Jesus Aguilar’s Salvadoran Spanish-inflected words sounded strange, out of sync with the sumptuous sights and sounds of his Mexican surroundings. As cascades from a flower-shaped pink quarry stone fountain filled the hot spring air of the convention center in Morelia, Michoacan, with soothing sounds and moisture, Aguilar shared the kind of conversion experience that inspires immigrant activism across Latin America. “I went to the (Guatemalan-Mexican) border town of Tecúm Umán to help a 70-year-old woman find her son. “He was last seen trying to cross the Suchiate River into Mexico,”said Aguilar, who, before working as an advocate for the rights of Salvadoran and other immigrants in Guatemala and Mexico, was a refugee who himself crossed several rivers after fleeing wartime El Salvador for Los Angeles. “We had to fight with the authorities, we filed papers and finally got permission to visit the fosas comunes [common graves],” he said. “After sifting through several dirt holes filled with shoes, shirts, dresses, teeth, saguaza [dirt mixed with blood or other substances] and lots of skeletons, we finally found the one with her son.” The screams, the sadness reminded me of the fosas comunes in Chalatenango,” his home state in El Salvador. “During the war, the bodies in the fosas were of women raped, men dismembered and other people tortured and killed by the death squads because they risked speaking out. Now the bodies are those of women raped, men beaten and other immigrants who die because they risk everything to pursue the dream that becomes a nightmare. Fosas comunes mean war–a war on immigrants,” said Aguilar, adding that “we have to keep fighting to save lives, to not forget.”
Aguilar’s stories were among many migrant tales heard from more than 600 participants in the first Latin American Community Summit on Migration (LACSM). Almost all attendees arrived with tragic stories and strategies drawn from the experiences of the more than 26 million migrants throughout the Americas who live outside their country of birth. Given the way immigration debates are conducted throughout the hemisphere–shutting out voices from outside the borders of nation-states, as the current debate around “immigration reform” in the United States has done–this first continental migrant summit in Morelia was nothing less than historic.
The meeting marks the start of what organizers hope will be an ongoing forum for concrete proposals and actions to combat the rapid rise of nationalism, xenophobia and punitive immigration policy not just in the United States but also in countries south of the Rio Grande. In this sense, one of the most important accomplishments of the LACSM is the creation of a hemispheric network. It is a critical, continent-spanning activist alternative to an immigration debate that has largely been defined by governments, politicos and corporate media (consider that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation controls media assets in more than seventeen Latin countries) that frame immigrants as a threat and call for the establishment of legal, political and cultural barriers. Rejecting the narrow prism of the nation-state itself, the LACSM international organizing committee placed responsibility for the immigration crisis on the larger forces reconfiguring nations and neighborhoods:
The conditions of cultural, social, political and economic exclusion that arise from the economic globalization in which we’ve lived for the last quarter century, necessitate new alternatives. The structural poverty and inequitable distribution of wealth are worsened by civil conflicts that become violent and by natural disasters that are growing in frequency. The combination of these factors constitute the fundamental causes of the great migration flows in Latin America and the rest of the world.
Addressing the perpetual migration crisis unleashed by the top-down policies of the Washington Consensus that defined Latin American life for decades, Angela Sanbrano, president of the National Association of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC), one of the main sponsors of the LACSM, said, “We all have the same vision: to change the reasons why people are forced to leave their countries. In order for these policies to be effective they need to be hemispheric and global in scope, and it’s crucial that migrants themselves be involved. Otherwise they will fail like previous policies.”
You could say it was a gathering of the monarchs of migrant rights. Like the monarcas, the butterflies that color spring skies orange and black as they migrate by the millions to reach the Oyamel fir and pine forests along the volcanic highlands not far from Morelia, the mestizo, indigenous and black Americanos-Latinoamericanos came together here after crossing a continent ripe with the conditions for further migration: US-sponsored drug and counterinsurgency wars, sovereignty-swallowing trade pacts like NAFTA and CAFTA, farm and labor-crushing economic policies. Human and insect alike suffer the ravages of these policies in places like Michoacan, where those attending the LACSM found themselves in a city surrounded by decaying pine and fir forests that have provided habitats to indigenous communities since the Iron Age and to monarcas since the Ice Age. As in Colombia, Central America and other parts of the region, the forests of Michoacan have been devastated by drug wars and by logging and deforestation accelerated since the passage of trade pacts such as NAFTA.
