Service/Learning Experiences


CONOCIMIENTO, “Becoming Aware”

Interfaith Action and Reflection on Border Justice in Arizona

Over the past years, USC students with any or no religious background, have been invited to apply to be part of an unforgettable adventure. CONOCIMIENTO is an experience in service, advocacy, learning and spiritual reflection in the Tucson, Arizona area.

Participants in the trip have met between January and March to prepare, exploring the role of different religions in movements for social change, and exploring immigrant justice issues in Los Angeles. The week in Tucson is both a service-learning experience and an interfaith spiritual retreat.

In the Tucson area, we work with faith-based groups focused on human rights and immigration reform. We meet with undocumented migrants crossing the US-Mexico border, Border Patrol (“migra”) officers, local officials and activists, and rabbis and pastors working for immigration reform. We have visited a medical clinic that serves undocumented people and participated in the weekly vigil at a shrine in Tucson that memorializes those who have died crossing the border. We visit the US side of the border fence at Nogales and visit sacred sites in the Tohono O’Odham Native American reservation. We experience Native American, Catholic Christian, Jewish, Protestant Christian, and worship and spiritual practice of other faiths. We meditate, pray, and reflect together on our experiences, in the midst of the natural beauty of the Sonoran Desert. We have free time for enjoying the cultural richness and scenery of the area, as well. We try living simply for the week, sleeping in sleeping bags on a church floor and sharing meals with local people.

Bordados: Remembering the Migrants

Many Americans would consider these objects “basura” (garbage), along with the rest of the disintegrating backpacks, shoes and clothing items scattered throughout the Mexican-American Borderlands. Yet the tortilla cloths, also known as “bordados,” and the water vessel carry immense symbolic significance. They represent the survival needs for the hundreds of thousands of people who have crossed the Sonora Desert to enter the United States. Even today people continue to cross into the United States through the most hazardous regions to avoid detention, and even today too many die for their attempt.  When taken in this context, these artifacts paint a picture of the sons and daughters of the Americas who have departed from their families and taken an extremely dangerous road in search of economic opportunities and family reunification.

The humanity within the bordado stitching cries out, demanding to be seen not as the garbage of dehumanized criminal aliens but as the belongings of people who deserve recognition for their hardship as migrants caught in the crossroads of xenophobia, scapegoating and exploitation.

I know because in March, I walked through the same desert. A cactus needle an inch tall poked through the soles of my tennis shoes. The hot sun beat down, burning my shoulders, granting me the visibility that most migrants traveling by night lack. My mouth was too parched for words, my lips cracked. As a participant of the Alternative Spring Break to the Tucson Arizona area, I experienced a fraction of conditions that migrants go through. I brought the sensations of the border experience back to Los Angeles because I know that the hardships of immigrants do not end upon reaching their destination.

The 11 million undocumented people who live in the United States and comprise 5% of the total labor force in this country continuously live in fear of deportation. They do not receive electoral representation, despite paying state and federal taxes. If deported, they may have no other option but to return their families and communities in the United States by attempting to cross the border. Mexico’s drug violence continues to divide towns based on cartel factions and endanger young adults.  Not only do the bordados cry for recognition, they cry for change- a change to the deportation practices that have created United States refugee camps in the towns south of the Border…

Alejandra Vargas-Johnson (CONOCIMIENTO participant student)