From the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK, You’re listening to ReWork.
[MUSIC: Charles Bradley – “Golden Rule” (Instrumental)]
I’m Stefanie Ritoper and I’m here with my co-host Saba Waheed. Hi Saba. Hi Stefanie, nice to be here with you. So ReWork is the redesign of Henry Walton’s legendary 19-year show Labor Review. Each week we bring you stories that rethink work.
2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Junior delivered his famous “I have dream” speech. Simultaneously, dreamers – immigrant youth activists – have also been making headlines as they lead the fight for humane immigration reform. As a result of their actions, immigration has become front and center in the national debate.
You hear a lot about black and brown communities not understanding each other. But the two communities have also often collaborated, converged and worked together. So the more interesting story is that both communities are in a point in history where they are trying to envision the future.
And this raises the question – from this moment in time, from this vantage point – what is our dream for this country? What would our country look like if it were just enough to lift up both immigrant communities and black communities? And how can we achieve this dream?
If you’ve been following us for the past few weeks, you know that each week we typically bring you stories that profile someone’s story from the beginning to end. In this show we are doing things a little differently. This week will almost entirely consist of one fascinating conversation between two fierce women who are expanding, re-defining, and defending this country’s dream.
Lola Smallwood Cuevas directs the Los Angeles Black Worker Center and Sofia Campos is one of the national leaders of the immigrant youth movement.
We found a place in a quiet room that is part meeting space, part library, part phone banking center. The first thing I noticed was picture of Henry Walton together with Lola at a rally. There was a feeling of both history and future in the room.
SC: Well I would really love to hear your family history and your journeys here in the US.
LSC: Sure… so family history. My family is from the tobacco fields of North Carolina. We grew up in a small town called Washington, North Carolina. It was so small, it was called little Washington, North Carolina. It was a place where there Smallwood plantations and there are black Smallwoods and white Smallwoods. My great great grandmother, Odelia Smallwood, who was the matriarch of our family. She married Charlie Smallwood and she was born in 1893. I know that because when we have – our family still do family reunions fairly regularly, and we go to the family gravesite and can track our ancestors there.
The family, like so many families, were in the segregated South. And though it was the South, our families believed that America was the place for them. They really believed in this Country, and being Americans. They were very very committed to the whole hard work ethic. They wanted to say that just because they weren’t valued as human beings, didn’t mean they shouldn’t have full participation and rights in this society. And really instilled in our family, just a work ethic that said you do matter and you have to make your contribution.
Our family was a farming family. As a result of that, they worked the tobacco fields and my PaPa was his name; he was a farmer and was a sharecropper and raised all of his children on the farm and the first thing that they wanted to do was to get away from the farm. So part of the migration north, you know, folks decided we’re leaving little Washington, because there were no opportunities. You either worked in the field or you tired to sell pies and meat or whatever you could on the side, but there wasn’t a lot of opportunity. My mother remembers growing up and going – the movie theaters, you had to be up in the balcony, you couldn’t be in the main view, you couldn’t order popcorn and have drinks, you know, you had to be up crowded in this small balcony and you could barely hear the film and then had to leave out the back door. So like they were running away from Little Washington. And you know, they moved North and my grandmother was a domestic worker and then later was a piecemeal seamstress and ended up settling in Newark, New Jersey, just across the bridge, a lot of my relatives are in New York, and you know, worked extremely hard. So, thats a little bit about the story of Lola…miss Sofia…but I want hear more about you and your family experience and what makes you such a wonderful person that you are..
SC: Oh yeah..when you were mentioning 1893 and Odelia …I just started tearing up just being able to visit their graveyards like you said and remind yourself of that family history, or at least as much as you can, I can tell that’s very important to you and very significant.
And I was tearing up because I yearn for that in so many ways. I just felt my heart tugging and wishing for that. And My grandma passed away last year during graduation weekend at UCLA. My other grandma’s like in, obviously she’s really elderly and I can’t really understand her through skype. So just thinking about like our family history and how we got here is a huge privilege but also just a huge gap, I think, in my life.