“We’re here because our sovereignty has been stolen since the announcement of the ACLA [Free Trade Area of the Americas] pact,” said Oscar Escobar of the Asociación Rumiñahui in Ecuador. “We don’t control our air, water or land, our government. The transnationals do.”
In search of answers beyond their own borders, Aguilar and Escobar exchanged insights with former domestic workers, elected officials, indigenous migrants and other activists. Colombians spoke about how billions in US military aid ($5 billion since 2000) to Colombia has precipitated one of the largest humanitarian disasters and migration flows in the hemisphere as more than 3.3 million of their compatriots have migrated abroad and another estimated 3 million are internally displaced. Others spoke of how, in the Dominican Republic, moves to deny due process and citizenship to Haitians, even those born in the country, have fueled deportations, violence and racial hatred. Members of the Red Nicaragüense para las Migraciones (Nicaraguan Migration Network) told of the “Nicaraguan problem” in Costa Rica, which has led to scapegoating, exploitation of domestic and other workers as well as fatal hate crimes. And indigenous leaders of the California-based Frente Indígena Oaxaqueño Binacional described how, in Mexico, NAFTA and other trade policies have forced Oaxacan communities that have centered on corn for more than 8,000 years to migrate after their sacred crop was contaminated and replaced by genetically modified corn exported by mega-farm companies in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and other states where producers receive billions in US tax subsidies. But analysis of the top-down causes of migration also inspired study of bottom-up solutions.
As he proudly guided thirty of his fellow immigrant leaders on a tour through his hometown of Acuitzio del Canje, a small, struggling farm and logging town just twenty minutes from the convention center in Morelia, a cheerful, redheaded Artemio Arreola provided a window into the stuff that the new Mexicano-Americano dreams are made of. He and local officials, nuns and other townspeople dazzled delegation members as they showed them the many projects his hometown association in Chicago has financed with raffles, donations, food sales and fiestas: a new home for the elderly, a technology center with more than 100 computers, major renovations to the local temple, new instruments for the town banda of more than twenty. Arreola estimates that he and other Michoacanos send more than $2 million as part of the almost $25 billion Mexicans in the exterior send each year. Upon hearing about the three-for-one program Arreola and other US-based Mexicans persuaded the Mexican government to institute (the state, local and federal governments match every dollar sent by migrants in the United States), one delegation member commented, “Three for one? We can’t even get uno por uno.”
Migration from Michoacan began when recruiters for Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company and other US railroad companies came here and to other parts of Mexico in search of workers to replace those criminalized by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Since then, a number of factors have contributed to the ebb and flow of migration to the point where, today, one of every two Michoacanos lives in the United States. With passion and conviction that appear to grow in direct proportion to their official disempowerment as a result of anti-immigrant policies, they are asserting what they feel is their right to exercise political power commensurate with their economic power.
In listening to Arreola, one hears a new political lexicon. “We practice politics on both sides of the border. In Chicago, we started getting involved with the government and politics in the ’90s, when the pinche consulado [damned consulate] didn’t do anything for us. We realized all the money we raised and sent also meant we could have a say in public policies that affect our communities here [in Michoacan] and there [in the United States]. But we were never partisans.”
Though hometown associations like Arreola’s are nonpartisan, they started organizing themselves into larger federal associations of Michoacanos; these federations, in turn, organized federations of federations of Mexicans in the exterior like CONFEMEX, the massive Confederation of Mexican Federations. Delegates were transfixed as Arreola described the organizing activities and rapidly growing influence of the asociaciones and how they started garnering the attention of local, state and federal politicians on both sides of the border. Arreola has regular contact with Michoacan Governor Lázaro Cárdenas Batel, who attended the LACSM along with dozens of government officials including Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who has received tens of thousands of dollars in donations from individuals affiliated with the Mexican organizations. Showing the same pride with which he described the work leading to the construction of the home for the elderly, Arreola beamed as he shared how Blagojevich appointed a fellow member of one of the Michoacano hometown associations (who attended the LACSM on the governor’s behalf) to head the Office of New Americans Policy and Advocacy, which the governor established in 2005 as the country’s first state agency to serve immigrants, including Chicago’s almost 600,000 Mexican immigrants.
