Some Change to Spare

It’s hard to believe that I’m home after eight of the most thrilling, frustrating, overwhelming, incredible weeks of my life. I’m already missing Tucson and my daily routine – working to aid the immigrants in the community through Derechos Humanos, researching policy for the promotoras, living sustainably at Borderlinks, looking out any window to see the mountains meet the desert under the most vibrant skies. When doing laundry today, I missed walking behind Borderlinks to put my clothes on the line, finding them completely crisp and dry before I even finished putting them up courtesy of the sweltering Arizona sun. Drinking out of glasses and mugs seems wrong after using recycled jars as cups all summer, and I continue to look for the compost bowl in which I’ve become so accustomed to placing overripe fruit or other compostable trash which would later fertilize the lovely little garden out back. I gained a lot out of my summer in Tucson, and while I can talk endlessly about the policies I encountered and the immigration issues to which my eyes were opened, a lot of what I gained was knowledge about living green – practices I can apply immediately at home or at school.

Michelle and Lauren Outside the Sunflower Market


Too often, I try to prioritize what big looming issues I should focus on next, but living and working in Tucson showed me how interconnected so many issues are. During our summer of sustainable living we strived to get organic foods at the grocery store, which was not only healthier for us but also more beneficial to the local farmers who stocked the Sunflower market where we shopped, many of whom are migrants seeking opportunities in the U.S. There’s really no reason why my interest in advocating for immigrant rights should prevent me from caring about the environment, world poverty, healthcare or any of the other problems that inevitably exist in the world, especially after realizing that these issues overlap in so many places.


Though my journey in Tucson has ended, I won’t be quick to forget all the wonderful people I met and eye-opening experiences I had this summer. I’m so grateful to Borderlinks and DukeEngage for an amazing summer filled with life lessons I never thought I would experience while traveling within the United States. I don’t plan to ever again take for granted all the rights and privileges that come with being a U.S. citizen after meeting several hard-working, fantastic people who shouldn’t be denied the same rights, especially on the basis of racial discrimination. Though my next big adventure will be in Europe next fall, I hope to take with me all that I learned this summer and one day revisit the issue of immigration at the heart, in the borderlands.


The View from the Roof

This morning began like any other Wednesday morning. I headed into Derechos Humanos a few hours early for our weekly Promotora meeting – a gathering of a group of Mexican American women from the Tucson community affectionately referred to as promotoras, or activists, who work to raise awareness on immigration issues. Every week, I look forward to the promotora meeting, an opportunity to converse in Spanish, eat delicious pan dulces, and find out what’s going on in the community. For the past couple of Wednesdays, the interns at Derechos have put together presentations for the promotoras, to learn from then take into the community. These presentations mostly regard questionable laws and practices in Arizona from Secure Communities to Operation Streamline. We’ve been grateful to practice our Spanish through the presentations while the promotoras smile and kindly listen to our less-than-perfect grammar, then we get the chance to listen to their stories of people they know in the community who have been affected by such anti-immigrant measures.

The promotoras share with us not only their stories but also their frustrations, their triumphs, the events that inspire them to continue advocating immigrant rights and volunteering with Derechos Humanos. I’ve come to expect that my Wednesday mornings will be spent listening in awe to these amazing, charismatic women, and the realization that today is my last Wednesday in Tucson was really depressing. Of course the promotora meetings will continue to take place every Wednesday morning even after we leave; as long as anti-immigrant sentiments exist in laws and society as a whole, there will be passionate people eager to do what they can in hopes of equality and justice in their communities. So while I dread thinking about all the “lasts” this week will bring, I’ve promised myself that these next few days won’t be my last encounters with immigration-related issues. I’m sure that won’t be hard now that the problems plaguing Arizona are spreading outwards and hitting home in Georgia and surrounding states.

DukeEngage students, enjoying a breathtaking sunset from the roof

In the meanwhile, I’m soaking in my last encounters with this gorgeous monsoon. I have been spoiled by the most beautiful sunsets and stormy nights in Arizona. My whole life, I thought that the sky back home was blue, but I realize now that I was sorely mistaken.  On a rainy day, the skies here are the richest, most vivid shade of blue I have ever seen; the clouds every shade of pink and purple at sunset. It has hardly even felt like 100 degree weather since the rains began.  I surely won’t be taking the scenery here for granted this last week and the same holds for my last day of work tomorrow! I am not entirely sure where the past seven weeks have gone, but I have loved every minute of them and will continue to appreciate the rest of my time in Tucson to the fullest.

