“I do not separate my music from my heart nor do I separate my ideas from my daily life. I open myself up to learning as much as I can about humanity and this mysterious life experience, but I do not relate to political work as a series of ’causes.’ Moment by moment, I integrate what I learn into my personal life, personalizing my politics. It is from this personal place that I write my songs.” – Holly Near
Where is the music?
Music is very personal so I never make recommendations. However, many people have expressed frustration asking, “Where is the next generation of political songwriters?” or “Why aren’t there any political singers?”. To find them one must be willing to look around, listen to people unfamiliar to the ear, take some risk.
In any given recording artists might present 15 political songs, or two. For example, in my own work, if someone heard that I was a political artist and bought Crushed: The Love Song Collection, they might feel misled. So, it is important not to make assumptions about artists. We are a wild bunch who, if we are any good at all, experiment and stretch and adventure away from any given stereotype.
Feel free to send me the name of your favorite social change artist. Criteria: They must have accessible recordings. I won’t screen suggestions, so readers you are on your own. Where is the music? It is everywhere.
In January 2012, Holly was invited by the Green Valley Samaritans to perform a concert at The Good Shepherd UCC in Suharita, Arizona. The Samaritans also asked Holly to accompany them on a desert walk and border crossing to locate and speak with migrants who risk their lives to cross the border. What you find here is Holly’s journal notes and a few photos from that trip. In January 2018, Holly made a similar trip. Given the changed administration and the threat of a border wall, the circumstances for these migrants are only more urgent and dire.
January 12, 2012
Border Crossing Journal
I am in southern Arizona, near the border, to learn about the migrants and border issues. My hosts are called “Samaritans,” and organization that is dedicated to helping migrants by making a determination that the offering of food and water is not a crime. Most, but not all, are religious people who believe Jesus would not vote for the current border policy. They are terrific people. My main host is Shura who reminds me of Edith Piaf, a little bird of a woman with wispy grey hair, shining eyes and a great welcoming smile. Her spirit is so light it is a wonder she stays on the ground. She is cheerful, funny and moves without fear, deciding that direct kindness and honesty is her plan when dealing with all people. No fear. No exceptions. Shura co-founded Samaritans with Randy, the pastor at the local UCC Church, The Good Shepherd — a church with such an open-door policy, one wonder if there are any walls in the building! He is soft spoken, smart and persistent.
This morning I went out to the desert with Shura and four others in the Samaritans’ van. When we pulled over to park, there was a border patrol truck. Shura jumped out of the van and went right up to the officer asking after his well-being, would he like a scone or something to drink. He thanked her and said he was fine. Their dialogue: Have you seen signs of anyone? No pretty quiet. OK you have a wonderful day. Thank You.
We walked around looking for people who might be in need i.e., migrants who have crossed the border, which can mean weeks of walking in very challenging elements, through a terrain filled with cactus, harsh temperatures, no paths and a world full of thieves, smugglers, violence and border patrol. This particular day we saw no one. None anyway, that called out for help but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. They know how not to be found. Shura says there are days when she might find one lone migrant or a large group. She calls out in Spanish, “Somos amigos. Somos los Samaritanos, no tenga miedo. Tenemos agua, comida y medicina. Estamos aqui para ayudarlos”. We are friends, the Samaritans. Don’t be afraid. We have water, food and medicine. We are here to help you.”
There isn’t much traffic now as people are with family and friends during the holidays. But in a week or so it will pick up as migrants begin the long walk back across the border. Also, the economy in the U.S. is slow, so there is not a lot of work and the crossing is so dangerous. As we walk around we see clothes and water bottles and other personal possessions strewn about: they have been left behind for so many reasons. Sometimes the smugglers who drive them north, (which they do for huge sums of money) make them leave everything behind because they put 25 people in a van meant for 15 and don’t want to waste space with backpacks — backpacks found in the desert filled with clean clothes speak to the dignity of people. A clean shirt and clean pants for arrival in the USA; photos of children, love letters or well wishes from family, these are all part of their story. Some people call this trash. It is not. These are parts of real lives left behind under desperate conditions. And from an archeologist’s point of view, this is history in the making.
