I retired from teaching college Spanish in May, and since then I really haven’t thought too much about any one particular class. Until recently.
In one of my first years teaching, the textbook we were using had a culture segment about the impacts of globalization in Latin America. Taking advice from a colleague, I showed the documentary Señorita Extraviada, which investigated the incredible number of disappearing women in Juarez, Mexico where an outcropping of maquiladoras (foreign factories) had sprung up after the signing of NAFTA. The movie packed a punch. I watched it with the class in complete disbelief. I couldn’t believe that so many women were disappearing, some found after having been brutally raped and cut into pieces, and others never found. I couldn’t believe the foreign companies didn’t investigate when their workers went missing en route to and from their factory jobs. I couldn’t believe the indifference of the Mexican police. I couldn’t believe the disinterest (ignorance?) of the U.S. I couldn’t believe how powerless the Mexican families were in seeking answers about their missing mothers, daughters and sisters.
I remember being completely overwhelmed, asking the class,”how can this be? What can we do? What is the extent of our involvement?” I wanted to crumple to the ground in defeat and anguish, though what I felt must have only been a tinge of the anger, sadness and helplessness felt by the families in the corrupt state of Juarez, Mexico.
As I watch the scenes of immigrant women being deported back to Mexico (among other frightening and disheartening news stories) the same thoughts and feelings that haunted me years ago have come back to haunt me again. The same disbelief, sadness, anger, shame and powerlessness. Like before, I feel a sense of responsibility. Lots of me wants to crumple in a corner and cry. Lots of me feels guilty for benefitting from a system that is so broken. I am haunted this time not only by atrocities taking place in another country, but now also by the blatant effects on our homeland as families are torn apart, and we choose to build walls instead of bridges and to speak words and perform actions that separate instead of connect.
I believe this particular class is so vivid in my memory and so alive in my being for a number of reasons. First, the film’s theme of the undeniable and sticky relationship between big business and human welfare is echoed in the news today. And, beyond the mix up of consumerism and ethics, there is also the disconnected way we are currently approaching the messiness south of the border; instead of attempting dialogue and innovation that could benefit both nations, we are erecting a physical boundary to shield us from our neighbor. The documentary also made very clear the vulnerability of women, a topic as relevant today as it was 15 years ago. I look at Mexico and see the decisive imbalance between rich and poor. I see the societal problems corruption has created, and I fear we are headed further in that direction. Just like that night in class years ago, I am experiencing disbelief, and just like that night, part of me wants to put my hands over my ears and close my eyes, but different than that night is that this time the trouble is so much closer to home.
But perhaps this class is in the forefront of my consciousness not only because the despairing feelings the film provoked are similar to what I’m feeling now, but maybe it’s that I need to be reminded of the message of hope that emerged in the classroom during the post-viewing discussion. Being mired down with thoughts of blame and outrage as to who caused the current state of affairs, one of my students (a worldy and wise multilingual Jew and Jiu Jitsu-master from Brazil) called me out while also replacing much of my rage with hope. He said that we all have the ability to understand “the other” (whoever that is) and to connect with the other because we are all the same. When it comes down to it, we all want the same things: we want a safe place to raise our families. We want good food to eat. We want to belong and contribute. We want to feel love. Though the message is simple, it was big and loud and mind-altering to my 26-year-old self. It was a game changer. It was the crack I needed to begin to break down the imagined separateness between myself and whatever other individual or group.
In the past few weeks of reading disparaging dialogue and feeling perplexed and confused about how we got to where we are (a state of chaos and fear for many), I have sometimes forgotten Ilan’s message and found myself depressed and stymied into inaction and withdrawal. But when I can remember his connecting message of sameness, I am able to keep myself from getting overwhelmed with the big changes that need to happen, and I can take tiny, baby steps toward them every day.
I can educated myself about what is happening in my city, state and country.
I can call my senators and representatives.
I can seek to support and feel supported.
I can pray.
I can put my money where my mouth is.
I can volunteer.
I can look to big thinkers and leaders for inspiration.
I can ask for help.
I can show up and
I can stay in the conversation.
But what I absolutely cannot do is call names or speak “we vs. you” because
we are all on the same human team
Only by fully embracing this message can I seek to understand and to build bridges. Only by attempting to embody this oneness can I do what I believe is most beneficial:
create dialogue with the intention to connect and to make beneficial change for all.