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Spring Break in the Borderlands

August 06, 2008

While thousands of college students spent their spring break at the beach, a group of Lewis & Clark undergraduates trekked to the U.S.-Mexico border to better understand Oaxacan immigration to Oregon. The students were part of Elliott Young’s U.S.-Mexico Borderlands course.

The alternative spring break project, a collaboration between Young, associate professor of history, and the Office of Student Leadership and Service, (which has been newly integrated into the Center for Career and Community Engagement), was designed to bring U.S.-Mexico immigration policy and history to life.

In the last 20 years, immigration of indigenous Oaxacans to Oregon has grown exponentially, and yet very little is known about how these transborder communities function. Rather than the classic model of immigrants leaving behind their home countries and assimilating into the United States, Oaxacans maintain strong ties to their home communities, sending money, and returning to fulfill political posts in their villages.

Myriah Heddens CAS ‘09 met with community advocate groups and their constituents in Oaxaca City; Martin Frye CAS ‘10 worked with a Mexican labor organization to map maquiladoras–assembly plants that have sprung up along the border to take advantage of migrants in desperate search of jobs. Other classmates volunteered with transborder organizations to document the experiences of Mexicans trying to cross the border into the United States.

Back in Oregon, students in the class worked with a variety of nonprofit organizations, including a housing complex in northeast Portland and a farmworkers union in Woodburn, to document the experiences of migrants in the United States.

“This is not only about studying a relatively small group of Mexican migrants,” says Young. “Understanding the way these transnational communities function is key to understanding our increasingly globalized world.”

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