Reyna Montoya during a demonstration. Aliento. All rights reserved.
Manuel Serrano: You have experienced first-hand the anxiety, the dread and the stress associated with being separated from your loved ones. What is it like to grow-up as an undocumented immigrant in America?
Reyna Montoya: Growing up as an undocumented immigrant in the US, I wasn’t able to complete certain very simple tasks without worrying about the tremendous outcome it could have for my family. I remember that in the 12th grade, something as simple as signing up for dual-enrolment meant that I had to pay three times more than any other of my classmates, since I didn’t have a social security number. It meant being left out from getting my driving permit and being unable to share those experiences with my peers.
It meant not having the opportunity to pay my respects and bury my nana, and seeing my dad cry because he had to choose whether to leave the country and bury the person who raised him, or stay in the US to raise his children. It meant not being able to get a job as soon as I graduated from college, or furthering my education right away. It also meant that I had to figure out a lot of things on my own, or find mentors to support me. Due to these challenges, however, I was able to be more creative, and make my own pathways where there weren’t any created for me.
MS: You founded Aliento to support the undocumented youths and children of immigrants living in the United States. How can art and education bring about a better America?
RM: Art is a tool that allows us to express our feelings as well as to re-imagine ways of seeing the world. Art can be healing and empowering for anyone who is willing to take a chance to express their feelings and emotions.
Education is key - we at Aliento believe that we need to create spaces where we are educating one another not only in the current political climate, but in how the system works, so as to improve the quality of life in our communities.
One of the obstacles that we face as a youth-led organization is the fact that many youths don’t have the resources to stay engaged.
MS: Your own father faced deportation some years ago, but you managed to prevent it with the help of your community. How difficult is it to remain rational when your own family faces deportation?
RM: When you’re facing first-hand experience of family separation, a lot of things go through your mind. You start thinking about the worst case scenario and imagining if this will be the last time you will speak to your loved one.
Having my dad in detention for almost nine months was extremely challenging, as was learning how to navigate my emotions while trying to navigate the legal system to help my dad.
Aliento. All rights reserved.
MS: You give a voice to undocumented youth that otherwise would be ignored. What obstacles have you faced as an organization? Can grassroots movements pursue social change by themselves?
RM: I don’t see myself as giving a voice to undocumented youth, but rather as creating a space where many other undocumented young voices can be uplifted. Some of the obstacles that we face as a youth-led organization is the fact that many youths don’t have the resources to stay engaged. The majority of them work two to three jobs, or have a job and go to school.
I would say that there is a lack of investment in recognizing these leaders as experts in the field. The majority of impacted individuals have so much knowledge and insight which often doesn’t get recognized by funders or the government.
I believe grassroots movements are powerful and can bring a lot of change in communities; however, we need to be critical about how we are inviting others and expanding the circle of support to actually create the impact we want to see.
Trump has become a symbol and a reflection of divisiveness and greed. However, at the end of the day, I can still recognize that he is a human being.
MS: For most people, Donald Trump is just a dangerous populist who happens to be the President of the United States. Who is Donald Trump to you?
RM: Donald Trump, for me, is still a human being. I am deeply against many of his ideals, politics, and the way he treats other communities that do not mirror who he is. I also believe that he has become a symbol and a reflection of divisiveness and greed. He is also someone whose policies have not only hurt me, but have hurt many people I love. However, at the end of the day, I can still recognize that he is a human being and I am praying that my heart will not become too cynical and stop seeing people’s humanity even though I disagree with them.
MS: Do you believe members of Congress will be able to reach an agreement on DACA? If they fail to do so, what can activists and civil society organisations do to guarantee that Dreamers are not left unprotected?
RM: The March 5 deadline was delayed due the courts’ decision from New York and California. This means that currently, DACA recipients can renew their application, but there are some beneficiaries who ran out of status since the courts’ decisions came right before the March 5 deadline.
We were hopeful that, with this timeline, Congress would feel the pressure and act before the deadline. However, this is like putting a Band-Aid on a big injury; it might help for a brief moment, but eventually it won’t work. We understand that at the end of the day the courts won’t be able to stop this – but it is a delay that allows people like me to have a few more months. It is extremely important that activists and civil society are engaging with elected officials, because Congress easily goes to the next “issue” without being accountable to resolve our most pressing societal problems.
Civil society has an opportunity to engage and make sure that Congress knows that they want to protect Dreamers. This should not be used by Democrats or Republicans for their electoral gain. The public must speak out and reflect if this is the society we want to be, if we want to reflect 20 or 30 years from now and let our future children know that we stayed silent. Silence is not an option; and we must use all we have to protect the most vulnerable.
Congress easily goes to the next issue without being accountable to resolve our most pressing societal problems.
MS: Your organization is making life better for children who are American in all but the bureaucratic sense of the term. How can we convince people that who we are and what we do is more important than where we come from?
RM: People need to understand that we are like you and you are like us. We at Aliento are grounded in the reality of what enables us to be human. This is why it is important not only for immigrants, but for every person to understand where we come from, what our history is. Because it is the past that allows us to reflect and give us insight of what is currently manifesting itself in the present, and what the future holds if we do not change current patterns, attitudes, and mind-sets.
I believe that it is the responsibility of those of us who have reflected in this way to invite others to reflect, but at the end of the day it is up to each individual person to either accept or refuse the invitation.
Silence is not an option. We must use all we have to protect the most vulnerable.
MS: What does Aliento need to keep helping those in need? What can civil society and citizens do to help?
RM: In order for Aliento to continue to lean in to co-create spaces of love, empowerment, and resiliency we need three things. First, we need people to join our online community through social media and spread our message.
Second, to support our work financially – it takes time and materials to make sure we can be executive –; it also allows us to be independent from others whose main priority in their agenda might not be to pass specific policies.
And third, to be bold: we need allies who will step outside their comfort zones to have tough conversations and actively support undocumented families.