Student Forums
A journal of social practice & professional engagement for the Antioch community

The Right Thing to Do: Rebecca Smith ’16 at Voces Mesoamericanas in Chiapas, Mexico

I remember struggling in my advanced Spanish classes and wondering if it was worth it to complete the three-year program. My main motivation to continue became the option of doing an additional fifth co-op in a Spanish speaking country as the final capstone experience of the language program. I was also motivated by the opportunity to really master Spanish, a goal that I’ve had for years but has proven to be extremely difficult. I ended up applying to work with Voces Mesoamericanas, a migrant’s rights organization that has a focus on political organization and action of extremely marginalized indigenous migrant communities in southern Mexico.

Just like my other co-ops, I didn’t really know what to expect, but the team at Voces skyped with me several times before inviting me to work with them for the next six months. For me, their clear communication and interest in my skills and experience felt like a really good sign but was also a bit intimidating as I wondered if I could perform successfully in my position considering my Spanish skills. I think it is really easy to be welcomed into a “volunteer” position with organizations in other countries and not to really have responsibilities or be taken seriously as the organization isn’t paying for the work, a phenomena that I call voluntourism. Voces does not participate in this at all, in fact quite the opposite, I have never been so busy in my life, and I love it. My Spanish skills are improving so quickly that I’m finally confident that I’ll leave with a very high level of Spanish. My work requires me to not only speak in Spanish, but also to lead workshops in Spanish, write newsletters in Spanish, answer the phone and make calls on behalf of Voces, and even present at committee meetings and conferences in Spanish.

I’ve only been here for about five weeks and I’ve already learned and done so much. I spent my third day on the job attending a meeting of delegates from different communities within the highlands of Chiapas; they were discussing transparency in government and developing an action plan in relation to the upcoming state elections. I’ve been welcomed into Zapatista territory and met some of the leading scholars on migration in the world. During week two, I spent a full day with 9 families who have family members whom have disappeared during migration. The day before this I translated a document regarding this issue and learned that of migrants who have disappeared, especially those from indigenous communities, the best-case scenario is essentially that they are in an immigration prison in Texas or Arizona, and that’s unlikely. In the afternoon the lawyers from Voces finished preparing and translating official complaints to the state government and we headed to the government building to submit the cases. After a press conference outside, we went in to deliver these files and in the building I saw piles up to the ceiling of similar looking folders. This experience was difficult as the office was full of children and in my head I knew the stark reality of what’s happened to their parents and also that more likely than not, nothing would be done. Arizona passed a law permitting mortuaries to cremate unidentified bodies. Over 2,000 bodies have been found in the desert on immigration routes, many of them unidentified.

What has become clear to me as I learn about and work on this highly controversial, critical issue is that migrants are not seen as people in most policies and practices regarding migration. Part of the work of Voces Mesoamericanas is simply to alter the conversation and public discourse regarding migrants and to simply demand that migrants be treated as humans. I’ve found this work to be intense and draining, and sometimes it’s hard to see if this work is really helpful as its often feels so hopeless. I spent Tuesday and Wednesday in a rural community called Escalon where a co-worker and I lead a two-day workshop on human rights and political organization to youth. We slept on the cold concrete ground with the youth, and after hearing a few 13 and 14 year old girls stories about migrating to different cities for work and then hearing them giggle and whisper after lights out time, I was really struck by the reality of their lives and how fast these children are pushed into adulthood. At the end of the two-day workshop I lead a short closing activity where everyone wrote a short paragraph about how they were feeling and how the workshop(s) have been for them and we put their paragraphs on the wall and then broke everyone into a few groups and gave them 45 minutes to represent what was on the wall creatively. I attached a video of what one of the groups came up with, a song called “Nuestra Buen Vivir”.

Although not revolutionary, these little things do help. One of the girls asked me to explain in more detail what it means that they have the right to speak in their native language (a right especially pertinent to indigenous migration); she told me that her school forbade her from speaking in Tzotsil and that her brother was deported from Texas and didn’t know what happened in court because he didn’t speak English. I explained that her brother had the right to a translator and she should always be able to speak in her native language. Although I hope that she can have the opportunity to enjoy growing up for the next few years, maybe if she ends up in immigration court she will at least know to demand a translator and be able to understand what is happening.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here and to see and experience in real life some important issues and conversations that I’ve had in class as this experience has allowed me to both confirm and to challenge ideas that I’ve been exposed to in the classroom. I’m also very grateful that I’ve been able to gain experiences in previous co-ops working in non-profit human rights organizations because I don’t think I would or could have been prepared for this work without already having that experience. I barely have time to shower as I work so much, but so does everyone else in the organization and when you find an issue as pressing and grave as this, it is really hard but doesn’t feel like work, more like the right thing to do.

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