Raise a White Flag

Not a piece directly tied to education, but tied to our common humanity on this planet.

Raise a white flag

 

On January 8th, 1994 I turned 21.

 

A few days later I flew to Mexico City from New York.

 

Just after the New Year of 1994 a friend asked me if my travel plans to Mexico had changed because of the uprising in the southern state of Chiapas. I thought he was joking, as that was his style, but his question was earnest.

 

On the 1st of January 1994 the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, came into effect.

In response, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional Zapatista, the Zapatista National Liberation Army, rose up in the southern city of San Cristóbal de las Casas demanding an end to the exploitation and repression of the largely indigenous peasantry of the region.

 

I was 21, and not much scared me at the time. I was used to travelling alone and I think that ability made me feel safer. I was used to watching my back.

I spent a couple of days in Mexico City before taking a bus to Oaxaca. I didn’t go through to Chiapas on that visit, not so much from fear of danger but from fear of being surplus to EZLN needs. I had nothing special to offer the cause. In this white body I knew I was probably safer than the indigenous women involved in the EZLN actions.

 

My white skin is a bulletproof vest.

 

Around Easter this year I visited El Paso, Texas for the first time. El Paso looks over the Rio Grande into Ciudad Juárez and the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The El Paso and Cd. Juárez region is the largest bilingual and binational work force in the Western Hemisphere.

San Cristóbal and Cd. Juarez are about as far from each other as Mexican cities can be; Chiapas is one of the most fertile parts of Mexico and Cd. Juarez lies in the heart of the Chihuahuan desert. Yet they are both Mexico and the impact of NAFTA on both places is heartbreakingly devastating.

In the decade after NAFTA took effect real wages in Mexico declined by 20%. The minimum wage plunged 50%. A practice known as “twin plants” by companies such as Lexmark means that the tedious, back breaking manual labor is done by young women in Juárez who earn around $5-6 a day in maquiladoras. The white collar work, such as accounting, is done in El Paso where people are paid at least twice the daily maquiladora salary in one hour. This practice was around before NAFTA but this policy has surely deepened the impact.

 

My white hands have always guaranteed me a living wage.

 

El Paso has been ranked the safest US city over 500,000 people four years in a row, yet it abuts one of the most dangerous cities in the world for a woman. Apparently the murder rate has dropped significantly in Juárez but women are still killed with impunity and their bodies are still seen as dispensable/disposable.

Over a thousand women have been killed since 1993 and almost all these murders remain unsolved. The femicides largely target women who work in the maquilas, and who are mostly poor and dark-skinned, coming from rural parts of Mexico. So not only are women being severely underpaid but their lives are on the line with each passing day.

It is difficult to think of a greater contrast between two cities and NAFTA merely rubs salt into the wound. As we well know, the border is becoming increasingly militarized but nothing is being done about the vicious murders and rapes that almost define Juárez. If white bodies were on the line, the response would be much different.

 

My white body holds up under intense fire.

 

I didn’t go through to Juárez, not because I was afraid but because I could not deal with the cognitive dissonance of my white body moving effortlessly through this world, while women in this Mexican city have no such freedom. I could go and grab a taco on the Mexican side, and then be back to have a beer in the US without a second thought. Women in Juarez are exploited with impunity and there is little hope for escape.

 

My blood is not different to the women of Juárez, my heart is not different to the women of Juárez, my lungs are not different, my liver is not different.

My skin is different, my hair is different, and that is what determines our disparate fates.

 

My white skin, my white hands, my white body are a flag of protection.

 

The EZLN asks for justice and dignity for the people of Chiapas with the understanding that justice for Chiapas is justice for all the oppressed people of Mexico.

 

Twenty-two years after the passage of NAFTA the people of Mexico are suffering worse than before. The EZLN is still a presence in the Lacandon highlands and their grito is still being heard, but progress is a slow road.

 

As my white fingers type this, ready to present aloud, I am well aware of the journeys I’ve been able to make and the places I’ve been able to go to, risk free and with dignity and justice.

 

Under the covers we are all the same, our hearts beat the same, our lungs breathe the same, we all share the same skeleton. It has long been time for the covers to be thrown off and for us to revel in our unique differences with dignity and peace.

 

Unheard voices must now take center stage. We ask for a life lived with dignity for the women of Juárez, for the women of Chiapas, and from there, for all the women of the world.

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