It is hard to imagine how people make it through the terrain, especially at night. The shrubs, sharp with thorns, grabbed the scarf of the photographer who was with us and she could not get herself untangled. Often someone will be so worn out that by the time the Samaritans find them, they just want to be turned into border patrol. Their shoes are worn out, blisters make their feet unrecognizable and dehydration makes them delusional.
The wall that has been built in some places along the border at a cost of millions is useless. One American woman scaled the wall in a little over 15 seconds, another in a few seconds more. The understanding is that the wall slows people down by an average of 5 minutes. The drug cartels just build ramps and drive up and over the wall. If people complain about taxes perhaps we should complain that our taxes are ill spent on projects such as this.
The court system is part of the disaster. A recent law makes it so the border patrol officer can decide if someone is legal or not. The officer might have only a high school education and no law degree, but s/he has this power. It is not unusual for 70 migrants at a time to be run through the court system before they are returned to Mexico. This is called “Operation Streamline.” Every day 70 migrants are taken to Federal Court for sentencing. With only 7 to 8 lawyers, this amounts to about a half-hour per client. The sentence can be “released on time served,” 30 to 180 days and beyond. It depends on the circumstances such as how many times a person has been deported, criminal records etc. All migrants hare handcuffed to a chain around their waists as well as shackled at the ankles. They are taken into court in the morning, given food and allowed bathroom breaks. Each person has a headset and everything is translated into Spanish. However, there are many indigenous people who don’t understand Spanish let alone English. I’m told it is a very depressing scene.
One reason for this group court process is that the courts want the migrants to have formal misdemeanors on file so that the next time they are charged it will be a felony.
Tomorrow we will drive over the border to talk with some of the migrant workers who are at a shelter on the other side. Some are preparing strategies to come to the U.S. and others are resting before returning to families in Mexico.
In December 2009, as part of her sabbatical year, Holly visited Argentina and Chile. She not only wanted to be a tourist, she also wanted to catch up with friends and visit some of the EPES Centers in Chile that her friend Karen Anderson co-founded.
As we all know, Chile was devastated by a magnitude 8.8 earthquake in the early morning of February 27, 2010. Holly was on the coast with friends and later that morning was able to reach Santiago.
In the spring of 2010, I was visiting friends in Chile when the country experienced a major earthquake. Fortunately, I was north of the area most hard hit. However, the friends I was visiting work with a health care organization in Concepcíon, one of the most devastated areas. The people they serve, already poor and for the most part ignored by government assistance, now struggle to recover not only from the earthquake but from a change of government that took place immediately following the earthquake. And perhaps the most frightening is the coming of winter in Chile before houses have been rebuilt and supplies are still slim. I am moved by the level of community organizing that is going on despite the extraordinary hardship.
Open Letter to La Peña https://lapena.org/
Sent to La Peña on the occasion of a fundraising event to benefit the earthquake survivors in Chile.
March 3, 2010
I wish I could join La Peña’s musical gathering on behalf of Chile but I am in Santiago.
I will try to share an update as things are changing by the hour. Communication has been difficult. There are close to 800 confirmed casualties and still thousands are missing. Many places, even in Santiago, are still without electricity, gas, water, food, shelter, cell phones or internet. Roads are damaged. The worst hit is Concepcíon and the nearby coastal towns and villages that not only experienced the earthquake but also the tsunami waves that followed.
However, little by little the country is catching up to the size of the disaster. Dozens of trucks are getting through with supplies, neighboring nations are donating field hospitals, doctors are arriving from Cuba, and satellite phone systems are being installed. I’m sure to those who are suffering, it does not feel like enough. But it is a beginning. We are heading into fall and soon it will be winter so the process must move quickly. The material damage is unimaginable, especially since so many of the towns were extremely poor to begin with. People’s homes and livelihoods have been destroyed and the number of people living in shelters is estimated at 2 million.
A week before the earthquake, I was actually in Concepcíon visiting a health organization called EPES (Educacíon Popular en Salud). I am friends with Karen Anderson, one of the co-founders, and I was being shown the new building as well as seeing some of the health education training they initiate. We were also taking a short vacation and traveled farther south.
