Archive for the ‘Inequalities’ Category

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.



There has been some terrible news out of America’s prisons in the past few days. Yesterday, a prison riot in Mexico near Monterrey resulted in 20 deaths, the latest in a string of prison riots in the country (31 deaths in Altimara, Tamaulipas in January, another 20 in Matamoros, Tamaulipas in October of 2011 to cover just the past six-months). In Honduras, an indescribable tragedy occurred last week when 358 prisoners, at latest count, burned alive in a fire. Most had not been convicted of any crime.

Although we have more effective facilities in terms of control –better systems, I suppose, to prevent the destructive chaos of riots and fires– the United States ought take the longest and hardest look at itself following these grievous and preventable outrages. The state and federal governments of the United States incarcerate  far more of their own citizens than any other industrialized country in the world –a large percentage for non-violent drug crimes.

I am grateful for Chris Hayes reporting on this silent population that we too often discount in our minds as being undeserving of our attention. How dare we, or any other government authority, shutter people away in such great numbers and with so little recourse?

I highly recommend watching his excellent reporting here.

I get a lot of petitions from and I’m not sure how effective they are but I appreciate the role the play in bringing issues to my attention. It’s not as if I didn’t know that toy-makers make stupid toys for girls, but this one hit a little close to home as LEGOs were some of my favorite toys growing up.

This is a LadyFig, apparently. I'm sure she is brushing her hair before she goes to present at an international conference on human rights.

After 4 years of marketing research, LEGO has come to the conclusion that girls want LadyFigs, a pink Barbielicious product line for girls, so 5 year-olds can imagine themselves at the café, lounging at the pool with drinks, brushing their hair in front of a vanity mirror, singing in a club, or shopping with their girlfriends. As LEGO CEO Jorgan Vig Knudstorp puts it, “We want to reach the other 50% of the world’s population.”

From the petition letter.

My brother and I had an ongoing cast of LEGO characters. They were all space explorers and all male, but only because it wasn’t possible for a LEGOnian to wear both a space helmet and one of those pop-on hair-dos that indicated femaleness –an incarnation of an issue that I continue to confront.

Space... man? Who cares?

To be fair, my brother was much better at constructing spaceships and bases but he was also almost three-years older than me and now, as an adult, is an aerospace engineer at NASA. I like to think I contributed a great deal to the plot of the crew’s adventures and to character development. Our spacemen had occupations such as chemist and engineer and I don’t recall ever feeling that a vanity or jacuzzi was missing from our expeditions.

Click here to sign the petition to tell LEGO that these “girls” toys are dumb and offensive.

Teotihuacan is a giant archaeological site –the former great city of several long lost peoples: those who built it, now called the Teotihuacanos, and those who came upon it once they had disappeared, most famously the Aztecs who named it the place where gods are made. The sheer scale of Teotihuacan is humbling. The pyramids seem built to rival the mountains around them.

Renamed the Pyramid of the Moon by the Aztec --the far smaller of the two great pyramids at the site.

This is an immensely complicated site, founded around 100 B.C.E. and expanded and occupied by various peoples in the subsequent centuries. Although there are many Mayan influences to be found here, the site itself has nothing to do with the 2012 apocalyptic predictions of the long-count calendar. Nevertheless, the world of the Teotihuacanos ended, obviously, and the site is assumed to have been largely abandoned when the Aztecs happened upon it.

The new beginning of a new year and my first visit to the site gave me pause. Scholars think there are two overlapping factors that brought about the end of the first era of Teotihuacan and both are presciently facing our global society today: drought, caused by changes to the climate, and a popular uprising of the common against the elite classes in their city. Apparently the academics used to think that Teotihuacan was attacked, sacked, and burned, triggering its downfall. Broken artifacts and traces of charring seemed initially to corroborate this. On closer examination, however, archaeologists discovered that this kind of destruction was limited to the structures related to the upper classes, indicating the revolution of a people who had lost faith in their leaders.

I put exactly zero stock in doomsday predictions, but walking through the ruins of such a complex and advanced city does make me think that there is no reason to not believe  in the end of the world as we know it. For me, this usually manifests itself in fantasies of somehow collectively manifesting a better world, one without poverty and violence (or, even in my fantasy, let’s hedge and say significantly less of these). There is, however, no reason to assume that great, global change, the kind that might wipe out a people who built a mountain, isn’t in store for us if we don’t move forward with humility and great forethought and caution. It is a good reminder to not be flippant with our experiences of climate change and social unrest. It is a good reminder to not be flippant with our world or each other.