Planting Rain

I hate to admit it, but my time in Tucson is well over halfway done. These past six weeks, I’ve been rather selfish. I have had the pleasure of taking in all that I can from Tucson, observing the wonders and follies of living in an area so heavily influenced by immigration, policies and differing points of view. But lately I’ve been thinking more about how I can stop solely taking and start giving.

Over the weekend, I was presented with a puzzling notion: the idea of planting rain. On our program’s continuing quest to explore sustainable living, we were taken to a local community that has maximized on using natural resources with minimal sacrifice to convenience. Sunlight is undoubtedly Arizona’s most abundant resource, which is great for powering homes with solar energy, drying clothes on a line, or even getting a tan. But the sun’s intensity can be a bit of a nuisance, especially when it is captured and radiated by the black asphalt roads in Tucson, causing the local temperature to rise 6 degrees since the 1940s [fact]. The community we visited developed a highly intricate and advanced means of combating Tucson’s contribution to global warming: planting trees. As if this idea of providing natural shade and air filtration next to the streets wasn’t crazy enough, they’ve planted trees that produce food. At 6 am on Sunday morning, the DukeEngage crew dawned gloves and heavy-duty shovels to help plant some of the new-fangled global warming prevention devices, and we quickly learned that far more goes into the planting process than just digging holes in the ground, especially in the desert. Before the trees could be planted, we had to plant rain.

Those of you who live in areas with normal rainfall have probably come to take for granted those little drains that line city streets, but those drains simply don’t exist in Tucson, as the rain hardly does either. The environmental visionaries we met had some pretty big ideas about what they could do to capture the rain which would otherwise flow aimlessly down the street. With a little help from gravity and ground elevation, we dug trenches and transplanted rocks and soil to increase the landscape’s capacity to collect rainwater, enabling us to add life to the neighborhood while providing a little natural air conditioning. For more details about the methods we used to harvest rainwater, feel free to visit this awesome website: Harvesting Rainwater

I enjoyed the opportunity to make a tangible impact on the community around me, but even more so, I have become taken with the idea of planting rain. If this trip has taught me anything, I’ve learned that it is incredibly easy to point out what problems exist in society and ambiguously declare the need to fix them, as if you can walk into Congress one morning and rip up a racist bill or simply dissolve the hardships of poverty-stricken populations through sheer will power. The fact is, change has to come through baby steps, through a solid (or in this case liquid) foundation, by planting the rain so that the seeds can take root and grow. At this point, perhaps the best thing I can do is continue learning all that I can from my surroundings and sharing that knowledge, raising awareness and providing a strong foundation on which change can be made. It’s not a fast and ready solution, but I’d like to think it’s a start.


Au Naturel

I may not be outdoorsy, but I enjoyed every minute of our group camping trip last weekend. We spent the 4th of July weekend on the mountains of Cascabel (Spanish for Rattlesnake, though thankfully we didn’t see any), and we learned about sustainable living while opening our eyes to the endless bounty of nature’s beauty.

Bright and early on Saturday morning, we left for Sleeping Frog Farms, the first leg of our trip. We were greeted by the farm owners, a young enthusiastic couple, along with their two bear-sized Great Pyreness dogs. The farm was nestled between the mountains and a river, but still quite uncovered beneath the hot Arizona sun. We soon learned, however, that farms actually thrive in dry climates, particularly when you’re armed with the right tools. Thus we were introduced to the magical Bokashi, a pro-biotic fertilizer that gives life to the farm’s dry soil. The highlight of my morning was getting to help make a fresh batch of Bokashi, a process that required us to mix soil and liquid EM (Effective Microorganisms) – using our feet! We looked questioningly at the farm owners when they told us we would want to take off our shoes, but as soon as our feet touched the cool, squishy mixture, our hesitation turned into excitement and we proceeded to stomp around the Bokashi for quite a few hours. Later that night, we gazed upon the most beautiful sky I’ve ever seen. Out away from civilization, we got a clear view of the endless night above us, filled with more stars than I imagined existed, all twinkling in harmony.

