During a rehearsal break for their end of summer showcase, youth from the Semillas Youth Program gather in clusters and quietly mouth the nahuatl chant to mother earth, Tonantzin, that they will perform in less than one hour. They are dressed in white t-shirts, jeans, and red bandanas. Thinking no one is watching, a small boy does the moonwalk as he chants – a truly bicultural moment.
Eight large display boards are covered in art. Bright colors and shapes reveal the children’s thoughts. The universal: rainbows, trees, birds, and butterflies. The local and cultural: Mexican flags, Guadalupe virgins, tepees, yarn-woven ojos de dios. And, scattered among these, the painfully real: demands for peace in the notoriously violent sister city across the border, Ciudad Juarez. “Stop the killing,” says one drawing, with an upright machine gun standing in as the first ‘i.’ “Juarez needs peace,” says another.
Killings and kidnappings have become a constant background for an entire generation of youth. A tragic 28,000 people have been killed in Mexico’s drug war since 2006 – more than 6,000 of these have perished in Juarez. Many children personally know relatives, neighbors, or acquaintances who have been victims of the drug war violence. According to a 2009 report by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, border area children have reported experiencing extensive trauma, anxiety, and insecurity – especially among recent immigrants from Juarez whose parents still have to run errands in Mexico. As if the lives of Hispanic youth on the border were not already hard enough.
For children, pressures of living in immigrant households include being witness to their parents’ struggles: abusive treatment by employers, pressure to work for below market wages, and the constant fear of deportation. Hispanic youth on the border are particularly vulnerable to depression and thoughts of suicide. According a 2009 report by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, unflattering stereotypes about Mexicans can lead to “self-hate” among border youth who are trying to determine their cultural identity, and perceived discrimination increases psychological stress, decreases people’s sense of personal control, and can lead to depression and anxiety in immigrant populations.
In addition, being located in a major drug traffic route and having access to prescription medications such as Rohypnol and Valium through corrupt medical practices in Mexico puts border youth at high risk of developing substance abuse. Already, according to the same report, students from border schools report higher use of tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs. Sadly, the mental health needs of Hispanic children are not being addressed. According to 2007 data from the National Survey of Children’s Health, 69.7% of Hispanic children living in a Texas households where Spanish was the primary language who needed mental health care did not receive it.
Historically, Hispanic children living in the U.S.-Mexico border have been among the most vulnerable to cycles of poverty and poor health. According to a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, over half a million children living in the U.S. Mexico border in 2005 were poor and Hispanic – despite living with families where parent(s) worked. An astonishing 40% of children in the Texas-Mexico border were living in poverty, compared to 17% of children nationwide.
“Tiene juegos?” a boy asks as I observe their rehearsal with my open laptop. He wants to know if my laptop has games he can play. I ask him for an interview instead.
-“What did you learn?” I ask in Spanish. Our entire exchange is in Spanish.
-“Art. We learned how to make ojos de dios, aztec dance, singing, and aztec words.”
-“What was your favorite part?”
-“Getting to play the drum.”
-“What would you have done this summer, if this program had not be here?”
-“I would have stayed at home playing videogames and on the computer all day.”
It is a digital age. A digital age, in the third world that is the border. A third world crammed in the southern outskirts of the first world. Here, children can YouTube singing hamsters one minute and narco violence the next. They can speak about playing ninjas and El Verguillas. They are children, taking it all in.
The Semillas youth program is operated by La Mujer Obrera, a community development organization operating in El Paso’s former Garment District, where many women and their families worked before the loss of 35,000 jobs, mainly in the manufacturing sector of the economy. Already an economically stressed neighborhood, it experienced further economic devastation.
The Chamizal neighborhood, the largest in the garment district, was recently recognized as one of the poorest in the nation by the Federal Reserve Bank. According to the most recent figures available at the Census Tract level, 67% of families living in the neighborhood (Census Tract 21) were living in poverty, compared with 22.6% of people in El Paso County, and 12.4% of people in the U.S. An astonishing 70% of residents in the neighborhood do not have a high school diploma and 26% of households are headed by a single parent. The median income is $11,362. To make matters more dire, almost one in five residents of the Chamizal neighborhood are unemployed. Additionally, the Census reports that approximately 88% of residents in the neighborhood speak Spanish at home.
And this is where the cycle of poverty suddenly enwraps you. You are born in a poor household. Your mother does her best to be there for you, but to provide she must work and you are home alone while she works. As an adolescent, when you need her advice the most, she is still working. And you are alone, and you welcome the attention of equally alone youth with equally hard working parents who are not around. And you find comfort in each other for a brief period of time.
