Reposted with permission from Organzing Upgrade.
Everyday I wake up thinking about how to transform the intense suffering of young people that live in the margins into power. I work everyday to transform the systems that impact my life, the lives of the youth around me. But I still question what elements in the movement transformed me from just another boy in Miami into a leader in a liberation movement. How did my participation in Students Working for Equal Rights (SWER) [a Florida statewide student immigrant rights organization] give me the strength and power to engage in the Trail of DREAMs, a 4 month walk from Miami to Washington DC highlighting the plight of undocumented youth in the US. How can we engage people in many levels in a way that edifies and empowers themselves and our movement? Those are the question that I try to answer with my actions, daily.
The Trail of DREAMs was the pinnacle of my life in the movement so far. But there were a series of events that led to that moment, it is those smaller events that shaped me and gave me the courage to fight for justice, to wake up one day and lace up my sneakers and start my walk to DC, my walk for justice. Revolutions begin in our individual hearts and minds. It’s that moment that you simply acknowledge your own humanity and assert your right to be seen as such that creates a spark that will lead to a fire that will soon consume your whole being.
I’ve grown up like many around the globe. As a young child, I had to endure extreme poverty and hardships in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil until one day my mother got sick and sent me to live in the U.S. with relatives. That was the first big transformation in my life. I was 14 years-old and living in the U.S. without my parents. It was not an easy adaption or assimilation process for me. I even remember that one day I put all of my clothes in a suitcase and asked to return to Brazil. My family talked me back into staying by telling me about the American Dream. This was definitely a foreign concept to me. I was not used to the American promise of a better life since I was so used to the social disparities in Brazil. The worst part about it is that I bought into the lie that catches so many new immigrants, people of color, and working class and poor people in this country.
In high school, I felt betrayed by my family because they had not told me the complete truth about the consequences of not having “legal” status in this country. I felt betrayed by Brazil, my motherland that gave my family no other choice but to leave instead of trying to realize our lives in the place we were born. I also felt rejected by the U.S., the country that I had to learn to love and admire. I used to feel like a foster child waiting to become a legitimate child of a home that I now resided in. This was the beginning of my journey as a new immigrant in the U.S. A boy full of frustrated dreams and completely powerless to our unjust immigration system.
As I got older I did not forget the promise of an American Dream. I found a way to go to Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus where I achieved academically and socially. But on one humid afternoon, a strange man with a funny hat came to my school. He met with a group of students to find out how we felt about the struggles of immigrant youth. He was the first person to ask me and the person to really listen to my response, it was mind blowing.
That man was the youth organizer for SWER, Jose Luis Marantes, and he told me something that changed my life forever. He said: “When service and advocacy don’t work we organize each other to build power.” That very moment marks the beginning of a new stage in my life. Soon after I was politicized and radicalized. I started to understand the power of working together with others in my community. In SWER, we marched together, we cried together, and built community with each other. If it wasn’t for this vehicle created by undocumented youth and fostered by the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC) the Trail of DREAMs would have never happened. The four people that walked to our nations capital were found and developed as leaders in SWER.
In my opinion the Trail didn’t start on January 1, 2010 and end on May 1st, 2010. It started for me on August 2007 when I first got involved with organizing and it will only end the day I die. The Trail was a manifestation of the struggle of youth from all over the nation that were seeking to be seen as whole humans. It is a walk for justice and it will only end when I’m ready to eternally rest knowing that I have done absolutely everything I could to achieve a better world for future generations. The actual walk was only part of the story. Our personal development as leaders in this movement is way more inspiring to me. It’s the transformation that can only happen when organizations such as SWER are created to empower individuals to join together in collective action for power.
Sometimes people tell me about the historical significance of the Trail of DREAMs. I’m not completely sure if this specific action will make it to the history books but I do hope that somehow the determination of thousands of young people will be acknowledged in the future. Our walk triggered us, immigrant youth, to lose the fear of telling our stories. The walk began a process of liberation from the greatest bondage that undocumented immigrants face- fear. We walked spreading love even to those who hated us and opened the doors for others to do the same. The greatest part of this amazing journey is that when one finds her voice no one can ever take it away.
During the walk, I had the privilege to meet the most amazing people along the way. I’ll never forget the farm worker I met in a pecan farm in Georgia. He told me about the great joy he feels when he sees a pecan pie because his work makes someone’s life a little sweeter. Sometimes we asked for inspiration when truly it is all around us all the time. It is inspiring to see a single mother working two jobs to make ends meet and yet she finds time to kiss her children goodnight or the student that won’t give up on her dream even if it means that she’ll only take one college class per semester. The greatest inspiration in any movement is found in the people struggling through great obstacles and still managing to make it. They should be the focal point of our work and it’s their stories that should guide us. Those stories barely ever make it to the halls of Congress or mainstream media. They are our neighbors, classmates or family members. That’s why many times national organizations lose touch and seek compromises that would harm us as a community in the long run. I would push back on the direction the immigrant rights movement have taken in the last ten years and ask for funders to invest in our local base building organizations. It’s not fair that a youth group in Florida such as SWER has to struggle to buy butcher paper for our strategy meetings while national organizations have enough money to host conferences in pompous hotels. We will only have enough power to pass federal legislation when local organizations have a robust infrastructure to shift the power dynamics in each state around the US. One lesson that the progressive movement should have learned from the 2010 elections is that politics is done locally.
Throughout history each movement contributed to a narrative for justice around the world. The immigrant rights movement is not different. The immigrant rights movement comes from the worker’s right struggle. Our first strikes in the US were led by Eastern European immigrants and our most famous hero, Cesar Chavez, was an union organizer. At the bottom of the struggle for worker’s rights is a concept that challenges the dynamics of capitalism- people are not objects and they are more important than profit. The immigrant rights movement is also rooted on a fight against imperialism. When the Monroe Doctrine was first implemented and the US government deemed a whole continent as its backyard, countries such as Mexico, El Salvador, Colombia, Panama and the list goes on were pushed into bloody wars that destroyed their ability to prosper. Latin America and the Caribbean for centuries have been raped by the US but in the last few years the approached has become more subtle. Trade agreements have been one of the biggest push factors for immigration. Local farmers in Mexico can’t grow their corn and survive as their ancestors did due to NAFTA. People from South America and Central America are coming as a result of wars and bloody dictatorship financed by the US.
How does the US respond to its responsibility to Latin@s and Caribbean people? Immigrants are blamed for our own misfortune. The rhetoric simply condemns the victim for their oppression. According to politicians we are a drain to society and law breakers. We are “illegals”, “aliens”, “wetback”, “bean eaters”, etc. They portray us as less than human because we are the proof for their crimes against our motherland and the genocide that happened within the US borders. Many of us come from indigenous heritage or have African blood flowing in our veins. Our broad noises and black hair remind them of slavery and the killing of millions of indigenous people. When a brown woman takes her daughter across the desert looking for opportunities they find it offensive but when a European man with a law degree comes on a business visa they accept him with open arms.
Immigration laws are racist and homophobic. As the debate becomes more and more “racialized” on topics such as birth right citizenship and state laws that legalize racial profiling it becomes very clear why our opposition hates us so much. They want to legislate away our right to form families and soon our right to free movement. The purpose is to simply drive us even further into the margins and exclusion. This is the same experience that so many other communities face in our country. Racial profiling and fear of local law enforcement has been part of the African American experience for so many years. Family separation is part of the LGBTQ community’s struggle as well. The question is how do we unite under one “progressive movement”? A movement that does not replicate the same systems of oppression we are trying so hard to fight against. The challenge is that many times the gay rights movement is very “white” and movements that seek liberation for people of color, including the immigrant rights movement, do not claim queer people of color. That’s how our movements get caught up in the same dynamics we find in the “outside world”.
We exclude people for the sake of dealing with one problem at a time when truly people’s identities are more complicated than that. For instance, I’m an undocumented immigrant from the global south who is totally in love with another man. Where do I fit in if our movements don’t acknowledge that my personal experience is different than most? I can’t be an immigrant one day and the next queer. I am who I am everyday and to ask for me to deny any part of my identity is just as monstrous as the attempts that the right has made to limit my humanity. This would be the first step towards a complete liberating process where people in our movement could truly be themselves without fear of exclusion. We have a long way to go but until we address this flaw it will be hard for us to connect with each other in a more meaningful way.
The struggle for the passage of the DREAM Act taught us a thing or two. DREAMers from around the country were ready to embrace the fight for the Repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and we were able to connect with folks in the queer movement as we pushed for equality together. We moved beyond the tensions and the blame games in order to create something new and beautiful. That was a small step but I do hope that our collaboration doesn’t end there.
