Outspoken. Courageous. Humble. Brilliant. Unyielding. Controversial. Undocumented.
Many words have been used to describe Maru Mora-Villalpando, the 2018 Globalist of the Year, but when I ask her how she would describe herself, she said simply as a single mom and a community organizer.
Mora-Villalpando visited the U.S. several times on a tourist visa for the purpose of practicing her English. During one of her trips in 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act that increased the consequences for people who had overstayed their visa.
Mora-Villalpando faced a complicated choice, which became even more complicated when she got pregnant. She decided to remain in the U.S.
Eight years ago she founded a consulting business called Latino Advocacy, which focuses on racial justice and immigrant rights, and has been heralded as a modern-day freedom fighter for her tireless efforts to stand up for immigrant rights.
Last year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement began deportation proceedings against Mora-Villalpando — but she refused to back down from her advocacy.
The Seattle Globalist asked her a few questions about her life, and her activism. The following is an edited transcript.
What was your life like before you came to the United States?
I was really young. I was still in college when I was in Mexico. So…in a way it was much more…let’s say busier because I lived in one of the biggest cities in the world so I was always busy doing stuff and traveling, but I did a lot of organizing work which we don’t call that. We just survive and resist and fight back all the time.
So, since a very young age I was involved in protests and marches and supporting work stoppages or strikes. If I wasn’t doing that I was going to school. And then I have a large family so I was also the babysitter in the family so I took care of all my nephews when they were little. It was a very very busy life.
What were you studying?
I went first for computer science, but in Mexico college is free which means all classes are saturated, right? It’s like hundreds of students per class. So they’re very selective. If you miss one class or if you’re late for that type of career then they drop you. So they dropped me. I was late to a Saturday class so I had to end up going to a different college. So I ended up going to business administration which I didn’t like. So, I switched and I went to journalism.
Were you able to finish before you came?
No. No, I didn’t graduate. I ended up coming to the United States and when I came here I just wanted to practice my English ‘cause I had already studied some English in Mexico. When I realized that I couldn’t go back and forth like I used to with my visa — my tourist visa — and I ended up staying, which was not what I wanted at all, that was not my plan. And then I got pregnant and after that I wanted to consider the possibility of going back to school, but it was really expensive. I knew it wasn’t free like it is in Mexico, but I had no idea how expensive it was so I decided that I couldn’t afford that, so I didn’t. I decided I couldn’t go back to school after that.
What made you decide to stay?
I think it was different things. I used to come back and forth with my tourist visa and I used to practice my English then go back to Mexico. I even did teach English as a second language in Mexico, but when I came back the last time in 1996, I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but at some point I heard on the news that immigration laws have changed. … At that point it was new where if you had been undocumented for a certain period of time you would be barred from coming back. And at the same time I had already been aware of the situation in Mexico. Not only the economic situation, but the political situation. So it was just a combination of factors that made me think …I don’t have a lot of choices, but if the choice is to stay versus going back to Mexico and not being able to come back here I’d just rather stay.
So what’s it been like to be separated from your family in Mexico?
[J]ust being here was a cultural shock because first of all it was not my intention to stay here, to live here. I always thought of this place as a transitory place for me, that from here I would go other places, to other countries. And just knowing that I would not be able to see my family for an undetermined period of time… it was really difficult. And it made me realize how difficult life is for undocumented people here in the United States.
Because it looks like we’re so close to Mexico and yet so far. And you know most of the Mexican community that I’ve known here for years comes only for a certain period of time. There’s always the hope that we’re going to go back. So, once I think we’re pushed to make that decision and we’re pushed to leave the country you really have to become almost numb to the idea that you cannot even be nostalgic about your country. You have to be really tough. You have devote almost your entire time to thinking why are you here to meet the goals of being here so that you don’t enter into depression or you’ll become… let’s say… emotional about it and then you end up going back knowing it will be very difficult to come back here.
So it is a very difficult decision and it is a very difficult way of living. But when your family is there, they also tell you, it’s better if you don’t come back because things are so bad. And there’s expectation that in general families that are here end up helping the ones that are back home. So I think that’s also the responsibility that many of us carry with us, to ensure that our families back home are in better shape than they were. And it makes it a little bit easier for us to be here thinking well at least I’m helping my family back there.
Looking back do you feel like you would make the same decision again or do you have any regrets?
