Sunday, June 5, 2011

New Growth

There's a good vibe going on at the Southside Worker Center as of late. Not to oversimplify 10 months of activity, but by and large thus far at the Center I have failed more than I have succeeded. Or we all have? If you define it that way. What I mean is that we have started many projects only to see them dwindle into non-existence. This is not true for all cases. Right now we have a community garden that is fully funded by outside grants. We new business cards, marketing flyers, more efficient day-to-day operations, a database of employers/employees, and a new series of leadership/community organizing classes. The latter, most successful project is the reason for this post. However, this opening paragraph is here to create a backdrop that shows just how successful it is. All of the projects that have dwindled have done so for the same reason: lack of interest. We started an English class in October that had a devoted following, for three classes. Laura, a volunteer that is a student at the U of A, started computer classes three months ago. They are no more. Along with the help of another friend of the Center, I mapped out Tucson's business environment and potential sectors of business, and made connections at the Tucson Hispanic of Commerce. With this new info I organized a group of interested workers to pass out flyers targeting these areas. We went out four times, and the same people never came twice.
These classes are different. Under the community organizing leadership of Raúl Álcaraz, an experienced Chicano activist, this series of six classes designed to inspire the community consciousness and unity of small, community-rooted group of workers at the Center has bloomed into a devoted cadre of new awareness and hope. The series was entitled "Defiendese Para Defender Su Comunidad" (Defend Yourself To Defend Your Community). These classes ranged from immigration history to an analysis of political power in Arizona that is powered by the ever mighty dollar of business enterprise such as the private prison system Corrections Corporation of America. The potential of this group of men is now being realized as they continue to meet and plan together towards future classes and community and political involvement. Things in the parking lot remain virtually the same aside from a new sign we are putting up and the materialization of a more advanced database system we are now using. But, what I see in this uprising group is a glimpse of the dream of mine and many others at the Center long before me: to see these talented and able men empower themselves by taking ownership of their action, previous inaction and their community. I'll keep posting updates, but keep them in your thoughts and prayers as we at the Center attempt to get behind these workers and push with all our might.


Jacob Owens
Tucson, AZ

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Flying Back…Again

Oh Chepe! (The endearing name of San Jose, Costa Rica) Twice I have visited Costa Rica, once to study and live there for a semester, and this time for a vacation from my volunteer post to travel with my girlfriend Taryn Contento. She’s now studying there at the University of Costa Rica, barraged with Spanish and the Tico way of life: buses, gallo pinto, colones, and the nagging need to always watch your things, not carry your laptop, not walk alone at night, and so on and so forth. Can it really be that different? Yes, I think it can. Many gringos stateside think only of rainforests, transparently blue coastal waters, and coffee and tropical fruits falling from the sky. Those things are there alright, but what’s missing for many of us that were raised in the States is something you can’t easily bring to mind. You feel it after being there for a few weeks, a void that aches dully for home. You feel it whenever the rainy season starts and every time you get on the bus to go home from school in the afternoon rain clouds congregate to dampen and darken the city and your general mood. You feel it when you’re walking downtown and you get haggled or ogled or whistled at by a passing Tico of questionable moral fiber. But when it really materializes is when you realize that you’re in a drought of culture. You can communicate in the local language, but what you can’t do is that which you’ve always been able to do: fully express yourself and fully be heard. Words are only as alive and functional as the meanings they conjure in the mind of the listener. As a character inWaking Life says, “Words are dead and inert.” The differences that accumulate from and between the U.S. and Costa Rica, Tucson and San Jose, and Tico and Yankee come together to make the meaning of one word, phrase, or common feeling be miles away from their original intent (Case in point: CR measures distance in kilometers). Absence from these essential stimulants is in a sense absence from community. “Happiness is only real when shared” was written in a bus in Alaska. In this case I’d like to add “fully shared”. That coupled with the difficulty of being in a new place with nothing but buses, ATM’s, and new friends to count on can leave one feeling quite alienated.

So Taryn and I were able to fully share some happiness together and give her a break from the dirty, crowded streets of San Jose via Panama. The canal-cut country of Panama is obviously known for its ever-widening nautical passageway of commerce and global investment (They barter with the USD). However, it is also home to many peoples, indigenous and….not that take pride in and protect their natural environment of rainforests, volcanoes, and tropical beaches. While tourism or as I think I shall begin to call it “pleasure immigration” has taken many of the genuine qualities out of uniquely beautiful countries and areas of nature, Panama has managed to preserve them, especially in the part of the country north of the canal.

For seven days, Taryn and I explored this northern part as best we could, thriftily staying in sandy-bedded hostels and living off rice and beans cooked por nuestras manos propias in ill-fitted, dull-knifed, rusty potted hostel kitchens. We traveled from San Jose by bus east then south through Puerto Viejo, the CR-Panama border, Almirante, Bocas del Toro, David, Boquete, and then back up west and north in a loop that encompassed Panama and Costa Rica’s “National Forest of Friendship”. Yeah, that’s right. They share it. Imagine.

