Excerpts from The Line Between Us

By Bill Bigelow

Illustrator: AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills

Photo: AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills
The wall between Mexico and the United States extends into the Pacific Ocean. On the U.S. side, the Border Patrol employs night vision devices, motion detectors, and other surveillance equipment as part of Operation Gatekeeper.

Rethinking Schools has just published The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration by Rethinking Schools editor Bill Bigelow. The book is based on curricula and teaching that have grown out of a series of educator trips to the U.S.-Mexico border sponsored by Rethinking Schools and the human rights organization Global Exchange. In this issue, we publish some excerpts from the book. Along with all Rethinking Schools publications, The Line Between Us may be purchased at our website, www.rethinkingschools.org, by calling 800-669-4192, or by writing us at 1001 E. Keefe Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53212. See ad, p. 62. — the editors

On a gray February afternoon, I stood on U.S. soil next to the “fence” of enormous concrete pillars dividing the United States and Mexico. About a hundred yards away, a second fence, this one of corrugated iron, kept Mexicans on “their” side of the border; giant stadium lights towered over the dusty no-man’s land between. Just beyond, cars raced along a Tijuana highway.

Without these barriers it would be impossible to determine, simply from the landscape, where the United States ends and Mexico begins. There is nothing natural about this border.

I was traveling with 16 teachers on a four-day tour, a collaboration between Rethinking Schools and the San Francisco-based human rights organization Global Exchange. Our mission was to explore life at the border and learn how globalization plays out in this corner of the world — and to bring our insights back to our students. We were based in downtown Tijuana and took day trips to working-class ejidos (collectively owned communities), migrant shelters, a squatter neighborhood, maquiladoras (foreign-owned assembly plants), and the toxic site of a former battery recycling plant abandoned by its U.S. owners. We talked with labor, environmental, and women’s organizers, as well as factory managers and U.S. Border Patrol agents. Our Tijuana-based hosts were Mexican labor activist Jaime Cota and artist-activist Carmela Castrejón, two graying but feisty, still-hopeful veterans of countless campaigns for social justice.

Mexico was to be the great success story of globalization, the showcase for the benefits of free trade, foreign investment, and development. President Bill Clinton promised in a 1993 speech that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would “provide an impetus for freedom and democracy in Latin America.” He predicted that by embracing globalization, Mexico would “generate more jobs,” and Mexicans “will have higher incomes, and they will buy more American products.”

But in five trips to Tijuana and the U.S.-Mexico border, between February 2003 and March 2005, I’ve seen no evidence of these glowing predictions of freedom, democracy, and prosperity. In Mexico as in the rest of the world, there’s been no correlation between corporate investment or increased trade and social well-being. The border is a low-wage haven, a magnet for transnational corporations looking for a cheap, non-union workforce; it is also a magnet for people throughout Mexico who can no longer survive on the land or in their former jobs. It’s a sprawling polluters’ paradise, where toxic muck flows through neighborhoods and into streams and rivers. And it’s a site for increasing numbers of deportees from the United States. But Tijuana is also home to activists and organizers, working on an array of justice issues: women’s, environmental, labor, community, and land rights; treatment of migrants; and many others. Hope has not been stifled by people’s difficult living conditions.

Free Trade’s Intimate Impact

Throughout our trips to the border, I’ve listened for stories that reveal the difficult choices that people regularly confront. I’ve especially listened for stories that I could turn into improvisation situations for my students — situations that they could perform in class. Improvisation is the kind of “small picture” role play that is particularly effective at humanizing the societies we study. In the case of the border, I hoped the improvs could breathe life into grandiose expressions such as neoliberalism or free trade. Improvs drawn from real people’s lives also effectively counter the image of the helpless Third World victim that is so common in the discourse about global inequality, and that characterizes many otherwise helpful teaching resources.

I divided the class into seven groups of about four students each and distributed the 14 situations I’d written (a couple contributed by my colleague Sandra Childs, who also went on a Rethinking Schools/Global Exchange trip to the border). Each group was responsible for reading and deciding how to perform brief improvs of two different situations. Here are typical ones, the first based on a meeting I attended at a women’s organization, Grupo de la Mujer — Factor X, in Tijuana. The second grew out of the story a man told us during dinner at the migrant shelter Casa del Migrante. (All the improvisation situations along with detailed teaching instructions are included in The Line Between Us.)

