Cause and Effect: the Honduran “migrant caravan”

DSC_1736.JPG

Mr Trump is not wrong when he blames the Democrats for the Honduran “migrant caravan” currently schlepping through Mexico in dire need of aid. But not surprisingly his reasons for condemning the democrats are erroneous and ignorant. The anti-socialist, pro-military decisions made by Hilary Clinton during her violent reign as Secretary of State reverberate harder than ever in Honduras. The Obama Administration and Mrs Clinton turned a blind eye in the wake of the 2009 military coup when democratically-elected president Mel Zelaya was removed from office in his pajamas. The Democrats could not resist the convenient opportunity to let a conservative regime slide into power, ramp up the “War on Drugs,” and militarize this crucial geopolitical outpost of the drug trade. If the Obama Administration had accepted the fact that the coup was a coup, military aid would have had to be suspended and the plethora of US military bases in Honduras would have been jeopardized. Brimming with cocaine and M-16’s, makeshift submarines and speedboats make their first pitstop in Honduras. Light-aircraft land on secret airstrips in the Mosquitia jungle, the biggest biosphere of Central America. Clinton writes in her memoir “Hard Choices” that she opted to “render the question of [President] Zelaya moot.” Ignoring the coup unleashed the chain of events that has left Honduras in utter shambles, and the migrant caravan is the direct result of this. Sorry, there is no video of Clinton laughing wickedly about this foreign policy blooper, like she snickered about killing Gaddafi in an interview, but the facts show the blood on the hands of the Obama Administration as Honduras toted the title of murder capital of the world in 2012. The exorbitant amount of US tax dollars pumped into the “security” sector of Honduras’ far-right government has lead to tragedy and misery so severe it can hardly be fathomed from the safety net of the United States.

But, of course the Republicans and Democrats are longstanding partners in crime when it comes to Latin American regime change and interventionism. Another huge factor that has snowballed into this caravan headed north with no direction home, is the 1980’s deportation of made-in-the-USA gangs like mara salvatrucha (MS-13) and la mara 18 (the 18 Gang). We have the Reagan Administration to thank for deporting thousands of organized criminals to the overcrowded and insecure prisons of El Salvador (MS-13) and Honduras (mara 18). Seems crazy, but these gangs went from 18th street training grounds of crime and violence in the heart of Los Angeles to extorting shop owners who do not even own the red and white paint on the cinderblock house from which they sell Coca-Cola (free paint for free publicity). These gangs were shoo-ins for the smuggling business that supplies the nostrils of the #1 cocaine consumer of the world – the USA. Thus, these transnational gangs that cause nothing but grief are another factor at the core of this migration crisis.

Perhaps a brief anecdote will help explain one of the reasons these people are headed north. While riding on a minibus to the Caribbean port city of La Ceiba, Honduras in 2014, I experienced the nefarious aftermath of extortion. I overheard some chatter in the bus from the other passengers that someone was murdered, which no longer phased me given the number times I had gone through the same situation. I thought of the neighbors that had been shot down, some acquaintances, my homie Licho, and the other slain victims of the Honduran citizenry that adorned the front page of local and national news every day. I had become more or less desensitized to the weekly murders in Trujillo – accustomed to the violence, just like one is accustomed to waking up to a cup of coffee. As the packed mini-bus rolled closer to the Uno gas station at the first junction in La Ceiba, we could see commotion up ahead. A bus driver was splayed across the street, next to the mini-bus he presumably drove for years to support his family. His reason for death? The owner of the low-rate bus company didn’t pay extortion taxes, so motorcycle assassins made good on the mafia’s promise.

Along with a few other passengers, I got out of the bus to catch a taxi to the port called el Muelle de Cabotaje. The taxi driver recounted what he saw…the motorcyclists pulled up with covered faces, shot him in the head right through the window of the bus, and sped away. There’s no way to know for sure, but this homicide was just one more crime that would never see a judicial process and the culprits would never be brought to trial. Well, to be honest, the low-level henchmen that act as hitmen for gangs do not have a very long lifespan so maybe those particular motoratones (motorcycle rats) have already met their inevitable demise. In Honduras, killers act with impunity at all levels – from freelance assassins to jealous husbands, from the state police and military to the 18 Gang, from narcotics traffickers to the USA’s Drug Enforcement Administration. Yet, this cornucopia of violence that has developed in Honduras passes largely unnoticed and unaccounted for by the judicial system.