On one of the upper terraces of the Pyramid of the Sun.


Carefully climbing down the steep steps.

The man-made mountain: the Pyramid of the Sun.

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.



We luckily don’t really have any equivalent in the United States to the kind of child labor that occurs in other parts of the world. We may have, especially in newer immigrant and/or extremely poor communities, some child participation in the informal labor market –taking care of the younger kids in a family so one or both parents can work, for example, or helping out in the family restaurant or watching the family store. I was making babysitting money when I was eleven or twelve, but got my first job with set hours and paycheck during the summer when I was 15.

In Mexico, it isn’t uncommon to have really young kids selling or begging in public spaces and there are far fewer social taboos against children working –the protections against child labor are poorly enforced and pushed aside out of economic necessity and by cultural expectations. I once raised my eyebrow at a store owner who casually sold three packs of cigarettes to a kid that looked like he was about six. The shop owner explained to me that the kid then sells the cigarettes on the street (which are technically illegal for purchase by anyone under 18), but that if he saw the kid smoking, he wouldn’t let him buy any more.

Certainly there is a balance between the entitlement culture we too often have in the United States and the exploitation of children. For one, I believe work absolutely shouldn’t interfere with school, either the hours in class or the opportunity to complete work and study after. Which is why I felt supremely uncomfortable to find myself on a kind of tour boat piloted by a ten-year-old at 2:00PM on a Friday afternoon.

To back up, one of the fun, touristy things to do in Mexico City actually lies to the south of the city in a community called Xochimilco (say it zo-chee-mil-co). Xochimilco retains the Venice-like design of Mexico City from when it was the capitol of the Aztec empire, a marshy lake dotted with reedy islands navigated by canals and boats. Now, it’s popular to rent a lancha for anywhere between an hour or three and have a guide push you around to the sites while you enjoy the water, the floating mariachi bands, floating restaurants, and floating vendors. You can buy a beer off a lady in a canoe full of coolers while you float by or pay a few hundred pesos to have a mariachi band link their boat to yours and serenade you along your way.

Devon Davey, my guest and friend from Brandeis visiting from her practicum in Guadalajara.

Floating mariachi band, $100 pesos a song.

As we finally agreed on a trip, a price, my guests and I settled into our boat which was being backed out by a very young looking boatman. I assumed he was just helping out with the  family business and, once we were away from the dock, he would hop off and our (presumably adult) guide would take over.

Instead, the boss-man who took our money shouted that we had paid for an hour and half and the kiddo acknowledged this and started off, at which point I jumped up and went to the edge of the boat to argue with the boss. I was not at all reassured to learn that this is a “tradition” and that there are even younger kids than our guide, Alexis, doing this work. By this point we were not a short distance away from the dock with our mini-guide –two teachers and a child’s rights activist. We sat back, pretty uncomfortable, and tried to make the most of it. Alexis was plenty capable, talked to us a little about school, and even let me try my hand at his work.

Pushing a boat along on the bottom of the riverbed with a huge stick is pretty hard work.

We asked Alexis for permission to take his picture and he wasn’t at all hesitant. We tipped him. We treated him like a human being and we wished him all the best at the end of our tour. It’s not very much, I know. I debated for a long time about writing this post, but I think telling the little that I know of his story is worthwhile. As is mentioning that two boatmen shouted at him to go to school as we glided past. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a boatman in Xochimilco, but childhood is short and Alexis should have as many choices as possible.


What do you get a planet for its seven-billionth person? published this article back in May announcing the UN claim that in just a few weeks, around Halloween of 2011, the seven-billionth person will be born on Earth. We started thinking of ourselves as a six-billion person planet way back in 1999. At least we started referring to ourselves that way –I’m not sure six billion is something we’re capable of thinking of.

World population hit 1 billion people in 1804. It took 123 years to add the next billion, but less than a century to cruise past the next four billion — from 2 billion people in 1927 to 6 billion people in 1999.

The music is cheesy, but this is worth a watch. It’s not that there are just too dang many of us –or them, more likely– it’s that we seem to be fundamentally so bad at sharing