The border region had more teenage mothers than the nation, with El Paso County reporting 17% of its births to teens; in the United States, 12% of births were to teenage mothers. Latino youth in the border region are three times more likely to drop out of school than their non-Latino counterparts (Border Kids Count, 2006). In the 2005-2006 academic year, Bowie High School, where many of the children at this youth program will attend, had a drop-out rate of 25%. Limited education limits employment opportunities, often to service or factory work, which lands a single parent well into poverty.
And then, you are alone. Looking for work, raising your kids. Doing the best you possibly can.
Single motherhood, being Hispanic, and being poor are all tied to vulnerabilities. Food access and hunger studies conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture report that members of such households often lack food and go hungry. Children in single mother households are also less likely to participate in after school programs such as Semillas. In Texas, 36% of children living with a single mother did not participate in after school activities, compared to 22.6% of children in two parent households. Even more troubling, 58% of Hispanic children 6 to 17 years of age in households where Spanish is the primary language did not participate in after school activities, according to the National Survey of Children’s Health, 2007 figures.
This is why community based efforts that build on the cultural strengths of border youth are exceptionally critical. Language and cultural competence are key factors in mental health services, according to National Child Traumatic Stress Network. The same is true for public health prevention efforts. And who knows the community best? The community itself.
La Mujer Obrera’s members, primarily Spanish-speaking displaced women workers, took on the mission to revitalize and improve the economic, social, educational, health and living conditions of the neighborhood and its residents. In the last 29 years, displaced garment workers of La Mujer Obrera have steadfastly organized to establish education and workforce training opportunities including a workers’ training center, an apartment complex, and three social purpose businesses: Rayito de Sol Daycare and Learning Center, Café Mayapán, and most recently, Mercado Mayapan, a traditional Mexican market with fresh foods, artisan goods, an active cultural events plaza, and museum.
The Semillas program is composed of eighteen youth divided in two groups. The younger group consists of children ages 6 to 14. The older youth, ages 17 to 24, are participating through a summer job program; they are charged with mentoring the younger kids. Most of these youth speak Spanish at home; many come from single mother households. Semillas is a community-operated youth program, part of a larger community development strategy being implemented by La Mujer Obrera in the El Paso’s former Garment District. Today they will perform at the community-operated market where their mothers work.
Both the border violence and the lack of meaningful and self-sustaining economic opportunities for Hispanic women living in the U.S. Mexico border are direct results of American trade policies that cater to international corporate interests. By increasing the free trade of goods but not people, North American Free Trade Agreement created an advantageous playing field for subsidized American farmers and undermined efforts of unsubsidized Mexican farmers. Suddenly, an apple farmer in Chihuahua was unable to compete with Red Delicious apples grown in Washington state. The loss of Mexican farms translated into an entire population looking for sustenance, resulting on the one hand in increased migration to the United States and on the other, in families searching for ways to make money… even if it meant drug trafficking.
The University of Texas Pan-Am estimates that the North American Free Trade Agreement led to the loss of approximately $78,000 for every job lost. An entire cohort of Hispanic women was suddenly abandoned. Left to fend for themselves, without warning, without workforce training, the largely monolingual Spanish speaking women with limited education had to figure a way out.
La Mujer Obrera’s community development model is ecological, community-led, and leading to full community empowerment and self-sufficiency. It creates safe spaces in which children can reconnect with their culture, countering the negative stereotypes leading to that ‘self-hate.’ Here, they become inspired not in spite of who they are but as a result of who they are.
“What did you learn here?” I ask 16-year-old Amberly.
“I learned about my ancestors, what they ate, what they did, their traditions, the danza azteca [Aztec dance]. I had the opportunity to work with the kids and other teenagers my age. I had the opportunity to learn where I came from.”
But these programs cannot continue without a meaningful economic investment from the Obama administration. Although the administration has invested billions of dollars into ‘community development,’ beneficiaries of these moneys have been traditional institutions including local governments and non-profits with a national base. Local non-profits, particularly on the border, have not been included in this infusion of funds.
When asked what they would have done this summer, had they not attended the Semillas program, they invariably respond, “at home.” “Playing video games.” “Watching TV.” “On the computer all day.”
Said a 6-year-old boy in classic Chuco parlance, “Aquí esta mas chidota, aquí en el programa.” [It’s cooler here, here in this program.]