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  Number 412 | Noviembre 2015
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Central America

The political clout of immigrant organizations, et al

Three Central American immigrants’ organizations— the Dolores Huerta Community Garden in Los Angeles CARECEN in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and CASA of Maryland in Washington, DC— although very different in size and profile, are united by all having grown from the bottom up, causing difficulties for the US anti-immigrant forces and challenging the State with civil disobedience and peaceful resistance.

José Luis Rocha

Organizations providing undocumented immigrants with real, ongoing support have been recognized—and rightly so—as areas that resist exclusion and smooth the way to alternative forms of citizenship because they offer empowerment, community and inclusion on a daily basis. Anti-immigrant forces have identified them as an opposing force with an agenda and actions that help neutralize the implementation of immigration policies.

Challenging the State


A government report to the US Congress established that the activities of pro-undocumented immigrant organizations “concern those who believe that the humanitarian aid, no matter how well intentioned, assists unauthorized immigrants in their efforts to subvert immigration laws and enter the country.… A possible oversight issue for Congress concerns whether some of the activities of these humanitarian groups present an obstacle to the Border Patrol as it carries out its enforcement of immigration laws along the border. If so, Congress may decide what, if anything, can be done to curtail those specific activities by civilian border groups that negatively impact the Border Patrol.” In this sense, these groups are a very visible challenge to the State. If these findings apply to organizations working “with” immigrants, then they much more logically and forcibly apply to associations “of” immigrants.

Central American immigrants who came to the US in the 1980s adopted a long-standing US civil tradition: they created associations so as to become more visible and audible, form a community and lobby for inclusion. Some brought organizational experience honed in the hostile terrain of authoritarian regimes. Others were novices. All embraced a tradition that had caught the attention of French liberal political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831. Tocqueville acknowledged US associations as platforms for competing and persuading through arguments and legal activities. As an aristocrat who still remembered with fear and trembling the mobs of sans-culottes, he saw association as a buttress against the tyranny and excesses of the all-powerful masses. In all events, he knew he was up against a world-class political force.

Associations are “indirect political powers”


According to the prominent US political theorist Michael Walzer, these associations are the bedrock of civil disobedience because they cultivate a sense of loyalty to their regulations that trumps the obedience due to the State’s laws. If that’s the case, Tocqueville’s prediction would be fulfilled: associations can weaken the State.

This proposition partly agrees with a finding by German historian Reinhart Koselleck, who said that in the 16th century, “Putting aside ethical values or religious beliefs in the private sphere reinforced the State’s power, which confiscated and absorbed the res publica.”

The State was strengthened but also became more vulnerable: values rationalized in the private sphere could undermine the authority of the prince, the principles of his government and the logic of the State. In fact, Roger Chartier, a French historian, noted that new forms of sociability in the 18th century, particularly the Masonic lodges, were built on moral tenets, applying to the State the same moral criteria that the State had relegated to the private sphere. The distinction between individual conscience and state authority thus turns against the very mechanism it had installed.

Koselleck found that “apolitical” venues (such as stock exchanges, clubs, salons, cafés and colleges) not subject to State authority, turned into institutions that gained “a powerful political character and, insofar as they now influence state policy and legislation, they became indirect political powers.”

The State’s appropriation of public areas and the concomitant and paradoxical politicization of the private area Koselleck found in Europe were even more dynamic in the United States, where the craving for association had several impetuses. The political incentive was the struggle against the tyranny of the masses, but there was also a religious incentive, highlighted by US sociologist Theda Skocpol: competition to win over converts in a nation that had emerged without a State-confirmed church monopoly. The Methodists were pioneers in organizing an itinerant clergy that moved from one town to the next identifying local leaders who they guided on how to establish and maintain new congregations. Their methodology was soon cloned by other religious and non-religious groups.

1001 civil associations


Volunteer groups and other kinds of civil associations have taken many forms in the US: moral reform movements, laborers and farmers’ unions, philanthropic fraternities, independent women’s associations, veterans groups and ethnic associations. They continue to be considered an important factor, critical to US democratic vitality.

The membership of more than 50 of these associations exceeded 1% of US adults at some point. Even those groups in the big leagues have quite varied motivations, as can be inferred just from their names: Ancient and Accepted Free Masons (founded in 1733), Independent Order of Good Templars (1851), National Teachers Association (1857), National Rifle Association (1871), Women’s Christian Temperance Union (1874), American Bowling Congress (1895), Aid Association for Lutherans (1902), Boy Scouts of America (1910), Greenpeace USA (1971) and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (1980).

Others, now extinct, were also large and diverse: American Temperance Society (1826-1865), American Anti-Slavery Society (1833-1870), National American Women’s Suffrage Association (1890-1920), German American National Alliance (1901-1918) and the second manifestation of the Ku Klux Klan (1915-1944).

The good health of these associations and a generalized craving for associating were the subject of Robert D. Putnam’s book (2000) Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American Community. He asked: Are US Americans losing interest in associating? Theda Skocpol gave a rather discouraging reply in 2002: “Average Americans also had chances to participate and work their way up in associations that built bridges across classes and places, between local and translocal affairs. Now the bridges are eroding. Ordinary citizens have fewer venues for membership in associations with real clout. Meanwhile, the most powerful Americans are interacting—and arguing—almost exclusively with one another.”

Skocpol laments that inter-class associations aren’t emerging, because formerly “Most classic U.S. voluntary groups recruited members across class lines.” But this isn’t entirely true. On the one hand, churches still practice a mixed recruitment approach. Although the geographic jurisdiction of the parishes often reproduces residential segregation, the growing trend of congregating in mega-churches is a return to a sort of social melting-pot where the impersonality of the mammoth religious services is balanced by participation in activities in small cells. On the other hand, participation in multi-class groups isn’t the only way to influence politics.

Organizations, movements
and non-movements


Grassroots organizations working with or made up of immigrants can be studied from different angles. One is their contribution to the process by which immigrants acquire more rights and, in that sense, are approaching citizenship. Their contribution, like that of religious organizations, is indispensable to the effectiveness of immigrants’ civil disobedience. They are, therefore, platforms challenging immigration policies and the determination to exclude.

