Thursday, December 18, 2014

God-in-Motion, An Advent Reflection on Movement and Belonging

In December and this season of advent, I find myself thinking about movement and belonging more than ever.

When we think of Christmas, the most common images are of a calm stable, a manger with a silently sleeping babe, two doting parents, and peaceful onlookers. A fixed image. Solidified. Still.

Yet, advent is full of movement! It is the time when we await the crossing of a spiritual being over the border of physical embodiment. A being whose crossing entails the painful and bloody passage from womb to world, ominous greetings by foreign strangers who have traversed ‘field and fountain, moor and mountain’ to be present, and a perilous flight into unknown lands seeking refuge from oppression and certain death.

However, our world prefers the single image of a static moment.

Mary cried out in agony as she pushed Jesus from the safety of her womb into the world; the wise men (and, likely, women) faced xenophobia and government interrogation as they came to bear witness; and after his birth Jesus’ family fled into the Egyptian wilderness after Herod’s violent decree.

Those are just some of the border crossings of advent – miraculous transformations and terrifying transitions that we so easily forget or glance over, preferring the fixed image of a babe in a manger. An image that doesn’t challenge our stable comfort.

But when we look closer during advent we see that Jesus, from before he was even born, was a migrant and refugee – homeless, and couch-hopping. It is in times like this when I find it so clear that we worship a God-in-motion. Yet we still fabricate our world with an intention of fixity. We invent borders and build walls, enact immigration and zoning laws, decide peoples’ fates based off their rental history or the number of jobs on a resume. We try to pin people down, to confine and define them, when our faith shows us time and time again, that no one can live like that and nor should they.

Last year on December 18th Tochan and other migrant rights organizations gathered to celebrate International Day of the Migrant, attending conferences for the migrants to share their experiences, exploring the city together, and sharing a special meal. Together we bore witness to stories of terrible violence, abuse, danger, and still, somehow, hope. I was confronted, again, with the harsh realities of violence both physical and institutional in the journey. In this world we penalize movement that doesn’t match up with standards and patterns of upper class luxury. Our world confines people to continents, nations, cities, even specific neighborhoods where they won’t burden anyone, regardless of what their life is like or what their wandering heart desires.

Yet we worship a God in motion.

On the same day, December 18th, this year I will attend the Homeless Memorial March here in Minneapolis as part of my work as a St. Joseph Worker with Catholic Charities. This annual event remembers and commemorates the lives of individuals experiencing homelessness who have died in the last year, many of whom passed from entirely preventable causes. Again, we live in and contribute to a world that ignores and denigrates people who are not stable enough, who don’t have a home or rental history, whose minds change more often than their clothes. As we march and remember those we’ve lost, I will be thinking of our God-in-motion yet again and wondering why we keep trying to negate that Divine itch to move and change and still belong.

God has never been still. The Divine cannot be defined, controlled or contained, and neither can the Divine in us. Our very nature, that divine spark of our being, directly opposes any social order dependent on borders, fixities, stability, and regimentation. We were not meant to force black-and-white on a world so full of color! Let us create a world that embraces wanderers and vagabonds, migrants and homeless, couch-hoppers and fence-jumpers. Maybe then we will come to know the God-in-motion within ourselves and our neighbors.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

"I never wanted to leave..."

Maverick being a goofball in the kitchen
     Maverick is 24, Honduran, and one of the spunkiest, quirkiest people I know. He is incredibly smart, an avid reader (had just finished The Portrait of Dorian Gray when I met him), a collector of many things, extremely outspoken, ‘un poco loco’ - ‘a little crazy,’ and a devoted music fan. From Drake to Dido, Maverick perpetually played music, either from the common computers in Tochan or on his new telephone. Every once in a while he would walk up to me, put an earbud in my ear and make me listen to the latest song to strike his fancy. On a daily basis, Maverick told me “Me fascina esta canción!” - “I’m obsessed with this song!” He explained that music transports him to another world. It’s not only his passion, but his diversion and escape.

