Far from the plodding bureaucracy of the United Nations, activists on the US-Mexico border are redefining what it means to defend human rights in the 21st century. The Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR) in El Paso, Texas, is a 20-year-old organization built from the ground up. Its strategy centers around a profound and unique philosophy: that in order to build a society that respects human rights, the people in it must believe in their own dignity, even in the face of systemic oppression and violence.
Gabriela Castañeda, a previously undocumented mother of three, has been separated from her husband for 10 years after a series of crossings, deportations, reentries, and incarceration. She’s experienced the pain of US border policy firsthand, and has lived subsumed in a culture that reinforces the fear associated with rightlessness.
“For you to believe that you have rights is a long process, especially after so many years of being told that you are a criminal because you crossed the river,” she says. “I became a member of this organization, and shortly after I was the one asking more questions. So they invited me to become a human-rights promoter.”
At a moment when critics talk about human rights in its “twilight,” at “endtimes,” or as “failed,” the Border Network reimagines human rights outside of its elite, top-down, professional forms, anchoring its commitments firmly in personal relationships. Promoters hold meetings in their neighbors’ homes over coffee. They teach on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the US Constitution, and the history of immigration. Sharing this knowledge and exposing neighbors to international human-rights norms helps them reconsider their own situations.
Castañeda says that since joining, her life has been transformed. She began as an eager audience member surprised to hear that she, as an undocumented immigrant, had legal rights. In her current role as the organization’s communication director, she is a leader, an example, and a proof of concept.
It is also in these living rooms and around these kitchen tables that individuals share their own experiences of abuse, face-to-face in a space structured by trust. For Fernando Garcia, BNHR’s executive director, the home is a crucial arena for the organization.
“They were looking for a space to tell the story. Because sometimes when you don’t tell the story of abuse it becomes a burden in your life,” Garcia explains. Alleviating that burden transforms people and reminds them who they are: not victims but individuals who deserve respect, dignity, and fair treatment before the law.
“That is what I call building consciousness, destroying the different layers of oppression and darkness that doesn’t allow them to see that they can change reality,” Garcia goes on. If the reality of immigrant communities is defined by harassment, intimidation, and demonization, a new reality can only come out of a revolution of the soul and of the spirit. “Members of our community that were extremely afraid…. they didn’t feel that they were empowered, they did not feel that they were the subjects of change.”