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On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente

Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

March 17, 2017
15 min read


Marienna Pope-WeidemannMarienna Pope-Weidemann communications coordinator at Right to Remain. @MariennaPW


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Photos: Mijente

This is the second instalment of the Still we dream series, where grassroots voices from across the migrants’ rights and racial justice movements in the US talk about responding to Donald Trump’s election and how they’re building their movements. They’ll talk about everything from winning the public debate to building rapid-response systems to immigration raids. And we’ll be thinking about what might help us meet the challenges ahead for UK movements against racism and for migration justice. 

My People

In the first instalment of Still we dream, we spoke to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia (NSM). This migrant-led, inter-faith organisation is developing a rapid response systems to raids, taking the sanctuary movement on to the streets. This time, we interviewed Reyna Wences, a Latinx immigrant community organiser based in Chicago and co-founder of Mijente, a radical, national Latinx and Chincanx organising network that launched in December 2015. Evolving from the #NotOneMore anti-deportation campaigns, Mijente – meaning ‘my people’ – foregrounds intersectionality and community activism to build Latinx leadership and the movement as a whole.

Marienna: What’s the political situation like in Chicago right now?

Reyna: In the early days of Trump’s presidency there was a lot of panic and uncertainty and many more questions than answers. We were watching him enact all these executive orders and trying to figure out how local government would respond. But pretty quick we started seeing a lot more community members coming out to lead workshops, share training and resources. That’s been really positive. There’s still a lot of fear, though.

Marienna: How does that compare to community life and movement building under Obama? Direct action and disruption of raids by Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) – started during the historic crackdown on undocumented people by the Obama administration.

Reyna: The growing criminalisation of immigrants, more and more deportations—all that started in 2008 with Obama. In those years we were focused on trying to cut ties between police and ICE, highlighting the way the criminal justice and immigration systems were being blurred to criminalise immigrants.

What we’re seeing now is a growing disregard for some of the victories won on that front. Police are collaborating more with ICE to turn people in and there’s a greater ICE presence in court rooms. Chicago is seen as a ‘Sanctuary City’—public officials will say immigrants are safe here but the reality on the ground is that ICE are coming into our communities. Even if the police aren’t explicitly collaborating we know ICE has access to their databases. There’s a so-called ‘gang database’ here in Chicago. we don’t know how people are on it but we’ve had reports of babies being on these databases, which is crazy. ICE uses them to pick and choose who they’ll go after, and it hints at a larger problem because 90 percent of the time the people on these things are black and Latino men. So we want to push for more transparency and cut ICE’s access to it.

But with Trump at least there’s been a shift in the public narrative. We’ve had more media attention on raids and deportations particularly of victims of domestic violence and DACA recipients when they get picked up. In the early Obama years, the Not One More mobilisations against deportations highlighted personal stories of people being dragged into that deportation pipeline. Towards 2013 there was an increase in public campaigns and petitions but we were just fighting case by case. So one of the big questions was how to continue that case work but make it sustainable. And one of the core ideas that came out of that was that those directly affected by deportation, incarceration and so on – they should be leading the movement.

Marienna: This is when non-violent direct action started to become more central?

Reyna: Yes. We started putting our bodies on the line to highlight that intensity and create a moment in which people had to physically decide whether to be on the side of the oppressor or on the side of the oppressed, of people putting their bodies on the line to try and keep families together.

We don’t just think about direct action as the actions themselves, as getting arrested to get press attention, or just as symbolic; it is very much part of a deeper process to re-claim the space denied to us, even in the movement itself. Often, those risking arrest are undocumented. They are really risking it all because they don’t have status. And the way they often explain that choice is that they’d rather risk arrest on their own terms, for something, instead of getting caught up in a raid any other day.

Marienna: This really shows how effective Mijente and allied groups must have been in raising people’s confidence in the possibility of change, and in you as a group.

