Activists find strength in collaboration

By Aviva Einhorn

Occupy el Barrio members and community activists came together Feb. 4 to voice concerns about issues faced by Chicago’s Latino immigrant population and to discuss upcoming events.

Occupy el Barrio, a Pilsen-based branch of the larger movement dedicated to addressing economic and other issues faced by the community, held a town hall meeting at Casa Aztlan, 1831 S. Racine Ave. Occupy el Barrio members Crystal Vance Guerra and Mario Cardenas co-hosted the event, which included a panel discussion by immigrant rights activists. The discussion focused on prominent issues, such as documentation

and deportation.

“We’re here to try to bring everyone together to talk about the issues that most resonate with residents of our community,” Cardenas said.

Jose Herrera, an immigrant rights proponent, told about his experience of being detained by the state and his affiliation with The Justice Mission, a nonprofit support group for families affected by the criminalization and detention of immigrants.

“It happens more often than people like to think,” Herrera said. “In a given week, we see anywhere from five to 12 different families dealing with having had a loved

one detained.”

Tania Unzueta, a member of the Immigrant Youth Justice League, stressed the importance of taking collective action against the country’s policies, which, they say, continue to support the mistreatment of immigrants. When the speakers finished, the floor was opened to questions from the audience.

According to Cardenas, meetings like this one have created an opportunity for immigrant rights activists from different organizations to come together. He said the purpose of the town hall meeting and Occupy el Barrio is to start a conversation about how the different groups can collaborate.

“I think the immigrant rights movement here in Chicago is very fractured,” Cardenas said. “This type of collaboration is something that rarely happens within the immigrant rights community.”

During the open floor discussion, the topic quickly turned to the upcoming National Coming Out of the Shadows Day on March 10, which is followed by a weeklong series of demonstrations.

According to Guerra, the annual demonstrations commemorate the anniversary of the March 2006 Mega Marchas, a series of nationwide demonstrations in reaction to the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005. The bill would have turned undocumented migrants into felons and expanded militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, Guerra said.

She said that since the 2006 marches, more than 1,000 people have been deported. Accordingly, Occupy el Barrio is working hard to build up momentum to recreate similar protests.

“Instead of securing positive immigration reform after the Mega Marchas of 2006, we got a very negative backlash,” Guerra said. “This violent backlash against people demanding their deserved human rights has put a lot of people back into a fearful position. That fear has consumed the migrant justice movement, which may not be so apparent in the youth, but it’s strong within the adult immigrant population.”

According to Guerra, the purpose of Occupy el Barrio is to create an environment for Latino voices to be heard. She said she is hopeful that with the platform of the organization, the immigrant community will have a place where it can feel safe.