Reflections from the Final Session of HEAL’s SoPL in Paso Del Norte

By Nikki M.G. Cole, HEAL Membership Engagement & Training Lead

I’m going to be honest – As a Black educated, progressive Washingtonian with many Latinx friends and allies in the movement – I thought I knew. I thought I knew about the struggle of immigrants, but I really didn’t. At least, not until I went to visit the Paso Del Norte region this December for the the final session of the inaugural year of HEAL’s first School of Political Leadership (SoPL).

The HEAL SoPL Crew at our Final Session in El Paso

I had an amazing  journey with our nine SoPL Leaders and HEAL staff during our final SoPL session. Over three days we met and trained with community leaders from El Paso, TX and Anthony, NM and learned about their community farm and cooperative business projects, electoral work, advocacy campaigns – including meeting with the leaders of La Mujer Obrera, Cafe Mayapan, Tierra Es Vida and La Semilla Food Center, and State Senator Jose Rodriguez’ Constituent Services Director.

We learned a lot about the particular struggles, strategies, and cultures of their region, as well as did some good old-fashioned organizing training and hands-on-the-land time. I co-led the session with our powerhouse SoPL Leader Victoria Quevedo, Food Planning and Policy Coordinator at La Semilla Food Center, who hosted our final session in El Paso — I mean Ciudad Juarez — I mean Anthony, New Mexico! I mean…what do I mean?!?!

Ok. Deep Breath. Let me break it down:

First, I mean – the dominant, false, fear mongering, racist narrative that Latino immigrants are criminals crossing the border between the U.S. and Mexico in droves to steal our jobs is ACTUALLY COMPLETELY FALSE. Our land is actually their land – or rather, the land we we were standing on in El Paso, the land the nurtures and sustains so many of us, has always been there for them. 

Second, I mean – the REAL history of the indigenous communities of the modern-day American Southwest and the REAL relationship between those people and their families on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo, is an incredibly relevant story whose lessons could help us re-shape progressive global immigration policy. But it’s a story deliberately left untold in major American educational, governmental, and media institutions.

Third, I mean – visiting the Paso Del Norte Region and seeing the completely artificial borders between Mexico, Texas, and New Mexico, made me realize just how ridiculous and unnecessary the fragmentation of families, culture, economy, and environment has been due to the relentless colonization of native lands.

Fourth, I mean – learning the history of Latina garment factory workers native to the Southwest, and the devastating impact that NAFTA had on their wages and access to dignified work in the 90’s – not to mention the harmful long-term economic effects of the segregation of communities by industrial railroads, or the health implications for children in those communities due to unregulated toxic metal recycling dumps in their neighborhoods, or the looming presence of military and border patrol personnel and prisons.

I could feel and clearly see the weight that our allies in that region carry with them every day. The oppression that they endure on a daily basis, is evident in the tightness of their jaws. It’s evident in their gates when they walk and in the heavy sighs when they talk. They reminded me of me, and the story of my people this country. Shining through the darkness of colonization though, are the most beautiful and stead-fast lights, sounds, smells, and flavors.

Lights. They radiate from the smiles of the amazing women who operate Café Mayapan – a cooperatively owned restaurant, café, childcare and organizing space in the middle of Barrio Chamizal of El Paso. Shout out to Lorena and Hilda, the inspiring and disciplined leaders of Las Mujeres Obreras, who showed our SoPL cohort the strength and importance of ongoing community-based political education and practice. Shout out to Valerie who gifted me with real natural honey and herbal teas harvested locally.

Sounds. They vibrate out of the requinto and segunda jaranas to fill the vast desert with the spirit of resistance and self-love. Shout out to Victoria, Francisco, Rubi, and Yahvi for sharing and inviting me and all of the SoPL leaders into the culture.

Smells and Flavors. They heal the soul and the mind after long days. The barrel cactus, nopales, the salt plant, la gobenadora plant, chiles, asparagus, cinnamon and CAFÉ and TAMALES! The food that was shared with us throughout our visit was beyond delicious and nurturing. It was powerful.  It told stories. It was restorative, sustainably produced, and mostly vegan. I’m an omnivore and I never missed meat once! Shout out to all the La Semilla Food Center leaders, Sthonebirds and, our incredible amazing SoPL Leader and Chef Neftali Duran of iCollective, who made the best pozole of life!

I know that this culture is a foundation of their resilience, as culture is a source of resilience for Black Americans too. It is powerful and deeply seeded. It will never die. It will keep working for them, for us, and keep transforming those who are lucky enough to encounter and share in it. It is what enabled me, and the SoPL cohort, to rip up withered, dry crab grass to make space to grow real food at Tierra Es Vida community farm. That’s right – poor folks are growing life sustaining food in the middle of abandoned lots in the desert, which made me think to myself, “Damn I ain’t really doing anything back home!”

As a Black woman, and a leader of the HEAL Food Alliance and trainer for the School of Political Leadership, my experience in El Paso recommitted me to be in solidarity with indigenous and immigrant communities. Whether it’s about food justice, or economic justice, housing, land or educational justice – we absolutely must love one another and have each other’s backs. Speaking of which, I need to call the love warrior Victoria Quevedo (who as I mentioned, is one of our star SoPL leaders) and see how I can help hold accountable the elected officials who are failing the indigenous communities of the Paso Del Norte region RIGHT NOW!

Thank you for following along with us on our SoPL journey. If you need a recap of the full SoPL year, check out our posts on previous sessions, or check out our SoPL video below. And stay tuned for updates on applications for year two of SoPL – we are planning BIG THINGS!

Nikki MG Cole is a passionate strategist, organizer, advocate, and fundraiser for workers’ rights. She has over 17 years of experience in the hospitality industry, and began her organizing career with the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Washington, DC in 2009. Nikki is the newest addition to the HEAL team, excited and ready to build power with people to reclaim their health, environments, and economic power. Learn more about Nikki