     Maverick’s migration story started about two years ago when his previously stable life in Honduras took an unexpected and irreparable hit. In Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Maverick was a student at the university, studying marketing, and living in his own apartment. Then, on November 26th, 2012 Maverick and seven other young men were secuestrados (kidnapped) by the gang that controls the neighborhood where he lived. They were suspected of having information about a woman working against gang activities. After being interrogated, the eight of them were released. However, just days later, four of the young men who had been kidnapped and the elderly woman who had opposed the gang were found murdered on the street.
Part of Maverick's coin collection

     Maverick immediately fled the area, staying with his mother for a period, while he hoped the risk would go down and he could go back to school. However it wasn't long before he received word that the gang was looking for him too. Despite the fact that he never wanted to leave Honduras, Maverick had no choice but to flee his beloved country, going to Mexico as a refugee in search of protection.

Speaking about his journey at International Day of the Migrant

     After entering Mexico, Maverick was detained by Migración (immigration officials) and placed in custody of the Migration Station in Chiapas – the southernmost state of Mexico. “Migration Station” is a nice way of saying detention facility, or temporary prison for migrants in Mexico. According to official rhetoric, these stations are “a place for migrants to stay” while their migration statuses are determined. However they are notoriously neglected, dangerous, abusive places, which often do more harm to the migrants than any ‘protection’ they could ever offer. During the 90 days that Maverick was detained in Chiapas, he endured physical aggressions from fellow detainees and Migra officials. When he defended himself they threatened to use tranquilizers and then put him in solitary confinement. His cell was such a dusty compartment that he suffered several severe asthma attacks, none of which were treated. He is now filing a human rights suit against Migración.

     All the while, Maverick had to manage his own application and legal case for refugee status. He cannot go back to Honduras because there is a very real, imminent threat to his life due to individual persecution (which is the requirement to attain refugee status in any country). However, after reviewing his case, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees in Mexico (UNHCR), declared his fear was “subjective” and therefore unfounded. He was denied refuge and complementary protection.

A time of reflection at Parque Alameda
     That was when he came to us. When he first entered Tochan, Maverick only had 3 days left to be in Mexico legally. He was passing through Mexico City on his way north, confused, scared, and angry. More than anything, Maverick wants to go home. One day, after watching the screening of a documentary about migrants who have ‘disappeared’ in their trajectories through Mexico, Maverick gave a speech that left all of us, himself included, in tears:

“Most migrants don’t leave their countries because it struck their fancy. They leave because they can’t be there anymore. I never wanted to leave my country. I have endured things here that I had never experienced in Honduras. I never had to endure hunger in Honduras; I have never felt exhaustion like having to cling to the top of a train for my life. I love my country. I would give anything to go back, to see my mom, to give her a hug for Christmas. But I can’t.”

     The psychological consequences of the abuse, violence, and rejection that he has endured are clear and profound. Although he is a definitively positive, outgoing person, there are moments when the scars of his trauma become visible - you can see the sadness and the anger touch him. To manage these moments, Maverick retreats into himself, sometimes with meditation or prayer, and often with music, until he can calm down and come back to us as himself.

Winning at foosball
     While he was with us at Tochan, a group of lawyers and legal advocates helped him appeal his case for asylum. However, after two months’ worth of hard work finding as much concrete evidence as possible and even harder work testifying to what happened, Maverick’s case was rejected yet again. This meant that he had to flee further north and try again to apply for refugee status in the United States, turning himself in to immigration officials in Tijuana and awaiting a decision on whether he will be a refugee in the U.S.

     Maverick’s story isn't one of triumph or justice, and for that reason I believe it is incredibly important to share. Many people hold the belief that migrants leave their homes simply because they feel like it or because they want to pursue that ethereal ‘American Dream,’ and that is not true. Whether it is a specific traumatic event like what happened to Maverick or a series of micro-events and situations that coalesce, migrants leave their homes because of necessity. There is nothing Maverick wants more in this world than to go home to his country, his family, his friends, and his university - his Honduran life. But he can't. He is not allowed to belong anywhere. And that is the tragedy.

     Yet, there is hope here. The beautiful thing about Maverick is his perseverance. No matter what happens to him, he doesn't give up. He struggles, has doubts, and suffers, but he does not give up. Knowing Maverick is an inspiration, and I honestly believe that I have been blessed every day I spent in his company. Whether he taught me the lyrics to a new song or how to make Honduran desserts, Maverick constantly, and probably unknowingly, showed me what the human spirit is capable of. And that is a beautiful, life-altering lesson.

