From the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK, You’re listening to ReWork
[MUSIC: Bonobo – “Jets”]
I’m Stefanie Ritoper and I’m Saba Waheed. ReWork is the redesign of Henry Walton’s legendary 19-year show Labor Review. Each week we bring you stories that rethink work.
Immigration visas dictate where someone can work, how they can work, how long they can work. But what happens when you throw friendship into the mix? Today’s episode of Re:Work, Newcomers, is a conversation between two friends, Carlos and Jonathan. We follow their friendship from when they first arrived as teenagers to the United States to when they enter adulthood. Having arrived on different visas, one of them here legally and the other undocumented, we see how their friendship confronts the challenges of life as they embark on two very different journeys.
Carlos and Jonathan arrived within weeks of each other to the United States, in July of 1999. They met because they were both placed in an English as a second language program, the newcomers program, in the Inland Empire. The school had a cohort of 100 people, all recent immigrants to the US. Already teenagers when they migrated, there were a lot of new things to adapt to.
J- My first memory, is actually one time when we were invited to a party and we met this guy that was playing pokemon cards, remember, and we were like what’s going on here, what type of party is this.
C- Just thinking back to it was, I mean there was this younger guy who was like siblings to one of our classmates and he was playing pokemon card and for us we were already 14 I think, and we had just arrived to the country so we didn’t know what pokemon was or, you know, so it was kind of like we were trying to, I guess, to adapt or integrate ourselves into, like, this new society.
[MUSIC: Soda Stereo – “Musica Ligera”]
Carlos and Jonathan eventually transferred out of the special English program and were placed into a regular high school. They continued to develop their friendship as they both grew together, stumbling through trying to learn English, making friends, and adapting to life in the US.
J- We all found, you know, like found, we, I don’t know, I personally, I know Carlos as well, we struggle in regards to connecting or assimilating to other things that were going on at our age, like the teenager, teenage years. And it even was hard to go to the movies to actually communicate and say what type of movie we wanted to go and see and obviously people realize and know that we didn’t really know how to speak English very well. And so, you know, they would either make faces or have attitude towards us and so we had to navigate through that and so that, I think that’s why some of us, like got very close to each other because of those different struggles that we had. And so we formed our own soccer team ‘Atletico Venecia’ which, in the Pomona soccer league, which, ya, we ended up losing our first game 10-0. Eventually we won championships or second places but we started out like that.
[MUSIC: Soda Stereo – “Musica Ligera”]
Though they were connected in so many ways from a shared experience, there was one very big difference between them. Something that was growing, and that they may not always have noticed and felt. Carlos and Jonathan arrived through very different immigration paths.
J- I don’t even remember really like stressing or like in our circle right, like having that conversation about the status. I think we knew, right, we knew that some of our friends were undocumented, but we never sat down and had a conversation about it.
My dad was able to fix his status through the amnesty that happened in the ‘80s and so he was a resident, he became a legal resident, and eventually U.S citizen. And so, he petitioned for us and it took him 9 years so we could go to Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, and get our legal permanent residency.
C- We came through a different route, I guess, we came with a tourist visa. My dad was a banker in Mexico for about 25 years so he had a stable job for a long time and that allowed our family to get a tourist visa. And we had actually come to the US several times to vacation, go to Disneyland, and go to San Francisco and stuff, but this time around it was pretty certain that we were going to stay for some time, at least until my parents paid the debts that they had accumulated in Mexico. We went through the checkpoint in Tijuana and, you know, we got a permit to come in, to stay here for 6 months and six months later we overstayed our visas.
Having arrived through different immigration pathways, their adjustment to their new home also varied, yet affected each one in a profound way.
J- I was 14 years old and I did not want to move, I did not want to come. You know, I, its learning a new language, leaving friends, neighbors, girlfriend, everything behind, and starting from scratch. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know the language. Even TV, you know, turning on the TV just flipping through channels and just not knowing what was going on. The two Spanish channels then, they weren’t that stimulating. It was Novelas and other times soap operas. So, it was tough, I was depressed and I used to cry, a lot, you know, because I wanted to go back. I really did not like it. You know, that was until I went to school and I started meeting friends.
C- That summer I think it was, it felt more about vacation, we were here and we would go to the beach and hang out with some cousins. I think I was more in denial with myself thinking that 3, 5 months from now we’ll come back to Mexico or a year from now we’ll come back to Mexico and stuff. Even then, you know, I didn’t even get to say bye to a lot of my friends cause I was like “we’ll be back” you know, so I think I came back with that denial that it was only a temporary thing.
[MUSIC: Julieta Venegas – “El Triste”]
Carlos graduated a year before Jonathan and had to begin to explore the question, “What do I do now?”
