Friday, June 17, 2016



A friend recently vacationing in Canada tells of a headline she saw in a local newspaper:  “BUILD A BORDER WALL! MAKE THE U.S. PAY FOR IT!” 

A dig at a US presidential candidate’s racist rants against Mexicans –  against the people of Mexico, Mexican-Americans, against people of “Mexican heritage”?
A plea to end the flow of guns from the US into Canada, a country with strict gun laws and far fewer gun-related deaths than in the US?
A shout of Canadian pride – “we’re Canada, not the 51st US state!”? 

Stepping outside the rhetoric of fear and hate gives us a different viewpoint:  we quite literally see things differently.  Linda  Christensen, a teacher who visited the US-Mexico border at Tijuana/San Diego, came up with a  novel approach for helping her Oregon high school students come to their own understandings of  “the border”:  she had them step into a border community.

Her “Life on the Border” lessons take her students to Chilpancingo, a village they first encounter in a photograph. The picture shows a trash dump and what the students quickly label as “shacks,”  a scene that would seem to confirm her students’ stereotypes of the poverty and disgusting conditions on “the other side.”   Together the class “reads” the picture, cataloging the visual clues:  bottles, cans, dirty water, dead trees.  Clues that lead to questions:  where was the picture taken? When? And by whom? And what is in the river? And the tacit question: is this what life is like in Mexico?

Image Source:

“My students didn’t stand on the banks of Rio Alamar and smell the acrid odor of a town drowning in toxins.  But they learned how to step into a picture and connect with a community on the other side of the border.”

Once the students can see – and even smell – the scene and want to know more, they are presented a story to read from the Washington Post:  “A Toxic Legacy on the Mexican Border.”  Its message is stark (and well understood even by the struggling readers in the class):  the waste is not from the carelessness of the local residents.  Its source is a toxic dump left behind when Mexico shut down an US-owned  battery recycling company.  Its owner, according to the reporter, escaped prosecution for “gross environmental pollution” by crossing into San Diego, leaving behind up to 8,500 tons of toxic chemicals from the battery parts piled on the site.  Winds and rains pick up the toxins and drop them onto Colonia Chilpancingo, a village of 10,000 workers, continuing the health risks that began when the factory’s furnaces were spewing toxic metals.

Linda Christensen writes that she and her students keep two ideas in mind as they read:  injustice and hope.  Whether reading about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, or now this story of one village on the US-Mexico border, she invites her students to read actively, asking the questions and seeking evidence to explain the injustice they encounter.   They are also instructed look to identify “the hope in this situation.”   The toxic waste in Chilpanciago leads to questions of knowledge (“did anyone know this was happening?”) and power (“would toxins be allowed to poison a rich neighborhood?”), of governance and responsibility (“who pays for the cleanup?”) and legal consequences (“how can the polluter escape prosecution just by crossing a border?”).  The students learn from the Post article and readings from varied points of view, and from their teacher’s visit to the Colonia, that hope is taking the form of activists who are educating citizens about the risks while at the same time organizing to pressure the government and the polluter to clean up the site.  They even marched on the owner’s San Diego office, reminding him by name “You forgot something in Tijuana.”

We can’t shield our students from the hateful words of politicians and social media, but we can, along with Linda Christensen and her students, seek out injustice and identify sources of hope by stepping into the issues, stepping into the stories, stepping up to and across borders.  An exciting time to be teaching if we do it right!

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