A classic Maverick smile as he promotes our craft fair at the Museum of Memory and Tolerance

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

An Outsider's Perspective - Tochan: Nuestra Casa

     This blog post is by my friend and fellow YAGM, Rachel Birkedal.  She came to visit us a couple weeks ago at Tochan to meet my friends - the migrants, and to see what a typical day is like in the life of a Tochaner.  She wrote this blog post about her experience, and I think it gives a perspective on what I experience every day.  So read it, enjoy it, and share it if you'd like!
Haz clic aquí para español.

     Over Christmas break I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Mexico City with a couple of my fellow YAGMs and see their worksites. On Thursday I went with Rachel (Yes, please don’t get confused during this blog, she is also Rachel or Raquel, which is Spanish means she is my tocaya) to Tochan which is un albergue para los migrantes. I’m too used to saying that it Spanish! Ok, in English... She works at a migrant shelter. The majority of the migrants at Tochan come from Central America countries. Tochan aims to provide a safe place to stay and live together in community while the migrants figure out next steps for their goals. The word “Tochan” is Nauhatl for "our home," which is what the shelter aims to be, at least temporarily, for these people. Rachel often talks about the people she is blessed to work with and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet them in person.

Part of the new mural that is going up in Tochan that has been a collaborative project between volunteers and tochaneros. It is designed off of the descriptions from migrants about what the journey looks like. The wagons each have a flag representing a country from which Tochan has received a migrant, and the dove that starts the passage (not shown) is the symbol of Tochan.

     After walking up the steep stairs (everywhere I go with Rachel seems to involve a trip that leaves me out of breath at the end!) and entering Tochan, we were greeted by each person currently in the kitchen and living room. Handshake, kiss on the cheek, hug, “mucho gusto” (nice to meet you) and often a “She’s Raquel too?!” We walked in the kitchen and they had graciously left two plates on the table for our breakfast (sardines & beans!) and coffee was brewing in the pot. After eating and sitting down we were invited by a group of the residents to take a trip with them to one of the parks and the free local zoo. Traveling in the metro with 4 Hispanic men rather than my normal group of foreigners (YAGMs) made me feel much more comfortable and “blended in,” even though as we loudly chatted away in Spanish you could hear the Honduran accent easily giving away that we weren’t actually “from here.”

Part of our excursion group at the entrance to the park Chapultepec
Part of our excursion group at the entrance to the park Chapultepec
     When we got to the zoo it became apparent that (as my roommate recently wrote in her blog while in France) you just never outgrow those middle school years. These Honduran men (between the ages of 24 and 45) were running around snapping crazy pictures of animals, playing practical jokes on each other, climbing rocks, singing a Lion King song for every animal we encountered and just plain having a good time!

I turn around and they are all like this...
Turns out they had found a secret way to see the gorillas! :)
     Later when we returned to the shelter we were once again graciously provided lunch that had been cooked by the other residents. This time it was chicken soup... perfect for a cold day in which rain had started to fall on our return trip! The rest of the afternoon was filled with watching Rachel (my friend... not me!) lose at damas or checkers. Then she complained that their rules were not the same (which they aren’t!), but eventually she won (once) against the best player in the house to which he cried “No puede ser” – “It can’t be!” After damas was Mundo turismo which is a “world” version of Monopoly... needless to say... I lost. By this point it was already an hour past the time when Rachel normally leaves, so, as they all sat down for supper, we headed out to start the hour/hour and a half journey back to Rachel’s house. We individually said goodbye to all and then shivered our way back to the bus. It was a cold night!

