Sunday, October 17, 2010

An Invitation to the DREAM movement and Paul Ortiz from an Ally

Dear Paul and beloved DREAMers,

I read the two articles linked above and reflected a great deal on your perspectives.  As Latinos, veterans and activists Paul and I share much in the way of life experiences. When I hear Paul's history I am proud and stand in admiration wondering how I can connect with such a committed activist and build together. I can see why you are throwing your hat in the ring in defense of the DREAMers (Amazing Undocumented and Unafraid activist in support of the DREAM Act). These are folks I also admire and feel a deep sense of pride for because I consider myself connected to the larger community with them - a community of migrants, children of migrants, people of color, and marginalized folks fighting back against injustice. In many ways, I feel they have become excellent role models for our community. They challenge us to be unafraid and to stand for what is right even if it means taking risks. They have answered a call that many sheros and heros in our history have before them. They now form part of an amazing continuity of freedom fighters that includes the freedom riders of the civil rights era, the out and unafraid queer folk who staged the Stonewall uprising and many even before those moments in relatively recent history.

5 years ago I also felt the call and I also took some risks. See in 2004 I found my brown body in a blue navy uniform and I was asked to take young Marines to Iraq to face possible death and probable orders to take the lives of Iraq's women, children and elderly in large numbers as "collateral damage". I could not do it. What's more, I felt it was the time to take a stand. As a Latino I was also motivated by the reality that 4 green card Latin@ soldiers were among the first week's casualties and over 20% of the invading force was RAZA. These numbers speak to the reality that when brown bodies finish boot camp they are more likely to navigate combat rather than navigating radar and high tech systems. On the day I took my stand, December 6th, 2004, and refused to participate in the invasion and occupation of Iraq and spoke out publicly against that illegal and immoral war being fought disproportionately by folks of color - my family was actually risking something else as well.

My partner's visa had expired and my actions were drawing attention to our family at a time when her status made us vulnerable. She told me that the risks we faced were so much smaller than the risks that soldiers of color and Iraq's people faced. So I went through with it, and I was Court Martialed and kicked out of the military without many benefits. I was held in a legal detention center for 10 months and I served out a 3 months of a Hard Labor sentence as well. My wife discovered she was pregnant a few months before my trial. I was not free during the final months of her pregnancy our young family was divided.

It is this history that makes me feel closer to the ideals, activism experience and willingness to face risk of the DREAMers than perhaps most people who haven't lived these kinds of life choices that come with serious risks. After being discharged I was unemployed, uneducated, and unqualified to do anything other than War making from a Navy vessel. My undocumented partner and I, who were living in San Diego where I was discharged, had a newborn baby. Our Young family went from one friend's living room to the next living room trying to survive and figure out an employment opportunity that would allow me to support our young family. We were always terrified of travel even in the city and of accessing services because there were raids back then all the time and families torn apart by deportation. I wanted to petition for my wife's status but the process took long and living on unemployment checks and food stamps we could not afford the application and legal fees ($1500 just to get started at that time.)

After almost a year of this lifestyle a job opportunity appeared in Oakland. This was almost as scary as continuing our current reality because it meant crossing immigration check points in order to go north. Because the job had a 3 month trial period we made an even more difficult decision that I would go first and stay in a friends living room while sending money back to my wife who now had to navigate the city, undocumented and not very fluent in English- by herself. As soon as the first paycheck came we began trying to work for her status but the lawyers said we had to be together and so she had to come up to Oakland. I went back down and we decided we would risk everything driving up even though my trial period was not over yet. We hopped in a little car and headed north with a newborn and not much to call our own. As we approached a truck weigh station I think some powerful force intervened on our behalf. I accidentally got off on the weigh station, which was only for trucks, and it just so happens by doing so we dodged immigration Checkpoint. My wife's heart pumped so hard I could feel it in her tense piercing grip around my right hand as we drove just ten feet to the right of the destruction of families like ours.

I am sharing some of my personal life to assure you that I am not the "Social Justice Elite" by any stretch of the imagination. I am not an "anti-militarist absolutist" by any stretch of the imagination. My experience led me to commit myself to work with young people of color and undocumented youth in low-income realities to fight for rights and challenge the militarism that leads so many in these communities to death, psychological trauma and dire poverty. I've spent the last 5 years working with high school aged youth from low-income communities of color mostly in the public schools of this interesting state of California. I am committed to these youth. I organize with them politically, I believe in lifting their voice but I also am committed to their basic needs. I help many of the youth I work with on homework and school projects, I've invited more than one into my home when they were in trouble. They have cried on my shoulder and vented in my living room. I've advocated with them about problems in their group homes, in altercations with police, and in problems at school. I've volunteered to teach Spanish as an active elective, in an effort to make enough credits to graduate on time for one of them. This community is my life. I know it well, I know their stories and most of this country does not. Most of this country does not seem to want to listen to young low-income people of color.

So let's talk about undocumented youth within this community. Studies and activist often mention that there are over 2.1 million undocumented youth in this country and about a quarter of them live in California where I have been committed to doing my work in the public schools. Most are in elementary school or High school or were there in the last 5 years at the same time that i've been active in these same High schools. Few, a relatively small percentage, are in college where you do your work. I don't mean that to minimize your commitment or your voice but I think perspective is critical. The fact is of these 2.1 million we know that at least 1.4 million will never see a college classroom. There are reasons for this. Reasons that most activist and people wrestling with our country's inequality are somewhat familiar with. But I will restate a few.

