Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Marienna Pope-WeidemannMarienna Pope-Weidemann is War on Want's press officer. @MariennaPW


#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going


8