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Justice Bus – Houston, Texas

The Justice Bus is an annual event where community members protest employers that do not provide fair pay or safe working conditions to their workers. On June 19, 2014, a group of dedicated citizens brought together by Fe y Justicia Worker Center made five stops around the city of Houston, Texas. The demonstrations were held outside of the employers’ businesses, and one was held in front of an employer’s home.The amount of money owed to workers, who are mostly immigrants, ranges from $8,000  to $215,000 to workers who were not paid for months worth of work. —- El Autobús de Justicia es un evento anual donde miembros de la comunidad se unen a protestar en contra de empresas que no pagan a sus empleados lo que deben o que no siguen reglamentos federales para mantener a sus empleados en condiciones sanas y seguras mientras trabajan. El centro de trabajadores Fe y Justicia organizo el evento el 19 de Junio en Houston, Tejas. Cinco manifestaciones sucedieron ese día afuera de los negocios de las empresas que deben dinero, y una fue en frente de la casa de el dueno de una de ellas. Las empresas deben entre $8,000 (dolares) y $215,000 a trabajadores que no han sido compensados por meses de trabajo.

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Man-made borders and bullets that slip through: A reflection from a Mexican-American student

This article was first published by The Suffolk Journal.

Photo by David Alvarado

Photo by David Alvarado

Borders are made to divide things and to control things. There are also natural boundaries, such as mountains and oceans, that centuries ago kept our ancestors in different regions separated from each other until we invented ways to climb, float, and fly beyond our mere human abilities. But the division of property became an essential part of our civilization as we know it, and our rivers and nature could not satisfy the heavy need to have clear separation between my property and yours, your people and mine. At the U.S. and Mexico border, lines have been shifted, leaving people from one side forced onto the other for centuries by claims of territory supported by military victories. This creates deep divisions between two governments, two peoples and two histories.

The Department of Homeland Security struggles to enforce the 1,954 mile Mexican-American border. While only a river that even the most inexperienced swimmer can cross without much struggle separates the two countries, it has always stunned me how much of a difference a limited steel fence can make when determining the lives of the people who live on either side. Perhaps man-made borders are some of the most powerful things in our world, as they have the ability to end the practice of constitutions and power of governments. But not everything can be kept from seeping through its cracks and from creating unbreakable ties between the two sides.

According to the New York Times, a total of 47,515 people have been “killed in drug related violence” in a span of six years. Imagine experiencing September 11 yearly. How about two brothers bombing innocent civilians at events and gatherings every day? I am not one to say that because there are more tragedies happening in one place that we should undermine the lesser ones, but I have a conflict with the unequal and unbalanced share of international, media, and philanthropic attention between the two. Is it because one country will fall from its position of power and prestige while the other one will simply join its Latin American neighbors in the violence? Is it to keep the status-quo?Having grown up in Mission, a city in South Texas, the border never seemed like a big deal or something to be feared. My family would cross it weekly to visit relatives, shop or dine in Mexico. Those trips came to an abrupt end around 2010 when the violence in our neighboring country grew too chaotic for our comfort, and the chaos has seemed to increase at an unbelievable rate ever since. The same cities that were casual vacation spots became as dangerous as war zones. Suddenly the Mexican-American border no longer divided two governments,  rather one country that is dubbed “the land of opportunity” and another that is home to the Sinaloa Cartel, one of most powerful drug and crime syndicates in the world. Life and death, if you will.

According to a 2013 Business Insider article, 19 of the top 20 most dangerous cities of the world are in Latin America (17th place was New Orleans), and six are in Mexico, with Acapulco ranked second place. Two of the Mexican cities featured in the article, Nuevo Laredo and  Juarez, lie directly on the border. In 2010,  The New York Times reported that civilian deaths from violence in Venezuela were almost four times as high as those in Iraq, and Mexican cities ranked above Venezuelan ones as reported by the Business insider. And yet, the U.S. government’s efforts are often centered in regions that are half a world away, as almost our entire hemisphere suffers from the greatest violence.

One of the biggest hubs of violence against women in Mexico are for those who work in maquiladoras, or factories, that are commonly placed along the border for easier trade. As Ed Vulliamy, author of Amexica: War Along the Borderline, describes, many of these women leave their homes before the sun rises and return at night, leaving them in vulnerable situations to be kidnapped, raped, and to never deserve a solved investigation from the Mexican authorities.

