Credit: Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement

Though you wouldn’t know it from the portrayal of Orange County in media and pop culture, our region is an epicenter in the national movement for migrant rights, with leadership from undocumented queer and trans youth whose public actions and civil disobedience ultimately led to executive actions like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

On September 26, OC Grantmakers (OCG) hosted the fourth session in our Beyond Equity learning series: Anti-Migration Policies and the Power of Migrant Refusal. We were thrilled to welcome Ckatalella Letona of El/La Para TransLatinas, Jorge Gutierrez of Mijente, and Rafael Solorzano, of the Center for Latin American Studies at University of Florida for a presentation exploring how the United States has historically developed immigration laws grounded on exclusion and how present-day migrant rights activists, specifically trans and queer leaders, shaped a framework towards ending detention and deportation policies in Orange County and across the nation.

OC Grantmakers caught up with the presenters for a brief conversation about the historical presence of the LGBTQ community in social movements, intentional strategies to elevate the most vulnerable voices in movement work, the difficult experiences of trans people in detention centers, and the importance of changing dominant narratives that impact public policy. What follows is an abridged version of our conversation, edited for clarity and conciseness.

We started off by asking if the LGBTQ community has always been a part of the migrant rights movement, or if the experience in Santa Ana was something new. All three presenters agreed that while local activists made an intentional decision to center trans and queer people in their work, the LGBTQ community has always been present in this movement as well as other movements across sectors and issues. 

Jorge Gutierrez: For us, it was because we can’t leave anyone behind. If we’re improving the lives of the most vulnerable, then we’re improving the lives of everyone in society and in our community. There was a morality to it. We couldn’t not focus on trans and queer people in that moment, and that made the Not One More Deportation campaign so beautiful. The campaign created so much space for everybody, beyond the dreamer, the young student, the young valedictorian, to include people who had criminal records, pregnant women, people who did not fit the family model that exists in the immigration system. It made a lot of sense for us to focus on the most impacted in that moment, which was trans folks and queer folks.

Rafael Solorzano: Historically, leadership in movements comes in waves. The youth organizing movement of the 90s, at least in California, New York, and Chicago, already had the emergence of youth of color who were queer, who started to be at the center of organizing, especially within educational justice and LGBTQ activism. Some scholars have written about how this new leadership began to inform nonprofits, especially at the turn of the 21st Century, and when we start to inform the nonprofits, we also inform educational material, popular education. 

Ckatalella Letona: I haven’t been here in the United States for a long time, but about all of the time that I have been here, I have been involved in these movements. I got involved because I believed, as a woman who was in detention centers, it was not fair that the police, ICE, and others got money, money, money just for having people locked up. During the time that I was in the detention centers I was able to observe, I was able to watch, but above all I could feel how Mexican trans women were deported for raising their voices, Mexican trans women were kept quiet for raising their voices, so I said I have to do something about it. I knew the subject very well, but I had to be careful so that the same thing wouldn’t happen to me. The [detention center] in Flores, Arizona is for men, but I had already transitioned. I needed hormones, for example, I needed a doctor where I could check my hormonal process, which was different from that of a gay man, from that of a cisgender man. That did not happen. And we have examples of women who have died in custody, such as Roxana Hernández, Giovana Medina, and many others. The Santa Ana center was very difficult because it was supposed to be for trans women, but transphobia was very internalized there. In Santa Ana, they were just grabbing money from the city, and the money that they gave to these detention centers was wasted, millions of dollars without focusing on what was really happening outside. For example, there is no housing for trans women, and many trans women are surviving from sex work. We have to eat, we have to have a decent place to live, but unfortunately that is not the case. But above all, it fills me with joy to know that [the Santa Ana] detention center and many other detention centers have been blocked and closed, and we continue organizing, building alliances with other organizations that also promote our rights. These groups need support. They are really working, but they do not have, for example, transportation, they do not have a bottle of water for those who are participating in these big demonstrations. They need help from agencies that can afford to help.

RS: I want to emphasize that it’s not enough to only do the reform. This movement is not about bringing families together, it’s about stopping families from being separated, and that really emerged at the same time as the movement to abolish the police. It’s because of the leadership of people who were most directly impacted, who saw the benefit of taking it to the street and destroying these institutions because the reform work that others are doing is still causing the separations, still causing the deportations.

OCG: Our next Beyond Equity learning session will address how popular media creates and perpetuates stereotypes regarding Arab and South Asian communities and how these misrepresentations have real-life consequences for the people they portray, including right here in Orange County. Based on your own experiences, how does the way in which movements and people are portrayed in the media and in popular culture reinforce harmful narratives as well as the practices and policies that support structural racism?

JG: At times, we can focus a lot of energy on the war against this rhetoric, and I think that’s because we know how this rhetoric plays out in policy. It trickles down to the way that people are targeted, whether you’re in school, you’re in a grocery store, or you’re at the bank. We saw that with Trump and even now, in the resurgence of white supremacy, and it’s really scary, people are targeted, and it creates violence. That’s also why in movements, there is a lot of work on narrative and culture change.

RS: We need to shift the narrative, and we need to do it strategically, where we’re not demonizing and criminalizing people. Right now, with what is happening in the Middle East, with Israel and the Palestinians, you read the headlines, and we automatically are already framing those who identify as Palestinian as terrorists. And so, it’s important that we always critically analyze these narratives, because, like Jorge says, they are shaping the policies. 

OCG is thankful to the many speakers who are part of the Beyond Equity learning series. This series will continue in 2024. To see resources from the series and learn more, please visit the Beyond Equity page on OC Grantmakers website.

Taryn Palumbo is the Executive Director of Orange County Grantmakers. OCG is the regional philanthropic organization for Orange County.

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