Originally published by The NY Times
It was Jan. 1, 2010, the beginning of a new decade. Instead of sleeping in after what should have been a fun night bringing in the new year, my friends and I were up early putting on matching Nike sneakers to start walking the 1,500 miles from Miami to Washington.
This is what set off the “Dreamer” movement, which fights for the rights of immigrant youth and their families. What began with me and my friends Carlos, Juan and Felipe walking turned into a national campaign joined by tens of thousands of young people.
I’ve been thinking of those early days a lot, ever since the teenage survivors of last month’s deadly school shooting started demanding stricter gun controls and rallying other young people to their cause. That shooting happened in Parkland, Fla., just an hour from where our Dreamer march began. And next weekend, those teenagers will be joined by tens of thousands of others as they, too, march on Washington.
Young people have an incredible ability to drive change. But it’s not easy. I offer my own experience in case it provides any comfort or guidance.
My activism was born out of necessity and rage. I learned I was undocumented when I was in the eighth grade. My senior year, my college counselor told me that I could not go to college. She advised hiding my immigration status and staying quiet. I quickly realized that adults live a more cautious, fearful life than young people, and their conservative views on how to tackle issues couldn’t help me. It was up to me to find a way for myself and others like me to go to college.
One of the first things I learned, when my friends and I started to get some attention, is how quickly politicians try to co-opt youth movements for their own agendas. Both Republicans and Democrats claimed to care about immigrants, but both parties continued to deport people and failed to pass immigration reform. The same thing is already happening to the Parkland kids. I saw politicians turn a recent town hall for the parents, teachers and students into a platform to debate not a solution to gun violence, but which party was better.
Young activists must learn to trust their instincts and not let these debates distract them from their goals. At the same time, they have to trust the wisdom and experience of those who preceded them.
Before embarking on our march, I had the opportunity to meet with the Rev. James Lawson, who helped coordinate the 1963 March on Washington. He served as one of the advisers for our walk. The struggle of black people in America, not just during the civil rights movement but today, is one we knew we had to understand and emulate. We called our walk the Trail of Dreams as a tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as a memorial to the Native Americans who died in the Trail of Tears. We wanted to remind people how many atrocities have been carried out in this county in the name of “law and order.”
The young activists of today are more adept with social media than we were. But I would encourage them to get out into the streets to talk to people. Our march took four months, and we spent time in the communities we visited. We rested on Mondays because weekends were when people were most likely to be free to walk with us.
One challenge in every social justice movement is making sure it’s not dominated by a single voice. At the beginning, I was surprised to be criticized by fellow activists because I was not a Mexican immigrant. I did not have to walk across the border; my family came to this country from Ecuador on an airplane, with a tourist visa. My parents bought an apartment before we arrived. Because I was more privileged than many others, I tried to put them front and center when reporters came to talk to us. Learning to give up your seat so others can have a voice helps legitimize and strengthen your movement.
This is very important for the Parkland teenagers, many of whom are white and well off — the kind of kids the news media typically pays the most attention to. They have met with students from Chicago, where young people have long been speaking out about gun violence without much national attention. But they can and ought to do more.
At the same time, as a woman, I also knew I had to speak out, because my voice was often ignored. One day, two male reporters asked me, “Where are the students who are walking?”
I smiled and said, “I am one of them, how can I help you?”
They looked at me and said, “No, the people who are walking, where are the boys?”
This kept on happening. Maybe they didn’t think a woman could walk 18 miles a day, or maybe they thought that because I was overweight, I couldn’t possibly do this. After a CNN interview during which I had to force myself into the conversation, I shared what I had been experiencing with my fellow walkers. They decided that from then on, I would be the first person to speak at events.
Perhaps the hardest thing about being part of a youth movement is transitioning out of it. I am now 33. It’s been 17 years since the introduction of the Dream Act, and still it has not passed. Part of me feels like I have failed.
I am still involved, but not at the forefront of the fight. I realized I could no longer go days without sleep, working on strategy and giving interviews. I needed a succession plan. And I wanted to help mentor other smart and motivated young people. Perhaps the Parkland students will be luckier than we were, and will see stricter gun control enacted before they hit their 30s. But if not, they will have to pass on the baton. This is important not just for the continuity of a movement but also for the sanity of the individuals within it.
Finally, people are going to attack any activist in the spotlight. Being vocal in the age of social media is hard. My advice to the youth activists of today is: Don’t read the comments. And if you do, don’t take what they say personally. While it is worth your time to listen respectfully to those who think differently from you, when someone is insulting you, it’s best to ignore them.
I will always be an advocate, but it will take people who are brave, energetic — and young — to keep the fire burning. Thankfully, the resilience and strength of the Parkland students and the next generation of Dreamers fill me with hope.