In the premiere episode of Queering Left, you’ll hear from Tania Unzueta and Rey Wences. Tania and Rey are two of the co-founders of the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL). IYJL was founded in 2009 by a group of undocumented students fighting against the deportation of co-founder, Rigo Padilla. Believing in the legal system, Rigo attempted to fight his deportation through the courts, but soon was told that he had run out of legal options and would be deported. IYJL organized a grassroots campaign that eventually won the support of five members of Congress, a Senator, the Chicago City Council, community organizations, and thousands of Chicagoans. Padilla’s deportation was deferred days before he was scheduled to travel back to Mexico. After the successful defense of Padilla, IYJL continued to call for passage of the DREAM Act with different actions, sit-ins, and hosting an annual “National Coming Out of the Shadows” day where undocumented youth proclaimed to the public that they were “undocumented and unafraid.” IYJL took inspiration from the radical queer organizers that came before informing their language, strategies, and tactics. IYJL evolved into Organized Communities Against Deportations and remains one of the strongest voices for immigrant rights in Chicago.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
Emmanuel: [00:00:06] Welcome to Queering Left. A podcast from Crossroads Fund. I’m Emmanuel Garcia.
Jeanne: [00:12] And I’m Jeanne Kracher, and we are the hosts of Queering Left. Crossroads Fund is a public foundation in Chicago. We provide funding to community organizations, activists, and movements who are working for racial, social, and economic justice. For more information, please visit our website: crossroadsfund.org
Emmanuel: [00:38] On today’s episode, you’ll hear from Tania Unzueta and Rey Wences. Tania and Rey are two of the founders of the Immigrant Youth Justice League, also known as IYJL. IYJL was founded in 2009 by a group of undocumented students fighting against the deportation of co-founder Rigo Padilla. Believing in the legal system, Rigo attempted to fight his deportation through the courts but was told that he had run out of legal options and would be deported. IYJL organized a grassroots campaign that eventually won the support of five members of Congress, a senator, the Chicago City Council, community organizations and thousands of Chicagoans. Padilla’s deportation was deferred days before he was scheduled to travel back to Mexico [cited from the Freedom from Fear Award].
Jeanne: [01:34] After the successful defense of Padilla, IYJL continued to call for passage of the DREAM Act with different actions, sit-ins and hosting an annual national “Coming Out of the Shadows Day”, where undocumented youth from IYJL proclaimed to the public that they were, “undocumented and unafraid.” IYJL took inspiration from the radical queer organizers that came before, informing their language, strategies, and tactics. IYJL evolved into Organized Communities Against Deportations, also known as OCAD, and remains one of the strongest voices for immigrant rights in Chicago.
Tania: [02:20] I am Tania, I identify as a queer, undocumented, Mexican, woman.
Rey/Reyna: [02:33] My name is Rey/Reyna Wences I identify as queer non-binary, formerly undocumented and an immigrant from Mexico.
Jeanne: [02:43] We want to start with this idea of 50 years since Stonewall and, as we know, Stonewall was a riot of the most marginalized folks within what were queer communities back then. So, drag queens, sissies, transgender people, butchers, prostitutes, and homeless young queers. How did that riot, how did Stonewall influence you and the work you do today?
Rey/Reyna: [03:14] I remember first finding out about Stonewall and learning more about the history and the characters behind that fight when I was a young person at Radio Arte, a nonprofit radio station that existed in Pilsen for many years. What struck me about the story behind Stonewall was that it was people rising up against police because they were being discriminated, because they had been targeted before. In many ways, I was already connecting and felt a connection to their stories because at the time I was undocumented and I also felt targeted and felt surveilled by police and by other law enforcement agencies. So, Stonewall has influenced not only the way that I see LGBTQ leaders over the years and their presence but, also, what they did influences a lot of the movement and organizing that I have taken a part of – because it directly involves people that are experiencing either policing or being surveilled. In many cases and in the cases of the immigrant community are being pushed out of society because of a label of stigmatization that comes from various different places.
