Fnideq/Ceuta Border Crossing
The first time I crossed the border from Fnideq (Morocco) to Ceuta (Spain), I went empty handed, carrying only my passport and phone with the intention of observing and living the experience before attempting to document anything.
As I approached the entrance to the crossing, I noticed that those with local passports entered directly through an open gate to the left, while those with international passports, like myself, lined up at the immigration window to the right. International passport holders fill out a small questionnaire sheet with basic identity information including our document number, reason for visit and final destination. I filled every section except for the hotel address where I was staying in Morocco since I hadn’t documented this for myself. I wrote “hotel” and was fortunately approved with a stamp.
I entered the gate of the crossing that opened into a long corridor divided into different walkways. The first was a single, wide walkway lined with white walls and sporadic gated windows looking left towards the rows of cars entering Ceuta. After a minute, I reached another point of security where border patrol verified our local or stamped passports. Next, I entered a walkway divided into about four gated pathways capped with barbed wire. According to interviews that I later conducted, these gated pathways serve to prevent people from bunching up or stepping over one another. After that portion, was another walkway divided by three long zigzagging rails. Lastly, the corridor opened back up to a wide single path between a white wall on the right and a steel fence on the left. I was one of a handful of people crossing that evening, so I didn’t get to see how these walkways actually organize large amounts of people during morning/peak hours. I was however, able to take discreet pictures without getting caught.
On my way back to Fnideq right before sunset, I saw a long line of women sitting against the wall to the right before entering the corridor. Since I had gotten away with taking pictures on the way to Ceuta, I thought it easy to take my phone out again to capture this image. I held my phone next to my belly as I had before and attempted to take some shots. Just as I was about to enter the first gate of the corridor, one of the women saw me and yelled, “she’s taking pictures!” Then the women around her began screaming and moving towards me. My heart raced and I quickened my pace, putting my phone away. I was terrified more by the thought of being ambushed by the women than getting caught taking pictures by Spanish border patrol, who surprisingly barely moved. After regaining my breath halfway into the corridor, I looked down at my phone and noticed it was dead. Those pictures were never taken and although that might have saved me from the consequences of taking unauthorized pictures, the impact the women made on me could never be erased.
I was well aware that taking candid pictures of people could have consequences during this trip as it could anywhere. Putting aside my identity and affiliations as a woman of color, feminist or advocate for women’s rights, I had to reevaluate what taking these pictures meant to the women. Considering that at the moment that they saw me, the porteadoras were preparing to wait in line through the night in order to cross the border at dawn, the circumstances were oppressive enough to then have me (or anyone) capturing this image. I also know this wasn’t the first time someone has gone to document the appalling conditions porteadoras endure on the Spain/Morocco border without it leading to any type of change. I questioned then as I do now, “what could I possibly do as an individual and independent artist about this issue?” Aside from writing? Not very much.
A final thought I came away with after that experience was a reminder of the immense united power that women hold. I could have sworn the ground shook as the women shouted and moved towards me. How/why we haven’t already toppled all border patrol agents and border walls themselves with our bare voices and bodies is inexplicable.
Externally immaculate Ceuta, is the bordering city to Fnideq and enclave of Spain in northern Moroccan land. It has a population of about 110,000 people. This population is said to increase daily to 120,000 with Moroccans who cross the border to work there as porteadoras* (merchandise carriers), housekeepers, babysitters, caretakers, construction workers, plumbers, electricians and many more underpaid service jobs. Given that the current exchange rate is 4 Dirham to the Euro, Ceuta is the greater beneficiary of this economic inter-dependency. It is estimated that about 70% of Ceuta’s income comes from Moroccan migrant work. The other 30% comes from domestic jobs in government (including military), private companies and drug trafficking. As one of two land borders connecting Africa to Europe, Ceuta both pushes migrants away but is completely dependent of them for its survival.
It is difficult to locate how many African migrants have tried to reach Europe through Ceuta. As of now summer 2015, approximately 500 of those who survived the sea and/or land border crossing into Ceuta, reside at the Centro de Estancia Temporal de Inmigrantes (CETI). I had the opportunity to visit CETI with an organizer from Accem, a Spanish organization that works with refugees nationwide. Considering that mass migration of Syrians to Europe dominated mainstream media over the summer, CETI served little if any Syrian refugees. Most of the migrants I met were from Sub-Saharan Africa who left their countries for political and/or economic reasons. The majority of these migrants hope to reach other central and eastern European countries, which contradicts many of Ceuta’s residents’ claim that Spain has an “immigration problem”.
