I applied for Jerome Foundation’s Travel and Study Grant with the aspiration to visit the Spain/Morocco border as a fronteriza (border woman) from the U.S./Mexico. What social dynamics does Spain/Morocco share to that of US/Mexico in regards to violence, racism, classism and labor exploitation? What role do working women play in the survival and advancement of border people? Lastly, what creative theater or performance endeavors could manifest from this experience?
The following is a reflection of my visit to Morocco during the summer of 2015. Although I would focus on local border life, I felt it was necessary to have a separate cultural experience of Morocco before heading to the borderlands.
Coming from the United States where broad and ignorant assumptions are made of Muslim-Arab countries, culture and women, I was eager to experience and share what it was like to visit Morocco with an open heart and eyes. Although it was not my focus of study, I’m blessed to have experienced a culture and people who treated me like family throughout my travels in Morocco.
Thanks to an invaluable network of support, I had the fortune of meeting Oumaima, who was at the Rabat airport when I arrived. Oumaima is a young, independent, intelligent, hardworking, outspoken and outgoing woman who is also a coordinator of a foreign exchange student program and works with migrants at the Orient-Occident Foundation.
In addition to introducing me to Rabat, Oumaima organized my first interviews at the Orient-Occident Foundation. I will use the word migrants rather than immigrants because the men I interviewed hadn’t entirely or deliberately moved to Morocco. At the moment of our interview, Morocco was a place and time of transition to gather resources and energy to make their next move. I also use this term to refer to the movement of people as a natural phenomenon because we, like most mobile living beings, have migrated around the earth since the beginning of time.
I interviewed one man from Guinea and another from Ghana. Some of the issues they discussed were their reasons for leaving their home countries, what their traveling journeys were like, and what they envision for their future. I could write many blogs about these interviews alone but for this summary, I’ll share what stood out to me the most. The first was that they don’t wish to go to Europe. Perhaps that was their initial goal, but having heard about the treacherous crossing by sea and/or the militarized land border to which they have lost friends, has made them reconsider. This does not include the chances of being robbed or brutalized at the hands of people who exploit their vulnerability including border patrol. Lastly, the reality in Europe is not always what it’s imagined to be. For the time being, they said that Morocco is friendlier to migrants than other African countries, and being there gives them time to plan their next steps towards obtaining a better life. As educated men who had to seek opportunity outside of Guinea and Ghana’s common corruption and nepotism, their hope is to return with the resources necessary to fully support themselves and their families.
The second and most memorable moment of the interview was the look in their eyes when I asked what their ultimate dream was. One said he hoped to be Finance Minister of Ghana, and the other, after a short disclaimer, said he would like to be President of Guinea. As they said these words their gaze traveled above our heads to a place universal to all who dream, an internal reflection that makes all our pupils radiate beyond worldly limits. I couldn’t help but get lost in their gaze, trying to imagine their precise vision and how, after everything they have been through on their migration journeys, they keep that dream intact or vice versa. I saw my family’s sacrifice, fearlessness and love reflected in their stories and it inspired a lot of pride in me, a pride that transcended the countries and continents between their experience and mine. How beautiful it was to recognize that migrants, as persecuted and criminalized as they are, embody the dreams and pride capable of prevailing any/everything in order to materialize. Migrants are today's heroes, the echoed stories in history of people who were once prosecuted for challenging and overcoming imposed systems of oppression. In the sobering yet positive moment after this, we all understood that for these dreams to manifest they would first need money to survive and to go to school.
In addition to meeting and interviewing people at the Orient-Occident Foundation, I also got to spend time with Oumaima’s friends. I was curious to know what they thought of Morocco’s intermediary place between Sub-Saharan African migrants and Europe. While they expressed that some people might worry about Morocco’s capacity to care for migrants, they know that the majority want to continue their journey north. “We can’t be selfish”, one of them said, “If people want to move anywhere in the world, they should be able to do it without anyone telling them whether they should or not. Also, we wouldn’t want anyone to treat us in a demeaning way so why would we going to do that to others?”
Thanks to Oumaima, I had a wonderful stay in Rabat and was introduced to Moroccan culture in a personal way as opposed to navigating new territory on my own. Before continuing my journey, she also gave me invaluable advice on how to navigate the rest of the cities I would visit on my way to the border. For this and her continued support in my work, I will always be grateful.
I divided my travel time and distance from Rabat and Fnideq by stopping in Tangier, which was described as another cultural hub in Morocco. Tangier was also the first city I would be navigating on my own without connections or a full grasp of the language. Thankfully, I met Hamza and Mohammed on the train to Tangier. Once they knew I was traveling alone, they helped me get situated with an affordable hotel and their contact information, which became my lifeline throughout the rest of travels in Morocco.