Part of the group working with the Bokashi.

Ashley and Gus, the Great Pyreness.

Baby Goats! The farm was abundant in adorable animals.

The next day, we hiked across the Cascabel river valley and mountains. We spotted traces of Native American artifacts then were led to a little wooden house, built from the ground up by yet another enthusiastic young couple who took sustainability to the next level. In addition to having their own little garden and canning area, they had an outdoors, composting restroom. If anything, this couple’s environmental footprint was in the negatives.

We returned Sunday night, but the wonders of nature hadn’t quite left me at that point. We had heard rumor of Monsoon season in Tucson but were beginning to write it off as a myth. Having spent a long, dry, extremely hot month here, I was shocked when the floodgates opened Sunday night and blessed us with monsoon rains. It felt like I had never seen rain before in my life, and I welcomed the ocean along with the cool relief it brought against the heat. It was a wonderful experience, at least until the power went out.

First taste of the monsoon

Oasis in the Desert

Just when I thought this trip couldn’t get any better, it did. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I was moved into a new homestay earlier this week hosted by a remarkable woman named Rosalinda and her family. I can’t cease to be amazed by her generosity, kindness and wisdom all wrapped up in her playful demeanor, and Tucson is beginning to feel more and more like home.

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing my host family’s insight on immigration laws, on the education system in Tucson, on the general highs and lows of activism, all while watching the sunset fall over the mountains just off of a nature trail, spelunking in local caves and even while eating raspados – the most delicious and inventive snow cones I think I’ll ever encounter. Exploring the land and culture in Tucson has been amazing, even more so since it’s been complimented by the wisdom and opinions of people who live here and are affected by the dynamics of the border every day.

A few of you have asked just how the rather extreme legislation in Arizona is affecting life here so I’ll do my best to address that now! From speaking with the people I work with, my homestay family and even random people at the court house and around town, it honestly feels like issues related to immigration and intolerance are inescapable. The school board is attempting to end the Mexican-American Ethnic Studies program in the Tucson school district because it supposedly violates the law by “promoting racial tension and resentment towards white people.” I also mentioned the Arizona boycott before, but the extent of businesses and chains on the list is astounding. I found out that my own bank, Wells Fargo, invests in Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), one of the largest penitentiary owners in the nation that makes money from imprisoning undocumented immigrants.We’re going to a rally against Wells Fargo on July 1st in which a lot of people are closing their accounts there. Don’t worry mom, I won’t be canceling mine just yet since we’re not allowed to participate in protests as Duke policy, but I will be observing, perhaps with picket signs. There are also ads in the local newspaper that advertise organizations such as Arizona’s Fight and other completely outrageous campaigns by anti-immigrant vigilantes who hope to recruit followers to take homeland security into their own hands and “protect” the border.

Living in Tucson has certainly given me a unique taste of Arizona as it is a very liberal city in the midst of a highly conservative state. Though I couldn’t tell you how tangible our civic engagement efforts are in terms of impacting the community, I’m definitely enjoying helping out with the little things and observing all the politics in place around me.

The (not-so) Working World

It’s hard to believe that I just completed my first week of work in Tucson! Two other DukeEngage students and I are interning at Derechos Humanos, a non-profit organization that advocates for immigrant rights and arranges community outreach programs such as abuse clinics among other rights workshops. Half of my time at Derechos is spent working with an amazing Professor from the University of Arizona, Dr. Racquel Rubio-Goldsmith, on a political research project focused on Operation Streamline. Here’s a quick low down on Operation Streamline (OSL) : To discourage migrants from entering the U.S. illegally, the government decided we should spend millions in tax dollars on a program that arrests and detains first-time migrants in prison, taking 70 prisoners to a federal criminal court every day then deporting them back to their country of origin after the trial. Non-first time migrants who are processed through Streamline are put in prison for much longer sentences ranging from 30-180 days and are then deported. My research has a lot to do with characterizing the migrants chosen to be put through Streamline, finding out their demographic information and looking for patterns (and flaws – though those aren’t particularly hard to find) within the system.