A Mexican family has moved to Tijuana from southern Mexico. In the community where they were living previously, both parents worked very hard but did different kinds of work. The man did most of the farming on their small plot of land and sometimes hired himself out to larger landowners in order to make a little extra money. The woman did all of the cooking, made clothes, took care of the children, kept up their small house, and at times worked in an herb garden they kept. In order to survive in Tijuana, both need to work. However, most of the jobs in the maquiladoras in Tijuana are for women. She found a job in a box factory but he has not been able to find a job. It seems that he takes his frustrations out on his wife. She comes home from work and he starts bossing her around, “Go make me coffee.” “When will dinner be ready?” One day the woman comes home and is especially exhausted. He starts ordering her around and she responds. (As an alternative, you might have a number of women in similar situations meet in a Tijuana women’s center, Factor X, and discuss how to respond to their husbands.)

Three undocumented Mexican workers are living in southern California. Only one of them speaks English. They have been hired by a man who is a U.S. citizen to help move furniture and boxes out of a house. They were promised $10 an hour for their labor and they worked a little over eight hours during the day. At the end of the day the man gave each of them $50. He apologized and said it was all he had. “Besides,” he chuckled, “that’s a lot more than you’d ever make in a day in Mexico.” How do the men respond?

As students discussed how to perform their improvs, I wandered from group to group, answering questions and, when it seemed appropriate, suggesting possible approaches. But mostly I listened to students’ conversations. I also volunteered to be an “extra” in any improv — and a couple of groups took me up on the offer. I made sure that students knew that they needn’t script out the full improv — they weren’t writing a play — but that they should know exactly who would perform which part and how their characters would approach the problem they had to confront. Some students went out in the hallway to rehearse.

We reconvened in a large circle, students sitting with their respective groups. I told them that after they’d performed the improvs, we would write interior monologues from the point of view of one of the characters; they could write from any character in any of the improvs, not necessarily one they performed, so they should listen carefully for lines to “steal.”

Introducing an improv activity is always a bit touchy. On the one hand, if students don’t take these seriously, the improvs can have the opposite effect of what I intend, and students can miss the import of the dilemmas that migrants and border residents face. In years past, I’ve called a halt to improvs when students acted so silly that it felt contemptuous of the lives they were portraying. I’ve sent students back to their groups, told them to get serious, and then we’d start over. On the other hand, the improvs are not a funeral; students will inevitably laugh during the performances and I don’t want kids to feel ashamed.

Sometimes I begin by saying that when we occasionally laugh it’s not because we think the situations are funny, but that we’re not accustomed to seeing our peers in the roles of other people. Sometimes the improvisation situations are so wrenching or uncomfortable that laughter can ease the pain.

With this class, students performed the first improv with absolute realism. Chelsea played a Mexican mother living in a squatter village in Tijuana’s Río Alamar riverbed; Blake played her son. The mother works in a maquiladora and wants to stay living in the shantytown so that she can save money for the trek to the United States. The son is tired of living in such squalor and has friends nearby in the still-poor but much more livable colonia (neighborhood) of Chilpancingo. Chelsea and Blake’s conversation exhibited the affection of mother and son, but also captured the tension in their different visions of the future.

After each improv, I encouraged students to applaud their peers’ efforts. I asked the performers to stay in character and to answer questions from me and the class about the considerations underlying the choices they made. I also encouraged people to offer positive feedback. Obviously, there is no correct answer in any of these and the aim is not to figure out what “really happened,” but to give a human face to the abstractions of free trade, NAFTA, neoliberalism, economic growth, corporate invest-ment, and U.S. immigration policy.

Following the improvs, which took a couple class periods, I asked students to choose an individual in one of the situations that we had performed and to write his or her inner thoughts, an interior monologue. I gave them a few minutes to decide on the situation they wanted to write about. I turned out the lights and asked students to put their heads on their desks and to close their eyes — a ritual they’re familiar with when we begin to write an imaginative or personal piece. I urged them to play the performance over in their minds as they remembered it from class. I paused 20 seconds or so between prompts: “Get an image in your mind’s eye of the person whose point of view you’re going to write from . . . Where are you — outside, inside? . . . Who’s there with you? . . . Bring yourself into the situation: What are you feeling — anger, fear, frustration, hope, worry? . . . What are the voices in your head telling you?”

I told them that I was going to turn the lights back on and did not want to hear any talking, but only wanted to see people writing. I wrote too, and this silent period — even if only 15 minutes or so — ensured that students left class with at least a substantial beginning to their pieces. I asked them to finish these for homework.

