By Stephen J. Kotz
Two Sag Harbor women will join a delegation to Oaxaca, Mexico, next month to learn more about the root causes of the large-scale migration that has led to so much tension in communities across the United States, including Long Island.
Minerva Perez, the executive director of the Organizacion Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island, and Leah Oppenheimer, the director of Temple Adas Israel’s Hebrew School and director of community relations for the Children’s Museum of the East End, will be among the 15 Long Islanders making the 10-day voyage.
The trip, “The Roots of Migration in Mexico: Building Bridges from Long Island to Oaxaca,” is sponsored by Witness for Peace and being underwritten by the Hagedorn Foundation of Roslyn.
“Beyond educating the 12 to 15 people I take every year, the purpose is for them to come back and share what they have learned with their networks,” said Sandra Dunn of Hampton Bays, who works for the Hagedorn Foundation and has organized six other similar trips to Mexico and one other to the Mexico-Arizona border.
The advocacy group Witness for Peace, which is dedicated to supporting peace, justice and sustainable economies in Central and South America and the Carribean, by encouraging change in American polices that contribute to poverty and oppression in those countries, will organize the trip.
All expenses are paid for those making the journey by the Hagedorn Foundation, which was created in 2005 by Amy Hagedorn, with a $58 million bequest left by her husband, Horace, who was the co-founder of Miracle-Gro plant food.
Although all expenses will paid, the trip is hardly a vacation junket. The participants will fly first to Mexico City and then down to the City of Oaxaca, in one of Mexico’s most southern and impoverished provinces. “We’ll be staying in humble accommodations in a hostel near the center of the city, with four to five people in a room,” said Ms. Dunn. “There will be a lot of intense days, a lot of workshops and seminars, a lot of learning from morning to night.”
There will be sessions on the root causes of migration, which include closer looks at the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has had disastrous effects on Mexican farmers and resulted in stagnated wages for workers in the many factories that have opened in the that country since the agreement was ratified two decades ago.
“NAFTA was supposed to level the playing field and make things good on both sides of the border, but it harmed Mexican farmers,” Ms. Dunn said, largely because they could not compete with low-priced grain pouring in from American farms. As family farms went under, people were forced to move, many to the factories in the north, where the influx of labor helped keep the lid on wages, but many to the United States.
Although Mexico has a growing middle class, it is a fraction of the size of the American middle class. Meanwhile more than half of the country now lives in poverty.
Ms. Perez, who became executive director of OLA earlier this year, said she was looking forward to the trip to strengthen her own understanding of the economic issues at the heart of the problem.
“My own knowledge is narrow,” she said. “I feel like I’ll get a broader perspective.”
Ms. Oppenheimer was unavailable for comment.
The participants will also do a family stay in a rural area, where they will visit a women’s rug-making collective. “We’ll stay sometimes two to a bed or someone will sleep on the floor,” said Ms. Dunn of what she described as “rustic accommodations.”
She said she expected those taking the trip to be enlightened by what they see and can then help others understand the reality of the situation. “We’re trying to influence regular folks, who maybe aren’t sure where they stand on immigration,” Ms. Dunn said. “The most virulent, anti-immigration activists are already set in their ways. Those are not the hearts and minds we are trying to change.”