One of my favorite moments in Tangier gave me the opportunity to reflect on the cultural differences and ways we interact with each other in the United States. The following is an excerpt of what I shared on social media.
“Last night, I sat in an empty spot on the sand watching the sound check for a concert on the beach here in Tangier. Within minutes, a man comes up to me asking if I could give him some of my water and without a second thought, I handed him my unopened, large (too big for one person) bottle from which he took a sip, said thank you and took off. ‘Alright’, I thought, ‘that was random. I don't mind at all, but that also wouldn't happen in the states.’ Then two men pass by, one of them holding a baby girl's hand. He tells the little girl to give me a kiss, and this angel comes and gives me a delicious wet kiss that makes my night. She then goes to a group of teens (strangers to her and her dad) who are dancing. They see her, dance with her, carry her and pass her around while her dad chills, about 10-15 ft away, until he notices the baby wants to come back to him. Once the concert begins, two families stand by me, both of them start talking to me and invite me to dance. They too, ask me for water and that bottle makes rounds to all of our mouths and the surrounding strangers until it's all gone. We danced our butts off until it was time to split ways, and afterwards I'm thinking, I miss this and I need this! And I can't help but ask, what has happened to us in the states? What has happened to me and how I can I go back to the ways I grew up? I'm also thinking about this in the context of the activist/cultural work we do that aims to unite, organize and humanize our experiences and relationships with one another? Touch and affection cannot be underestimated or disregarded in this process. Can we and/or when will we reach this level of trust and physical affection again? I don't know, but at the moment my heart, body and spirit feel more connected within me (my existence on this planet) and the people around me.”
After this experience I trusted my intuition more to guide my desire to make closer connections with people. Although I only stayed in Tangier one more full day, I took advantage to walk around as much as I could and reconnect with my friends Hamza and Mohammed one more time before parting ways.
The border city of Fnideq is an intersection of different groups of people. It is where hundreds of thousands of migrants from all over Africa funnel to reach Europe through the small entry point into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta.
Despite the tiny area that this bi-national community occupies, it moves monumental amounts of money through the daily transportation of products, drugs, military resources and low wage labor from one side of the border to the other. Central to this list of capital are working class people that include "porteadoras". Porteadoras is the term used for Moroccan women who physically transport merchandise across the border from Spain to Morocco. Every day porteadoras pick up this merchandize (food, electronics, clothes, kitchenware, among other products) from warehouses in Ceuta, repackage it into bundles weighing 60-70 lbs, and then carry them on their backs across the border to Fnideq. In Fnideq these bundles are sold for three to four Euros each, depending on the weight. With two to three treacherous trips across the border, porteadoras make on average ten Euros a day. A majority of these women are the sole breadwinners of their families in Morocco, which makes them the backbone not only to bi-national border commerce but also to the financial sustainability of their homes and community in Fnideq. My main goal in visiting Ceuta and Melilla was to learn and hopefully interview porteadoras while observing the similarities and/or differences they share with women maquiladora (factory) workers on the U.S./Mexico Border.
Outside of small interactions, Spanish was not too common or a comfortable language for Moroccans in Fnideq. Why would it be? It was technically still Morocco. But without the inability to fully engage in conversation, I depended largely on observation to learn about the city, specifically its street markets. Whether people walk around holding merchandise or set up makeshift tables or tarps on the floor to display various products, street vendors occupy a great part of Fnideq.
First, the endless range of products sold in these markets astounded me. Anything you could ever need, you can find there, anything. Markets are divided in different sections, so on the end of one street, you can find all used products and on the other end, you see new products. There is also a food and meat section, then a clothing and shoes section, and so on. The buildings that line the streets enclose bigger businesses like hotels that cater to a large tourist industry for Spaniards and other distant visitors. Spaniards who want or need to get out of tiny Ceuta, for example, may choose to go to Fnideq and visit its famous beautiful beaches and take advantage of Morocco’s affordable food and services.
To stay in proximity to the border, I got a room in a tiny affordable hotel right in the middle of this commercial rush of Fnideq. With Ciudad Juarez (my hometown) as my main border reference I certainly felt vulnerable. Similar to Fnideq, Ciudad Juarez is economically weak against the interests of its wealthy next-door neighbor, the United States. As a result, poor and working class Juarenses are predisposed to a dog eat dog mentality or game to benefit from U.S. related profit. This gives way to petty theft and crime and a risk for innocent bystanders to get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thankfully, one thing that didn’t preoccupy my mind in Fnideq as it would in Ciudad Juarez during the 2006-201? drug war, was gun violence. I didn’t feel like my life was in danger, but I still stayed aware of my surroundings at all times as I would in any similar border city.
Had I had a personal contact there, I know I would have had a completely different experience but being woman of color traveling alone with limited knowledge of the region and language kept me cautious.
Stay tuned for my upcoming blog about Ceuta next week!