Our first real adventure came on the second day after my arrival. After a five hour bus ride from San Jose to Puerto Viejo where we bedded down for the night, we woke up early to continue down the road south into Panama. The town on the CR side is called Sixaola. The Panama side is named Guabito. To preface this adventure I’m just going to say that the people of Guabito are shrewd and cunning, living on the border of two countries heavily supported by tourists. Lore has it that the entire 1st grade curriculum of their young consists of learning currency conversions. (2nd grade is Creative Border Tax Writing and graduation is complete when you have mastered the art of emptying a male traveler’s wallet and reducing him to tears in front of his wife, children, and father-in-law. Later graduation celebrations are funded with the money obtained by the exercise). We were grossly unaware. We headed across the border after flashing passports on the northern side with our bulging day packs in tow. We walked across an old railroad trussle bridge with missing planks and playing children into a cluster of old office buildings and parked buses and taxis. We were expecting to buy a bus ticket to continue on to that night’s destination, but instead we met a tall black man wearing basketball shorts and a jersey. Not appearing to be any kind of official we continued walking until he gave us directions as to how one enters the country of Panama. It’s kind of a dance really. One must gracefully juggle wallet and passport until one is lighter and the other has a crappy looking sticker on it that you have to pay for. The weight of your bag and the sweat between your epidermis and clothing just adds to the style and aesthetic appearance of the dance. After teaching the ways of his country our new athletically garbed friend began to dance with us, leading us to convert our CR money to U.S. dollars with a man that kept exchange money bulgingly wadded in his cut-off denims (he too wore a basketball jersey, same team I now understand). The following, more advance steps of the dance were to pay an entry tax for the aforementioned sticker, to buy a ticket for a private bus full of other dancing tourists, and finally to buy a return bus ticket back to San Jose that we later discovered departed two hours after we first bought it. This last intricate, flourish of the Panamian dance left us all in true wonder. When the fun was over we departed in our private bus and passed a group of Guabito schoolchildren forcing a poor traveling eskimo to buy slushy snow from a muddy cooler.

As we rode SE to Almirante we began talking to another traveller on our bus. His name was Tom and he was from Holland. He came from San Jose where he was doing an internship so that he could renew his travel visa. If you leave CR every 90 days and come back you can technically live there in perpetuity. He was our travel buddy and we were his Spanish translators as we rode into Almirante and got on a water taxi to our first stop on the trip: Bocas del Toro.

Bocas Del Toro is a small and touristy port town on the southern jut of Isla Colón. Isla Colón sits in a grouping of islands on the NE side of Panama. This area is famous for its beaches that are back to back with National Parks. It’s also famous for its gringo friendly hostels, surfing, island-jumping, and nightlife atmosphere that flickers on after the sun goes down. We quickly found our base at a laid-back hostel named Monde Taitu. Its front side is a bar and its backside is a tangle of hammocks, tree house dorms, and a cramp kitchen. During the day it was a perfect spot to do absolutely nothing, especially in the afternoon while the daily rain came to usher in the beginning of Central America’s rainy season. At night, the bar throbbed with the bass of visiting DJ’s and the vibes of backpackers that came from all over the islands to mingle with others. We ventured into the nightlife a few times, mainly because Taryn and I are attracted to activity, but the same reason would take us to bed early so that we could get up fresh in the morning and continue exploring. In fact, I think we only really got into the local nightlife in the places we visited when we could dance. Or in one instance, after taking a water taxi over to a much talked about club/hostel named Aqua Lounge, we got bored with the crowded, two-stepping dance floor and decided to jump into a hole that was cut into the deck right into the Caribbean. We weren’t in traditional swimming attire but we made the necessary adjustments and cannonballed in. In Bocas we saw red tropical frogs, starfish, and urchins (Taryn stepped on them, we pulled out the spikes four days later.)

From Bocas we headed south to David, skirting around the southern part of the “National Forest of Friendship” so that we could reach our next stop in Boquete. We didn’t really make it all the way though, which would be because I forgot my only pair of hiking shoes drying on the roof of our hostel along with our small Pooh Bear towel that Taryn bought because she forgot the beach towel. We’re quite the absent-minded pair, but endurance and energy see us through, as they did in this case, but only after I left Taryn in an internet café on the mainland, returned by water taxi, and met her to rush to the bus station an hour and a half later. We scrambled on a bus that was about to leave and scrunched in between two rather beefy fellows that felt it was their entitlement to sit with knees flared and backs slouched, enjoying the incoming breeze from the windows while Taryn and I creatively tried to lean together, middle-of-the-bus butt cheeks floating, riding like Siamese twins for a not so comfortable 5-hour bus ride to David. Halfway through the trip we switched buses in the middle of the jungle, which didn’t really give any of us in the bus a sense of ease and relaxation. Before exiting the bus with our bags to enter the other we all looked at one another and nodded, if things went down we were all in it together. Even though we switched buses, we got back in the exact same seats. Taryn and I reassumed our yogic position and listened to the rest of the Panama Baseball Championship game on the radio as we raced through the moonlit fog and jungle. David was nothing but food and sleep for us weary wayfarers. I do however remember falling asleep to a man singing a Mexican country or Ranchero tune on a music video shot in the middle of NYC. In this moment of dreary surrender I vaguely remember feeling a long way from home.

A cheery lady at the local panadería said claro que sí the next morning as she slid coffee and danishes across the counter to us on the Tuesday morning before we left for Boquete. This bus ride was much better than the last and kind of eventful because even though it was 8am we were ridin’ dirty in a tricked out old school bus complete with fuzzy yellow poles, street-paint muraled panels, trendy decals, and a soundtrack of the latest reggaeton and bachata. The elderly paid no mind to music telling them to shake their crassly referred to assets for the pleasure of stunner-shaded, grill-mouthed Latino men. They just filed onto the bus after clinking their change into the waiting hand of the bus driver and waved at their friends and neighbors that they shared the commute with every morning.

