My Stories

Resilience in Times of Resistance

Resilience is about resisting and overcoming, and you can’t effectively resist if you haven’t overcome your fears.”

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Ivan gave this message at the CCDA (Christian Community Development Association) Conference in Detroit on October 5, 2017. If you’d like a readable copy of this message, please email ivancpaz@gmail.com with your request.

 

 

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My Stories

What I Learned Working in the Fields with My Neighbors

I’ve never had to work the fields in my life. I grew up watching family work the rugged campo, here, in the Central Valley (CA), where temperatures in the summer climb up to 112 degrees Fahrenheit, but I never spent a minute in the field. I often saw family members come home, bundled up in filthy clothes with dirt all over their faces, loudly expressing their exhaustion with groans when they came through the door. I grew up with usually more than one family in the house, and many of them—our parents, tíos, and tías—worked the fields so that, as they often reminded us, we who were young would not have to.21371128_10213621946479411_5932132027215457715_n

This past Labor Day I spent my day with my neighbors working in the fields. I didn’t choose to do this because I see myself as some noble leader or godly saint. Actually, I decided to join my neighbors because a few months ago, they—a group of women—challenged me to join them some time. We were in a neighbors’ gathering (we gather twice a month for coffee and community organizing work) and we ended up talking about the Latin@ immigrant experience, hard work, and the next generation. “You don’t know hard work!” Raquel said with a mischievous smile. “You come home exhausted from meetings in air-conditioned rooms.”

I know what Raquel was doing: She was intentionally, though playfully, agitating my machismo. She was trying to get me to prove myself and do something that I didn’t want to do. I know this technique–I have lots of sisters. But of course, it worked! I responded with, “Next time I have a holiday off from work, I will join you to show you I know how to work with my hands! I may have never worked the fields, but the spirit of hard work runs through my blood.”

That’s not how I felt on September 4, however.

So I rallied two friends of mine: Luis, who came to the U.S. from Mexico at a young age but also never worked the fields; and my friend Scott, an older White man who had his share in hard work to achieve his goals in life, but never in the context of the field. I thought it would be a good experience for each of us to have. Luis wanted to know what it was like to work the fields because for one reason or another, he had the privilege of not ending up diving into that trade like many others who immigrate do. Scott wanted to experience the struggle; he has been on an incredible journey trying to understand the reality his neighbors, who are often demonized in this country, live in. Me, I just wanted to show my neighbors I wasn’t a chump.

We met up with my neighbors near the Kerman area, and after they gave us a short orientation, we began to pick grapes. This is how it works: You basically cut a cluster of grapes with a hand size sickle; place them in a specifically sized, large plastic bowl; and then after the bowl is full, you drop the grapes on a large paper sheet, where they will be set to dry and become raisins.

At first, it was fun. I thought, “I could do this all day!” Then after two hours, the sun came out and in 30 minutes, I started feeling dehydrated. At one point, I noticed my friend Scott was not feeling good. So Luis and I encouraged him to grab a seat, drink water, and relax.

Three and a half hours went by and we found ourselves barely at the middle of the circuit. We still had a long way to go and our energy was running out. So we tried different techniques to try to finish the circuit more effectively. By the fifth hour, it was obvious that we were done. We only had about 20 feet remaining to finish the circuit but we were completely wiped out. It’s not a good sign when your body is not moving fast and your hands are starting to shake hard and cramp up. With a serious strike to my ego, we decided to call it a day. One of our neighbors, with a kind smile on his face, told us in Spanish that he would finish the job. We took his offer and headed back home.

We didn’t earn much. Each tray is worth 34 cents. We worked hard for five hours and gathered 168 trays of grapes between the three of us. Together we made $57.12, but split in three ways, we each made $19.04 for the five hours of hard work! While our neighbors dusted us in speed, I’m certain they don’t make a lot more. They’re such hard workers! I think the best way to express how I feel is to echo Luis’ words in his Instagram post:

“I’m humbled by the work of our campesinos. I was no match for their methodic hands. I will never understand how we pay $0.34 per tray. You would have to make 30 trays in one hour to make minimum wage. Today I made $4/hour. No air conditioned space to take your break, dust in your lunch, and long walks to the bathroom. But when you have no other choice, it’s what you do.”

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I’ve been around long enough in the activist world to understand some of the structural mechanisms set in place in the American system that allow for this kind of work to unfairly capitalize on a cheap labor force and, more specifically, on a population of vulnerable people who tend to get unfairly scapegoated for many things. I have a lot more respect for my neighbors and my family. They have endured, especially in the past couple of years, unfair accusations and high levels of discrimination when they have only sought the best for their families and their people.

As I think about my family and my neighbors, I can’t help but remember the thought that came to me when I saw Raquel’s daughter in the circuit, curiously examining the grapes and dirt: “We are planted to bear good fruit, and we will not be moved until our dreams feed the world.”

The general public may not see now who we are, but one day they we will heal them.

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My Stories

When My Racial Hatred Collapsed in Solitary Confinement

I have every reason to be angry with White America. Many boast that the U.S. masters the value of freedom, yet this country leads the world in the mass incarceration of over 2,266,800 people, 60% being non-violent offenders (U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics) and 60% people of color (American Progress). Many claim that this country stands on the ground that all people are created equal, yet in the name of national security, this country has deported over 350,000 people, mostly Latino/a who have no history or connection to “terrorists” (ICE). Some brag about the U.S.’s progress and economic pre-eminence compared to other nations, yet  it is estimated that nearly 50 million Americans, over 16% of the population, were struggling to survive financially in 2012 (Census Bureau). The harsh reality is that this percentage is made up of ethnic minorities: people like me and my family. Beyond facts and statistics, I have every right to be angry because I watched my father get deported when I was eight and watched my mother live in fear thereafter while she worked two jobs to make ends meet. The destruction of our lives and dreams left me interested in nothing else but the street life. I have every right to be angry with White America, and the social ignorance that many White people have, but sometimes God saves us from our hate.

