Obies Using Languages: Zoë Martens ’16

Zoë is a senior majoring in Comparative American Studies and minoring in Dance. Zoë spent last spring semester studying away on the Border Studies program.

Where did Zoë spend her semester abroad?

She spent her semester living in Arizona. She lived with her host family in Tucson and took trips around once a week on either side of the border. She took one two week travel seminar to visit and observe the Mexican-Guatemalan border to compare and contrast it with the U.S.-Mexican border.

What were some of the similarities and differences between the U.S.-Mexican border and the Mexican-Guatemalan border?

Zoë was surprised at how similar the borders are. Some points were porous, meaning people and goods could cross without coming into contact with a checkpoint or Border Patrol officers. Her and her peers spent some time near a river crossing where people transferred goods across the water to get them across the border. She saw the militarization of the border and the periodic prevalence of military checkpoints on the Mexican-Guatemalan border which paralleled the U.S.-Mexican border ripe with trucks, guns, and Border Patrol officers. Zoë and her peers studied how the U.S. channels money to the Guatemalan government to heighten border control on the Guatemalan-Mexican border to prevent people seeking citizenship in the United States. We see South Americans being detained in Mexico similar to how Mexicans are detained in the U.S.

What place would Zoë like to return to & why?

She would like to return to El Paso, Texas. The Border Studies program was originally based near the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez juncture. Ciudad Juarez has too much violence for the program to continue in that location. Zoë, however, learned from her time there. She described how the border felt much more immediate and saw organizing work as much more connected to that immediacy: there was an immediate need and therefore an immediate response.

She visited a community day center which housed resources for migrant workers: showers, baths, information on labor rights and fellow migrant workers. The center was close to a large pedestrian bridge that was high off the ground for day laborers to make the trip into the U.S. in the morning and back into Mexico in the evening. The program used to have the students make this trip every day to school so that they could begin to learn about the daily process of crossing the border.

Where did Zoë struggle the most?

One of their first trips to Mexico, they stayed the night at migrant shelter. All the students struggled with what their role was being there. They would stand behind the chair they would like to sit at during meals and the migrants would file in afterwards to choose where they would like to sit. Conversations at meals revealed that migrants were very grateful and surprised that American students wanted to listen to their stories. Zoë and her peers questioned whether the migrants felt they had agency, the choice to talk with the students or if they felt pressured into sharing about their lives because of the students’ privileged position.

How was Zoë’s relationship to language shaped by her semester abroad?

Zoë spoke Spanish exclusively with her host parents and English with her host siblings. Speaking Spanish is outlawed in Arizona public schools so there may have been a generational difference between her host parents and siblings. Zoë felt unsure how to navigate this language gap because she was not certain whether her parents could understand what her and her siblings were talking about.

When did Zoë feel like crying?

She had an amazing opportunity to visit a detention center through connections made by her peers in organizations they volunteered with. Zoë and her peers had conversations with detainees. There was a ubiquitous sense of confusion, what is there to say? Zoë described the heightened security ranging from walking through metal detectors, being sniffed by K-9 dogs, and having time limits on the visits. Zoë observed how differently the agents treated visitors versus detainees. Most agents would yell at detainees while speaking at conversation level with visitors. Her experiences at the detention center revealed just how inhumane undocumented people are treated within the detention center system. Zoë learned that many of the detained undocumented people rarely saw visitors because their family was far away. Her experiences at the detention center certainly opened her eyes to the horrors of the United State’s immigration policy and militarized border.

What is one sweet moment Zoë shared with a person she met on her semester abroad?

Zoë was really close with her ten year old host sister. Her sister made Zoë feel comfortable in her home. One day the two of them visited the local children’s museum. This was the first time that her sister had ridden the bus without her mom and they both had fun interacting with the museum exhibits. Zoë hopes to return in five years to Arizona for her sister’s quinciñera.

How does the Border Studies experience inform Zoë about life in Oberlin and her future?

Zoë learned how leaving immediacy makes it easy to become apathetic.  Zoë has to find the right ways to be involved with immediacy since it is easy to feel untouched by the struggle in Oberlin College. Zoë could look for work as a Border Studies alum in migrant shelters or related ways near the border after she leaves Oberlin. She hopes to continue feeling more connected to the border and the network of people fighting to demilitarize the border and stop deportations.


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