In the case of the United States, these organizations are communication channels to other influential sectors. For example, they can connect undocumented immigrants with academia, the media and party politics or link the movements of and by immigrants with undocumented immigrants’ non-movements.

The movements are major initiatives and organizations, generally led by second-generation or already established first-generation immigrants: the Immigrant Rights Movement with its 2006 marches of 3.7 to 5 million immigrants in 160 cities against the Sensenbrenner bill, the Dream Activist Network and Dreamers Adrift with its www.thedreamisnow.org, the Labor Immigrant Organizing Network (LION), the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) and The Earth is for Everyone.

The non-movement concept was coined by Iranian sociologist Asef Bayat to refer to “the collective actions of non-collective actors; they embody shared practices of large numbers of ordinary people whose fragmented but similar activities trigger much social change”—such as needy people who gradually take over vacant lots in a city center or immigrants who cross the border and settle in the United States without permission. Because their actions are in unison they have the force of a concerted act and sometimes appear to result from well-planned collusion, although each of those involved is acting separately, without a program or ideology and with a rather cursory knowledge of the accumulated effect and added value of their actions. That’s why non-movements are more flexible and fluid and their strategy is self-generated. Theirs is a practical not a political protest. Although not in a sustained way, some Central American organizations interweave this massive force of non-movements with acts led by the movements or a hybrid combining features of both.

Let’s look more closely at some of the most important organizations.

THE CENTRAL AMERICAN RESOURCE CENTER (CARECEN) IN LOS ANGELES: CARACEN began in 1981 as the Central American Refugee Center in the city of Washington. Founded by Salvadoran refugees to secure legal status for many thousands of Central Americans who fled from civil war in the 1980s, CARECEN is the best known and most transnational of the Salvadoran organizations, followed by El Rescate (The Rescue) and The Romero Clinic, three organizations that reflected factions in the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).

CARECEN opened offices in Los Angeles in 1983 and started branches in San Francisco, Houston and New York in 1985. It was renamed the Central American Resource Center when the issue of refuge took second place to the more urgent need of diversifying services to the very voluminous immigrant population. It’s a non-profit organization that currently offers low-cost legal services, counseling on housing, community education programs, group organization (parents, young people, workers, etc.) and advocacy on immigration policies, educational reform and labor rights.

Decades ago it extended its attention and links to Guatemalans, with an alliance between CARECEN-Los Angeles and the Association of Guatemalan Fraternities (AFG), which has a political action committee that nominates local election candidates. It has currently expanded even further, to the point where Lariza Dugan-Cuadra, of Nicaraguan-Irish extraction, is the executive director of CARECEN-San Francisco.


CARECEN IN SAN FRANCISCO: The journalist and political scientist Ricardo Calderón, former dean of journalism and secretary general in the University of El Salvador and one of the historic founders of CARECEN-San Francisco, recalls that this branch of the organization was conceived in 1985 but actually came into being in 1986: “The idea arose of reviewing the situation of immigrants here, especially of Salvadorans. Three of us—Salvadorans, former university professionals—joined together with three Anglo professional women, one of them a lawyer, to see what we could do for the community.

“It was a terrible time in the civil war in El Salvador. We wanted to create something that would enable our communities here to fix their immigration status, partly because we saw that notaries were making money at the expense of our people without doing the proper preparation. They even invented stories and evidence to present as proof for political asylum, which was what the people applied for.” With some lies, those notaries managed to stitch up asylum cases. Once the case was presented, the immigration authorities—inundated by the avalanche of applications and urged to provide at least a temporary decision—would issue a work permit. But it was just a temporary solution that could end in deportation.

“We began by earning nothing”


CARECEN’s arrival in the midst of the shysters’ apparent success created hostility in the community, among lawyers and between organizations. It only survived thanks to bargain-basement office equipment based on second-hand typewriters and two years of voluntary work by its founders.

They began by earning nothing. Later, they earned just $600 a month. At the beginning the salaries didn’t reflect hierarchy or responsibility. A director’s income was the same as that of an employee who was a single mother with three children. This austerity gave them the edge over other institutions with large salaries and gleaming equipment. And so began a journey that has now been going for 30 years, overcoming financial obstacles and national, ideological and organizational differences, including those reflecting its members’ affinities with different FMLN organizations.

“We had lawyers who didn’t charge”


CARECEN had established links with the Farabundo Marti Liberation People’s Forces (FPL) and other insurgent groups. The researcher Eric Popkin noted that CARECEN supported the FMLN, mobilizing voters against the US government’s intervention in El Salvador.

These links created dilemmas, for example whether or not to help Nicaraguans fleeing from the Sandinista regime. Later on, said Calderón, “We had another conflict: Temporary Protection Status (TPS) for Salvadorans in 1991 and growing remittances. Helping Salvadorans here meant helping the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) in El Salvador. How? Through remittances, because ARENA was in power and remittances benefitted its administration. We had this conflict and other organizations attacked us about it: you’re helping ARENA, they told us.”

The only way out of this conflict was either to start arguing or to walk away from the issue and just fight for the welfare of the Central American community in the US.

In order to help the community, its members had to be given legal status. They had thousands of applications and started to resolve them one by one. Legal advice consisted of carefully reviewing the case to put together all the evidence required for granting asylum. Once the package was ready, it was sent to law firms who handled such cases pro bono.

Nowadays it’s less common to find experienced lawyers who are willing not to charge. Those remaining are former activists and collaborators, like Robert Foss, who was a lawyer for CARECEN-Los Angeles and now has his own firm and directs the legal services of the International Institute of Los Angeles, founded in 1914 to help recently arrived immigrants.

When we and a group of Guatemalan Mayas had dinner together, I asked him how much he charged. “When I meet someone like this,” he replied, putting his hand on the shoulder of one of the boys, “with the face of a good person, coming from Guatemala or El Salvador and perhaps linked to some organization, I don’t charge.”