As a long-standing European military base and nationalist fort for Spain, Ceuta’s residents are extremely racist. It was interesting and oftentimes difficult to have conversations with locals in Ceuta about the reason for my visit, to study border life and migration, because of the level of racism that they speak from. I was reminded of xenophobic and racist rhetoric we hear about Mexicans and other immigrants in the United States with comments like: “they (Moroccans or African migrants) are coming here and taking our jobs” or “they want to benefit from our resources without doing anything for them” or “they want to impose their Muslim culture on us”. Impose their culture, they said. “What a contradiction.” I thought. “After hundreds of years of Spanish colonialism in the Americas?” It was difficult to hear but I had to pick my battles knowing I could not change their colonial based mentality in one conversation, especially when they weren’t the slightest bit receptive to any opposing argument. “Every country we colonized in the Americas was much better when WE were there. How convenient that they kicked us out and kept everything we left. We should have charged them for it, with interest,” they said. I would have gone mad if I tried penetrating that wall of ignorance on my own. Not only was it painful and infuriating to hear all of this as a Mexican and inheritor of this violent history; it was saddening to witness another human being who is unwilling, even for his/her own benefit, to consider someone else’s point of view.
As a result of this racist mentality is the desensitization of locals who easily turn their gaze away from the violence and death that migrants endure at the foot of Ceuta’s doors. One candid example of this was in 2014 when 14 African migrants who were swimming towards Ceuta drowned after being shot with rubber bullets and smoke canisters by Spanish civil guards. The response from Ceuta was deafening silence.
Thankfully, there are small yet powerful groups of people doing important work to support migrants and poor border residents both in Ceuta and Fnideq. Among several of these organizations are Fundación Cruz Blanca, Digmun, Accem Ceuta, SOS Racismo, Acoge, la Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado and Podemos Ceuta. In response to the February 2014 incident, for example, a “Marcha por la Dignidad” or March for Dignity was organized in 2015, bringing hundreds of people out to march in the streets of Ceuta to demand respect for the human rights of migrants. This movement served to speak out and rouse awareness, urgency and action in response about these atrocities within the general population on both sides of the border.
Some of the organizations that I had the fortune to learn directly from while I was in Ceuta were Accem Ceuta, Digmun and Fundación Cruz Blanca. Accem anchored me in Ceuta by connecting me to all other organizations working with migrants including Centro de Estancia Temporal de Inmigrantes (CETI), where I facilitated a theater workshop with migrant women. This was a wonderful experience where I got to bond with extraordinary women across languages and cultures while learning about their migration journeys. Another strong and fundamental organization to my study was Digmun. After only a two-hour conversation we made countless connections between the realities of the Spain/Morocco border to that of the US/Mexico. We shared common experiences as well as a passion for education and art as a means to raise sociopolitical awareness of border issues to restore our common humanity. Lastly, with the help of Fundación Cruz Blanca, I was able to approach porteadoras at the border entrance back to Morocco to talk about their family and bi-national working experiences.
For me to approach porteadoras at the border, Fundación Cruz Blanca had to communicate with both the Spanish border patrol and the women to get their approval. They also helped facilitate my interview with the women by translating between Spanish and Amazigh. My questions included, how they navigate this cross border lifestyle as workers, whether they have children, and how they negotiate family responsibility and this work at the same time. My intention was to draw parallels between their personal stories and my mother, who also crossed the border everyday as a maquiladora worker in Juarez and El Paso while leaving us with caregivers or to care for ourselves during her work hours.
In addition to being workers, wives and mothers, I also wanted to know about their lives as women, but that was much harder to get to. The more we talked, the more people, mostly men, started listening, approaching and responding for them. Given the impersonal environment and overbearing border context we were in, the conversation quickly shifted to the most immediate: working issues and how the border patrol unfairly changed regulations on a daily basis and was confiscating their merchandise. The conversation became overwhelmingly intense so we carefully transitioned the women we interviewed out of the crowd and back to the line where they were initially standing. This brief moment was a testament of the countless and unaccounted injustices poor cross-border Moroccan workers endure and how much support they urgently need to carry out their demands for fair labor laws.
After the interview, we drove around Principe, the neighborhood right next to the border where Ceuta’s poorest residents live and where the warehouses that store all the merchandize that porteador@s transport are located. It was devastating and enraging. “Who owns these warehouses? Where are all these products coming from? How much is everyone else getting paid while Moroccan workers are exploited to transport these products to Morocco?” were some of many questions that went through my mind then that continuing to drive my research now.
*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.