The Corner Project of Malinalco: Archive news 2008-2009

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Malinalco residents left flowers and votive candles on the Día de Muertos altar built by the Corner Project to honor migrants who perished in the U.S.

   

The end of 2007 finds the Corner Project / Proyecto El Rincón team a little breathless from all the growth and activity of the past year, but delighted with progress and preparing to take our work to a new level. Setting up our very first office on Malinalco’s main street last January raised our profile here, bringing an increasing number of Malinalco residents to us for assistance, while the recent U.S. crackdown on migrants made this a year of especially intensive activity for any organization providing support to migrants and their families.

We received many requests for help from families searching for missing migrant relatives, often a challenging proposition as the numbers held in U.S. prisons and detention centers swelled and changed. There were also families that came to us for counseling and communications assistance as they brought home the bodies of sons, daughters, fathers and husbands killed in highway accidents or due to such workplace dangers as pesticides and unsafe machinery. Grandparents requested guidance on how to keep their traumatized grandchildren in school during the extended absences of their migrant sons and daughters, and mothers struggling to make ends meet raising children on their own sought advice and communications support as migrant husbands fell ill or for myriad reasons failed to withstand the difficulties of working multiple jobs to support their families while trying to achieve our migrants’ most frequent goal: to be able to save enough to return to Malinalco and build a family home.

In the midst of these tragedies and mounting stress, our team experienced the incomparable satisfaction of being able to provide help just where help was most needed. Here are a few highlights from the past year:

•  January 2007 marked our first celebration of Mexican Migrants' Day, drawing community members of all ages to the workshops offered by our artisan team members (who include two former migrants returned from the U.S.) in making the hand-crafted products we're developing for export and local sales, as a source of alternative earnings for community members. National Public Radio's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joined us for the celebration, presenting the Corner Project with a check for $1,500 of the prize money awarded with the Daniel Shorr Journalism Prize she won for her 2006 series from Malinalco about migrants' families and children.

•  By spring we started a new program for migrants' children, providing tutoring and crafts classes to participating secondary-school students right in our (quickly overflowing) new little office.

•  Next, we launched an innovative summer program for migrants' children in collaboration with Malinalco's largest secondary school, where the counseling provided for all the participating children and some of their families and the emphasis on building self-esteem and social skills created real turn-arounds for a number of the most troubled of these children (one who'd been expelled reenrolled with our support, and was recently awarded a school honor, others raised grade-point averages and passed courses they'd been failing). Participating children received an English enrichment course, tutoring in math and their favorite a class in Malinalco's traditional woodcarving offered by master carvers Gary Monroy and Jaime Flores.

•  In the summer, at the request of The San Carlos Foundation of Berkeley, California (a nonprofit that since 2005 has funded the stipend that allows Corner Project coordinator Ellen Calmus to devote full-time efforts to this work), the Corner Project hosted an Ohio high school graduate whose initiative in human rights work had inspired San Carlos's vice president, Martin Sheen, to seek a summer on-the-ground experience for him in a Third World community like ours. Kyle and his friend Ashley came to do a Corner Project residency, working on their Spanish while mentoring the children in our summer program and helping the English teacher in her class. Kyle and Ashley's summer with the Corner Project was such a success that we'd like to make similar summer residencies a regular feature of our summer program for migrants' children.

•  When Albertina, the recent widow of one of our community's migrants to California (her husband was struck by a car while riding a bicycle) decided to team up with Irene, the wife of a missing migrant, to see what sort of cloth product they could come up with that we could sell for them, they invented a lovely cloth gift sack for our hand-carved brooches and earrings - and a new Rincón income-generating project was born!

•  The Diocese of Toluca asked Ellen to serve as adviser on migration issues, sending her to represent the diocese at a national workshop held in Tijuana and hosting a September workshop we organized in Toluca, taught by Vladimiro Valdés, s.j., and María Canchola of Mexico's Jesuit Migrant Services, to train a core group of our diocese's clergy and parish workers in providing support to migrants and their families.

•  In October an economist friend who came to Malinalco the previous fall for one of El Rincón’s short residencies had wonderful news: Roger Myerson won a Nobel Prize in Economics! Roger had made himself as popular with the Malinalco historian and the municipal government city planner who offered talks on our area’s history and political culture as he did with the artisans involved in our income-generating project and the kids he played tiddley-winks with on the step of a local store.

• For Mexico’s Day of the Dead the Corner Project team constructed a Día de Muertos altar in Malinalco’s main church, dedicating it to our community’s migrants who had died in the U.S. After the special Mass celebrated by Malinalco's parish priest and during the four days the altar remained in the church, the memorial was the focal point of a moving homage by Malinalco residents who left flowers, votive candles and traditional offerings of bread and fruit.