CARECEN and other similar organizations cultivate links with these increasingly scarce lawyers because legal work is still the most important. In CARECEN-Los Angeles, 67% of the staff works in legal services, compared to 12.5% in administration, 10% in the education and community organization team, 6% with parents and young people, and 4% on labor organization.

“A shell like a turtle”


The one-by-one solution wasn’t good enough in the 1980s and it still isn’t. In the 1980s CARECEN found it very hard to lead an advocacy initiative for those fleeing the war because the stigma of being associated with guerillas hampered their most overtly political activities.

According to Calderón, “We had a fantastic relationship with the religious sector and the Baptist churches told us ‘We can do it.’ They threw themselves into putting together the ABC proposal [so called because it was the American Baptist Churches that sued the attorney general and the Immigration and Naturalization Service for not granting asylum to Salvadorans and Guatemalans] as an anti-immigration lawsuit. We recommended lawyers but didn’t have to participate directly. Incidentally, they won the ABC suit in 1990 and the TPS for Salvadorans was also passed in the 1990s. We went into 1991 with two eligibility programs for Salvadorans.” They later pushed for the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA) which was less generous with Salvadorans than with Nicaraguans and Cubans.

Calderón stressed that CARECEN retains grassroots popularity through its closeness to the people, its unassuming promoters “who wear baseball caps and are seen as comrades” and its lawyers—”two young women who deal with legal cases in the Court. They strongly identify and even suffer with people when they hear their stories. They cry and everything. ‘And you, why don’t you cry?’ they ask me. I’ve been in this thing for 27 years now but there have been times when they’ve made me suffer. I’ve now got a shell like a turtle or an armadillo.”

Pressure from funders


At the other extreme are the funding agencies that “see the client as a statistic. We don’t like it but we need the funding and have to add up the numbers. The rest of it doesn’t matter to them. For example, we have three sensational cases: people who were to be deported and we’ve managed to stop it happening. This represents hours and hours of work, reviewing the law, making contact with Immigration and city officials to stop the deportation; all for just two people. It takes up a lot of our time but it has to be done. It was the right thing.”

The other problem is the media shows the agencies sometimes want CARECEN to put on or the kind of cases they suggest it take on, such as those related to homophobia or domestic violence, which aren’t part of CARECEN’s accumulated knowledge although it’s gradually gaining experience about them. Nevertheless, CARECEN manages to stick to its agenda and its links with city and county politics.

Thanks to local government support, CARECEN-San Francisco managed to get legal status. It has also, unwittingly, been the platform for building political careers, as is evident in the case of a former executive director who successfully stood as an alternate local government candidate.

CASA OF MARYLAND: This organization began 20 years ago as the Central American Solidarity Association of Maryland, founded by US and Central Americans to provide assistance to people fleeing from war in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua in the 1980s.

A “man with a plan”


The current executive director is Gustavo Torres, a Colombian by birth. The fact that he spent time in Nicaragua during the 1980s is exploited by anti-immigrant sectors with gross distortions, such as that of Ann Corcoran in an article from the Potomac Tea Party Report titled “Gustavo Torres: Just your friendly Sandinista warrior next door,” in which her venomous pen screamed: “The Sandinistas are communists, they are in the United States, they are in Maryland. Gustavo Torres is one of them.”

Corcoran based her article on information in an interesting but very ambivalent article in The Washington Post headlined “A man with a plan,” a very eloquent title but one designed to make the anti-immigrants’ skin crawl. In this report David Montgomery mentioned Torres’ activism in Colombia and his years in Nicaragua as a collaborator in the Center for Research and Studies on Agrarian Reform (CIERA) and in El Tayacán, a weekly publication about grassroots education that was Christian-inspired and sympathetic to the revolutionary process.

Gustavo Torres came to pick me up on March 5 of last year at the Takoma metro station, near the CASA of Maryland headquarters. He had just been in a meeting with Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader of the US House of Representatives, which is perhaps why our conversation immediately zeroed in on immigration policy’s major issues. In those days expectations about immigration reform were running hot (we later found out that Obama’s people were preparing the decree to stop the deportation of over 5 million undocumented immigrants, thus opening the first door to their legal residence).

“Obama has the power
to stop the deportations”


“Immigration reform is our main priority at this time,” explained Torres at that time. “There are 500,000 undocumented immigrants close to the metropolitan area and many of them are our members. Because our priority is to pass immigration reforms, we organize big civil disobedience marches at the White House and the Capitol. We’ll have a large civil disobedience march in front of the White House on May 1 because we think the President has a key role to play and stopping deportations is easy. He can use his executive power to do it.

“Immigration reform is the final solution. It can only be passed by Congress but the President can stop deportations tomorrow, just as he did with the Dreamers in 2012 because of the pressure we put on but also because it was a crucial political moment. We were all over the electoral process. It was crucial for him to promote, encourage and motivate the Latino community to vote for him and 71% of us did because of what he did for the Dreamers. At that time, in 2012, he stopped the deportations and about a million young people have benefitted.

“We did a legal analysis and have already given it to him. We found that, as President, he has the administrative discretion to implement laws in a certain way; in this case, he can decide that these people won’t be deported because they don’t have a criminal record, or have been here for some time, are the Dreamers’ parents, have children in this country… We proposed various categories. We had already done the math. Basically, if the President issues a decree in favor of all the categories I just mentioned, almost nine million people won’t be deported until the President leaves office in 2016. And by then we hope to have already passed the immigration reform. That’s our strategy.”

The strategy Gustavo Torres described that day was only partially successful. The proposal was essentially the one Obama ended up implementing the following November, but with considerably less coverage—five instead of nine million. Obama sent memorandums to the immigration authorities to stop the deportations of undocumented persons who are the parents of US Americans, don’t have police records and pay taxes.

Winning over the
Republicans is crucial


CASA of Maryland showed that it has the President’s ear. Former CASA president Thomas Pérez is the current labor secretary and Cecilia Muñoz, a former CASA board member, is the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and previously served as the White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, the main link between Obama and state, local and tribal governments.

