Menu Donate Now

How Grassroot Organizing Works in Immigration

Posted on

By: Perla Martinez-Beltran, and Joyce Anderson, edited by Lynn Buske

The key component to JONAH’s grassroots organizing is building relationships with each other – sharing one-by-one who we are, where we are from, and understanding and respecting not only our differences but what we share in common. When we get to know a person it is impossible to not care for each other deeply – walls are broken down, judgements are erased, and community is built.

Perla Martinez-Beltran is a WISDOM Immigration Organizer.  She lives in Rice Lake, works with JONAH’s Immigration Task Force, does work up in the Barron area, and co-organizes the WISDOM statewide Immigration work. She shares personal examples of why JONAH’s immigration work is so important.

I have always been proud of my Mexican heritage and have never denied who I am culturally but it was not until I attended UW-Stout that I realized how important it was to retain my culture and be myself all the time, no matter where I was. The results [from a cultural identity test] actually showed that I would hide my “Mexican Side” depending on who I was with.

Growing up in the Rice Lake/ Barron County area, I always felt a lack of belonging in the community. I was the only Latina in my school grade from elementary school up through high school. There seemed to be a cultural barrier being set unknowingly. At school only English was spoken and at home only Spanish was spoken as it felt like a sin to speak Spanish at school. At that age I didn’t understand why I had to be different in each of these settings. After a while, it was just normal to have two personas. Most of my peers have always been Anglo and subconsciously I would put up a different front with them because I did not want them to think anything less of me for being Mexican. Just having that thought, made me realize I was always having to prove to others who I was, when they did not have to do the same. That way of thinking was instilled in me at a young age and subconsciously, I always thought less of myself for being Latina.

Knowing that others felt and currently feel torn between two cultures, I knew I could no longer be a bystander and continue to conform to a culture that was not meant for me. I was meant to be a Latina to share my culture – to teach them who we are, as they have taught me about their culture and who they are. It is time to teach each other and accept people for who they are. I want other Latinos to be able to be themselves, without putting on a mask for anyone.

Throughout my whole life, I have always dealt with deportations first hand. By the age of five, I had already lost three of my brothers to deportations. At the age of 10 I lost another brother for the same reason. Then again at the age of 18, I lost my last brother to a deportation. By this time, deportations had become a normal thing in my life. I thought I had grown enough tough skin to deal with it. It wasn’t until my husband’s deportation in December 2018 that I finally broke down. Enough was enough. I could no longer push it under the rug. Family separation is a big deal. It cannot go unnoticed any longer and there needs to be immigration reform. It took my dad 3 lawyers and over 10 years to be able to help my mom and sister receive their residency. In those 10 years, I could have lost my mother growing up. My life would have been completely different without my mother by my side. There are many children, now, growing up without their parents, without their siblings. These US citizenship children are suffering the consequences from these broken systems. Children are losing their childhood due to fear being instilled by family separation. They are being traumatized. Their mental health will no longer be the same, I can confidently say that from personal experience.

When an opportunity arose to work with WISDOM through JONAH I knew I had to take it. This was my chance to take on my responsibility as a Latina to advocate for the Latino community and become an organizer. There is a need for help in the immigrant community. People are scared to seek help for fear of jeopardizing their own current status in this country. Immigrants are a part of our community and they should be welcomed and helped. If people got to know the immigrants in their community, then they might not be so quick to judge them for being here. We need communication between both groups to understand each other and support each other.

Through WISDOM, Jessica Diaz from Racine, Norys Pina and myself were chosen to help our communities by building our capacity and include more immigrants in our line of work. We chair the statewide Immigration call to share best practices between the affiliates, increase participation from immigrants, and have a few statewide actions every year. Independently we plan to uplift our work in our local organizations and fill our local needs.