No, I don’t have regrets. I don’t think I would have changed anything of it. The experience of being undocumented is a very unique one because it helped me connect with other communities that I don’t think I would be able to otherwise. And it made me realize also the kind of privilege that I carry because of the fact that I came with a visa, I was in college, I already spoke English when I came here, I’m light skinned. I came from a very classist city so I had to learn all these different levels of oppression that I carry with and also the level of privilege that I had and how I utilized the privilege wherever I went.
So by being undocumented, it made me realize all those different levels of privilege and oppression and it made me connect with the community. I don’t think I would have had, if I had been documented or if I had gone to a different country … I assume if I had stayed in Mexico I would be dead by now because you know Mexico is not only a very dangerous place for political dissidents, it’s also a dangerous place for women. If you combine women plus political dissent, it’s the perfect formula to be killed. So I assume it was a wise decision on my side to remain here and it had a lot of sacrifices entailed with it, but I wouldn’t change anything.
Had you thought before about applying for political asylum?
No. No, because I worked so much in this environment of immigration that I know that is almost impossible. I’ve know people that their entire families have been killed and yet they don’t get political asylum or asylum. So that’s not something that I know I realistically I would get. I think when I became involved with all of this, I went with the wagon that we call the CIR — the comprehensive immigration reform wagon. I jumped on it. Because I kept being told by lawyers that to fix my status I just had to wait for immigration reform to happen. And the more I heard about it, the more I thought, “Well, I’m not going to wait. I have to do something for it to happen.” So when I jumped on it I was like, “Give us papers, give us the green card.” And the more I learned about it, the more I realized that was not the solution. So I stopped thinking about the green card years and years ago. That was not my fight anymore.
My fight was to stop the detention and deportations of all of the community. That’s why political asylum or any other process never came to mind, because one, it’s not realistic. And second, I wouldn’t be able to apply anyway. And third, even if I gained status that still doesn’t mean that my community is not going to be targeted. And myself at some point. I mean the reality is that all immigrants are being targeted right now, regardless of even having a criminal record or status.
What has it been like transitioning from the Obama administration into the Trump administration as an undocumented person?
[W]e knew that it would be more difficult, that it would be more challenging. It was not a surprise. It’s still not a surprise all the things that they’ve done because we knew the potential of this immigration machine right? We knew that the level of power that they were acquiring and the structure of the machine, the machine was already huge, it was big.
What has been more difficult is for people who have never really believed us or that doubted us, or that thought that Democrats were the answer. And now I think it’s difficult for some of them to understand that this is not a Trump issue. This is an American issue. This is not new. There are not easy solutions to it. Just like impeaching Trump is not going to end the detention and deportations or the attacks against women or against poor people or gay people. I think for one there’s that, and I think the other difficulty that we’ve found is that we get so many people all of sudden wanting to take this on, but they haven’t gone through an understanding of their own privilege that they come to us with solutions because they don’t see us as leaders and they don’t see us as, you know, people with expertise. They don’t treat us as equals. They treat us more like victims which I refuse to be.
I don’t think that people in detention are victims. People in detention are organizers to me. They are incredibly strong and in general people that migrate to this country are…they’re extremely, extremely brave. They’ve already done so many things to get here and to remain here and survive here. It requires a lot of courage. So to treat us as victims, I think it plays the white savior mentality. And second it really is a disservice to the organizing of people who have done hunger strike after hunger strike in the detention center not only here, but throughout the nation. So that’s been a challenge, to make sure that people who want to come and support our work understand that we’re not victims, that we know what we’re doing. We get a lot of people coming and saying have you done this, have you done that and we’re like oh here we go again. But it is important for us that as people come and offer support that they don’t give us more work until actually they’re ready to do work with us and not for us.
What do feel like has been the most important thing you’ve accomplished as an activist?
I would say that I have learned that my place is not to lead, but to follow people in detention’s leadership, to listen and to hold people accountable to their work. It’s easy outside of detention to say you’re in support of people detained, that you support immigrant rights, that you want this to stop. It’s easy to say abolish ICE. It’s easy to say resist. It’s really hard to actually do it.
And I think that thanks to the leadership of people in detention I’ve learned to be…to have integrity in my work and to be accountable to them. And therefore I think I’ve learned how to keep others accountable to their work. And it’s not an easy job and most people don’t want to do it, but I’ve seen how people in detention, they have nothing to lose. They tell me that again and again. And I’ve learned that myself. We have nothing to lose.
