[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #11 in July 2010]
From a young age I was interested in politics. But I did not become an active participant until college, when I was inspired by a classmate at Northeastern Illinois University. She was an undocumented student who advocated for social issues and immigrant rights. She organized events to educate people about the Dream Act, and encouraged me to join her in working with the Resurrection Project Dream Act Committee in Pilsen. From the fall of 2005 to the summer of 2006, our focus was on education for the children of the immigrants. The Resurrection Project started fighting for the Dream Act in 2004 and I am proud to think that we inspired other undocumented youth to join that struggle.
Through my activism in the immigrant community, I met people who worked with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrants and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) and they offered me a job. At first, I did phone banking to motivate people to call their state senators in support of a comprehensive immigration reform. I really liked it, but I knew I had potential to do more. I wanted to go out and have face-to-face interactions. In the summer of 2010, I decided to take a bigger challenge and become a community organizer with ICIRR in Little Village.
During the ICIRR training we were taught how to talk to, approach and retain volunteers. It was a very intense training; every day for six days we spent up to twelve hours learning about how to become great community organizers. Rev. Jesse Jackson and other important speakers shared strategies.
The task was not an easy one. I was supposed to motivate people to go out on No-vember 2 and elect an immigrant-friendly governor and senator. It was a non-presidential election, and after the false promises of Obama, people were disinterested in the election and skeptical about the political process. One person told me that capitalism will always need undocumented workers; he used the term “indentured servants.” This really made me think, and somehow realize that I agreed with his sentiment.
Conversations like this helped me to understand the weaknesses of community organizing campaigns like the one I was working on. It was a very intense campaign, requiring 10 hour days, six days a week. Organizers were pressured to meet certain benchmarks, to register certain numbers of voters and to report results each night. The strategy of the whole campaign was based on “pressure.” We would knock on doors and tell people to vote. We would warn people if they didn’t vote their wife, husband or mother could be deported. People might not be informed, but they’re not dumb. At the end of the day, the whole campaign was about numbers rather than making a real change in Little Village. But I knew that a five-month campaign was not going to be enough to educate people about the importance of voting. A better approach might be creating a center to teach immigrants how the legislative branch works, the history of our capitalist system, and who really runs Chicago and DC. I can’t know for sure how many people voted because of my efforts, but I did learn that electoral politics is a messy field, and I was part of this during the campaign.
The positive side of the experience was having conversations with so many people and meeting brave and inspiring souls. Some days I completed no voter registrations, but had a great conversation with a mother or a student who shared their experiences with me. I worked with some amazing volunteers, including one man who was at my side day and night on behalf of the immigrant community of Little Village. He became a close friend and a guide for me.
In the end, we managed to keep Quinn as a governor, but we lost an immigrant-friendly senator. The turnout in Little Village was low compared to the election of 2008 and the numbers were not what ICIRR wanted. But I was satisfied with the work I did, trying my hardest and working intensively. I respect the work that ICIRR does and appreciate the important lessons that working with the organization taught me, but one of the things that I learned is that I’m interested in other organizing methods. Sometimes I get discouraged and think about not working as an organizer. But this work is important to me. I am Mexican. I am Chicagoan. I am not an organization looking for numbers to get funding. I want to educate people, and help facilitate their own decision-making when it comes to politics and social issues. ◊