WALLA WALLA, Wash.— Aaron Bobrow-Strain, assistant professor of politics at Whitman, can trace the origins of his new book, “Intimate Enemies: Landowners, Power and Violence in Chiapas” (Duke University Press) to a one-month sojourn to Central America as an undergraduate. 

As a first-year student planning to major in French and archaeology, Bobrow-Strain signed up for a “January term” of travel to Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala in the late 1980s. What he observed there  in the midst of Central America’s raging civil wars changed his life’s path, he says.“I’ve devoted myself ever since then to studying Latin America at successively deeper levels.” For the past three years, he has shared his passion for the region with Whitman students in and outside the classroom. In addition to teaching a course load that includes classes like “Globalization and the Cultural Politics of Development in Latin America,” he also takes a group of Whitman students to the U.S.-Mexican border each spring, where they can view the issues of that region in stark relief.

Bobrow-Strain also facilitates conversations in Walla Walla and Yakima between students, migrants and members of opposition groups such as the Minutemen. “The failure to think about the causes of migration is leading us to completely fail in our efforts to create viable immigrations policies,” he says. “The work I do around education on the border and in eastern Washington is really about putting a human face on the immigration debates—to make it impossible for people to dehumanize others.”

In addition, he is providing Whitman students with the kind of life-changing experience he had years ago in Central America and at Macalester College . “It’s not just about the trip,” he says. “What makes the experience transformative is the integration of this powerful experience with what happens in the classroom when students return to campus. They have just seen this incredible glimpse of a world they didn’t know existed; it’s a powerful, emotional and intellectual experience and they come out of it with these really urgent questions. When they bring it all back to the classroom you’ve created a powerful feedback between traditional classroom learning and the experiential education, and that’s what shapes lives.”

Two students who made the border trek in 2006 took the experience and created the project “Microfinance and Migration: Lending in Chiapas.” Samuel Clark ’07 and Sophia Kittler ’07 applied for funding from the “100 Projects for Peace” program and received an award of $10,000. Their project addresses the economic “push factors” that encourage people from Mexico and Central America to migrate. They conceived the project after meeting many Chiapan farmers attempting to cross the border. (The corn farmers of Chiapas have been devastated by the NAFTA economic agreement between the United States and Mexico, said Bobrow-Strain.)

The two recent graduates traveled to Chiapas, Mexico, this summer to set up a program that will make small loans of $50 to $500 to Chiapans who would otherwise lack the capital or credit to shift from traditional crops of corn and coffee that no longer provide small farmers with a living.With stable enterprises that are less dependent on foreign markets, these Chiapans will not need to leave Mexico to survive.

The July publication of “Intimate Enemies: Landowners, Power, and Violence in Chiapas” (Duke University Press) is the culmination of Bobrow-Strain’s research into Chiapas, Mexico. This aspect of Bobrow-Strains’s research began when he was a graduate student and reached culmination while he was teaching at Whitman. An in-depth analysis of the 1994 uprising of indigenous peasants against the elite landowners in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, “Intimate Enemies” is the first book written from the perspective of the landowners as to why, after decades of rebuffing land invasions with heavy-handed violence, they answered this one with acquiescence and resignation.

His research included hours of interviews with landowners, many of whom had lost their ranches in the uprising. While previous scholarly discussions of agrarian politics in Chiapas have tended to assign a “bad guy” status to the landed elite, Bobrow-Strain looked for a common link between the ranchers and the indigenous invaders. “I went into my Chiapas research with the naïve sense that if I could show that landowners had been harmed by neoliberal globalization in the same way that the indigenous people had been harmed, you could create a common conversation between people who had been enemies for a long time. I was quickly disabused of that thought because of the raw, deep history of racism and division between the two groups.”

