A Summer of Students and Reflections

Summer in the borderlands of southern Arizona has been a mixed bag for me. On the bright side I have been coordinating a program for college students in an immersion experience on the U.S./Mexican border. Sponsored by the Santa Cruz Community Foundation, two students from Stanford (Nina Foushee and Anais Alonso) and one from the University of San Francisco (Ryan Murphy) have plunged into the murky and often confusing world of immigration and Arizona politics. They have visited successful social programs in Nogales, Mexico, and have taught summer English classes to children in an impoverished community that is reinventing itself as a healthy place for children to learn and grow.  Ryan Murphy collected data for his Master’s thesis on the effects of SB1070 (the anti-immigration bill) on both sides of the border. He interviewed Arizona legislators, city mayors, Russell Pearce (author of the bill), police chiefs in Tucson and Phoenix, and Mexican citizens. His energy and ability to engage people from the entire political spectrum was astonishing.

Ryan Murphy and his English class

We have gone on desert searches together looking for lost migrants with the Samaritans, spotted armed Border Patrol agents hiking up the arroyos, visited a first aid camp operated by No More Deaths in a remote arid wilderness, and traveled to a border conference in El Paso, Texas. One overnight trip took us to Agua Prieta, Mexico, where we witnessed the entrepreneurial success story of a coffee roasting business, owned and operated by a group of coffee growers from Chiapas. There is no better coffee than Cafe Justo.

Ryan, Nina and Fr. Sean Carroll, El Paso

Nina, Anais and Kara (No More Deaths worker) contemplate the nuances of fine coffee at Cafe Justo company.

Nina, Anais and I participated in a vigil in Douglas, Arizona, which paid tribute to the hundreds of migrant deaths in the surrounding desert. We bravely lifted our wooden crosses along with fifteen other participants and shouted out the names of those people, both known and unidentified, who have died on U.S. soil. Led by Mark Adams, a Presbyterian minister living in Agua Prieta, Mexico, this vigil has been taking place each week for twelve years.  The numbers of deaths have not diminished. Not given to public displays of religiosity, this was a moment of some discomfort and reflection with the students and myself. We spent the night with the Sisters of Notre Dame in their gracious home in Douglas, AZ. processing the vigil and our feelings about this very public demonstration of remembrance and outrage, and eating their freshly baked bread.

Peg and Sister Judy, baker extraordinaire

We have traveled in buses on bumpy roads all over Nogales, Sonora to teach classes in nutrition and English, and celebrated our successes on hikes and over delicious Mexican food. Starting out with eight students in an English class, Ryan and Nina ended up with 160 children attending these classes at the DeiJuvan Community Center in one of the migrant neighborhoods of Nogales.

Anais, a Sophomore at Stanford University,  was moved by the stark contrast of migrants at the comedor so ready to tell their story, and their silence in the Federal courtroom of Operation Streamline.

Nina at the comedor distributing clothes

The Student Internship Program gives me hope for the future of our borderlands. The insights and fresh perspectives of Ryan, Nina and Anais stimulate my own entrenched thought processes. Plus, we had some fun together hiking desert canyons and drinking our morning coffee in the kitchens of the Columban Brothers of El Paso and the progressive, enlightened Sisters of Notre Dame in Agua Prieta. These Catholic service providers are quietly doing brave, profound work and opened their homes to us. Sister Judy, rising at 3:30 AM one summer morning, surprised our little group with a warm coffee cake setting on the kitchen counter. I am still smiling when I think of this confection waiting for our sleepy group as we staggered into the kitchen hours later.

Peg, Nina and Ryan in downtown El Paso

Then I read of Aurora, Colorado, and the mayhem and death in a movie theater by one crazy act of violence. How can human beings manifest such evil? I began my usual search for an answer. Less guns? A ban on semi-automatic weapons that shoot off 50 rounds per minute? More guns, so we are all armed? Less violent acts on movie screens, TV shows, video games? Better mental health screening? More media coverage? Less media coverage?

