Archive for the ‘Texas’ Category

In Deep Economy, The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (2007) by Bill McKibben writes,

The year 2005 was the warmest on record, and nine of the ten hottest years were in the decade that preceded it; as a result of that heat, about an extra degree Fahrenheit globally averaged, all kinds odd things have begun to happen. For instance, everything frozen on earth is melting, and melting fast. In the fall of 2005, polar researchers reported that Arctic ice had apparently passed a “tipping point”: so much sun-reflecting white ice had been turned to heat-absorbing blue water that the process was now irreversible. Meanwhile, other scientists showed that because of longer growing seasons, temperate soils and forests like the ones across America were now seeing more decay, and hence giving off more of their stored carbon, accelerating the warming trend. So far, this young millenium has already seen a killer heat wave that killed fifty-two thousand people across Europe in the course of a couple of weeks, and an Atlantic hurricane season so bizarrely intense that we ran out of letters in the alphabet for naming storms. The point is, climate change is not some future specter; it’s already emerging as the biggest problem the world faces (p. 20). Bold added by me.

As someone who lived it, it doesn’t come as a surprise to me that 2011 in Texas set the new record for hottest summer recorded anywhere in the United States. Apparently the state averaged a temperature of 86.8 degrees Fahrenheit across the months of June, July, and August. Everything planted by every optimistic gardener I know in Austin (there are several) stopped growing in the stifling heat and 3:00AM’s air was heavy and tepid like bathwater. Noon to 4:00PM was just dangerous. According to the Lower Colorado River Authority, “As of Sept. 30, Austin has recorded 90 days of 100-degree temperatures this year, obliterating the old record of 69 days set in 1925.” More worrisome, the year marked from August 2010-August 2011 was the driest in all of Texas’ history and the unprecedented heat has plunged essentially the entire state into extreme drought conditions.

Texas' Drought

Time did a painful cover story on this depressing phenomenon: Why Texas’ Drought May Have Global Effects.

And then this past weekend, it rained. Not enough, but a lot. It was almost as though I felt a sigh of relief come from this city that I love. It does nothing, of course, to halt or delay the frightening trend, but it does seem to mean that Texas has finally tipped into its lovely non-summer months and that it’s going to make it another year. While it is wonderful to hear the rain-induced excitement from home, it is so frustrating to listen to would-be Republican presidential candidates continue to debate the existence of climate change while Texas suffers in its grip.

For the most extreme of these views –that global warming is in fact a hoax drummed up by politically motivated scientists manipulating data– you need look no further than the man who has served as Governor of Texas for the past decade.


Thoreau, in his famous Walden; or, Life in the Woods claims “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” For me, it is quite the opposite and solitude is often deeply unsettling. I have been thoroughly indoctrinated with the mandate to use my time wisely and yet finding both the impetus to do so and the reassurance that I am using my time wisely is so much harder when I am alone without the comforting institutions of work or school or the calming, centering daily exchanges with roommates or a significant other. When backpacking solo in Belize three-years ago, I wrote this in an email to a dear friend:

“There is this constant and confusing need to listen to myself, since there are no other factors… Am I hungry?  Am I tired? Do I want to take a walk?  Do I want to read a book?  It’s a little overwhelming, actually… I feel like I’m on a never ending date with myself.”

And, if I’m being honest, I often feel like I would’ve liked that date to end several hours ago.

This was the position I found myself in in the days leading up to my departure for Mexico City: alone except for my dog at my parents’ house in the country. Here I tried to organize the disparate pieces of my life (physically, my possessions and mentally, everything else) and distract myself enough to keep my heart from beating so hard that it hurt. The temperatures kept me trapped in the house with the window shades drawn for most of the day and I occasionally took note of the outdoor thermometer as it crept towards 108 in the hottest hours.

In the evenings, however, I would take my dog on a long walk around my parents’ property. The unbridled joy that my dog displayed on these walks was a good reminder to come back to myself in the present moment –to breathe deeply and to look around.

Ita needs no instruction in living deliberately.

