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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Director Frey Reflects on Spring Semester Sabbatical in Mexico

Barb.jpgFor the first five months of 2013, thanks to a Fulbright-García Robles award, I have had the pleasure and challenge of teaching and researching about human rights in Mexico. My experience here has been among the most rewarding of my career. I have been based in Mexico City, which is the most stimulating place I have ever lived, with its crush of people, traffic, street life, culture and politics.

In contrast with the frenetic energy of the city is the quiet green oasis provided by my academic hosts at the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO-México), who not only have given me a space to work, but have been generous with their time and contacts to ensure that my sabbatical is successful. My colleague, Dr. Karina Ansolabehere, was instrumental in supporting my work in Mexico, which has been just another step in the critical transnational academic relationship between FLACSO-Mexico and the University of Minnesota.
The Fulbright-García Robles award (García-Robles was a Mexican diplomat who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982 for creating a nuclear-free zone in Latin America and the Caribbean) supported my two primary activities related to human rights during my time in Mexico: teaching a class and researching the human rights movement. The class was a ten-week seminar on human rights advocacy, adapted from the graduate seminar I teach regularly at the University of Minnesota. I had about 20 students in the class, including mid-career professionals in government and non-profit organizations as well as graduate students from several local institutions. I taught the class at the Mexico City Human Rights Commission, a public human rights institution that collaborates with all sectors of civil society to increase the visibility and protection of rights in the Federal District.
The class was of mutual benefit to my students and me, pushing us to explain to each other the many similarities and differences in human rights practice in Mexico and the United States. The students were engaged and honest about the challenges of bringing about actual changes in the lives of Mexicans given the intensity of poverty facing the community, as well as the failures of the education system and the criminal justice system, among others, to offer fair and equal opportunities for individuals to improve their own circumstances.
In the class we considered how and why organizations define themselves as "human rights organizations," as well as the roles of civil society versus the government in creating normative change. We compared methodologies used to impact human rights practices in different cultures and movements. We undertook an interesting case study on violations resulting from the segregation of persons with mental disabilities in Mexico, which included a visit by staff members from the Mexico City Office of Disability Rights International. In the end, the students presented proposals on three projects: protection of journalists, protection of migrants, and the right to sustainable and healthy food.
In addition to the class, I used my time here to begin to meet my desire to learn about the history, philosophies and practice of the human rights movement in Mexico. In the past twenty years, since the 1994 Zapatista revolution, Mexico has become a site of intense transnational advocacy regarding human rights. Mexico's human rights practices have been the subject of growing scrutiny by the international community, especially with regard to the issues of indigenous rights, "feminicide," the treatment of migrants, the use of torture by military and police, and the extreme levels of fear and violence associated with drug trafficking. My stay in Mexico gave me the opportunity to interview many human rights leaders in an effort to try to understand how priorities get framed, how organizations relate to each other and what methodologies are used, and not used, in an effort to promote human rights. I am working on an article from my interviews, to explain several key factors that shape human rights discourse and practice in Mexico.
Besides gathering information, I have tried to share my own ideas and expertise with human rights organizations through various workshops and presentations. One of the most compelling experiences in this regard was the three days I spent with an NGO called "CADHAC" (Citizens in Support of Human Rights), which works in the city of Monterrey in the state of Nuevo León, Mexico. In the past three years, Nuevo León, once a thriving economic center connecting the U.S. and Mexico, has faced an intense spike in violence related to in-fighting among narco-traffickers and the extreme response (over-reaction) of law enforcement. One of the manifestations of this violence is the gruesome increase in the crime of "disappearance" in Nuevo León among other states. According to Mexico's Ministry of the Interior and the Federal Prosecutor's Office, the country saw more than 25,000 disappearances during the 6-year term of President Felipe Calderon, from 2006 to 2012, including 636 disappearances in Nuevo Leon.
In the face of this violence, CADHAC is representing the families of the disappeared in Nuevo León in their search for truth and justice. Sister Consuelo Morales, a charismatic and irrepressible force for justice in the region, provides a safe space at CADHAC where families can gather to grieve, to organize and to act together to demand the full investigation of the disappearances of their loved ones.
In February, I gave a two-day workshop to human rights advocates working in Nuevo León. Using the materials of the New Tactics Project of the Center for Victims of Torture, we engaged in strategic mapping of the problem of disappearances, and worked to consider new approaches to advocacy in the socio-political context of Monterrey. Talking privately with family members after this workshop, in a situation where they could share personal stories of their missing sons, daughters, brothers and sisters (all about the same ages as my own children), had to be the most difficult and most rewarding experience in my time in Mexico. Despite receiving no word from their loved ones for up to two years, none of these family members has been able to accept that they are dead; to do so would feel like an act of disloyalty or surrender. Thus, the indescribable personal suffering brought about by this crime of disappearance, experienced time and time again in Latin America over the past decades, continues in the hearts of these families in Monterrey.
I know that the many stories I have heard, the wonderful people I have come to know, and the beauty and pain of this wonderful country will stay with me long after my brief sabbatical here. I am grateful to CLA, the Institute for Global Studies, and my staff at the Human Rights Program, for providing me with the time and space apart. I hope that my experiences here will make me a better teacher and mentor for my students, and will lead to many further opportunities for collaboration in human rights with my talented colleagues in Mexico.