On Friday and Saturday, July 14 and 15, 2017, my classmate from the University of San Diego Elizabeth Moedano and I traveled to Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico, to meet with the lead organizer of the coalition Rescatemos de Corazón Villa Juárez as part of the Trans-Border Institute’s project “Mapping Positive Peace Projects at the Grassroots Level.” The coalition is dedicated to the revitalization of the rural town of Villa Juárez, situated about 20 miles southwest of Culiacán. Our goal was to shadow the coalition and interview its organizers in order to better understand their goals, methodology and theory of change. Rescatemos de Corazón Villa Juárez is one of six violence-prevention groups in both Mexico and the California that the Mapping Positive Peace Project is profiling, with the end goal of analyzing the group’s effectiveness to highlight best practices and in turn, promote collaboration between the groups.
Elizabeth and I were very fortunate to be invited by Rescatemos de Corazón Villa Juárez to travel with the group to Villa Juárez and to participate in two community events. Villa Juárez is located in the heartland of Sinaloan agribusiness producing mainly fresh produce and grain crops. These major growing operations bring seasonal workers and their families north from the mountainous state of Oaxaca. Amidst the wealth of huge agribusinesses, Villa Juárez remains extremely impoverished. Tensions between seasonal and local year-round farmworkers often lead to discrimination against the Oaxacan people who travel to Sinaloa for half the year. Arriving in Culiacán, locals told us about a February shootout earlier in 2017 between armed groups in Villa Juárez that left five people dead, one of them a woman who was uninvolved. This episode of violence has had lasting effects on the town.
The peacebuilding efforts of the coalition were spurred by leadership from the Cárdenas Foundation, founded by Daniel Cárdenas Izábal, a grower who sought to give back to the farmworkers and their families. The coalition, Rescatemos de Corazón Villa Juárez, encompasses farmers’ associations, community activists, local NGOs and faith based organizations.
On Friday, we traveled with an organizer to Villa Juárez to attend the “graduation day” for the first summer school program for children ages 9-13. During the classes, children learned about practicing healthy lifestyles, saying no to drugs and learning how to promote positive self esteem. The children were each given diplomas and their names were announced before the whole group. This small act of presenting the children with diplomas gave them something to be proud of, to feel supported and to be connected to a community. An organizer explained that getting the children involved at a young age with civic activities would increase their chances of staying involved once they get older and would hopefully prevent them from using drugs or turning to violence.
On Saturday, we returned to the city, but this time we were accompanied by two large farm dump trucks. Our mission was to pick up any garbage that could collect water and become a breeding ground for mosquitos carrying the sometimes life-threatening dengue virus. Villa Juárez only has one clinic with three beds to provide for 50,000 people in the small city. Lack of access to healthcare, coupled with extreme poverty, lead many people to avoid seeking treatment for dengue fever.
While this is a serious issue, one might ask why the coalition decided to tackle this problem in a city that struggles with security, drug abuse and access to education and healthcare. As Elizabeth and I walked behind women with megaphones announcing “¡Buenos días! Vengan a tirar los neumáticos, cubos, cacharros y recipientes que acumulan agua para prevenir el dengue!” (Good morning! Come throw away your tires, buckets, pots, and anything that accumulates water to help prevent dengue!), we also wondered why we were walking door to door, meeting skeptical faces when we asked the residents for old tires and buckets. But after an hour into the day, a garbage truck showed up with a woman from the local municipal government, and the residents started thanking us profusely. A volunteer told me that the first time she started volunteering in Villa Juárez, the garbage hadn’t been picked up in a month, something that wasn’t unusual, we learned. This explained the piles of burning garbage we walked by in the streets and the other piles accumulating in the canals.
When I watched the municipal officer talk with Rescatemos Villa Juárez organizers, I realized she had been successfully shamed into showing up. If the municipal government wasn’t going to take care of the people, the coalition of community leaders, found a way to provide instead. This action in turn pressured the municipality to bring the garbage truck to Villa Juárez and do its job. However, even as the municipal officer walked with us, she made discriminatory comments about “how dirty the people were” and about how cleaning the town was hopeless. This prejudice has exacerbated the poverty of people living in Villa Juárez.
With a simple act of coming around to pick up garbage, the community got to know Rescatemos de Corazón Villa Juárez as a group that is working for the people that can be trusted. One organizer told me that even if the people don’t understand exactly what Rescatemos Villa Juárez is doing or why, residents can see that the group is doing something good and they will begin to recognize the coalition. This is how trust is slowly and sincerely built and how community involvement will grow. By providing small but important services consistently, community networks strengthen to the point where bigger problems can be confronted. Next, with help from the community, Rescatemos de Corazón Villa Juárez is looking to transform over 20 public spaces into park areas for families and children in the region.
This experience taught me that when the fabric of community has been seriously frayed by violence and poverty, it is following through on small promises, like ensuring there will be a Saturday garbage truck, that builds community trust and eventually strengthens community resilience enough to stand up to violence and build peace.
Thank you to the Trans-Border Institute for this special opportunity to travel to Sinaloa and to Rescatemos de Corazón Villa Juárez for the invitation. Special thanks to my friend Elizabeth Moedano for help with translation.