Borderlands: An Open Wound

April 6th, 2009

Field Notes #2

Posted by sewonchung in Research

When: 03/11/09
Where: Sol de Justicia in Nogales, Mexico
Who: Oscar Jimenez Lopez
I could not take any notes when he was peering into our faces and telling us intimate details of his life. I felt so helpless and ashamed—Sewon, what are you doing here—I just sat and listened and stared at my hands. I didn’t really know how else to react. Was I supposed to reassure him or promise him something? Everyone seems so sure. I just feel overwhelmed.
→10 years in jail + 5 years and 2 months in jail (original sentence was for 6 years). “I learned English there,” he says.
→He was born in Chiapas, left home very young—age 12—to the U.S. by himself. But after all these years, he doesn’t even have a life in the U.S. Wonders why they stole all these years of his life and let him out without a cent. If they gave him some money, he could at least go back to Chiapas. He’s stuck in Nogales. He has no friends or family here.
→I try to react back and say, “Well, I really hope you can save enough to go back home to Chiapas.” He shakes his head and searches my eyes and says, “No, no, it’s not like that. I left home when I was 12. 15 years I was in jail. I don’t even know if my family lives there or if they are alive at all. And I have no money to find out anyway.” I think of a conversation I had earlier with Kate. She asked me about Korea and asked me if I was returning there after college. Return where? Why? I am American and my family lives in Northern Virginia. What do I have in Korea to go back to? Maybe Oscar and I have more in common than I realize but I know I have the privilege of mobility.
→ Oscar blames judges, blames lawyers. Tells us this is racial discrimination. Says it’s not the skin color because sometimes Mexican Americans are the worst. They are the first to call immigration. He says he doesn’t want to go to Texas. The only reason he would go is for the money but they keep putting him in jail, what is the point. Texas is not a home. Arkansas is where he’s been all these years but that’s prison.
→In Nogales there are jobs but it’s impossible to save any money. He pulls out his hands and says, “Look, look at my hands. Look at the cuts and the scars.” He carries rocks all day long and earns just enough to eat.
→“My name is Oscar Jimenez Lopez,” he says again and again. “I was scared so I gave them a different name and I never go to be Oscar Jimenez Lopez in America.”
→”Is there anything you can do for me?” he asks now that we know of the unjust way his youth and his life was taken from him. We have nothing to say. I wish we said something empowering. Instead we pointed out the Sol de Justicia church leader and said that he would be able to help. Hmm.
→He peers into my face and asks, “What’s your name?” I tell him and he says, “You are Korean, right? There was lots of Korean in Texas. Japanese, too, but they are different people.” I think we forget that people can see us when we are so busy “studying” them.

April 2nd, 2009

Field Notes #1

Posted by sewonchung in Research

When: 03/08/09
Where: On the airplane flying towards Tucson Arizona from Atlanta Georgia.
Who: Two strangers—a man and a woman

Difficulty of Drawing Borders of “Nationality”

The airplane just took off into the air. I feel distracted. I am listening to a conversation between two passengers next to me—a woman and a man. The woman is in her early 60s but looks in her mid-50s and the man looks to be in his early 30s and married. She talks a lot and tries hard to engage the man next to her, telling him about her trip to Costa Rica. The man, on the other hand, speaks in short sentences and looks off into a distance every once in awhile. The woman does not seem to notice and she continues. The man with a short military haircut and bulky built body tells her that he’s in the army. He adds that he is an Arizona native, born and raised. The woman says she lives in a community in Arizona. Lots of retired folk there but everyone is very active. She explains that she has been taking watercolor classes and it’s so much fun.
→ The woman laughs and starts, “You know a funny thing, I noticed these buses taking migrants across. You know anything about that?”
→ He shrugs and says has been living in Germany for the past 9 years serving in the army. He doesn’t really know much about U.S. politics anymore.
→ “What do you think about Obama?” the woman asks.
→ “I don’t know too much about him. We’ll see,” he replies.
→ “Well, I heck liked that girl from Alaska. It’s too bad that man kept calling himself a maverick. It frightened a lot of people.”
→ The man is not talking much anymore but nodding at everything the woman says. The woman returns to the conversation about the bus. She says she noticed that the border patrols nicely take these people to the base, feed them, give them water, and send them on a bus back to their “home.”
→ She says, “I mean, I imagine that costs us a ton of money to do that for all these people. I asked the border patrol what he thought about this situation. He just laughed and said, ‘Well, a job is a job, you know.’”
→ She abruptly starts talking about Costa Rica, “Well, I mean, when I was in Costa Rica I met this couple. They are from Costa Rica so you know, Hispanic, but very, you know, high class, hmm high class society types. Educated and everything.” She fidgets and says, “I don’t know where I was going with that. I mean, Arizona is great for retired active folk.”
→ The man starts talking about a small town in Arizona where he was born and raised. His family has been there forever. He added, “But I’m married now…children in the planning. I’m trying to retire from the army and searching for a job in Germany. We want to continue to live in Frankfurt. I think for me, that’s my home.”
→ The woman looks confused and asks, “Is your wife German?” and then quickly adds, “Well, children are nice.” The conversation dwindles off from there on.