Despite the risk of sounding cheesy, I’m going to share that my experience so far has been beyond everything I had hoped for when I applied for this DukeEngage. Though sitting through two to four hour trials twice a week and logging data is pretty tedious, I’m learning so much about what’s going on along the border and in other parts of our country, particularly the effects of xenophobia and racism in the form of anti-immigration legislation. CAUTIONARY NOTE- the strong opinions expressed above are my own and should not reflect the greater Tucson community, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some overlap.

Working at Derechos Humanos is also becoming eye opening, as I steadily become more involved in community activism that I was completely ignorant to before, and probably still am ignorant to back at home. Today, we interns put together a presentation about the Arizona Boycott, a great initiative I hadn’t even known about, implemented in response to S.B. 1070. The boycott denounces Arizona-based companies that financially support the candidates and organizations who have fueled the act (which I like to call B.S. 1070), and it also hopes to pressure lawmakers by slowing down certain state revenues through a boycott of travel, conventions and concerts in Arizona. Every day feels like a new lesson – and as of tonight, my new lessons are going to be in Spanish! I’m happy to be mulling over my experiences at my homestay, and here’s hoping that my wonderfully kind host family will help my Spanish improve rápidamente!

Would you like rights with that?

With every day that I’ve spent so far in Tucson, I find that the circumstances surrounding the U.S.-Mexico border seem increasingly more complex and disheartening than I had perceived before my arrival. The past few days have been a whirlwind of information. We’ve listened to activists, government officials, even the Mexican Consulate about immigration and governmental policies. In the opinion of many of the speakers, and increasingly my own opinion though I still have a lot of learning to do, several of the policies in play seem to do more to push migrants to cross illegally into treacherous terrains than to stop immigration.

Politics aside, we’ve had some pretty unique experiences since we got here. Bright and early Saturday morning we were led on a desert walk by Shurra Wallin, a 69 year old black belt and leader of the Samaritan Patrol, a group that provides immigrants in the desert humanitarian aid such as placing water containers at sites with high volumes of migrant deaths. While bobbing under barbed wire fences and through prickly cacti, I realized how easy it is to get lost in the desert and I was surprised by the amount of backpacks, articles of clothing and other items left behind immigrants that we encountered on our walk – it was the kind of experience that make statistics real for you and show you that real people with real belongings they could no longer carry, the only belongings they could bring with them from home, have passed by and will continue to trudge through the desert in search for a better life, for reunification with their families, for hope.

Seeing the border in Nogales, Arizona last Saturday was also interesting as I never before realized how flimsy and ridiculous it seems. Border Patrol agents themselves admit that it’s more of a five minute speed bump than an actual barrier. At $3 mill per mile, it’s one very, very expensive speed bump. Our group had a lot of fun in Douglas, Arizona this morning climbing up the wall ourselves (but not over).

As we continue to hear about the countless problems surrounding the border as is, several workshops allowed us to imagine solutions and hear about the kinds of things we can do to help. We heard from Daniel Cifuentes of Café Justo or Just Coffee, a coffee grower cooperative located in Chiapas, Mexico working to slow migration by providing living opportunities for coffee growers and exporting organic coffee (really, really good coffee I might add!). Often times in the U.S., we pride ourselves on finding things at the cheapest possible price without thinking about the labor and awful conditions that went into producing things at such a low cost, and Café Justo works to change that, exporting goods at a nominal price and making sure it gets back to the farmers who produce it. When I heard that Vassar College got their campus to switch to Café Justo coffee, I felt challenged to bring Café Justo to Duke and I’d really like to encourage you coffee drinkers out there to look into Just Coffee before picking up your next bag of processed Starbucks or Dunkin Donut Coffee at the same price to you but a severely different price to those who produced it.

I’m really grateful for the opportunity to be here in Tucson to learn, and I’m all the more excited about becoming active in the community, having a voice in this frustratingly complicated situation and hopefully sharing what I learn and gain with my peers back home. Sorry this post was a little lengthy and thanks for hanging in there! :)