Rachel losing at checkers 
She won! "It can't be!"
     It was a very fun and eventful day. I got some practice on listening to the various Central American accents and several games I haven’t played in years. Being in the house with 14 residents and a couple volunteers made me feel like I was on vacation with my family. Yet amid all the fun and laughter it could have been easy, and a shame, for me to forget the stories of these men and women. Stories that caused Rachel to shed a few tears on our way back home as we talked. Stories of hurt, violence and fear, but also of strength and courage. Stories of:

  • Men who don’t normally leave the house for fear of being caught by gangs that once attacked them on their journey... And yet these men allowed me to share in their bravery as they left the house to visit the zoo.
  • A young man about my age, who was kidnapped, almost killed and forced to flee... An incident that will forever change his life and force him to file for refugee status in Mexico, even though he was once a happy carefree college student living in Honduras. 
  • Migrants who had to ride La bestia to leave their homes and travel to an unknown land.
    • “La bestia” is translated as “The beast,” and rightfully so. Many migrants jump on the train that travels north through Mexico, but it doesn’t come without price. Rachel now has a fear of trains after harboring the stories that these migrants have shared with her. Stories of jumping off moving trains, of being attacked by gangs, of losing limbs, of being beaten by officials; La Bestia is truly a Beast.

     These men and women who in their time at Tochan have become Rachel’s best friends are some of the most fun and interesting people I have met. They are all different, with their own interests, music styles, hopes and dreams. But what they all have in common is that they are migrants in a foreign land. Not unlike myself as I have traveled across state borders and now across country borders, but unlike me, they are fleeing a home they love, but that in many cases has forced them to leave. The majority of them dream of returning (I can’t count how many times I heard “In Honduras...”), but they can’t for various reasons. They are praying for a day when their individual situations or the situation within their country will change and they can return to the land that saw them crecer - grow up.

This painting (by YAGM Rachel) hangs in the living room,it includes the seals of various Central American countries and reads "We are all migrants and all migrants deserve everything they desire."
     I am very blessed to have had this experience that allowed me see into a little bit of Rachel’s experience here in Mexico. As a YAGM Mexico group we are able to not just live our individual experiences but also to share in the stories that our fellow YAGMs share with the group. Rachel is a “Solidarity Sister” at Tochan... That’s the name our coordinator gave her. This means she is blessed with the burden of living with and sharing in the stories of these migrants. I ask that you pray for these migrants who are far from their homes and I ask that you pray for Rachel as she struggles with all she is learning from them.

     If you would like to hear more from Rachel, visit her blog at

Hold these stories with care. There are many people who will benefit from the stories they hear during our time together. Imagine listening to another as you would listen to scripture -- attentively, mindfully, and open to the holy.” - Covenant of Presence

(re-posted with permission from Rachel Birkedal's blog)

Una Perspectiva desde Afuera - Tochan: Nuestra Casa

     Aquí comparto una publicación del blog de mi amiga y compañera del programa YAGM de la iglesia luterana, Rachel Birkedal  (si, otra Rachel/Raquel).  Ella nos visitó aquí en Tochan hace unas semanas para conocer a mis amigos - los migrantes, y para ver cómo es un día el la vida de un Tochanero.  Aquí ella escribió de su experiencia con nosotros, y creo que ella puede dar otro vistazo en lo que yo experimento cada día.  ¡Entonces, léelo, disfrútalo, y, si quieres, compártelo!
For English, click here.

     Durante las vacaciones de la navidad, tuve la oportunidad de pasar tiempo en La Ciudad de México con algunas de mis compañeras (en inglés nos llamamos YAGMs por el nombre de nuestro programa) y a visitar sus sitios de trabajo. El jueves fui con Rachel (¡no te confundes, es mi tocaya!) a Tochan, un albergue para migrantes. La mayoría de los migrantes, gente en movimiento, en Tochan vienen de los países Centro Americanos. Tochan tiene como objetivo proporcionar un lugar seguro para quedarse a vivir juntos en comunidad, mientras que los migrantes averiguan próximos pasos de sus objetivos. La palabra "tochan" es náhuatl de "nuestra casa", que es lo que el albergue tiene como objetivo ser, al menos temporalmente, para la gente. En mis conversaciones con Rachel, ella me platica frecuentemente de la gente que la bendicen en su trabajo. No pude dejar pasar la oportunidad a conocer esa gente.

