Social Justice Solidarity at the Latin America Center

Black-Brown picture LAC

By: Adrian Nava

During the 2015-2016 school year, the Latin America Center at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies organized a Social Justice Solidarity Series, where topics and issues that impact Latinxs were related and talked about in unity with issues that impact other social groups, including folks in different generations, Black students, and students at different campuses in the Denver area.

These conversations are important to me because people like me are oftentimes not represented or represented poorly on campus. In the last three years I’ve dealt with experiences and interactions on this campus that would make for interesting and astonishing stories, especially for people who are not privy to the racism, homophobia and other types of discrimination that happen on DU’s campus. The Social Justice Solidarity Series not only included voices of different students but expanded perspectives and included voices of people from different backgrounds, identities and experiences. By attending these events, I was able to sit in a room where I could hear about what mattered to students now, what was important 10 years ago, and what Latinxs in Denver were fighting for 50 years ago. The series offered me a look into Latinx history and a space to offer steps on moving forward.

By hosting conversations of this nature, the Latin America Center at Korbel is confirming its commitment to students and extending support to underrepresented groups on DU’s campus. When I first walked the sidewalks of DU, I felt a great sense of discomfort. I’d walk through the dining halls with caution and a sense of unworthiness, taking only minimal food and eating as fast as I could. Three years later I no longer feel unworthy, but I am jaded and ambivalent most days on campus. I’ve changed my relationship between myself and school grounds: I have a 30 minute commute, assuring that I live far enough away that I can be in a completely different community when school environment is overwhelming. I stacked courses on Mondays and Wednesdays, and only step foot on DU’s red-brick-paved sidewalks two days a week. It has been events like the Social Justice Solidarity Series that bring me back and offer me acknowledgement and ease. There’s a tiny and impactful feeling of power that comes with going to the Latin America Center’s events, knowing that internal shifts are starting to take place and that there are offices and people on campus that care.

In March, the Latin America Center held a Black – Brown Solidarity discussion, where students created a list of demands that addressed racial inequity on campus. Weeks later a group of Black students organized a die-in at the Anderson Academic Commons. As a student of color, events like the solidarity series reaffirm my identity, experience, and allow me to feel some relief on DU’s campus. The Latin America Center will continue to hold these events, and hopefully students like myself will begin to feel included and supported on DU’s campus.

Adrian Nava is a senior at the University of Denver and Research Assistant at the Latin America Center. He can be reached at

By: Darren Harvey

I had the privilege of being a part of the Social Justice Solidarity Series, hosted by the Latin America Center at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, this 2015-2016 academic year. As a student of color, attending the University of Denver (DU), it is not uncommon to feel very isolated in my program, in my classes, and in my overall experiences at the institution. As a Black graduate student, I can definitely describe my initial experience as one of isolation. When I first matriculated at the University of Denver, away from family and friends and my usual support systems, I was unprepared for the climate at DU. Attending an institution that is seemingly known for its majority white and affluent student body is an interesting dynamic for a student that is first generation US-born as well as first generation college-bound. I did not feel comfortable in my classes; I did not feel comfortable walking across campus; and I definitely did not feel comfortable studying in the library. Why? Why wouldn’t I feel comfortable being a student in student spaces? It’s one thing to have excellent academic programs and departments as well as having a campus that is beautiful and scenic. It’s totally different to have these features AND have an inclusive and diverse campus climate.

This is not to say that all students of color face this same overwhelming feeling of isolation. There are many that have no issue with DU’s climate and their growth at this institution is worthy of taking note. However, my experience is not unique. There are many that echo my sentiments and even more that have had experiences of dehumanization that have left them with an unsettling sense of frustration. It is tough enough to be a student at DU; add issues of race, gender, or sexual orientation into the mix, and you have one hell of a fight to graduation.