This relationship has facilitated work with the Obama administration and undoubtedly helped them. But it’s not enough: Obama’s memos were challenged and his administration maintained the rapid deportation rate so as not to lose credibility. Muñoz has been booed by Latinos and activists because the deportations continue imprisoning children and separating families. Working with the Republicans is still essential.

And in fact, against all odds, the work with Bush wasn’t fruitless. Torres is more positive than other activists about Bush’s position on the immigration issue: “Bush was very pro-immigrant. The reason was simple: he’s from Texas, where the Latino community is immense and he’s been living and working with the Latino community. He’s sincerely pro-immigrant and this is very important.”

The CASA of Maryland experience shows that Latinos’ demographic clout and their participation in the labor market are determining factors for achievements favoring undocumented immigrants, as are politicians with a vision that transcends the local area to encompass national objectives: “We haven’t achieved immigration reform because we still don’t have the power and capacity to influence the Republican Party in some states controlled by whites. In many districts 90-95% of voters are white and they don’t give a fig about immigration. They just care about their district’s issues. Missouri’s District 18 is totally white. If you go and talk to its representative about voting for the reform, he’ll die laughing. Because we Latinos have no presence in his district, He’ll tell you ‘Illegal, I don’t want to talk to you.’ It’s the voters from that district who will elect him and they have no relationship with immigrants and zero interest in immigration reform.

“Those representatives have a totally localized focus, but others have a national vision. They know that if they want access to the White House, they have to at least say ‘Welcome’ to the Latinos. It’s not because that’ll get them reelected, but it enables them to say ‘Look, we’re not that bad.’”

The clout CASA of Maryland has acquired, encouraged from its humble beginnings by CARECEN, has made it an inexorable political mouthpiece with a national perspective.

Victories planned from a mansion


The new CASA of Maryland’s headquarters is imposing: a Georgian Revival mansion built in 1924 by a prominent Washington architect for the McCormick-Goodharts, a similarly prominent family whose fortune started with the invention of the McCormick Reaper in 1834. The mansion remained in the family until 1947 and in 1963 was bought by a real estate syndicate that turned it into an apartment complex. Over time the surrounding 565-acre estate belonging to the family, which they named Langley Park, was subdivided into a community of low-income residences that took on the mansion’s name and has become home to an extremely diverse immigrant community—72% foreign occupation. While the mansion itself was of sound construction, neglect, vandalism and water damage made it a poor real estate deal, although an inventory conducted by the Historic Preservation Commission described it as being “of considerable historical and architectural significance…one of the last great country houses of the 1920’s.”

After Sawyer Realty LLC donated the almost 3,372-square-yard mansion to CASA of Maryland (to be precise, sold it for one dollar), they began to renovate it. With $13.8 million raised during the economic crisis, a mixture of governmental and corporate funding such as from Adventist Healthcare and the Bank of America, the ostentatious mansion had been converted into offices, classrooms for teaching English, job training and legal advice. The National Trust for Historical Preservation describes it as “a state of the art, ‘green’ Multicultural Center offering educational, vocational, and advocacy services to disadvantaged immigrant populations’ adding that “this LEED Gold-certified project features geo-thermal energy and a green roof.”

The new CASA headquarters opened its doors for business in 2010. By the following year the organization boasted more than 90 employees and an annual budget of $6 million. Most of its funding comes from large foundations but it also has contributions from 50,000 associated members which, at US$25 a year per head, gives CASA of Maryland a solid, independent base to operate from and to maintain its services, outstanding among which are—to the pride of some and scandal of others—legal assistance to over a thousand cases a year and its employment bureau, which placed 18,989 undocumented workers in temporary jobs and 248 in permanent ones in 2010.

Its large stash of independent funding created CASA in Action, a $100,000 project that backs political candidates with pro-immigrant programs. This compartmentalization, free from the ties of state funding, enables more aggressive incursions into party politics. Perhaps these are the kind of tactics that earned Torres his evil genius fame.

They sponsor breaking the law


During the March 5, 2014, interview, Gustavo Torres told me that political work has afforded them notable achievements: “For example, last year we managed to pass the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (known as Dreamers), which ensures that undocumented young people can go to university without being charged out-of-state fees. When you’re within the state they charge you a fee but if you come from outside they charge you an additional $6-8,000, an enormous difference. It was actually passed via a referendum. We took it to the elections and 60% of the population, 1,800,000 people, voted in favor.

“Another victory related to advocacy is the minimum wage. We passed it in February 2014 in Montgomery County—the 4th richest county in the country—and here in Prince George County, where we have our headquarters. We succeeded thanks to a large coalition of Afro-Americans, progressive whites and Latinos. As you know, the minimum wage here is $7.50 an hour. We’re getting it to rise by annual increments of $1 until it hits $11.50 an hour by 2017. It’s another big victory for our people, regardless of their immigration status.”

The work of CASA of Maryland, in coalition with other organizations and State Governor Martin O’Malley’s interest in pleasing the growing Latino population, has resulted in conditions unparalleled in other states: irrespective of their immigration status, immigrants in Maryland are entitled to a lawyer and to vote in local elections.

But achievements come at a price. CASA of Maryland has been bitterly criticized. As it receives funds from different governmental levels, it has been accused of using taxpayers’ contributions to support undocumented immigrants and, in this sense, sponsoring the breaking of laws. That is to say, it supports unauthorized immigrants’ everyday civil disobedience.

Its advocacy work, the publication of pamphlets informing undocumented immigrants of their rights, peaceful street protests and the defense of workers’ rights have been enough for CASA of Maryland to rack up innumerable enemies. They are not above inventing links between CASA of Maryland and the American Communist Party, Free the Cuban Five Committee, the FMLN, Socialist Workers Party, Black Panther Party, the Muslim Brotherhood and even with Hugo Chávez, among many other “dangerous liaisons.”

This might seem like comical nonsense. In fact, they seem like a new version of the joke where a man is stopped for drunken driving and tells the officer a bizarre story about dismembered bodies in his trunk, resulting in such an absurd-sounding police report that the police chief lets the offender go free. But the nonsense in this case has inspired literally incendiary behavior: the CASA of Maryland offices in Shady Grove were subject to an arson attack in their first month of functioning. A line often wrongly attributed to Don Quixote, although he had enough reasons for saying it, could well be used by Torres: “They’re barking, Sancho; a sign we’re on horseback.”