En una pared dentro de Tochan encontrarás este mural que es un proyecto colaborativo entre los voluntarios y los tochaneros. El diseño viene de las descripciones de los tochaneros de cómo se ve el viaje. Lleva las banderas de cada país que ha tenido Tochan. La paloma que empieza el camino (no se puede ver) es el símbolo de Tochan.
     Acabamos subiendo las escaleras (¡siento como siempre estoy sin aliento en los caminos con Rachel!) y entrando en Tochan, nos saludaron todos en la cocina y el salón con un apretón de manos, beso, abrazo, ¨mucho gusto¨, y ¨Ella es Raquel también¨? Cuando entramos en la cocina nos ofrecieron dos platos de desayuno (sardinas y frijoles) y el café estaba lista. Comimos y nos sentamos en el salón. Luego nos invitaron a viajar con un grupo a uno de los parques más grandes de la ciudad de México y al zoológico gratis adentro. Viajando en el metro con estos hombres hispanos en vez de mi grupo normal de extranjeros (los YAGMs) me hizo sentir más cómoda y pertenecida… aunque se pudo escuchar bien al acento hondureño mientras hablamos y bromeamos fuerte en manera que nos dio fácilmente como extranjeros.

Parte de nuestro grupo de excursión.
Parte de nuestro grupo de excursión.
     Cuando llegamos al zoológico, fue obvio que nunca se escapa la etapa de la adolescencia. Estos hombres que tienen 24 a 45 años, estaban corriendo por el zoológico tomando fotos de animales extraños, bromeando, subiendo las rocas, cantando canciones de “El Rey Leon” para cada animal que encontramos y pasando bien el tiempo.

¡Me di vuelta, y ellos estaban así!
Ellos encontraron otra manera de ver los gorilas.
     Más tarde cuando regresamos al albergue nos ofrecieron la comida que había preparada por otros residentes. Esa vez era caldo de pollo…. Perfecto para un día frío y lluvioso. En la tarde, Rachel se perdió en damas (¡varias veces!) y ella comenzó a quejarse que las reglas suyas no son los mismos de las reglas de ella (¡y es verdad! ¡No jugamos lo mismo!). Pero finalmente ella ganó contra el mejor jugador de la casa. “¡No puede ser!” él gritó. Después de damas jugamos “Mundo turismo” que es una versión “mundial” de Monopolio… no les tengo que decir… lo perdí... Al terminar el juego fue tiempo para regresarnos a la casa de Rachel. Es un viaje de una hora a una hora y media. Empezamos a despedirnos de todos y nos tiritamos en el camino al autobús (Hacía muchísimo frío).

Rachel perdiendo su juego de damas.
Raquel se ganó. ¡No puede ser!
     Fue un día divertido y con mucha actividad. Practiqué mi habilidad de escuchar al acento centro americano y jugar juegos de mi niñez. Estar en la casa con los 14 residentes y varios voluntarios me hizo sentir de vacaciones con mi familia. Pero con todo la diversión y la risa pudiera ser fácil y una vergüenza a olvidar las historias de esta gente, historias que le hizo a Rachel llorar en el camino a la casa mientras practicábamos. Historias de daño, violencia, miedo, pero también de fuerza y valor. Historias de:
  • Hombres que no salen de Tochan por miedo de las pandillas que los atacaron en el camino… Sin embargo, los mismos me permitieron a compartir en su valentía cuando se fueron de la casa por la primera vez y a visitar el zoológico.
  • Un joven que fue secuestrado, casi matado y obligado a huir… un incidente que va a cambiar su vida para siempre y obligarlo a declararse en la condición de refugiado aquí en México, aunque hace poco tiempo que estaba como un estudiante de la universidad, contento y despreocupado en Honduras.
  • Los migrantes que salen de sus hogares a viajar en La bestia hacia tierras desconocidas.
    • “La bestia” lleva ese nombre por razón. Es la transportación que muchos toman en su viaje al norte, pero nos es sin algún precio.... Por las historias de sus amigos, Rachel ahora tiene miedo de los ferrocarriles. Historias de brincar de ferrocarriles en movimiento, de ser atacado por pandillas, de perder extremidades, de haber sido golpeado por oficiales. Sí, La bestia tiene razón por llevar ese nombre.
     La gente en su tiempo en la casa Tochan se convirtieron en algunos de los mejores amigos de mi amiga Rachel. Son divertidos, interesantes, chistosos y valientes. Cada uno tienen sus propios intereses, tipo de música, sueños y esperanzas. Pero lo que tienen en común es que son gente en una tierra extranjera. En una manera similar yo he cruzado fronteras estatales y ahora fronteras nacionales, pero a diferencia de mi, huyeron de un hogar que lo aman pero tuvieron que salir. La mayoría sueñen a regresar a su país (no sé cuantas veces escuché “En Honduras…” durante mi visita), pero no pueden por varias razones. Rezan por un día cuando su situación cambie y que puedan regresar a la tierra que los vio crecer.

