Colombian Immigration

Fighting Back: Activism in New York

by | May 10, 2003

The daily line at the embassy includes would-be tourists, but also many would-be immigrants. Photo courtesy of El Espectador.

A walk along Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, reveals the world of Little Colombia: neighborhood streets lined with small bakeries; the smell of fresh bread and arepas blend with the sounds of cumbia, the national musical style. A quick glance into the windows of La Pequeña Colombia restaurant unveils scores of Colombians talking heatedly about the news as they sip steaming cups of coffee, cultivated high in the Andes.

According to the 2000 Census, there are 13,338 Colombians in Jackson Heights alone, with 84,404 Colombians total in the New York City area. These numbers may not reflect many undocumented Colombians.

For more than 50 years in their own country, Colombians have been subjected to terrorism—massacred villages, displaced children, and kidnapped politicians, along with a widespread drug trade. The decades-long Colombian conflict has the Colombian state, leftist guerrillas, and right-wing paramilitaries pitted against each other. But even in faraway New York, not all have given up on finding a solution to the war. Several people have decided to fight back.

Ramón Mejía, here for 45 years, has never stopped thinking of returning to Colombia. But living away from his country has not deterred him from doing something.

He helped found the local group Movement for Peace (Movimiento Por la Paz) three years ago, holding meetings in his Queens apartment and organizing activities targeted towards the Colombian community. These events, almost always in Spanish, range from inviting Colombian journalists and politicians to speak at local venues, to participating in protest marches in front of the United Nations. When he went to a 1999 peace march called No More! (No Más!), which drew millions of Colombians, he realized the necessity of branching out.

“From the beginning we should have realized that we had to get the American public more involved,” he said. “We didn’t realize the importance of lobbying. Today we consider it to be very important and do it much more than before.”

“What impacted me was that, for the first time, I saw 3,000 Colombians together, most waving white handkerchiefs for peace,” he said.

“We have strength in numbers,” said Martha Hauze, a social worker who helped found the group with Mejía. During that protest both witnessed many Colombians demanding the unconditional end to the guerrillas.

And that was when the idea for the group occurred to him and Hauze, one based on the idea of peace and social justice for all.

“Peace is not imposed, it is not accomplished by force. Peace is obtained through dialogue and negotiation,” Mejía explained.

Twenty-three years ago Hauze came here from Medellín where, as a woman with seven brothers, she was expected to be submissive and servile. She rebelled by lifting weights and physically fending off her brother’s blows. She calls her experiences as a woman “the source of my political consciousness.”

According to the INS, in 2000 there was a sharp increase in the number of Colombians applying for asylum status, with 2,728 new claims being filed. Of these, 80 percent of cases were denied. Applicants must prove that they are members of a political, social, or religious organization and are being persecuted for their related activities.

Many community leaders have embraced the TPS movement, part of a nationwide effort to secure the special measure granted by the Justice Department for circumstances such as environmental disasters or other extraordinary and temporary conditions for Colombians.

Zoilo Nieto founded the TPS Committee for Colombia two years ago because of the horrible stories he kept hearing from people coming from Colombia.

“That was the basis for my interest in Colombia and, from there, we started to work on a way to help our community that would not be based on the same old rhetoric, that would benefit everyone,” said Nieto.

Carlos Manzano, the only elected Colombian official in New York, represents the 64th Assembly district of Manhattan and has been one of the staunchest advocates for TPS in the city. His efforts have included lobbying politicians in Washington, organizing protests and holding press conferences.

Manzano emigrated from Cali at age 15, and attended school in Queens. Right now he is working towards a Master’s in Public Administration at New York University. He is planning to run for Manhattan Borough President in 2005. He saw there was more of an open space for political participation here. “In the U.S. it’s quite different from Colombia in the sense that if you do get involved, if you do organize people and you bring different issues to the forefront as a group, you can be very effective,” he said.

Mercedes Cano is a Colombian lawyer who practices in Jackson Heights, where the vast number of her clients are undocumented Colombians, as she once was. She has noticed a change in the kind of immigrants coming from Colombia.

Before, Colombian immigrants who came here worked in factories, came young, and came exclusively to support the family back home. And then Colombians started to come to settle down,” she said. This was partly what prompted her to join the fight for TPS.

If anyone’s life encapsulates the struggle to fight against greater obstacles, it’s Cano. She came here from Medellín at age 15 with her aunt, and immediately knew she wanted to stay. “I hated the cultural pressure of  having to do what all women in Colombia do at the time: marry and have kids.”

She worked as an undocumented Colombian without English, not to mention the fact that she was born without hearing in one ear. After years of menial jobs and homelessness, she eventually married and became legal. In her work, first as a taxi driver and then in the Post Office, she found her ability to advocate for others. She translated for tenants in her building, then represented cab drivers in administrative hearings during a 1982 strike, and served as a Union Steward for Local 300.

“Even with my limited English,” she said. “I was able to speak out for somebody else.”

Graduating with honors from Queens College in 1989, she was accepted to CUNY Law School. Upon graduation two years ago, she received a $13,000 grant from Yale University and started operating the Centro Comunitario Y de Asesoría Legal (Community Center of Legal Counsel), where she helps her fellow Colombians in her new capacity as a lawyer.

Through journalism, Mario Murillo has found a way to provoke change. He is half Colombian and half Puerto Rican and grew up here, studying political science and journalism at NYU. In 1991 he took a leave of absence from his job at WBAI and traveled around Colombia for two months. His interest and concern for the situation intensified, and in 1993 he founded the Colombia Media Project, part of the national Colombia Human Rights Network.

He says the whole point was to be a pro-peace, human rights group focusing on the relationship between Colombia and U.S. policy. “Colombia has exploded to a point that nobody could ignore it anymore,” he said. “We were part of that growing awareness.”

In Jackson Heights, everyday Colombians scurry off to work, past the stores blasting cumbias, past the travel agencies advertising daily flights to every major Colombian city. The covers of Colombian newspapers scream headlines of more bloodshed and the local Colombian radio, RCN, is heard through apartment windows–booming voices debating the future of their damaged country.

At the remitter agencies scattered throughout the neighborhood, Colombians send home a fixed amount of money, knowing their contribution, however limited, adds to the national economy. It is another symptom that this drawn-out war will keep tearing the fabric of Colombian society unless its gaping holes can be mended by the weaving of community and resistance if even by a few, fearless hands.


Spring 2003Volume II, Number 3

Tanya Perez-Brennan, formerly DRCLAS Visiting Scholars Coordinator, is now a student at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. She is writing her Master’s Thesis on Colombian activism in New York.

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