Bobrow-Strain concluded that the landowners allowed the indigenous groups to usurp acres from established ranches because they no longer had the political clout that would enable them to use violence with impunity. The ranchers, once “the golden boys of Mexican development,” had been replaced by new forms of economic development that included alternative crops as well as tourism. Ironically, the landowners now feared for their own safety as members of an aging white minority who lived in the middle of a huge population of hostile indigenous groups who now had the upper hand anc could inflict their own violence, if they so chose.

The redistribution of land that followed, says Bobrow-Strain, is most often seen as positive. Nonetheless, “I felt a lot of sadness” as he became acquainted with the former landowners, many of whom were devastated by the uprising. “But I was never quite able to see that loss as an entirely bad thing.” His ambiguity is in part due to the fact that some indigenous bosses that emerged from the uprising were not all that progressive, either. “Many of the same issues are still there, although it has allowed some very progressive additions.”

In the end, says Bobrow-Strain, his expectations for his research findings changed. He now hopes that his attempt to humanize a group of men previously thought of only as “bad guys” will help people better understand this and other conflicts, and be better equipped to deal with and solve them through activist- and community-engaged efforts. “If you have the wrong analysis of the cause of a conflict, you’ll have the wrong prescription for that conflict.”

He carries this conviction to another of his research areas—migration from Mexico to the United States. This migration, says Bobrow-Strain, is largely due to the economic disparity between the nations. “When you have economic integration between two countries (or regions) with wildly different levels of economic development, you will have flows of migration. Period.” The NAFTA agreement along with U.S. corn subsidies have added to the problems by driving many Mexican farmers to attempt to cross the border looking for work that will provide for their families.The U.S. “prescription” recently has been to try to “lock down” the border with ever-heavier security measures that cost billions of dollars yet haven’t slowed the border crossings.

“The vast majority of migrants that I talk to on the border and in Eastern Washington don’t want to come to the United States to stay,” says Bobrow-Strain. “They want economic options in Mexico that are good enough to keep them there.” The solution, then, lies in Mexico and the United States finding a way to correct this problem. “It’s going to take work on the Mexican side; the kind of development needed is not just going to happen. But it could be dramatically helped by U.S. recognition that we can play a role in creating this kind of development, resulting in a stronger, more secure kind of economic integration between the two countries.” The opportunities created by economic development, he maintains, are what will slow migration from Mexico.

If the United States and Mexico invested in more economic development like Clark's and Kittler’s project, and less in border security, says Bobrow-Strain, the results would be astonishing, but he doesn’t see that happening soon, and he has plans for more research into the politics and policies of the border. “I’m interested in looking at the economic affect of militarizing the border. Once it becomes an incredibly profitable endeavor on both sides (smuggling on the Mexico side; private contractors such as Halliburton, Wackenhut and Boeing on the U.S. side) it kind of cements its future. Who is going to want to give up that profit once it’s there—on either side?”

This project will have to wait, however, until he finishes his current research project into the politics and cultural history of bread from the 1850s until today.

An artisan bread maker, Bobrow-Strain isn’t quite sure how he arrived at this topic, but says he discovered political and social substance when he got there. “It sounds like a very trivial kind of topic, but I found myself engrossed in debates about what it means to be white; what development means in the United States; contemporary food politics; and how we’re going to change our food system. Class divisions in the United States were very much wrapped up in what kind of bread one ate.”In the 1920s when white sliced supermarket bread was being marketed, it was very explicitly tied to immigration. Being “American” turned on whether you ate traditional white bread or some “un-American” immigrant variation of bread, he says. “In the 1920s it was the pinnacle of responsible citizenship and good motherhood to serve sliced white supermarket bread. Now it’s thought of as trash. It will be a fun, political book that goes together fairly quickly.”

However, he expects to move on soon. “I like to come up with new projects, and as soon as the white bread project is finished I will turn to more research on the politics of immigration, particularly because I have this background on Chiapas and so many people migrating right now are Chiapan.”

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CONTACT: Lenel Parish, Whitman College News Service, (509) 527-5156
Email: parishlj@whitman.edu