Texas is crisp right now and despite some recent drizzles the drought lingers. The grass is brittle and crunchy, the trees are hungry for water. The little pond on my parents’ property is shrinking to a muddy, stagnant puddle. At the same time there is something profoundly settling about being in the woods, even if I must be there by myself.

The abundant cactus carries on.

Thoreau’s most famous quote from Walden is this: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” While I think deliberate living can be done or avoided anywhere, I do agree with an aspect of the essentialist’s perspective: that life at its most fundamental simply feels more real.

There can be no doubt that the little dog feels it, too.

Ita adores swimming in the pond, nevermind the water level.


My internship at the ACLU of Texas ended today without much fanfare. Neither of my supervisors were in the office, so this morning I quietly sorted through the papers I had accumulated over the summer, dumped most into the shredder, wrote up an unsolicited exit e-mail to the Policy and Advocacy team, and said goodbye to my fellow interns.

I suppose that one of the side effects of being unpaid may be being under-appreciated. This morning I fiddled with the Internship Evaluation for Summer 2011 that I had been given in my orientation packet back in June. In the instructions at the top of the page assuring me that the ACLU of Texas greatly values my feedback were no less than four different ways to return this evaluation to the intern coordinator before August 5th (in person, by email, by fax, or by mail). I ultimately decided that, while the internship had been a mixed bag, the evaluation was slanted in a way that made it difficult to accurately capture the reality of my experience. With response options 5-1 (5 being strongly agree, 1 being strongly disagree), there were questions like:

Overall, this internship was one of the best internships I have ever had.


Overall, this internship was one of the best learning experiences I have ever had.

A handout from the training on Free Expression in Public Schools.

It’s hard to objectively fill out an evaluation like that, especially when you’re one of four full-time interns, so anonymity is scarce.

The truth for me was that the ACLU of Texas had a need that I was qualified to fill and, thanks to my position as a graduate student, willing to fill (even excited to fill) for free. I used skills I had learned through Breakthrough Houston in 2004 and Teach For America in 2006 and developed over four-years of writing curriculum and delivering lessons in low-performing public schools.

I wrote a curriculum, not for the ACLU of Texas (though it would’ve been quite expensive for them to contract this project out), but for the young people who I hope will ultimately benefit from the trainings. All told, I took the lead on writing, formatting, editing, and compiling 12 one-hour Know Your Rights and community trainings and all associated materials. The trainings I created this summer include detailed lesson plans, activities, discussion questions, handouts, and PowerPoint presentations. When compiled into a .pdf document, they make for an over 160-page training manual.

Topics include:

  • Bullying and Harassment
  • Freedom of Expression in Public Schools
  • Immigration and Student Rights
  • Interacting with Police
  • LGBTQ Student Rights
  • Privacy and Access: School Records, Juvenile Records & Military Recruitment
  • Religious Liberties in Public Schools
  • Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights
  • Student Ticketing in Public Schools
  • Community Activism: Advocating for Change and Addressing Injustice
  • Human Rights: International Law and the ACLU

The project was meaningful and the final product is, I think, very strong. If the ACLU can start getting its trainers into schools, after-school programs, and community events across Texas, there can be a lasting impact from this summer’s work and I can be gratified and glad for that.

The first time I went to Mexico was ten-years ago, so I was sixteen. It was July. I spoke no Spanish.

I lived in Arlington, Texas. I’d spent most of the summer lifeguarding at the public pool near our house with my brother who was home from college. We rode our bikes to work most days. I didn’t personally know any Hispanic people, but I often took money from grass-stained Mexican patriarchs who brought their families to the pool for the afternoon, changing crisp hundred dollar bills into day passes for eager kids and grandkids and too shy to say gracias as I handed back the twenties. Though I wasn’t entirely conscious of it at the time, it was then that I began to wonder how I could have grown up so close to a people, their culture and their language, without knowing anything about them. We shared Texas, supermarket aisles, and a swimming pool, but that was where the overlap ended.