And so we came in 1996 from Lima, Peru. My mom has Chinese background in her family and my dad has some Italian. So very different family backgrounds, very different family structures too: my mom is one of eight and my dad is one of three. Different socioeconomic backgrounds too.
Shining Path Terrorism? I don’t know if you’ve heard of Shinning Path but they were really really huge in Peru in the 80s, it came to a close in the 90s because of the President Fujimori. And so I do remember just like flashbacks, right, I have snapshots of my time in Peru and I remember being really scared at night that my dad wouldn’t be able to come home alive because there’s car bombs and street lights being bombed and all of this stuff. And so, because of the terrorism, there was economic Turmoil, right, and so my dad lost his business, all this crazy instability and they decided to just give it a try – pack up all of our things and come over here.
[MUSIC: Mount Kimbie – “Adriatic”]
LSC: I mean, we grew up very poor, you know, across the streets from the High Park projects. And like, I remember my neighbor, Mr. Charlie, would take out the trash at night and they would mug him on the way to the trash can, ok, at night. So this is like a place where there wasn’t a lot of opportunity but there was a feeling in this country that we needed to support and to make amends for what had been done wrong. And the power of the civil rights movement and the power of, sort of, the black mayors movement created these opportunities that my mother was able to really take advantage of. And because of that, you know, she worked two jobs. She was an elvian. She was a homecare assistant at, you know, the rich folks who lived in Newman, New Jersey…she would go take care of their elderly parents at night and then she would go to school. And so I watched her really really work hard to make it.
And so I lived part of my life on public assistance across from the projects. And I lived part of my life, the daughter of an RN professional nurse. So I got to see the difference that a quality job can do. But I also got to see the toll of poverty on the family because my mother worked so much…18 hours a day. I didn’t see her, I didn’t really develop a relationship with her in a real like way, you know, as a human being, as a mother to daughter, until I was much older and she was more in a professional setting and could take the time to enjoy being a mother.
SC: Ya, I think similarly, my mom had to work through my elementary, middle school experience, also my high school experience, working literally all day. Like, my memories of my mom from those days are like going to commute to Commerce with my dad to pick her up from work and bring her back and that was it. Like, you know, that’s my relationship with my mom back then. It was only until college where she lost her job and she had to stay home and had to find another – you know, she created a daycare business at home and she was able to feed me when I would come back from the four hour commute to UCLA and really be there for me, which is like a blessing in disguise in this weird backwards way.
I didn’t find out I was undocumented until seventeen. And so I hadn’t really thought intensely about my roots back in Peru. I hadn’t thought to ask like why is it that, why is it that we can’t come back, because the answer was always money, right, and so like exactly a lot of the stuff that you’re saying, and it made complete sense… we don’t have enough money for a car, why would I go get a license anyway. We don’t have enough money to like pay the bills next month, why am I even asking about visiting our abuelitas in Peru, right.
I have blocked out a lot memories from like elementary school, and middle school and even of Peru right. Like I have snapshots and I feel like this is the same in elementary school, like being bullied and stuff. My mom tells me about it. How people would make fun of my immigrant just style, I guess, at 7 – 8 years old and how I would fight back. But I don’t remember a lot of that you know, so it’s just like defense mechanism that we develop.
Ya, so I just relate to a lot to what you mentioned. And similar and different ways so its really interesting I think.
[MUSIC: Aloe Blacc – “I Need a Dollar”]
SC: . The reason why I really got involved I would say, like the deeper reason, is because I didn’t want my sister to go through the same experience that I was going through – the same struggle. So commuting from Highland Park to UCLA, towards each way. Having to choose between bus fare and eating on campus. Not being paid for my jobs that I would do, right, because of my undocumented status. Just, I didn’t want my little sister to go through that. So that was a huge motivator for me to keep going and to take action and fight for the california dream act, to fight for the federal dream act. So my brother and sister could have a better experience than I did and not think that college would be, you know, endless crying and endless – questioning your own dignity, which I think for me was the toughest part, has been the toughest part of my undocumented experience thus far, is coming to a point where I question my own self worth.