Now a little over a week later, they are all in grave trouble. We finally heard that most are accounted for. An EPES team from Santiago which includes Karen just borrowed a pickup truck from Maryknoll and is heading south to take supplies and evaluate the situation in order to be of better use. We have heard from the main coordinator of the EPES health team, that the new building is still standing though everything was hurled to the floor. He has been able to dig down and reach a well behind the building and supply water to 150 people who live in the community surrounding the EPES compound.
The frontline is of course the survivors of the earthquake. Then there are of course the major disaster relief organizations which include the government, Red Cross etc. In addition to these two essential components are corporations and private companies that will move in to build housing. These homes will be welcome but it is important for people who live in the area to have some say about how this is done.
This is where the next level of support comes in. There are the organizations that already have long-standing relations with these communities and they will be working to find ways to offer the most essential and long-term support.
EPES is such an organization. It trains the poor and under-represented communities so they are empowered to have their own voice and manage their own lives. They will be putting together an assistance program not only to bring supplies but also to train and support organizers so they can begin to rebuild and have some control over how the rebuilding is done.
And finally, there are people like you and me in the international solidarity community. Our first responsibility is to get money to responsible organizations. I’m sure many of you have organizations you trust.
On The Personal Side
This is the end of summer vacation here in Chile. I was visiting my friend Judy at the beach in Quisco when the quake hit. Judy and I ran out of the house. Two elder people in the home chose to stay in bed for fear of falling. The shaking went on for a long time and then it was calm. There weren’t many people in the streets and since earthquakes are common in Chile – as they are in California, we went back to bed. Then the aftershocks began so we got up. As dawn came on I began to worry about the possibility of a tsunami. I kept an eye on the sea as we tried to figure out what to do. In hindsight, I am profoundly grateful to be alive. Not too far south of where we were, towns were being washed out to sea.
We had one small battery-operated radio that could only find a little station in Argentina and they had very little news. I began to understand how serious this might be in other places if all of the Santiago radio stations had stopped broadcasting. We had lost electricity, phones and internet. I learned later that my friends and family were seeing the size of the catastrophe on television in the states long before I was and they had no idea whether or not I was still in Concepcíon. Judy and I decided to try to return to Santiago. On the drive there, I got about 10 minutes of internet on my laptop and I was able to get a message through that Judy and I were fine.
This was a huge earthquake. I have never felt anything like it. It felt almost lateral. Eventually we began to get news. We heard that President Michelle Bachelet had immediately gone alone in the night to her office to try and find out who was being affected. No one could have imagined what she would find.
Yes, there is criticism of how long it took the government to act. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I know that Chile is days away from transitioning from President Bachelet (who termed out) to President Elect Pinera, the conservative candidate who recently won the election.
Form where I stand, the one thing we can learn is to look at our own towns. Are we ready for disasters beyond our wildest imaginations? Do we have agreements with our supermarkets that in the event of a crisis they become distribution centers answerable to emergency response teams, to be reimbursed at cost another time? In Chile this would have helped to avert some of the violence. Parents were desperate to get milk, bread, water, diapers etc. for their children.
It is a sad, complex and terrible tragedy here. Santiago is relatively quiet and the metro is running so some people are starting to go back to work. The long lines at gas stations and grocery stores (we stood in line for 2 hours on Monday to pay for our supplies) have shortened. However, it is difficult to get an accurate picture of what is really happening.
People feel helpless; not sure what to do. It is not easy to get to Concepcíon to help and now the military are moving in to try and stop the violence. It gets more complex every day. People who lived under Pinochet do not like the idea of a “state of siege.” A general who used that terms was highly criticized by the administration, which tried to assure the people that “…this is not a war, this is a state of catastrophe. The soldiers are here to restore public order, different from being at war with your people.”
Soon I will return to the U.S. I can be of more use helping to fundraise than I can sitting here feeling frustrated. The airport is not open yet so we shall see.
Hello to Chile Solidarity!