Boquete is a township in the campo. To call it a city would be inaccurate and it would also take away from its charm. It’s a popular tourist destination, riddled with bed and breakfast-like hostels because it sits at the eastern base of Volcán Barú, and all of its surrounding trails such as Alto Lino, Bajo Mono, and Sendero de Los Quetzales. We came for the volcano, but got some bonus hot springs the day before to rest for the big trek. We learned about the hot springs and pretty much everything else in the town from our overly energetic hostel owner and manager Pancho Palacio. According to evidence I gathered from pictures and posted articles, Pancho was somewhat of a famous basketball player in Panama before he settled into running his hostel Hostel Palacio. I knew when we arrived that our stay would be interesting. He exploded his exuberance onto us with ¡Buenooooos Días! He then immediately began spouting off great prices that we couldn’t really refuse. He so wanted to show us the room in which we’d be staying that he barged into it before the other unbeknownst occupant was even out. He looked up from his bed where he was reading a magazine with a knowing smirk and then continued reading as Pancho began to tell of us all the room’s amenities. There weren’t that many to gloat over but he made sure to let us know that it had a window and a closet. He then gave us the information with a group of four other backpackers that had also been corralled into the hostel’s living room. He took out a photocopied, hand drawn rendering of Boquete and its spider web of trails and attractions. We huddled together with our heads over the map dodging his spastic gesticulations of pen thrusts and slashes. By the time he was finished the map was covered in dark blue gashes from his relentless pen strokes. We definitely had an irrevocable understanding of which way was north, and a vague idea that the hot springs were southeast and Volcán Barú was northwest. Thoroughly entertained and absolutely unable to take anymore ticklings of withheld bursts of laughter, we escaped Palacio and his pen to our room, empathizing with two helpless travelers that Palacio forced to stay for a second round of La Información because he claimed that they had come too late in the session and needed to endure the full duration of his bequeathing of knowledge.

Boquete’s small town feel coupled with the quiet nights we spent cooking in the hostel’s magazine clipping-plastered kitchen with the laptop playing and the rain falling outside on the large leaves of the rainforest gave us both a deep sense of coziness. Little did we know it would be crucial. The morning we left to scale the volcano Taryn’s watch slept in with us, neglecting its 4am wake-up call duty. I leaped out of bed the same way I have done in the past when I was late for a first shift at a coffee shop and flipped on the burner to boil our oatmeal-trail mix concoction for breakfast. We ate it as we rode in a taxi to the trailhead. We also realized at this point that Taryn had accidentally left her rain jacket. But as the sun was rising overhead and the thick jungle air was heating our skin to a slight sweat, we decided that it would not be missed. We signed in with the park ranger at his entrance post as he showed us yet another hand drawn rendering. This one was of the volcano’s trail (I guess they feel that real satellite/GPS maps are for the weak and feeble minded, of which they certainly are not). The trail was pretty impossible to not follow though so we had no trouble with navigation. The elevation however was an opponent to be reckoned with. The large stones and scraggly rocks strewn across the road was intentionally placed not for the hiking boots and sneakers of grunting, slogging backpackers, but instead for the knobby tires of the 4x4 jeeps, range rovers, and trucks that drove up daily to service the communication and TV towers at the top. We felt the initial impact of the climb with heavy breathing and an additional coat of sweat and quickly fell into a rhythm of breaks, photo-taking, trail mix snarfing, hydrating, and bag switching. Things were swell. We were fooled by the kilometer marking of the trail being unfamiliar, but we soon reached the top, well, after 4hrs and 46 min., and wove our way to the tippy top of la cima where a yellow cross and image of la virgen Mary stood.

Lunch wassavored and slumber fell upon, us along with the blindingly white clouds that we tried to beat to the top but didn’t. After a time we woke up and squinted around, wishing an airlift to the bottom was a complimentary service of the Hostel Palacio, then again I think seeing Pancho and his unpredictable hands at the helm of a helicopter would make me rather choose gravity and free fall as my vehicle of descent. The decent is difficult to describe. We tried our best to fight the bone-jostling bounce of the walk down with attempts at humor and distracting conversation, but about half way down I gave into the despair that throbbed through the base of my neck and my temples in the form of a nauseating headache. Taryn fell prey to the same ailment. We think it was the altitude, standing at 3,474 meters (11,398 ft) as the tallest mountain in Panama. Needless to stay our moods darkened, especially mine. Taryn possesses a hidden strength that must come from her Italian lineage that is no doubt connected to Rocky Balboa, Marco Polo, and the gladiator himself Marcus Aurelius (“husband to a murdered wife, father to a…sorry). After the darkening of our moods came the dampening, and then the drenching. The rain came as it always does at this time of the season and reminded us of the fragility of the human condition, especially when exposed to the elements. I took my coat out of my pack and dutifully zipped Taryn up in a Gore-Tex shell of water-proof shelter. I silently and sourly rued and ruminated over the mishap with her coat as I trudged through the mud, but managed to say nary a word. When we finally reached the bottom, and I have to say that that word does not express the full weight of the relief of the hike’s end, we chatted with the park ranger while we waited for the taxi to come. Well, Taryn chatted, something about the chickens that were pecking about his post were not for eating but instead game cocks born and bred for the glory and bloodshed of the arena...poor peckers would be better off as future poultry cooped in a cage I say. I sat slumped against the wall in a slop of soaked clothing, shivering and whimpering (I tried to look strong whenever the ranger looked my way, success questionable). When we ran into the hostel to the scarce warmth of its damp blankets an hour after waiting for the taxi and the trip back, Taryn continued to show her strength and went to the store as I napped. She woke me up with some Excedrin and Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate. Those companies should merge. The evening was spent hanging up our wet clothes and hanging out in the hostel’s kitchen with a bi-national, seemingly anarchist couple, one was from the States and the other hailed from Argentina, which gave him quite a pretty Spanish accent. We laughed together when we realized that the kitchen’s counter and sink we’re untouchable. Any time one laid down a dish or tried to wash one a pinging electric current sprang from its surface, being ungrounded by the wet floor. Good times.

