Dreamers, Deportees and Daredevils: J. Paul Taylor and Justice for Migrant Children and Youth

April 1, 2015

Editor’s Note: A review of the 11th Annual J. Paul Taylor Social Justice Symposium held last month at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. This article is dedicated to the memory of Nohemi Alvarez Quillay.

Maria Eugenia Ponce grew up in what she calls “Puebla York.” Brought to the Big Apple as a young girl in the 1990s, Ponce recalled her undocumented parents working very hard to pay for private schools so their children could get ahead in life. But as she became older, the daughter of migrants from the Mexican state of Puebla grew increasingly restive when she was told to be quiet and not draw attention to herself.

“I grew up thinking my life was reduced to living in the shadows and remaining there. I grew up thinking my parents were cowards for not standing up for themselves,” Ponce told an audience at New Mexico State University. “I stopped thinking that a long time ago. They aren’t cowards. They’re heroes.”

Ponce called her 2005 graduation from college with a business administration degree a “bittersweet moment,” because her dreams of additional studies or professional employment were stymied by the lack of proper immigration papers.  Stuck in limbo, the new graduate made the difficult decision in 2006 to embark on a new life in Mexico even if it meant separating from her immediate family, which like thousands of others from Puebla was now transplanted and rooted in New York.

Fluent in English with the flair of a New York accent, Ponce found ready employment in the call center industry expanding in Mexico. She had ample company in the hundreds of thousands of English-speaking young people from the Dreamer generation, who either because of self-deportation or U.S. government deportation, were now back in a land of which they had little or no memory and where many struggled with the Spanish language.

The U.S. call center industry had an ideal labor pool: job salaries were good by Mexican standards but much less than comparable positions in the United States.  In the 21st century, the model of the Mexican maquiladora that produces goods for export to El Norte now extended to bits of information crossing borders tariff-free.

A “correlation” exists, Ponce later told FNS, between the specific locations of call centers and Mexican cities with large populations of Dreamers. “It’s not really necessary to speak Spanish,” Ponce said about her life as what might be termed a Call Center Dreamer.  “It becomes a trap because it’s the only place you feel you can belong at times.”

Ponce adjusted to Mexico, later locating employment with a software developer in a job that, ironically, allows her to obtain business visas to visit the United States. The “Puebla Yorker,” if you will, admitted she still grapples with the “internal conflict” Dreamers possess. American? Mexican?  Someone in between?

“I’m a mix of both. A lot of people struggle with that, because sometimes you’re going in the subway and people are critical about you speaking English,” Ponce said.

Together with other Dreamers, Ponce is part of a growing organizational network, Dream in Mexico, for which she works as the program coordinator. She described the purpose of the organization as playing an advocacy role in addressing the particular needs of a large and growing community that is stranded between two nations, two cultures and two systems of bureaucracy.

Ponce was among keynote speakers at the NMSU symposium which focused on the varied dimensions of the crises facing migrant children and youth in the Americas.

Dr. Camilo Perez-Bustillo, visiting professor of criminal justice at NMSU, dedicated the event to Nohemi Alvarez Quillay, a 12-year-old indigenous Ecuadoran girl who set out on a dangerous journey along immigrant smuggling routes spanning continents to reunite with her parents in New York City. The school girl made it to a stone’s throw to the U.S. border only to wind up hanged to death in a privately-run shelter in Ciudad Juarez in March of last year.

Quickly ruled a suicide by Chihuahua state authorities, Nohemi’s death sparked diplomatic tensions between Mexico and Ecuador. Most recently, the pronouncements by Chihuahua officials that Nohemi had not been sexually abused were contradicted by the Mexican federal attorney general’s office which determined that, indeed, Nohemi had been raped in the days prior to her death, according to Mexican media reports.

Perez-Bustillo informed the symposium that Nohemi was from a region of Ecuador where 60 percent of the children hail from migrant families that, out of desperation, pay thousands of dollars to smugglers to transport their children north.  Nohemi’s death occurred at the height of last year’s “exodus” of migrant children north but shortly before it became a controversial issue in this country, Perez-Bustillo said.  “Let us remember Nohemi tonight was we hear the keynote speakers,” he urged.

Father Alejandro Solalinde Guerra was among numerous speakers during the three days of the March symposium.  The winner of Mexico’s 2012 National Human Rights Award, Solalinde is the founder of a migrant shelter in the southern state of Oaxaca that hosts large numbers of Central Americans.  Solalinde based his words on theology as well as a human rights imperative.