Guatemalans get organized


The 1980s’ organizational belligerence left a residue of Guatemalan organizations in the US that usually worked in isolation and were often sectarian. Some were created by activists linked to the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) while others had religious or ethnic affiliations.

Such insularity surely became unviable for organizations with large aspirations and dwindled funding as Guatemala stopped being front page news. But that accumulated capital fed a series of networks that eventually managed to join forces in a common cause: the legalization of Guatemalan immigrants. In January 1998 Guatemalan activists organized the first national march for immigrants’ rights, attracting 3,000 participants.

That same month they organized an assembly in Chicago that included organizations from the most varied ideological and ethnic spectrum: CORN-Maya in Indiantown (Florida); fraternities (hometown associations) from Massachusetts and Los Angeles; the Anastasio Tzúl/Guatemala Support Network of Houston and Anastasio Tzúl/Casa Guatemala of Chicago refugee organizations; the Guatemalan American Chamber of Commerce (Chicago), the Guatemalan American Committee of Long Island, NY; the Guatemalan American Association (AGA) of Miami; the Association of United Guatemalans (AGU) of San Francisco and the Guatemalan Unity Information Agency (GUIA) with offices in Los Angeles and Washington.

According to researchers Susanne Jonas and Nestor Rodríguez, the latter organization was founded on the initiative of the Guatemalan consul in Los Angeles and that government link marked a contrast with the refugee organizations whose members had arrived in the US fleeing Guatemalan army repression. Nonetheless, they joined forces to form GUATENET, a network of agencies that fell apart the following year, floundering between ethnic and ideological differences. Some of its organizations and others soon formed the Coalition of Guatemalan Immigrants in the US (CONGUATE), which still exists.

Maya villages alive and
well in Los Angeles


Aside from CONGUATE, there are a great many community networks with Maya identity, among them the Bi-National/International Maya League headquartered in Vermont and its counterpart in Guatemala, the Organization of Maya in Exile in Florida and the Maya Various Interpreting Services and Indigenous Organizing Network, which provides translation services in asylum application hearings.

As Jonas and Rodríguez observed, these groups deal with social and cultural issues, not political campaigns for legalization, but they do work on the exercise of rights and legal immigration services. Their ethnic and national coverage has expanded and their issue range has varied. Both the more varied range of their services and their limited ideologizing are symptoms of a turnabout, perhaps a transformation, that responds to new needs or greater attention to the everyday ones of those who have a clearer future in the United States.

Despite their insertion in Los Angeles, it can’t be said they’ve been uprooted, to use the metaphor of US historian Oscar Handlin. Their place of origin continues to exert a gravitational force. Guatemalans in Los Angeles have many organizations patterned on the geographical divisions of their home villages. Indigenous Guatemalans from San Antonio Sija are divided by parajes, the territorial units in Maya villages. They regularly invest in communal assets back home: cobbling the streets and paving the roads, buying land for schools and the cemetery, enlarging their Catholic church and repairing two convents, improving the football field, building communal rooms and a retaining wall in Choni¬macorral. They have financed the celebration of Independence Day every September 15 in Camposeco, Pajul and Chonimacorral.

Since 1991 associations help their native communities celebrate their patron saints’ festivals with plenty of funding for Mexican and Guatemalan musical groups whose fame transcends the borders: Lalo Tzul and his marimba orchestra Ecos Manzaneros, Fidel Funes, Los Internacionales Conejos, Alma Tuneca, Checha y su India Maya Caballero, etc. Each concert costs US$4-6,000, depending on whether the group is Mexican or Guatemalan.

These investments in cultural events, construction and buying land in their villages show the importance of their origins. No less symptomatic of this importance is the fact that the institution that overwhelmingly attracts and unites them is the fund for taking the dead back to their homeland, the only one with regular, undeniable contributions that guarantee the return of deceased members to “where their umbilical cord was buried.”

If US associations distinguished themselves by rising from local to national level without losing their roots, these groups manage to be binational/local, i.e. very locally focused but with a presence and activities in two nations. In this they differ from typical US associations, whose structure reproduces the local/state/national one of the US federal government.

Halfway to a non-movement


These kinds of socially and culturally motivated organizations opened the way to the new generation’s more flexible groups, which from the outset seemed to be entities without ideological orientation or political alignment.

Perhaps also, as often happens, the upcoming generation noted the adults’ organizational resource and its many possibilities, but found no space in it for their activism so created their own organization… their own way. An example is the association I’ll call the Dolores Huerta Community Garden, a pseudonym used by the sociologist Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo in her book Paradise transplanted to refer not to the group but to its garden.

It brings together more than 30 Mayan young people between 16 and 30 years of age, most of them ethnically Quiché from the village of San Antonio Sija. It’s a very informal organization, halfway between a movement and a non-movement. It doesn’t have legal status. It was created with ties to the Catholic Church, but is non-denominational. And it doesn’t have a formally established hierarchical structure or a mission that transcends its members or guides their activities towards a utopian goal.

The obligations of both female and male members aren’t specified in a code. Its agenda is extremely fluid, often ad hoc in nature and unconstrained by specific programs. Although there are regular scheduled meetings, the members mostly interact during spontaneous encounters, in an ice-cream parlor or a Thai restaurant, where the number of participants varies and their experiences of the day lead to a very horizontal discussion in which veterans may explain how they confronted similar problems but never pontificate about the best behavior.

They have all the ideological plurality of a non-movement. The iconography the group puts on its Facebook page combines the most traditional religious motifs with allusions to the struggles of the 1980s and a belligerent veneration of Monsignor Romero.

Sometimes its discourse reflects a sexual morality marked by extreme Catholic conservatism, but this doesn’t stop the men from putting hundreds of selfies on their Facebook pages together with the myriad Miss Guatemala candidates with voluptuous cleavage produced by every neighborhood, event and business enterprise. Nor does it preclude any girl from switching boyfriends or regularly going out with a member of the group while clearly telling him—to his extreme perplexity—that she has no intention of establishing a formal or exclusive relationship.

