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The Near Side (kids with cameras, political organizing and deceit)

August 2, 2010

Hello friends (and family and acquaintances and complete strangers)!  The last few posts have mainly been about our exploits in Ciudad Juárez, but we’ve also been quite busy in the good ol’ US of A.

It seems that as our time here is beginning to wrap up (less than two weeks left!) we are getting more and more leads into interesting stories and (as our busy schedule will attest to) are at least attempting to follow them all.

During the first month of filming we kept wondering how the heck to weave the stories we’ve collected into a documentary whole (or, indeed, if such a product was even desirable). We’ve done plenty of filming and have a lot of wonderful material, but it was hard to conceive of a way to bring it all together. We considered other methods of using the material, including making short video vignettes and wrapping them up with a teaching tool such as a curriculum or booklet, because we don’t want to force the material together if it doesn’t fit naturally. But the the idea of being able to create a documentary was still so attractive…

Luckily, a week ago we had a wonderful interview with Trini, the former mayor of Socorro, a town just East of El Paso that is made up of many different colonias interspersed with cotton fields. In the early 1990’s, the town of Socorro hunkered down for a long battle against the Lower Valley Water District to get water lines, and a few years later they were successful. Trini was at the forefront of this fight, and he gave us wonderful insight into the process, challenges and success of this story. Trini is a quintessential people person–it seemed that every five minutes or so someone waved to him or he skirted off to greet a resident. Because of this, he also had a wealth of real-world information about how colonias start, the challenges they face, and the unjust and illegal practices of many colonia developers. Besides a brief run-in with the new mayor where (shall we say) a few political tensions showed, we got a lot of great footage and interview material.

The best part is that, after this interview, Marley and I finally began to envision a documentary whole. We can use the interviews containing Trini’s expert background knowledge and experience as a sort of backbone for the documentary project, using our vignette stories as illustrative examples. It was a wonderful sigh of relief for us–although I felt strongly that the stories we were collecting are interesting and important, now it feels a little less like we are groping around in the dark.

This also highlights the highly experimental nature of our summer adventures here in El Paso. Neither of us have experience doing a media project quite like this one. We only have limited technical experience and our own common sense and creativity to guide us. It reminds me of the first time I got to write a school essay without following the five-paragraph, eleven-sentence-per-paragraph formula that I so hated–although a little more difficult and potentially disastrous, it’s also extremely liberating and more interesting and meaningful to embark on your own than it is to follow some recipe for success based on other people’s experiences. We are making mistakes and seem to be revising our approach every other day, but with every revision are getting closer to living up to our film-making values and creating a decent final product. We are open to the idea of failure without being defeatist, allowing leads to come and go without forcing them, and trying our best to receptive and open-minded to ideas from our community partners.

We also have a few other fun projects brewing when we’re not worrying our parents over in Mexico. One of the more exciting ones is the opportunity to work with a group of eight teenagers from four colonias on a self-directed media product. We have spent some time training three groups of kids in the use of video equipment and video production and they came up with their own topics and outlines. This week they are filming the shots for their short video, and later this week we will get them all together to edit and publish the videos they create. The kids (ranging from 13 to 17 years old) are fun, smart and involved in their communities. Marley and I are very excited to work with them–after all, who better to tell the story of US colonias than their youngest and brightest residents? Hopefully we’ll have their videos uploaded by early next week, so keep an eye out.

We have also been learning about a current struggle that is going on in the colonias around Clint, about thirty minutes from El Paso. There is upcoming legislation that would enlarge the landfill near their homes. Marley and I went to a meeting to learn about the new legislation and what steps that residents can take to block it. It was an…um…interesting experience to get such an intimate glimpse of colonia politics.