C- I started working with a fake social security number at the age of seventeen. I started contemplating the military just because some other friends were talking about the military. But I knew that wasn’t an option because I didn’t have a social security number, so that idea went off the window right away.
Jonathan too began a process of figuring out life after high school. For him, though military wasn’t necessarily his first thought.
J- Coming from, when one is 14 years old, like one really don’t know how to proceed in regards to higher education and I know my counselor didn’t really know how to speak Spanish and I didn’t know how to speak English, so I had many question about how to access higher education. The reality is that the counselors, I don’t want to say that they don’t really care, but it’s just I did not get my questions answered, I wasn’t really asked “what is it that you want to do?”, “what school do you want to go to?” I didn’t really know that we could go to college or community college for example. And so, the summer of 2002, right before my senior year, a recruiter called my office from the NAVY and he started speaking Spanish to me and so he started answering all those questions that I had; obviously integrating the military part of it. I decided to join the military thinking that it would pay for my school
Jonathan decided to join the Navy. Shortly after bootcamp, the military placed him in an infantry unit in North Carolina. They then deployed him twice to Iraq, first in 2005, then again in 2006. There he had to again confront the challenges of language and assimilation. Only this time, he was without his best friend Carlos to share the experiences with.
J- When I was in bootcamp, I did not speak, I did not talk at all, I understood English but it was tough to communicate with somebody in there and mostly because, there they have a program in bootcamp where the recruits that don’t know how to speak English, they set them back . I decided to choose not speak and just answer the questions when they asked me. And so I did not speak throughout bootcamp. I learned a lot, I learned of English, of course, at some points I was the only brown person in my unit and I would yearn speaking spanish.
The marines would wake me up and I would wake up speaking Spanish to them and they would crack up because I really missed speaking Spanish. I learned about country music – I like some country music now – I do understand some of the culture of people, especially from the east coast and the south. I have very good friends from the south. Because I was from California, they would say “oh you communist bastard you’re from that communist state of California.”
C- Right now I’m just hearing you say about people calling you a communist and stuff like that, it makes me think that because of you, and I’m sure that it was because of you, that I learned about Che Guevara and Zapata and stuff. I might be wrong and you can correct me, but I remember being there when the recruiter, or the person, picked you up in your house and – we were 18 I guess- and I said ‘hasta la Victoria siempre’ when you were getting In the car
J- You know, I consider myself a very peaceful person, not very violent. I mean when we were in new comer school people wanted to fight me and I avoided that so much, right, because I didn’t want to, I really didn’t want to get to fights, and not I’m in combat, in Iraq.
Sometimes when I was in Iraq I just sit down after experiencing some traumatic events or something of that nature, I remember sitting down and just thinking, my second deployment especially, thinking how did I end up over here- you know, I just got here in 1999- how did I end up over here? I was born in Mexico city and now I’m in Iraq.
[MUSIC: Heroes del Silencio – “La Chispa Adecuada”]
C- Something I realized when you came back too was that you were doing all this work out there, but the lives here were like changing and I feel that was a big shock for you. I think that every time you would come back there was like a different…I guess, yeah, dynamics and experiences that were happening already.
J- It did feel like that, it did. And I often describe it as a time machine. When I was deployed, it’s like you’re was stuck in time and then you come back, you were over there and you worry about your life essentially and the lives of those that are around you, but life goes on here you know. When I came back, I was just like “why has everything changed, you know like, why is it not the way it was?”
[MUSIC: Heroes del Silencio – “La Chispa Adecuada”]
Jonathan and Carlos began to grow apart. The distance between continents was as wide as the distance between their experiences. While Jonathan was in the military he was thinking every day about his survival. Back home, Carlos was going through another experience, also thinking about survival, from another perspective. Carlos was undocumented.
When he first got to the US, he watched his parents take up jobs that were much different than the ones they worked in in Mexico City. His dad took a job as a janitor, cleaning offices close to the airport.
C- Back in Mexico, my dad was working for one of the main banks in Mexico, Banamex, and he worked there as a manager of one of the finance departments for about 25 years, so he was always wearing a suit and a tie. I remember when I was younger, like 10 years old or even a little younger, at times I would go visit my dad at his office. He had a computer. There was people that he supervised. And so they were working in an office space. And then you come to the US and we’re cleaning those same office spaces.
His mom, who had been a stay at home mom for most of the time he was growing up, took up a job at a factory that manufactured hangers. The machines were too fast for her to keep up, so she would take Carlos and his siblings with her to help.