2010 was a roller coaster year for the immigrant rights movement. We were played with in so many levels. First Senator Schummer from New York promised a Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) bill and his deadline kept being extended endlessly until it was clear that it was not going to happen. Then the Hispanic Caucus in Congress would not allow anyone to push for the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill even though it was clear that CIR would not go anywhere. If it was not for the courage of undocumented youth to push the Democratic Party and the Hispanic Caucus a vote on the DREAM Act would not have ever happened. We found out that the Republican and Democratic parties were going to use the DREAM Act as a political football and we did not allow them to play with our lives. We protested, engaged in civil disobedience, told our stories on national outlets and claimed back the terms of the debate. The vote on the DREAM Act is a milestone in the immigrant rights movement. This is the first time that undocumented immigrants ran a national grassroots campaign vastly unfunded and passed legislation in one of the chambers of Congress. The DREAM Act movement has taught us to fight differently. Our messaging to the country has always focused on the benefits of having immigrant around. Undocumented youth changed this pattern and we created a way to speak to the American people about our humanity. We have under estimated for several years the power of story telling and human connection. But now we know that our stories are powerful and our struggle is more alive than ever.
The DREAM Act movement is not perfect. We have made many mistakes along the way. We emphasized how assimilated we are with talk points about our English proficiency and the times we pledged allegiance to the flag in school at the expense of our parents. When truly our parents are the heroes who brought us here with the dream of a better for us. We allowed the media and politicians to talk about them as if they are criminals and we are innocent. During my first trip to Arizona after SB1070 was signed by Governor Brewer, a woman brought a Mexican flag to the rally. She waved her flag with pride as she chanted “si se puede!” Her Mexican heritage was being poured out each time she waved her flag. That woman knew that SB1070 was an attempt to erase such an important part of her identity. The question of assimilation often times come to the immigration debate as if liking tacos or fejoada is a sin. The immigrant heritage is beautiful and being bilingual is an asset. Think Tanks in DC might tell us otherwise but we can’t allow people to erase who we are.
Where do we go from here? The immigrant right movement should be ready to build resistance in our local communities. For many years, we have mistakenly pursued comprehensive immigration reform legislation in the federal level when we have not even truly built enough power to influence local and state politics. We are still struggling to hold the line in local cities that try to pass local anti-immigrant ordinances and now we are dealing with several states that are pursuing similar legislation to Arizona’s SB1070. The problem began when we looked for answers in national groups in Washington, DC instead of listening to the stories in our community. Our people have been talking about driver’s licenses, in-state tuition, police collaboration with Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), and then legalization. We have been blinded by the promise of legalization without any consideration to our true power. National legislation is only won through a long fight and after years of work. We shouldn’t be trying to pass legislation that is inconsistent with the long-term interest of immigrants in this country. We should not sacrifice future immigrants by furthering the criminalization of our people for the sake of the people who are here. Our answer should be holistic even if takes longer than we expected and in the meanwhile we should focus in making people’s lives more bearable until our failed immigration system is fixed.
As we move forward to build our movement we need to find the points of intersections that honor our full beings. Just as I honor my family and our experience in my home country and this country by fighting for a just immigration policy, I also honor myself by uniting with others in the fight for queer rights, and others still in the fight against racism. Looking at the Trail of DREAMS it is what came before and what came after that matters most to me, it is the trail we are all walking together, towards a united justice.
Felipe is ranked one of the top 20 community college students in the United States and best student in the state of Florida in 2008 according to the American Association of Community Colleges. In addition to his educational excellence, Felipe also found time to serve his peers as student government president of Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus. A graduate from the Honor’s college at Miami Dade College he was born to a single mother in the slums of Brazil, Felipe was sent at age 14 to the United States, where he first dreamed of becoming a teacher. But though he has the intelligence and drive, his immigration status has prevented him from achieving this dream. Felipe has been accepted by many top colleges, but he barred him from getting financial aid. He is currently studying Business and Administration at St. Thomas University and he still hopes that one day he will be able to teach young people, because he believes education is the key to pulling people out of poverty. Currently, he serves his community in finding leaders to speak for the contribution of immigrants in the state of Florida. He has served in the Board of Directors of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, a core leader from Students Working for Equal Rights, he is part of the National Coordinating Committee of the national organization United WE DREAM and an online advocate for the national group Presente.org. He has also walked from Miami to our capital to raise awareness about the plight of undocumented students. This project was called the Trail of DREAMs.