In 2006, I lived in Mexico City for several months and by the end of my time there, I had undeniably fell in love with the largest city in North America. While there, I had spent several months writing, directing, and editing a documentary film which captured the labor rights struggle of gas station attendants part of an independent Mexican service union. Through this process, I was able to hear the stories of more than 50 attendants and better understand the perils of organizing within an environment meant to protect corporatist interests.
While working on this documentary, I watched the 2006 general presidential election unfold. I watched from the sidelines the unsuccessful attempt of Andrés Manuel López Obradaor better known as AMLO, then a PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) candidate, to win the election. I witnessed firsthand the confusion and controversy that emerged out of the election and watched as AMLO’s supporters set up encampments inside the Zócalo (the famous main square in the center of Mexico City) for months, in protest of what was believed to be an electoral fraud.
Marissa’s official ID and apparel for observing this year’s election.
It was also during that time I learned about the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), the political party in Mexico that, up until 2000, had maintained political power for 71 years. I listened to countless stories of corruption, and the resulting desire for transparency for a “true democracy” in Mexico.
Twelve years later, I jumped at the opportunity with the UU College of Social Justice* to serve as an election observer for the 2018 general presidential election. According to Aljazeera via the Mexican National Electoral Institute (INE), the election was considered the “biggest election in Mexican history,” with numerous public issues being voted on and with “30 of 32 states [also holding] local elections.” In 2008, I had been an observer for the general Cambodia elections and was interesting in applying the skills I had learned there by participating in this historic election in the country of my ethnic roots.
Upon arriving in the country, I immediately was assigned to Xalapa, Veracruz, the capital of the third largest state within Mexico (four hours outside of Mexico City). I journeyed there together with a team of individuals from Argentina and Uruguay, as well as Mexican nationals. Throughout Mexico, there were dozens of volunteers from several different countries, all coordinated by the Red University and Citizen Network for Democracy (RUCD) and its affiliated networks, such as the Center for International Policy and Center of Human Rights Vitoria. We were tasked to lead a completely impartial observation over the course of three days. We strategized together and came up with a plan to visit as many polling sites as possible within the short time frame. At each site, we filled out forms assigned by RUCD to ensure that each polling site was following the correct procedures, that there were no irregularities at any of the sites, and that each person had access to vote safely and without pressure from any outside forces.
Marissa in her official election observation gear!
The day prior to the election, we visited with several different political party members, local members of human rights organizations, and attempted to visit several political party headquarters. At one of the party headquarters, we saw nearly four hundred individuals line up, with the hopes of receiving some sort of compensation for their political loyalty, a tragic reminder that corruption still lingers.
On the same day, we also participated in a press conference. Within 15 minutes, an array of different press affiliates from all across Veracruz met with us in a café at the center of the city. It was over as quickly as it had begun, and throughout the entire time the Argentina versus France World Cup game could be heard, blaring heavily in the background. [Note: you can see the article featuring Marissa and her team here.]
On the day of the election, we visited a school that had been converted into a tented polling place. At exactly 6PM local time, the sleepy polling site was closed to the public and was transformed by a frenzy of volunteers and polling staff into a frantic place of counting. Volunteers were racing against the clock as each of the votes were counted and recounted by hand. The sun slowly came down, and volunteers attempted to string a makeshift set of lights across the ceiling of the enormous tent. Alongside the authorized political party representatives, we watched as each vote was counted. Several hours later, the final counting of votes became to come in. Our polling site, along with many others across the country, began to input their votes into an electronic application, which showed that AMLO and his party, MORENA (National Regeneration Movement) would win by a landside, gathering nearly 53% of all the votes across the country.
After our long 15 hour day, as we slowly made our way back to our hotel, we soon realized that the hotel was the press conference central for the local MORENA officials. Upon stepping into the hotel, we were greeted by a flash mob of hugs, camera flashes, and loud cheers.
Later that night, myself and a group of the remaining observers went out to the central of Xalapa to see locals’ festivities in the city square. We watched as people cheered in celebration with guitars, car horns, bottles of beer, cups of corn, and hotdogs. One image still stands out to me: a young man pulls out a gigantic Mexican flag and waves it back and forth. I go up to him and ask him if I can take a picture and he cheerfully obliges. I watch the flag drift through the air, fluid against the night sky. Maybe the winds of change have come after all.
The Mexican flag waves in the air after the election.
* The UUCSJ is grateful to the following partner organizations who made this trip possible: the Center for International Policy (CIP), the Americas Program, and the Red Universitaria y Ciudadana por la Democracia (RUCD) [EN: the Red University and Citizen Network for Democracy]
“Do I call them ‘Sister?’” My co-worker and I were settling our things into our assigned room at the convent. The air was hot and muggy, something I felt acutely as I was still in that heightened state of awareness that you feel your first moments in a new land. I had technically been to Honduras before, but everything felt new. “I dunno,” my colleague answered (she had been raised Catholic as well). “It’s kinda weird one way or the other.”