The alarm worked the next morning and at 4am we got onto another bus that took us from Boquete to the big bus station in David. The ride back to San Jose, CR was much shorter this time as we went through the western side of the border with a more direct route. After 8 hours of reading, napping, and eating mangoes at different rest stops along the way (Taryn is addicted), we returned to Costa Rica’s dirty capital before nightfall and met up with Taryn’s best San Jose friend Jillian. She is also a student abroad for the semester. I should have known that as much as Taryn talked about her that their tryst would be fused with the frantic energy only two well-bonded girls can possess. We hugged andthen I held on as the two began frolicking together in frivolous glee down the wet streets complete with renegade taxis and ankle-breaking potholes. We spent a small portion of the evening conversing in a bar called Un Buen Lugar (A Good Place) about our trip and about Jillian and her time since the two “besties” had been apart. Taryn’s description of Jillian was pretty spot on. She has a genuine personality that is charged with charisma and care for others yet still rooted in a calm, deep knowledge of her identity. On top of that I would add that she seems unable to be pessimistic about the future. She was quite a lovely person to meet.

In San Jose I was able to rewalk many of the same streets and revisit many of my old haunts in the city. I was also able to see a new side. It was one that didn’t come from a change in it, the object, but really a change in me, the subject. My presence in the city was obviously much less temporary and noncommittal than before; the heavy pressure that I mentioned before of being outside one’s culture and comfort zone was not able to set in. I think it’s absence afforded me the opportunity to see the city in a more romantic light. The smog seemed lighter and the no’s to beggars and haggling with street vendors and taxi drivers was sentimentally re-experienced. Taryn and I enjoyed mornings out at breakfast in the city, exploration and wandering. That added to relaxing afternoons spent in the hostel or in a coffee shop waiting out the rain and then going out to dance at night made the city quiet nice to be back in. The day before I left Taryn and I went out to a farmer’s market in the morning. We were in search of a fish that we had never cooked before. We didn’t find it there, but instead we found an attractive little pocket of San Jose’s hippie population. We ate gallo pinto and platanos fritos while we watched couples do yoga together outside in the grass and dread-headed liberals beat out their liberated souls on drums of different sizes and pitches. We loved it. I unfairly coaxed Taryn into buying a feather earring, pulling the boyfriend’s high card of “but it looks so good on you!”

(Off-guard squint) (Transformation Complete!)

She declared her liberal fashion transformation complete and we went off to continue our search for the big catch like Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea. And would you believe it!? We got a Marlin! Marlín Rosado- four filets weighing in at a half kilo for 1,500 colones. Yeah that’s 3 bucks. Godspeed finding that fish robbery in the States. We earned it though. We had to brave three thriving markets with inveterate vendors and a lunch of gut-filling fried fish fare to find it (I did not mind). We returned with our loot and began prepping for the Bobby Flay marlin recipe. Taryn and I have fantasies of being on a cooking show I guess because we premeasured all of our ingredients and did everything with an Iron Chef focus and intensity. That is until Jillian came over to the hostel and I lost my line cook to the cacophony of chit-chatty girl laughter as they cooed over a fresh climbing mag in the corner of the hostel's bar/kitchen. Per usual I was stuck in my obsessive mode of food network perfection, and it actually panned out. Jillian and Taryn lacked the excitement I think the dish deserved but nonetheless I plated the marlin marinated in barbecue sauce and ancho chile powder on top of the saffron rice and side of avocado lime puree with a ridiculous level of flare and poise. Eating it was more laid back, and so was the rest of the night. We fell asleep to a movie and woke up early to pack and get in breakfast and a cafecito before I made my way to the airport. The goodbye was quick to avoid tear duct excretion. As I rode back in the bus I wrote out the notes for this blog post and enjoyed mentally reliving the trip. Big thanks to Taryn for being such an adept and dedicated travel buddy. Travel suits you well, dear. And finally, Gracias a Chepe.

With content,

Jacob Owens

Cartel Coffee Lab, Tucson, AZ


Monday, April 18, 2011

Voluntary Breathing

One of the most dangerous tendencies one can have is to create expectations. Without a doubt they are always incorrect, to some degree or other, and have the potential to make one feel like they have fallen short or the experience has. Maybe this isn’t something that others do quite so often, but for me it is constant. It is part of my wiring, a natural consequence of dreaming and scheming grandiose and naïve plans that are inevitably doomed to fall short into the pool of reality. I guess you could say that I am drowning in it.

I so very want to be……? Well I don’t really know. I’m fairly good at project management, event planning, and brainstorming. I like, no wait, I need other people involved in work that I am doing so that I can enjoy it, so that I can be grounded, and so that I can be inspired to continue it until completion. It’s not so much about the “what” for me in terms of career path. It’s more about what I am joining, i.e. movement, a company’s vision, or a project’s goal. I got to believe baby! I

know there is going to be times in my life, the majority, where I am not actively involved in something that is ground-breaking or historically momentous, but I will always be on the lookout. Or, maybe the trick is to treat everything like it is. Do or die. Sink or swim. Breathe because you've spent the last molecule of oxygen in your body for your cause or do so because your body just does it on its own, even if you're comatose. I’m going to be turning this idea over the next couple days.

Monday, February 21, 2011

My Two Cents

My last post expressed my desire and need to begin rooting myself in every aspect of my community, both because I felt that that was the next step in my work and also because I felt that in some inspired way I was led to do so. I did not write that post and set myself solely to its progress and completion since November. Instead, in fewer words, I just let it happen. In my community life on 1229 N 4th Avenue, I began staying at home more, listening more intently at the dinner table, and focusing on conversations, moods, and tones. I also changed my approach to my work.

Here are some reflections on that change that I gave in a speech to a local church. They were…elderly.


I’m sorry for the outburst, but now that I have your attention let me explain.

