… We requested permission to interview Zapatista women. At first I was overwhelmed by the project. My mentor said “You need a map. You are all over the place. Decide where you want to go and what you want to learn.”…
Mexico City Student Movement, 1968.
We are entering the first world! Things are so cool now, because we are going to have the Olympics. That was the government facade when I entered college at the National University in Mexico City (UNAM) in 1968. But in reality, things were pretty bad. The one party system — the PRI — had been in power for fifty years.
There was very little dissent in Mexico in the 1950s, but by the time I went to college, teachers, railroad workers, farm workers and oil workers had begun to engage in strikes. It was really an exciting time. There had been a couple student marches downtown and the police beat people up. There was a lot of discontent.
The Mexican Student Movement had started when I enrolled as a freshman in June 1968. I came from a middle class background, but it did not take me long to become aware and active. In July the Student Movement erupted. On September 19th the army took over the University to quell the protests. The Olympics were set to start in mid-October and the government wanted the student movement subdued before the whole world came to Mexico City. The army held the University until September 30.
On October 1st, student leaders held a meeting and decided to call a mass demonstration for the next day — the famous rally in Tlatelolco — held at the Plaza of Three Cultures. I went. It was huge. It was not just students. There were whole families there. Kids. The army started shooting from the balconies of buildings. I and my friend ended up in a basement apartment until 9pm. It was really scary. I got a taxi and went home. My friend stayed there because his sister lived in one of the apartments.
When I got home and watched the news it was full of lies! They said students were fighting one another. At 2AM I got a call from my best friend’s mother asking if I knew where he was. Finally she found out he was in jail. He was there for about a week. He told me later that he was running, trying to get into a church. He fell on top of a young girl. They arrested him. They filled trucks with people and took them to jail. The leadership of the movement were incarcerated.
Hundreds of students were killed that day.
After that there were no classes. The University closed. There was also no movement. It just ended it. It was so depressing.
In 1969 the University was reopened. I went back. I had an internship in a high school that had been taken over by the students. The University wanted to reincorporate them into the system so they sent students to be teachers. It was wild and crazy. I taught ethics and aesthetics (I was a philosophy major) and English. I was also a tour guide at the University. Tourists would come and I would explain the meaning of the murals at the University.
I was “paid” for that work with an opportunity to come to the University of Minnesota — part of a group of Mexican students who came up in the Summer of 1969.
Border Crossing 1969 – 1999
I met Luther ‘Tomas’ Johnson in Minnesota and we ended up getting married. He came back with me to Mexico while I applied for a U.S. visa. It took 18 months. We came back in the 1973 — Watergate scandal time. It was difficult to find a job here. We painted houses, my husband and I, for a long time, and then started a little business selling artisan products from Mexico and Central America. We would spend the winter in Mexico.
We got a farm in Southwest Minnesota, six miles from the South Dakota border, lived in a cabin without indoor plumbing. I got my degree from South Dakota State University, teaching Spanish and English. I had never lived in a rural area. It was always windy, no shade — but the prairie was so beautiful. It was new to me.
My son Gabe was born there. It was a difficult birth. He was premature. Then we had Aaron and Carmen.
We moved to St. Paul after I got my degree. We wanted the kids to go to Spanish immersion school there. I started teaching Spanish at Anoka senior high school and Tesseract, but then we found out about a position at the Center for Global Education at Augsburg. My husband and I got the job. We lived in Guatemala for about five years, 1990-95 conducting political travel seminars and semester programs for Augsburg students, teaching about the civil war, U.S. complicity and grassroots resistance movements. It was an amazing job. You get to know a country really well when you work with political and community organizations, and teach their realities to visitors. The kids went to school in Guatemala.
In 1995 we decided we wanted to go to Chiapas, Mexico, to be a part of what was happening there — the Zapatista movement standing up against NAFTA. The Center of Global Ed would not move us there, so we quit our jobs and moved to San Cristobal. I became involved in a women’s literacy project and got a grant to write a book about the Zapatistas woman organizers. We started an organization — Cloudforest Initiatives — which would support development projects — artisans and fair trade coffee. We also did delegations, political tours. The kids finished middle school there and started high school.
I conducted interviews for the book in 1997. I had a year to complete them. I wanted to know how people organized. My mentor, Mercedes Olivera, was an anthropologist from Mexico, in charge of the women’s literacy project. We requested permission to interview Zapatista women. At first I was overwhelmed by the project. My mentor said “You need a map. You are all over the place. Decide where you want to go and what you want to learn.”
