Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now nearly a year into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 102nd in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
Today we bring you conversations with Jose Alfredo Pacheco Cruz, an immigrant from Mexico who has lived in the US for 27 years, and a community organizer with Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson. He discusses a recent march in Washington, DC, his group organized around the DREAM Act, how he has organized and learned from other groups focused on housing issues, and the hard work of day-to-day organizing for power.
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Sarah Jaffe: Let’s start off with the march in DC last week around the DREAM Act. You went down on a bus with a bunch of people from the Hudson Valley. Tell us about that and the organizing that went into getting everybody together for that.
Jose Alfredo Pacheco Cruz: It was very hard work because organizing is about trying to get everybody together and tell[ing] them about the issues and … calling them almost every other day and [trying] to fill up a bus with 50 people in a week. And we had another event that week … a fundraising event, so we were doing two things in that week. It made it a little bit harder for me, but I have a group of leaders … like 10 people. They are always there for me and they always help me. We made a list, we got numbers from people, and then [gave] every person certain people … to call and be on top of them. So, everyone has five people to call. Then, at the end, it was like three or four days before the march, … and we came up with the average….
We came up with a good number at the end. We were expecting to get like 40, but at the end we got more than 50 people trying to sign up. It worked out perfectly, because some of the people that said they were going to go at first, they cancelled at the last minute. So, we had enough people to fill up the rest of the spots. It was really, really, really nice. It was tiring at one point, but when I saw the results, it just made me feel that we can do anything. We can accomplish anything if we work together. Collective power — that is what I called it.
What was the march itself like? How many people were out?
There were thousands of people there…. New York Immigration Coalition — at first, they were expecting only 500 people, but because we put a little bit of effort in it, we ended up bringing more than 700. It was a good turnout. Our group, from what I hear, was the biggest group nationwide.
Well done, New York. That gave us another good thing to think about…. I was telling my friends, my leaders … “See, nobody ever did this before. We are the first ones talking and telling people [about] their rights and then they are getting to know you. And all this is happening because of your work.”
The thing with the DREAM Act right now, too, is everybody says they want to pass it, but it still hasn’t been passed.
I know. It is just sad.
It is frustrating that you have to push this hard for something that even Trump says he theoretically wants.
I know, it is sad. It is frustrating because I have a lot of friends and family that have kids, you know? I have a nephew — he came here when he was one year old. He never knew he was undocumented. He was going to school. He was learning like, “Be a part of this community. You are not different than anybody.” He learned the language, he learned the laws, he learned everything about this country. So, when he found out he was undocumented, he was like, “What am I going to do now?” His dream was to go to college and be something, have a career. But then, when he finished high school, they started asking him about his legal status. So, he felt disappointed. It made me feel sad.
I don’t think anybody has to be blamed for this, myself. That is the way I think. But how can you cut the dream of a person that was raised here and try to tell him that he doesn’t belong here when he was living here all his life? All that he knows is this. He doesn’t even have family in Mexico. And if he has family, he doesn’t know them. Like, if you go to Mexico, you are treated as an American, and if you are here, you are treated as Mexican. He is always battling that, like, “Where do I really belong?”
It is sad … but that is one of the reasons that I am supporting this … I say, “Never give up.” When he was thinking about giving up school and everything, I say, “No. Something is going to happen.” That was three years ago when they started with the Dreamers and DACA, so they got it. Now, he had the card and everything … he is fighting to see if he can stay here. It just makes me sad, but I am not giving up.
The DREAM Act is only one part of the work that you are doing. It is only one solution for one group of people, but talk about some of the other things you have been doing since the election, since Trump has been president.
Last year, I was working with the African American community. They are fighting about housing issues, and I think this is a big issue in the United States right now. The rents are too high. I don’t know how people can afford it. How can a person making $300 or $400 a week afford a place where the rent is $1,500 a month? How do they expect them to survive like that? So, I didn’t know anything about that, to tell you the truth.
We have been criticized because we live so many people in a house, but for us, it is the only way to survive. If I come here and I am working and I am making $300 or $400 a week, plus I have to send money back to Mexico, how am I supposed to survive? We have to be creating collective power so we can pay rent, bills … plus, send money back. So, by working with them, I learned a little bit more about the way they have been treated over the centuries. I learned about mass incarceration and about all those issues that are happening in the United States.