Two UUSC colleagues and I were in Honduras to be part of an accompaniment trip to support our partners/human rights activists returning to Honduras (written about much more clearly here). I had never been a part of an accompaniment trip before and felt out of my element for so many reasons: I do not consider myself a human rights expert; I am not an expert on Central American history nor international relations; I had never been a part of interfaith circles before; I knew this trip was going to be emotionally intense in ways that I was not prepared for. My background is in experiential education and I am perhaps too comfortable in the role of the facilitator–I get to (too often) lead and direct group emotional processes to a carefully thought out pedagogical question and thus open up a space for cognitive “awakening.” Sweet. But when faced with the personal stories of state-sanctioned torture and terror, what in the hell do you do with that? When faced with the deepest stories of both human hate and resilience, where can you emotively go?
Gina and the interfaith accompaniment delegation she traveled with in Honduras.
Our group was comprised of various human rights activists of various faiths. In particular, there were four nuns that I found myself keenly interested in. Would they be like the nuns of my catholic school childhood? Would they be like the nuns from the pueblo that I lived in during Peace Corps who, try as I might, I couldn’t make friends with (I remember angrily muttering to myself, ‘Doesn’t your religion compel you to be friendly?!’)”
I was standoffish during the delegation’s first morning worship. I am pretty open minded, but I didn’t know if this would be a journey back to the robot-like “praying” of 2nd grade. To my delight, instead of an authoritative dictatorship over my spiritual process (whoa, catholic school, leave your mark much?), Sister Mary Ellen lead us in bodywork. We did Tai-Chi. “Holy shit,” I thought, “this lady is really good at creating a mind-body connection.” Moreover, I could feel that this integrated fully with her deep understanding of her own Catholicism. And it wasn’t just her. When Sister Rosa Maria spoke about her work in Honduras, I could palpably feel both her toughness and love. (“I wouldn’t mess with her,” Jose, our delegation leader would say.) I felt the presence Sister Ann could bring sitting next to someone who was deeply grieving and afraid, I felt the strength that Sister Kathleen emoted as she lead a group of us (after hearing some of the hardest stories I had ever heard) to hold hands. She guided us to reconnect to spirit. She knit something back together. She held us together in community.
This isn’t saying that I’m returning to Catholicism. I’m not. But I know when I am in the presence of something good, I know when I am in the presence of people who have faced themselves and done their own work. Honduras was hard in a way that I don’t know how to write openly about, because I am afraid that I won’t do it justice–I don’t know where I end and it begins. I feel guilt that it was hard; I felt deep emotions during the journey, and then I got to leave. I feel embarrassed about how unequipped I was to hold it all. I feel anxiety about not knowing about how to move forward. I find myself reexamining my life choices up to now and asking myself, “With all that I know that is unjust in this world, have I done enough?”
But then I breathe and I remember. I think Sister Mary Ellen would say to let my emotions come. They are each a friend and have something to teach me. I think Sister Rosa Maria has her doubts and fears, too. I bet Sister Anne had to learn how to be present amidst pain. I’m sure Sister Kathleen doesn’t always feel strong.
After sitting and listening to a group of men tell their stories of being beaten, imprisoned, terrorized, and caged, we all stood in a circle. Sister Kathleen lead us in what I think was the most powerful prayer I have ever heard. We went around the circle and simply stated a word that gave us hope (or courage or something like that, to be honest I don’t remember the details). And then she lead the group in a song that most people knew the words to and people sang together. After crying, and still afraid, they sang.
We then had our own moment as a delegation to stand in a circle and be. I remember thinking, “I don’t know how to hold this, I don’t know how to hold this.” We gave time so that those of us who wanted to speak could speak. The responses varied from rage to sorrow to silence to everything in between. And as I stood there, I finally realized: I don’t need to know how to hold this. I cannot hold this as one person. We have to hold it together.
During one of our worships we had a chance for silent reflection. I think there was a prompt–I forget what that prompt was. But one of the sisters, at the end of the time, pointer to herself and said, “My body.” She then pointed to the group of us sitting in a circle and said, “My body.” And then she pointed to the greater environment and said, “My body.” I am so grateful to have finally met the nuns that I always wanted to meet. They were not able to give answers or make the horror of the world go away. But by the simple example of their presence and their persistence, they gave me a bit more strength to have faith in what could be, they helped me feel what true community might feel like, and they helped me to stay present in something I didn’t want to stay present in.