The Trump years have seen a doubling-down on the immigrants-as-problem narrative in which migrants are accused of bringing gang violence, crime, and disease to the United States, and of “stealing” jobs. Reformers often play into another problem narrative, emphasizing the tragic circumstances that drive people to leave their home countries with little emphasis on individual experiences. In this episode, Laura speaks with Latinx Americans whose work flies in the face of those narratives. They are “unforgetting” histories suppressed, advocating for immigration policy reform, and building community infrastructure in the face of ICE crackdowns and Covid-19. Featuring in-depth conversations with award-winning journalist Roberto Lovato, MacArthur genius award-winner and co-founder of United We Dream, Christina Jiménez, and a visit to the New Immigrant Community Empowerment organization in Jackson Heights, Queens.
- Roberto Lovato, Author, Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs and Revolution in the Americas
- Cristina Jiménez, Co-Founder and former Executive Director, United We Dream
- Staff and Community Members, New York New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NYNICE)
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Roberto Lovato (00:00):
If you live in a nation state and we all do, you necessarily live within a border of forgetting.
Cristina Jiménez (00:10):
We depend on one another to survive and quite frankly, to build up from this pandemic.
Diana Moreno (00:18):
And undocumented immigrants who were ineligible for the federal stimulus aid, who are ineligible for a lot of different state programs that are helping people throughout the pandemic, we have to come together because we’re all we’ve got.
Laura Flanders (00:30):
And so coming up, the Laura Flanders Show, the place where the people who say it can’t be done take a backseat to the people who are doing it. (silence).
Laura Flanders (01:16):
Recent years, I’ve seen a doubling down on the immigrants as problem narrative. Migrants have been accused of bringing everything from gang violence and crime to disease to the US and of course of stealing us jobs. Reformers often play into their own problem narrative emphasizing the tragic circumstances that drive people to leave their home countries while leaving out the role the US played in those stories. This time, Latinx Americans whose work flies in the face of those narratives are our subject. I’ll speak with MacArthur Genius award winner, Cristina Jimenez, co-founder of United We Dream. She’ll talk about how a different generation is experiencing both the good and the bad of immigration activism.
Laura Flanders (01:58):
Then we visit an organization in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the US where immigrants are empowering other immigrants to fight for safe working conditions and a whole lot more. But first, a deep dive with award-winning reporter, Roberto Lovato. In his new memoir, Unforgetting, Lovato writes about the Washington government’s cruel proxy wars in central America and the role men like Bill Barr have played in both the vilification of central American gangs and to the militarization of policing. Lovato also comes out for the first time about what drove him to join El Salvador’s gorilla army and he draws some lessons for all aspiring change makers.
Roberto Lovato (02:43):
I didn’t grow up with anything that told me who my family was, what they were about. And in my house, I knew who my mother’s family were because there were pictures everywhere, but in the living room, we had zero pictures of my father family, except , my grandmother, . So you have this immigrant family with all the secrets. I wanted to discover the things that my family had hidden. I wanted to understand what El Salvador has been trying to hide for decades about itself, about its government, about its military, and I also wanted to discover what the United States secrets are because we don’t know, most of us, the role that the United States played because they supported the longest standing military dictatorship in Latin American history.
Laura Flanders (03:32):
Many people perhaps remember that during the Iraq war, there was the emergence of something that was called the torture memo or the torture manual that illustrated how to conduct waterboarding. And I was reminded reading your book that that too had its roots in the Central American Wars.
Roberto Lovato (03:56):
Nefarious, but also a lot of noble things have their roots in El Salvador, in Central America. On the nefarious side, you have the torture manuals that came out of Watermark, El Salvador, and then influenced policing, and military, and . You have support for military dictatorships training desk, squad operatives out of the school of the Americas. There’s still an organization called school the Americans watch because the school, the America’s became the Western hemisphere Institute for security. The US has a whole history of exporting its models of counterinsurgency through policing, through the militaries, and mass producing trauma. Speaking of what part of the theory of counterinsurgency is that you want to instill tear in the population so that people don’t get involved. So you just don’t kill people, but you kill them in the most horrific visual ways so that it discourages people to rise up.
Roberto Lovato (04:59):
It failed in those how to, because one of every three of us was organized against the state during the war, according to a study by the university that Central Americana. And that’s kind of the noble side and the good side of El Salvador’s story and its influence on the US as well where you have this hyper politicized, extremely capable people’s moving that the CIA said was among the most effective in the 20th century in Latin America, exporting its model to the United States to the refugees. And this important, like immigrant rights, the topic we’re here to kind of talk about it, a lot of immigrant rights activists were not just activists. They were cadre in revolutionary organizations who were highly prepared to organize churches, universities, and other sectors of US society that they had mapped out and acted upon. I myself was exposed to them and I was like, wow. And I decided to join.
