For Justice, They Need Us: the story of an immigrant organizer
by Sergio Sosa, as told to David Bacon
Omaha, NE (9/11/02) -- I was born in Guatemala, in Huehuetenango, thirty-eight years ago. My family has two roots. The Sosas, my father's family, are from the Mayan town of the Mams. My mother was from a family descended from Spaniards, so their relationship between was full of conflict, reflecting in a way that of my country.
I remember the beginning of the war and violence in my neighborhood too, and this is where my sense of organization was born. To end the fighting on my block, I organized four soccer teams and created a tournament. Then the guerillas came to my neighborhood, using a strategy called mailbox carrier. They would come, give me leaflets and I would distribute them to the doors of every home. I would read and ask them questions, and this way I began learning analysis.
My conscience was born like Rigoberta Menchu's, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for leading opposition to the war and its massacres. Like her, I saw injustices every day -- seeing dead, and dead, and more dead. They killed my neighbor, who was like my brother, in front of his house. All this begins to create something inside that enrages you and you want to do something.
No one could be unconscious of what was happening, since you would leave your house and every day you would see more than one cadaver or someone being executed in the street. If you saw a guerrilla or soldier you knew there would be shots fired. The governments of General Romeo Lucas Garcia and General Efrain Ríos Montt began the scorched earth policies, because they couldn't tell who was pro-guerrilla and who wasn't.
I left the university to enter the seminary, because I felt the church could influence the political situation. That's why I wanted to be a priest -- the violence in the political system in which we were living. My natural reaction was against violence, and we began to organize young people against it too. With non-violence we could begin to re-create our communities.
We started among the church youth groups, followed up by meeting with laborers in the urban areas, and then other sections of the people. Our goal was to offer the church as a space for political participation. We wrote and played songs to raise peoples' consciousness, and organized groups where people created their own theater. But that was the time of repression and scorched earth policies. Many of the youth involved were seen as guerrillas because they were advocating political change. All our social activities, particular those of the Church, were prohibited.
The Church gives one power. The minute you are ordained a priest, Pow! you have power. Nevertheless, I never became a priest. I preferred to remain a deacon, to have more of a normal life. I was impatient too because the Church was not willing to give up power and allow indigenous people to become church leaders and make decisions about church programs. When I was married, and the bishop of Huehuetenango did not grant my dispensation, so I was married outside of the church.
When I fell in love with my wife and we got married, I had one condition -- that I would never come to the US. I had a preconceived idea about gringos, because I held them responsible for what happened in the war in Guatemala. The US gave extensive training and money to the army after the CIA overthrew the progressive Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz in 1953, even after international exposure of military massacres. President Clinton admitted the truth about US involvement. Yet the US used its power, and we buried the dead. But with my wife, I began to understand that people are more than any label, title or ideology. Even though she was a gringa herself, she worked for the church, and the army threatened to kill her. She taught me that the priority is to see what is inside people. By the time our child was born, much of what I thought had been transformed. Finally, I decided to come here to Gringolandia.
I think I am one of those many immigrants who say, "let's go for a year just to try it out," and then we never go back. It was difficult. For the first six months I felt disoriented. I was nobody. I had no power. I didn't know anyone. I didn't trust anyone.
But we came to Omaha and settled there. Later I started looking for work and of course the first place I looked in was the Church. Father Damian Zuerlein and Tom Holler, the Industrial Areas Foundation organizer, hired me that evening. With them I learned about tactics, like the one-on-one meeting, where you create relations with people, discover their interests, look for talents, and identify leaders. This is the same thing we did in Guatemala. For Latin Americans, this way of using social networks to organize people is part of our culture. And so we began organizing Mexican meatpacking workers, who are the main group in our community.
As Latin Americans, there are common elements in all of our cultures. Here in South Omaha, we know where the Salvadorans live, where the Guatemalans live, or the people from Chihuahua, or the folks from Oaxaca. We know who people pay attention to, who the leaders are. On Sunday after mass everybody eats, you drink some beers together and you spend time. But I think the art is to know how to transform these social networks and connect them with African Americans, with Anglo-Saxons and communities. I think Latinos can do many things and this is our moment. But we can't do them alone.
After we were working with people for a long time, the Mexican meatpackers decided to join forces with the union. The Church supported these unions, and people said if the priest is there, then this must be good. And just like anything else, at the beginning it is difficult, like a marriage. Both sides have to be willing to change and learn from the other. The companies already know what workers are doing and they've developed strategies to fight them.
We are a new generation of immigrants, documented and undocumented -- the point of a lance which has to open the road for the next generation, who will become legal residents and citizens. With the organization their parents leave them, I believe they will contribute politically and define this city.
With documents or without, we're here to stay. They will try to send us back, but we will return. Globalization opened economic borders, but the people who control it haven't been able to open cultural ones. They haven't been able to absorb and value the culture of immigrants and the people on the other side of the global divide. For that they need us, to place a value on human beings which goes beyond just making money.
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