Tania: [04:42] In 2009, Reyna and I were both part of a campaign to stop the deportation of our friend and student at Radio Arte, the radio station. In that campaign, we had to talk about our stories over and over. At some point we made the connection that we were telling our stories as undocumented immigrants. I remember thinking through the first time it was going to come out publicly that I was undocumented. I thought about my friends and what my friends were going to say because I never told them and that was something that to some extent, you could keep hidden. There was a really clear parallel between having to come out as undocumented and that experience and what I had learned about the experiences of queer people, particularly around the time of Stonewall and the gay liberation movement. I studied LGBT history and Gender Studies in college. I was probably the person who introduced Rey to Stonewall and what that meant at Radio Arte because I felt it was part of history. I think we were clear of that parallel in organizing tactics. So, I think the unapologetic way in which Stonewall and Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson – both of these woman – the fearlessness it took both to speak out and how that connected to the gay liberation movement, the strategies of coming out of the shadows – Harvey Milk – absolutely played a role in how we mobilized around coming out of the shadows and fighting for undocumented youth. It’s always intersectional because we were on the shoulders of folks who are organizing for immigrant rights, folks are organizing for undocumented students in California, the Black Liberation Movement and the Civil Rights movement. But I think, particularly because we were queer and this idea that you’re experiencing something that you can hide to some extent or that you have to come out about really like played a role in seeing those parallels for us.
Emmanuel: [07:35] Thinking about the parallels. What does organizing with a queer lens mean to you? Do you think that it makes you more radical?
Rey/Reyna: [07:48] I don’t know that it necessarily makes you more radical. So, to me, organizing through a queer lens is being unapologetic about the demands, about the strategies. It means visiblizing what’s been invisible. I think when you add things or frames, such as a feminist queer lens, then you are actually expanding beyond just the identity politics that sometimes are very narrow and can be hurtful to movements. So, I don’t necessarily think that being queer makes me more radical, but I think it informs the way that I see the world and how I approach my work.
Tania: [08:36] In terms of the experience of being queer and does it make you more radical, I think that there is something about seeing clearly when your experience doesn’t match systems. I often think that actually is an entry point to questioning how these systems work. So, to me, both growing up undocumented and being queer really helped me to see how the law isn’t always right, for example, and why it would make sense to challenge that law rather than conform to it. So, I think in that way yea, it has exposed me to or forced me in some ways to think beyond the box and be a little bit more radical.
Jeanne: [09:19] How does the mainstream movements that you’re affiliated with, let’s talk about gay or queer and immigrant rights, how do those communities embrace you? How do they scorn you? How do they use you or how do they uplift you and your activism? There may be some complicated relationships.
Rey/Reyna: [09:53] Many!
Tania: [09:55] I think the people that I feel most comfortable with are often the people who I have organized with and I think that, at every level – from peer to peer organizing, to the families who we helped get out of detention – what I often find is that once people trust you because you go through this process of having to trust each other when you’re trying to get out of detention – where you’re trying to fight a deportation – and there’s a sense of loyalty to that comes along with that trust for each other. I have found that that’s the easiest or most comfortable place to be out and queer with people. It doesn’t happen automatically and it doesn’t happen in a seamless way either. I think that there is, I’m about to bring my partner to this party and I’m choosing not to pretend that we’re just friends for example, amongst our base and our members. But I think that for a lot of them, they already love me in some way. I think it’s easier for them to understand or to not to think of me as a stereotype, for example. I also think it’s something that has been or can be weaponized, for lack of a better word. So, I think that when there are people who disagree with me or dislike what I’m doing or angry at what I’m doing, I think it can be used and has been used against me mostly in the, “why are you being separatist” or “why are you bringing other issues” and then I read about this, from 30 years ago, these kind of arguments, but it still happens. I think that there’s also, at least among the immigrant rights movement, I think I am a little bit always on the defensive. At least, I feel like there are also moments when I choose not to make it an issue or not to respond to something homophobic or not to be out because it makes it easier to work or because I know it’ll be seen as taking too much attention or distracting from the main thing. It is like a constant negotiation; I would say still.
Rey/Reyna: [12:33] Yea, I mean, I remember a time when I was very unapologetic about being undocumented and out. I would have conversations with Tania about not feeling necessarily safe, being out as a queer person in those spaces. And it wasn’t until the Dream Act 2010 campaign when a lot of us went back and just reflected a lot on the risks that we had taken, the ways that we had pushed the narrative of being undocumented and unafraid, and when we had compromised because of the political landscape and context in which we were organizing. And after that, I remember there was a meeting where we said, we’re going to be unapologetic about who we are and that means really recognizing and uplifting all our identities. To me, that was a turning point in the way that I also presented myself. And I let other people see a side of me that I had been not showing, not being open about. And then after that, I think we even put together a couple of events that were “Undocumented Coming Out”, “Undocumented and Queer.” And by then, having been part of a successful campaign to stop a local deportation. And then having an impactful movement of “Undocumented, Unafraid” across the country, when we came back and started doing a lot of this, I do think that it caught people off guard. But it wasn’t that they could look away anymore. And then after that, I just feel like there are times when I have felt used by the immigrant rights movement and the mainstream LGBTQ movement. When it comes to this notion of what makes you radical, especially in immigrant rights work, sometimes organizing and being queer can be seen as like, oh, my God, that no one has done this before but there are a lot of queer people that have been leaders in the undocumented and immigrant rights movements. But maybe they couldn’t be out or they didn’t have access to things like this, recording their stories and leaving a legacy of what it meant to be in meetings in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, queer, and fighting for immigrant rights. And on the other side, in the LGBTQ mainstream movement, I often find that it’s OK for me to be around until we start talking about policing, and that’s a point that is very problematic, especially in this time where we’re seeing how our identities – our experiences – get co-opted and are being used against other communities that are marginalized. It’s really important to be respectful of people that choose not to come out for whatever reason, in the movement, but also to be aware that we must continue to organize through these lenses and to question and pushback when it’s not convenient for the people that say they have our back.
