In the Shadows of Civil Rights

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Growing up in the 1960s, I never quite understood why my parents were so socially isolated. Even when I earned all A's in schools, they didn't always show up for special honors events.  It wasn't until I grew older that I understood my parents, undocumented immigrants from Mexico, lived in perpetual fear of deportation. 


They worked hard but socialized minimally because they didn't want to be found out. This is what it means to live in the shadows.

My parents, like tens of millions of immigrants from all over the world before them, came to America seeking opportunity and a better life for themselves and their children. It is they and others like them who I think about every day when I speak out and work toward commonsense immigration reform. It is they who I think about as I reflect on what the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom means to me as a Latino woman who came of age just after the height of the civil rights movement.

Civil rights and labor leaders came together then to organize the march and send a clear message to political leaders about what it would take to create a more just and equal society. They demanded an end to systematic discrimination, a deliberate effort to alleviate poverty, a significant boost in the minimum wage, broader access to education, and voting rights. But the overarching goal was to work toward a society in which the humanity and dignity of all people were recognized, regardless of race or ethnicity.

My family watched nightly news coverage of the civil rights movement. As undocumented immigrants who believed they could be deported any day, my parents felt a kinship with those fighting for civil rights. I was born two years to the date before the March on Washington, so I am too young to recall it, but I vividly remember my parents' devastation in 1968 when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and, later that year, Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. "Everyone who is standing up for us is gone," they said.

Decades later, in spite of setbacks, in spite of efforts to silence the voices of those who spoke up for civil rights, the nation has made tremendous progress. African Americans, women and Latinos combined make up more than half the U.S. Congress. More doors of opportunity have opened in the workplace and classroom for people from all walks of life.

But the harsh truth is, we still live in a country where recently a right-wing political leader unabashedly labeled Mexican immigrants drug smugglers; where an adult male can invoke a backward "stand your ground" law to justify shooting a black, teenage male after racially profiling him; and where states (Arizona) pass anti-immigrant laws or cities (New York) pass stop-and-frisk laws that provide a protective cloak essentially sanctioning profiling based on race and ethnicity. The list goes on and serves as a stark reminder that we are still struggling to fully achieve the vision laid out by King, Kennedy, A. Phillip Randolph and other leaders.

Part of the drive I have for the work I do is remembering who I am at my core--a girl from an immigrant family who spent part of her childhood in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Civil rights.

Immigrant rights.

The current fight to boost the minimum wage and make low-wage jobs good jobs.

All of these fights are connected--and all of these fights have deep meaning for me, other Latinos, other women, and anyone interested in achieving social and economic justice.

My parents no longer live fearful and in the shadows as they did when I was growing up. They realized their dream of coming to this country and giving their children the opportunity to have a better life. They knew profound change was possible for their family.

As a nation, we need to take advantage of this moment in time, be on the right side of history and pass commonsense immigration reform. As we saw in the years and decades after the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, radical social change is possible when we come together, demand justice, and hold our political, civic and business leaders accountable.