Born in Guatemala
and migrated as children


The Italian Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci identified this kind of disconnection—not practicing what one preaches—as an unequivocal sign of a newly emerging hegemony. There’s surely plenty of that in this duplicity, in this particular case reflecting a cultural gap between a supportive yet burdensome past and a hard-to-assimilate present. We need to recognize that these young people have made a transition from a rural village of 6,641 inhabitants in 2002 to the mega-city of Los Angeles with its 3,792,621 inhabitants in 2010.

The change is similar to the one Nestor Rodríguez alludes to with the stark contrast between San Cristóbal de Totonicapán, a rural village of artisans and farmers, and Houston, an area of advanced industrialization, the starting and settlement points for another Quiché group.

As members of the 1.5 generation (born in Guatemala but migrated as children), some of these young people “appear more concerned with their lives and prospects in the United States and, at this point, do not seem likely to continue to sustain long-term ties to their parental homeland,” as Cecilia Menjívar rightly pointed out in Living in two worlds: Guatemalan-origin children in the United States and emerging transnationalism. They are in a state of cultural liminality (a time-space ambiguity when on the threshold of political and cultural transition) in which the old hierarchies are suspended. This creates many disorienting implications for their learned moral code.

A non-movement accommodates a wide range of positions, perhaps very appropriate for young people in liminality who are groping for an emancipation without an ideology to provide a substitute lifeline. It leaves individual women and men to examine what their own pressing needs are, using the means their own personal history affords them.

Neither Guatemalans nor
Angelinos…nor Chicanos


The French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault said that “identities are defined by personal history.” For the young men and women of the Dolores Huerta Community Garden, their group is an opportunity to meet those with very similar histories, allowing them to form a community together in the liminality. They are no longer chapines (from Guatemala) or Mayas from the Guatemalan highlands, or even Quichés from San Antonio Sija.

I suspect that their predominant problems wouldn’t be understood by their contemporaries back home: how to avoid the immigration authorities; when to go to the Labor Ministry; what to do about the inundation of pornography that’s circulating; how to act to around girls who are not the shy, domineered ones they’re familiar with; what to tell bully-boys who want submission like back home and how to react when encountering a polymorphous family that could take the form of a heterosexual couple without children, lesbians who adopt, permanent bachelors, or homes where the woman earns as much as her husband.

However, they aren’t Angelinos either. Although a city that fascinates them, Los Angeles is too immense a sprawling metropolis with too complex a history for young people who came here less than a decade ago to assimilate. There’s no name for their and other Central Americans’ liminality, something akin to Chicanos, long applied to Mexican immigrations from the same generational/migratory bracket.

Very informal
and very brave


I must acknowledge that my expectation of meeting young people confined to a geographical ghetto and caught up in relationships marked by inbreeding was shattered by the evidence of multiple relationships and extensive knowledge of Los Angeles’ most extreme hidden corners, from those of honored academics to German millionaires, from Sylvester Stallone’s house in Beverly Hills to the flop houses where the wandering lumpenproletariat pass around hard drugs.

Considering that most of them aren’t fluent in English and some feel that their Quiché accent betrays them with every word they speak in Spanish, this broad spectrum is impressive. I think this urban erudition and colorful range of relationships is the group’s achievement. The Dolores Huerta Community Garden has been a platform to deal with this cultural liminality and the liminality of their immigration status, cultivating more than just incipient integration.

The support young people receive from William Pérez, a Salvadoran catechist who came to Los Angeles fleeing military repression in the early 1980s, is multifaceted. His role in the group is extremely subtle. He can be a counsellor with invaluable experience, a public relations manager or just another comrade talking about his intimate problems. William infuses the meetings with a relaxed approach and a lot of humor.

The informal talks address the boys’ pressing problems: being adolescents, being indigenous Mayas who live in a very different cultural milieu, regaining their roots, promiscuity, harassment from youth gangs, girls from their village who behave differently now they’re in Los Angeles. Also the problems they encounter in the world of work, the stigma they feel for having practically zero English fluency and not much in Spanish, speaking with an unmistakable accent, all of which is music to the ears of swindlers and unscrupulous bosses.

The fact that their program isn’t constrained doesn’t mean they don’t have one. Their regular activities bear witness to that: Friday meetings, training courses, catechism, collective gardening as an exercise in psychological therapy, self-esteem and spirituality workshops such as the one called “Healing the Inner Child” given by a visiting psychologist from San Francisco el Alto… The group is consistent even in its spontaneous encounters and informal meetings.

The gardens are
palliative sanctuaries…


This garden is located in the heart of Pico Union, one of the most densely populated areas of Los Angeles and even anywhere else in the United States; also very close to the birthplace of Maras 13 and 18. The garden isn’t exclusively their idea; the city has a tradition of communal gardens, where Mexicans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans have managed to reproduce their countries’ vegetables, fruits, herbs and medicinal plants: chayotes, pápalos, chipilíns, epazote, bananas, papayas and mangos, among others.

They are semi-spontaneous platforms for getting together for different reasons, as happens with non-movements. As Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo and José Miguel Ruiz noted in “Illegality” and Spaces of Sanctuary “: these gardens serve as palliative sanctuaries for lives steeped in marginality and illegality (…) provide sites where people alleviate the hardships and suffering of illegality.” They obviously fulfill a nostalgic need too and, as in this case, may also have a religious, economic or psychological appeal.

…and places of resistance
and political meetings


To these must be added another dimension: geography professor Adrian J. Bailey, who has written extensively on transnational migration and migrant identity, argues that illegality is accompanied by spatial acts of strategic visibility. Hondagneu-Sotelo and Ruiz point out that because illegality is related to other exclusions—class, ethnicity, gender, nation—these spaces are important as reinvented places for engaging in resistance.

