Letter to the Editor: Learning About Mexico with the MSN

On Wednesday evening, March 21st, activist Macrina Cárdenas de Alarcon spoke to nearly 80 members of the Grand Valley community about the social and economic situation in Mexico. A resident of Tijuana, a city of 1.6 million and site of the world’s largest border crossing, Macrina works with migrants and deportees at the Casa del Migrante, a center that has helped thousands of Mexicans caught in an immigration crisis. She is also politically active with the Mexico Solidarity Network, a non-profit organization based in Chicago, Illinois, that works with and advocates for the Latino community through their Centro Autónomo in Albany Park. MSN is the main sponsor of this speaking tour through the Midwest.

Although a country with over 113 million people and the U.S.‘s third largest trading partner after Canada and China, many Americans are unfamiliar with the realities of the situation in Mexico. Despite the attention that is given immigration in the U.S. presidential race, how much do we really understand the issues? Do we fully grasp how U.S. policy affects human rights on both sides of the border?

Most of us are familiar with companies that have laid off American workers by setting up factories in Mexico. But we hear very little about how the establishment of these maquiladoras operations has often had very little benefit to Mexicans. For example, many are run without adequate safety measures and in the absence of unions; they often pollute or over-exploit local environments; and they rarely pay any significant taxes, therefore benefiting from the communities – even removing precious resources such as potable water – while giving very little back.

Macrina pointed out that the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) required a change in the Mexican Constitution allowing for a weakening of the well-established system of ejidos, or funded collectives of small village-owned farms. This change has allowed land to be sold off to corporate interests. Industrial use of the land has at times impoverished surrounding land, even depleting water resources, making it hard for remaining farmers to earn a living. Rather than increase the wealth of these Mexicans and reduce immigration to the United States, NAFTA has had the opposite effect, with even more Mexicans looking to the U.S. to earn a living, all in spite of the risks and increasing numbers of deportations in recent years.

Mexico is preparing for presidential elections to be held July 1, 2012, and of course immigration is an important aspect of the U.S. presidential elections, to be held November 2012.

A Grand Valley alum, Tony Nelson (BA 2003, MA Syracuse 2009), provided interpretation into English while also speaking about his own experiences living in San Cristóbal in state of Chiapas, in Mexico City, and in the state of Tlaxcala, three locations where MSN has set up centers for study abroad. Tony introduced the talk in fluent Spanish, telling how when he was an undergraduate at Grand Valley, he attended a talk where the speaker began in Spanish only, and then asked how many people could understand: only a handful were able to. As a result, he decided then and there that he absolutely had to become fluent in a foreign language.

Macrina also touched on the issue of violence in Mexico, which she says, is often overplayed in the media. Tony mentioned that in some cases crime levels in neighborhoods Chicago are in fact higher than in many cities in Mexico. We rarely hear how communities are coming together in Mexico to deal with violence themselves, given that the “establishment” tends to only make things worse. State Department warnings have caused many U.S.-based study abroad programs to Mexico to be cancelled, including at GVSU. GVSU students can still study abroad in Mexico, but usually have to do so independently. MSN operates a program that has continued through it all. The accredited program is open to students interested in activism, indigenous groups, community organizing and human rights. Tony Nelson is one of the program’s on-site professors. The Padnos International Center can direct students to information on MSN’s programs.

The Grand Valley event was sponsored by the Department of Modern Languages & Literatures, Latin American Studies, the Padnos International Center, and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. After leaving Grand Valley, the pair headed to Detroit to as the speaking tour continued at University of Detroit Mercy, Eastern Michigan University, and the University of Michigan.

If you are interested in this topic, but were unable to attend, the event was recorded and is now available at the Language Resource Center, or through the LRC’s eVideon server, under the title “Beyond Border Politics”.