Although in the U.S. women do not live free of these fears, it is insane to think how much safer one can feel living on “this side” of that border. I have been to houses that are less than two miles away from the Rio Grande, a short five-minute drive, a walk that is comparable to my walk between the residence hall at Suffolk and my classes throughout the day. There are women, many my age, who live in fear for their lives just that small distance from my hometown, who walk to work to earn inhumanely low wages making electronics, clothing, and other luxuries for the U.S. These women, and some men, of course, are making these material things that are such an essential part of that “American Dream” but, to many, a Mexican Nightmare. My luxuries and comforts are someone else’s involuntary sacrifices, someone else’s hell, and only a man defined border separates us. My people, forgive me.

This leads me to call for certain things.

I call for a reevaluation of the things the U.S. government promotes domestically, such as with issues of gun control and legalization of certain drugs, but condemns in foreign territories. When, as a country, you are the biggest source of customers for the long-fought drug war, a hypocritical approach is meaningless and a crime against the rights of our Mexican people.

I advocate for the awareness that a tragedy in one place perpetuates violence in all others, and if measured by proximity, the U.S. is in great danger.

Lastly, I call for a collective consciousness that we cannot close ourselves to the pain that other beings are experiencing for the sake of an imperfect sensation of peace in our own homes. We can persuade and fool our living citizens, but not those who have been killed by this violence. Call this out of our league, but I am a firm believer that before we can experience a social change, an internal revolution in the minds and souls of our citizens must take place.

As Americans, we should value our lives, our material things, and the laws and liberties that allow us to keep them, and remember that borders can separate our constitutions, but they will never separate our consciousness.

Affirmative Action in the Rio Grande Valley: Where does the conversation stand?

This article was first posted at Latino Education Magazine.

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With a  state ban here, a lawsuit there, admission offices of universities and colleges across the U.S. have been questioned on using race as a factor for accepting applicants into their institutions. Last month, the US Supreme Court upheld the amendment to the state of Michigan’s constitution passed by voters to ban the practice of Affirmative Action. Just as Texas was beginning to cool from the lawsuit that attacked the University of Texas’ use of Affirmative Action in 2013. Both cases found themselves at the supreme court and started a loud conversation that is challenging the 50 year-old practice. But where does this conversation stand in the Rio Grande Valley?

In a letter to The Monitor by citizen Efrain Molina of Edinburg, Molina urged locals to acknowledge the issue that he wrote concerns whether states should make this decision for themselves, as well as “whether today we have a system that provides minorities with the same level playing field where they can compete with merit-based admission standards.”

The Rio Grande Valley has made strides in the last decade in its education system, a physical confirmation being the new university that is set to be the biggest project of the 21st century of the UT system. And yet, on national and state rankings, our secondary schools are commonly listed at the bottom half, and students face this fact when they start looking into higher education.

“I find that most of my peers all hail from the same 5 to 10 affluent regions of the country,” Joseph Abbott, a Mission native attending Stanford University, said. “It’s rare that you find a Stanford student from, say, South Carolina, Wyoming, or any inner-city areas. While I think many opportunities exist for most students, many lack the information and preparation that many of my peers were fortunate to receive and the convenience of living in an area, like Silicon Valley, that abounds with quality public and private high schools.”

One of the problems that rises is the vast number of “systems” that Molina mentioned that affect students education, such as economic, cultural, or being the first in the family to attend college. As Abbott said, the quality of secondary schooling also strongly influences post-secondary studies.

Galilea Zorola, a senior at Veterans Memorial High School in Mission, expressed that she often felt underprepared to leave the RGV as she began to apply to colleges.

“The education level has not prepared me for the academic rigor that awaits for me in college,” Zorola said. “I knew absolutely nothing about the college application process, and I felt that my school was definitely not a place I could turn to for help.”

Zorola will be attending Georgetown University in the fall and fears that this will negatively affect her academic performance in college.

“Although the admissions committee saw that I had what it takes to get accepted, now it’s up to me to work so much harder just to keep up with students who have been exposed to that level of education their entire lives.”

Both Abbott and Zorola commented on the diversity that Affirmative Action brings to institutions.