Arreola also regaled LACSM delegates with stories of how his association helped elect the mayor of Acuitzio del Canje as well as Jesus Martinez, the shy, bespectacled Berkeley PhD who is the first person elected to the state Congress of Michoacan to represent the interests of the more than 2.5 million Michoacanos living in the United States. On the heels of their victory in securing the permanent position in the state Congress, Arreola, Martinez and their compatriots discussed how they would continue long-term efforts to secure the right to vote in the general elections of the state (Michoacanos living in the exterior can vote only in gubernatorial elections and to elect their representative). Together with hometown associations from Zacatecas (the single largest source of migration) and other Mexican states, Arreola and others are also continuing to work toward making real the dream of ciudadanía binacional (binational citizenship).
Members of Arreola’s association were integrally involved in surrounding a shopping mall in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood that was raided by immigration officials in April (most of the people captured after an eight-hour standoff between authorities and community members were freed). “They [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] showed up with big guns, like they were conducting a military operation. It scared some people and pissed off others. Our arbolito de llamadas [phone tree of activists] for emergency response grew even more.” Arreola also says such raids, which are increasingly framed by the Department of Homeland Security as necessary for “national security,” actually helped him and others play definitive roles in organizing the largest May Day immigrants’ rights march in the United States.
Listening to the stories and strategies exchanged at the LACSM made clear that it is becoming increasingly difficult for immigrants anywhere to escape the noxious cloud of national security and migration that descends even on Mexico, a country that does not have as harsh a history of militarismo as other countries in the hemisphere. While LACSM members met behind the cool Spanish colonial walls of Morelia’s convention center, Mexican President Felipe Calderón, also a Michoacan native, was waging war in Tierras Calientes and other parts of the state as he moved the country deeper into a de facto low-intensity conflict that is already impacting Arreola and other migrants. Calderón ordered more than 24,000 troops–7,000 in Michoacan alone–as part of the guerra narco that has been the centerpiece of his administration since he was elected under highly contested circumstances last July. Since that time, said Arreola, members of his association have been harassed by military authorities. “Since some of us [US immigrants] have been away for ten, fifteen years, we don’t live here, we don’t know the routes, we don’t know the roads, authorities will take advantage and abuse us,” said Arreola. “There are many cases we’ve had to document over there [Chicago] because they won’t do it here. I fear more abuses.”
Across the street from where the previous night military personnel had engaged drug cartel members (who are better armed than local and state security forces) in one of the many gun battles that have scarred this city, Arreola and his Latin American colleagues reflected on the possible immigration and political effects of the conflict. “I understand better when the Colombianos say, ‘All the symptoms are there,’ or when they tell us they fear for Mexico, for Mexico’s future. They see similarities between Colombia in the ’90s and Mexico,” one said. As if looking to the future, a more somber Arreola added, “And all of this will only become another reason people living here in Michoacan will migrate. Being among colegas who’ve been through this really helps us understand the big picture.”
In addition to the analysis of trade, war and migration, the summit helped participants identify and cope with the isolation, loneliness, depression and other symptoms that are part of the migrant experience. Saidy Garcia, a handsome, dark, big-brown-eyed 25-year-old Nicaraguan domestic worker who is a student and organizer with the Nicaraguan Migration Network in San Jose, Costa Rica, said she left the last day of the LACSM “more committed, feeling good.” Garcia said she got involved with her organization after a very long period of depression and “asco de mi” (disgust at myself). Her days as a domestic worker are spent caring for the children of others, while her nights are spent crying because she has not seen her nieces and nephews in Nicaragua since she left five years ago. She told of having her wealthy Costa Rican employer open her e-mail, pay her low wages and force her to wear gloves because the employer thought she and all Nicaraguans were “dirty.” “I felt rejected but useful,” she said, “and then I went to the [Nicaraguan Migration] Network and saw how these powerful women were organized. I was thinking of studying business, but now I’m not so sure. I found my vocation in this work, and being here [in Morelia] makes me feel solidaridad with women and men in other countries.”