Every Day, People Fight and Die For what They Believe In


Not only is Ruth Gomberg Muñoz an amazing anthropologist, activist, and professor – she is an amazing friend and mentor and ally. She has taught classes such as “Undocumented Labor Migrations” at UIC [where we met!] and has published an ethnography titled, “Labor and Legality” which focuses on undocumented immigrants who work as busboys at a Chicago-area restaurant. All in all, Ruth IS BOSS. Her piece below is about remaining optimistic even when the future looks bleak, thinking about some of the people she has met in the immigrant rights movement who make it hard not to keep going.  — Jorge Mena, IYJL organizer, Ruth’s student. 

Why am I optimistic about the future even when things look so bleak? Because I know some amazing people….

I had an argument recently with some of my friends from graduate school. They were scoffing at the idea that regular people can propel social change, contemptuous of the argument that capitalism can be stopped, and dismissive of the claim that inequality is not inevitable. Since then, I’ve been struggling to understand how to account for the differences between my friends and me: why am I optimistic when they are not?

I’m definitely no Pollyanna Sunshine, and my optimism tends to closely correlate with how I spend my time and whom I spend time with. For example, I did a stint in advertising and was not especially optimistic about the future then. And those years when I bartended and didn’t do a whole lot else? Pessimism city. But in the past five years, my sense of optimism has been infused with new life.

What drives my optimism is that I spend time with people like my former student, Jorge, who donned a shirt declaring him, accurately, to be “Undocumented and Unafraid.” Wearing this shirt, Jorge and several other youth sat down in the middle of a busy downtown Chicago street, outside a hearing held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), to protest ICE’s Secure Communities program. What makes me optimistic is not just that Jorge is brave, though he is that. What makes me optimistic is that Jorge puts everything on the line, puts his whole life in jeopardy, to protest a program that does not even affect him directly.

See, Jorge is a “DREAM” student: a college graduate (anthropology major!) with good grades, no criminal record, and he is even DACAmented (that is, he qualifies for Deferred Action) and so, at least ostensibly, is would be safe from deportation—at least if he keeps himself out of trouble.  But Jorge got himself arrested blocking traffic in his Undocumented and Unafraid shirt anyway, because he is willing to give everything up, to risk deportation to a place he barely remembers, to fight for something that he believes in.

Is Jorge unique? An aberration? A symbol of utopian fantasy? Some of my friends think so. But I don’t.

I personally know dozens of Jorges. I hear stories about Jorges in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, in Pakistan, in London and elsewhere. Every day, people fight and die for what they believe in. Those of us who can insulate ourselves from the most direct effects of mundane violence and pervasive terror are the exception. Not them. People like Jorge are the rule, and they are products of the society that they live in.

My friends from graduate school complain about human selfishness and about how their students don’t care about anything but grades; their pessimism is reinforced in their interactions with each other. But I know this is just one side of the story, because I know Jorge.

This reminds me of an exchange I once had with a veteran activist, in which I had mentioned that some of my friends harbor anti-immigrant sentiments. “You need to get some new friends,” he told me. He was right, and I did.

Jorge is part of a Chicago group, the Immigrant Youth Justice League, or IYJL. When IYJL first formed, their primary organizing strategy was for members to “come out of the shadows” and declare their undocumented status publicly. But at the very first march organized by the group, on March 10th, 2010, they faced opposition, not from anti-immigrant activists, but from veteran immigrant rights activists, who discouraged the youth from being open about their status. They took their undocumented and unafraid signs from them and gave them to citizen marchers to carry. They warned the youth about the risks of getting arrested and deported and told them that they should stay in the background and be silent and safe.

As members of IYJL their efforts thwarted by the established movement, they pushed back. They explained that they were well aware of the risks that they faced, and of course they were (they better than anyone!), and that they had both the right and the power to engage in activism and put themselves at risk if they so chose. They warned against paternalistic attitudes that unwittingly silenced those who had the most to lose—and to gain. They adopted as a central tenet of the movement a refusal to depend on mainstream liberals to lead, or even to support, them. Rather, these youth take their activism into their own hands and shape the present and future well-being of their communities.

I remember one blog particularly well, in which a young activist wrote, “If you want to stand with us, stand behind us or beside us, but don’t stand in front of us.”  I have been thinking about how to operationalize that ever since.

In the last three years, youth across the nation have occupied senatorial offices in their undocumented and unafraid shirts. They closed down dozens of Obama campaign headquarters during the election season. And when the administration implemented Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which grants these youth a work permit and a two-year reprieve from deportations, they came out with e-cards that read, “Work permit and license? Thanks. Now I can get to my Stop Deportations rallies easier.”

They chartered a bus, christened it the UndocuBus, painted “No Papers, No Fear” across its side, and took their organizing strategy on the road. They visited small towns and big cities in 10 states, helping undocumented communities in some of the most anti-immigrant states in the country organize and find and attain resources. They infiltrated the Broward Detention Center in Florida; they intentionally got arrested and detained there, in order to organize immigrant detainees from the inside. Case by case, they have stopped dozens of deportations through phone banking and social media networking. And they have been arrested in Chicago, DC, Alabama, Florida, and Arizona. None have been deported. Not yet. But they are not afraid.

In 2011, IYJL amended its rallying cry, and “Undocumented and Unafraid” became “Undocumented. Unafraid. Unapologetic.” Unapologetic emphasizes the youth’s recognition of the complicity of the United States in generating and reproducing undocumented migration and the marginalization of immigrant workers. Unapologetic also is a call for a more inclusive movement that mobilizes around working-poor adults like their parents, those charged or convicted of crimes, and other non-“model immigrants,” and it is a rejection of their stereotyping as “DREAM” immigrants.

So, in spite of some serious cynicism about the current state of political affairs, I am optimistic. I feel like I good reason to be. Things will change, sooner or later, and in the meantime I am surrounded by people who are pushing for change, for inclusion and equality, for an end to racism, homophobia, and criminalization of the poor, for a world without borders in which all people can develop to their fullest potential.

I expect my friends from graduate school won’t find this argument convincing; they will think I’m romanticizing the movement and the people who are part of it. They may be right. But, also, it is a truism in anthropology that human society is shaped and changed continually by everyday human activity.

We can organize or stay home. We can build connections or isolate ourselves. We can be supportive or condescending about the actions of others. We can be optimistic or tolerant of the status quo. I am optimistic.


Picture: Ruth Gomberg and Jorge Mena at IYJL immigrant rights rally.

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