IT’S INTERESTING TO BE SUCH A VISIBLE YET INVISIBLE RESEARCHER IN THE FIELD (IS ANYWHERE AND EVERYWHERE A FIELD? WHAT’S PRIVATE?) AT THE MOST UNEXPECTED TIMES—WHEN I AM HALF FALLING ASLEEP CATCHING AN INSIGHTFUL CONVERSATION BETWEEN TWO STRANGERS. BECAUSE OF THEIR STRANGER-STATUS, THE TWO WERE CAREFUL ABOUT SELF-REPRESENTATION. THEY WERE WARY OF MAKING STRONG POLITICAL STATEMENTS BUT THEY BOTH THOUGHT IT WAS IMPORTANT TO ESTABLISH AN UNDERSTANDING OF EACH OTHER’S POSITIONS AND IDEA OF “HOMETOWN.” FOR THE WOMAN LIVING IN ARIZONA, SHE SEEMED CONFUSED ABOUT SEEING BORDER PATROLS AIDING ILLEGAL MIGRANTS AND HELPING THEM GET “HOME.” HOWEVER, NEITHER WANTED TO TALK ABOUT ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION. THE WOMAN TRIED TO MOVE THE CONVERSATION AND SAY SOMETHING POSITIVE ABOUT LATINO MIGRANTS BY TALKING ABOUT THE COSTA RICAN COUPLE BUT COULD NOT REALLY RELATE HER EXPERIENCE WITH ONE ANOTHER AND JUST TALKED ABOUT HER NEIGHBORHOOD IN ARIZONA INSTEAD. THE MAN, RETURNING HOME IN 9 YEARS, WAS ALSO EAGER TO TALK ABOUT THE SMALL TOWN WHERE HE GREW UP, A PLACE DIFFERENT FROM HIS CITYLIFE IN GERMANY. AT THE SAME TIME, HE IDENTIFIED MORE WITH GERMANY AND THOUGHT OF HIS NEW COUNTRY AS HIS HOME. HE QUIETLY ARTICULATED THIS AND THE WOMAN SEEMED GENUINELY CONFUSED ABOUT IT. SHE MUST HAVE ASSUMED FROM HIS APPEARANCE THAT HE WOULD FEEL A CERTAIN WAY ABOUT THE BORDER OR THE RECENT ELECTIONS BUT IT TURNS OUT HE IS NOT REALLY INTERESTED IN EITHER. HE DIDN’T SAY HE BECAME MORE “GERMAN” DURING HIS SERVICE ABROAD BUT HE CLEARLY DISTINGUISHED HIMSELF AS SOMEONE WHO WANTS TO PERMANENTLY LIVE ABROAD AND RAISE CHILDREN THERE, IN HIS NEW HOME. THIS JUST MAKES ME THINK A LOT ABOUT THE FLEXIBILITY OF “NATIONALITY” OR THE IDEA OF “HOME.” AND THIS IS ONLY THE FLIGHT TO ARIZONA AND HERE I AM WITH PAGES OF NOTES ALREADY. I CAN’T WAIT!