She facilitated one of the first interviews I did in a community called Emiliano Zapata, (named after the Mexican Revolutionary) in the jungle very close to Guatemala. I met a woman who set the stage for what the book was about. She told me that for years they were farmworkers and had horrible lives. Then in the 1960s the government began “giving” indigenous people plots of land in the rainforest. The government thought this was a great way to dispose of the problem of landless peasants. She and her family literally walked across the Chiapas Highlands to the jungle and were one of the first families to obtain this land — to colonize the rain forest. Her husband was an agrarian leader negotiating with government offices to get land for a community of families — using the communal ejido system. They started organizing cooperatives, lending institutions.
All the books I read about this said it was like a garden of Eden. They were organized way before the Zapatistas. That became the point of my first chapter.
When we were living in San Cristobal we started hearing about paramilitaries made up of community members supported by the military attacking their neighbors who had joined or sympathized with the Zapatistas. I was able to interview people from northern Chiapas who had been evicted from their villages, who were now in the capital of Chiapas. These paramilitaries were stealing coffee from cooperatives. People forced from their homes were fleeing to the mountains. On December 22, 1997 there was a massacre of men, women and children by paramilitaries. I interviewed someone from that region and a Catechist who went to rescue survivors. Those were my last interviews — documenting that horrible event.
It took me several years to finish writing the book.
We were invited by a community — Magdalenas — not far from San Cristobal, in the highlands to facilitate the creation of an iron works cooperative. This artisanal iron work was common in San Cristobal, but it had always been made by urban non-indigenous people. Indians were not allowed to do it. Now they do it all the time.
The Magdalenas community was mixed politically. We met with the entire Zapatista half of the community. We presented our proposal and then they said, “Now you have to go out.” They voted “Si” and invited us back in. We trained four guys, they trained other people. Pretty soon we began to get funding for a clinic and a place for them to do their artisan work. And coffee cooperatives, sold in the U.S. as fair trade.
Our time in Chiapas was really good for all of us, but it was also very hard. Tomas and I separated. The boys came to Minnesota with their father to finish school. Later on I came with Carmen. All of them finished high school here. Carmen finished as quickly as she could and went to college in L.A. and then went back to Mexico.
When I came back I started to work with the Resource Center of the Americas doing a project called Centro de Derecho Laborales — Center for Workers Rights with Jorge Flores. I was there for about five years, until the Resource Center closed. It was an exciting job — an exciting time. Minneapolis was a totally different place.
I remember in 1969 thinking I was the only person here with dark hair and eyes. I had very few Latino friends. In the 1980s I was in a group. Gilberto Vasquez Valle and Rafael Varela were in that group. Just a few of us. I met a few people while supporting the hunger strikers at the St. Paul Cathedral after the Jesuits were killed in El Salvador in 1989. Roy Bourgeois, Rene Hurtado, Jorge Flores and Jorge Montesinos. Those are the people I knew. A handful of people.
When I came back and I worked on Lake Street in 1998, the whole landscape had changed! There were so many Latinos! In the 1990s there was a bubble of jobs here and people flocked to Minnesota. Then the bubble burst and people could not afford to go back. In Mexico meanwhile — in 1994, immediately after NAFTA — people started losing their jobs. The government started disinvesting in agriculture, cutting social services, not spending money on infrastructure, so of course, people started leaving.
At the Resource Center, Derechos Laborales I had plenty of work. We had many volunteers, students mostly. We had an open door. We trained volunteers to do intake. Anyone could come who had a work issue. If they came with other needs we helped them find support elsewhere. I was shocked at the stories I heard from our clients. Stories of racism, wage theft.
Looking back I think, the way CTUL is doing the work is brilliant, because we didn’t organize workers. We were helping them one by one. Very time consuming. We would call the employer and say “Juan Perez hasn’t been paid for two months.” Next step was to go to court. Small claims court. It was easy to get in. We would win. Many times the employer would just pay.
I remember one case — this woman came to the office. She was working at a laundromat, with those big irons. She burned her arm. Her employer said just put this cream on. It got infected. So first I took her to the clinic. Then we filled out forms for workers compensation and sent it to the employer…. The employer wanted to avoid workers comp and just settle. We told her that is not how the law works. People think they can get away with murder!
We got a grant to teach a course that simultaneously taught English and worker’s rights. We also started working with a group of women trying to start their own cleaning company. Later on we became involved in immigration reform issues.
Even after the Resource Center stopped getting funding we continued to get financial support from various foundations. The day I found that the Resource Center had closed we had just hired a new organizer, new teachers. I had to call them back and say, we are not going to do it.
That was a tough time. All of the sudden I had no job.