I have always seen commonalities in the struggles of disadvantage people, whether they identify as poor, as different sexual orientations or as different races. Often times, when combating social justice issues there is a crucial element left out – the identification of our commonalities. To prevent the oppressed from joining in solidarity, those who oppress love to provoke division amongst us and our leaders. This year’s Social Justice Solidarity Series took action. These events initiated an important step in facilitating much needed conversations amongst communities and student leaders at DU. We were able to start constructing what Solidarity means and what that will look like. We were able to create spaces of communion for students that all have the shared experiences of isolation attending this university. These events are a much needed piece in DU’s growth to a more inclusive institution and to building solidarity among oppressed groups, and I look forward to being a part of future endeavors.

Darren Harvey is a graduate student at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and Research Assistant at the Latin America Center. He can be reached at


How Immigration Policies Create Smugglers

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This blog was originally published on the Allegra Laboratory website. Find the original post here.

By: Rebecca Galemba

In the spring of 2007, when I was driving with Ramón (all names have been changed), a Mexican man who lives along an unmonitored road that crosses the Mexico-Guatemala border, we passed one of the newer, two-story homes. I commented that the house had its outdoor lights on all day. Ramón shrugged. “He won’t care. He’s rich”, he said. “He doesn’t care about the lights”. Ramón told me that the owner – Gerardo – used to be a pollero, or a human smuggler, who brought many people to the United States. But he stopped, according to Ramón, when “things became more complicated” and Mexico intensified immigration surveillance in the mid-2000s.

Other border residents also whispered that Gerardo used to be a pollero or coyote, another term used to refer to migrant smugglers. The whispers were usually followed by an assertion that he was no longer a smuggler. Now he just raised cattle. Prior to the late 1990s and early 2000s, many border residents provided Central Americans with rides into Mexico with little fanfare.

Mexico’s intensification of border policing and concerted securitisation of migration can be traced to the US-backed Plan Sur in 2001 to support US security concerns. The escalation of the drug war in Mexico in 2006, and Mexico’s implementation of the Southern Border Plan in 2014 in response to Washington’s outcries of a “surge” on the border in 2014, further intensified migrant policing.

Mexico has concentrated border surveillance on select, modernised border points of entry, as well as on ad hoc highway roadblocks to establish ‘belts of control’. However, migrant desperation, continued demand for cheap labour in the United States, and widespread official corruption and impunity has meant that heightened securitisation has not deterred migration. Instead, migrant smuggling at the Mexico-Guatemala border has shifted from more informal networks and local guides to higher-priced smugglers and criminal groups as human rights abuses against migrants increase.

How Gerardo became a smuggler

The first border residents, whether from the Mexican or Guatemalan side, who went to the United States in the 1990s all went with Gerardo. Miguel, a Guatemalan border resident, joined other young men from the Mexican side of the border. “We all went to the United States with Gerardo before he was a coyote”, Miguel said. They went to work on pine tree plantations in Alabama. Since Gerardo was the first to work at the plantation, he found work for others. At first each man used his own money to travel to the northern border, where they hired coyotes to help them cross the US-Mexico border.

Gerardo did not charge any of them and also worked on the plantation. Subsequently, Gerardo recruited his friends more formally under work visas through his employer in Alabama. The ironic twist was that the visas were for Guatemalans, and so the Mexicans purchased false Guatemalan papers in La Libertad or Guatemala City. Border residents believed that work visas were easier to acquire in Guatemala than in Mexico, after the end of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war in 1996. Due to fewer applicants, visas were also less competitive in Guatemala. When the visa process expired, people were still able to go north without documents, as the cross-border migration and work networks were by this point established. Later, Gerardo brought the same people from the same places to the same location. This time he charged, making him a coyote.

Yet the stories surrounding Gerardo’s role shift depending on the point in time and the interlocutor. “No, he wasn’t acoyote…they are from bigger cities”, one Mexican border resident said. “Some people say he is, but he was acontratista [contractor], since his boss in the US would send him here to bring others … they went with visas, which they bought in Guatemala”. Others mentioned Gerardo’s role as a labor contractor and coyote as one and the same; the only thing that changed was how he could bring people to the employer in the US. In other words, Gerardo was converted from a fellow migrant to a labour broker to a smuggler depending on changes in US immigration and visa processes, all the while continuing to provide his Alabama employer with Mexican and Guatemalan workers.