It has now been two and a half years since Berta Cáceres was assassinated in her own home in La Esperanza. This heinous crime was a heavy blow for indigenous land defenders and environmental activists everywhere, as Berta won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015 for her work fighting the Agua Zarca dam. Her murder has still not been brought to justice, though one look at president Juan Orlando Hérnandez’s shit-eating grin explains why. For the very same reasons that Mel Zelaya was deposed in 2009, President Hernández (known as JOH) used his connections in Congress to amend the Honduran Constitution to extend the presidential term limit. Then one day after the election on 26 November 2017, JOH was losing to leftist candidate Salvador Nasralla by five points with 71% of the votes counted. JOH stalled the release of the results in order to buy time to blatantly rig the election, enforcing a curfew and escalating militarization which led to the death of dozens of protestors. Going against the will of Honduran voters who chose Nasralla, JOH magically recuperated six points and claimed victory on 16 December 2017. The United States continues to tune out vicious dictators as long as they conform with their interests, as JOH snips the last threads holding their democracy intact. The illegal amendment of the Honduran Constitution and the shameless rigging of the December 2017 election is yet another reason for the mass exodus from Honduras.

Mr Trump’s Halloween tweet outrageously juxtaposes cop-killer Luis Bracamonte with the 7,000+ people in various caravans, directly echoing previous polemic about immigrants. The bombastic threats to send up to 15,000 troops to the Mexican border put the caravan directly in Mr Trump’s psychotropic Twitter feed, posing them as invaders to be squashed by US troops. Even if Mr Trump has backed down from his comments that US soldiers would respond to rock throwing with gunfire, the fact that he said this remains. The Trump Administration’s habit of fictitiously rephrasing abhorrent comments does not veil the truth behind the consistent discourse of provocation and hatred. Don’t be fooled, this kind of rhetoric is nothing less than a “call to arms” for self-regulated militia groups like The Texas Minutemen. Polishing their AR-15’s in anticipation of the caravan, even military officials are worried about the prospect of vigilante groups organizing “in alleged support.” It is very, very unfortunate to have to point out that not only does Mr Trump put the caravan in the limelight to bolster fear of immigration, but he literally has them in the crosshairs of ICE, Border Patrol, and now the US Military.

Historical amnesia is one of the greatest flaws of the United States government and the broken two-party system. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats seem to remember that actions, especially violent ones, have causal repercussions. Both parties actively refuse to learn from their military blunders and refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. These migrants are not leaving home because they want to, but because they have to. Abject poverty, the pangs of hunger, the threat of extortion, and losing a child to gang recruitment all hang heavy on the shoulders of these asylum seekers. They are not even really migrants, but refugees of a proxy war born and bred by the caustic ideology of United-Statesian imperialism. The US Army School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia shows a concerted, institutionalized effort to shape Latin America by training and equipping militaries, anti-communist insurgents, or death squads only to benefit US interests. There is no denying it – US interventionism in Latin America has had serious consequences. From Eisenhower’s coup of Guatemala in 1954 to Nixon’s CIA-led coup of Chile in 1973, from Reagan’s backing of terrorist groups like the Contras in Nicaragua in the 80’s to Obama’s negligence in the wake of the 2009 Honduran coup. The following map highlights US intervention in Latin America since 1950:

What Honduras needs is aid. You know, like the real kind of aid – food, water, medicine, shelter. Not the millions of dollars in military aid that the US government injects into JOH’s boiling blood every year, cementing in a stolen election and a military dictatorship. Guns, helicopters, and military training are not helping the status quo and very little of the “aid” that Mr Trump is threatening to cut off will ever trickle down to those that really need it. Of course, Mr Trump isn’t blaming the liberal wingnuts for the right reasons – “Democrats let (cop-killer Bracamonte) into our country.” While the US mass media has had the caravan in its spotlight for weeks now, Mr Trump pounces on the chance to disseminate more toxicity, like the napalm he dyes his hair with. Yes, the Honduran government is responsible for stoking the fire of this crisis – but it is bipartisan America that adds slow-burning logs and then douses a little gasoline on top. This is not really a migrant caravan – it is a refugee caravan.

Caminante no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.

Wayfarer there is no path, the path is made by walking.