Urbanist Mike Davis talked about this reinvention 15 years ago, offering the example of Los Angeles neighborhoods that had been revitalized and tropicalized through the remodeling of houses by Mexicans and Salvadorans in the 1980s and 1990s. The gardens are yet another way to reinvent and appropriate the city, a way to force inclusion and thus a resistance I call civil disobedience, which is acting as if they were citizens, accentuated by acts seeking strategic visibility.

Because of illegality’s spatial aspect, the transformation of neighborhoods and gardens are platforms for engaging in alternative ways of belonging. In this sense they are political places because there people can enjoy integration and visibility not envisaged in the status imposed by the State’s bureaucracy. These areas acquire greater political implications and are more necessary in a context where restrictive immigration legislation isn’t only applied on the border but also within the country. They are more controversial areas when the determination to expel and all the devices of the banopticon (where profiling technologies are used to determine who to put under surveillance) have greater geographic penetration.

Hondagneu-Sotelo and Ruiz mention that these gardens are meeting places for undocumented immigrants and Central Americans with different immigration status. I emphasize what’s most obviously deduced from their research: they are areas for encounters with academics, people well established in US society, with sound and magnificent credentials in the world of work, consumption, higher education, the exercise of rights and legal status. People who can say everything they think and know how to say it; citizens with exceedingly good connections with other citizens and institutions, and who therefore sometimes act as communication hubs and channels.

An afternoon in the garden
Among other activities, I accompanied the boys—the bichos (brats) as William Pérez calls them, in Salvadoran slang—to a presentation of the book Paradise transplanted, a fundraiser for the Dolores Huerta Community Garden, which took place in author Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo’s home. The activity was set within a cozy garden of cactus and succulents, very appropriate for a city where a large part of the water travels hundreds of miles in aqueducts from the Colorado River and the Sierra Nevada mountains. Stones from its rivers still ring from old disputes between Southern and Northern California and with Arizona, brawls filled with corrupt incidents such as the one “more syncretic than fictional”–as Mike Davis called it in his book City of Quartz. Excavating the Future of Los Angeles—as dramatized in Roman Polanski’s film Chinatown, or the massive closure of wells (40% contaminated) in the late 1980s, which it was estimated would cost US $2-40 billion and take three decades to clean.

We got to this garden, which looks like a bonsai version of an oasis, at five in the afternoon on the hottest day of the year. I think the boys and I all felt a little like fish out of water or perhaps I did more because the boys had been there before; or maybe I’m only projecting my own feelings of strangeness. Little by little Pierrette’s colleagues began to arrive, most of them teachers at the University of Southern California, maybe some were neighbors. There were drinks and some Mexican-style snacks on two tables, and a place for selling the book.

The presentation ceremony was small and pleasant. Pierrette was introduced by her husband and spoke about the book with great modesty, especially for a prize-winning researcher with a C. Wright Mills Award among other honors. At the end she opened the floor to the boys and William, who talked about their efforts to insert themselves in the United States and the importance of the garden.

Encounters that bring about changes


Afterwards we spread out around the garden tables and talked. Time was set aside for the academics to learn about the life of young, undocumented Mayas in Los Angeles. But the relaxed conversation, wandering over various subjects, was—like the whole event—a setting for the “right now but still not yet” used in scatological reflections about the Kingdom of God: it’s being built but still hasn’t been fully realized. This happens with integration: it’s being built now but doesn’t get as far as legal validity.

Perhaps the contrast with other countries highlights the rationale behind these kinds of encounters: in neither Germany nor Nicaragua would the house of a university professor be used as a meeting and fundraising venue to aid a group of undocumented immigrants. What does this mean? If gardens are places for neutralizing a determination to exclude, their effectiveness is even more evident in the contact with academics who consider them places of resistance and subsequently carry their commitment into extracurricular areas: inviting the immigrants into their homes, presenting them to their friends, fundraising, etc.

To the extent that they bring about a series of actions undermining bureaucracy’s excluding preserves, these gardens aren’t only what Hondagneu-Sotelo and Ruiz call “seeds for resistance and social transformation,” but also sites of political struggle. That’s where the immigrants’ lack of respect and their aspirations to inclusion have an impact, creating a domino effect of events with multiple ramifications. These encounters succeed in giving the academics a grounding and greater awareness of everyday demands.

They also succeed in eventually getting practical demands met. Some of these boys migrated because of violence and sometimes they make surveys about their credentials in order to qualify as candidates for asylum. My farewell dinner, organized in a Pico Union fast food place, was attended by all the boys I had interviewed and more, as well as by the lawyer Robert Foss. While the rest of us were wrapped up in a noisy and chaotic talk, he raised his voice like a medical expert who identifies the disease from a few symptoms and knows the remedy, and said: “William, we’ve got a DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] program case here.”

They were formed
from the bottom up


Much of Central America’s activism—both its organizations and those who use them—is rooted in the struggles of the 1980s. Their knowledge and social capital were accumulated in interesting times.

Some started out linked to insurgent movements from their countries of origin but over time they have been diversifying. The end of the Cold War ushered in a new era of the Pax Americana where most of the conflicts previously attributed to racism, inequality, exploitation and injustice, are now presented, according to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, as problems of intolerance.

Liberalism’s change of direction—in order to sweep the conflicts under the carpet, along with a make-over and reinforcement of domination—has a positive consequence in the variety of activists who we would never have formerly thought to find working side by side and/or for the same cause: men who daily attend Mass, women lawyers from Berkeley, disenchanted former guerrillas, lifelong activists, inveterate hippies, muralists, Salvadoran journalists, grassroots educators, Maya tailors and many others.

I deliberately inserted the colossal CASA of Maryland into the same article as the tiny Dolores Huerta Community Garden: the first is a mixture of a movement and a top-down organization; the second falls within the boundaries of a non-movement. This array has produced a variety of organisms and profiles: different in size, financial movement, levels of formalization, membership and services.

But they have one thing in common: all these organizations were formed from the bottom up—the Dolores Huerta Community Garden was even formed from the bottom sideways, and CASA of Maryland from the bottom to very much up—motivated by common interests, elaborating on a feature Gramsci identified over fifty years ago: “Today, by contrast, collective man is formed essentially from the bottom up, on the basis of the position that the collectivity occupies in the world of production.”