“God exists and doesn’t have franchises,” Solalinde declared. “It’s a god of life.” The outspoken Mexican priest sketched recent changes that have overtaken the migrant route in southern Mexico. At the behest of the U.S., stricter Mexican government controls have created logjams and packed his and other migrant shelters with people who now cannot so easily jump aboard the train known as “The Beast” that once transported them north.

Central to the new policy is the Mexican government’s Southern Border Plan and its checkpoints and security patrols that branch out in a “security arc” from the southern border to the Gulf Coast, forming a vise that forces migrants into more dangerous routes controlled by organized criminal gangs, Solalinde said. Though the passage is much more difficult than before the migrants- especially Hondurans- keep coming, the internationally-known human rights activist reported.

“Honduras is not even a failed state,” Solalinde insisted. “It is a non-existent state.”

On a related note, the Washington Office of Latin America recently cited official Mexican government statistics in reporting that deportations of migrants from Mexico, mainly Central Americans, increased from 80,079 in 2013 to 107,814 in 2014. For migrant children, the number of deportees soared from 8,350 in 2013 to 18,169 last year.

The NMSU symposium garnered praise for its simultaneous translation of English and Spanish in all the sessions, as well as the interspersing of film, poetry and photography with the presentations.  Laurie Ann Guerrero, poet laureate of San Antonio, Texas, enraptured an audience with her jolting verses about domestic violence, death and victimized children. The award-winning poet told a personal migration story of sorts, recounting her experience as a college student in Massachusetts while raising three children and toiling as a domestic worker to pay the bills.

Mexican photographer Karla Hernandez has worked for human rights organizations like Amnesty International and the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center of the Mountain in the southern state of Guerrero.  Hernandez’s eye enlivened the symposium with her striking photo exhibition of life in the indigenous municipality of Cochoapa El Grande, Guerrero, where many people leave to work as farm laborers in the tomato harvest of the Sinaloa agro-maquila industry in northern Mexico.

“All this product is for the United States and Europe,” Hernandez told FNS. “Free trade has a lot to do with this.” Previously, the migration from Cochoapa El Grande was a male one, according to Hernandez. “Now the whole family goes, including the children,” she said.

Like their sisters and brothers from Puebla and Ecuador, the Mixtec people of Cochoapa El Grande, one of the poorest communities of Mexico, are among the latest peoples to carve out new lives in the shimmering lights of New York City, Hernandez added.

The visiting photographer also displayed her dramatic shots of the Central American migrants who risk life and limb climbing aboard the clanging cars of the “The Beast.” Hernandez pointed to her photo of a very young girl clutching and hanging from her father’s back as the two dangled from the train.

“She has to be very conscious about this or she could easily fall,” Hernandez observed.

Hernandez, too, noted the prevalence of Honduran migrants pushing northward, including new communities of indigenous and African-origin peoples. The Honduran exodus has intensified since the 2009 coup, and currently incorporates multiple generations from the grandparents to the grandchildren, she said.

“This speaks to a forced displacement,” Hernandez affirmed.

Now more than a decade old, NMSU’s J. Paul Taylor Social Justice Symposium paid tribute to the man whose name the event bears. A veteran, Las Cruces-area educator with a keen interest in bilingual education, J. Paul Taylor served as a member of the New Mexico House of Representatives from 1987 to 2005, where he was called by some “The Conscience of the House.”

NMSU Provost Dr. Dan Howard honored Taylor, whom he called “one of the icons of the community” and a man that “brings out the best in us.” Howard said the symposium was a “fitting topic” for an individual whose life has been dedicated to children.

Striding up to the stage, J. Paul Taylor looked dapper for his 95 years of age.

“As time goes my voice gets weaker and the hands shakier, but I don’t lose my great lust for the university,” Taylor said.  “I’m a graduate of NMSU, and I kind of like the place.”

In telling the story how he attended a question and answer session for then-NMSU presidential candidate Michael Martin, Taylor remembered asking the hopeful what he would do in the social justice realm if he became NMSU president. The response, Taylor said, was the annual symposium named after him.

“The audience is getting bigger, and it’s not because of me,” Taylor said. “They have a driving interest in social justice.”

This year’s symposium was attended by scores of academics, students, activists and officials from the U.S. and Mexico. The gathering was sponsored by the NMSU College of Arts and Sciences, the Center for Latin American Border Studies, the New Mexico Humanities Council/ National Endowment for the Humanities, and various campus departments and organizations.

For an earlier FNS story about Nohemi Alvarez Quillay check out: http://fnsnews.nmsu.edu/a-little-girl-named-nohemi-martyr-of-migration/

Dream in Mexico: http://dreaminmexico.org/

-Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur: 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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