Esta pintura (por Rachel) está en el salón, 
incluye los sellos de varios países centro americanos.
     Soy bendecida por esa experiencia que me permitió a entender la experiencia de Rachel aquí en México. Como estoy aquí con un grupo de voluntarias de la iglesia luterana, aprendo también de las experiencias de mis compañeros. Agradezco mucho esa oportunidad a visitarla. Rachel es un “Solidarity Sister” o “Una hermana de la solidaridad” en Tochan… es el nombre que le dio nuestra coordinadora Lindsay (¡suena mejor en ingles!). Significa que Rachel ha sido bendecida con la carga de vivir y compartir en los cuentos e historias de los migrantes. Pido que les oren por estos migrantes que están muy lejos de sus tierras amadas y pido que le oren por Rachel mientras lucha con todo lo que está aprendiendo de ellos.

     Si quieres escuchar más de Rachel, da un vistazo a su blog

"Mantener estas historias con cuidado. Hay muchas personas que se beneficiarán de las historias que se escuchan durante nuestro tiempo juntos. Imagínese escuchando a otro como lo haría escuchar a la escritura - con atención y abierto a la santa ". - Pacto de Presencia

(publicado con permiso desde el blog de Rachel Birkedal)

Tuesday, December 31, 2013


I love darkroom photography.

     In high school I took every possible class and worked for hours in the darkroom by myself, listening to Hijas del Sol and manipulating negatives into positives.  It was amazing work.  My photography teacher was Ms. Wilson (pronounced Wheeeeeel-sin due to her thick southern accent), a short, spunky, red-haired woman who happened to have a rhyme, saying, or song for just about every artistic principle.

     One of Ms. Wheeeeeel-sin's favorite sayings in the darkroom was about getting the proper contrast in our photos.  We used different filters to increase contrast in our prints depending on how much gray-scale was blurring up our photos.  Ms. Wheeeeeel-sin used to always say that filters "take the gray... AWAY!" in the happiest voice imaginable.

So what does this have to do with Mexico?

     If life here were a photo and socioeconomic status was the pigmentation, Ms. Wheeeeeel-sin would be proud of its composition, although potentially concerned by its content.  Socioeconomic gray-scale is minuscule and nearly invisible here.  From the minute I wake up in the morning to the moment I fall asleep at night, I am perpetually confronted by the contrast.  The very extreme contrast.

From the carretera upwards - an interlomas
highrise behind la barranca del negro
     Looking out the window over my dresser, I have a view of the homes along my street - basic concrete and cinder-block homes with roofs topped with colorful laundry hanging out to dry.  Below our homes, further down the valley, I can see the homes become progressively more ramshackle, pieced-together, and fragile.  At the edge of the road at the bottom of the valley I can see the temporary structures assembled by the homeless people who live along the carretera.  There are a couple round concrete tubes where 5 men live, accompanied by a family of black, shaggy street dogs.

     Crossing the road and rising up the other side of the valley, the pattern replicates and reverses itself.  However, in the far distance, above the humble (but colorful!) concrete/cinder-block homes on the other side of the valley, I have a view of the incredibly ritzy high-rise apartments of Interlomas, Santa Fe, and Huixquilucan - three of the wealthiest zones not just in Mexico City, but in the entire country.  The fact that their elite housing complexes loom above the more modest dwellings of my neighborhood is a physical manifestation of a social hierarchy that isn't lost on me.

     And all that before I even get dressed in the morning.

     Leaving my house I'm bombarded yet again with the extreme contrast as I walk by cars along my street that quite obviously haven't moved for decades but above me I can see sparkling white BMWs speeding though my neighborhood on their way to the elite zones around us.  I notice that the advertisements on billboards above our corner stores, our tortillerías, our taco stands, are not geared for us, but rather for those drivers passing through on their way to 'bigger and better' things.  Because I can assure you that no one who lives in El Olivo can afford private aerial dancing classes.

