At the close of a maiz exhibit put on by my class at the University of Arizona last year, Maria Garcia, co-owner of La Indita Restaurant, addressed my students.
As she spoke about the importance of maiz to indigenous peoples, she also spoke of her work with the Zapatistas in southern Mexico.
At the end of her talk, one of my students asked in a hushed tone: “Aren’t you afraid of being associated with the Zapatistas?”
Garcia, tiny and in her 70s, is Purepecha from the state of Michoacan, and her husband – Joseph Garcia, in his late 60s – is Tohono O’odham.
She listened to the question intently, paused briefly, then leaned forward and responded: “Afraid? Afraid of associating with the Zapatistas? No. I am a Zapatista!”
Her statement was vintage Garcia. She and her husband are well known in indigenous and human rights circles. The year before, they had been instrumental in hosting a Zapatista gathering in Magdalena, Sonora.
They are also building an indigenous health clinic there.
When Garcia spoke to my class, she was in her own struggle. At the end of the Bush era – during the height of the economic meltdown – financial institutions tried to foreclose on the Garcias’ home of 33 years, giving the couple 30 days to vacate.
Instead, they vowed to fight to keep their home. Supporters flocked to support their restaurant and vowed – under the banner of Tierra y Libertad (land and liberty) – that they would not permit authorities to oust the Garcias from their home.
Yet with millions of people losing their homes nationwide, many doubted whether their struggle would succeed.
Popular opinion was on their side, however. While banks and other financial institutions were receiving multibillion-dollar bailouts, these same institutions were busy throwing people out of their homes.
It is a disconnect that to this day remains unexplained; taxpayers assist the banks so the banks won’t fail, but the banks throw out homeowners who are simply behind on payments.
Translated, the policy seemed to be: Save the financial corporations in their business of throwing people out of their homes.
While taxpayers were forgiving, the financial corporations, rather than extend compassion, continue to throw people out of their homes.
The Garcias’ situation was somewhat complex but boiled down to several late payments, then a series of misunderstandings by a number of financial institutions.
The late payments were due to the economic slowdown. But because of an outpouring of support, business at the restaurant picked up and their finances were again in good shape.
They hired a lawyer, and to this day remain in their home.
You have to wonder what kind of system we live in when elders face losing their home of 30-plus years over late payments.
They are not speculators or risk-takers. They are honest and hardworking and have dedicated their lives to assisting others.
That’s why many hundreds of people – mostly young – offered to place their bodies in front of bulldozers, if necessary, to defend the Garcias’ home.
The economic crisis has exposed us to ugly realities, but it also has pointed us toward sane solutions.
If government, via the taxpayer, has shown generosity to financial institutions, then we should also expect a quid pro quo from them: no elders, for any reason (other than speculation), should ever be put in a position to lose their longtime homes.
Perhaps this policy should also extend to veterans. That’s the least this society can do, and if this isn’t part of President Obama’s solution to the housing crisis, it should be.
Roberto Rodriguez is a research associate at the University of Arizona.