A Conversation on Immigration: What it Means To Be Hispanic in America
Written by Kendra Shiloh
CUNY students Andrea Gonzalez and Enrique Pena sat down to spark a dialogue on the topic of immigration. Andrea is a student at Baruch College studying Sociology, and Enrique is a sophomore at Queens College majoring in Urban Studies. Andrea and Enrique met through school events and since then have moved forward in their goals for immigration. Both students discussed their paths to becoming activists for their communities, and the highs and lows that come with being on the front lines of such important, radical movements. Rather than dwelling on the cyclical nature of injustice in the world, they are setting out to change the conversation: encouraging youth to speak their truth; to flip the switch on injustice in their communities.
We began this conversation with Enrique’s immigration story.
He came to America in January 2016, after his brother obtained his citizenship and was able to place a request for him. Enrique came here on a tourist visa, expecting to get his green card after two years; however, after 4 years, he has still not received his residency.
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Enrique: I came here to study engineering, but I realized that I wanted to do something different because, I saw myself and I was like, okay, in two years this is going to be over for me. But it was probably never going to be over for some students. And I know that education, like most of them come with their parents and they would be like, “okay, you need to come here and get an education” and they don't have those resources and that's just painful, right?
So yeah, I became like a mini like guidance counselor, just like pushing students to apply to college and just like talking to them, everyone, about like “you have to go with it” like “you’re great or you have a lot of like energy and like that's everything that you need, just like push for it.”
And yeah, like I became a president of this club Aspira, which was kind of a nightmare, but at the same time, so beautiful because the club had like three people that no one else wanted to be president. That's how I became, because literally it was like,
“Okay, you want to be?”
“You want to be?”
“Okay. Enrique, you are.”
It was supposed to give opportunities for immigrant students, mostly Latino students to go to college, scholarships, you know, guided trips to colleges. Um and yeah, that was basically like, it was supposed to be a side thing. I was still going for engineering, but I went to this program for scholarships. Um, it was like some kind of like, you know, event called the Puerto Rican Hispanic Youth Leadership Institute. We will learn how bills become lost in New York state and then we would go to Albany and like debate actual bills in the actual assembly.
And I hated politics. I hated law because I'm from Peru. I know corruption, I know everything. So it was like, no, not happening, but I will go to like every day, every weekend. That was like that Institute before going to Albany to the, um, like advisor to the person organizing it and be like pleased. Like I come here with a bunch of students, they're all amazing. They're all wonderful. They're all like so smart, but they need the opportunities. If you care, like any special thing that you can think of, just like, let me know so I can let them know because he really wants your help. Like, I'm not interested in this at all. Like I can be honest with you. But I really want this for them.
So somehow she saw that, and she pushed me to the front. And she was like, okay, now you've got to speak. And she ended up giving me this like special recognition to be like, um, representing like the New York City delegation. And then we went to Albany. I won first place statewide. I won a scholarship. Um, and it was crazy because, uh, the day that like it'll change was because they told me that one of the bills that we had to debate was an actual bill proposed by Republican from Ben [inaudible] that proposed that and no quote-unquote illegal aliens should be allowed to go to public higher ed institutions.
So, um, I just thought of all my students and how they will be denied an opportunity to go to college. And I remember that same day I just went home and I just cried and looked in my computer, different ways to approach and attack that bill as many times as possible and like just argue it, um, because I, I just, I couldn't believe it.
Um, so I went to Albany. I debated that, I cried on, on that fricking place. And I got that award, I got a leadership award, which is crazy because I got it because she saw that I was asking like for other students to be given the opportunities.
But I just came home like that weekend and I just told my mom like, you know what, I'm not studying engineering anymore. Like I'm studying like politics and law. I want to do something different. And I was just like expecting her to hit me, but uh, didn't happen. She actually trusted me more. And that's how it started. Just pushing for immigrants, you know?
Andrea: Gosh, no, it's so crazy. I've known you for like about a year now. I did not know any of that. It's so crazy. No, but it's, it's funny that you say that too because like there are so like my family too, like they were always against politicians. I think it's like a Peruvian thing. We just don't like politics. We don't like government. And so like now I'm also really involved in that. And so it's, it's really funny the similarities.
But so that's how you started and now you just passed the Dream Act. Like you supported that and you were in Albany doing that. What was the process of passing the Dream Act in New York state?
Enrique: Hmm. I know that it was for many years. Um, I think more than 10 that activists have been going to Albany talking to politicians. One thing that I just didn't enjoy as much as the fact that, I’m one of the reasons why it was never passed it was because of, because of the IDC, you know, like the state Senate was controlled by Republicans because of some Democrats in that caucus with them and didn't let them pass those progressive bills. And like one thing that I felt that it was like, uh, like betrayal, like it was just like betraying, like the students, the person proposing that bill, um, [inaudible] was also in the IDC.
