My homegirl and Pittsburg, Califas native Nancy Hernandez teaches art at June Jordan School for Equity (a high school in San Francisco committed to social justice) when not volunteering at H.O.M.E.Y (Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth) which serves at-risk and low-income Latino/a youth between the ages of 13 and 24 in the Mission District. Hernandez, 28, recently came back from Palestine, where she painted the walls of refugee camps with messages of solidarity like “Viva Palestina Libre.” Why would she put her life on the line of a civil war, you ask? ‘Cause she’s committed to the cause like nobody’s business. That’s why.
Remezcla: What made you want to visit Palestine?
Nancy Hernandez: I was involved in a mural project on 24th and Capp Streets in the Mission, sponsored by H.O.M.E.Y. I was one of over 200 community members who volunteered, designed, and painted a mural called “Breakin’ Down Barriers: Building Bridges of Solidarity.” We included images of the Mission, a historically Latino neighborhood, images of alliances with African-Americans and other neighborhoods facing gentrification and gang injunctions. There are images of youth taking up leadership to stand up for immigrant rights and challenge the building of the wall at the U.S./Mexico border. We included an image of the Israel/Palestine wall with people breaking it down. We drew parallels between the rivalries and divisions in our neighborhood to larger issues we see going on in the world.
RE: How did the community react?
NH: The inclusion of the Middle East caused a lot of controversy and generated hella emails, articles, a ton of phone calls, and a threat to pull our funding for the project and buff the mural entirely. Being challenged on our portrayal of the Israeli wall and Palestinian people inspired me to do more research, which further solidified the similarities between the struggles faced by raza and indigenous peoples here in Aztlan and people of occupied Palestine. Because of the energy put into the artwork we created, I was accepted to be on a delegation of people of color traveling to Israel and Palestinian territories to see first hand what daily life is like and what community workers are doing for their people.
RE: What organization did you go with?
NH: I traveled with the Third World Coalition. They are part of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that studies peace and conflict and compares the issues a the US/ Mexico border with the Palestine/Israel wall. We went to the Israeli corporation that was contracted by the US government to provide the electronic technology used at our border and visited the Daheisha Refugee camp, the Old City of Jerusalem, and West Bank.
RE: How did people react when you told them you were going to Palestine?
NH: Everyone in my family was asking, “Why do you want to go there? It’s a war zone!” or “Be careful! They blow people up for nothing!” I figured I’d be safer with the Quakers than I would in my neighborhood.
RE: I know it’s complicated, but tell us about the situation in Palestine.
NH: Arabs and Jews have lived in a place the size of 1/3 of New York City for as long as anyone can remember. The British invaded and colonized the place. Then about 60 years ago, the UN gave them almost the entire place for the country of Israel, which was created to be a Jewish state. Millions of Palestinians became refugees and all power over the land was given to Israel—similar to many places in Africa and Latin America, including Rwanda and Central America. Europeans cut up the land and divided the people, elevated one group above the other and conquered the whole place, leaving the people to fight it out.
RE: What were your days like there?
NH: Everyday was a packed agenda of meetings with Palestinians, Israelis, and international aid workers. We met with religious leaders, grassroots community workers, and activists. Their ideologies were hella diverse! Some were settlers who firmly believe in Zionism, others were progressive Israelis who want to demilitarize and recreate their society.
RE: What were some of the tragedies you witnessed there?
NH: We met with Palestinian farmers who took us to land their families have farmed for hundreds of years. They showed us 600 to 800-year-old olive trees that their ancestors planted. They showed us where the Israeli soldiers have confiscated almost half of their village and are bulldozing trees on their land to build a cement wall through the middle of their town. The wall will divide an illegal Isreali settlement (which is also built on their land) from the village. We attended a protest at the site of the proposed wall and the soldiers responded by shooting rounds of tear gas canisters aimed directly at us.
RE: Compare the situation in Palestine to some in the U.S.
NH: I had genetic déjà vu hella times. Remember when Columbus said he “discovered” America like there were no people here? Remember 1848? The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo? Remember Manifest Destiny? Cowboys and Indians? Settlers? The Wild Wild West? Being considered “illegal” on your ancestral land? Remember Apartheid in South Africa? Remember Jim Crow laws? Segregation? Separate but Equal (and really unequal)? Remember gentrification? Remember the house you were raised in but can’t live in anymore? Remember being stopped by the police while driving? Being frisked? Strip-searched? Remember being stopped at an I.C.E check point in San Diego and asked for your papers? Remember going through extensive security at the airport? Remember being locked up in county jail or state prison? Come on, you ‘member!!! Imagine having to do that daily to get into and out of school or work.
RE: How did your mind change after the trip?
NH: I see who the real terrorists are. The movies and news portray Arab people as violent, but I met so many Arab people engaged in peaceful resistance and non-violent struggles for justice. None of them had weapons and they spoke against using violence. The people using terror to control are the Israelis. I saw more guns than I’ve ever seen in Oakland, San Francisco, LA, and Pittsburg! Israeli soldiers go everywhere with machine guns hanging from their necks like necklaces. Every Israeli—men and women—have to join the armed forces and learn to use and carry weapons. Israelis are taught to fear Arabs and are justified in killing people, even if they are unarmed.
RE: What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have in the US about the conflict in Palestine?
NH: I heard people say it’s a religious war they’ve been fighting for thousands of years. There’s no way to end it. I don’t agree after being there and meeting with people and organizations and hearing first hand what people’s experiences are. There have been Muslims, and Jews and Christians living on that land since the beginning of written history. The country of Israel has only existed for 60 years. The conflict as it is rooted in imperialism, not religion.
RE: Last words/ shout-outs:
NH: There were images of Che Guevara everywhere—on T-shirts, stencils, murals, and posters. His quotes were translated into Arabic and written on walls: “Anywhere there is injustice, that’s my country.” Peace.
For more on H.O.M.E.Y, check out www.homeysf.org. To learn more about American Friends Service Committee, visit www.afsc.org.
Hold the U.S. government accountable for violence against innocent people in countries across the globe. Your tax dollars are going towards wars like this one. Research the international relations policies of our next president before you vote.