The lives of undocumented immigrants get covered up, made invisible, and erased every day. But through storytelling, a group of young, fearless activists is building the movement for immigrant justice.
Young undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are typically characterized as either angels or demons: angels who are valedictorians and student body presidents, or criminals who are gang members, coyotes, or drug runners.
Left out of this binary characterization is the majority—people no different from most “documented” teenagers. Sure, some are exemplary students, and some get sucked into crime, but the regular kid goes to school each day and tries to make the best of his or her situation. By some estimates, 67 percent of undocumented youth fit among these “regular kids”; legislation such as the DREAM Act doesn’t necessarily speak to their needs.
The AFSC program 67 Sueños (dreams) works with young, undocumented immigrants in the San Francisco Bay Area to support one another to tell their stories, so that those most impacted by immigration policy become visible and help to shift common understanding of their experience. The students create safe spaces for one another to tell their stories, and then find ways to bring the stories out into public view, whether through videotaping their stories or making public art.
67 Sueños begins the process by hosting “encuentros”—encounters, or meetings. Through networking, director Pablo Paredes connects with undocumented youth in Oakland, then brings new contacts together for an afternoon led by more experienced young immigrants.
The leaders tell their own stories and lead activities that make it safe for the others to tell theirs. They start with less risky stories, then invite others to tell stories of their migration to the U.S. or stories of members of their family who have been deported. Some have experienced the trauma of deportation multiple times—losing a parent or sibling and, in many cases, being unable to contact them or find out what happened to them. Telling these stories helps them to begin to heal.
These first sessions create community; the students now know that others have stories similar to theirs and don’t feel so alone. They often continue to work together and tell their stories anonymously on video or audio, and some of them are brave enough to tell their stories in public, unafraid.
Pablo developed the program based on his understanding that culture change and reclamation usually precede political change. If the narrative around an issue is shifted, that makes way for a shift in politics as well. His thinking has been influenced by journalist Jeff Chang, who says, “Movements must change hearts and minds in an enduring way. They must change the culture.”
Inspired in part by James Lawson, who trained youth and supported them in building their capacity and skills during the civil rights movement, Pablo is also clear that in addition to shifting the narrative, young immigrants must be the leaders of their own movement, setting the priorities, strategies, and goals for what they do. Pablo says about the program:
Our work in 67 Sueños became, “How do we humanize a community that has become so dehumanized?” How do we talk about a young person who might have a criminal record, or might have dropped out of high school, or might be 16 and pregnant, and still present a picture of a person who deserves human rights? Usually these youth are met by society at the ass end of the story: You screwed up; you didn’t go to school; you had marijuana on your person; you got caught tagging the school.
But that’s not the whole story: Your father got deported when you were 10 years old; your mother was working 80 hours per week and couldn’t spend time with you at all; the only family you had were the kids on the corner stealing cars and spraying up the neighborhood. That’s how we go into the work. We tell stories. We get people to see the human being inside that person, the light inside that person, the beauty inside that person.
The members of 67 Sueños are unafraid to tell their stories. I recently interviewed two of the students who have been working with 67 Sueños for the past three years, Guisela Mishel Ramos X (Mishel) and Maria Cruz. They openly told me their stories and shared their dreams. Despite their immigration status, they were willing to publish their names in Quaker Action. A woman who heard them speak said, “It’s a big deal not to be held down by fear. Just saying that you are undocumented, you take power over it. That’s something to honor.”
It really is. When I talked with Mishel and Maria in November, I could hear in their stories and voices enormous courage and a willingness to claim their power to create justice and peace for their people.
Interview with Mishel and Maria
Maria, Dariel Ramos, and Mishel
leading a workshop for graduate
students at the University of San
Lucy Duncan: What problems do you see that you hope will be changed?
Guisela Mishel Ra mos X (Mishel): Most definitely what I would want to be changed is the militarization of the border, because I feel like it’s giving people a license to mess with our people that are by the border. Borders were built by men. That doesn’t give them the right to shoot people if you come to this place. Their excuse is that you crossed the line and you have to do it in a legal way. But there isn’t really a legal way.