These organizations’ members are united by their position in production, the consumer world, ethnic identity and, above all, their situation as undocumented immigrants who have the courage to act as if they weren’t undocumented. That’s why they succeed in creating institutions close to the interests of the excluded, grounded and responsive to the needs of individual women and men. If they have to undermine the hegemony, they’ll do it from far below.

They progress among tensions


But this grounding has led to some break-ups. For CARECEN the struggle by Central Americans in the US meant breaking from ideological ties that anchored it in a time and a region.

Its willingness to “devote itself to the community” was an expression of the tensions coming from a dual sense of belonging, reflecting the confinement in the national panorama and the methodological nationalism that Ulrich Beck challenges because it limits perspective by conceiving of modern society and politics as organized in a nation-State. In this case, that meant assuming that political struggles primarily or even exclusively gravitate around the country of origin. There has been tension between ideological and party loyalty and the imperative of responding to the needs of individual women and men whose lack of documentation made them subject to political exclusion.

The Dolores Huerta Community Garden, newly minted and free from ideological constraints as a non-movement, didn’t experience this tension. CASA of Maryland experiences it permanently, although not as a tension between a national and transnational framework, but through its dual character as an organization with grassroots and grasstops features.

It’s possible that the closer they keep their condition to that of a non-movement, the greater their sensitivity and flexibility. The Dolores Huerta Community Garden is much more autonomous and self-managing than CARECEN and CASA of Maryland, which now depend on many foundations with interests that influence their agenda. The Garden’s small size enables it to rapidly and effectively put together the “operations” its members need to move towards inclusion.

These young people’s religious language


The traditional religiosity of their language can be misleading. The symbolic framework of traditional religiosity can be the lingua franca of the dominated. It’s a language used to create fellowship among young people in liminality, but doesn’t necessarily reflect their practice. It’s often the language of conformity that lightly varnishes over an everyday life punctuated by acts of disobedience: staying without documents, avoiding the round-ups protected by a crucifix, crossing immigration check points clinging to a rosary, etc.

The bottom-up origins of CASA of Maryland and CARECEN, or the Dolores Huerta Community Garden’s bottom-up origins with sideways expansion and impact, empower them in their role as a hinge between the mass of undocumented immigrants and the large organizations and well-structured activities, such as the immigrants’ large movements, demonstrations, NGOs, academia and the media.

Their function as a hub is to react to the demands of the non-movements and cause reactions in institutions and persons in positions of power with possibilities of making their voice heard and getting their message across.

Engaged in an unequal war of ideas


The event in Pierrette’s home had a lot of theatricality: it was a setting for the including anti-establishment to challenge the excluding power. That’s where it derives its effectiveness to produce an impact and spark reactions, and where it gets the clout that enables undocumented immigrants to have their say in different areas. The links that many groups (Border Angels, the Dolores Huerta Community Garden, the Líderes Campesinas group—see envío No. 315, June 2008) have with academia, the links and political effectiveness of CASA of Maryland, and the media impact of the Dreamers’ associations represent a counter-attack that contains some elements of movement and others of non-movement, some of concerted activities and a lot of spontaneous actions. It’s a counter-attack on conservative thinking’s very calculated ideological production denounced by Susan George in Hijacking America: How the Secular and Religious Right Changed What Americans think, in which she reveals their multimillion dollar funding.

These groups are undertaking an unequal battle in this war of ideas, because even CASA of Maryland doesn’t have remotely comparable financial resources to those of the large conservative agencies such as the Templeton, Bradley, Olin, Scaife and Smith-Richardson foundations. But it has triggered a far-reaching domino effect in time, space and subjects. We can easily trace the “illegalization of immigrants,” “global citizens” and “liminal legality” concepts that sprang from the personal experiences and direct contacts of Nicholas De Genova (Working the boundaries. Race, space and “illegality” in Mexican Chicago), Peggy Levitt (God needs no passport: Immigrants and the Changing American Religious Landscape) and Cecilia Menjívar (Liminal Legality: Salvadoran and Guatemalan Immigrants’ Lives in the United States) with groups of undocumented immigrants, some very similar to the Dolores Huerta Community Garden. With these and other links immigrants are engaging in freedom exactly as Marx understood it: not as an absence of constrictions but as the ability to fight against them.

Through these groups, immigrants manage to go further in their challenge to the State, using their political right to organize, establishing alliances between immigrants with different immigration statuses and of different generations, keeping within the law but promoting the inclusion of those who have been illegalized.

If they are more explicitly politicized, like CASA of Maryland, they channel the immigrant non-movements’ force towards the offices of high-ranking politicians and their spontaneous force into media acts, expressing them in the language progressive politicians understand. They do it through the peaceful resistance German theorist Theodor Ebert calls “civil usurpation,” a set of constructive actions contained in the sanctuary movement and other initiatives that don’t enable the State’s excluding hand to act effectively, and that sends it signals.

They manage to neutralize power


None of these associations justify the apprehensions that inspired Tocqueville, as an aristocrat fearful of the Jacobin and Cordeliers clubs, regarding the concept of associations: they neither pose a threat to the State that can lead to anarchy nor do their members adhere to them with the acritical submission of those who abdicate their free will and accept a tyranny more unbearable than that of the government.

But they do confirm Kosellek’s findings: they are “apolitical” groups whose values question the State and limit its capacity to exercise power. Theirs are disobedient actions—sometimes explicit, like Gustavo Torres’—that contain legal changes towards apprentice citizenship and/or frustrate actions rejecting undocumented immigrants.

They procure what Norberto Bobbio recognizes as the main objective of peaceful rebellion: to neutralize the opponent, place the adversary in difficulties rather than debase or destroy it, preventing or hampering it from achieving its ends. These actions don’t confront power with a counter-power, they reduce it to impotence.

The report to Congress isn’t therefore so very misguided: these groups do negatively affect excluding policies on the border and within the country.


José Luis Rocha is a member of the envío editorial council and of the Institute of Sociology at Philipps-University Marburg.

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