     Then there's public transportation to think about.  The fact that only one bus route connects my isolated, working-class neighborhood to the big city and that the entire trajectory takes between 1 to 2 hours, whereas driving on your own it takes 20 minutes.  If 'time is money' as we're so fond of saying, how much more do people who have to depend on public transportation have to spend simply to get to work?
(A great TED Talk by the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia explains why this is so important!)

     Speaking of money, there's the issue of actual money spent on transportation.  A one-way ride from El Olivo to the closest metro station is 10 pesos, and a one way ride to the nearest grocery store is 8 pesos.  However, if you take it from just outside of our neighborhood limits, the price drops in half.  So people who live in Huixquilucan proper, Interlomas, etc. pay 5 or 4 pesos, and many people who live in El Olivo end up walking to save that money (which is equal to 31-38 U.S. cents).  When the minimum wage here is 55 pesos per day, $4.21 US dollars, that makes a difference.  It's 9% of your daily income.  (For extra irony, you have to walk to the Proctor and Gamble offices to take the combi for 4 pesos.)

Although the traffick wasn't too heavy at the moment I took
this picture, you can see the periférico hierarchy clearly.
     Once you're in Mexico City proper (also known as DF), there's another physical manifestation of the wealth hierarchy, this time on the street.  Around DF there is a huge circular highway called the periférico that allows people to avoid the highly confusing streets of the biggest city in the world.  The periférico is the central route for almost anyone travelling above ground in Mexico City, and consequently it fills with the heaviest traffic of the entire city.  However, if you can afford it, you can pay to drive on the private road literally right above the free periférico.  So, again, if you're rich you can save time.  And time is money, right?

     Finally, (although nothing is really ever final with these issues, is it?) there is the inevitable fact that the further into the wealthy, ritzy, private zones you go, the whiter and whiter the people get.  I have noticed this as I have made the walk to the grocery store, as I take the bus ride to work, anytime I find myself crossing a border from 'clase popular' to 'clase alta'.  The richer the area, the whiter the general occupants.

     Living in the United States, I saw undeniable economic inequality and similar racial correspondence.  So this post is not, at all, meant to inadvertently say that the United States is somehow perfect, but (going back to the photography metaphor at the beginning of this post) the filter used for this Mexican photo took the contrast up.

     A measurement of economic inequality used by economists called the GINI coefficient.  The number ranks countries on a scale of 0 to 100, with 0 being perfect economic equality - everyone makes the exact same amount of money - and 100 being perfect economic inequality - where the richest person earns all the money.  On this scale, Mexico ranks higher than the United States by 7 points, with 47.16 compared to the US's 40.18.

     Yet, compared to other countries in the Americas, Mexico doesn't look so bad.  Which is saying something.  For example, Honduras, where the majority of the migrants we receive at Tochan come from, is ranked as the 8th most economically unequal country in the world, Colombia is the 11th, El Salvador the 28th, Mexico 34th, and USA 61st.  (For the record, there are 194 countries in the world.)*

A map of world GINI coefficients
     A question I keep coming back to as I encounter all of these extreme economic differences on a daily basis is:  Where do I fit in this?  I am a wealthy, white, U.S. American, living in a working-class, mestizo, Mexican neighborhood, living off 55 pesos a day, working with displaced Central American migrants, many of whom are fleeing even worse economic disparity than they encounter here.  Where do I fit?

     Honestly, I don't know.  And I won't pretend to know.  It can be awkward and uncomfortable at times, especially trying to explain it:

When Tochan doesn't have any money in the office to buy tortillas that day, how can I explain that I actually don't have any extra to loan them even though they've seen photos of my parents' homes and know my socioeconomic background?

When I walk into the mall to get cereal (yes, grocery stores are in malls here), how can I explain that I feel uncomfortable surrounded by white people despite the fact that I am one because I only ever see that many of us when I'm shopping?

There are no easy answers, I suppose.

Just live, lean into the discomfort, learn, and, maybe, fight back.

*I gathered my GINI coefficient statistics from this website.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

¡Feliz Navidad!