I taught for a while at a middle school, but by that time I was too far away from that. I didn’t like it. I started working part time at CLUES. It eventually became a full time job. I love it. I have been doing it for six years. I began working with CLUES in St Paul, but soon moved to their Minneapolis site which is much bigger.
This whole area from Hiawatha to Uptown is Latino. It is also becoming Somali which is exciting. I am getting more Somali students, learning English. Things are changing constantly.
The spirit of survival and resilience among my students is amazing. There are those success stories that keep me going. I have a class “English for Employment” — helping people create goals and then achieve them, go to college, whatever steps they need to take. Education issues are complex. I have students who were displaced by war in Central America who never went to school until now. They come here and they are trying to learn English and they don’t know how to read or write in Spanish. Or Somali students who spent years in refugee camps. Some times the success story is learning how to read and write, as an adult, in a second language.
I am so happy about the $15 an hour campaign. That would make a huge difference for the people I work with.
I started writing poetry in Guatemala.* I wrote in English – as a way to getting away from the war. In Chiapas I began writing in Spanish. When I was at the Resource Center, Emmanuel Ortiz invited me to perform with the Palabristas. That is how we started. We are still around. Some have left. Some are famous now. We have invited young people. I also helped found the Calibanes — Latin Americans in the Cities writing in Spanish. I was invited to do a program at Intermedia Arts, working with young people.
I used to write fiction. In recent years — more poetry. This years have been taking a class with David Mura at the Loft, writing short stories, and I’m working on a memoir of the 1960s in Mexico. I am really committed to my writing now.
I have three kids. When it was just the two boys I thought: “can two people be so different – night and day!” Then I had Carmen — three opposite paths! But they are also very similar. Gabriel and Aaron political activists for social justice; Carmen and Aaron, talented artists; all three of them have wonderful hearts.
Gabe was, is, my first born. It was a difficult birth. He almost didn’t make it. He was in intensive care for three months and then he came home and started growing! He was developmentally delayed. We wanted to bring him up like the other kids — mostly because he was like “I am just here, like you.” Growing up on a farm, in the Twin Cities, in Guatemala and Chiapas — my three kids have that eclectic upbringing in common. It taught them each to be their own person.
Gabriel always had it tough. He never complained about it. Sometimes he was bullied. It didn’t stop him from working and learning. School was hard for him. Especially in San Cristobal he went to study at a rural school, but it closed. He ended up volunteering at the Women’s organization where I worked.
In Minneapolis he went to Century College, working and going to school. He got run over by a car and ended up in the hospital a few days. He got a job at a hotel and became involved in the union. He never stopped.
He went to live with his brother in Illinois, because he was having trouble here.That is when he started complaining about headaches. It was a couple years after the car accident. He went to a clinic. They sent him to the hospital for an MRI and found a tumor. His brother brought him to the University of Minnesota hospital and he was operated on immediately. He had to have two operations because when you operate on the brain you have to be very careful. You can’t do everything at once.
He was not doing too well for a while. Chemo. Radiation. For about a year. But then he started doing recovering! He tried to get a job, but he had a hard time keeping it. Worked at Goodwill. Lost that job. Then he started getting sick again. We went to Naperville for special radiation treatment that made him a really crazy. But he never complained. He was just up all night long, listening to music.
I get a little annoyed when people complain. I think, “Well yeah — you should have seen my son — he didn’t complain!”
He always wanted to go to Cuba, so two years ago he went. The three kids and I spent the Christmas in Yucatan, and afterward Aaron and Gabe went to Cuba from Cancun. That was his special trip.
Carmen, Teresa and Gabe
When he came back he got worse and worse. He started losing a lot of weight, being tired, disoriented sometimes. He died January 17, 2015.
He had so many friends. He knew EVERYBODY. When he was three years old we would go to a restaurant and he would disappear. We would find him talking to the staff in the kitchen. Or we would go to a concert and he would be up there dancing with the performers. He was like that. He had friends in Guatemala, Chiapas, here, everywhere in the world. He would tell me about his friend in Chicago and how he was going to go see her. I thought he was making it up but he wasn’t. Everyone was his best friend. “My very best friend” he would say. I would say “How many best friends can you have?”
He was deeply committed to a better world. He couldn’t understand why anyone would not spend all of his time as an activist, because it was so important. Of course he grew up with this — but it was him. Gabriel would be at five different events in a day. He didn’t drive but he would get there. He was human. He would drive me crazy sometimes. He was a really special person.
I feel so lucky to have had him as my son. I miss him like crazy. Everything reminds me of him. I learned so much from him about enjoying every moment of my life.