LSC: Wow. Well I mean, I think there’s a lot. I go back to like summer camp. My mother when she was in nursing school, she had a mentor who said “ Oh you know they have a summer camp and you should really send Lola. You know, they give scholarships and so you should look into it and we think it would be great for her.” So, I went to this camp. it was in the Adirondacks – Camp Treetops. These are like the Eastside Manhattan folks who send their kids away for like the whole summer. You’re gone the whole summer. And I went to this camp and I remember there was some conversation that happened at one of the camp sites with one of the counselors who was a white guy. And he called me a nigger. I’m 8. He’s a camp counselor. I’m from Newark too, so you know, I was like, you know, “what?” Even at that age, like I knew what that word was. And I complained, right, I complained about it and I told everybody I could, who was there, what he had said. And then like, it was a tense summer, right.
And so after getting off the bus they were like “don’t think Lola can come back next year.” So that was my first experience with white supremacy and with white privilege and with the way in which the system can create opportunities and take opportunities and what is their fault, becomes your fault and who has the power and who doesn’t. It was really, even at that age, it also began to create, like, who are white people and who are black people and how I felt about the difference.
If you’re just tuning in, we’re listening to a conversation between two powerful women who are redefining the dream for this country, Lola Smallwood Cuevas and Sofia Campos.
[MUSIC: Boards of Canada – “Turquoise Hexagon Sun”]
In the early part of her career, Lola decided to venture into the world of journalism and worked as a daily beat writer for the Chicago Tribune, Long Beach Press Telegram, and the Oakland Tribune, where she was introduced to union organizing as a member of the East Bay Newspaper Guild. There, she realized her real passion was not landing a story in the paper, but working with people on the ground to make change. She became an organizer with the security officers union. When she started off, she saw 4,000 security officers who began at minimum wage and then capped out after 25 years of working at just 11 dollars an hour. After 5 years of campaigning, they moved to starting off at $11.25, complete with a career ladder and health benefits. Lola then went on to found the Black Worker Center, which is currently in the throes of a struggle to ensure that black workers get quality jobs building the new Crenshaw metro line in Los Angeles.
And Sofia, Sofia became one of the young leaders of the national immigrant youth movement. At great personal risk, she shared her story publicly and began efforts to organize on campus and across the country. She was one of the leaders that helped to pass the California Dream Act which helped provide financial aid to immigrant youth students. In a series of escalating nonviolent actions, she also fought to push President Obama to stop deporting dreamers.
LSC: There’s a power dynamic and shift in the organizing. It’s like fuel, it’s like your tank gets so empty in the life – in the everyday life: what it means to be black in this society, to get in your car and drive somewhere, to who are you going to deal with, like what is the conversations, you know, like, this alternative world that you have to live in as a black person, but to go into sort of an organizing world, where it’s really about the power of you know, the workers, and the boss, and who’s going to win in this battle – was for me, just, I could not go in any other direction.
And the outcomes, you know, you could wait a whole year to get an article in the newspaper that you feel good about, but in a week we had, you know, a worker who was fired back on her job and feeding her family. And it is the vision that if we can do that on that level, like, what does it look like on a larger scale, and what does that look like with the whole community and not just security officers but other workers. And so, one of our members said “you know, well that’s utopian, but we can get there”. I was like “ya, it is. We’re dreaming here”. But that’s where we’re going, that’s what we want. Ans are we willing to fight for that?
SC: We need to dream, right. And when you’re saying all of those examples, I’m thinking of us stopping deportations, right, when government wants to separate families. Like that’s their mission. it’s just to deport people, even when they’re not criminals, right, and for us as immigrant youth, as immigrant families, as communities to create these petitions and literally stop deportations where immigration lawyers could not and would not – that’s the kind of empowerment that we need to spread, which is very contagious but you have to overcome all that fear and shame and all that oppression to get to that place. So it’s exactly that kind of feeling that gets you addicted, right, once you actually experience it. But a lot of folks, you know, we condition ourselves to not being open to experiencing that kind of power and love, right, because it is a risk when you care about each other and something that much.