– Antonio Machado

“Proverbios y cantares XXIX” Campos de Castilla (1912)

 

Advertisements

Me Too

Me too

When I say “me too,” it’s not because I’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted as the viral hashtag suggests. I say “me too” because I too participate in the patriarchy that has long needed a smackdown. I say “me too” in acknowledgement of the machismo that filters my world, in a myriad of ways that I don’t even realize. I too am guilty, not in the Agent Orange “grab them by the p****” kind of way, but by engaging in a society that silences and shames women after verbal and physical abuse. It is paramount that men are proactive in the fight for this fundamental human right, or we will never rewrite our “herstory.” Movements like “Me too” should not feel alienating to men…it should not make men put their heads down in ignominy, but make us begin the long overdue rewiring of our brains and patriarchal social conditioning. It’s like we’re watching a 3D movie without the flimsy glasses.

I don’t consider myself to be “lucky” because I’m a white male. Lucky isn’t the right word to describe a person that receives undeserved privilege. It’s more accurate to say that I have it easy, when I consider that I could easily do nothing about this for the rest of my life without being bothered. I don’t have to deal with the hardship of being valued merely for my physical appearance. I won’t feel muzzled and ashamed because I was raped or groped, and my boss won’t make inappropriate sexual advances on me at work. White men and all men are not “lucky,” and they should not have it “easy.” For any meaningful, lasting change to happen, men will have to swallow the stubborn pride of masculinity and face the problem straight up.

In an interview with Democracy Now!, Tarana Burke speaks about the “Me Too” movement she started some ten years ago.

[…]this movement is really about survivors talking to survivors, right? “Me Too” is about letting—using the power of empathy to stomp out shame[…]it’s not a hashtag, right? It’s not a moment. This is a movement.

This is an epidemic, pandemic even, right? If you applied the numbers around sexual violence to any communicable disease, the World Health Organization would shut it down[…]But in actuality, it is that pervasive. And so, we need to stop thinking about it in spurts, and think about it as something that we need to constantly work on.

This is not the time to be quiet, like a dog with its tail between its legs, only to forget the lesson in due time. This is a time for men to recognize the severity of their actions and stop it from the ground up and on every front. Women participate in all kinds of social movements led by men, but why do some men feel uncomfortable with a Women’s March or the Feminist movement? So I say “Me Too” not because I’m a survivor of abuse, but because I’m open to have the most important conversation of our time.

Guardián the Orphan Dog

IMG00785-20111224-2050

When I lived in Honduras, Nena the woman next door to my house sold plantains, caguamas of beer, and Coca-cola from the scorched front porch of her humble abode. The man of the house was but six years old and roamed around barefoot and shirtless, happy to be the king of his grandma’s dusty realm. Nena, her daughters, and grandchildren cracked up all day long and listened to music when there was electricity, washed their clothes in the basin if there was water. Nena would grind coconut meat into milk and sauté fresh red snapper, king fish, shrimp, or lobster accompanied by a medley of sweet and savory plantains mashed up in a mortar and pestle in true Garifuna fashion – machuca. Money was both a problem and not a problem, because I could always hear laughter emanating from every direction of the vibrant neighborhood of San Martin.

In Switzerland my neighbors have cars with windshield wipers on their headlights. Their hedgerows are perfectly manicured by someone else and there’s no plantains for sale down the street, but there is a Maserati dealership. The electricity has never failed since I’ve been here, and not only do I have running water that is potable, but it is scalding hot. Though I was sometimes bothered by the carte blanche on noise pollution in Honduras,  I truly enjoy the peaceful chime of polite bells attached to bovine creatures in Switzerland.

When I lived in a banana republic, justice was by self-service only, laws were virtually non-existent, and the police and military were hardly someone to lean on. Not the case in Suisse Romande, where laws are laws and they’re passed for everything and respected thereafter. If there is any sort of quarrel, a proper vote is conducted. The roads are ubiquitously paved and the cars heed to pedestrians neurotically at crosswalks. The police are few and twiddle their thumbs along the shores of Lac Léman, not much like the teenagers given a camouflage uniform and an M-16 in el batallón hondureño, equipped thanks to the gringos up Texas side.  Periodically, Swiss men must prove their shooting skills at the range, not quite on par with the negligent training of Honduran soldiers. In Switzerland there are plenty of weapons but not many bullets; nearly every male citizen is a soldier by obligation, but there’s just no war to be fought. In Honduras while there’s no official war, the all-out mêlée persists.

