By Janet Pedroza, Intern with AFSC’s Immigrants Voice Program in Des Moines

[Editor’s note: Janet coordinated a 55-person bus trip to Washington DC this March to join a national call for comprehensive immigration reform.]

The minute I left Des Moines for Washington, DC, I thought I would be entering another world where I would be meeting “different” people. Mile after mile, Iowa and everything I knew grew fainter, and what lay in front of me was a land so similar and different from the one I left behind. Of course, geographically speaking, the land is not the same, yet the land all across the United States is the same because it has gone through the same changes to accommodate humans and their needs.

This shows to me that if somebody or “something” has the right to deny humans to seek a better life, the Earth would be the only one to speak against this. This has been a thought of mine that has remained with me since childhood: people, governments, and nations all over the world may claim ownership of the land they live in, but when I reach down to the ground and feel the earth in my hands, I feel no name, and all I feel is freedom—the earth has no owner.

With this in mind, my goal was to march and let the world know that this movement is not just about undocumented immigrants, but a movement that unites all people and communities—seekers of justice, human rights, and freedom.

When we reached Washington, DC on Sunday, March 21, 2010, people and buses were everywhere, all getting ready to take part in the march. Amid the excitement there were smiles, chants, banners and flags all around me. Our Iowa group integrated right away and we all shared smiles for pictures with other groups.

Then it was time to start walking to our gathering point and I kept reminding myself that every step counted. The pain or discomfort I would feel afterwards did not matter because everything I had worked for and every sacrifice I had made had brought me to this point, and I wanted to make sure that my voice was heard.

Most importantly, I wanted to march for the one person that I left behind in Mexico not knowing when would be the next time I would see her again. Hipolita Aurora Ramos Mendoza is a woman of strength. She is my grandmother, and thanks to her unwavering and courageous heart and soul, I am where I am today.

The last time I saw her, she was crying, and although I did not want to cry, my tears rolled down my cheeks, and all she could manage to say between her own tears was “don’t cry.” So I wiped my tears away and although my eyes hurt because I was holding back my tears, I gave her one last hug before I got in the car.

What does this have to do with the march and my commitment to serve my community? You see, for six years my family tried to bring my grandmother to the United States, but due to complications with the immigration process, she was forced to go back to Oaxaca, Mexico to an emotionally and mentally abusive relationship. When I asked her what was wrong when I found her crying, all she could tell me was, “I will die and I will never know true happiness. I wish I could run away, run to the mountains, hide in a cave, die so I don’t ever come back rather than live like this until the day I die.”

Now, as a social worker, as a nurse assistant working at a nursing home, as a woman fighting for equality, and as a granddaughter, I feel my heart break every time I close my eyes and think of her.

Today, my family has given up and does not want to fight through the system to bring her with us to the United States. Yet, I sit and think if I cannot bring my grandmother and give her some peace on Earth before she dies, her death should not go unnoticed. This is why I wanted to march and speak up, because stories like my grandmother’s need to be shared to let people see the reality of a broken system.

Unfortunately, the march in Washington DC was called off due to diverse circumstances, but Iowans still took to the streets, and with our chants we let people know we were present. “We are marching in the light of God!” became my favorite chant. Yes, we were all marching in a clear day with the light of the sun, the earth beneath us, as if nature agreed with us and our cause.

Our visits with our members of Congress were brief, and although we would have loved to stay and talk, we were following a tight schedule. Representative Dave Loebsack could not meet with us, but his staff Meagan Linn was there to greet us and talk with us. Ms. Linn was very respectful and polite with our group and was amazed to see how many of us came to speak with the representative. We ended up taking a picture with the representative but unfortunately, he could not stay for long to speak with us.

In our meeting with Senator Grassley, our entire group got a chance to speak directly to him for 15 minutes and when he left, his staff, Kathy Kovarik, stayed behind and listened to us. Senator Grassley was very quiet but he took notes of what people said.

Unfortunately, Senator Harkin was unavailable, but we got a chance to speak with his staff, Rosemary Gutierrez. In this meeting, people got a chance to speak to Miss Gutierrez on their own because Miss Gutierrez is bilingual. Two mothers spoke of the hardships they are going through because their families are being torn apart due to deportations. They said everything they have worked hard for has simply disappeared right in front of their eyes, and they feel abandoned by the very system they helped build with their hard work and dedication.

In the end, the trip for me helped me connect with other people and their stories. But it also helped me realize that regardless of how many miles apart we stand from each other, we are all still the same in the sense that we all have stories and lives that transcend borders, a status, and a boxed existence. This marks our freedom and so together, we can change the broken immigration system.