Saturday, May 2, 2009

Turning dreams into reality

Community celebrates International Labor Day by rallying around immigration reform and the DREAM Act

KALAMAZOO, MICHIGAN (May 1, 2009)--Change is born out of dreams and those willing to risk all to dream them.

But those gathering this afternoon at Saint Joseph Catholic Church shared a common dream for change that for far too long has been deferred. “La Esperanza de Nuestros Sueños”--“The Hope of Our Dreams”--attracted a diverse crowd of roughly one hundred-fifty people from the community to rally around comprehensive immigration reform and, more specifically, the DREAM Act.

The event, co-sponsored by the Michigan Organizing Project (M.O.P.), ISAAC, and the Hispanic American Center, aimed to educate the community about immigration issues and mobilize a growing political base to speak up and advocate for justice on behalf of a growing generation of immigrants.

If it were to pass through both House and Senate votes, the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act would allow students without documentation to apply for and potentially receive federal aid to cover tuition costs for higher education. As it now stands, immigrant children lacking proof of legal residency are deemed ineligible for such assistance.

“The Hispanic community has to come together--documented and undocumented--around this issue,” explained Lori Mercedes, program director for the Hispanic American Center. “It is important for us that we are there helping our kids gain access to education.”

Mercedes, a Nicaraguan-born immigrant, spent two years of her childhood living as an undocumented immigrant in Mexico while waiting for her family’s political asylum appeal to clear. She knows firsthand the difficulties of living in fear and uncertainty.

Each person in attendance at the rally received a graduation cap with a tassel, giving the evening a commencement-like spirit.

And education was at the heart of the agenda. A full slate of individuals addressed the crowd in both Spanish and English, discoursing on the history of the labor movement, the complexity of immigration issues, and access to education.

“We need to educate each other,” said Santiago Valles, professor of African Studies at Western Michigan and one of the evening's keynote speakers. 

From the podium, Valles encouraged those in attendance to learn more about labor and immigrants’ role in the US work force. “We came to the US because of the economic conditions imposed upon us in our home countries--conditions that were created by many of the same businesses we are forced to work for in the state. We need to make that connection,” an animated Valles told the crowd.

He also spoke about Lucia Parsons, a Latina survivor of the labor movement’s Haymarket Uprising that took place in 1887 in Chicago. “Google her,” he implored. “She was one of the most important educators in the movement.”

Huber Cabrerra, a recent immigrant to the states from Guatemala, was eager to learn more. “I’m Hispanic,” he said in Spanish, indicating he felt more comfortable expressing himself in his native language. “I knew there was going to be a rally. I came because I want to become more informed about the issues,” he said.


Diana Hernandez spoke specifically to the DREAM Act. Director of Multicultural Affairs at Western Michigan, Hernandez has observed firsthand the consequences suffered by immigrant children due to current U.S. policy. “Es una lástima--it’s a shame,” she said. “(Undocumented students) can’t register and become part of the university.”

Testifying to this fact, Obdulia Morales spoke about her experiences as a high school student in Kalamazoo. “The are many undocumented students here who really want to get an education and make a difference. The DREAM Act is the hope of our dreams, to make that possibility a reality.”

“I hope they do pass it,” said Lizbette Armijo, a staffer with the Hispanic American Center. “There are lots of Hispanics who would like to go to school and move on to good careers.”

LInda Cook-MacDonald spoke as a representative of ISAAC, a local advocacy and action group. She expressed more than hope. “It must pass,” she emphasized, urging attendees to actively respond. “We want a different United States than what we have now, one where everyone has access to education.”

“But it won’t happen with us sitting on our hands.”

Nathan Dannison, Cook-MacDonald's colleague at ISAAC, confirmed the importance of the critical mass. "We're close to the requisite number of votes to pass the DREAM Act," he said. "It's a matter of making our representatives know what we believe."

Not without celebration

As any effective social movement should be, the evening was not without song and dance. Justice-infused hip hop artist El Diez was present with carefully crafted lyrics inspiring hope for change. He performed “Querida Mamá,” a song about a mother in the U.S. who received letters from her children back in her home country, separated by an impermeable border and economic necessity. 

El Diez, born in El Salvador, encountered hip hop in Los Angeles in 1983, near the genre’s conception. For him, music is a vehicle of change. “It’s a voice. I choose my lyrics wisely--I can only listen to something talking about social justice.”

Also among performers were thirteen-year-old soloist Karla Ruiz-Velasco and her father,  Javier Ruiz.

Afterwards, attendees were treated to a home-cooked meal prepared by Maria Gomez and Lydia McNamara. Both active in immigrant issues, Gomez works for M.O.P. while McNamara owns La Hispánica International Market, a local grocery store catering to Kalamazoo’s Latino community.

Jordan Bruxvoort was encouraged by the unity on display at the event. "It's great to see the various organizations and individuals working together," said Bruxvoort, an organizer for M.O.P.

As people ate, music played over the loud speaker. A father danced with his daughter amidst others proudly wearing their graduation caps. One was left to hope that the dream of education and prosperity will become reality, and that girls and boys like the one dancing this evening will one day be found moving their tassels from one side to the other.

Brian Paff, The Micah Center