I’m also affected by laws like stop and frisk. This is another way to get more of my people and lock them up. It’s all connected and all one. It’s not right, they are looking for more ways to lock people up and deport them, criminalize us when we are trying to give our best for our families. Criminalization of my people needs to be stopped.
Maria Cruz: Our people need to be deported less; right now 100 people get deported per day. Our people need to stop being harassed by ICE and by the police.
Lucy: How does the current immigration system impact you?
Mishel: ICE agents came to my uncle’s house at three in the morning and took him; they left his wife, luckily. She was saved from being deported by her kids being there; they couldn’t leave them unattended. It’s not right to come into the house and kidnap the parents. That’s really wrong. My uncle was in jail for three months, then got deported. My uncle was the main provider for the house. The struggle was so hard for my auntie. She moved in with us into our two-bedroom apartment. There were six of us plus her family. We were really tight. My auntie looked for work, but was rejected because of her status. My uncle came back, but he could get deported again anytime.
Maria: My uncle was deported two or three months ago. He was deported back to our home town in Mexico. He’s still there. When Anastasio Hernández-Rojas was killed at the border while he was being deported, that really impacted me. He was killed facing 18 Border Patrol [agents]. He wasn’t resisting. He had children and a wife, a family. That could have been anybody crossing the border. That really impacted me.
Lucy: What are your dreams for yourself and your community?
Mishel: I wasn’t going to school when I first came to 67 Sueños. I was really low when I came to 67 Sueños. Learning about how we are oppressed, learning about the system, has really helped me. I want to graduate high school, want to get my diploma, prove that I’m not just a statistic. I want to be an ethnic studies teacher and help my people, or be a lawyer. I’m on my way to accomplishing this.
It’s important to have programs that will benefit us for the long run, having programs that will work with the youth, that will be empowering, that will make a difference like 67 Sueños has. A lot of problems with my community, nobody is trying to help.
My biggest dream is having my youth to not be afraid of going out in the streets, my youth being together. My biggest dream is for my people to unite, my people to be together, to be able to say “We are undocumented and unafraid, we are not a minority.” I want us to stop being afraid to speak out and to realize we have people power. I want our parents to be safe, our children to be safe. I want kids not to be shot by police because they look suspicious. I want people to live together united, and not be afraid of talking about their stories.
Maria: My dream is to go to college, have a career. I just got approved for DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] a week ago. I hope to apply for scholarships; my parents won’t have the money to pay for a four-year university. I plan to become a teacher in ethnic studies.
My dream for my community is to see no police, no violence, no borders.
Lucy: What’s special about the way 67 Sueños works for change? What has helped you in 67 Sueños to claim your own power?
Mishel: I’ve been with 67 Sueños three years now. Before 67 Sueños I never said, “Yes, I am undocumented.” I was afraid people wouldn’t play with me or would judge me. Now I have a place to say I am undocumented and unafraid, I’m proud to be who I am and where I come from. 67 Sueños holds that space, holds space for you to share your migration story, holds space to share what’s on your mind, your torments and struggles. We have a space where you can heal yourself. When you talk, someone will listen, not listen to respond, but to understand, and take action to help you out. I feel the love of the new family I have here. I’m fighting for people, not just my people, but people who come from Jamaica, China, Africa, Asia. The struggle is bigger than that, beyond my people.
Lucy: Tell a story about a powerful action that you were a part of with 67 Sueños.
Maria: The most powerful action we’ve done recently was stopping the deportation bus in San Francisco. Pablo and a couple of allies stopped the deportation bus. Because of our status, we arrived after the bus was stopped [to reduce the risk of being arrested and deported]. The bus was filled with a bunch of people about to be deported. We stopped it for three hours. There were a lot of police—immigration enforcement agents—there. It was an amazing feeling, standing there chanting, and the people inside were banging with chains on the windows just a few feet away. It really hit me; those people will leave and not see their families again. They are being forced to leave people behind. It was so powerful. We didn’t stop the people from being deported, but we were there for them, we were witnesses.
Lucy: What advice do you have for other immigrant activists working for change?
Maria: Don’t give up, keep going, we’re doing this for our people. Be creative. Give it all you got because there is going to be a change.