Reyna: Yeah, a lot of it is building confidence, building trust for people who’ve spent so many years living in the shadows and as second class citizens. When people come into contact with us at the start there’s a lot of hesitancy around sharing their stories but as we engage and listen and connect our different identities and build relationships. People ease up and the people who have decided to take that stand, they do it not just because they trust us but because they trust that they’re on the right side of history.

‘Our liberation is connected to black liberation in that we cannot be free if the black community in the United States is not free’

Marienna: Mijente describes itself as not simply pro-Latino, but also pro-woman, pro-queer, pro-poor, pro-Black, pro-indigenous, pro-climate because OUR community is all of those things and WE care about all of them.’ It’s an inspiring but very ambitious manifesto, asking people to commit themselves to so many things at once. How did you win that as a starting point?

Reyna: Mijente as a network was created to take the next step towards building a Latinx platform that is pro all these things. I think we get so used to being ‘anti-’ that sometimes we miss ways to talk about what we do believe in. A point of particular commonality with other groups and movements nationwide was the movement for black lives, Black Lives Matter. We knew the Latinx community had to figure out a way to articulate itself as pro-black, and to call out our own community for being anti-black, which it often is. Rarely do we see immigrant experiences depicted as black experience. African origin immigrants are rubbed out and mainstream immigrant rights movements have always cast it as a Latino issue. This manifesto gets at the need to acknowledge that. People came into the space knowing that it was always meant to be pro- all these things, so coming into it forced people to ask themselves: are they ready to do that?

Marienna: How do you centre the movement for black lives and black justice in all this?

Reyna: There was a moment in the fight against deportations that people realised the criminal justice and immigration systems are intertwined – and for a reason. We see huge profits made from immigrants and forced labour of those incarcerated in private prisons and detention centres and we expect that to grow under this administration. Through that it also became more evident that our liberation is connected to black liberation in that we cannot be free if the black community in the United States is not free.

That means we have to check ourselves because we come from a different experience as immigrants in this country. What that check means to me is that as we recognise that our identities and struggles are connected, we also recognise they are not the same. Undocumented immigrants with light skin have very different and in many ways easier experiences than undocumented immigrants of colour.

Figuring out what these strategies are going to look like really began with an ICE blockade direct action. This was the culmination of a long process of collaboration, confidence and relationship building with the Black Youth Project 100. That was when our strategies started to change; we could see that just looking at the faces of those taking part. And it hints at what’s possible. Now, we’re having very broad conversations about what the Sanctuary City really means, with Black Lives Matter and BYP100, plus the Arab-American Action Network because we’re all being targeted by this administration and so we need to reach out.

‘When it became clear Obama wasn’t listening to us, we had to turn away from the mainstream and go back to our communities’

Marienna: How’s the definition of ‘sanctuary’ evolving to meet this new situation?

Reyna: It’s been adapted by different communities in different localities to meet their needs. In Chicago it looks different to Arizona, where, being close to the Mexican border, they’re having to resist raids and deportations at an incredible rate. With Trump’s election, and even when it became clear Obama wasn’t listening to us, we had to turn away from the mainstream and go back to our communities, listening to the needs of those hardest hit. And we’ve been working on Community Defence Zones that are about sharing and arming each other with the resources and tactics developed in the past and evolving them because with Trump so much has changed.

Something else I’d like to share is there was a recent story about a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient who was detained after sharing her undocumented status at a press conference. As a result of that some people have started voicing reservations about undocumented people coming out of the shadows; saying maybe it’s safer not to disclose it. Some of that comes from a good place but it’s a place of fear that takes agency away from us. It fails to recognise that sharing our stories is an act of political resistance. Telling us to go back into the dark does more harm than good; it just repeats what the system has been telling us all these years: to not come out, to live an underground existence outside of society. All we’ve seen since 2010, with undocumented youth refusing to hide in shame, has driven all our movement has achieved.