You see, even though I have never in my life proclaimed such a thing to the church, I used to do so internally and subconsciously when I first arrived here six months ago from Asheville, NC, so I might as well have shouted it like I just did. I came to man a volunteer post at the SWC. It is a ministry of the Southside Presbyterian Church that seeks employment and development opportunities for mostly Latino men just north of “S Tucson” (Which I never really understood because, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t there more of Tucson S of S Tucson?) Anyway, that’s where I began work. It’s also where I have been having my school-boy, white felt-board Jesus, Sunday School theology pounded on like a drum. The majority of my time at the SWC is spent in a parking lot waiting on the trucks of incoming employers to come in and hire a few workers. My job is to keep order, maintain the list of outgoing workers, and to help translate and negotiate day labor contracts. On any given morning, aside from meetings with the workers, computer classes, and English classes, I spend the hours of 7-10:30 sitting on curbs and plastic chairs in the parking lot conversing (platicando, charlando, hablando) with Mexicans, Hondurans, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans about nothing really important, at least I used to think. Then at 10:30 I can go into the Center’s office and begin “real” work. In November I considered this real work to be cold-calling employers, organizing databases for marketing purposes, and continuing email correspondences about upcoming jobs, workshops, classes, events X, Y, and, wait don’t forget Z. However, while remembering event Z, I forgot or possibly never even really knew the real foundation of my work, the real work of the SWC. It begins with this: If one comes to “help” in a social environment that is new: new culture, new language and/or dialects, new problems, new social dynamics, new food, new music, new definitions of “cool” (The members of the center say “Que padre!”) and new definitions of “pretty” (They call their ladies gorditas, which means to us pleasantly plump), if one wants to “help” in this new environment then they must be willing to change their definition of “help,” and they must also be willing to pay their dues.

My terminology and understanding on this subject come from Paulo Freire, a Brazilian writer, thinker, and activist, in his arguably most important work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I have begun reading and discussing this book with members of the SWC’s staff. Its content has allowed me to put words to my experiences and begin a process of acceptance, analysis, and reaction. I have begun to understand that the single most committed folly by church, non-profit, or humanitarian aid workers and volunteers is that we treat our “cases,” or people we are to help, as if they are objects, while we are the subjects. They are objects to be organized into our pre-arrival, pre-conceived plans and projects, objects to be picked up in between the ages of 0-5 and carried around for photos to be taken, or objects at which we will preach our infallible monopolies on truth, which we call the “Gospel,” (Repent O Sinner!) “Budgeting 101,” (This is how to balance a checkbook dummy) and last but not least “The Correct Church, Family, and Social Framework Model (Based on the organizational structures of God’s Country: the U.S. of A.)” Freire says that this “Subject-Object” model is the base of oppression and that the only way to bring about the liberation of the oppressed, which we must understand is the liberation of ourselves as mankind created in the image of God, is to not enter into what we call the “mission field” with hidden agendas and ulterior motives. Instead, the agenda, or the plan to help or liberate, can only be found after we realize that we have in fact been the oppressors and that we can only participate in their/our liberation if we enter into a mutual dialogue where both parties are Subjects. To participate in that dialogue one must enter into a relationship of solidarity. (Sometimes it takes sitting and waiting for work in a parking lot for six months.) We must know their struggles, their daily realities, and their way of life. Only then can we begin to not lead them out of their oppression of poverty, racism, and lack of education, but instead support them as they lead themselves and one another as fully human, fully liberated, beautiful beings breathing the very life-giving breathe that God breathed into each and every one of us.

Freire is a thinker to behold; his words must be digested with coffee, contemplation, and complimenting conversation amongst wise and experienced peers. Discussion with the group I mentioned provides me with this, for which I am very thankful. However for all of you, I am grateful today for the opportunity to provide an illustrating story from the SWC.

Who here has been to the Gem Show? Well in January, it came to town. Gem and precious stone merchants came in from all over the world to showcase their fossils, diamonds, gold, rubies, and turquoise to wholesale buyers who were ready to stock up their inventories. There was also plenty of shopping to be done by Aunt Gertrude. Now come on, everyone here knows Aunt Gertrude (no offense to anyone with the name or the following characteristics) but she drove down from Phoenix with her sister and Bridge partner Myrtle. They wore sun visors, never exceeded 50 mph on I-10, and spent the duration of their weekend cooing covetously at the vendors’ wares, but not daring to reach into their purses to make a purchase. I-10 became a budding branch. It sprouted leaves of big white tents from the SWC’s location near 22nd street all the way north to the Young Adult Volunteer house right off of Speedway. The cars of tourists from the airport south of us and the rest of Arizona north of us crawled off the interstate onto the newly sprouted leaves like ants ready to feed.

