‘Trail for Humanity’ links immigration, environment, prisons

From the September-October 2014 issue of News & Letters

McFarland, Calif.—Spurred by the racist response of the minutemen, teabaggers, etc., to the busloads of immigrant children from Central America, Valeska Castaneda and Cindy Gonzales with others organized a “Trail for Humanity,” a 300-mile march from Merced, Calif., to the Mexican border. The march started on July 22. All along the way marchers have been joined by San Joaquin Valley activists, speaking about the issues in their various locales. On July 31 they reached McFarland, just south of Delano, the historic beginning of the farmworkers’ struggle. McFarland is now home to several private prisons, including a newly opened prison for women.

Picture: Urszula Wislanka for News & Letters

Picture: Urszula Wislanka for News & Letters

After a whole day of walking we met at 5:00 PM in a park. It was still well over 100 degrees as Debbie Reyes, a Valley organizer, greeted the marchers: “I am witnessing warriors with love in their hearts, braving this heat! Love is what makes us come together this day, for immigration reform, for the locked-up women.”

Castaneda spoke about her reasons for marching:

I witnessed a seven-year-old child being picked up and deported to a detention center in Mexico. I know people are dying in the Sonora Desert. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that it is not just undocumented who are being deported. Many legal immigrants are getting swept up and deported. Since we’ve started marching we’ve taken up not just immigration but lots of local community issues: the use of pesticides, the pollution in the soil, in the air, etc. It creates lots of health problems: our walkers have asthma and other diseases, yet they have walked the full 15 miles every day for the past 10 days! Even our smallest child, five years old, walked no less than seven miles!”

Diana Block, representing California Coalition for Women Prisoners, said:

We are honored to join the ‘Trail for Humanity.’ They try to divide us, but our issues are very close. Instead of releasing women prisoners, about 3,000 of whom were found eligible for Alternate Custody Program, they are opening yet another prison.”

Jorge, one of the marchers, told his story:

I am concerned about the undocumented. I am here under the Dream Act, but it is an uncertain status. I can’t get financial aid or be sure I can get a work permit after I graduate college. I finished high school in Mexico, but I had to re-start it here. I’ve been working a minimum-wage job while going to school….

“Since the Dream Act passed I’ve been able to quit my job. We, all the marchers, have been in the U.S. more than 10 years. We have been paying taxes all that time. I have not seen my grandmother for over 10 years. I am their first grandchild and they cry when we talk, not having been able to hug me all this time. We need immigration reform. 

“I consider myself an American—I’ve lived here so long, I know people here, my daughter was born here. But because I am ‘undocumented,’ I could not get a driver’s license. Getting pulled over for any little thing, like a busted tail light, was an expensive ticket for driving without a license. It increased my stress levels.

“The influx of children across the borders is a symptom of big problems in Latin American countries. [See “Honduran Youth Flee,” p. 12.] In the short term we need to keep the children, give them an opportunity here, since clearly their parents don’t have possibilities to raise them there. We do have the power to help. In the long term, we need to be humane everywhere!”

Picture by Urszula Wislanka for News & Letters

Picture by Urszula Wislanka for News & Letters

The march to the prison was led by the children aged five to seven, who also led the chants: “Undocumented and unafraid!” “Sin papeles y sin miedo!”

After the march we assembled in the park again. We heard from many other Valley activists speaking, for example, to the difficulty in being openly Lesbian in the immigrant rights movement.

One young man said, “I am going to say something controversial. We talk about human rights. But rights are still something that can be granted, or taken away. That is not enough, it is not yet freedom!”

—Urszula Wislanka

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