Marienna: The undocumented LGBTQ+ community has played a powerful role in raising consciousness by ‘coming out’ in both senses. It’s scary enough coming out as queer in a homophobic society, without – as so many do – simultaneously risking support from the LGBTQ community by coming out as undocumented. But the courage to do that seems to be forging powerful links between the LGBTQ and migrant liberation movements. How did all that start?

Reyna: The Coming Out of the Shadows rallies were named to honour the gay liberation movement and the experiences of undocumented people declaring themselves. It all started with the Immigrant Youth Justice League, which I also co-founded in 2009. Many of us identified as members of the LGBTQ community, and I was one of many that came out as queer before coming out as undocumented. The message I got from society was definitely that it was even worse, much worse, to be undocumented than it was to be gay in America. But when I did choose to address my undocumented status, I could draw a lot from my early experiences of hiding and struggling with my sexuality.

Looking at the organisations on the ground doing the most radical, intentional work getting to the root of the issue – they’re all led by women of colour, often queer women of colour. And I think I will follow women of colour, queer or not, because I have faith that those who are most directly impacted are going to be the ones to lead us to liberation.

Marienna: You’ve cautioned against strategies for movement building that are always on the defensive, reacting to attacks from the state.

Reyna: In the Obama years, we had to respond every 6-8 months to some big announcement, which often gave protections to some while stripping them from others. When he would say things like: ‘I’m only deporting felons, not families,’ and we knew that was a lie so we spent a lot of energy trying to prove it, presenting counter-arguments and also pointing out that ‘felons have families too,’ you know, a lot of us have felons in our families. And that’s a point we had to argue a lot within the movement as well because lots of people wanted to throw those felons under the bus to win some crumbs from the administration. Dealing with that sort of thing is exhausting. Constant reaction and defensive fighting, apart from the fact that it can be divisive, burns people out. They get tired. It leaves little room for self-reflection, sharing and envisioning work that brings people together.

Now, that seems to be happening. We’re making a very broad effort to be less reactionary and our demands are actually becoming more coherent as a result of that. When Trump was elected people saw pretty quickly that just because things were getting worse didn’t mean reactionary and defensive work was becoming more effective. With the Muslim travel ban, for instance, that first time, the airports were packed with people and then what happened? Days went by, crowds dwindled and by the time the second travel ban was announced some days ago, we’re not seeing the same reaction on the ground. I believe in the power of reacting in massive numbers but I’m becoming very wary of the un-sustainability of it. It’s only part of the answer.

Marienna: Can you share any more practical insights from your years bringing different communities together?

When I first started organising with young undocumented people there were a lot of questions around people coming into these spaces as allies with their privilege being their documented status, and in addition to that often citizens and white citizens. When we started organising Coming Out of the Shadows, we were very explicit about our intention to amplify the voices of undocumented people. At times that was pushed back by those with status who wanted to know why as citizens they were being asked to take a step back. It wasn’t that they were being pushed out of the space – although we have used undocumented only spaces and people of colour only spaces – saying that this alienates communities, pushing away people who want to understand our struggle and support us. For many of us, the answer to that is that we shouldn’t have to educate every white citizen ally that comes into our spaces. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a place but rather that they should be guided to a person or group that has capacity to offer that education, so the labour doesn’t always fall on the most marginalised.

Marienna: What’s your message for migrant communities here in the UK and their allies, who might be looking at what you’ve achieved and wondering: how do we get there, and what will keep us going until we do?

Reyna: I also want to say to everyone over there in the UK: we see you. We see the resistance and every action we’re able to see and share with our people, they give us hope. I think it gives them hope, to know they’re not the only ones fighting against these same systems of oppression. I don’t know that we’re going to find the answers to all these questions about the path to liberation but I hope this moment will bring us together, to imagine the world we want to see and find the strength to get there.

Marienna Pope-Weidemann is communications coordinator at Right to Remain – @MariennaPW

For a longer version of this interview visit Right to Remain.

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Marienna Pope-WeidemannMarienna Pope-Weidemann communications coordinator at Right to Remain. @MariennaPW


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