Over the Fall 2013 semester I interned with Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera, translated into English as Austin so close to the border. ATCF is a small NGO formerly part of the larger organization the American Friends Service committee. They focus on issues at the border and seek to educate the Austin community about the conditions and social injustice occurring on the Mexico-US border. According to their corporate bylaws, “ATCF seeks to address conditions of social and economic injustice along the Texas/Mexico border particularly as they affect women and communities of color, and to find community-driven alternatives through transnational solidarity and fair trade. We believe that our environment, our communities and human dignity are sacred and must be respected in the movement for social justice.”
There are two main events put on by ATCF every year. One is a delegation held four times a year to the border to meet with their partner organization in Mexico called the Comite Fronterizo de Obreras/os (CFO) or in English The Border committee of Workers. The delegation is a way for people to learn about conditions at the border in a hands on interactive way. The second annual event is a festival focused on promoting Fair Trade called the Women and Fair Trade Festival. The festival involves eight collectives bringing items to sell from all over the world as well as connecting with the Austin community and promoting positive trade alternatives.
Delegations are an important part of the educational style of ATCF. They contribute to our knowledge of NAFTA in a hands on way and demonstrate how our choices are connected to the world around us. The delegations occur in small groups between seven and twelve people including a translator and a leader. The delegates travel to three cities in Mexico to meet with Mexican workers who offer their version of how their lives are effected by NAFTA and US consumers.
In the border towns visited by the delegates the effects of NAFTA are very apparent. They are cities primarily made up of factory workers, full of migrants from the South of Mexico with more arriving every day. The most important concepts are listening, and keeping an open mind of those around you allowing them inform how you see them beyond pre conceived notions of factory workers, Mexicans, women, or poverty. The purpose of these trips is to allow people to look closely and understand how the decision of one country can so drastically effect another.
A major theme emphasized on the delegations is that of “solidarity not charity.” This phrase is something that really conceptualizes some important aspects I have learned throughout my education in Anthropology. The idea of solidarity embodies the participatory research model in anthropology. Andrea Dyrness (2008: 26) highlights the importance of this mode of research in which “community members themselves are the agents for change (Dyrness: 24). Often the act of charity or that of research for policy change is one of separation creating two groups of people, those who have enough to give and those who are needy. It creates a disconnect whereby people give and don’t think or acknowledge the deeper issues that create problems like poverty and exploitation in everyday life. Participatory research enables us to “erase the distinction between ‘expert’ researcher and research subjects and democratize the process of knowledge production.” Delegates, much like those engaging in participatory research, are asked to avoid entering the situation with ideas of their own intellectual superiority which could lead them to believe in their ability to make better decisions for another group of people. Solidarity insists we ask questions of one another and assumes that those we aim to help are experts in their own situation capable of determining what it is they need most.
My own experience on the ATCF delegation I attended in October brought together the concepts of solidarity over charity, the worldwide war on labor, and the importance of empowering women. The delegation I attended focused closely on Women and the importance of giving them a space for expressing themselves as a step toward empowerment. we were able to get a glimpse of some of the work being done by our partner organization, the CFO, during their intensive workshops. The activities are often written on large butcher paper and we had the privilege to look at several of them. One activity involved each woman writing into a chart a time when they felt oppressed because of their gender including the event, location, person, and the way it made them feel. The moderators then encouraged them to take note of a pattern within the chart. The moments often occurred at school or at home, and at the behavior of their fathers and teachers. Even their feelings seem to have a pattern the word repeated: injusticia, injustice. This project led participants to see that they are not alone, and their experiences are shared.
Another powerful workshop activity involved two pieces of paper, one for men hombres and one for women mujeres. In this workshop participants were asked to write down words typically used to describe men and women on their respective pages. The women’s page included words such as obediente, quiet, submissive, provacativo, beautiful. The men’s page included the words macho, aggressive, hardworking. After making the list moderators and participants went through word by word and discussed how these words can apply to both genders. This workshop highlights the fact that both men and women experience gender stereotyping. By the end of the workshop they are able to see past gender as the defining characteristic for a person that makes them either submissive or dominant. The only true difference discovered among the words is the ability for women to bare children.