I was in psolitaryconfinementcellauschwitz_1rison and the time came for me to be transferred to another prison. After a strange series of events, I ended up in the hole (officers didn’t believe that I was a Christian and that I stopped identifying with a gang, so they put me in the hole until an investigation was complete).

So here I was in the big, bad hole. No blankets, no pillow, no socks, and absolutely no property. Only an old, worn out underwear and a t-shirt that was probably used by thousands of inmates. And my cell: an 8-by-6 concrete room I had to call home for a month. This cell had one strip for a window, but it was covered from the outside with some type of dark tape in order to block the light. It was a lonely, dark, cold cell. It was an evil space that left me feeling abandoned and relegated to the worst punishment possible– absolute separation from community.

Anxiety got the best of me. I began to pace back and forth in my cell, panicking, wondering if my loved ones would die while I was lost in isolation, or if the police would finally discover the unresolved crimes I had committed in my youth. “Remember?” I would think, and then my mind would shift into self-condemnation: “You deserve to be in this horrible place! In fact, you should be forgotten here.” And on and on my mind would spin until I caught myself in conversations and arguments with myself, having forgot time, location, and consciousness.

I became an animal: unshaven and stinky. When food would be served through the little slot on the door, I would hunch and wait for the slot to open so I could immediately grab my food. I had learned from a previous time that I only had two seconds to grab it before the officers pulled my food away. As a Christian, I asked myself if God was still with me? I found it hard to believe it but I knew that I had to be faithful. With a piece of led that I found, I wrote “God is with you” on the wall in an effort to hope against hopelessness.

Then, there was a thump on the wall. Someone was making noise in the neighboring cell. I wanted to call out to him so bad, but I was a Christian, and a Latino. I had to be careful. Who knows what gang or ethnic group my neighbor belonged to. What if he was black, what if he was a Bulldog, or what if he was white? The prison rules do not allow for cross-cultural interaction. But who said we couldn’t communicate by knocking on walls? So I pounded back and waited for a second…

The pound was returned! I jumped. I got a response! This was amazing! It was so extraordinary to hear another human being intentionally respond to my pound on the wall, so I pounded again, this time sounding a commonly known melody but without completing it. I waited… and what do you know, my neighbor completed the known  remaining sounds!

“Hello! Hello?” I cried, “are you there?” In a muffled voice my neighbor responded, “Yes! I’m here. Have you lost your mind yet, neighbor?”

“I am getting there.” I replied.

“You want something to read?” he asked.

Something to read? I am dying inside my brain and you’re asking me if I want something to read? “Yeah, that would be cool,” I answered, trying to hide my excitement.

A few minutes went by and he shot his “fishline,” lead by a bar of soap, underneath my cell door. A fishline is usually made by pulling a string from the underwear and manually manufacturing thin rope out of it, then it is tied to a small piece of a bar of soap which operates as a hook. I grabbed the soap and wheeled into my cell a couple of work out magazines, and yes, I read them all. Sometimes we would play chess: we would both draw a chessboard on the floor with pieces of led, marking each square with a code (ex: A1 or B4) that we would loudly call out loud before moving chess pieces that were made from wet toilet paper. I could never beat my neighbor, no matter how hard I tried. But I was happy. God gave me a friend, even though I never saw his face.

Then shower day came. Two officers came to my cell and cuffed me through the door slot. Then after opening my cell door, I was escorted toward two phonebooth-like cages that had shower heads in it, and they put me in one. Then I heard another cell door shut and the sound of keys drew near. From the corner I saw the two officers escorting a tall and strong-looking guy. He was white with a shaved head, probably in his mid 30’s and his body was covered in tattoos, namely swastikas, thunderbolts, confederate flags, and “white pride” slogans.

“You must be Paz-02,” he said, having probably heard my name from the officers’ calls.  “I’m Matt, your neighbor.”

I looked at him. My neighbor’s name was Matt and he was personally talking to me.

“Yes, I’m Paz. Nice to meet you, Matt.” I responded. He inserted two fingers through the small cage holes as if to shake my hand. I hesitantly put forth my two fingers and shook his.

I was astounded. Here we were, two men in the middle of the cellblock, in a place where racism reigns and the rules of the game are “no cross-race/ethnic/cultural/gang interaction.” I don’t know Matt’s story but what I do know is that both he and I were taken from an environment of concentrated racism and were relocated to a place of utter abandonment, of complete marginalization, of total isolation, where human interaction was not just something desired but something absolutely needed. Something that one would probably trade everything for. And here, in this desperately dark, cold, and lonely place, none of that mattered anymore. What mattered to me was that I had a companion of sorts–a friend who, though perhaps would have been at enmity with me in general population (ordinary facilities), relinquished hate and embraced friendship because he, as well as I, discovered that friendship was more valuable than the politics of people. In a way, God visited me through Matt: through a racist skinhead–a prisoner who stood as a symbol of racism–God dismantled my prejudices, by making him my neighbor and my friend in a dark place, a place of incomprehensible loneliness.

I have every reason to be angry at White America. And I am. But this experience in solitary confinement changed my relational trajectory. While I am committed to fighting against social and institutional racism, I am just as committed to seek the salvation from prejudice for my White American brothers and sisters. I have tasted the need to be one with others and I have experienced the beauty of human community in the place of abandonment, even with people who are supposed to be my enemies. What I learned was that as justifiable as hate can be, love is so much better. Love wins. But in order for love to win, we have to be willing to encounter human community with the “other.”

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