•  The Corner Project has been invited to partner with Princeton University's PiLA (Princeton in Latin American), which will be funding a one-year fellowship for a recent graduate to join the Corner Project's team starting next summer.

•  Within months of opening our first office, growth in all aspects of the Corner Project increasing demand for our services, a growing number of projects, new people joining our team made it clear that we needed more operational space. Then the perfect place became available right across Malinalco's main street from our original office, offering over six times the space, including a private area for the counseling that is becoming an increasingly important aspect of our work, an upstairs loft ideal for our artisans' workshops, a kitchen and a bathroom (lack of which in our first office had been especially hard on mothers with small children). Though considerable remodeling has been needed (there was no stairway to the loft, no electrical system, and the kitchen had no water), the monthly rent was only $50 higher than the rent on our tiny first office. Our second year of grant funding from the Anna Maria Brunner Fund continues to help us pay rent and staff salaries, but we need to raise donation support to help cover the costs of getting our new place fitted up to serve this community. We are thrilled to be starting the new year with a space that will allow the Corner Project to grow, and are now preparing for our new office's opening on Mexico's Migrants' Day, January 13 th .

•  Within days of this writing, our artisans' hand-crafted products will be featured on the website of the fair-trade importer One World Projects, so it will now be possible for friends in the U.S. to buy our famous Malinalco Migrants' Eagle brooches, nasturtium earrings and matching hand-woven scarves.

However, among all these items that we’re happy to be able to add to The Corner Project ’s CV, nothing has been as deeply satisfying as being able to help a migrant’s family locate their missing husband or daughter or father or son - as we did last May when we located a community member’s missing husband in Georgia’s huge Fort Stewart migrant detention center and then, after considerable negotiation, were able to use our internet phone to put a mother and her lively three-year-old daughter Cynthia on the line with the girl’s father.

In fact, little Cynthia herself helped make this happen, when her mother Irma told us - after we’d spent days trying to figure out how to place a call to Cynthia’s father through an opaque, expensive outsourced communications system that facilitates detainees calling out only through the purchase of phone cards many can’t afford – that Cynthia had gotten the idea that her father had died, and nobody could convince her otherwise. Ellen was so appalled that she abandoned attempts to set up a calling method through their baffling pay phone system and just got on our internet phone to Fort Stewart’s warden himself to ask if he couldn’t help her put a call through to one of their detainees so that this little girl who thought her daddy was dead could talk to him.

The warden said he’d be glad to help - and better yet, his secretary explained who we should talk to among the sub-wardens and unit directors of that vast facility – and how to track them down as they traveled among the buildings of that huge complex - so that we could locate the person in charge of the unit where Cynthia’s father was being held and set up a time for the call. You can see in the faces of this little girl and her mother shown in the photo here just what it meant for them to be able to talk to our missing migrant community member.


Cynthia in Malinalco talking to her dad in Fort Stewart, Georgia

An interesting side-note to this story was that both the unit manager and Fort Stewart’s warden thanked us for making this possible, saying that, in the often difficult context they work in, they truly appreciated the opportunity to do something positive.

Though this was gratifying, it was not completely surprising. The debate on U.S. immigration policy has become so polarized that it’s easy to conclude that there is simply no way to find solutions acceptable to the different sides representing such violently divergent opinions on this issue. But here in Malinalco the experience we’ve had finding practical solutions to the human problems raised by the migration dilemma suggests that in fact there is considerable room for hope. We’ve found that the application of a little empathy, some common sense and a good helping of our Malinalco community members’ creative thinking has produced a series of projects and programs designed to respond realistically to local needs and resources that are starting to make a difference in people’s lives.

And why not replace family-breaking detention-center rules with more humane policy designed to help migrants stay in touch with their families until they can be reunited? Why not help migrants’ children in their home communities in Mexico stay in school while waiting for their parents’ return? And why not help our talented artisans develop their lovely crafts in the home communities they love while exporting them to higher-paying markets where their craft is valued, so they have alternative ways to make a decent living besides heading north across the border to do unskilled, back-breaking labor in dangerous conditions that are creating far too many widows and orphans in communities like ours?

Our experience so far has taught us that even in the midst of the tragedies generated by our current failed border policies there is so much that can be done to help the people most severely affected! We continue to find many sources of hope in the results of our working partnership with the magnificent community of Malinalco, and in the help provided by friends here and up north whose encouragement and support of this work continues to make so much possible.

 


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