militarykaraos

Militarized discotec in Honduras: Tavor TAR-21 Israeli assault rifle

Perhaps I’m comparing apples to oranges, or fondue to bananas. In Honduras, the poorest campesinos cut fields of weeds (chapiar) with a machete all day long for $5. Often times they spend half of that on their daily dosage of Coca-Cola. In Switzerland an equivalent low-wage gardener earns minimum 22CHF an hour helping a landscaping contractor. A beer can cost 15 lempiras (64¢USD) at a cantina on the beach, but in Switzerland you can easily pay 9CHF (≈9USD) for a pint. UBS bank in Lausanne is quite like a palace, where clients negotiate in private rooms and are given an espresso and a piece of chocolate while they privately move obscene amounts of money from undisclosed origins. In Honduras, every single bank has a squad of rent-a-cops with shotguns in case Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid come and attempt robbery. Every Cocaine-Cola/Pepsi truck or even the chimbo (propane tank) trucks have at least one shotgun mercenary.

In Honduras I tucked large bills into my socks and I would often carry around a switchblade for self-defense. My friends trained me in shanking enemies if need be. In Switzerland I’m afraid to leave the house with a knife on me.

I remember fondly Guardián – the emaciated yet merry orphan dog that would never stop following you if you threw him the remains of a bean-smeared tortilla. One time I went too far and treated Guardián to 50 lempiras of chicken. It was for good reason that the woman at the cinderblock pulpería was flabergasted that I would buy chicken to feed a street dog. I cooked the chicken for Guardián and served him a little plate once it cooled down, which he promptly vomited up and scarfed down for a second time. I will forever admire the way he enjoyed that chicken twice. On numerous occasions, I assumed Guardián was dead, even being told by some neighbors that they saw his dead carcass down by the beach. It saddened me to no end to think that Guardián would have such an unholy burial with no one to attend his funeral. A few weeks later I inquired further, discovering that he was not only alive but fat and patrolling a different neighborhood now. Reappearing when you least expected it, Guardián would recognize and greet his friends and benefactors across every sprawling barrio of Trujillo. A few times, he came up to us late at night outside Karao’s discotec at the baleada cart. With his head slightly cocked and an ear bent, his irresistible smile and admirable resilience always earned him a flour tortilla slathered with beans and sprinkled with queso fresco.

I remember one time I hopped in the back of a pickup truck to head to Betulia. Guardián ran after the truck as fast as he could. Once we passed the potholes by the football field, the truck gathered speed and Guardián began to lose ground. I watched him as he faded away in the plumes of dust of the Toyota 4X4, chasing in vain someone who wasn’t his master, but someone that petted him once or twice and fed him leftover crumbs. I trust Guardián is still traipsing about Trujillo, scratching the fleas on his protruding rib cage in the never-ending search for a tortilla nub.

In Switzerland, I’ve never seen a stray dog.

Donald Trump is the most American President in History

DSC_0460

DeChambeau Ranch

Donald Trump is the most American president in the history of the United States of America. After reading this initial statement, diehard conservatives might agree, liberals might be deeply offended, and leftists may hear me out. It’s very hard to even say what an American actually is, but perhaps it is best to start by recognizing that Donald Trump has never been a prefixed American: African American, Native American, Asian American, Arab American – just to name a few. He is, along with so many more, an American by default because he is white and doesn’t require a racial signifier. Like every face on Mount Rushmore and U.S. currency, with the exception of some limited edition coins that feature people of color and women, he embodies a long tradition of whiteness and patriarchy.

The Donald screams whiteness louder than any president in history, utilizing an in-your-face nationalist platform that unifies and emboldens white supremacy, xenophobia, and misogyny. He doesn’t beat around the bush or waste time with political correctness, but rather says things straight up, loose cannon style. Instead of disguising things with convoluted rhetoric, Trump prefers to live and act as a boldfaced white man – no holds barred.

So since the true Americans are white and male by default, Trump is doing everything he can to dismantle every bit and piece of Barack Obama’s legacy, down to healthier food at the school cafeterias that Michelle Obama championed. Yet, while he wants to undermine every morsel of liberalism left over by Obama, the two still have a lot in common with a long line of U.S. presidents. Trump suddenly became more “presidential” when he launched 59 Tomahawk missiles on Syria and dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” on Afghanistan. Bombing whatever enemy you can fabricate has been an important tradition of every U.S. president since such technology was available, regardless of political party. It is no coincidence that the first moment that Trump set foot on foreign soil during his presidency, it was for a $100+ billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, in exchange for another staple of the true American diet – oil.