Just a brief post to wish you all, near and far, a very Merry Christmas (or Feliz Navidad, if you prefer).  I am endlessly grateful for the people in my life and everything they have done and continue to do to support me.  You all rock!
I hope this video makes you smile - it's a musical season's greeting from the YAGMéxico crew!
Esto es un blog bien breve solo para desearles, cerca y lejos, un Feliz Navidad (o 'Merry Christmas' si lo prefieren).  Estoy infinitamente agradecida por todas las personas en mi vida y por todo que han hecho y que hacen para apoyarme.  ¡Ustedes son lo mejor!
Espero que este video les hace sonreir - es un saludo musical del YAGMéxico grupo!

Friday, December 20, 2013

“La oscuridad se vuelve a luz.” The darkness becomes light.

Disclaimer:  This story also appeared in my Newsletter on Nov. 1st 2013.
If you read that and are reading this, it will be repetitive, but maybe it will speak to you differently this time.  If you haven't read it yet, enjoy!

Pedro, showing off his new hat and shades.

     Pedro is 23 years old, Honduran, a soccer aficionado, and one of my best friends at Tochan.  Every day when I arrive at work, he greets me with his huge smile and an enthusiastic “Buenos días, Raquel!”  Beyond being exceedingly friendly and patient, he has shown me the power of the human spirit.

     On May 5th, 2012, Pedro left Honduras (intending to get to the United States) due to economic difficulty and social violence.  However, Pedro’s Honduran pride is unmistakably evident. He talks about how much he misses the abundant flora and fauna, rivers, oceans and beaches, ancient ruins, the streets of his barrio, his soccer field and school, and, most of all his friends and family.  Pedro told me, and I have come to observe, “Hondurans are chatty, open; they share everything – ideas, life.  We want to make our society better.  I miss that.”

     After leaving his hometown, Pedro crossed the majority of Honduras, paid to enter Guatemala, crossed all of Guatemala in combis (little vans that act as uncomfortable buses), and took a 6-hour boat ride into Mexico where he met up with friends who were also migrating north.  When they got to Tabasco, the group jumped on the freight train known as “La Bestia” – The Beast.  La Bestia is one of the few ways that poor Central Americans can afford to migrate north, by climbing onto and jumping off of the fast-moving cars.

     On May 17th at midnight Pedro attempted to board La Bestia, but slipped, fell, and hit his head, losing consciousness.  When he came to, he tried to stand, but couldn't.  Confused, he reached down his leg and felt blood, and bone.  He had lost his left leg to the tracks.  Thousands of people are mutilated and even die from similar incidents every year.

     Fortunately for Pedro, someone heard him cry out before he passed out again and called the Red Cross, who took him to a hospital where they finalized the amputation.  At first he was in a state of total despair.  Losing his leg at 22 was the last thing he thought might happen to him, and the very last thing he wanted.  Every once in a while he was reminded of things that he would never be able to do again, like when he unpacked his cleats and realized he might never play soccer again.  His physical recovery went quickly, but psychologically it took several months for Pedro to regain his optimism, cheeriness, and faith.

Setting up Tochan's Día de los Muertos ofrenda
and testing out his new prosthesis.
     After leaving the hospital, Pedro was taken to a federal Migration Station where he stayed for a few weeks and petitioned for his Mexican residency.  In April, Pedro came to Tochan, and he is now the resident who has spent the most time with us.  Since his accident, Pedro has become an unlikely beacon of hope in the house.  He often acts as an unofficial counselor to the other residents, offering advice and comfort when they are at their lowest points.

     During one of our many post-lunch coffee conversations, we were talking about his accident and he summarized it by saying, “La oscuridad se vuelve a luz.” – The darkness becomes light.  I can’t think of a better way of describing what has happened to Pedro and how he has handled it.  Although I would never wish him to go through what he has endured, the way he conceptualizes his situation is more than inspiring.   

   “No tengo pierna, pues si tengo pierna porque Dios camina por mí.” – I don’t have a leg, well yes I do have a leg, because God walks for me.

God may walk for Pedro, but I believe that God walks in Pedro as well.


*Update:  Pedro has now left Tochan and been able to start renting his own place - right next door!