Tania: [15:58] Between 2006 and 2010, when there was a big effort to get Comprehensive Immigration Reform, Congressman Luis Gutierrez was sort of at the head of it. We were literally told not to be out as queer people in some of these immigrant rights meetings and immigrant rights rallies. We were told by organizers specifically, don’t bring up same-sex marriage because that was still unresolved. Don’t talk about being queer because that’s going to be seen as controversial. And I remember being at a meeting with Congressman [Luis] Gutierrez where someone else in the room said, “We want to make sure that we have the support of the Catholic Church.” So, we also can’t be talking about queer leaders. This was 2006. It wasn’t that long ago. And between 2006 and 2010, DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act] got repealed, and DOMA got repealed on the same day as the DREAM Act failed. We were all in Washington, D.C., watching both votes happen. After that happened, there was a clear shift in how people evaluated the value of movements. And I think immigrant rights people actually started seeing that there was value in the LGBTQ support because they had been able to repeal DOMA and marriage was next. There was this whole thing happening. And I was at that meeting again with Congressman [Luis] Gutierrez and with other staffers and someone in the room said, “Now it makes sense to bring in LGBTQ immigrant rights leaders because actually, we need the support of equality. We need the support of gay organizations to be able to pass immigration reform.” All of a sudden, we were wanted, and we needed stories of gay couples who were getting deported, and we wanted queer, undocumented youth to be out, et cetera. That was around the time that Rey was talking about when we started trying to take back some of the ways in which our identities had been portrayed. Every year we had a theme around “Coming Out Of The Shadows.” For example, the first year it was “Undocumented, Unafraid.” The second-year was “Undocumented, Unafraid, Unapologetic.” And then the third year, which was that year, was actually “I Define Myself.” Very much to the topic. And that’s when we started really not wanting to stick to the narratives and trying to break some of those ideas. And we felt like the DREAM Act had failed. So, it was no longer a point, and, let’s do what we need to do. In some ways, this moment reminds me a lot of that.
Emmanuel: [18:43] I want to ask about our current political moment, where we have a Black lesbian mayor in Chicago for the first time ever. And an openly gay white man running for president. How do you see your work as queer organizers in relation to the current reality where there is a mainstream “acceptance of the LGBTQ community”?
Rey/Reyna: [19:08] In terms of the question of Lori Lightfoot becoming the first Black, lesbian mayor in Chicago, there were definitely people that I encountered throughout the last two months before she was elected that were very oblivious to her role as part of the Chicago Police Department, the board, and her connections to Rahm Emanuel’s administration. I often found that the first thing that came to people’s minds was that she’s going to be the first Black, lesbian mayor. For some of the organizers and individuals in the community that had already been experiencing and had seen Lori Lightfoot during those meetings – during the investigation of the murder of Rekia Boyd – had seen the way that she had treated the family and the ways she was shutting down organizers, it was very clear that something needed to be said about Lori Lightfoot. She was gaining a lot of momentum and a lot of the people that were supporting her continued to just echo the fact that she would be the Black, lesbian mayor. If we look at the map, we also can see that she got a lot of support down Lakeshore Drive, the North Side, Lakeview, all those areas. I don’t think it’s an accident. It is also that people that are in those communities are so disconnected from the reality of other individuals and other communities on the South Side of Chicago and the West Side, that seeing the first Black, lesbian mayor probably made them feel good. We’re going to vote for her. And look, she’s a progressive. Then we also talk about how progressive – this new term – is getting co-opted and defined by these politicians. Organizers felt like we needed to say something about it so, the last effort was this “Stop Lightfoot” campaign. At the core, we were trying to expose the harmful nature of Lightfoot’s background. The way in which she had done all these things – as a federal prosecutor, as part of the board of the police – and to try to deconstruct this notion that because you’re a lesbian and you’re Black, you must be for these issues. So then it came back again to the issues. We’re talking about policing, we’re talking about the lack of resources in many neighborhoods. I agree, we need to have a serious conversation about identity politics and, also, how it’s getting co-opted by neoliberal politicians in the end. I think it’s the responsibility of people that elected her to also take some responsibility for putting somebody there that has already shown is not supporting people of color.
