May 27, 2005

Watching The Border Watchers: What the Minutemen Look Like From the Streets of Oaxaca

By Angel Lunz

When I first heard about the Minutemen — a group of vigilantes rounding up illegal immigrants along the Arizona border — my first thought was, “I wonder what the reaction will be back home in Oaxaca.” On a recent visit, I got a chance to find out.

The Minutemen drew a lot of attention recently when California Gov. Arnold Sch-warzenegger expressed his support for the group and “welcomed” it to expand its operation to his state. Here in the United States, the response has been mostly soft pressure — letters to congressional representatives and candlelight vigils. In San Jose, Calif., where I live, many people feel the situation is a lost cause and are just waiting for the worst. Folks like my aunt, who immigrated here three years ago, say “Ay Dios mío, protége a esta pobre gente (Oh my Lord, please protect these poor people),” whenever the topic of the Minutemen comes up. But on the other side of the border the attitude toward the Minutemen, and how to handle them, is stronger.

I recently went back to my hometown of Oaxaca, Mexico, for a visit. A lot more folks talk politics in Mexico than in the United States, and the Minutemen in particular had caught everyone’s attention. It’s the talk at the local bar, in the back of taxicabs and on campus at UABJO (Universidad Autó-noma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca). One of my old friends there told me that he had planned to go and reunite with his son in the United States, but all the hype about the Minutemen was stopping him.

He said, Pinches güeros culeros que no quieren que progrese la raza, (Damn white boys, they don’t want us to make progress),” and ¿Qué mal les hace uno? (What harm do we do them)?”

The border itself looks very different from Mexico. First off, it’s farther from home than people think. It is dangerous, tricky, dirty, unfriendly, and you can trust nobody. My aunt told me a story of how she almost got raped when she was crossing the border from Mexico to the United States. It is no easy decision to go.

If you have enough money for a coyote (guide), you go through the desert. In Oaxaca, they tell stories of people — not necessarily the Minutemen, but others who don’t want to see people make it — sabotaging the water stations that volunteers have placed in the desert to help prevent deaths by dehydration.

If you don’t have money, you catch a cargo train while it’s running. If you don’t stay awake, you can fall off and kill yourself. I heard many stories in Oaxaca of people getting their limbs chopped off, and getting stuck in between trains.

Talk of these dangers has recently been upstaged by the question of how to deal with the Minutemen. Word on the street is that the narcos (drug lords) are going to give rewards to anybody who kills a member of the Minuteman organization.

I was in a bar with my friends, drinking and joking around until the soccer game on the TV was interrupted by a news flash about the Minuteman. Everyone gathered around this older man who said he was a lawyer. “The only thing that these people are doing is pissing off the narcos, the coyotes and the Mara Salvatrucha (a gang that spans Latin America),” he said. Some of the folks laughed.

In the neighborhood where I was raised in Oaxaca, the narcos have a pretty strong following. They are thought to be generous with their allies and dangerous to their enemies. Even though people know the narcos are up to no good, the drug lords are thought of as people who don’t forget where they came from, and don’t forget their folks.

Before he left he bar, the lawyer said, “El narco no perdona, y la sangre va a tener que ser derramada (The narco doesn’t forgive, and blood will have to be spilled).” The room cheered.

Angel Luna, 20, writes for, the voice of young workers, writers and artists in Silicon Valley and a PNS project. He came to the United States from Mexico seven years ago.

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