I had been told of the Gem Show shortly after I started work at the Center, that it had great opportunities for day-to-day employment and that I should send an informational email to all the vendors coming to make them aware of the services our workers could provide. So I did, to over 80 vendors and tent companies. Then I waited. After thinking for a time that the email had poorly received and conjuring reasons why, I received one reply. It was from a tent company in Colorado that was going to be sending a work crew with a large tent to construct. They needed a team of workers to help them over a three day period. I leapt at the chance to organize a work team, and to work with an actual employer that wrote emails and spoke civilly. I worked out the logistics for a team of four to meet at a specific site, receive pay, and to have the ability to communicate and follow instructions with one worker being bilingual. I then waited for the tent company to arrive. On the morning of, one of the workers for the Center’s team (the bilingual one), didn’t show up. He had found work elsewhere, so I had to find a replacement. There are not many that speak both English and Spanish at my place of work. After the team was assembled, they departed and I got a call 20 minutes later. It was the tent guy and the workers must be lost. I called them redirected and they made it. We’re set…I thought. I received yet another call from the tent foreman who wanted final details on payment options for the labor. He wondered when he could come by and “swipe his card”. I informed him as I had already informed his secretary that we do not have a place to swipe cards (well, that prints a receipt afterwards anyway). We are housed in a church. I could hear the frustration building. He was under the impression that we were a “Labor Ready,” with documented workers, workman’s comp (insurance), OSHA training and silly, official things like that. I quickly tried to dissuade his anger by working out a convenient payment method (which still required his checkbook to be sent from Colorado) and going to meet him with the workers to smooth things know.. conversationally (big thanks to my upbringing in the South for my first learned language of “good ol’ boy”, even though the accent ain’t the same in these parts the translation transcends cultural boundaries) So, it was a rocky start, but I waited, anxiously. When the next morning came I got a call from the tent guy. I said hello with my teeth tight and one eye wincing. Then he said good morning. I exhaled. He then began to tell me about how the day of work went. He wanted me know just how hard Ricardo, Cecilio, Jose, and Arturo worked, about how he had gotten to know them a little bit, ate lunch with them, and heard their stories of crossing the border, finding work, facing racism and exploitation at the hand of local employers who pay less than was agreed upon or don’t pay at all, and after all that, struggling to send money back to their families through a Western Union wire transfer that skims 10% off the top. Speaking of learning other languages, I could tell that gratitude and praise were languages new to him, and like many construction foremen he was rusty. But he went with the functional “fair pay” talk, a language he spoke fluently, and told me that the work had gone so quickly, from an estimated three days to one day and 3 hours, that he was going to go ahead and pay them for a full two days. He said, “Now I want you to make sure that you tell them I’m doing that, that I’m not stiffing them, in fact I’m paying more, it’s just that well the work, it’s all done you see.”

After that phone call I celebrated, all internally mind you, I was in the parking lot and I have a reputation to protect…they already call me Shakira, the name of latina pop star [Hair Flip] (I don’t know why). And then I began to think about what had just happened. Everything turned around so unexpectedly. My obstacle was that I was thinking about myself. I the English-speaking, business-minded guero or white man had done nothing to bring about this success. The magic in this story came from the workers: noble, diligent, and honest. Even deeper still, and this is the point I am seeking to illustrate, it came from people of different backgrounds working together, over lines of race, class, and nationality, as equals, sharing their toil, their stories, their tragedies, and then mutually each other’s success. Human relationships, mutual dialogue where both parties are Subjects, and face-to-face, working shoulder-to-shoulder interactions are the base for all real and sustainable change. Love your neighbor as yourself is right, because in a way your neighbor is yourself. Different language, different point of origin…but at the end of the day, when the roof is shingled, the tent is built, and friends are made-it’s all mutual.

The success of that day when the Gem Show came to town has continued. The Center’s services of A-grade work at a reasonable rate provided by hard working men of integrity spread by word of mouth from tent to tent along I-10. This past Monday, so many employers came from the Gem Show to get men to help pack up that there was a brief moment in time where the parking lot was empty. One employer arrived during this moment and I panicked. I had to run into the church where we have Crosstreets, a ministry that gives out a free meal on Mondays and Fridays to people without homes. There I found two able looking men that both spoke English, so they were top notch on my skill assessment chart. It took a lot of coaxing, but eventually they gave and went to work. I have since marked that day down as the best Valentine’s Days ever, not because of my work, know how, or BUSINESS DEGREE, but because of the power of human relationships and solidarity.

Now in conclusion, I’d like to apologize beforehand for bringing business to church, but I am not trying to make a buck. I bike, not drive, from every A to every B with a very modest “living” stipend in my pocket. And while Jesus himself turned over the tables of the merchants in the temple because they were desecrating the house of God with the business of the Roman empire, he did however teach of the need and the power of social reconciliation, of welcoming strangers, and living, being, and working with, not for, the poor. So in His name, I advertise to you: tomorrow is President’s Day so I know that many of you will have the day off. It was a windy day yesterday, so I know there are yards and roofs to be cleaned. Spring is here, in Arizona anyway. It’s time to dig gardens and rainwater catchments, plant flowers, vegetables, and trees. And let’s face it, those projects at home are not going to do themselves, so if you don’t want to do it, or as is usually the case just need some skilled help, then why don’t you give me a call (I’ll be waiting after the service to give you any info that you might need). Not because we want to turn a profit or fatten wallets, but because we want to feed families. We want employment because it leads to empowerment and liberation that they’ve never had before. We want to build a community on love and selflessness. A community, in Tucson, that welcomes strangers from other lands that came because they were poor, hungry, thirsty, and unemployed.

[Again without the mic] MY NAME IS JA-----well, that’s not important anymore. Frankly I was never that impressed anyway. But these people I know are. And, I’m telling you. Just like that tent builder from the Gem Show. You have got to meet these guys.

Jacob Owens


Tucson, AZ

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


I haven't felt humidity like this since a little over a year ago. Its the kind that comes on days when the world wakes and keeps its blinds of clouds drawn. The sun is shining, but the only effect is a subtle change in the feel and hue of the air. The moisture suspended within it seeps into your house, your belongings, and even the skin on your bones. Its especially invading mine as my body acclimates to this San Antonio, TX morning. I'll tell you about it a little. I'll write quickly and in the moment, something I have not done in the past, because as I sit here on this aloe vera green porch on a white swing looking down on a new community, it's the only place I want to be.

