Teachers Tour U.S.-Mexico Border

By Barbara Miner, Bob Peterson

Photo: Bob Peterson
A series of coffins hung on a border wallby Tijuana-area artists memorializing those who have died crossing the border.
Photo: Bob Peterson
Christian Ramirez of the AFSC speaks to teachers on the U.S. side of the border.

As Sandra Childs, a high school teacher from Portland, Ore., reflected, “I loved the chance to spend extended time with this vibrant group of educator activists. Now I have a community of amazing people to collaborate with. I loved traveling in a way that did not make me feel like a tourist taking advantage of or gawking at the local population. I am teaching on these issues, and that’s the whole point.”

The idea for the tour grew out of educators’ positive responses to the book Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World , edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson. The book, now in its second printing, includes role plays, interviews, poetry, stories, background readings, lessons, and more. Rethinking Schools wanted to provide an opportunity for teachers to meet activists involved in global justice issues, while at the same time providing a mechanism for teachers to share ideas and resources. Peterson and Bigelow helped lead the tour along with Global Exchange leaders.

Photo: Bob Peterson
One of the many murals found in the community of Maclovio Rojas.

The tour started off with an examination of border and immigration issues. Through visiting the Border Patrol and talking to human rights activists and recent deportees, the teachers learned how U.S. policy has shifted dramatically in the last ten years, with dire consequences.

In 1994, the same year the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect, the U.S. government launched a controversial program called Operation Gatekeeper. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the United States has constructed in the San Diego/Tijuana area 42.4 miles of primary fencing and 4.8 miles of multi-layer fencing, including 1.6 miles of bollard fence with huge concrete pillars spaced closely together. There are also now six miles of permanent high-intensity lighting, 100 portable lighting platforms, infrared scopes, underground sensors, 1,765 vehicles, and 10 helicopters. Twenty percent of the 10,000 U.S. border patrol agents are stationed in the 60-mile stretch near the San Diego border, more than the total number that patrol
the 3,000 mile U.S.-Canadian border.

The wall stops most undocumented people from entering in the Tijuana/San Diego area, pushing people farther east to cross in desolate, dangerous terrain. According to AFSC, more than 2,700 people have died trying to enter the United States from Mexico since Operation Gatekeeper began.

The teachers visited a haunting art exhibit/memorial on the Mexican side of the border that includes crosses and coffins with names, ages, and home states of those who’ve died crossing.

One of the most moving parts of the tour was the visit to Maclovio Rojas, a community of 2,400 families without legal rights to their land who have democratically organized to provide housing, schools, and medical services despite government repression.

The delegation also spoke with women environmental justice organizers in the community of Ejido Chilpancingo who successfully pressured the Mexican government to close a U.S.-owned battery-recycling factory and lead smelter that had poisoned their community for years. The women are still struggling to get the site cleaned up; it is contaminated with more than 5,400 tons of toxic waste including lead, sulfuric acid, and arsenic.

According to the organizers, the CEO, a U.S. citizen, fled to San Diego, and no one will take responsibility for cleaning up the site.

Flaurie Imberman, a teacher from Palo Alto, Calif., summed up the trip this way: “Hearing from Mexicans in struggle was very energizing for me. Being able to debrief and brainstorm with other teachers was invaluable. Teaching is a lonely profession, and I learned something from every participant on the trip.”

The next Rethinking Schools “From the World to Our Classrooms” tour to the Tijuana area will be July 2-6, 2004. Rethinking Schools editors Bill Bigelow and Linda Christensen and members of Global Exchange will lead the tour. For more information, e-mail Bill Bigelow at bbpdx@aol.com.