But Trump is not the most American president simply because he follows in the violent footsteps of his predecessors, but also because he portrays himself as the “self-made man” that brought himself up by the bootstraps with a “small loan of $1 million” from his father. He is a product of the American Dream and now he aims to smash it. He is a cutthroat capitalist unlike any American president before, with the richest cabinet in history with direct links to big oil money and other corporations. The U.S. government has always been a stronghold of corporate America, whether it is led by a Democrat or Republican, but never has there been such a rampant takeover. Trump defends this notion of capitalism and the model of unlimited growth with phrases like “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs,” calling for an increase in American industry and economic progress by any means necessary.

On a cultural level, Trump is an emblem of Hollywood and the entertainment industry. The media fuels on Trump because, frankly, he sells. Corporate media sources are culpable of inventing the very monster himself, choosing to air news of Trump because he hails unprecedented ratings. Whether Trevor Noah, John Oliver, or Alec Baldwin despise Trump or not is beside the point, because they have a job thanks to Trump’s daily shenanigans and Twitter tirades. If corporate news agencies had reported more on Bernie Sanders instead of buying into the Trump show, we might be in a different situation right now. Like Ronald Reagan or even Arnold Schwarzenegger, Trump is the product of the entertainment industry. He lives in constant performance and, as we know, “When you’re a star…you can do anything.” He is made for T.V. with deliberate scandals, addictive controversy, and repulsive charisma. Willingly or unwillingly, the United States has long been at the center of worldwide attention and Trump is the perfect man for the job. This makes him very American, in the white male narcissistic way. He evokes American exceptionalism in every way.

The Donald is the most American president of all time for reasons cultural, financial, political, and historical. Culturally he not only has a star on the sidewalk in Hollywood, but is a poster boy of white supremacy that is central to the formation of the United States since the first pilgrims crossed the Atlantic. He represents the absolute worst of white America. Financially, he is an entrepreneur and vicious accumulator of wealth, surrounding himself with corporate allies. Politically he is an audacious liar, saying anything to get what he wants. Despite what he said during the campaign, his foreign policy has not been less interventional, because it is simply too American to bomb distant lands and police the world. Historically, Trump is unlike any president before which is exactly what makes him so American. On the one hand the dynamic face of the U.S. is always changing drastically in ways that are unprecedented. But on the other hand, that face is the same white man that owns slaves, slaughters the Native Americans, pours napalm on Vietnam, topples governments in Latin America, and annihilates the Middle East. Same old same old, a new and improved product to sell the world with a new wrapper.

Trump is the most American president simply because he embodies and exponentiates all the worst aspects of the country’s history in one ugly scoundrel. If you are American, this claim is not meant to offend, but to face the nation’s whitewashed history and present situation. We cannot back down as the U.S.A. hits rock bottom, because there is hope that a truly “American” movement is in the midst of breaking the nation free of these deplorable and frightening trends.

Abuelita Esmeralda

Esmeralda

The rain keeps on falling and the river keeps on rising,

I can’t tell if it’s the women in the church singing,

Or the echo of this river ringing.

The corrugated steel roof makes the rain sound like the endless clip of an AK-47,

Sometimes it really is tumultuous gunfire and others just God’s desire.

The river is climbing, I swear it’s beneath me,

But it slowly fades away, the heavens taking a knee.

And after this cacophonous flood, I’m sure now it’s the faithful that are singing,

Sunrise hymns in tune with the roosters and xolotas.

Even amidst these off-key voices, I hear one that rhymes true and never leaves me blue.

As the water lessens and the puddles remain,

The green of the jungle reminds me I’m sane.

After a silence comes the pat, pat, pat of each morning,

Corn ground pure by mortar and pestle,

The daily routine with which she must wrestle.

