Palumbo: The OC Intersection of Movements for the Rights of Migrants, Trans, and Queer People

Share This Post

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.

Opinions expressed in community opinion pieces belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please email [email protected].

    More To Explore

    How do we build a compassionate and inclusive America in an age of distrust? WAJAHAT ALI knows from personal experience that when we come together to be the superheroes of our own stories, we can create honest social change. The beloved TED speaker has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Atlantic about our urgent issues—immigration, politics, parenthood—with boldness, hope, and humor. His memoir Go Back to Where You Came From, one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Year, follows his life as a Muslim Pakistani-American on a surprising, emotional, and challenging quest for the good life. Iconic journalist Katie Couric says that “we are all so fortunate to be on the receiving end of his intellect, his humanity, and his heart.”

    Wajahat Ali

    “With wit and charm, Ali delivers a masterful meditation on growing up brown in America...he gives us a clear-eyed affirmation of the country America could be.” — Mara Gay, New York Times

    Wajahat Ali uses his platform to fight tirelessly for the social change we need in our country—and he isn’t afraid to get personal while doing it. The Daily Beast columnist and former New York Times writer, TED speaker, award-winning playwright, and Peabody-nominated producer of the documentary series The Secret Life of Muslims offers us his experiences of triumph over hardship as a beacon of hope and resilience in the face of life’s impossible situations. From his experiences of Islamophobia growing up as a Muslim Pakistani-American to his two-year-old daughter’s liver cancer diagnosis, Wajahat is living proof that when we share our authentic stories, we build the America we wish to live in.”

    In his memoir Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American, Wajahat teaches us how to create our own superhero origin story, invest in hope for the future of America, and enact real social change. The book was called “biting and funny and full of heart” by NPR. Representative Ilhan Omar called Wajahat’s work “hilarious” and “deeply moving”, and legendary writer Dave Eggers said it was the book he’d “been hoping Wajahat Ali would write for ten years—hilarious, stylistically fearless, deeply humane.”

    Wajahat is also the author of The Domestic Crusaders—the first major play about Muslim-Americans in a post-9/11 world. He was the lead researcher and author for the Center for American Progress’s seminal report “Fear Inc., Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America,” and served as a national correspondent for Al Jazeera America, where he told stories about communities and individuals often marginalized or under-reported in mainstream media.

    As Creative Director of Affinis Wajahat Labs, he worked to create social entrepreneurship initiatives to support and uplift marginalized communities. He also worked with the US State Department to design and implement the “Generation Change” leadership program to empower young social entrepreneurs. Wajahat initiated chapters in eight countries, including Pakistan and Singapore. For his work, he was honored as a “Generation Change Leader” by Sec. of State Clinton and recognized as an “Emerging Muslim American Artist” by the Muslim Public Affairs Council. 

    He has given keynote speeches around the world such as TED, The Aspen Ideas Festival, Google, the United Nations, and The New Yorker Festival. His writing appears regularly in the New York TimesThe Atlantic, the Washington Post, and The Guardian. He’s a Senior Fellow at The Western States Center and Auburn Seminary and co-host of Al Jazeera’s The Stream.