Empowering Immigrant Community Leaders through Democratic Social Movements

Photo Credit: Flickr Username, JcOlivera.com

Photo Credit: Flickr Username, JcOlivera.com

In a country where upper-middle class interests often dominate formal electoral politics, social movements are becoming increasingly more important in empowering voices of immigrants and working-class community members. Facing a history of prejudice, discrimination, and oppression, the social movements of the 1990’s began to take on a new character in which they became more focused on educating and engaging community members as leaders to establish multiracial coalitions and focus on working-class interests. During the 1980’s, the service sector in Los Angeles expanded and many immigrants found themselves taking low-wage jobs that had very few benefits and were often de-unionized. Essentially, these workers had very little power and voice to implement change, however through movements that emphasized their personal lived experiences, they began to become empowered as activists and leaders within their communities. In reshaping and working toward improving democracy, influential activists such as Suyapa Portillo Villeda helped change the lives of immigrant communities in Los Angeles by empowering people to take action against the injustices they faced.

While reading Karen Brodkin’s Making Democracy Matter in my sociology class, we had the unique opportunity to meet one of the activists featured in the book, Suyapa Portillo Villeda. Suyapa visited our class to speak about her life experiences and her process of establishing her political identity as she advocated for immigrant workers. According to Brodkin’s book, Suyapa immigrated to Highland Park, Los Angeles from her home in Copán, Honduras during the early-1980. She made the journey across the U.S.- Mexico border when with her mother when she was very young. She grew up in the Highland Park area, attended Pitzer College, and later received her masters and completed her doctoral dissertation at Cornell University. Growing up, Suyapa saw her brother engage in radical, political activity in Honduras and watched her mother become politicized in the United States. Her family inspired her own development of her political identity as she worked for numerous campaigns upon graduating from college. These campaigns include, KIWA, SEIU Local 399, Los Angeles Coalition for Quality Health Car, Screen Actors Guild, AFSCME Local 1108, CHIRLA, and HERE Local 11 (Brodkin xx). She devoted herself to supporting immigrant rights and working-class interests as she became deeply involved in coalition building and union activism. Her efforts reflect her personal experiences as an immigrant, woman, and queer organizer and through her intersecting identities, she has the ability to change the landscape of political organizing and stand in solidarity with a variety of community members.

Suyapa’s engagement in the community represents larger activist efforts to educate and empower local community members, especially, working-class women, immigrants, and people of color. This type of outreach and community engagement occurred through teaching and mentoring within the activist community to establish strong interpersonal relationships (Brodkin 138-147). Through a commitment to the notion of democracy, teaching involved the process of community leaders and activists reaching out to potential constituents and empowering them to become leaders in the movement. Through teaching, activists encouraged community members to analyze their personal experiences and build a knowledge base of their civil rights and democratic power to take action. This knowledge building reflected the individual and communal process of becoming politicized and gaining empowerment through knowledge. Once individuals gained a knowledge base of their civil rights, they could become empowered to take action. Empowerment embodies the action they take with their newfound knowledge and understandings of their personal political identities. It reflects a democratic process encouraging workers to organize themselves and teach others as well. Finally, mentoring is a key component in establishing strong bonds and relationships to reinforce powerful coalitions that will propel the movement forward. Mentoring fosters reciprocal relationships and models democratic practice to potential constituents. It demonstrates a method for training new leaders to organize within their communities and shows how people can work together in forming effective coalitions through shared lived experiences. Ultimately, the process of educating the community empowers marginalized individuals to become active in fighting for their rights.

Suyapa’s journey of becoming politicized and educating others allowed her to empower local communities and make a difference in the lives of working immigrants. Many other activists emerged in the 1990’s to reshape and redefine our nation’s commitment to democracy by empowering new voices and giving marginalized communities the tools and power to implement change. We must begin to recognize the power of community organizing, education, and coalition building in giving immigrants a voice and working towards forming a more inclusive, democratic society that acknowledges the civil rights of every individual in the United States.

2 responses to “Empowering Immigrant Community Leaders through Democratic Social Movements

  1. marches and protest get more attention and are maybe more ‘fun’ but grassroots organizing is so important though hard work even a lot of activist over look it

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