Some residents wonder how Gerardo made so much money, but others see him as someone who helped others regardless of whether they called him a fellow migrant, smuggler, or contractor. “He is the one who helped many people from here go to the US”, Gerardo’s cousin noted. “He helped the majority from this region. Since he was one of the first to go, he helped others to go with visas and then others as a coyote. But then he stopped … when it got more dangerous”.

When smuggling becomes a profession

As Mexico enhanced immigration surveillance and criminalised smuggling, and drug cartels expanded into human smuggling and preying on migrants, smaller-scale smugglers like Gerardo left the business. It became more dangerous to crossing through Mexico and more expensive to evade corrupt officials, checkpoints, and criminals. Locals preferred to go with local border guides and brokers since they trusted people with whom they shared social and kinship connections.

In recent years, border residents have had to search for smugglers in larger cities, those who may specialise in, or have deeper connections to, smuggling networks. Smugglers are increasingly necessary to helping locals navigate Mexico’s proliferation of immigration checkpoints.

Eduardo, a Mexican border resident, referred to how migrant smuggling transformed from a networking service to a more lucrative and risky business that locals increasingly associate with drug trafficking regardless of actual overlaps. He mentioned that Gerardo probably never made much money bringing people. Eduardo also used to “deliver” migrants to smugglers locally and occasionally to the northern border as a teenager. But, he told me, “[in those days] it was very little and it was different…easy…I barely made anything”.

Eduardo confided suspicions about Gerardo and his earnings that led locals to collapse migrant and drug smuggling together. Gerardo had a small horse track on his property in a region where horse races are often associated with drug exchanges. “That is where they do exchanges … it is all narcos”, said Eduardo. Eduardo suspected Gerardo was collaborating with people working in drugs and pollos”. But, he said, “do not tell people where you heard that”.

Prior to Mexico’s intensification of migrant surveillance, smuggling migrants may have still been illegal, but it was a mundane, relatively benign aspect of border life.

Previously an activity that most residents engaged in to some degree, they have been pushed out of migrant smuggling by its increasing risk, price, and criminalisation under Mexico’s intensification of border policing since signing Plan Sur in 2001, and most recently, under the 2014 Southern Border Plan. In turn, the increasing criminality and corruption surrounding migration make border residents not only avoid it, but also fearful to even talk about it. Once a fact of border life, they no longer spoke about migrant smuggling, or talked about it as something they did in the past, or spoke about it quietly.

Just like the drug traffickers they knew passed through their community, they knew migrant smugglers used this route, but did not see or hear anything. As one border resident told me, “if drugs come through here, we don’t realise. They don’t bother us”.

At this particular juncture, border talk around human and drug smuggling alternates between silence and rumour as the landscape shifts. Rumour can help people living in a constant state of fear navigate uncertainty while it also serves to govern the movements of the vulnerable. At the Mexico-Guatemala border, alternating silences and rumours protect local residents while they also enhance the illicit aura around drugs and migration and perpetuate silence and impunity.

As Gerardo’s narrative demonstrates, the profile of the human smuggler is shaped by fluctuations in migration policy and policing. Nicholas de Genova critically examines immigrant illegality by pointing to how changing laws, rather than migrant and smuggler actions, produced “the legal production of migrant illegality”. By extension, to understand the evolution and fear of the criminal smuggler, we must become attune to the criminalisation of human mobility. The criminalisation and uneven policing of boundaries has shaped and structured the strategies of those seeking to evade them, as well as created and altered the constellations of actors who serve as brokers at the disjunctures between borders, their incomplete enforcement, and human mobility.

Rebecca Galemba  (PhD Brown University), is an anthropologist and has been a Lecturer at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies since 2012. Learn more about the Latin America Center.