Bridging Borders

bridging borders 2Julie Whitaker is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Edgewood College, a small, Liberal Arts Dominican University in Madison, Wisconsin. A few years ago she lived and worked in Veracruz, Mexico with her family. Since returning to the United States, she’s been teaching about Mexico and leading student trips to Mexico.  This semester, she is teaching a class called, “Bridging Borders:  MX/US Immigration and Interdependence.”

In the class, we’ve been learning about the history of Mexican migration to the US, current immigration and border policies and the root causes of contemporary Mexican immigration.  We also delve into life in Mexico:  Mexican culture, the effects of poverty and out-migration, gender relations, drug cartel problems, popular uprisings and other social movements.

Key to understanding life in Mexico has been our cross cultural exchanges with indigenous Mexican university students in San Cristóbal, Chiapas.   With the help of Anita Smart and Devin Graves from Natik, my 10 students and I regularly connect via Skype and Facebook with 20 Mexican students at the Universidad Intercultural de Chiapas (UNICH) and their professor, Micaela Alvarez.

The UNICH students are pretty impressive.  They chose to be involved in these exchanges solely out of genuine interest.  They receive no credit for their participation.   Despite the fact that our work together takes place mostly during their “comida” (lunch) time, they’ve shown up regularly and seem enthusiastic. The goals for this exchange are to get to know one another across borders (right now we’re sharing stories of ancestry and immigration), to understand the causes and costs of immigration out of Chiapas and other Mexican states, and to plan a project to implement together in January, 2014 in one of their rural communities.

Since we’re coordinating, planning and preparing for this across the border, the process can seem a little daunting.  We’re learning about consensual, community decision making in the Mayan tradition and are grappling with the selection of a project that makes sense for us.  We’ve been asking ourselves “What meaningful project will we be able to implement with few resources, the contributions of a bunch of young gringos (most of whom do not speak Spanish) that can be accomplished in just a few days?  Ideally, we would like to implement something that could address problems of poverty and out-migration that have plagued rural Chiapas.  But, we are practical people who know that this is a probably too ambitious.

In the end, we’re hoping to put something in place that plants a seed for further outside investment and sustainable development.  The planning and the dialogue are central to the learning process for my students.  I’m excited about the potential for January.  I have a feeling that we’ll find ourselves working synergistically together towards a common goal that many young people will feel proud of.