“It’s a really complex issue,” Abbott said, “and I think I have a pretty skewed perspective that has been shaped by my private university experience, but here’s my take: I think affirmative action is a good thing… because I think diversity of thought, culture, and life experience is a good thing in any context. In 2014, minorities certainly contribute to a diverse collegiate environment and are a staple of a fair hiring process, but as time goes on, I can see factors such as socioeconomic status and access to quality secondary schools becoming more and more relevant.”

Abbott proposed for Affirmative Action to be reinstated with the condition to amend it to make it “change with the times.”

“Minorities struggle with more problems that people do not often see,” Zorola said, “and contribute culture and diversity to a university that, in my opinion, many people should be exposed to in order to understand why Affirmative Action is present in the first place.”

According to the New York Times, the gap at UT between the total number of “college aged” Hispanics in the state widened after Affirmative Action was banned in 1997, and then decreased in 2005, when it was reinstated. In 2011, 21% of freshmen were Hispanic compared to the 45% of the state’s college-aged residents.

The Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s ban on Affirmative Action with the stance that the ruling did not make a decision on whether the practice should continue or not, but on whether it should be a state of federal call. KRGV reported that “Justice Anthony Kennedy said voters in Michigan chose to eliminate racial preferences, presumably because such a system could give rise to race-based resentment,” but Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who did not vote in favor of the ban, argued that the state ban, although done entirely democratically, “trampled on the rights of minorities.”

Sotomayor shared that she benefited from affirmative action when attending college, and that we cannot  “wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society,” according to KRGV.

However, not all those who Justice Sotomayor claims to be “trampled” by this decision agree. In fact, supporters of the ban defend that it is the continuation of affirmative action itself that creates the problem for minorities in education and the workplace today.

Rogelio Cabello, a student at University of Texas Pan American, spoke in support of race to stop being a factor into college admission:

“We should ban this policy. I am part of the very controversial opinion that John Roberts holds that is: ‘The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.’ The Affirmative Action program was definitely created to aim at discrimination and diversify schools, jobs,etc. Has it accomplished this? Yes, but at the cost of what? I agree with those who say affirmative action creates this form of reversed racism, or simply racial injustice… I believe that he who deserves the spot should obtain the spot.”

UTPA “practices a holistic approach,” according to KVEO. “In its admission process, it takes a look at everything in a student’s life, more than just grades and test scores.”

Current president of UTPA, Robert Nelsen, said that this “holistic” approach helps the university get higher enrollment numbers, so they “accept as many students as [they] can,” KVEOreported.

Yolanda Hake, professor of government at South Texas College, does not agree with the “pass” the affirmative action provides minorities with.

“I have a problem with affirmative action. It gives minorities a pass to be mediocre,” Hake said. “You don’t have to work as hard; you don’t have to do as well because they’re going to let you in anyway. That gives people reason to look at us and say, ‘If it wasn’t for the fact that they weren’t a minority, they would have never gotten in.’”

Hake commented that without Affirmative Action, less minorities would get into higher education, but that is due to our faulty educational system. Schools who offer bilingual education (almost all in the Rio Grande Valley), or english as a second language programs (ESL), are provided with more funds than those who do not. This encourages to keep students from leaving these programs and integrating into regular English speaking classrooms.

“At what point does the student get an incentive for learning English? There isn’t one there. The incentive is to keep us in a Spanish environment, so that they can get more money to teach them English, but if these students leave the programs, they lose the money. It throws us into a catch 22 that we can’t get out of.”

Hake referenced how the Hidalgo school district is one of the top performing in the nation after they raised their standards.

“That’s what I’m talking about. But with all this Affirmative Action it makes us a victim of our circumstances. But we’re not a victim of our circumstances; we can rise above that. When I went to school, I knew about 5 words of English, yet I pushed myself, and my parents did, too.”

Cabello and Hake agree that equal opportunity does exist in the U.S., but that it has to come from personal drive.

“As long as everyone is offered an education up to senior year [of high school], students, regardless of their race, will have an equal chance to enter college depending on their high school performance,” Cabello said. “When this program was created in the 60s, it was aimed to compensate for years of past racial discrimination of women and minorities. We do not need it anymore. I can even say that this policy negatively affects what they were trying to achieve when it was first created.”