That’s why the immigrant youth movement has been able to evolve so quickly, is because we are able to share with each other this huge vulnerability. And at that instant, you create this deep bond; you’re my brother and you’re my sister, and I got your back because we just shared something very vulnerable which is our undocumented status and I know that I can stay at your home whenever and you can stay at my home whenever because this whole system does not have our backs, which is a privilege, a weird weird privilege, because if I had to do it all over again I would chose to be undocumented again. But I think it’s something that we need to spread, right, because all of us, whether we’re immigrants or not, we all have an undocumented part of our lives that we choose to hide without realizing that if we would just share it, we would be a lot stronger together, right. We would realize that we all have messed up parts in our histories. We all have things where people have just tried to mess us up but instead we choose to cling on to that fear and isolation. That’s what really keeps us, I think, in the shadows as a community, as a family…
LSC: Ya, I mean, I think its the knowing your place, right, and the mainstream society wants to give us a place. This is where you belong, this is your experience and this is who you are and how – what your shape is in the world.
SC: This is your ceiling.
LSC: This is your ceiling. And you know, we were just talking about how tremendously hard it is to resist. I mean we’re talking – and our experience in this country as African American – I mean we’re talking 400 years from not being human, to being property, to being negro, to being – I mean it’s just like a total onslaught to, you know, Paula Deen, to “black women aren’t beautiful”, to Trayvon martin, to “you don’t get to vote”, to “you don’t want to work”.
It is tremendously difficult to resist, to not internalize that place that people give to you. But you know, with civil rights, with the end of segregation and with the ability to be mobile, people began to be mobile. And so folks bought into – it’s this whole assimilation idea. You buy into the capitalist idea that you yourself can be onto yourself your own empire. And that is true for a very small few. The rest of us really do need each other and we need a community and we need a government that supports us and we need to make sure there is an equal playing field. And so in that instance of folks buying into all of what the 80s were so suppose to promise, the construct of community, the construct of organisation, the construct of extended family and people living together and living in close neighborhoods – all of that really disappeared in our community because I think there was real belief that we were now in this political system that then was going to fight for us. So our ballot was our voice and that was going to be our power and a lot of the way in which we engaged community, a lot of the way in which we engaged around creating change in our community, we went inside of these institution.
SC: I think that’s been part of the conversation in terms of like immigration too and just if we do get legalization, right, citizenship, what does that mean for our movement? What if people just drop out? Right? They think that they’re ok, they buy into the American dream myth. The empowerment hasn’t reached a community level yet. How does that affect this movement? This love we’ve been able to grow and cultivate.
[MUSIC: Mount Kimbie – “Tunnelvision”]
LSC: We have to talk real about language, I think, we have to talk real about our experiences. and I think we have to create space for, for problem solving. Part of the myth’s understanding is so often, just how do you have this conversations, particularly when your leaders are mute.
I mean Black leaders haven’t talked about migration in any way shape or form. There hasn’t been an agenda around linking black folks and immigrants. And immigrants don’t talk about black people and they don’t talk about the black experience, and the racism and the deep consistent genocidal oppression that’s been happening around black life and in many cases, race isn’t talked about at all, it’s all about status. And so I think, part of it is how do we begin, where do we begin, in that conversation?
SC: Ya, I think in addition to the whole divide and conquer narrative I think the healing that needs to take place. When we went to Tennessee for the training, which is mostly black community there, one of the folks said “well you know, that sucks but thats not my problem. I have enough things to worry about”, which is so true.