Jeanne: [22:51] When we talk about identity politics – what you talked about, sort of the wrong way that identity politics can go where they are not intersectional – they forget the very thing that what we started with at Stonewall was about. Could you talk a little about how you see building a movement or building political work? How you would go about creating that sort of intersectional politics? How you do it currently? Also, where would you like to see young people coming behind you doing that and how they would do that?
Tania: [23:43] To me, the most successful and important campaigns that I’ve worked on that are intersectional are either about an issue that we can identify as important to all of us in a similar way or are based on relationships that have been built with people over years, over time, and over campaigns. Meaning, I think it’s important to form relationships and trust. Just using the gang database work that we’ve done as an example. We started talking about the gang database without thinking about it as an intersectional issue automatically. The gang database kept coming up in some of the immigration cases that we were working on and we didn’t know what it was and we wanted to look into it more. And when we were ready to start thinking about a campaign, it had been several years that we had been talking to BYP100, in particular, about some of this work, working with Assata’s Daughter’s, too, around fighting some of the ICE raids, for example, and talking about ICE and police as law enforcement agencies that our people needed to pay attention to. All of that has come together into building a campaign where it hasn’t been easy, it hasn’t been perfect, but I think there is real building and real trust amongst people. And there’s a goal that we all see as crucial and important for our communities. I think solidarity is important, and it’s absolutely important for communities to understand how to show solidarity for each other. But I think that trust-building and the relationship-building comes when both communities have an intrinsic interest in moving something forward and are able to see how, whatever it is, actually impacts [people] and is in the interest of each of the folks participating.
Rey/Reyna: [26:12] The way that I see it is at the intersection of, again, policing, surveillance, incarceration, detention, and in the complexities of being an immigrant or undocumented or in-between statuses. That said, a lot of our work now under the Trump administration, even with fewer resources than we had before to fight cases, has increasingly highlighted how all those systems are impacting communities or the ways in which these systems are so interlocked now that they’re actually furthering the criminalization of people. I’ll talk about two examples, the example of Francisco Roman, who is an undocumented queer person that had a lack of mental health resources growing up. Then, one day he was arrested when he had an altercation. Because local law enforcement agencies are not trained properly to handle cases like this, he was immediately arrested. Because of that charge, that interaction, he ended up in an immigration detention center. He’s been there for months. For us to support somebody in that position, it means that we have to talk about all the aspects of that person’s life and experience. It means that we’re not going to pick and choose whether we’re going to highlight that he’s queer or not or we’re not going to tiptoe around talking about the connections between the police and ICE and the racism that leads to cases like this. For us, it means honoring Francisco’s story. Not pushing him or forcing him to compromise any part of his truth. In the case of somebody like Mohammed, who is a Palestinian person that has been in a detention center for over a year because he was targeted by the FBI. And a memo by the FBI was then used by ICE to put him in detention. And because he is named in an FBI memo, he was not given an immigration bond. So, he hasn’t even had the chance to go in front of a judge and appeal his immigration case. In a case like that, we also are taking steps to honor Mohammed’s experience – his life. We’re not going to tiptoe around the issue of being pro-Palestine because it’s about people’s lives. Being intersectional and being radical means that you are going to get to the root of the issue. So that means having to talk about the interactions and connections between law enforcement, money that gets funneled to militarize and terrorize people in Palestine, and the connections to what’s happening on the border. The similarities of how the law is being used against people to demonize them and to eventually invisiblize them. We’re talking about people that are being kept in immigration detention oftentimes because they’re either being targeted or don’t have the funds, the resources to be able to fight their cases.
Tania: [29:58] I wanted to say something real quick about organizing with adults, too. I come from youth organizing and from being a youth in youth organizing. And it’s amazing. I think working with young people is amazing. One of the things that happened as we were young undocumented people fighting deportations was that there was a point at which we had to expand who we fought for and who we fought with, particularly undocumented adults. That meant that we had to shift our entire infrastructure, name, and way of organizing because we also didn’t want it to be these undocumented youth organizing for all these adults without their input, their organizing with us and leadership opportunities. It just really made me realize how there is a lack of spaces for adults to organize in, to learn, and to talk with each other. I think that’s also been a really important space for us to have to create in OCAD and it’s been the place where some of the most important conversations I’ve had around intersectionality have happened, because it’s not just adults that come to our meetings, it’s entire families. We have families that the mom, the dad come and then their four children, ranging ages from 3 to 15 or something like that. Part of the challenge has been figuring out how do we do programming that includes the entire family, that isn’t just childcare, that is conducive to growth and to learning for everyone. Sometimes it’s easier to have conversations about queerness, for example, with young people. I think it’s just as important to be able to have those with entire families.