With this understanding of being in the moment comes a slight apology and admittance of past mispractices. This blog is contrived, which means in this context- a projected facade of carefully spun truths. I've carefully selected my words, stories, imagery, and even blog color and layout to make myself look like some kind of social activism hero. The truth is that I am, well in some ways at least. I have enough good intentions in mind to pave the whole road to hell and back. Thus far they have led me to put my first step out of college onto an illogical limb of flimsy career choice instead of onto the somewhat sturdy first rung of the corporate ladder. I'm disregarding the unspoken advice of many, which has said to me in nonverbal gestures such as slight nods and neutrally pronounced "hmm's" of acknowledgement that I will soon rue the day I signed the contract to be a "volunteer" (insert gasp here). The rest of the truth is that I am still learning how to live and participate in the truth that I have discovered. Its foundations in my lifestyle are not nearly as deep as some of my posts read. So, I apologize, and extend the peace offering of more reality and less "spin" in my writing, beginning now:

I am deeply in love with people at the moment: communities, families, organizations, and social networks. I tend to obsess about things and themes for 2 weeks to a month at a time. When I was younger it was aggressive inline skating, comic books, girls, fishing, books, yo-yo's, or soccer. Now these stints of time seem to be centered around personal, internal projects. Currently, I am learning about human interaction and its significance in the world in which we live. While this has been on my mind as of late, it is certainly not the first time. It has surfaced in my interests/obsessions in many different forms for sometime now, such as a desire to study the formations and interactions of people, organizations, and networks in my college career.

I have said that I believe that we are all in this together, that my liberation is bound in the freedom of others, and that we are all collectively tied. With the recognition of this belief come my first steps in its practice: community, community, community. Learning to live in love and harmony is difficult. I can't even do it with myself. But I am finding that the more I try the more connected I feel to the people around me, and consequently to the one that created us all. I cannot hug God, help him find a job, ask him how his day is going, or make sure I do all my dishes in his house on my night of the week. However, there's a few folks in my life that I can love like that, in a real, tangible way. It is the way in which I feel God transposed his image of love and relationship in community onto us.

My new thoughts on community and relationships with those in my daily life extend themselves in a very natural way to create a foundation for my work in Tucson. While I came here to live on the crest of the Immigrants' Rights Movement, a wave that is apparently still a few miles from shore after the recent election of Jan Brewer, I have begun to realize that movements are based in the long term organization of communities. If I want to play a significant part in any kind of movement or fight for freedom, then I must first spend some time beneath the soil, establishing roots in my community and getting to know the environment in which I hope to grow. Furthermore, the Immigrants' Rights Movement is just one battle in a war against inequality and the oppression of the human spirit. I hope that the overarching theme and movement of my life is involved in the much broader promotion of love and unity amongst people of all backgrounds in a variety of different struggles and work.

Jacob Owens
San Antonio, TX

Sunday, October 3, 2010

¡Viva La Libertad!

The world holds us temporarily in bondage; we are all slaves. The commonality: freedom is a mentality, not the absence of physical oppression; it is a contagious, revolutionary state of mind. (Based on 1 Corinthians 7:21-25)

This posting is an intentional, much awaited, well-processed expression of observations and mental milestones that I have come across in my first month of work at the Southside Day Labor Center. Please forgive confusions of tenses. My schedule as of late has not been conducive to one-sitting writing sessions.

For the past month, as Spanish speakers say, I have risen myself at 5 am, showered, dressed, made coffee, fried eggs, and checked before groggily clambering atop my bike and making the 3 mile commute to the Center. The general pattern of my day goes like this: I bike into the parking lot where the day laborers gather to hear various styles of entertaining "good mornings". "Bwiiiiiiinnos Diyas Jacccoooobo!! (The best rendition of good morning one could hear)" or "Ey, Ey, es David Bisbal!" (The men think I favor this fellow. For the sake of humor, please follow this link). I ride up to the locked public facility shed/bathroom where all the equipment is kept and fidget with my 18 keys like a new janitor. I take out the bucket for the raffle and hand out the chairs, cones, and vests to the men. We set up by 6:30 when one of the men yells to the others, "La riiiifa, la riiiiiifa!" The raffle begins and the men jockey for position around the table while their numbers are called and their order is decided on the work list. After the list is made, the first four that were called from the raffle, those first on the list, put on vests. These vests are worn with the intent to keep order, to signify that only they may approach the trucks of incoming employers to negotiate employment. However, jobs are few. Varying from two to ten, pickings are slim every day. Therefore, most are desperate. The incoming truck of a "patrón" is usually met by a teeming gaggle of workers. At first I thought this looked like mayhem, which it is in many ways. But it's also a built business culture that is widely accepted by both parties. Haggling wages, skill bragging, and shoulder shoves are part of the game. The only real problem is that many "jump" the list, disregarding the voted upon system. After three days of observing practices at the center, I just decided to hop right into the fray with my clipboard in hand. I was determined to establish order and fairness. I expected some contact, but the waters were more gentle than they appeared, and the workers are, more than less, far too kind. They are happy to have someone that they know gently enforce the list in an unassuming manner. I now speak with each patrón, take their name, which job they need, and jot down their license tag number as they drive away. The vests from those who leave go to the next on the list and the day continues.

About two weeks in, I came in to work to find a Mexican flag and a fake metal seal of México hung above the center's gate. The men explained to me that September 16th was México's Independence Day. We celebrated. The men borrowed a grill from a man down the road, stuffed it full of wood, and burnt it down to the coals so that we could cook ten pounds of carne asada, a few pounds of chicken, and toast some La La's tortillas. We feasted like the boys in the Lord of the Flies, cranked up a local latino station, and sipped guanabanana juice in the shade. With the lamentable absence of dance partners, we resigned to talks of the history of México.