My brother had been spending a part of his summer at home with a Baptist youth group. I was not religious and didn’t know any of his youth group friends. He was invited to attend a weekend-long mission trip in Piedras Negras. Inexplicably, my parents said they would feel better if I went along. I’m still not entirely sure why I wanted to go, but I did. We spent the night before the trip in the church and I remember having some misgivings as I studied a map on the wall of one of the Sunday school rooms. It detailed “saved” and “unsaved” regions of the world, according to some unknown rubric, with more spiritually healthy areas shaded lighter than those awash in unsaved souls. All of the Baptists were really kind to me, though, and the next morning we woke up early and climbed into the church van for the seven hour drive to Eagle Pass and across the bridge.

It’s a powerful thing to cross one of the international bridges at the southern border of the United States. I had left the country before, but only via airplane where the act of physically moving across land and territory is far removed. We sat in stop-and-go traffic on the bridge for a long time and I remember looking down at the thin green band of the Rio Grande and up at the signs welcoming us to Mexico in English and in Spanish and feeling that first crossing very deeply.

Raymundo outside his home with his youngest son, Isaias, who I hope is now a healthy eleven-year-old.

The mission of this mission trip was appropriately humble. We were to meet Raymundo, a family man with a connection to the Arlington church, and stay at his house with his family. We would visit the church being built in his community. The Baptists would have a cookout one evening and show a film, the famous JESUS Film. We would visit an orphanage another evening to play with the kiddos and share a meal. I could get behind these expectations and I was grateful that I wasn’t asked to pray. There was no talk of the good we would be doing, but only of the hospitality of those hosting us.

This is what I remember about Raymundo’s home: The kids slept on the floor of the family room, and us with them. They slept like they’d been collectively hit by a truck, no sound or light disturbing them, uncovered, arms splayed over their heads in an attempt to keep cool. Raymundo’s wife placed a board across the open front door to keep the marauding chickens from coming into the house during the night. One night, we sat around in a circle in front of the house, singing and eating watermelon, and I felt incredibly happy.

One afternoon, we joined members of the church at a river for a picnic and a swim. I noticed a nearby family had brought a live goat in the bed of their pick-up and remember thinking what a strange thing, to bring a goat to a picnic. Not much later, I happened to glance over and saw that the goat had been strung up by its hind-legs in a tree, split open from tail to neck, and was now draining on the ground and, though foolishly shocked, I also felt pleased that I’d managed to miss seeing the actual killing.

I played with kids everywhere we went. In the new, unfinished church, we played pato, pato, gonzo.

Pato, pato, gonzo.

Pato, pato, gonzo.

In the street outside Raymundo’s house, we played soccer.


Futbol de la calle.

At the orphanage, we played a series of games: toss and spin, let me show you my toys, pick me up, piggy-back ride, and why the hell don’t you speak Spanish?

Get the gringa.

Get the gringa.

This trip had a profound effect on me. It was short in scope and almost certainly had no impact, except that it impacted me. I felt different, coming home. I felt like my world was bigger.

I also contracted a water-borne parasite that weekend (thanks to my Right to Water class last semester, I can now helpfully identify Giardia as the likely culprit), probably from brushing my teeth with the pump water or from swimming in the river. I got over Moctezuma’s revenge in a terrible few days, but I never got over Mexico.

A decade later and with far more skills than I had at sixteen, it feels right to go back in search of a lifetime of meaningful work with the brothers and sisters I’m still just beginning to know.

At one point in time, I mentioned that my choices for my practicum, that second year of my Masters spent abroad working in the development field, were Indonesia and Mexico. I want to work in rights-based development for my practicum, especially in migrant rights, and these are the two most moving, migrating countries on Earth. Ultimately the funding I needed to make Indonesia work (being as it’s considerably more difficult for me to access than Mexico) didn’t come through for me. At the time, Mexico City felt like something of a default and my practicum plans were vague and seemed unreal and far away.

Time: The War Next Door

Time Covers the War Next Door

In the last few weeks though, things have necessarily come into much sharper focus. Even as I was complaining that there was no where near enough media coverage over the carnage in the drug war-torn nation, I suddenly seemed to hear about Mexico everywhere.  This amazing NPR series, for example, on migrants.