Another reality jolt was an article published in the New Phoenix Times by my brother, Charles Bowden. www.phoenixnewtimes.com/  Chuck and co-author, Molly Molloy, speak of the thousands of deaths in Mexico, 100,000 and counting since Calderon’s presidency, because of the drug wars.  The murders of Mexican journalists reporting this carnage is especially shocking. The U.S. Government mandates and subsidizes this war in Mexico, and yet the traffic of drugs into our country is cheaper and easier to obtain than it was 10 years ago. Chuck has been doing this kind of reporting for years, and of course I worry about my kid brother.

Anais, Nina, Kara and Peg in Agua Prieta, Mexico

The complexities of violence in both the U.S. and Mexico has me stammering and sputtering for answers and solutions.

People ask me, “So what should we do about all of these immigrants who want to cross?”

What should be done about the episodes of violence and carnage in our own country’s malls, movie theaters, college campuses?”

There is my usual laundry list of ideas: a humane and just immigration work permit system, begin treating drug addiction as a public health issue, decriminalization of illicit drugs, a ban on the purchase of assault weapons, and on and on and on.

Seeking some solace in Sycamore Canyon with student interns

I look to the students I have gotten to know and love this summer. These young people are committed and passionate and brave.

I want to simply pass the baton to them and tell them to go fix this mess. But I know I cannot just wish for answers.

Peace and social justice is something you do.  It is something you make. It is the way you live. 

It happens slowly.

My own small piece of the pie is a weekly visit to the comedor and encounters with the displaced pilgrims of Latin America. I am by nature a do-er. Right now I have no glib reply to those who question what I do each week. The more I dive into these issues, the less sure I am of the answers.

Peeling and chopping at the comedor

I am learning to be OK with the gray and ambiguous nature of this work. Clarity will come. And I think these students will be a part of the answer.

The Santa Cruz Community Foundation is setting up a scholarship fund for the Student Internship Program for Summer, 2013.  A tax-deductible donation for this program can be made to the Santa Cruz Community Foundation, 825 N. Grand Avenue, Suite 104B, Nogales, AZ. 85621. Please indicate in the“memo” portion of check that the donation is for the Student Intern Program. Money will be used for student housing during the summer, plus a stipend for food and gas.  Interested students/faculty can contact me at: pegbowden1942@gmail.com for information about this innovative border immersion experience.

~ by Peg Bowden on July 28, 2012.

4 Responses to “A Summer of Students and Reflections”

  1. Thank you Peg for sharing your thoughts. It sounds like, as you commented on my blog, we have both spent quite a summer entering into complexity. It is such an encouragement to know that you continue living and working in the ambiguity and seeking to understand. Thank you for your continuing dedication and it is a joy to work with you on this issue even though we are currently working in different places.

  2. Hi Joanna,
    I always feel like I have an ally when I read of your struggles with the migrants in Tierra Blanca, Veracruz, Mexico. Be safe. This is not easy work. And you are definitely on the front lines. –Peg

  3. Amazing students, indeed! And your energy this summer is astounding. Lots of work, but looks like you’re making great connections. I also often wonder whether I’ll find that bright light of clarity that is most surely waiting to shine down on me (us all). Until then. I’ll just keep trying to sort through the tangled web of it all. Good luck! 🙂

  4. Dear Peg:

    As you so clearly project your frustration with the circumstances you experience in arena of migrant workers and the obvious lack of people committed to a workable solution I hope you find solace in your humanitarian efforts.

    The internship program that you wrote about can only compel more compassionate people into the arena and hopefully expand the service and aid to the immigrants.

    I cannot imagine having to leave your family whether it is in Mexico so that you can find a way in Los Estados Unidos to provide for them or the anxiety which must be attached to leave them in the United States to go home to attend to a pressing family matter not knowing whether or not you will be able to penetrate the border again and rejoin your family.

    The aid and comfort provided by you and your compatriots has to be a major contributing factor to their successes in making the journey whether headed north or south and I commend not only you but all of you associates for your compassion and heartfelt assistance.

    There will be no quick solutions or major legislative relief for the problem in the near future but I know you will not let that interfere with your mission of humanitarian aid.

    God has a special place for people like you who live well beyond the lip service paid by most.

    with love and respect
    your friend


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