Category Archives: Borderlands

Start the day with poetry

Last August I was fortunate to be in Scotland around the time of the Edinburgh Festival and all that’s associated with it, including the International Book Festival.

I was excited to see that there was a session that put together Kirsty Logan and Jón Kalmann Stefánsson. Shortly before going to Scotland I picked up The Gracekeepers at the Adelaide Airport bookshop. I was, and still am mostly, only reading books by female, non-white, non-English dominant authors. Starting on this trail showed up how much space books by white men take up in bookshops. I was pleased to find Kirsty’s book in Adelaide and it was probably the best fictional find of the summer. The Gracekeepers weaves magical realism, an almost drowned world, and circus boats, plus a huge bear.

Jón Kalman Stefánsson was a discovery from a few years ago when I came across his book Heaven and Hell in a Breton bookshop (yep, my book purchases sure do highlight my globetrotter status). It is the first in a trilogy I have since finished but at the time I only knew the first one.

The authors were paired together along a northern theme. Books set in Iceland tend to be bleak, whether a mystery, a crime story or a version of romance. I don’t know how I’d feel about them if I hadn’t visited Iceland and had it crawl under my skin. In any case, this isn’t so much about the merits of works set in Iceland, and more to do with Stefánsson’s morning ritual.

Stefánsson starts each day with a poem, coffee, and with gratefulness to the translators!

I took on his call to start each day with poetry and there have been only three or four times I’ve missed this routine in the last year. I read from works by a single author along with anthologies. Three books of poetry have particularly marked me this year. Below are the Goodreads reviews I did for each one. *I’ve been working on my book reviews so the reviews can be viewed as works in progress, the goal is to share my joy.

How Fire is a Story, Waiting by Melinda Palacio

I’ve thought long and hard about how to write about this book, along with two other books of poetry I read at the same time: Codeswitch: Fires from Mi Corazón by Iris de Anda, and When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Díaz. The three authors are based in and around Southern CA with some travels outside. Melinda Palacio frames her work through the elements: fire, air, water, and earth. She tells the story of her family, including the meeting of her parents, her father’s “sin verguenza swagger” (one of my favourite poems in the book), and her father’s time in prison. I love reading these poems over and over, in conjunction with the other two books I mentioned above. I’m going to link to a much more complete and worthy review…

Iris de Anda: Codeswitch: Fires from Mi Corazón

I’ve thought long and hard about how to write about this book, along with two other books of poetry I read at the same time: How Fire is a Story, Waiting by Melinda Palacio, and When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Díaz. The three authors are based in and around Southern CA with some travels outside. Iris de Anda frames her work through the chambers of the heart: rage/coraje, love/amor, revolution/revolución, evolution/evolución. The power of De Anda’s work lies in its ritualistic nature and short phrasings that build one on the other. This is poetry to be read aloud, with a strong and passionate voice. There are no negotiations between languages, they merge, are not translated (except in the chapter titles). There is a call to action, a call to push through the pain and the hurt, and to keep fighting for our common humanity and true empathy.

When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Díaz

I read this book in conjunction with Iris de Anda’s Codeswitch: Fires from Mi Corazón and Melinda Palacio’s How Fire is a Story, Waiting. All three authors are based in and around Southern California. The power of the words these three authors put to the page cannot be understated. They stand alone and together, each with a unique voice and unique stories to share. Natalie Diaz skillfully blends poetic style and form to tell tales that have personal resonance, and tales that speak to the larger world around. There is the story of her brother, her family, tales of childhood, strung along with the tale of Mojave Barbie, a lion devouring a man and boxes of raisins, and many more besides. Words, poems and stories that will leave you wishing for more.


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.