I fled my country in 1980 at the age of 18. I was already doing political work against the right-wing government of El Salvador when a civil war erupted. I had to leave quickly because my life was in danger. I hastily chose the US as my destination because New York City already had a small Salvadoran community.
I came to the US without papers. But immigrants didn’t face any blatant persecution at that time. We could get jobs easily and live a near normal life. The police did stop me once. I was carrying a bag full of cash and checks to deposit for my employer. They saw a suspicious Latino man and ended up giving me a ticket for driving without a license. But they never asked about my immigration status. Soon after that I went to apply for a driver’s license and got one! And back then, anyone in need, regardless of status, could apply for and get public assistance.
That sounds like a fairy tale! When did things start to change?
In the mid-1980s, with the changing face of immigrants. Through 1970, most immigrants came from Europe. Mexicans made up merely 8 percent of the foreign-born population. By 1990, most immigrants, especially those without visas, had become Mexicans and Central Americans.
Anti-Mexican and Latin American policies took root during the Reagan administration of the 1980s. With even white Americans feeling the budget cuts of the Reagan years, it became politically convenient to blame Mexicans and other immigrants for the squeeze white families were feeling. This anti-Mexican crusade peaked in California. In 1994, Pete Wilson combined anti-Mexican sentiments, white supremacy, and nativism in his gubernatorial re-election campaign. That all worked for him.
Conservatives in California even managed to get a majority of voters to support Proposition 187, an initiative that denied public education to the children of undocumented Mexican parents. Prop 187 became the mother of all racist attacks on immigrants — and a springboard for a raft of federal anti-immigrant legislation.
Did those escalating attacks motivate you to serve immigrants?
No. Many Salvadoran exiles, including me, had our focus then on stopping US intervention in El Salvador. We stayed connected to the Salvadoran revolutionary movement.
But in 1992 the civil war in El Salvador ended. I thought about moving back. But I found that I no longer felt 100 percent at “home” in El Salvador. My focus began to shift toward issues facing immigrants in the US.
I also began to explore what it means to have “transnational consciousness” and decided that we needed to claim a space for those not limited to one national identity or the other. In 2004, consistent with that idea, I became a founder of Alianza Americas, a network that now includes some 55 Latinx organizations.
Are most of the 55 organizations Mexican?
Not exactly. The majority of organizations in Alianza Americas mainly serve Mexican immigrants. We do have many Mexicano groups, but even organizations originally founded in the 1980s to serve Central Americans now find themselves mainly serving Mexican immigrants. By 2000, for example, most of the people served by Centro Romero in Chicago, named after the archbishop of El Salvador killed in 1980, had become Mexicano.
The proliferation of Central American-led organizations we saw in the 1980s directly reflected the type of immigrants who were then coming to the US — namely politically educated people with organizing skills. Most Mexicans coming to the US don’t have the same experience of engaging in struggles to change their governments. Given the long reign of the PRI in México, many don’t understand the centrality of organizing in civil society. Rather than disputing power, they take a “go along to get along” approach.
Does Alianza America focus mainly on immigration reform?
No. Alianza’s mission, from the start, has focused on improving the quality of life for people in the US, as well as in our home countries. Our fight for immigrant rights became an unavoidable challenge brought to us by white supremacists and xenophobic forces. But we don’t see immigration policy reform as our ultimate end. We use the immigration policy arena to help people learn how to organize to gain political power in the US and in their home countries.
We’ve recently identified four pillars for our work. First, to achieve greater equality, particularly in terms of sustainable economic prosperity. Second, to re-imagine democracy, both as a form of governance and as a way of life. Third, to work as hard as we can to counter lies and promote narratives based on truth telling. Fourth and finally, to keep defending the rights of people still getting forced to migrate. In the end, we need to build organized social and political power and organize for economic, social, and political transformation, in whatever country we may be in.