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Migrants Lead Human Rights Movement in New Mexico

Frontera Nortesur, News Report, Kent Paterson Posted: Aug 18, 2009

Getting doused with pesticides is the first memory Sebastian Coral has of the United States. Crossing the border as a young bracero, or contract farmworker, in the 1950s, Coral made the obligatory stop at a reception center near El Paso, Texas, where he and other guest workers were subjected to delousing and blood-sampling. The experience has never left the mind of Coral, who wonders why farmworkers were treated in such a way.

It was a very ugly form of discrimination, said the Chihuahua-born ex-farm worker.

Once past the U.S. inspectors, Coral was hustled off to work cotton in New Mexico, cucumbers in Colorado and sugar beets in Wyoming. A grower employer later helped the Mexican national obtain U.S. residency papers.

With his immigration status settled, Coral landed steady work in the dairies that line Interstate 10 in New Mexicos southern Dona Ana County, just up the road from the U.S.-Mexico border.

Now retired, Coral spends his days in the rural Mesilla Valley communities of Vado and El Cerro, where he gets by on social security. Agricultural workers, Coral stressed, do not enjoy the benefits of employer-based pensions.

Corals story held the undivided attention of youth and elders alike at the El Cerro Community Center in southern New Mexico earlier this month. Organized by the non-profit, Las Cruces-based Colonias Development Council (CDC) and other community groups, the gathering discussed living and working conditions in underdeveloped border-area communities known as colonias. Often lacking paved roads or even basic utility services, southern New Mexico colonias are heavily populated by recent immigrants from Mexico who labor in the agricultural and service industries for low wages.

The El Cerro meeting was the last of several held this summer in southern New Mexico colonias that analyzed border realities through the lens of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations back in 1948.

While many of the issues discussed at the meetings are familiar ones across the United States and globe, the New Mexico initiative stands out from many other community organizing campaigns by its reference to the Universal Declaration as a fundamental framework for understanding and solving social problems. At a time when the United States is debating whether health care is a collective right or personal responsibility, promoting the primacy of human rights could expand the social agenda of the nation beyond its current political boundaries and media frames.

Discussion of human rights in the United States usually focuses on political and religious freedoms. However, the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration also include guarantees of health care, education, employment, and housing.

Reviewing the history of the human rights movement, CDC Executive Director Dr. Diana Bustamante traced the emergence of the Universal Declaration to the genocidal horrors of World War Two and the Nuremburg trials of Nazi war criminals.

More than 50 years later, residents of Mesilla Valley colonias are recognizing the Universal Declaration as a relevant statement that defines their own aspirations.

A 35-year resident of Vado and co-founder of the El Cerro Community Center, Dora Dorado said unemployment, drug abuse, gang activity, environmental justice, housing, and Border Patrol checkpoints are among the top concerns in her community.

Located between Las Cruces and El Paso, the political geography of Vado/El Cerro readily exhibits the contrasts of the fast-growing region. Tidy, tract-style homes and dilapidated trailers share the same streets. A park sprawls next to the community center but lacks shade and a water fountain.

Paved roads dissolve into dirt ones, kicking up dust in the breezy Chihuahuan Desert. A possible expansion of a cement plant could bring new employment but environmental problems too. Future subdivisions could provide construction jobs but swallow what is left of fertile farm land.

We want more jobs and factories to come to the community, but we want them to be workplaces that are safe for both workers and communities, Dorado said. We want Vado/El Cerro to develop in a healthy way, and its development to serve as an example for other communities, as an example of delivering better services.

Dorados concerns were shared by Olga Hernandez of Sunland Park, New Mexico, a growing community situated right on the U.S.-Mexico border. Like Vado/El Cerro, Sunland Park also vividly displays the contradictory impulses of border development.

Perched on a hill, the gold-colored dome of the Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino with its $200,000 Thursday Extravaganza overlooks a community challenged by environmental contamination, employment problems, drug abuse, and domestic violence. Residents needing help are faced with going to the county seat 45 minutes away in Las Cruces, Hernandez said. Weve heard of various women being raped, Hernandez said, but there are no programs either.

The landscape described by Dorado and Hernandez was documented in a five-minute video produced by about two dozen young people from the colonias who formed the Youth Media Project in the summer of 2009.

Organized by NMSU students, the CDC and other community groups, the youths fanned out in the colonias to capture images of daily life.

The biggest concern seemed to be violence, said NMSU graduate student Jacobo Varela, who assisted in the effort. Its something that is prevalent in their lives. Armed with cameras, teenagers in three different communities discovered common themes. They were coming up with the same problems. A lot of police presence in the neighborhoods, but again, a lot of violence, Varela told Frontera NorteSur.

Nonetheless, the tone of the video was upbeat and forward-looking, said NMSU undergraduate Clarissa Ulibarri, who also collaborated with the project. Ulibarri called the endeavor a great experience that resulted in a tangible product which the youths are really proud of making. In the course of the production, Ulibarri said, young people began inquiring about the university and showing interest in higher education. We wanted them to feel like they have goals and can do stuff, said the NMSU government major.

A work in progress, the video should be finished in the coming weeks, Ulibarri said. The young producers plan to present the production to the Dona Ana County Commission and enter it into the 2010 White Sands Film Festival, she added.

Far from passive observers, immigrant communities in New Mexico are mobilizing to change their lives. In a presentation at El Cerro Community Center, the director a statewide immigrant advocacy group outlined how newer residents were instrumental in the passage of HB 489 in the 2009 state legislative session. Marcela Diaz, executive director of the Santa Fe-based Somos un Pueblo Unido, said members of her 1600 member-plus organization took an active lead in convincing lawmakers to pass a law that stiffens penalties for wage theft and outlaws employer retaliation against workers who file complaints for back wages due.

The best thing is that this isnt only for immigrant workers but all workers, Diaz said.

State Representative Nathan Cote (D-Las Cruces) credited Diaz and other pro-immigrant activists for playing a major role in winning the passage of recent state legislation outlawing racial profiling in law enforcement. The lawmaker encouraged people to organize in order to be strong together and not powerless alone.

Joining Representative Cote in attendance at the El Cerro/Vado event were State Senator Steve Fischmann and Dona Ana County commissioners Oscar Vasquez-Butler and Dolores Saldana-Caviness. Representatives of New Mexico senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall also listened intently to residents.

The recent colonia meetings could wind up serving as springboards for promoting a new human rights agenda in Dona Ana County, as well as making additional changes when the New Mexico State Legislature convenes next January in Santa Fe.

This is like a pot that is boiling, said CDC organizer Veronica Carmona. People want to do something.

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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