Or the national story surrounding yesterday evening’s execution of a Mexican citizen who had lived the majority of his life in the United States.

Or this absolutely fantastic and absurd confession from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that it lost track of some guns that it had purposefully sold to cartel members in Mexico in something it was actually calling Operation “Fast and Furious.” As I’m sure is surprising to no one, “…weapons involved in the sting have turned up at crime scenes — they have been involved in at least 150 shootings, including the murder of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry. The ATF now admits it lost track of two-thirds of the guns…” Or this Time article which lays out the stark truth: Juarez, Mexico, sister-city to El Paso, Texas, is the most dangerous city on Earth, at times averaging 70 murders a day. Rough estimates of casualties from the drug war reach 40,000 since 2006 –more than the total casualties in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion.

Even as Mexico is embroiled in violence that is shocking in its ferocity and scope, and even as the U.S. continues a policy of ignorance, acquiescence, or blatant criminality towards its southern neighbor, I am eager to move to Mexico City.

Mexico City is still the operating seat of federal authority, even as parts of the country struggle in chaos. Mexico City is safe, otherwise I would not be allowed to complete a practicum there. Safer, I have read, than Washington, D. C. And Mexico is a country that I know and love just enough to know that I will know it better and love it more. Lupe, a friend of mine at Rivera High School in Brownsville and one of our senior custodians, once told me that “Eres Mexicana en su corazon.” I’m not sure that that’s true, (Soy Tejana) but I took it as I’m sure he meant it, as an enormous compliment.

Since returning to Austin, about 70% of the people I have hung out with have been to Mexico City. And 100% of these people have highly recommended it, wished the could go back, told me I’m going to have an amazing experience. So, I am going. I move to Mexico City on August 27th and will be there for a minimum 6-months. What do I know about Mexico City? Not much, even though I’ve now had to write and submit a proposal detailing my practicum project. I feel in no way prepared to detail a city of this magnitude. What I do know is a short list: It’s huge, one of the largest urban centers in all the world. It’s built on top of the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan with ruins visible in the subway and in museums and excavation sites scattered throughout. The home and paintings of Frida Khalo and the murals of Diego Rivera are there.

Even though I have never been, and the places that I do know in Mexico (Reynosa, Matamoros, Monterrey, and Tampico) are too dangerous to return to now, I know I will love Mexico City.

This is the private prison industry issue as I understand it: Increasingly, to “save costs” and “promote free-enterprise” our government has turned over the job of incarcerating those who are incarcerated for breaking the laws the government establishes to private prison companies. These companies, the biggest being Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, are supposedly subject to government oversight through the BOP but have repeatedly refused to share information about what’s happening inside their facilities’ walls. The legal argument goes like this: information on how the prisons are run, the kind of medical care prisoners receive, for example, is considered a trade secret and sharing it would put the company in question at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace. As a result, abuse goes unreported.

How are things going inside these privately run and private beyond government scrutiny facilities? It’s difficult to know, but there have been riots and prisoner deaths, and many reports of abuse, such as the overuse of solitary confinement. Cases like that of Jesus Gallindo, reported by Dan Rather in the video below. Gallindo is one of nine prisoners known to have died at the Reeve’s detention facility in Pecos, Texas since 2006.

Today at the ACLU of Texas internship we had a guest speaker, Bob Libal from Grassroots Leadership which works on prison issues. He spoke mainly on immigration detention as locking up undocumented migrants has become a money-making strategy employed by the for-profit prison industry. NPR reported on this last year in the wake of the passage of Arizona’s SB1070, the “Papers, Please” law.

If you live in Texas and want to find a private prison near you (or just see the scope of the issue), check out this incredible map from Texas Prison Bid’ness.

How has our so-called justice system become a for-profit industry? How could we have gone so wrong? Grassroots Leadership is promoting a divestment campaign as part of its strategy and will be rallying tomorrow at Congress and 1st to protest Wells Fargo’s stock ownership in these for profit prisons.  I think this poster says it best.