A number of students wrote movingly about an improv situation where maquiladora women workers debated what to do about a supervisor who is sexually harassing them — like “a wolf hunting his meat,” as one student wrote. Blake Weber wrote from the character he portrayed, who disagreed with his mother over her determination to save money to cross into the United States:

Since I can remember, my parents spoke of a place called the U.S. They said that it held a better future for me and the family. And that when we got there we’d no longer be forced to scavenge for food and take horribly inhumane jobs. Throughout my entire childhood we moved from town to town. The longest I remember staying at a specific place was a year. I’m sick of moving. I’m sick of eating rice for lunch nearly every day. I’m sick of this ramshackle hut of used metal slabs and wooden boxing. My parents say that one day it’ll all be better, but I’m beginning to doubt that.

Everywhere I look poverty is present. My parents try to put a better face on things, but it’s all a mirage. Their smiling faces are a mask of despair. I want a better life for my family. I want to smile and really mean it. The U.S. is a fairy tale that my parents tell me everyday I go to sleep. It’s nothing but a hope that will never come true. But a house . . . a house is real. It’s not something you hear about from others, it’s something you can see with your own two eyes. Yet my mom said no. No!? How could she say no? She insists that we should save up money for the trip to the U.S. That getting a house would slow down our savings. Know what I have to say to that? Screw it. Screw the U.S. Screw the foggy future. I want to settle down now. I want to have long-term friendships. Yet my mom says it’s for our future. So I give in. Maybe one day I’ll see this fabled U.S., or maybe we’ll finally settle down. Our future is uncertain, there’s no doubt to that.

As part of our read-around of students’ writing, I shared my interior monologue as well (based on Lourdes Lujan, an environmental justice organizer who continues to live, work, and hope in a neighborhood badly polluted by nearby maquiladoras on Otay Mesa in Tijuana) and a poem that Rethinking Schools editor Bob Peterson wrote after we visited the migrant shelter Casa del Migrante, “Valentines Day at Casa del Migrante” (see www.rethinkingschools.org/mexico for both of these).

The students’ writing was as intense and heartfelt as anything they’d produced all year. As students read their pieces aloud I asked them to take notes on four questions that I would ask them to write about in our collective text:

  1. Which of the situations/circumstances that people wrote about did you find most affecting, moving, poignant?
  2. What kind of resistance did you notice?
  3. Where can we find hope?
  4. What parts of these writings remind you of anything we’ve studied this year or anything in your own life?

Given the painful conundrums and abusive circumstances that students would write about in their interior monologues, I wanted them also to reflect on hopeful aspects and instances where people stood up for themselves or for one another. In his collective text reflection, Jonathan wrote that he was impressed by people’s efforts to gain “independence. I saw people stand up for what they thought was right.” Kristina appreciated the interior monologue about a woman artist who refuses to be pushed around by a Tijuana cop (based on a true story about Carmela Castrejón, one of our guides on the border trips). “The artist stood her ground and called him on the irrational shots he made,” Kristina wrote. She also commented that resistance was not necessarily always visible. She noted that in one interior monologue read in class, a woman continues to work in a maquiladora where a supervisor sexually harasses women, but nonetheless maintains her dignity — “the resistance was internal.”

Not surprisingly, students saw the United States as the chief source of hope in people’s interior monologues. Abe wrote, “The stars and stripes of the American flag personify hope. ‘America the land of the free’ was declared over and over and over again in our writing, the hope for a better tomorrow and better life and better quality of life. . . . The beginning of those dreams start with the word America, but unfortunately many times they end with the word border.”

Abe’s and other students’ observation about the United States as a beacon of hope highlights a problem in a curriculum like mine. On the one hand, I want to emphasize the tremendously difficult circumstances of people who decide to leave their homes and make the increasingly treacherous journey north. For them, the pull of U.S. economic opportunity is real and urgent. On the other hand, I don’t want the curriculum to make students feel complacent, that the rest of the world is wretchedly poor and our country is a prosperous utopia. In fact, I want them to recognize that the forces tearing at Mexico are also creating insecurity and inequality here, although in different ways. If there is to be any resolution to this tension, it lies in an ongoing effort to ground the curriculum in the nature of our own society and in the lives of our students.