Tracking systems in public schools that often pipeline white students to college tracks while students of color and especially undocumented English language learners are tracked into paths that don't prepare them for transfer into 4-year institutions. English Language Learners often undocumented are also mislabeled "special needs", other times they are erroneously thought to have speech impediments and other tracked disabilities simply because they are not English dominant and administrators misunderstand this. The parents of undocumented youth earn far less income and work longer hours on average than parents who are citizens, leading to low parent involvement and behavioral as well as academic problems that push these students out of school or into poor grades and bad tracks. The lack of federal financial aid for those who somehow make it past all these other barriers means youth who are academically prepared for college still lack access to college. Many undocumented youth have family commitments that result from their parent’s status. These commitments don't allow them to pursue a higher education and they include coming from single parent homes where the eldest has to play parental roles or become a wage earner at an early age.

These stories and these youth who will never see a college classroom, account for over 67% of the 2.1million undocumented youth being talked about in the DREAM debate. They are the majority, the most affected, and they are almost completely absent from the dialogue. We are focusing on the voices of the relatively small slice of this community that is very articulate, educated, and either already in or clearly pipelined toward, a 4-year university. I admire them, I support them and I can understand very clearly why being with them and seeing their valiant efforts day in and day out how someone as committed to justice as you, would stand with them. This is exactly why I stand with the other 62%. I admire them and I support them because they have a strong voice as well, they have a lot to say and they are also valiant. Every day they face this adverse system that pushes them literally out and they do so with courage. Yesterday one of these valiant youth told me enraged how he feels when even teachers speak of "illegals". He responded "I may have come from Mexico but they came from England, so why am I the Illegal."

These moments of push back and resistance have made me fall in love with these young folks that no one seems to want to listen to. They are not as fluent and articulate as some of the DREAMer voices in English. They are not without "baggage". They are often not college bound. But they have dignity, humanity and incredibly valuable things to teach us as well.

I learned a lot from your open letter, Paul, even if some comments felt unfair. I am sure this letter will contain some language that you to will take issue with. But I also hope that the DREAMers and you too, will find some value in my perspective and my call for inclusiveness and unity.

Given that I absolutely admire and stand in solidarity with the intentions of the DREAMers if not the current DREAM Act options for 67% of our youth. Given that I want to build with this new vanguard of the freedom fight and with you and your important contributions to this fight. Given that our movement can be stronger if it includes more voices especially the voices of the majority and the most affected among undocumented youth. I want to propose that we try to move forward together incorporating each other's voices and concerns. I want to invite the DREAMers to meet with the youth I love and hear their stories, concerns and needs. Most importantly I want to ask that the DREAM movement would invite us to their table where we would be honored to sit and better STAND with them and organize with them for all of our collective rights and freedom.

At that table we will have to have difficult conversations about whether federal financial aid such as Pell grants is negotiable, and whether community service and vocational paths are negotiable, and lastly what the military component means to 67% of the youth who are most affected and for whom college may not be an option.

I am sure there will be some compromises; I don't expect all of our issues to unilaterally shape the debate. But I do hope they can get a fair hearing, without name-calling and with sophisticated understanding of what is at stake and sufficient voice for the major stakeholders.

I think I have laid out the case for why the voices of the youth I love and of veterans of color like myself deserve to become part of the dialogue. These are the most affected youth and the largest part of the undocumented youth community and to exclude them would betray the spirit of this struggle for justice. As long as a military component is on the table then including voices from young vets of color are critical so that issues around militarism in communities of color are raised so that we understand are at stake. Paul, I know and appreciate that you were able to follow the footsteps of Zinn and Fanon and to a large extent so have I even if I am still low-income living in affordable housing and not your typical success story. And you are right that those experiences shaped me and politicized me as they did you and our elders you mention. However this experience is the exception not the rule. For every Zinn there are thousands of homeless vets. For every Fanon there are thousands of veteran suicides (18 a day as we speak).

For every story like mine there are dozens of stories like Jesus Suarez del Solar who got his citizenship through the military but post humorously after bleeding to death in the harsh Desert lands of Iraq. So our stories and our ability to raise the stories of the homeless, the war casualties, the suicides and all manner of injury that the military can inflict (on our Arab brothers and sisters as well) have to become a part of the DREAM dialogue so long as a military component is considered.

I’m hoping to build bridges and unity like what we saw in the marches of 2006. Back then I marched with a diverse group of folks from the community - Latino families who lost someone in the deserts of Iraq and others who lost family in the desert of Arizona. We marched from Tijuana, Mexico to San Francisco, California raising the issues of criminalization and militarization of the Latin@ community. We said no to deportation and no to deployments. Our March stopped of at Cesar Chavez's Grave to let him know he can rest in peace and power because his struggle continues. We stopped at recruiting stations not to advertise the military path to our community but to challenge it. We marched with folks in the central valley living the migrant struggle and with urban Latin@ youth who have a military recruiter’s target on their migrant backs. Brown Berets and Latino Veterans marched alongside each other calling for peace in the Middle East and in our communities here at home.
In struggle and toward comm-UNITY,

Pablo Eduardo Paredes
Latin@ Veteran and Ally to Undocumented Youth
American Friends Service Committee
Youth and Militarism Program and Human Migration and Mobility Network

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