Whenever you talk about your bad experience, I’m like “damn! damn!”, I can’t relate to it but obviously we’ve had our own experiences and there’s a lot of individual healing that needs to take place. But I do think there’s a lot of community healing that can also take place and should be taking place. And this dialogue needs to occur, and it goes back to the theme we’ve been talking about this whole time about vulnerability. And not just being vulnerable or feeling safe in our own little niches but coming out and extending that, I think, further. And i think that’s the real power.
You know like, I’m thinking incarceration, right, we’ve talked about, is a huge overlap between our two communities – how it’s black and brown bodies filling those beds and jail cells. Yet, why aren’t we, as two communities, are obviously affected by this prison industrial complex, talking about this in an open way, right, and being just angered by it and showing that anger. Why isn’t that being talked about? It’s because we’re not healing together. We’re not actually reflecting on the reality together.
We went to a rally in East LA where it was after the Trayvon Martin case happened and all of the community came out and the theme of it though, the message of it was “not one more” but not just “not one more case of racial profiling” but “not one more deportation, not one more LGBT person being sexually harassed or abused in the streets, right, not one more person being bullied, not more one human being being degraded.”
[MUSIC: Mount Kimbie – “Adriatic”]
LSC: I’ve learned so much from you in your presentations, conversations…are there things you learned from our relationship, from the work we’ve done together that you will take with you?
SC: There’s so much. I think, number one beginning with the powerful women that you are. The powerful women that you.. represent. The linage of women where you come from. I think that has a huge impact on me as a younger women, a women of color more specifically. And hearing you be so articulate and so fierce and so not afraid to use real language, right, to describe our real situations. When you use the words “genocide” and “plantations” and “oppression”- like yes, that its how we should be talking about the realities that we live in. Right? But why are so many people so afraid to use that terminology? And I so appreciate you just grounding the space and grounding our communities in that reality.
Your passion and your commitment and your understanding and…compassion, has had a huge positive impact on my life and it’s a privilege, I think, to be your friend. Like I mentioned before when I hear you talking about your history, your experience as a black women too. I just think like damn, but I also think like man I can relate so much, not like it’s the same at all but just I can relate on a such a deep level of just how backwards things can be. And so whenever I think about my undocumented experience I think about the history of this country because this is where I have grown up. So I think about the black history here and the slavery and I think of that and I connect it to my undocumented experience every time. So… I also wanted to communicate that because it makes me such a more empowered person, I think, to hear your stories and to learn about the black history here.
LSC: Wow. I’m just honored that you would say that. It means a lot. You know, you come in contact with great people a lot in this movement, there are a lot of amazing people, but I see such greatness in you.
When we had our last staff meeting – you moving to your next level and going back to school – I just, in my mind, was thinking “what an amazing warrior. Refitted she’s going to be coming out. What is that new arsenal she’s going to have of tools to add to the fight for justice.”
LSC: if anyone had thought immigration reform would be at this point it really is because of your leadership and your courage and your fearlessness and the ability, I think, to tell your story in a way that says not only is this possible but we have to act, and I think you’ve had a lot of influence on the movement. You have shown the courage to stand your ground and your comrades to stand your ground on what is right. So I really appreciate that and I also want to just say how much I respect your power as a woman and the way you’ve handled yourself in high stakes conversation, press conferences, congressional testimony to awards ceremonies at the Labor Center. Just your grace, your tremendous grace. It all just comes through and it feels so good to see a woman who is absolutely grounded, clear. I just respect that courage, that humbleness and that commitment so much.
SC: Thank you so much.
LSC: Thank you.
VO: Lola and Sofia continue to fight for justice to this day.
[MUSIC: Trombone Shorty – “Dream On”]
You’re listening to ReWork a program of UCLA Labor Center and KPFK. This week’s show was produced by Stefanie Ritoperer, Saba Waheed, Ob1, and Clarine Ovando Lacroux. Music supervision by Francisco Garcia Nava. Like us on Facebook at /reworkradio. You can also tweet your reactions to this show to @ucla-labor or send us an email at email@example.com
Saba: Until next time re-think, re-work!