The real learning though came from meeting the women themselves as they invited us into their homes and told us the most personal stories of their lives. There were so many stories told throughout the day each one delicately personal leaving an overwhelming impression. The story of one woman who after being hit by a car on her way to work at a factory found herself in a hospital fighting for her life. After enduring months of pain and surgeries she discovered that the company she had worked for over fifteen years was not going to reward her with her full severance pay. Another woman after over ten years working in a garment factory developed debilitating hand problems requiring surgery and inhibiting her ability to produce at her previous level. She told us with tears in her eyes “estas son mis manos” – These are my hands. Another woman after writing poetry in a GEMA workshop shared with us a poem to her young son. The subject of the poem, a plea for him to have the strength to be a good man. In another home we met a women who works two jobs, one in a factory during the week and another on weekends making tortillas. She works two jobs in order to pay for her daughter who has a debilitating disorder requiring special medical attention including regular hospital visits. The strength of these women was presented over and over again.
Another important aspect of Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera is the Annual Women and Fair Trade Festival, when ATCF brings together cooperatives to sell items from around the world to the Austin community. This festival is more than just a shopping excursion: it provides a space for a conversation about a more conscious shopping alternative. The festival also highlights how Women specifically can be empowered to make a difference for themselves and their communities.
The 10th anniversary festival took place on November 23rd and 24th at “The Old School,” a large historical house located on 11th Street in Austin, Texas. A schedule of events included a two-day international market, various musical performances, and a poetry concierto to take place Sunday night as the closing event. In typical Texas weather fashion, a winter storm blew in the day before the festival. News outlets forecasted freezing temperatures, sleet, and travel difficulties. I spent the day before the festival trying to stay warm in the ATF office and battling with a stubborn printer. Luckily Celia and Rosalinda from the Jolom Mayaetik cooperative in Chiapas were there to keep me company and help out despite communication barriers. Throughout the festival the Chiapas ladies never ceased to amaze me. At no more than five feet tall Rosalinda and Celia carried things far beyond their capacity and always had a desire to help whether it be loading the car, yelling at the printer, or folding programs.
Though the rain continued to fall and temperatures continued to drop the festival went on as planned. Set up was smooth as each room filled with colorful and interesting items from around the world. The inside of the house was so bustling and full of life the weather outside became unnoticeable. As with a large family the kitchen became a center point for communication as vendors and volunteers from different backgrounds exchanged ideas and stories and told of their own experiences in their respective cooperatives.
An interesting story that I think exemplifies how connected we all are by such small things is the reaction to a dish of Arroz con leche or rice with milk. With an abundance of food donated we ended up with pot after pot of white rice. The volunteer coordinator Sophia in an attempt to waste no food came up with the tasty idea to cook some of the rice with milk and cinnamon. Our reservations about how the dish would be received quickly evaporated as all of the vendors poured into the kitchen for breakfast. Each vendor claimed the dish for their own country Palestine, Mexico, India, etc. all had a dish that resembled this. Conversations followed about different styles of cooking arroz con leche complete with childhood stories of nostalgic local dishes. The kitchen, the house, the festival throughout the weekend transformed into a mecca of cultural exchange – the beauty of a cultural festival.
Driving across the US Mexico border for the first time as a student studying la Frontera is an emotional experience. It is astounding to see first-hand the conditions in a place often overlooked, or defined by discussions of immigration. As the grandchild of a Mexican immigrant who abandoned his native culture in an act of subtractive acculturation it seemed a semi-natural area of interest. Hearing stories of my Grandfathers Mexican heritage after he passed away always made me feel like I had missed out on something, a missing piece to my history. As I learned several times over during my internship Mexico was not the missing piece I had been looking for. It is a place in desperate need of organizations like Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera and the CFO. Organizations that give people a voice and make them feel empowered enough to stand up to the immense oppressive forces that dictate their lives. The key to enacting the sort of meaningful change necessary is to listen, and to receive information without bias. The concept of solidarity has been my biggest lesson from ATCF. They have provided an example for how I will approach the rest of my endeavors with a spirit of openness and without the assumption that my knowledge is more valid than the knowledge of another.
Dyrness, Andrea. 2008. “Research for Change versus Research as Change: Lessons from a Mujerista Participatory Research Team.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 31(1): 23-40.