This September, the three founders of American University’s (AU) newest Latinx student organization, Latinos En Acción (LEA), were flown to Houston, TX with United We Dream Action to canvas in support of pro-immigration politicians. Although they faced disheartening moments on the road, the founders spoke highly of the time they spent in Texas and the lessons they learned on-site.
Coming together in the spring semester of 2022, Isabel Alvarado, Jocelyn Lopez-Arias and Edwin Santos decided to form a chapter of United We Dream, an youth-led advocacy organization focusing on immigrant centered issues at AU. After enormous amounts of planning and dedication, LEA was born. The three decided to take the positions as co-presidents. According to Santos, they felt as if they should be equally recognized in their titles for the work they had put into the initiative.
The student-led organization creates a true sense of community among Latinx students on campus through hosting fun events, like their most recent Bachata Night. However, the group’s true mission lies in advocating for Latinx rights on a national scale. This element of activism is what the organization’s co-presidents find so important about its existence.
“Our club is different than a lot of clubs, because we have that advocacy aspect to it that makes it like a whole different genre, a whole niche… So when we combine that with wanting to express and embrace your identity, it’s really powerful. Everybody who comes into our space can really feel those vibrations of like, just powerful Latinos,” said Lopez-Arias.
The club was formed after Santos and Alvarado began working together to start a Latinx organization. When Lopez-Arias, who had worked with United We Dream for four years, reached out to see if they were interested in collaborating. From that moment on, the group has worked together to not only to encourage Latinx community at AU but to motivate students to come together to work towards advocating for Latinx rights.
LEA does not see any direct mentorship from AU faculty, other than occasional allocations of funds for events. However, the student-run organization works closely with mentors from United We Dream. Over the summer one of the mentors, Gerson, reached out to the co-presidents to ask if they would be interested in attending a trip with United We Dream Action to Texas.
After a few months of planning, Isabel, Jocelyn and Edwin flew to Houston with around 100 other activists to rally support behind pro-immigrant political candidates. They spent the weekend participating in training sessions, canvassing in local neighborhoods and community building within the organization.
Throughout the short three day trip the co-presidents encountered experiences that they say will stick with them for a while. Although they faced instances of blatant racism, the three leaders put a positive spin on their difficult experiences, viewing them as lessons for the future.
During the canvassing process, Isabel was partnered with a student from the University of Maryland and sent out into a Houston neighborhood to talk about all things immigration. The two began a conversation with an older white man, who Alvarado initially credited with saying all the right things. However, towards the end of their conversation, when the pair asked if come election time the man’s vote will fall to pro-immigration candidates, he explained that he does not support immigrants and slammed the door in their faces.
After taking some time to collect themselves after the disheartening interaction, Isabel and her partner decided to get back up and continue their work. Alvarado explained that in that moment, she realized how essential the work they were flown to Texas to do was.
“You can just see the lack of education and how a person could be mad at the wrong group of people,” said Alvarado. “So that moment for me, I was just like, there’s so much misinformation that is put into the media, social media, schools and even education systems that aren’t necessarily spreading the right thing about [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals]… It took me a minute to collect myself, but I said, ‘this fight isn’t ending here.’ Because there’s still a long way to go with trying to teach your peers, your educators [and] your teachers about what it is and what the actual problem is. I think that’s what it comes down to at the end of the day.”
Isabel was not the only LEA leader that faced difficult situations while door knocking. Edwin and Jocelyn were paired together and were unknowingly sent into a private city within Houston. They were one of a few pairs sent into that area but were not able to get much work done. Their time spent canvassing was cut short after residents decided to call the police on the groups walking around the city.
The police told the pair that since the city was private, and not technically a part of Houston, they were not allowed to canvas. After connecting with other members of United We Dream Action in the area, they decided to head back to the hotel to further process what had just happened.
“I’d never realized that people could have the privilege of blocking outside people from coming to try to change your perspective,” said Santos. “Because in a sense, those people are in a place of privilege where they can do that and narrow-mindedly think what they believe without outside interference. And I think that’s kind of interesting because those are the people that we’re trying to reach…”
The situation was made more intense by the mix of legal statuses among the individuals that were door knocking. Thankfully, there were no further issues with the police. However the situation was still traumatizing for those involved. Both Edwin and Jocelyn spoke about how eye-opening this experience was for them as activists and how moving forward they will organize events in ways that will protect individuals that may not have proper documentation.
“Like I said, I never experienced racism in my face before, and one of the doors was really snarky and rude and so that’s when I started being like, ‘Oh, no, I don’t want to door knock anymore in this area,’” said Lopez-Arias. “They just slam the door, I don’t know, I think those moments are really important for me as an organizer and an activist to experience.”
Although faced with situations that would discourage most, Jocelyn, Edwin and Isabel remained committed to the larger fight at hand. They understand how essential difficult conversations are to have in order to educate individuals on the realities of issues such as immigration. The co-presidents came out of their trip with a greater sense of what works in terms of civic engagement, something that they plan to incorporate with future LEA events.
“We’re trying to get more people to do actual work, at AU there are a lot of performative activists, or people who pretend that they actually care but they don’t do the actual work that needs to be done,” said Jocelyn. “So we’re going to try to… do that here AU and try to see if we can get people to do hands on stuff like door knocking or phone banking and stuff like that.”
If you are interested in getting involved with Latinos En Acción, you can follow the organization’s Instagram and connect with them on Engage. The club’s next event is coming up on November 14, when LEA and Students for Change will welcome actress and activist Jackie Cruz to campus for a conversation on existing as a Latina woman in the entertainment industry.