Laura Flanders (05:57):
Do you remember what the aspirations were that you had at that moment? What was your idea of what you were fighting for?
Roberto Lovato (06:07):
Saw things in the countryside of El Salvador that I would wish upon no human being to see.
Laura Flanders (06:13):
Roberto Lovato (06:13):
Things I don’t need to go into detail there. Let’s just say there, you’re talking about children being massacred and killed in the worst possible ways. Like discovered that my government of the United States, my tax dollars were paying for the bayonets that destroyed children for the bombs, the death squads that eventually ended up pursuing me, by the way. In exposed to this, I got really quite frankly angry and I decided I wanted to do something more than just do humanitarian service work. I wanted to help dismantle. And so I had some friends introduced me to urban commander units in the country and they then train me and kept me working on logistics with them to secure the material that would help sabotage military installations, electric installations, and other strategic locations of a strategic nature.
Laura Flanders (07:14):
You titled the book Unforgetting, and that’s a specific choice. It’s different from remembering. Can you distinguish for us what the difference is?
Roberto Lovato (07:23):
Unforgetting is what we call in American Latina, , historical memory, which is the use of memory in the pursuit of justice. Popular phrase in my view, at least, in Salvadoran and literature poetry is . We were all born half dead in 1932. I heard that as a kid, but I didn’t really understand what it meant. And as an adult, I came to realize how powerful rocket out on the poet gorilla fighter, who came up with that wasn’t sharing that with us. And it just resonates with my bones even to this day, because you have this feeling, not what I imagined. It’s like to be Jewish, for example, and being an inheritor of the tragic legacy of violence against the Jews that includes, but is not limited to the Holocaust.
Roberto Lovato (08:21):
In the same way, Salvadorans, even before La Matanza, have a whole history of extreme violence and one of the most consistently violent countries on earth and sort of to kind of get it that untold history was an act of mental, spiritual health, but also a political act that starts to look at the secrets of not just El Salvador, and that’s squads in military, but of the US government, the US policing, the US justice system that enabled the extreme violence in the modern history of El Salvador.
Laura Flanders (08:55):
If this Unforgetting is an act of healing for you, what do the rest of us need to do?
Roberto Lovato (09:02):
I don’t even blink when I tell you that unforgetting is a necessary thing, not just for Salvadorans, but for people in the United States and people all over the world. If you live in a nation state and we all do you, you necessarily live within a border of forgetting because that’s what borders are. They’re the ways to forget the interconnectedness. They’re the ways of forgetting the crimes of nations to deal with these intersecting crisis. And it is possible with humanities brilliance to do something about it. We’re going to need something beyond liberal and progressive ideology and practice. I think the Obama presidency is a monument to the failure of liberal ideals.
Laura Flanders (09:49):
And to those who remember that when Barack Obama came into office with Joe Biden, his word was that he would let bygones be bygones. We would move on. What’s your message to those people.
Roberto Lovato (10:02):
My message to them is, sorry, dude. We’ve documented the history. We’ve told it as beautifully as possible. And we are Legion. There’s a ferocious generation of young Central Americans and Salvadorans and others who are committed not to unforgetting the act of excavating the heart lost in the darkness of lies, myths, half-truths, and politicians who want us to simply push the genocidal crimes against humanity of the United States. It’s elected officials, it’s military under the rug of forgotten history. It’s too late. We’ve burst the dam of silence and forgetting and it’s a new day for Central Americans in the United States and in Central America.
Laura Flanders (10:53):
If it’s a new day for immigrants in the US from any part of the world, it’s because they are turning histories of trauma and resistance into fuel for making change. They unforget, then dream. They dream, then build. Christina Jimenez is co-founder and former executive director of United We dream. She was instrumental in advocating for DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The executive order signed by president Obama in 2012 that enabled 1,000s of undocumented youth to live without fear of deportation, including Cristina.
Cristina Jiménez (11:28):
Like many immigrants, my parents and our family made the difficult choice to come to this country in seek of a better life. We were in Ecuador where I was born in the city of Quito. And in the 1990s, the country was going through political and economic turmoil. Millions of people lost jobs. There were strikes that paralyzed the country for days. And my parents were many of the millions of Ecuadorians that lost their jobs.
Laura Flanders (12:09):
Where did they come to?
Cristina Jiménez (12:09):
So we came to New York and we settled in Queens in 1998. And this dream of making sure that their kids could go to school and that I could get an education and be the first one in the family to graduate from college became my dream too, Laura. I experienced, and our family experienced a lot of contradictions right away with my parents being abused in the workplace and employers refusing to pay their wages because they were undocumented, or my brother being a stop and frisk by NYPD when he was only 12 years old, and feeling often that I was treated differently because of my accent and also because of the color of my skin.
