[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. — 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 CastrejÃ³n, 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.)