Pat, pat, pat, pat and one more tortilla,

Abuelita Esmeralda and an ave maría

Tortilla de maíz fresco

Berta Cáceres Vive

c4pe9vewaaacfpf

One year since she her seed was planted, Berta lives on and COPINH continues (Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras)

Scarfing down some tajadas de plátano and a couple tamales, Juan Orlando Hernández thinks about new ways to alter the constitution to remain the president of Honduras. He is quite pleased that protesters and naysayers of his regime will be considered terrorists according to a new law. The cogs of his military state are already well-oiled thanks to millions of dollars of military aid from the United States. Though he has no idea what to do with the sloughs of deportees that blitz San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa every day, he waits anxiously for that call from Mister Trump. Maybe he could even be inducted into the annals of his Twitter tirade.

Púchica vos. Hernández thought to himself, “Even AR-15’s and teargas can’t stop these protesters from causing a ruckus on my streets.” March 2nd, 2017…riots on the streets today. Exactly one year ago Berta Cáceres was assassinated in her home by a death squad linked to the Honduran and US military. Still no justice. The Lenca, Tolupan, Garifuna, Miskito, Tawaka, and Chortiz Maya of Honduras march through the dilapidated cobblestone streets of Tegucigalpa with banners reading – Berta no se murió, se multiplicó. Berta didn’t die, she multiplied. All these people on the streets prove it.

El Río Gualcarque is life for the Lenca people and the Agua Zarca dam is nothing more than a bloody dagger. Berta was not afraid to stand up against transnational, corporate pillage of indigenous land. As the founder of COPINH and the spokeswoman of the campesino movement, she won the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for her valiant defense of Mother Nature. Amidst flurries of death threats, she often said, “They fear us because we’re fearless.” She was and will always be a crusader of environmentalism, anti-capitalism, and feminism. She remarked poignantly, “As long as there is capitalism on the planet, it will never be saved, because capitalism is contrary to life, ecology, human beings, and women.” What capitalists call growth, is not growth for the indigenous grassroots pueblo.

Crossing Borders: Didn’t your momma teach you any manners?

DSCN4207.jpg

Crossing into Morocco from the Spanish colony of Melilla

I’ve crossed many borders throughout my life, but the one I dread the most is that of my own country. Entering the United States is needlessly nerve-wracking and unwelcoming. Feeling this way even as a white male citizen, I cannot imagine how citizens or non-citizens of minority groups must feel when entering or merely transferring flights in the USA.

I’ll never forget crossing into Guatemala from México at the Tenosique border. As I was heading into Guatemala, I saw hordes upon hordes of Central American migrants that were waiting to hop El tren de la muerte or “The Death Train,” also known as La Bestia. They whistled at me,

Eh chele…¿a dónde vas vos? ¡Vamos al norte! ¡Vení con nosotros en La Bestia!

Hey whitey, where are you going? Let’s go north. Come with us on The Beast.

¿Estás loco chele? ¡Vos vas al sur y nosotros al Gabacho!

Are you crazy whitey? You’re going south and we’re going to the USA!

The journey is not easy for migrant workers escaping poverty or refugees fleeing recruitment and extortion from gangs like La Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). The Central Americans that ride on top of La Bestia are subject to starvation, thirst, hypothermia, rape, murder, extortion and enslavement by drug cartels, deportation, and death or dismemberment if they fall into the vortex of the train wheels. Best case scenario, they make it to the United States and the neo-slavery conditions of undocumented migrant workers. The lyrics of “Tres Veces Mojado” by Los Tigres de Norte rang through my mind,

Son tres fronteras las que tuve que cruzar, por tres países anduve indocumentado 
tres veces tuve yo la vida que arriesgar, por eso dicen que soy tres veces mojado

Three borders I had to cross, I passed through three countries without documents
Three times I had to risk my life, and that’s why I’m three times “the wet one”

It was dark and there were no more buses once I got to Guatemala. The customs office was closed, and I soon learned that the border town of El Ceibo would be the extent of my journey for that day. I went over to a tiny substation and started talking with the border guards about the morning bus schedule. They said it could leave at 6 or maybe 7, but sometimes until 8:30. They were full of curiosity for me and after understanding my situation, they immediately offered me a bed in the military barracks. I accepted gladly and laid my things out on the bed they set aside for me. I went to town for some pupusas to share with the hospitable border control, the sound of narcocorridos blasting from an old yellow school bus from Florida with the faded black letters of “Seminole County Public Schools.” I slept in the company of the Guatemalan border police, the beautiful clamor of monkeys and locusts all through the night.