Cristina Jiménez (12:56):
But I’m trying to focus on honoring my parents’ sacrifices and doing my best to go to college. But 9/11 happened. When I was still in college and a year before graduating, and 9/11 really deepened my sense of consciousness about what it meant to be a person of color and an immigrant in this country. For those of us who were here in New York, not only it was painful to see all the lives that were taken and a very traumatic event, but also how the government treated immigrants after including in New York NYPD that police was deployed all over the city. They were given the right to question anyone that may look suspicious, which that really men, people of color and Muslim immigrants. And also this is the moment where in our communities, at least what I remember as a teenager at that time, I start hearing more deportations happening in the community.
Cristina Jiménez (14:02):
And this is quite frankly what open my pathways to getting involved in community organizing, because I met young people like myself who had come with their families, grown up in this country. And because of the policies implemented after 9/11, for example, a registration program for Muslim young men led to people like Kamal Sahab, who was a college student at the time, to be put under the partition proceedings. And it was a stories like the one of Kamal and Marie Gonzales from Kansas, and also Walter , who was a college friend at the time and now we’re life partners. He was also caught in a post 9/11 regime that went after immigrants. Walter was detained in an Amtrak train and put into partition proceedings right away. So all of these experiences really not only intensify the fear in immigrant communities, but for me and many others, it also fuel our desire to fight back.
Laura Flanders (15:21):
Are the things you have to teach in your community that might help the rest of us as we think about the right to move in a whole sort of different way?
Cristina Jiménez (15:30):
The pain that many people in this country are feeling right now, it’s something that undocumented immigrants have lived with everyday of their lives sometimes. And I think that the most important lesson that we can all really hold on to is how this pandemic has shown us that regardless of where we come from, regardless of where we are, and regardless of where we live, we depend on one another to survive this pandemic, and quite frankly, to figure out a way to build up from the devastating impact of this pandemic. Just as I think about the fact that many of us could still have food during this pandemic because we have courageous farm workers who are working to ensure that Americans are fed in the midst of the pandemic, or that we could have meat in our diets while we have meat packing plant workers is still working.
Cristina Jiménez (16:30):
And unfortunately, in not the appropriate conditions, a lot of these mutual A funds have shown us that regardless of what country we come from, and regardless of whether we were born here, or first, or second generation immigrant, we’re coming together to support one another. And I think that those are some of the best expressions of our shared humanity. And quite frankly, what should give us a lot to be inspired about for how we want to build the country moving forward.
Laura Flanders (16:57):
We’re talking about the joy and the struggle, but things are pretty scary outside of our rooms, and especially outside of the rooms of the people that you work with. What message do you have for people who are seeking still to stop deportations, to reunite families, to make this country, as you said, what it could be even in these times?
Cristina Jiménez (17:24):
The reality is that our work is not completely defined by elections. Elections certainly shape who’s making decisions that are impacting our lives directly, but the work to really win justice for all people, regardless of the color of our skin and where we come from is day-to-day work. And that is the work of organizing. And the elections do not start our work or do not end our work because when an election ends, it is about holding those that have been elected accountable and to continue to build that community grassroots power, to hold people accountable, but to also be ready to push for the policies and the changes, structural changes, that we want to be able to see in this country, because ultimately, what we are really up against as we saw and have experience in the last couple of years, is that why supremacy and why nationalism are real. And we just need to confirm that truth.
Cristina Jiménez (18:30):
From my perspective, the most fun part comes about now, because we are about to create the pressure and the conditions so that our demands are met. That’s not to say that with one policy, we’re going to get rid of white supremacy, but it does mean that we can push for policies that are going to get us closer to that vision. And quite frankly to me, the work is in the power of the movement that we’re going to push these administrations and these governments to serve the people and to do right by the people.
Laura Flanders (19:06):
What does that work look like on the ground and how to organize as meet the immediate needs of immigrant communities in crisis, even as they push for longterm policy change. We visit new immigrant community empowerment in Jackson Heights, Queens. For an example.
Diana Moreno (19:21):
Jackson Heights is one of the most diverse communities in New York city and one of the most diverse communities in the country. It is a place where immigrants come to make a living. It is a place where every block is a different country, a different part of the world, where everywhere you go, you’ll hear a different language, different smells of food from around the world. It’s a beautiful place.