The session was being run by a group of people from a public relations firm in Sunland Park, New Mexico. Marley and I came to the meeting without any idea of what it would be like (we had just gotten the call from one of our community contacts the day before), and I at least was kind of expecting the meeting to be between the residents and representatives of the landfill.  I was expecting confrontation or at least conflict…but that was not the case. The presenters were helping the residents do what was needed to block the new legislation

The cynic in me was a bit surprised–what was a PR firm from New Mexico doing all the way out in Clint, Texas? They are not community organizers or NGO employees. What motives could they have? After asking a few questions we got the answer–the PR firm was hired by the private landfill that operates in Sunland Park and stands to lose a significant amount of money if their business is diverted to the enlarged Clint landfill. (Coincidentally, the New Mexico landfill operates just across the border from Lomas del Poleo…about a ten minute walk if there weren’t a massive fence in the way). This revelation produced mixed feelings–on one hand, these PR people were helping the colonia residents organize to stop a landfill that would be harmful for those living near it. On the other hand, this is another example of the colonia residents being manipulated by those with power and influence. Even if the ends may be good, the means and the motives don’t sit well with me at all.

One of the fears that the colonia residents mentioned was that their voice would not be heard in the city council because they are residents of El Paso County, not of the City of El Paso. They also feared that, since many are legal residents and not yet US citizens, they would not be allowed to speak or their concerns would be ignored. Although the PR woman debunked this fear, the residents had a good point and plenty of reason to be wary.

We learned that in 2003, the residents of  the nearby colonias were approached by a man who said that he would help them get water lines to their neighborhoods. He gained the trust of many of the residents, had meetings attended by hundreds of people (there were only about 30 at the meeting we attended) and really got the community politically galvanized…the only problem was that he was not really trying to get them water. Under this guise, he took advantage of the residents (some of whom are monolingual Spanish speakers or illiterate, but many of whom are educated) and their trust. When they thought they were signing an agreement to get more water, they were actually signing a contract allowing the landfill to expand. When they realized the treachery of the man “helping” them, he had already disappeared and the political organization he had inspired fell away with him.

I was amazed to hear such a blatant story of manipulation and deceit.  The more I think about the situation, the more dismayed I feel. Unfortunately, this is a story that plays out all too often, especially with issues such as landfills in poor and marginalized communities.

Just think about the situation: a city that you are not even a resident of wants to expand a landfill so there is more room for their trash near your house. This expansion may contaminate your land and water, increase noise and light pollution as well as traffic on an already dangerous road, and blow trash into your yard and home. This same city  (and county) has been refusing to build gas lines or city water pipes so that you can have running water in your homes, and you do not even get trash pick-up service in your neighborhood (it costs a minimum of $8/load and $26/ton of trash to bring your trash to the landfill that is causing these harms).

All of this on the only affordable land in the area, that you probably purchased from an unscrupulous land developer who took your money with promises of bringing water and services soon and who promptly disappeared to leave you to deal with the legal problems he left in his wake. All of this on the land where, nevertheless, you spent years building your own house, little by little, perhaps starting with a trashed mobile home and, with the help of your family and neighbors, moving up to a beautiful home you can be proud of. On land that may soon be contaminated and trashed.

And the people helping you block the landfill expansion law don’t really care about your concerns–that is, they wouldn’t be there at all if they weren’t trying to protect the business interests of a rival landfill.

If this were you, what would you think about the ‘promise’ of America?

I, for one, am ashamed of it.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Crystal Wakoa permalink
    August 3, 2010 2:06 pm

    Excellent commentary on the promise of America, Katie. This story is played out in towns and cities all over the country. The poor sides of towns gets hammered with industrial waste, noise and pollutants so the rich sides can stay clean and shiny.

    I am glad when the poor side wins one, but despite outcomes, I take heart in knowing that happiness does not depend on monetary wealth.

  2. David Moynahan permalink
    August 3, 2010 10:50 pm

    Beautifully presented, Katy, and so sadly true. These kinds of things happen on many levels all over America — the land where, all too often, the Almighty Dollar trumps all. Even more voiceless than the poor are the creatures of nature.

  3. Susan Peacock permalink
    August 4, 2010 7:33 pm

    Sometimes getting the pieces to work together is the hardest part – – it happens to me in paintings. I’m glad you’ve found Trini.

    I also can’t wait to see what the teens come up with in their films. You should see the videos Marley and Daniel came up with when they got hold of the camera – – priceless.

  4. Susan Kaye permalink
    August 7, 2010 6:18 pm

    It is easy to be cynical when we see mans’ inhumanity to man played out in front of us, day after day, in so many ways. I’m hoping you will inspire those of us that have seen this for so long, to come back out and keep trying! You are doing an amazing job and giving us all hope.

    Thank you,
    Susan Kaye

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