Emmanuel: [32:13] I was thinking about the particular realities of youth in this work coming out as queer and coming out as undocumented. I say that as we read about a young person who committed suicide over the weekend. His name was Nigel [Shelby] and he was in high school. I just wanted to know if you could talk about that a little bit.
Rey/Reyna: [32:46] In terms of suicide and our communities, I’ve personally experienced depression and all these things that come at you and get increased by the lack of resources. When I was undocumented, I felt very much like a lot of doors were closed and I felt trapped. I remember the first few cases that the media was covering nationally of people that had committed suicide after the DREAM Act failed. That was heavy. We even had a rally outside Federal Plaza for Joaquin Luna, and, at that point, we had been talking a lot about being undocumented and unafraid. I remember that day many of us shared similar experiences. It’s hard because not much has changed. Just recently, you hear of parents killing themselves because their children are taken away from them in detention centers. You hear of people dying because ICE officers are torturing them inside detention. And you hear people lose hope because this immigration system is not getting any better for anyone. I’m not young anymore. I have seen the new generation of young undocumented people organize here in the city and it gives me hope, people like the young leader that opened for Bernie [Sanders] or Citlali Perez from Brighton Park. [She] is a leader in this campaign, the gang database [campaign], and going around her school talking about the intersectionality of policing, of being a young person and being undocumented. People like her give me hope. Unfortunately, we’re going to continue to lose people because of the way that things are. I do look forward to being questioned, getting pushback from the young upcoming generation because I think that the lives and experiences that they’re facing are completely different from the ones that I faced 10 years ago, when I began organizing. I’m hopeful for all those leaders in No Cop Academy, all those people that want to come out and organize unapologetically against the police and issues that for so many years have been used to pit us against each other. And now we’re seeing how it’s pointing the finger in the right direction. And they’re not being apologetic about.
Emmanuel: [36:10] Thank you for sharing that.
Jeanne: [00:36:12] Could you just comment a bit on how your liberation is connected to the folks at Stonewall?
Tania: [36:20] Yeah, I mean, I see a connection between Stonewall and the history of Stonewall and where we are now. I did a radio story once on Stonewall. It was me narrating the story because I thought people should know, in Spanish, and I just wanted to do it. What I remember about doing that piece was imagining the frustration and the moment, the decision making that you have to make while all of that is happening. I remember thinking a lot about what was happening while people were in the bar and the police were outside. Those moments, I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about it this explicitly, but there is this definite inspiration that comes from it, because when we first started saying undocumented and unafraid, we weren’t unafraid. I remember David Ramirez – one of the folks who helped found IYJL – we were in the computer lab and he had recorded a story with Reyna about the experiences of being undocumented and coming to the United States. He was just trying to come up with a title for the soundtrack. And he was like, “I just want something that says what we’re trying to be, what we’re trying to communicate with people.” Then he just came up with undocumented period, unafraid period. We just felt like it described what we wanted to be. I think about that for Stonewall. I don’t think people necessarily went in thinking, we’re not afraid of the police. We’re not afraid of the consequences. It was just this necessary moment of being unafraid and doing the thing that they needed to do. They’re part of the example of people who used tactics that were outside of the systems that yielded results. I think there are other examples. There’s ACTUP, for example. I also remember looking a lot at their tactics. It is sort of a very visible example of a group of people who needed to fight back and it shows that those riots are also part of progress.
Rey/Reyna: [39:22] I came across the speech by Sylvia Rivera and I just remember feeling goosebumps all over at how powerful, how truthful, how fierce [it was]. I think that’s when the time when I was like, this is what fierce is. This is the definition of fierce.
Jeanne: [39:43] Thank you for listening to this episode of Queering Left. The organizers interviewed represent just one example of the fearless movement-building in Chicago that Crossroads Fund is proud to have supported since 1981.
Emmanuel: [40:08] Please visit our website for photos, videos and other media related to this episode.
Jeanne: [40:15] For more information on Crossroads Fund and the organizers featured in this interview, please follow “Queering Left” on Facebook and Twitter and sign up to receive email alerts of new interviews at our website: crossroadsfund.org