I was turned away and nearly arrested when trying to enter El Salvador from Honduras for violating the 90 day Central America-4 Border Control Agreement. I was the dodgy one and they still treated me respectfully. Instead, I paid a small bribe for fake stamps at a sketchy immigration shack in Tela, Honduras. Several months later I showed those makeshift stamps at the counter of the stuffy immigration office in Copán Ruinas. The man took one look at the botched stamps and knew what I had done, smiling at me cunningly. After beating around the bush for a little while trying to justify myself, the border agent called me over to translate for some tourists that were also entering Guatemala. Having overstayed my visa and at risk of a serious bribe/fine or deportation, it wasn’t in my interest to cause problems, so I simply translated what they were saying. They asked the Yankee tourists if they had the entry documents they were given upon arrival, but I knew full well that that wasn’t necessary and they need not pay anything. The police charged them $10 per person for the loss of an entry document that never existed. I was sorry for being faithless to my fellow gringos, but I had my own problems before me. Pleased with my translation of the $50 scam, they gave me my exit stamp and asked no more questions. Sorry I’m not sorry. Despite duping the gringos, they did not yell or treat us disrespectfully.

Cramming into a shared taxi in Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Province, we headed for the Kyrgyz border of Irkeshtam, only to discover that the border was closed because of a Chinese holiday. The desert mountains soaring on all sides, it didn’t take long to find something to do. Some men asked us in Russian,

Хотите попить? You want to drink a little?

Alas! Three years of Russian language were not all for naught. After six weeks of miscommunication and hand signals on the trains of China, the sound of a somewhat intelligible language was relieving. We were immediately ushered into the café where we drank just enough vodka to not get thrown out of the restaurant by the cook. We spent the day drinking with the thirsty Kyrgyz truckers who were also stranded in that desolate border town named Wuqia.

The next morning we crossed into Kyrgyzstan accompanied by Chinese military. Once we got to Kyrgyzstan we were offered a very expensive taxi or an hour walk to the Kyrgyz customs. We walked, stamped our passports, and were bombarded by taxi drivers competing for the foreigners. Loads of used cars from Japan are imported to Central Asia and for that reason you never know what side of the car the steering wheel will be on. Some distance down the road, we were stopped at this checkpoint.

DSCN1109.jpg

Kyrgyz checkpoint near Irkeshtam

They didn’t seem too interested in me or my friend, but I was called over to translate the vetting of a couple of British tourists. Despite the long delay and suspicious police, we were treated with respect and welcomed to Kyrgyzstan.

In the Caspian Sea port city of Aktau, Kazakhstan, we boarded a cargo ship bound for Baku, Azerbaijan to avoid the nearly impossible visa situation of the land routes to the Caucuses through Dagestan, Russia or Turkmenistan. The crew brought us to our living quarters for the one day voyage that ended up being four days. After waiting for hours and hours for customs to check the ship and all of its containers, they finally showed up to our cabin. We were petrified when they discovered that we had two bottles of delicious Kazakh cognac, one of them partially consumed. One of the officials unscrewed the cap of the bottle and smelled the sweet fragrance. He unabashedly put the bottle to his lips and took a swig. Passing the bottle to his comrade, he checked our documents, nearly finishing the bottle during their thorough and unorthodox border inspection. We were treated with nothing but respect.

Kazakh border guards at the Aktau port on the Caspian Sea (not the ones that drank our cognac)

One shouldn’t have to give reasons for returning home to see one’s family. In 2014, at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, I was pulled aside from the middle of huge line at customs. I was vetted in a private room about what I was doing in Honduras. Why are you coming back? Because this is my country and it is where my family is.

Just after Mister Agent Orange signed the executive order to ban travel from seven Muslim countries,  I was passing through Atlanta International Airport with a Spanish friend named Pedro. Non-citizens of the United States are obliged to file what is called an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) when simply transferring flights to a destination outside of the USA. Besides the $14 fee, the entire process is humiliating and denigrating on so many levels. Amidst the tensions and calamity of the Muslim Ban, I chose to wait with Pedro in the line for non-citizens requiring the ESTA. The queue moved dreadfully slow. Right next to us stood a Muslim woman with whom we had traveled from Paris to Atlanta. She caressed her young daughter as she cried and tried to keep her young son from bouncing out of the line. We bottlenecked into eight lines that corresponded with eight US Customs agents.