So I think because of that our work is not about making friends or having a good image or making others like us, our work is really to dismantle an entire system. And we’re very honest about our work. We don’t like lying to people. We want to be really clear about what we do and what we don’t do. In order to accomplish that we also hold others accountable to it. And I don’t think I’ve ever had that opportunity to be myself held accountable to people in detention and to learn how to hold others accountable to their words when they speak of immigrant rights and immigrant justice.
In this work of dismantling the system what would you replace it with? What’s the next step that you’re hoping to see?
We have said again and again that people in detention, they have given us a road map. When you see their demands, when you read them, there is a road map of how to shut down the detention center and how to give people an opportunity to stay in the country. So people have said again and again that first of all people with medical illnesses should not be detained. People will small children should not be detained. And then everybody else should be released after those priorities have been released and then everybody else.
Which means to us that there should be no detention of people. First of all this is a civil system and in their demands they have talked about having a fair chance to fight their cases. And I think that’s really what we want to replace the entire system with. We want a system that does not rely on detention to create a business, which is what we have. We have an entire industry living off of the people detained. But replace completely that we are actually a civil system that is fair to the people in deportation proceeding. But also that takes into consideration the root causes of migration which we have never seen in any kind of immigration reform bill.
That’s what I used to do back in the day. We used to take all the different bills that were introduced from 2007 to 2013 and show to our community, read all these proposals. Do any of them match the need to end up here? People would say no it doesn’t address the fact that I was forced to leave the country in the first place. And so we need to have an entire different system that is not punitive. That takes into consideration the role of the United States in creating the conditions of forced migration too. And we need to remind people that this is a civil system and it should be treated as such and not to be switched around within the criminal systems as it fits with them in order to excuse the criminalization of our people and excuses the creation of entire enterprises that benefit and profit from the criminalization of our community.
What is the one question that no one ever asks you that you would like to answer?
(Laughs.) I think people tend to forget that this is a group effort and people like to idolize one person and I always have to remind them that it would be really stupid of me to be outside of the detention center with signs saying release everybody detained. It would have no impact whatsoever. My work has been successful because it’s teamwork. It took me years to get to this point where I found the right people to do this work with me.
Back in the day I was working with my undocumented community outside the detention center and it wasn’t really until we did the shut down action of February 2014 when people being transported saw outside blocking the streets that they said, “OK, it’s time to organize with people outside and for us to respond to their organizing inside.” …. [T]hat took a lot of team effort for us outside to put together an action and to remain together as a group and for people inside to organize themselves and be in touch with us. And people forget all the time that our work outside is really the result of the organizing inside. And it’s a whole team. There’s a bunch of people around me and with me and supporting me and my daughter when ICE came after me.
People always ask me about my story. I really don’t like talking about me. I like to remind people that this is a group effort. I just happen to be lucky enough to be doing this work, but there’s no way that I could have done this if it wasn’t because we are a whole group that believed that we could do this and that we should do this.
I hope that by the time this is published that there is no hunger strike anymore, but there’s still a hunger strike happening. This is week 9 of the hunger strike. Today is day 56 for one person on hunger strike. So that tells you the importance of our work outside, but also how bad things are inside that one person decided, “I’m not gonna eat and that I’d rather die in here rather than going back to my country.”
We are also right now working on stopping the deportation of Saja Tankara. Saja has a lot of medical issues and ICE retaliated against him when he was featured in an article last week. It was published on Wednesday, and on Thursday he was told he was being deported. Like, very out of the blue. So we have been organizing. And so far he is still here, and his wife is doing a lot of work. She just texted me as you and I are talking here. So I hope by the time this comes out that he is already free, but if he’s not we’re asking people to keep making the calls. I know sometimes people get bored when we’re having our call to action everyday saying, “Make the call, call ICE, call GEO” — but [the calls] work.
And if people in detention don’t stop, we shouldn’t stop either. And it’s really comfortable for us to make a phone call. It doesn’t take much. So we’re asking people to continue putting pressure on ICE. Believe it or not, it works. And if this other guy decides he wants to continue his hunger strike we should support him as well. So I hope that in your article you can reflect the need for the people outside that are not direct organizing with us that they can still be supportive of our work by just following our calls to action.
Maru Mora-Villalpando will be recognized as the 2018 Globalist of the Year at the Globie Awards on Friday, October 26, 2018 at Georgetown Ballroom. For tickets and more information, visit www.seattleglobalist.com/globies.
Mora-Villalpando was selected from a pool of nominations by readers of The Seattle Globalist. The Globalist of the Year embodies the values of The Seattle Globalist: racial equity, social and economic justice, elevating the voices of communities of color and immigrants, integrity, diversity, and community impact.