Diana Moreno (19:47):
And my name is Diana Moreno. I’m the program director here at New Immigrant Community Empowerment in Jackson Heights, Queens. Our particular location in the heart of Jackson Heights, close to the 69th street or day laborer corner, really pushed us to evolve to cater towards this undocumented community that we saw as incredibly vulnerable that essentially tried to sell their labor on a street corner for the lowest bidder usually. And they are exposed to many potential labor violations.
Diana Moreno (20:22):
NICE supports workers in sort of a hybrid model of both being a service organization and really a space for community organizing. So not only are we there to help educate workers around OSHA, right? The safe and healthy classes that they need in order to even try to get a job in construction, giving them opportunities to improve their English, understand how Google maps work so they can get around the city. Those sort of like very, very foundational information that you need as a new immigrant in the city of New York, but also that higher level, 40 hour classes that lead to a certification, right? Those are the types of services that we provide, referrals, and also, , which means advice whenever they are victims of wage theft, discrimination based on gender, discrimination based on age, or immigration status, which is actually a protected classification here in New York city.
Diana Moreno (21:15):
We help guide workers to, how do I deal with this violation of my own rights, but first we have to educate them on what those rights are and let them know that. No, just because you are here undocumented, that does not mean that someone gets to take advantage of you.
Ines Arevalo, Member, NICE (21:30)
Coming to NICE was definitely a boon.
When I started working in construction,
I met a group of people that didn’t offer job security.
They didn’t pay you overtime or a fair wage,
Simply put, the work was …….exploitation
I suffered labor exploitation and also discrimination for being a woman,
So that was one of the hardest challenges:
I had to commit and work harder to succeed and to get a better job
and to be able to get into a company where you have insurance
where you have a living wage
where you are respected
where you are considered
But to get to that process I had to go through so many difficult and precarious situations
All of that made me stronger in the end, so I saw the necessity to help other people,
And the only channel I found to do that was NICE.
So I said I’m going to help
I’m going to talk with other women who are busy and who are in need of work
And show them that you can do something in construction that isn’t just cleaning.
So we started having talks with Mariza and other girls that worked with NICE,
And started giving talks to promote women’s education
And the essential principle that you can do it,
That we have the strength to do it and we can succeed.
So I tried to be an example for them because just to talk about it and tell them,
“Yes, you can do it, or “Look at this,” or “do this,” is one thing,
But when you get there and say, “This is what I’ve achieved with this effort and this work, “
It’s different because you speak with your actions.
Juan Nolasco, Workforce Skills Instructor, NICE (23:51):
Right now what was the Workers’ Center at NICE has turned into a sort of bodega for the distribution of food, since the community needs a lot of support from ICE. Every day we see a lot of people here from all corners of the world coming to get some help with food.
Luis Francois, Member and volunteer, NICE (24:13):
We come early to prepare bags and boxes to share food with the community because we are all human beings.
Juan Nolasco, Workforce Skills Instructor, NICE (24:48):
On Fridays we continue to offer some classes as a kind of apprenticeship for house painting and plumbing, or at least an introduction to plumbing and an introduction to what’s called framing
Speaker 5 (23:06):
Diana Moreno (23:17):
We actually do work side by side with construction unions because we know that in the end we are all workers. And in the end, it really is the standard of the lowest paid worker that is the floor over which all other workers are treated or not paid. So we are grateful that we actually have evolved our relationship with labor union. Our worker center is the heart of our organization. However, right now, during pandemic, it’s really become a center of food, distribution and mutual aid.
Speaker 6 (23:52):
Speaker 7 (23:52):
Diana Moreno (24:16):
After the COVID-19 pandemic, mutual aid organizations popped up to help one another survive this really difficult times and undocumented immigrants who were ineligible for the federal stimulus aid, who were now eligible for a lot of different state programs that are helping people throughout the pandemic, we have to come together because we’re all we’ve got.
Speaker 6 (25:04):
Diana Moreno (25:05):
Something that we always have to contend with is this narrative that immigrants are takers, right? We’re during a society where taking up spaces and in public schools, we are taken advantage of public services or taking jobs from Americans, right? So this narrative that also, I think, is used by sort of well-meaning folks that may be progressive, maybe pro-immigrant by like, “No, we should help this population. They sort of need our help.” I think that the narrative is so backward and wrong and upside down, because really it is this country that needs immigrants.
Diana Moreno (25:46):
If immigrants suffer, everyone else suffers. We know that their labor is essential. We know the city of New York depends on that labor, not just to build their skyscrapers, but to clean the air, the MTA subways at night during the COVID pandemic, to clean and serve in the restaurants and deliver all the food that all the people that were able to stay home are getting and are eating during this pandemic. So it’s important for us to understand and teach the society at large that really the health of our society depends on the health of our immigrant siblings.
Laura Flanders (26:18):
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