So he was asking for students like to have that opportunity, but at the same time he allowed the Republicans to not have that bill passed. When like the IDC was destroyed and it was years, and I was only participating in like the last one. I mostly helped like kind of like pushing like against the IDC because they knew that it was like one issue. And like, I volunteered for Jessica Ramos; I worked for Cynthia Nixon.
It was just trying to bring that at like progressive politics because I knew that like the Dream Act was one of the things being played in that game. Right. And yeah, it was in Albany that day. That was with Catalina Cruz, that is like the first formerly undocumented person in the assembly.
It was beautiful and it was such a closure because I went to Albany and my first time to um, fight against Republicans pushing SOL document, the students are not allowed to college. And my last time in Albany was seen like an opportunity for undocumented students to go to college. So it was like such a closure.
Andrea: That's like beautiful or you came all the way full circle and it's just, it's so amazing to like see people from our community being able to thrive like that. Like being able to support change and be in these spaces and create change. But like something I definitely experienced or know about was like when I'm in political spaces I also often feel like tokenized, right?
So like we talk about really important stuff, but then like I always feel like I'm just that little check on a box. Like oh, we have that woman of color in this space. Like we good, we're going to talk about something really important and now we have representation. Like, what has been your experience with tokenization and being marginalized and inclusive spaces?
Enrique: Well I always feel like there is some of that happening. Like there's a bunch of progressive places, gatherings where I'm just given an opportunity to speak; not because of like me actually having something to say or because something that I did, but because they know my immigration status and they're like, “Oh, let's give the undocumented the opportunity to speak,” like “it's gonna look good.''
Like I understand that and I consider that despite the disadvantages I recognize that it's like also privilege in some way ,because like I can use that opportunity to actually push for issues.
`For example, like you know that like my best friend is a white lady; a white woman. So it's like I tell her, okay, I’ll use like my male privilege or my, sometimes my like, you know ,“undocumented privilege” to speak; to give you a platform. And you use your woman or white privilege to let me speak. Right. If you are given an opportunity like no matter the space, like you have to fight it so that personality is not only yours but you give it to someone else that also needs to speak.
Andrea: It's like a thing that happens in activist communities that we've developed bonds and we realize that like when I'm in a space like we’re a package deal; like if I'm here, she's also here, and this person is also there.
And then usually I feel too like whenever I speak at places, like they have an intention of me being there. Like they want me to say a certain kind of thing. And so like I will say what they want me to say, but I will also put in my 2 cents and say what I think needs to be heard. Like, I know that people are listening to us and know that they need to hear affirmation that like, you know, their struggle is real and that their struggle is going to be solved and they're going to be helped one day.
And so when we come into spaces and we talk about this kind of stuff, we need to say what our community is actually feeling. Like it's so important to be in those spaces cause we like ultimately we give hope to people because we made it and then we can change the conversation once we get there.
Enrique: Even the slightest thing that you can do, it's already like setting up something for the next generation. I think yesterday or two days ago, I went to this event at Queens College, to kind of, um, how can I say, remember the events of 1969. The students took over the campus, just to demand like more funding and the creation of the S.E.E.K. program. And yeah, students just organized and got it done. And now some of those students and professors that were in 1969 went to campus to talk to students and I was there and I, I just felt that like they did at once.
It's possible, like I can make it happen. I can just make sure that I organize and get more funding for more students in the future. Like I can do it too. Right? Yeah.
Andrea: No yeah, whenever I think about those situations, like it just makes me think about how far we've come already and like how we could do that again. Like people have been thinking radically about what it means to be free and what it means to be liberated. And you know, I just, I get so excited thinking about like, what can we do to make people feel that again.
Like, we see what's happening at the border, we see who's in power and we just get really, um, I don't know, we get cynical about what's happening in the world and we need to like remind people if there are things to be done then there's things that we all can do.
Do you have any tips for folks that aren't activists?
Enrique: It's just a matter of, yeah um, I was going to say showing up but if you can't, at least know what's happening. That's halfway through it. Like just understand that there's issues because as soon as you understand that, there is a way to solve them.
So many times, I cannot even count like how many, I have been told by people even like close friends or family that are like, why are you criticizing this country so much? Why don't you go back to Peru? The answer I always give is like, okay, I criticize because it's like in a relationship, right? And when you're in like in a relationship with someone, it's to grow together, like to help. So how are you gonna help that if you don't recognize mistakes? So it's the same with like a country. Like I'm here, if I actually didn't care about this country I’d go back to Peru.
It's like you're here; at least understand that there is an issue. Even the slightest thing, just like vote, right? If you feel capable, like if you feel that you can do it, run for office, um and just make sure that everything you do in life is gonna affect someone else. So try to do it consciously; try to do it for the betterment of someone else as well. Right.
