Alumnus Joins Students on Border Trip
After a 2004 College Spring Term course in the border area of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, aroused their passion for change, five students planned a trip back with alumni to influence opinions about the free trade agreements.
Corie Brown '07 of Benzonia, Sol Cortez '06 of Detroit, Sarah Ellsworth '07 of Lansing, Amanda Leppek '06 of Almont and Hilary Miller '07 of Grosse Pointe Woods harnessed their anger over NAFTA-generated conditions to establish a student/alumni trip in June back to the border area. During Professor Ed Lorenz's 2004 Spring Term cross curriculum course involving political science and chemistry, the students found that NAFTA has created numerous problems for Americans and Mexicans.
After meeting with activists, government agencies and citizens, the students decided education on the issues, not service projects, was the best way to help people in the region. The students convinced a representative of the College's Alumni Board to accompany them to the border to demonstrate the viability of a continuous educational program designed to reach stakeholders and decision makers.
Alumni Board Member Klo Phillippi '64 and a University of Michigan professor, said the trip provided valuable information.
"I can't wait to get back to my friends and say 'Reserve May for our next great adventure.' These (trips) are opportunities for generations to work together for change. You get to see young people as the future they will be and for the present they are. It is an interesting way to find out what's going on in the country and out of the country in an organized way."
The 2005 trip was not an academic credit venture, rather a passionate commitment to humanity, a fact-finding mission to remove the blinders obscuring free trade's effects on poverty. NAFTA's promise of jobs for people and tax and tariff relief for corporations has produced social upheaval for people and great wealth for a few.
"I'm making more in one hour at Horrock's (Lansing produce retailer) than any worker in a maquilladora," Ellsworth said. While she knows "it is not possible to bring the whole world to the border towns," alumni can bring their viewpoints to people who can make a difference.
Workers in the factories known as maquilladoras located in the free trade, tariff free zones established by NAFTA pay workers approximately five dollars a day. To survive above the poverty level, it takes three to four members of a household earning paychecks from their maquilla employers. And the workers cannot afford the products they produce for Ford, General Motors, Phillips Lighting and RCA.
The same trade policies that moved factories to Juarez for cheap labor are now sending some corporations running to China for even cheaper labor. Phillips Lighting, one of the first maquilladoras to inhabit a Juarez industrial park and the first to leave for China, left former workers with no jobs or benefits. Their sign still hanging on the empty building states: “Together We Make Life Better.”
NAFTA has created mass relocation to the cities by Mexican farmers unable to produce food as cheaply as corporate farms. Without the protection of tariffs and the access to expensive farm machinery, Mexican farmers are unable to match the ability of Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Mansanto and other agribusinesses to grow and ship corn and beans throughout Mexico.
The agricultural corporations’ research and development staffs genetically modify food and livestock to increase production and flood the market. The farmer plowing his field by horse-drawn plow cannot compete with diesel-fueled tractors.
Forced off their farms and into the urban environment, campesinos squat on barren unoccupied desert property with no running water or sewage facilities. They scavenge or buy materials to build a shelter that is usually constructed of wood pallets, cardboard and tin. Some find work in the factories or sell sunglasses to the tourists. Some beg for a living.
“We sacrificed everything at the altar of economics (when NAFTA was negotiated). If you look at the profit aspect, it's working,” said West Cosgrove, a Border Team member of the Maryknoll Catholic mission movement’s Religious Task Force on Central America and Mexico. “But, should we sacrifice millions of human beings to buy products so cheaply?”
Those workers lucky enough to afford the mass-produced housing built around the factories, live in 900-square-foot adobe units built in row fashion distinguished by color. The rows form blocks, the blocks form neighborhoods and the neighborhoods form small cities underneath water towers painted with corporate logos.
Phillippi sees a similarity of the housing to the corporate beef and milk farms that line I-10 outside El Paso. The cows and cattle stand packed beside each other on cement slabs eating from narrow troughs of feed before being led off to their fates.
The powerless are subjected to numerous abuses by the powerful. When a new border crossing was chosen near the foot of a mesa in the Anapra neighborhood of Juarez, a member of the Zaragosa family, one of the richest families in Jaurez, laid claim to the lands occupied by poor families and has resorted to intimidation to move them.
A beautiful mesa surrounded by picturesque mountains, some of the land has been occupied since the 1970s. Some families have elected to stay and a court case is pending, but Zaragosa employees have torn down a chapel, cut off electricity and beaten residents without fear of repercussion, according to the El Paso Times newspaper.
When the student group visited the area to help one of the remaining families construct an addition on to their pallet home, they were verbally threatened with loss of their cameras for taking photographs. In violation of a court order, Zaragosa workers were constructing barbwire fences cutting off residents from free movement.
On the last day of the trip, the students, Phillippi and Lorenz tossed around ideas for continuing the program, educating other alumni in the consequences of NAFTA and establishing helpful connections between home and the border.
"This should be very appealing to (other alumni), especially in this border area. People with expertise can come to this area and be helpful," Phillippi said. "It's people like Lou Ferrand ('64, director of the Office of Legal Services and deputy general counsel for legal services for the General Secretariat of the Organization of american States) who can help navigate the system. It's introducing Corie's stepfather to Father Bill. It's those connections, those ways to navigate the system."
Brown's stepfather, who is a green builder, uses the same straw/mud construction principle Father Bill Morton, a Catholic priest and defender of the Anapran families, showed the student group during their visit to Anapra.
Of course governmental policies are not the sole culprit for the poverty and injustice aggravated by NAFTA. The students learned they must point the finger at themselves for wanting their CD players and clothing at a cheap price. They learned that the stuff they want comes at a price they don’t always see.
Sister Betty Campbell, a member of the Carmelite’s Tabor Community helping Juarez residents work within their communities for change, cited an observation made by an American college student interning at Tabor House. “You come from America and try to fix things, but you should go back home and fix America.”
Upon returning to Alma, the students received approval from College administrators to institutionalize the trip. Planning has begun on additions to curriculum, invitations to speakers, developing internship opportunities and preparing for future program growth.