Bridging Borders

  • Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012

Edgewood Students in MexicoStudents taking the College’s “Bridging Borders” class have a chance not many young adults get – a first-hand opportunity to develop a deep understanding of the lives of Mexican immigrants.

The goal of the course is to explore relationships between Wisconsin and Mexico in order to better understand Mexican immigrant experiences, according to instructor Dr. Julie Whitaker, associate professor of sociology. Students study the root causes of immigration to the U.S. and to Mexico, as well as the rhetoric, cultural practices and public policies that have built physical and symbolic walls between the two countries. They also explore how individuals and groups have sought to bridge cultures, improve living conditions in Mexico and advocate for the human rights of Mexican immigrants in the U.S.

“Bridging Borders” is a sociology course in the Social Science Department. The class is part of the COR General Education curriculum at Edgewood College, a set of three experiences in which students explore how their own interests, commitments, and gifts intersect with the needs and opportunities of the world.

During the course students meet with Mexican immigrants and learn about their lives in their native country. As a result, “Students are less likely to see immigrants as ‘others,’ thus promoting their concern for hostility toward immigrants, promoting empathy for the plight of immigrants and hopefully leading them to make more ethical decisions in their professional and personal lives,” Whitaker said.

This past year’s students focused on an enterprise that some may think is an unlikely source of a strong relationship between Wisconsin and Mexico - dairy farms. According to Whitaker, forty percent of the workers on Wisconsin dairy farms are immigrant workers and most of the immigrant workers are from Mexico.Julie and Alma Montes

Whitaker said the Mexican farm laborers traveled to the U.S. in search of jobs because policy changes enacted in the 1990s (the North American Free Trade Agreement in particular) impoverished many small communities in Mexico. The larger dairy farmers choose to hire Mexican workers because they found it difficult to recruit and retain U.S. citizens for the low-paying jobs with difficult working conditions.

During a trip to central Mexico during winter break, students visited two small communities that were home to many of the immigrant workers they met during the classroom phase of the course. “The purpose of the visit was to give students a better understanding of what the immigrants’ lives were like in Mexico,” she said. “Students could actually see that there are no stores, restaurants or hotels, and visit a community of indigenous people who live from hand to mouth without indoor plumbing and many who speak an indigenous language, not Spanish.”

While vising these communities students showed a film they created about residents who are now working on Wisconsin dairy farms. Sarah Hawkins-Podboy was able to observe the audience as they watched the film. “Their faces lit up with joy when their loved one came on the screen and my eyes filled with tears,” she said. “It just shocked me how easily I had come to visit them when they had no possibility of visiting their husbands or sons in Wisconsin. It is one of those things I just could not hold in. The utter absurdity of it hit me like a wall in that instant.”

Students also spent time at a home for girls aged five to 14, called “La Casa de Buen Pastor” or “The House of the Good Shepard.” According to Whitaker, it provides a stable, safe environment for about 60 girls whose families can’t afford to feed them every day of the week. Edgewood College students helped them with their homework and played games and just spent time with them.

The group attended an outdoor mass with about 600 residents who Whitaker believes had never seen people who look so different than they do. The mass was delivered in Nahuatl, the area’s indigenous language, by a Dominican priest. Whitaker was overcome with emotion by how welcoming the previously surprised and apprehensive parishioners were following what she surmises were the priest’s introduction and words of welcome.

Fatime and LilyBailey Kaiser (who graduated Magna Cum Laude in May 2012, a double-major in Spanish and Sociology) was also moved by the reception the group received.

“We had the incredible privilege to be welcomed in by the community. I felt completely undeserving of their kindness. They didn't know us and had every right to dislike us. We as U.S. citizens represent a country who has contributed to the poverty and joblessness that tears these small communities and families apart,” she reflected.

Also while on the trip students learned about area organic farming cooperatives and the work of a human rights organization called “Los Centros de Los Libres” or “The Center for Women’s Freedom.” They also spent time getting to know a group of students attending the University of Guanajuato.

The course was particularly meaningful for Fatima Segura Ibarra, a sophomore who lived in Mexico until she was eight years old.

“It was very exciting for me to learn more about the country where I once lived,” she said. “I love helping people because I believe in change. I would love to go back to Mexico, especially to the indigenous communities to offer my services and help them out.”

She added, “I really enjoyed being a translator during the trip because I felt helpful and it reminded me of when I first arrived in the U.S. Not being able to understand or speak the language is a horrible feeling. I was glad to help and let my peers know what was going on so they could feel part of the conversation and not feel left out.”

For Kaiser, her roots too gave special meaning to the course.

Raised in a small dairy farming community in Wisconsin, Kaiser said the course related to her community’s experiences after an increase in the immigrant population. “There was tension, a language gap and general cultural misunderstandings,” she said. “Many people fail to look at the larger picture of immigration and why people are forced to leave their home country to find work. This class focused on gaining an understanding of the circumstances people are under based largely on trade agreements that bind our countries together. This has had an enormous effect on immigrant populations, which has affected small communities much like the one I grew up in.”

Kaiser said that as a result of the course she feels empowered to make educated decisions about how she votes, given how our nation’s politics affect other countries. She also believes she can combat racial prejudice. However, she added that the knowledge she gained “is also a burden because there is no way I can pretend to be naive about the suffering of others and I have a better understanding of the privileges I did not earn, but were simply born with by being a U.S. citizen.”

A recent graduate with a degree in Sociology and Spanish, Kaiser envisions herself working for immigrant advocacy organizations. Likewise, Hawkins-Podboy, a junior majoring in psychology with a human services concentration and minoring in Latin American and religious studies, would like to return to Mexico and work with the girls’ home and human rights organization the students visited during the trip.