Andrea: And I totally agree. I like to think that like, the word that represents my activism is love and empathy. And it's everything that I do, even when I'm out in the street; in the road shouting to burn down the system. I do it out of love. Like you know, I love my people, I love my community. I love that I'm here in this space, but I also want things to change, you know?
I think the way that I love is really radical and like, you know, revolutionary in a way that like, I love you, but I want you to be better and I want this to be better for my future generations too. So yeah, I don't know. I'm so happy that this community exists. I think CUNY is like a breeding ground for leaders and people who want to change the world. We don't get enough credit for that.
I think people are changing everywhere. I would like to think that it's smaller out there cause there isn’t like outlets. Like you know, I'm from Staten Island, Staten Island is known as like a conservative borough in New York City. Like we're like the outcast of the city or like the forgotten islands; we’re a bunch of other names. Um,
No, but yeah, and so I've had my experiences with activism and it was just like my voice into the wind. Like nobody heard it, nobody talks about it with me. My dad was an activist in his country in Peru. And he is the only one that listened to me and without his help, I wouldn't have like, you know, looked elsewhere for opportunity.
But if you have the access to learn vocabulary and like ideas and theories, it becomes something so much bigger. Like if I didn't decide to go to an internship in Manhattan when I was in high school, I wouldn't be the person I am today. And so I feel like it's our job like folks in New York, folks in like really big liberal cities that have access to resources; I think it's our job to like go there and give them this knowledge because they're, I think everyone, unconsciously, we all want justice and liberation. Like at the core of us, we all want what's good for our people. And so when we give them access to these resources, we like to allow something to grow in their brain.
And so if like kids in Alabama, I think that there's something in them that wants change and wants something better for them. Cause I'm 100% sure there is. There is somebody just like me; a queer woman of color out there in Tennessee that is really confused about the way that the world works and the way that her parents are treating her because she's queer and the way that she looks. And so I think, I think that is just like ours to bring that to them. I think that the United States is changing as a whole and people aren't really waking up like wherever you are. But I don't know. I think I'm a very hopeful person.
Enrique: Same for me. Like it's totally, um, I think we brought up those issues that as sometimes we're just like forgotten, and like people from even the most red states and just like, oh I didn't know this. Like, it's actually important. And let's talk about it more, um, just like see the case with Texas; it like almost turned blue with the Senate and even though Beto is not the most progressive person in the world, his campaign was like, “Oh, what's happening in the border?” Right. So like it's a small step, but I think it's just getting bigger and bigger.
I've had conversations with friends that are Republicans. I had like real, like really nice conversations from where we both agreed and like “okay, there's an issue.” We might have different ways to approach it, but like we must understand that they should exist and they actually agree with me They actually came with me to some events, protests and stuff. And I think that it's just a matter of because you were raised in a certain way, sometimes your beliefs or just like something that you inherited from your parents, from your family, from like your surrounding. Uh, so it's not your fault. Right? Yeah. I will never be able to attack a young person that is a Republican just because they probably never found something else around them. You just need to show them that there's another way, that there's some things need to, um, like you need to actually think about, and sometimes the issues here in this country sometimes I was just like so hidden.
Like if you don't actually look for them, you won’t know. You will not find them because that's how media works. It's just like they try to portray everything as if it's perfect; as if this is the greatest country in the world and everything is just working out perfectly. But it isn't. And again, like it's the first step as I said, like for you to fix an issue, you first need to recognize the issue. Um, one quote that I always love to say from [inaudible] is like “to know more is to be more free.”I always associated it with how in this country when you're a person of color, you're sometimes given two options: college or prison. Like to know more is to be more free by going to college, by having an access to an education. Um, you're sometimes like buying your own freedom. And so in the end it's just like a matter of getting those same ideas that are “okay, you need to recognize that these people are having like an awful time” and you're not helping it by just ignoring it. Just like talk to everyone and make sure that it happens and it's happening right now. So yeah, like I'm definitely hopeful and I think it's something that is going to change soon.
Andrea: If you don't have that much to risk, I think people should try to go out into the streets and like really research about what you care about. I think it's important to find what we care about and it's, it's hard. I think like talking about passion is a really difficult thing to comprehend nowadays. I feel like a lot of folks like don't know what their passion is, but I think everyone, there's something that makes your heart beat. I think everyone has that and I think you should find something. Everyone should find something that they care about and go to the street and fight for it. It makes you feel better. It makes me feel like “you're doing something and it's worth it in the end.”
The activist community, it's like a family. We go out and we support each other with our events and what we believe in and when you need something and we'll be there for you too. I think that that goes back to what I'm saying. Like I think activism is based in love and like everyone that works in activism, we all love each other. Like we are always there for each other. Um, I think it's a super beautiful community here. We're always just there for each other. And even one of the things, even when things are so bad, like in the world and in our personal lives, like people are there for you, they support you.