Undocumented but Still Helping to Build a Better Santa Ana

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With his high forehead, thick glasses and expressive body language, Gerson Cortes is a highly distinctive character.

Despite his unique presence, however, his background is one that many living in Santa Ana can relate to. He is 23 years old and attending Santa Ana College with dreams of pursuing a career in cultural anthropology.

He is also undocumented and queer.

Cortes originated from a small town called Pantla in the Mexican state of Guerrero. The first place he ever called his home in the United States was the city of Santa Ana, where he has been living ever since.

Cortes came to the United States almost 13 years ago on his own and was followed shortly after by his mother and younger brother. He stayed at his aunt’s house while awaiting their arrival.

Like many who have gone through a similar experience, Cortes felt the uncertainty and fear that comes with waiting for loved ones to join them on this side of the border.

In a recent interview conducted at the Santa Ana Public Library as part of the Oral History Project, Cortes discussed his feelings about immigration. Here are some of them:

You always hear of people getting scared … because they’re passing, and they’re by the hill. … Have they [the border patrol] [caught] them? And did they stay? Did they [the border patrol] return them?

Even though I didn’t really understand what that meant as a kid, I was still scared that something like that would happen. … So I remember I’d be waiting for my mom to get here, to hear my aunt tell me that she’s on her way.

Regarding his first impression of the U.S. and of Santa Ana, Cortes has expressed both amazement and disappointment:

When I first took a look around the city, I thought, this doesn’t look that much different than the city next to my town. … I was kind of disappointed. … The buildings are the same, and the sidewalks are the same.

The one thing I do remember though was going to the store. My aunt took me there for the first time, and she bought $20 worth of food. … She put them on the counter. I looked at her and said, ‘All of that? You got all of that for just $20?’ … I was just amazed, and I couldn’t wait to tell my mom that my aunt had bought so much food with $20.

It is perhaps because of this background that Cortes is motivated to be highly involved in the community.

He is a proud member of Decolores, a Latino-based queer group dedicated to providing support and resources to queer OC residents through a conference that they hold yearly.

In addition, he is also a prominent member or “dreamer” within the Orange County Dream Team, a group that is committed to fighting for the rights and livelihood of all undocumented students in the U.S. The Dream Team provides undocumented students with resources such as workshops that help educate students on subjects like deferred action and Assembly Bill 540 and is building a scholarship fund.

During the interview, Cortes also discussed some of the sentiments he has concerning the issues that the Dream Team addresses, as well as what they’re currently working on as a group.

I feel like a lot of people forget that we’re [California] a border state, … that at the bottom we have like this border to Mexico. … People forget that California has the highest rate of deportation.

If you really break it down and go deeper … it doesn’t just mean that somebody got deported; it’s somebody was taken from their family … their children. Somebody was taken from their work. People are disappearing. We talk about, like, disappearance as in, like, other countries … where it’s just like this bad thing … and people are disappearing here.

So that’s what we’re focusing on. It’s stopping that, because it’s a horrible thing for that to happen. We’re organizing around … the current immigration bill that’s being proposed, I think, to the House [of Representatives] right now. It’s not perfect. … I’m having my doubts about it, but right now I feel like the strongest fight we have is here in California.

Cortes goes on to talk about a current deportation program, otherwise known as “Secure Communities,” and its impact on California residents as well as those living throughout the country.

The program is said to have been created to deport only criminals that present a real danger to society but has in fact allowed for the deportation of thousands of immigrants without distinguishing between dangerous offenders and those with little to no criminal history.

Cortes mentions, with particular emphasis, that there have been cases where the people calling the police for help end up being the ones arrested and deported, simply because they could not provide any form of identification when they were asked to produce it.

He then steers into the topic of the newly amended Trust Act, an act proposed in answer to Secure Communities.

He explains further:

That’s something we’re trying to stop [Secure Communities]. … I know that … it’s [going to] be really hard to do this throughout the country, but in California we have the possibility of making that happen, … and right now we have the chance in the Trust Act. We’re trying to push our governor to sign it. … He’s vetoed it before. We’re trying to make Gov. Brown sign it because it would just help so many families stay together. So that’s been our focus in the past few weeks for this past year.

It is perhaps fitting that Cortes demonstrates such passion over the more current Trust Act. He was prompted to join the Dream Team after the devastating defeat of the federal Dream Act in March 2010. He is now the social media lead, meaning that it’s his job to go on social networks and advertise any upcoming events that the Dream Team will be holding.

“I said, ‘What can I help out with?’ I mean, I don’t know many things. I didn’t go to law school like some people did. … I’m not like some awesome programmer. … I seriously had to think and say, like, ‘What can I bring to this group that’s kind of needed?’ ” Cortes said.

What the future holds for someone like Cortes one cannot say. He imagines that he will continue his current involvement within the community. His passion to continue this work stems from Cortes’ recognition that the work of and for equality is never quite done.

There will always be someone who is being oppressed and who in some manner or form is being silenced. In consequence, Cortes recognizes that there will always be a need for people to gather together to create a single resounding voice, one strong enough to combat any form of injustice.

“We have to be visible as a group so that somebody knows that they’re not alone,” he said.

Nayeli Diaz is a youth fellow with the Santa Ana Library’s Oral History Project. Click here to read more of the work produced by project fellows.

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