After two hours in line, our patience dwindled as the clock struck 10pm and seven of the eight customs agents went home. Many had already missed their flights, many were on the verge of missing flights, others were simply wanting to feed their fatigued children. Eight lines suddenly crumbled into one, and things got a bit disorderly because of poor line management. When the only remaining officer saw a few people beyond the magical line on the ground, she stepped out of her kiosk and confronted us in a malignant fury:

Alright EVERYBODY listen up! THIS IS A FEDERAL BUILDING OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. This is NOT a playground. I DO NOT WANT TO HEAR A SINGLE WORD out of y’all’s mouth. If you do there will be consequences, I guarantee it. I repeat this is a Federal building and you are under federal law of the United States of America. Y’all need to form a single file line right now, right here. If I hear one single word out of y’all’s mouths, I will personally come out to take you to the proper authorities. This is not a game, and I repeat this is NOT A PLAYGROUND. Y’all make a single file line and be absolutely quiet. Am I understood?

Didn’t your momma teach you any manners? Have you no decency?  The majority of the people in that line could not speak English much less understand her thick southern accent. Pedro doesn’t speak a word of English but he fully understood everything through her offensive body language. I’ve experienced Southern hospitality before, but this was blatant effrontery. It was an inhospitable denigration of foreigners and immigrants, many of whom are not even entering the United States. The woman was provoking us, daring us to say one word so that she could exercise her authority. The people looked at the ground in silence and dismay, the officer one reflex away from whipping her gun out.

Being the only US citizen in the line, I felt a bit cheeky, and I was barely able to hold back my commentary. A man that was supposed to be coordinating the line approached us whimsically, and I asked him if Pedro and I could transfer to the line on the other side of the building as other people had already done. He yelled at me, “DO YOU WANT ME TO CALL HER OUT HERE AGAIN?” “No sir.” “Okay then, be silent and form a single file line.” The woman beside us asked me to help her fill in the US Customs Claim form. I jotted down the details from her Moroccan passport, and I cringed a bit at the thought of how she must feel with so much Islamaphobia and border tensions.

Once I finally got my turn, a different officer saw my stamps from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan, countries he knew nothing about except that they are Muslim and end in -stan. He asked me what I was doing there, so I told him the truth. I was drinking horse milk with nomads in yurts and enjoying the beautiful hospitality of Muslims. He asked me if I had been to Iraq, Iran, or Afghanistan. I told him that that would be nearly impossible with a US passport. Two and a half hours had passed, and we hadn’t even collected our bags to pass through the second phase of customs or gone through TSA security for a second time. Two weeks later I passed through Atlanta once again, realizing how, in general, the TSA staff and US Customs have a demeaning righteousness and rudeness about them.

And here I am as a white male complaining about how I’m treated by US customs. In “Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” bell hooks writes about traveling as a black woman,

From certain standpoints, to travel is to encounter the terrorizing force of white supremacy…I am startled when I am asked if I speak Arabic, when I am told that women like me receive presents from men without knowing what those presents are. Reminded of another time when I was strip-searched by French officials, who were stopping black people to make sure we were not illegal immigrants and/or terrorists, I think that one fantasy of whiteness is that the threatening Other is always a terrorist. This projection enables many white people to imagine there is no representation of whiteness as terror, as terrorizing…To travel, I must always move through fear, confront terror (174).

To travel as a white person is to travel with an unearned and unjust privilege. White terrorists such as Dylann Roof are portrayed as so-called “Lone Wolves” and are supposedly not representative of white people, yet a single Muslim terrorist represents all Muslims. The United States massacres innocent people on global scale every single day, but white exceptionalism somehow overrides. From a white/default perspective, anything other than white is a possible terrorist and “the good guys” are of course white.

Security is one thing and respect for fellow human beings is another. Though it is a complete waste of time, I am not concerned with questioning the United States’ choice to require transit visas for all flight changes, to scan every suitcase regardless of its destination, or to redo the whole take-your-shoes-off security check a second time. I am concerned with the attitude of the United States Customs officials that treat people as if they were dogs, scum, aliens, terrorists. There is a way to maintain secure borders without deprecating and vilifying citizens, immigrants, and people passing through. I don’t care if you take my money, whether its an official $14 ESTA or a small bribe in a poor country. I’m not asking the US Customs to give people shelter from the storm as the friendly Guatemalans gave me in El Ceibo. I’m not asking them to drink your cognac while they check passports. Just asking to be treated with dignity and respect.