My fourth question encouraged students to connect their lives to the lives of Mexicans on the border. My student Jerome, with his football lineman’s physique, a baseball hat perpetually cocked on his head, and a regular seat amid other “jocks” in class, would be easy to stereotype as someone who might not be taking this unit to heart. But on question #4, Jerome wrote:

Some of these writings are letters to family who are far away, and you can’t see them. I remember when I was younger and I wrote a letter to someone that I had loved dearly, but I didn’t know if I would ever see them again, because he had gone to prison. Why? I did not know. When would I see him again? I did not know. I was about 12 and wrote him a letter, but when he got out he said I was the only one who cared what would happen to him, but I don’t see him much anymore. But not knowing what is gonna happen next is what I think all of these people feel.

Following the improvs and a read-around of their interior monologues, I showed a succinct and effective video, Death on a Friendly Border, produced by Rachel Antell (available from www.teachingforchange.orgThe Line Between Us includes a full review of the video.) The documentary looks at Operation Gatekeeper, an initiative of the Clinton administration in October of 1994, 10 months after NAFTA took effect, to further seal the border for migrants. The video describes the U.S. government’s new security measures, with migrants driven into the deserts and mountains looking for a route to cross into the United States. As a result, many more are dying, including Yolanda Gonzalez-Martínez, whose story is chronicled in the video. Although it doesn’t discuss NAFTA or any of the economic reforms in Mexico that have made survival more difficult, the video provides a poignant visual overview of the increasingly militarized border and its human effects. In addition to the improvisations and the interior monologues, the video was another attempt to inject humanity and individuality into our study of the border.

Mexico in Metaphor

It was time to wrap up. What I had anticipated would be about a four-week unit had stretched into six weeks and, still, I knew I’d left out lots. But I wanted to give my students the opportunity to collect their thoughts in a final essay. To launch the essay, I assigned students a metaphorical drawing on any aspect of what we’d studied about Mexico, the border, and immigration issues. A metaphorical drawing asks students to take an insight about an issue and turn it into a picture. It’s a helpful pre-writing activity because it encourages students to distill their knowledge to essential points, and thus helps students generate thesis statements for their essays. Over the years, I’ve appreciated how meta-phorical drawings allow students who may be less verbal or less skilled writers to nonetheless express profound understanding of topics we study. (See, for example, “Thinking in Pictures,” www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/1702/Rg172.shtml.)

Some student drawings were graphically simple. Abe’s was titled, “For every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction.” The image was of a cross in front of a wall. The cross cast a long shadow on the ground and up the wall. In the gray of the shadow Abe wrote, “No Identificado.” His explanation of the drawing: “This is a commentary on how the increased ‘security’ in the form of Operation Gatekeeper inevitably will increase the number of deaths on the border.”

Kyle’s metaphorical drawing was more complicated. His portrayed a box hanging from a long chain, hovering just above water with shark fins visible. The box is labeled “Mexico” and has what appears to be a steel grate in front; a large ball inside reads “U.S.” His written commentary explains:

The cage represents Mexico, and the ball inside represents the U.S. The space that the U.S. is taking up in Mexico. The U.S. is taking jobs from small farmers, which are being pushed out of Mexico because of this. Mexico is a cage because even though the farmers are being pushed out they still can’t get out because the borders are blocked. They are basically being crushed in between Mexico and the U.S., which results in an unending state of poverty. The shark represents cops and immigration because if the Mexicans do make it out of Mexico, there’s always a chance that they could be caught outside.

We went around the classroom and students shared their drawings and written explanations with each other.

Afterwards I assigned the final essay, which asked students to write on any aspect of what we’d studied about the relationship between the United States and Mexico — the U.S. war with Mexico, NAFTA, border issues, Operation Gatekeeper, immigration, and the like. I gave students a number of specific topic possibilities — e.g., how the immigration issue might appear to many Mexicans, the effects of NAFTA’s Chapter 11, a long-term solution to “illegal immigration,” etc. (See www.rethinkingschools.org/mexico for a copy of the essay assignment.) To get students started, we brainstormed thesis statements growing out of their metaphorical drawings.

Students were off to a good start on their essays, with thesis statements like “We as a people need to understand that there is no such thing as an illegal human, only people who are not officially documented,” and “NAFTA has been taking lives; here are the facts.”

But this was not a class that ever spoke with one voice. At the other end of the spectrum were statements such as: “Increasingly illegal immigrants are coming into the United States each year. They are taking our jobs, our benefits from taxes, and our security away from us.”

As I was soon to find out, this fearful thesis spoke for more students in class than I’d realized.