That is when I learned it is not about papers, it is not about if you were born here or not. It is something bigger than that. Most of the people that are white, they have a lot of privilege, something that we don’t have…. I am trying to work in ways to make them understand that if we work together, we can move from the bottom, everything is going to collapse. That is my idea of fighting all of that stuff. But it is going to take a lot of work. It is not an easy task. It is difficult.
There are so many things … going on all at the same time.
It is hard. When you try to make people understand about it, they don’t believe it. Sometimes people look at you like, “There’s nothing going on. Everything is good.” Some people do believe it. I don’t know where they are living, but that is not the world that we live in. It is sad, because if you just walk by…. It is like if you see somebody drowning and you look at them and say, “It is your responsibility, because you were not supposed to go in the water if you don’t know how to swim.” I would help you. But they don’t see that.
Right now, we have got a lot of people drowning for a lot of different reasons. Tell us a little bit more about the other work you are doing in New York State. We were talking about driver’s licenses and other things. Tell us a bit more about the other work you were doing this year.
This year was mostly learning. It was a learning experience for me because I was going to trainings that they offer.
At Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson?
Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson — a lot of different groups … give you all sorts of trainings. You learn how to start getting people involved in this and they tell you about different laws that exist. Like, I didn’t know the First Amendment in the first place. I said nothing, because I didn’t know how to express myself. I was very nervous to talk. I was always afraid. So, we went to different trainings.
This is what I believe. I used to be a coach for kids that play soccer. The first time that I started coaching … the kids didn’t even know how to kick the ball. I said, “Okay, I know how to do it. I was raised in that.” So, I started teaching them how to kick the ball, how to pass the ball, and from nothing, we created a great team. And by the end, we were undefeated. So that was my mentality. I say, to do something, you have to learn first, and then you have to teach it. You have to make a good group of people. Train them and tell them what is the duty in this, in this game we are going to play. Make them strong and make them believe that they can do it. After that, start fighting.
So, that was my year. First, I want to learn. I have got to learn. Then, I want to teach. So, this is going to be my year of teaching.
What are you looking forward to this year?
I want to get … municipal IDs. That is something … no matter what, we have to get it this year and, hopefully, by the end of the year, see if we can at least have advanced in the Green Light campaign [for driver’s licenses for immigrants]. That is local, statewide because that is local and state. Then, I think starting to get more of the youth involved in this, because many of the youth, they don’t believe in the system. They don’t even know. I was with my daughter, I was forcing her to vote, and she was afraid to vote. I don’t know why, but if my daughter is afraid to go and vote, I can imagine that many of the people from my community are going through the same thing. I want to break that. I want to change it. That is one of my things for next year — make them understand there is nothing to be afraid of, and by doing that, you are going to make a lot of changes around you.
What are some of the things you have learned in the last year that people who are not in New York, who are working in this particular context, should know about the organizing you have been doing in New York?
First, I learned about power. Whenever people say “power,” you imagine a lot of things, like, “Only people with money have power.” That is my first thought. But when you learn that, you have a group of people, you have you — that is power. If you tell them what their rights are, that is power. Now, if you get collective power of people and you start teaching them how to create power with money, community, you put all of those things together, you have more power. And it doesn’t take just one person. Everybody can move together and change that, and do that. That was the big thing…. I was confused about that at first, but then, over the year of practicing more and more and more, you start to understand that. That power can be used in a good way and a bad way. We have to learn how to use it in a good way and for our own benefit.
Anything else you think people should know?
They should know that no matter how difficult the fight looks, it is not impossible. That is the truth. I lived like that for 27 years, thinking that it was impossible to make a change. But now you’re seeing it more often. Look at what happened in Alabama. Collective power by organizing people. Sometimes you think that you don’t make a change, but even if you convince one person, you are making a change. That means a lot. That means a lot to me. I don’t want to convince a hundred people. If I convince one, that person has to be really, really, really true for what he believes.
How can people keep up with you and Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson?
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.