C- It was heavy, it was heavy work. And it would create a callous on, inside your hand, because the hangers were hot. Many times if you weren’t quick enough, the hangers would start piling up. You would push them to the side, but there’s only so much you can push, and if you weren’t quick enough, they would even get stuck in the pressing machine, and they’d have to shut down the whole machine and stuff. There was a lot of pressure for her perform at a certain level, if not she would have to lose her job.
But working hard was typical of the immigrant experience in LA. It wasn’t until Jonathan left to bootcamp that something happened making the reality of Carlos’ immigration status really sink in. His older brother took a trip to Mexico with their cousin, thinking that their tourist visa would allow them to visit family and then return without any problems.
C- It was a sunday when they were supposed to come back. They were supposed to fly into the Ontario airport and we went to pick them up, and all the people came out of the terminal and once all the people left, they closed the terminal. And it was really, confusing not seeing them come out and seeing that everything was shut down and people had like left, everything was closed.
And we waited there, and maybe we were thinking “maybe they arrived at a different terminal” – we went to a different terminal, and I mean Ontario airport at that time wasn’t that big, so there wasn’t a lot of places to look at. And the people there couldn’t give us an answer. We called to Mexico and they said that they did leave, you know, they were supposed to be on that flight and stuff. They were supposed to arrive at around 1 pm. And we didn’t hear from my brother until, like 10 pm that night.
Carlos’s brother and cousin called to say that they had been detained at customs and would be deported to Mexico the next day.
C- And so him being away now, in Mexico, is been very tough, very difficult for us, as a family. Not being able to see him, not being able to hug him, not being able to come together for, you know, for holidays, or for family events. For our whole family it was very devastating, emotionally, but also financially. You know it was both him and my cousin were contributors to our home and that affected us financially as well.
Aside from the devastation of losing such a close family member, the whole family had to take up slack and find ways to bring in extra income. Carlos had to make sure that he had a steady job.
It was around this time that AB 540 passed into law which allowed undocumented students to attend California schools. It was a great opportunity, but there was a catch- he had to attend without financial aid.
To support himself through college and raise tuition all on his own, Carlos cleaned warehouses and homes, and served food at restaurants. Facing the ever increasing tuition fees was like a race against time. On the one hand, if he left school to work and make money, he would come back to a higher tuition fee. On the other hand, if he scrambled to pay the tuition, quarter after quarter he would end up with no money for transportation or even food.
What’s more, when Carlos was in the classroom, his professors praised his opinions and held him up as a star student. Whenever he left the university, though, that artificial sense of belonging diminished. He ran the risk of police stopping and detaining him for driving without a license or working without proper documentation. As an undocumented college student, Carlos hovered between the labels of “criminal” and “non-criminal.”
Little by little, Carlos started to meet other undocumented students who were in his same situation. Together they created new student organizations and began to engage in the rising national movement to fight for the rights of immigrant students- to pass the national DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for immigrant youth like himself. Youth working on these policies gained the nickname “dreamers” and they began to garner national attention.
With Jonathan in Iraq and Carlos becoming active and politicized in the US, they found that their friendship was drifting apart. It become harder for each one of them to understand the journey of the other person and often got into political arguments.
C- It’s tough right, because we’re like friends and at the same time we want to be, you know, fight for the right cause. It was just tough, It was like tough conversations to have. Having those conversations were always difficult, when it came down to why are we here and stuff.
J – When Carlos started talking to me about that, like – we will not sit down and have more conversation – it was more like attacking towards each other and it was more of me like “American people are dying there and the folks that are killing them it’s not like they are worried about killing Americans, they’re going to kill innocent people which is to kill Americans” and so we had these conversations right, and one time we got mad at each other and we stopped talking to each other.
[MUSIC: Dinky – “Miles Away”]
This was the longest the two stopped talking to each other. But Jonathan couldn’t stay apart from his good friend for too long.
J- I came back to, for vacation to California, and I don’t know why but I just got in the car and drove to his house, without telling him. And I knocked on the door and your mom opened and then Louisa, your sister, said hi and I walked into your room, you were getting out of the shower and you just looked at me and said “hey, how are you” and I was just like “fine, how’s it going?” and then your cousin had sent a bottle of Mezcal and we started drinking the Mezcal and Julio came then, and so he was driving us around because he was the only one not drinking.
The strength of their friendship was too great for the two to be too mad at each other for too long. And then, something remarkable happened.
J- I think for me, I realized it almost at the end of my military career when I was in camp Pendleton, because I was here in California and was able to reconnect more with Carlos, and I started noticing that the toll that his status had on him.