Sometime’s I think, “Why did it happen?” I wish he was still here. He’s not.
I feel so very honored that I was with him when he died. I was holding his hand, talking with him. I looked up and it was like he was sleeping peacefully. I see young men getting killed and I think how lucky I am that he died the way he did. Because it could have been him. He was everywhere. He was proud to be a person a color. He was in solidarity with so many social justice issues.
I do get annoyed with people don’t support Black Lives Matter. These are our children who are being killed!
I am so blessed to have two other wonderful children. Carmen and Aaron are so committed to what their art, to helping people, to making this a nicer world.
I am so proud of my children. All three of them.
Lucila Dominguez of CTUL, Teresa and Aaron.
Altar de Muertos by Teresa Ortiz
Corazón de los Cielos, Corazón de la Tierra
Corazón de las Aguas, Corazón de los Vientos
Orange… pink… yellow… rojo… yosh!
Shinning circles of color cover the heaven, competing with the sun
November is the windiest month in the Guatemalan mountains and the round barriletes
Take off with extraordinary force,
Peleándose unos con otros por llegar más rápido,
To reach the souls up above,
To remind the spirits to come down to party with us
Children run up and down the hill, holding tight to the kite strings,
Looking up the sky, bumping into each other,
Tripping with rocks and bushes in their race,
Trying not to fall on the gravestones,
Not to step on the food lay out on grassy plains, on tombs
While their parents are eating, and drinking,
And having a merry good time and sharing it all with the souls
Of those already gone
Come our loved ones, come to celebrate!
With music and canciones,
Baskets and baskets of bread have been baked for you today
Candles are lit to bring warmth to your dead spirits
Copal smoke reaches the heavens, calling you to come down to play with us
El cementerio in San Antonio Aguascalientes is having una gran fiesta
Crowded with the living and the spirits of the dead
Every cementerio in Guatemala is sharing with their dead
So many visitors are coming today!
Thousands and thousands of people were assassinated in Guatemala
Four hundred villages disappeared from the Heart of the Earth
Corazón de los Pueblos, Corazón de la Gente
So we may never, ever forget
In San Cristóbal de las Casas, in Chiapas, México,
Across the border to the north (or west)
There are weekly funeral processions in front of my door
They walk slowly, solemnly, dressed in black behind their dead
Hay tantos muertos en Chiapas todo el tiempo,
Y en Oaxaca, en Veracruz, en Guerrero, en México,
En Juárez, en la frontera, en el desierto de Arizona…
En las calles de las ciudades de los Estados Unidos…
Hay tantos muertos every day
So many muertos de la pobreza,
So many muertos de la violencia
But come November, people celebrate,
The market is busy with shoppers
Buying candles, incense, flor de muerto
Tamales de chipilin, gourds elotes, calabazas
La plaza está llena de fiesta, mil colores decorada, con los altares de los niños
People spending three days and three nights con sus muertos en el panteón municipal
Every cementerio in Mexico is sharing with their dead
So many visitors are coming today!
In Acteal, a village in Chiapas,
Where forty five people were massacred while praying, while fasting for peace
The Dia de Muertos celebration takes place outdoors, on a mountaintop
Overlooking the shrine where the martyrs lay
The procession has arrived with the sacred carved tortuga for the altar
And the coro is singing “Bienvenidos, Bienvenidos”
Sounding even sweeter when they sing it in Tzotzil
We all pray to the heavens with our feet during the mass
To remember, to never ever forget
Tcha, ah tcha, ah tcha, ah tcha…
A home altar for our parents and grandparents
Para los tíos, para el primo, y para mi hermano
Don’t forget the cigars and chocolates for Papi Mingo
Don’t forget the fancy earrings for mama
Bring the pictures de los abuelitos
No te olvides de poner una veladora con la Virgen
Did you buy the flowers y el pan de muertos?
A la tía le gustan las uvas, don’t forget
Y las calaveritas de azúcar with their names
On the table over here, we lay the offerings
For the ones who passed away
We start with yosh in the middle
Azul cielo, verde campo
With a candle, with a cross, with a tree of open branches
We go round and round and round
Like the circle of life, like the circle of death
Yellow corn to the east, and black corn to the west
White corn to the north, and red corn to the south
We fill the circle with beans and squashes and orchids and cocoa seeds
With salt and oil and refrescos and posh
With golden flowers, zempuazuchil, all around
And then we pray:
Corazón de los Pueblos, Corazón de la Gente
For we have rejected the killings
For we have rejected the violence
We honor our dead
Corazón de la Vida, Corazón de las Almas
Come to us and celebrate
Que es Día de Muertos