 27th which was fantastic because I finally had an opportunity to do so many of the fun and touristy things that seem lame alone but are ideal with company. On Sunday, November 20th, after brunch at the Casa de los Azulejos, I had planned a walk to the Zócalo to see the Palacio Nacional, the Catedral, and the weekend market –but, as has happened before here, my plan was subverted by a parade. November 20th marked the national Día de la Revolución –Revolution Day, not to be confused with Independence Day. I’ll be honest and say I don’t understand the celebration very well. True, the revolution began with the overthrow of a dictator, but then it descended into a series of further coup d’états and a chaotic, decade long civil war. The fight for greater wealth equality and popular rule was far from successful… I’m hoping someone will buy me this PBS documentary for Christmas, “The Storm that Swept Mexico,” then maybe I will understand better why this is a holiday and a source of national pride. I’ve asked Mexican friends and, maybe as a result of my language abilities, have been only given a grade-school version… i.e. Porfírio Díaz was a bad man. Uh huh.

In any case, our progress towards the Zócalo was halted by a crush of people. Huge plumes of white, red, and green smoke were rising from the center of the square, and vendors were hawking periscopes made from empty cracker boxes and little mirrors to see over the crowds.

Smoke rising from the Zócalo and periscopes to see over the crowd.

While trying to decide what to do, rather to push forward or abandon the plan, we realized everyone around us had ditched the periscopes in favor of gazing skyward –which made sense, because a dozen parachuters with Mexican flags were skydiving towards the plaza.

Parachuters over the Catedral Municipal. Those kiddos, some of whom looked as old as three, are standing on a port-a-potty for a better view.

Another view of the parachuters.

This dramatically kicked off the parade which was almost entirely on horseback with different groups representing distinct regions or periods. There was one battalion of all female riders who were hooted and catcalled disgracefully while the men were greeted with cheers and applause –ah, machismo.

Revolutionaries riding into town.

Lasso tricks on horseback.

The parade concluded with a few floats of living tableaux where models reconstructed scenes of the revolution.

Cheerily smiling and waving women with giant guns.

With a little patience and lucky timing, we were able to catch all of this by accident. We weren’t lucky enough, however, to miss the street sweepers that came by immediately afterwards and quickly scattered the crowd with a fine mist of dust and horse poop. ¡Viva la revolución!

First contact between Europe and the Americas is such a bizarre thing. Inevitable, tragic, and in this globalized and increasingly homogenous world, increasingly difficult to imagine. Cortés and his conquistadors arrived at the gates of Tenochtitlan a mere 490 years ago. Not surprisingly, the ripples of that cataclysmic confrontation are still jostling Mexico.

Native culture was literally buried for about 250 years while the Spaniards turned New Spain into their idea of a civilization, helped greatly by, as Jared Diamond put it, guns, germs, and steel and their own sense of what norte americanos called Manifest Destiny. In 1790, while excavating for new construction in the main plaza of Mexico City, the broken remains of a tremendous Aztec temple were rediscovered, sparking a Mesoamerican renaissance and a mental reconciliation of the halves that construct the whole: native and European, Maya, Mexica, Aztec, and Spaniard. In Mexico today, there is great pride in both.

It’s an infinitely complicated and compelling history and many of the artifacts that aren’t still scattered across Mexico and Central America are gathered in the Museo Nacional de Antropología which I visited this past Sunday. I’m a huge and unapologetic museum nerd, so if intricately carved basins for collecting sacrificial human hearts and tremendous, ornate feathered headdresses aren’t your thing, I can’t help you here.

Montezuma's headdress and tiny museum visitor doing the only logical thing. If you are thinking that it looks awfully good for being 500-years-old, it isn't. It's a replica.

Jaguar basin --said to be a receptacle for sacrificial human hearts. It's a hard thing to get by, human sacrifice. The Spaniards were burning people at the stake, of course, and perfecting the instruments of the Inquisition... Everyone needed a human rights workshop.

The famed Aztec Calendar and tiny person for scale.

The Aztec Calendar or Sun Stone --originally called a calendar, now thought likely to have had some role in ritual human sacrifice. In any case, it's crazy cool looking.

The courtyard of the museum --the reed-filled pond represents the marshy highlands that were settled by the original inhabitants of Mexico City.

Maya glyphs and carvings.

Death mask of Pakal --Maya ruler of Tikal in present-day Chiapas.

Maya codice --the Maya had a fully formed and complex written language and books.

Maya ruins in the muesum garden.


On September 19th, CDM called a press conference to announce the filing of a complaint against the United States under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) claiming that the U.S. is failing to uphold its obligation to protect migrant workers.

From the Media Center at the AFL-CIO:

(Mexico City, Sept. 19) “The AFL-CIO, together with Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM), the Southern Poverty Law Center, PRODESC and other civil society organizations filed a complaint today against the United States under NAFTA’s North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC) on behalf of workers who were brought to the United States to work under the H-2B visa program.  The workers have attempted under U.S. law to gain redress with no success so are using NAALC to hold their employer accountable. The complaint states that the United States failed to comply with its obligations under NAALC by permitting companies to routinely pay H-2B workers less than the minimum hourly wage and deny them overtime and reimbursement for  travel, visa and recruitment costs.” Read the rest of the article here.

CDM's Comité members speak out against workplace abuses in the United States (photo by Gracia Cuzzi).

Comité members who signed on to the complaint spoke at the press conference, along with Silas, CDM’s Legal Director in Mexico City. Seven or eight press organization attended, including the New York Times and Univision. This action highlighted the existence of complaint mechanisms under international law but also, perhaps more importantly, the need to publicize their use as widely as possible in the hope of raising awareness and increasing the likelihood of a desirable outcome.

More press here (Spanish) and here (also Spanish).