México's Independence Day is different than ours in a couple ways. Of course, fireworks still blast in every town south of the border and people and parades clog up city intersections, but the main differences in my eyes are indicative of cultural differences. Two are evident. One, the men explained to me that they do not plan El Día de la Independencia festivities. I heard nothing of Mexican delicacies and independence day celebrations as I sat with the men on tuesday, the day prior. However, on Wednesday it took only the idea of one fun-loving, patriotic fellow to spark the celebration of the whole group. The men explained to me that a good party requires spontaneity. Every day spent with these guys teaches me more about what being present in the moment is about. Celebrations are planned to enjoy life and one another, but that same enjoyment is only truly experienced in the moment. The second difference has to do with the event celebrated. Those that reside within the established boundaries of the U.S. celebrate the day that the Declaration of Independence was signed by the Second Continental Congress. The day by which a committee of influential men such as Thomas Jefferson had drafted, presented, and corrected the declarative document. The American Revolution was in full swing, and the thirteen colonies banded together underneath the Declaration. The Mexican Day of Independence celebrates a very different time, a precise moment. It was 1810 and the oppression created by the colonial Spaniards and their mother country that was pulling the strings was heavy. 290 years after the first conquest of Hernán Cortés, marriage among the races had created a number of different blood-mixes, and consequently, a natural type of caste system. The people were stratisfied from the upper to lower classes by their separation from the blood line of Spain, which created an restless tension among the classes. Therefore, it is no surprise that the primary spark of the rebellion was Hidalgo, a member of the "second-rate" Criollo class. In the early morning of September 16th, he made a speech that is now reenacted in front of Mexico's capital every year (Here's this year's bicentennial celebration of the event, watch it around 2:50). Like President Calderón in the video, Hidalgo stood in front of his church and made the famous Grito del Dolores (Shout of Grievances). Slightly modified for the bicentennial celebration, Calderón says:

Long Live the Heroes that gave us our Fatherland!
Long Live Hidalgo!
Long Live Morelos!
Long Live Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez!
Long Live Allende!
Long Live Aldama and Matamoros!
Long Live National Independence!
Long Live the Independence Bicentennial!
Long Live the Centennial of the Revolution!
Long Live Mexico!
Long Live Mexico!
Long Live Mexico!

Their freedom was realized before the ten year war even began. It was reclaimed the moment that they declared themselves free and adopted the mentality of freedom. The fight that followed was of natural consequence, but freedom was already achieved.

I favor this sense and definition of the concept. Don't get me wrong. I love my sparklers, star-spangled banners, and grill-outs. But should we be celebrating the moment we documented our independence on July 4th, 1776 or should we celebrate April 19th, 1775, the morning Paul Revere took the message of freedom by horseback to colonists from Charlestown to Concord? Because it was then, as men dressed themselves, gave their wives farewell kisses, and mounted their horses to join the fight and spread the word, that independence was decided. During that night, the oppression that weighed upon the colonies was met with resistance, a unifying and intoxicating truth that flowed from soul to mind to body.

Human beings collectively, not just citizens of the States, call this freedom. The struggle that comes afterwards and the methods that are used are issues that require peaceful discourse, but freedom's true moment of birth is a commonality, right? Let's not change the date of Independence Day to April 19th, but let us understand freedom and celebrate it together (maybe even a little more spontaneously).

I am grateful that my new work place is an environment where this celebration can occur daily. My culture and skin superficially separate me, and I will always be the "blanco, guero, gringo," or white boy to them. But we are all human and the basis of our relationship is a mutual interest in the rights and wellbeing of one other.

No charter of freedom will be worth looking at which does not ensure the same measure of freedom for the minorities as for the majority. -Gandhi

May we know freedom,

Jacob Owens
Somewhere between Tucson and Phoenix, AZ

Friday, September 10, 2010

No Bread in the Kingdom- A Night and Day in New Orleans

So my first day on the job at Southside Day Labor involved an unplanned flight to New Orleans for a National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON) conference. I was told to pack a bag, because one of the day laborers (jornaleros) that was supposed to attend had been MIA for a week. He didn't show. So I grabbed my daypack and took the flight from Tucson to New Orleans with my new boss Alison Harrington, pastor of Southside Presbyterian, and jornalero and new friend David. Six hours and three time zones later (AZ doesn't do Daylight Savings), we arrived in New Orleans to get a jet-lagged night's sleep before a full day of conference meetings, panels, and presentations. I love spontaneity, travel, and passionate groups gathered around a central cause, but I felt a little overwhelmed. I came with the expectation that members of NDLON would be meeting to discuss "how-to"s, best industry practices, and stories of success that exemplified the efforts of the network. However, day labor organizations are only the platforms in this group of activists; they are the short term fixes that provide immigrants with the means to support themselves while more long term plans are formulated. These long term, big picture plans seek to turn the tide away from a U.S. majority mentality of ignorance, to the creation of a national awareness of immigrant realities and attrocities. Conversations today centered on peaceful activism, civil disobedience, and stances that refused to let immigrants experience helplessness.

So when I say that I was overwhelmed, I mean that my narrow-minded, noble desire to help my new jornalero friends by finding out the best day labor marketing strategies was violently placed into a new perspective. I need not work solely to help supply the jornaleros with "bread alone". The true goal, the solution, is so much bigger. The individuals that surrounded me today were leaders attempting to catalyze a movement. They cited Martin Luther King Jr. and other influential leaders like pastors citing the Gospels: "Truth crushed to the ground will rise again."

I'm honored to be present and I vow to be a part. When I return to Tucson, I'm going to get back to contacting local construction and business alliances to attract employers, but I will now have the larger, burning picture of a movement in mind, one that spans the frontline states and is growing through the grassroots of others continually. When these issues of immigration finally do boil to the surface, and marches, civil acts of disobedience, and exposed hatred become commonplace, the faces I have seen today will be the ones pleading, chanting, and protesting through televisions screens across the nation. I don't know yet if this course of action is my part, but I do know that I am a part and that you can be too. Support the movement at or support a YAV here in Tucson (Call me 828-231-5386). The kingdom is everywhere. The kingdom is here.

"But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God." -Matthew 4:4

"And he said to them, 'I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.'" -Mark 9:1

Time for some gumbo and with luck a little jazz,

Jacob Owens
New Orleans, Louisiana
September 9th, 2010