I remember one instance that he shared with me and it got to me a lot. He was already going to UCLA, I think he was either at a bar or a party and there was a lot going on you know, like school, work, and he was going through a lot. And he shared with me that he just left, you know, that place and he walked home, and he was crying, and he was punching walls and just upset. And you know when he shared that with me, you know we really didn’t talk about it much. But I remember just taking it back with me, just taking it with me and just thinking like – it hurt me a lot, it hurt me cause I just pictured it in my mind. And I know Carlos and I know, because when we are at places, when we are at parties, when we are with friends, we’re always the ones joking around, we’re always the ones trying to engage everyone and laughing, making everyone laugh, and so for that to happen, something big needs to be going on.
Undocumented status is more than just a status. It actually affects someone’s mental health, someone’s everyday living is affected by it. Not only just working, find a work or going to school, but just from relationships to friendships to everything.
Carlos invited me to his meetings and so I think he was a little skeptical in the beginning, like “is he really going to go?” and so I called him on Monday, or the next week, to ask him “hey, do I pick you up or do you want to pick me up?” I think that was that realization that “oh, he’s really thinking about it”. And so, that’s how I joined the Orange County Dream Team, that’s how I joined the movement. And initially to help out a friend, to be there for my friend but then, I think, once being a part of everything, one realizes it’s just beyond just one individual. At some point my involvement stopped being about him and became more about a greater picture.
[MUSIC: Bonobo – “Jets”]
More than just becoming an occasional volunteer, Jonathan became an active member of Dream Team Orange County. He became an avid supporter of efforts by immigrant youth around immigration reform, the right to education, health care, and dignity. He would pick up someone from San Diego and drive them to Fresno. He would put himself on the frontlines when police were becoming aggressive at peaceful protests. He even went as far as getting arrested. His first arrested was on May 20th, 2010, as part of a protest to escalate the campaign for the Federal Dream Act. He was one of 9 youth who shut down Wilshire Boulevard, jamming traffic for miles in all directions for two and half hours. This protest was a major landmark in the immigrant youth movement. Those nine youth are often called “The Wilshire 9.”
Going through this together made Carlos and Jonathan closer. Now even more than just a social friendship, they shared something else – they worked alongside one another, for a cause bigger than the both of them.
J- Looking now at our friendship there’s a certain dynamics that Carlos and I have and just not being afraid of expressing how much we care for each other and how much we love each other. And I think coming from a culture where there’s a lot of homophobia, I think just being free to say “I love you Carlos” I think a lot of people might see it as something funny, or some joke that we do, but to me I’m being sincere. I feel that we are connected somehow as friends. We are there for each other, we care about each other, we look out for each other, we care about the same issues. Yes – we have different perspective of different things, but when we sit down and talk it’s just trying to figure things out, it’s more calm rather than before conversations and we have amazing conversations. And that’s why our friendship is so amazing.
C- I would say for Jonathan, I would describe him as a person that likes to bring life to the space, a person that likes to make everyone smile. You know, we have had this friendship for a while, almost 14 years, and ourselves we have evolved tremendously since then and I think that one of the things that comes to my mind is just our perceptions towards other people – our perception towards gay people or like even women and stuff. I think growing up in this like patriarchal culture, I grew up with those ideas and with those perceptions and I think little by little, as I continue getting involved with issues of immigrant rights and social justice, like those perceptions have changed.
Like, even when you were talking about it right now, about us being very affectionate and hugging each other and kissing each other on the cheek and stuff and showing our love – Iike that’s great, right. And i think that wasn’t necessarily there 14 years ago or even 10 years ago or whatever, but I think a lot of that has come with us evolving as people and growing as people.
J- We are not afraid of changing, right, not afraid of meeting new people, not afraid of engaging in different conversations and as immigrants coming at the age of 14 and there’s either you stick together with a group of friends or you can just be with that group of friends but also explore other areas, other people, other circles. I feel that we have been able to do that.
[MUSIC: BrwnBflo – “Corazon”]
Carlos and Jonathan are still good friends to this day.
This show covered the Dream Resource Center, a project of the UCLA Labor center, and the Orange County Dream Team. Thanks to Carlos Amador and Jonathan Biribesca for sharing their stories with us. To learn more about their projects, visit the dream resource center at and the Orange County Dream Team at They continue to support efforts of immigrant youth and national immigration reform.
You’re listening to ReWork, a program of the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK. This weeks program was produced by Stefanie Ritoper, Saba Waheed, Ob1, Danyaal Waheed and Mor Gedalia. Thank you to Henry Walton for his 19 years of Labor Review on KPFK, and for reminding us to keep to his central principal – solidarity. Tweet your reactions to this show to @uclalabor or comment on Facebook @/uclalabor.
Until next week, rethink, rework.