From my home in Rice Lake, I am currently connecting with a community called, Immigrant Advocates of Barron County. With them, we were able to collaborate and do the “Unafraid” showing at the UW-BC/EC campus in Rice Lake. This movie was about DACA recipients who are struggling to continue their education after high school. This showing was important because many people do not know what DACA is nor the restrictions they have in this country. This also helped people within the community to connect and reach out to others in our community.

My current goal is to reach out to the Hispanic/Latino community to get them out to vote, partnering with JONAH and Barron County Voters. We want to educate them on the importance of voting and how it impacts our community, our county, our state, and our nation. I am also working on enabling people to fill out the census this upcoming year. Many people do not know the importance of filling out the census as it helps get our state budget. Having these communities in the Eau Claire/Barron County area are essential to continue our work to help immigrants. Being a Jonah/Wisdom organizer is important because we need to reach out to many people. We need to let them know we are here to help and teach them. If I hadn’t met my husband when I did, I would never have met the family who connected me with Joyce and David Anderson (JONAH Immigration Task Force chairs). I’m not the only one that was unaware that these types of groups and communities existed in our area. There is a need for help in our immigrant community and we need action now.

Joyce Anderson is co-chair of JONAH’s Immigration Task Force and writes to show how grassroots organizing work has made a difference and continues to positively impact our community.

JONAH’s Immigration Task Force’s second annual fiesta this summer was reported by the National Immigration Forum, a  weekly online source that recaps the week’s immigration news.  After several short articles with titles like:  We need a rational immigration policy; Bad for Children; Fear and Anxiety, the weekly report ended with a brief report about JONAH’s Summer Fiesta.  It read:

BRIDGING DIVIDES – To end on a positive note, yesterday marked the second annual JONAH Immigration Fiesta in Altoona, Wisconsin – population 7,600 – which is an event dedicated to celebrating the Latino community and bridging cultural divides, reports Jonathan Fortier at WEAU News. “This is a super opportunity for us and the whole community to bring everyone together,” said Altoona Mayor Brendan Pratt.

Altoona Law Enforcement estimated that 500 people came (an even mix of community members, plus a few dogs as well as a police dog).

In the face of a great national divide around immigration policy and El Paso violence, we came together.  We listened to music by a local Mexican band, Fuerza Musica MX, were taught dance lessons by a Latino couple, ate, played games, and conversed with a variety of people.  Some had heard about Summer Fiesta 2 on social media and drove from Milwaukee, La Crosse, and the Twin Cities. 

Together, law enforcement and residents celebrated our increasingly diverse community.  For a few hours we experienced how we would like the world to be, instead of the divisiveness and fear of one another that is so often prevalent.  It was a day of gratitude.  Gratitude for the astounding beauty that surrounds us in our little spot on planet Earth, where indigenous and immigrant people have traversed for centuries.  Gratitude too for the open hearts and minds of everyone who values a community where all are treated with respect and care.  

Even though the struggle for drivers’ licenses and fair immigration policy continues, here in the valley, we have a conversation started.  We can reach out to one another when problems surface. 

Through building these kinds of relationships  we are seeing some prospect of our task force’s sustainability: partner work with AMMPARO (an ELCA group: Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities), leadership opportunities those impacted by Immigration through wellness focus groups,  in partnership with the Health Department and also with UWEX, in growing a Latinx community, working with UWEC to designate a safe space for Latinx to use, as well as continuing to ensure the Immigrant population has a positive relationship with the local police – particularly with a new police chief and the presence of ICE. 

JONAH will continue to support our Immigrant neighbors as they struggle to find a home here where they feel the need to hide who they are and struggle to get resources they need.

Oftentimes our unconscious belief systems impact our capacity to truly build relationships with people we see as “other.”  JONAH is undergoing Implicit Bias and Cultural Sensitivity trainings at every board meeting.  We believe it is important to do this deep reflection work for the better of our community, and we know that this work takes time and repetition – because it is so ingrained. 

If you are interested in learning more about Implicit Bias, you can watch this short video by The Royal Society

If you want to start digging into your own unconscious beliefs, you can take Harvard’s quiz: