Learning Beyond Borders in New "Mexican Pennsylvania" Course

by Celina De León
Andrew Hernandez '13
Each year, Professor Aurora Camacho de Schmidt commemorates Day of the Dead with an altar on campus. This year, students enrolled in Mexican Pennsylvania, including Andrew Hernandez '13, assembled an altar to remember individuals who lost their lives crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

This semester, 19 students enrolled in a new interdisciplinary course to learn more about the complexities of Mexican immigration to Pennsylvania and the U.S. Professor of Spanish Aurora Camacho de Schmidt leads the class, "Mexican Pennsylvania: The Making of a Transnational Community," which explores the origins of Mexican immigration to the U.S. and the effects of today's policies on the lives of individuals who have crossed the border that separates the two countries.

"After the attacks of September 11, 2001, U.S. immigration policies became immersed in the mentality of the Department of Homeland Security, resulting in further militarization of the Mexican border and the announcement of a 700-mile wall to be built at the boundary," says Camacho de Schmidt, a longtime immigrant rights advocate. "In addition, the Obama administration conducted a record number of deportations, mostly of Mexican immigrants. This and other violations of human rights were recently denounced by Amnesty International in a report titled 'USA: In Hostile Terrain.' Students who partook in this new class examined the consequences of such practices through the analysis of literature, real-life accounts, and readings in the social sciences."

A major component of the course requires students to become involved with local Mexican immigrant communities through service internships in non-profit agencies active in Philadelphia, Norristown, and Kennett Square, Pa. To strengthen the students' ability to work with immigrants in such a capacity, the course included a workshop on grassroots education techniques. During the first weeks of class, the students video-conferenced with William Ancona from El Instituto Mexicano para el Desarrollo Comunitario (The Mexican Institute for Community Development) in Guadalajara, Mexico, to learn more about popular education and the pedagogies developed by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. During the fourth week of class, Ancona came to Swarthmore and spent a day and a half with the students.

Other guest speakers included General Counsel for Friends of Farmworkers, Inc. Arthur Read, who gave a presentation on labor laws and agricultural workers in the state. With 30 years of practice, he presented key aspects of litigation and advocacy efforts to safeguard the rights of immigrant workers who labor in the mushroom fields and apple groves of Pennsylvania.

During the remainder of the semester, some students worked with Friends of Farmworkers to assist apple pickers in Gettysburg, Pa. - many of whom are Mexican immigrants - with documentation of their on-the-job injuries. Some aided immigrants at a Norristown cultural center with computer skills, and several canvassed a Norristown neighborhood to alert residents to a series of proposals brought by the immigrant community there to the local police department. Others provided children of immigrants at Casa Monarca and Puentes de Salud (Health Bridges) in Philadelphia with after-school activities and help with homework.

If students in "Mexican Pennsylvania" had their wish, these are some of the immigration reform policies that would be adopted by the U.S. government:

  • There would be increased safety regulations for immigrant workers,
  • Deportations would come to a halt, and no families would be separated,
  • Immigrant workers and their families would be included in President Obama's Affordable Health Care Act,
  • Crossing the U.S.-Mexico border would no longer be a crime,
  • Comprehensive immigration reform would include a mechanism for the legalization of unauthorized immigrants.

"Mexican Pennsylvania" is supported by the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility.

Camacho de Schmidt has been involved in the immigrant rights advocacy community since 1980. She directed the Mexico-U.S. Border Program of the American Friends Service Committee between 1979 and 1986 and worked as a policy analyst until 1992. At Swarthmore, her research and teaching focus on the way the freedom and rigor of the literary imagination embody the struggles of marginal people in the Americas. Most recently she has served as a volunteer translator in contract negotiations for the Kaolin Mushroom Workers Union in Chester County, Pa.