Title screen of video conversation on Organizing and Belonging Here and There

Organizing and Belonging Here and There

The final installment in the May-June 2024 series on Deportation and Coerced Return in the Americas is a video conversation with Professor Perla M. Guerrero, Professor Gretel Vera Rosas, Leni Alvarez, and Esmeralda Flores. In this conversation, Ms. Flores and Ms. Alvarez, Co-Directors of Otros Dreams en Acción, discuss factors leading to deportation and delve into the work of the organization.

[Transcript is below the video.]


Dr. Perla Guerrero:

Welcome Latinx Talk listeners and viewers. My name is Perla Guerrero. I’m Associate Professor of American Studies and US Latinx Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. I’m really glad to be able to have this conversation with these two great mujeres, who are co-directors, from the Mexico City-based organization Otros Dreams en Acción, which serves the deported and returned community. My co-host here is


Dr. Gretel Vera Rosas:

Hi everybody. I’m Dr. Vera Rosas, Associate Professor of Chicana/o/x Studies at California State University Dominguez Hills.


Dr. Perla Guerrero:

We are the co-editors for the special issue on deportation and coerced return. This is a project that both of us have been working on in different ways for several years; and it’s through our respective research and engagement that we met ODA, Otros Dream en Acción, and Leni and Esme Flores before they were co-directors. So we’re going to ask them to tell us a little bit about the organization and then to tell us about some of the factors that lead to coerced return and deportation. 


Esme Flores:

Hi everyone my name is Esme Flores; and previously, I collaborated with ODA since 2018. We have a lot to tell about what affects the coerced return or the deportation for the community. We’re trying to be very concrete, so let’s just say that for the deportation, it’s very important for us to state that it doesn’t necessarily have to do with you having any kind of involvement with the criminal system. You know, you could just literally be living your life and an ICE agent gets you, you know. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the criminal system; it’s just the way the immigration system is built that anybody can report you, you know. If there’s any problems with your work or employer that could be a cause for deportation, you know. So it doesn’t at all have to do necessarily with the criminal system. But also, in the same breath, let me say that even if it does, we really need to take into account the school-to-prison pipeline and the criminalization of brown and Black bodies, you know. So either way,whether you had any criminal conflicts or not, you can end up deported. A figure also called voluntary departure, which is just like a de facto deportation because yes, they don’t escort you over the border, but they give you a due date of “this is the time you have to leave the country” and you already signed that you basically deported yourself. 


As far as the factor that coerces people to return– of course immediately, off the top of my head, the fact that a family member is deported, right. So whether you had any conflict with a criminal system or not, in the end, your family also gets affected by the deportation; and here, we’re talking about kids that are American nationals that end up in a country where they are not officially or immediately recognized citizens but that have to choose, you know, basically between citizenship and family bonds. So, I don’t, I don’t know how you say in English but in no respect is the interes superior del niño, y la niña y la niñez [best interest of the boy, girl, childhood] ever taken into account whenever a family deportation or a deportation of a family member is being taken or done, being executed, that’s a better word. And so, that’s why people are coerced to return. 


But then we also have the factors that are structural and systematic like the lack of access to jobs, the lack of access to education, the constant racial discrimination being faced that affects jobs, housing, and health, and every other aspect. And we can also shortly mention the mental health factor. For example, we have a lot of cases of DACA recipients who literally came back because it was, because Trump was, too much. The uncertainty of DACA ending tomorrow of what would happen to them with the US government having all their information was just too much. Coming back to an unknown, to a place where you’re basically exiled, where your family’s not here, somehow seems at least more constant than this forever going, never ending worriness of “What if Trump gets reelected?” Those are only some of the factors. I would like to open a way for Leni to also contribute. 


Leni Alvarez 5:53 


Pero ODA en si as an organization, I’ve been reflecting on it; and even continuing my participation and now as co-director as well, that ODA has been the response to something that I thought was impossible when I came back. It is something tangible that we are seeing and it is something that has been approached in the holistic way to be able to accompany our community; and for it to be something that we wished we would’ve had when we came back. So ODA, as Perla mentioned, is a grassroots organization by and for those of us that have been affected by deportation and coerced return as well. And we do this through first of all that immediate accompaniment, that first step–of either you are in a detention center in the United States and you have gotten in contact with ODA through a family member or someone, you’re contemplating [return] and you are now also talking with us, as Esme was sharing with DACA recipients. So justo in visualizing esos community needs, we see what are the first immediate ones. It’s identity documents; it’s being able to see “Can I access education here? What is up with the system?” It’s a whole other thing– over there it’s the IRS, over here it’s the SAT [Servicio de Administración Tributaria] – they’re all both complicated; so it’s all of the bureaucratic processes of navigating in a country that you’re coming back after 10, 20, 30+ years[…] And many times, ironically enough, our community arrives undocumented. So that’s also part of the start of the struggles even before coming, […] of somebody being undocumented and that transition now to a forced returnee or deportee. Those [are] steps to contemplate. So after you’ve been able to cover those basic needs, you have this gap in your heart. You’re going through family reunification, you’re going through the culture shock. So, then now, we also have this space called Pocha House and Pocha House seeks to be a safe space, to be a brave space for our community, seeks to be a space where somebody can come, and once again like I mentioned, see that it’s real, that they aren’t the only one. That yes, we are actually [words unclear] And that’s unfortunate. But at the same time, I think speaking [about] me, that brought some sort of comfort in the sense of, “Where are we, you know?” So that’s what the space offers; it offers a calm space in the midst of this monstrous jungle concrete city.


ODA as Esme was sharing, I think a lot of what she was sharing goes back and echoes to these IIRIRA [Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act] laws, and all of the infrastructure that was created, precisely to be able to penalize or to be able  to criminalize minor offenses like driving without a license. That in the case of my family, that was one of the biggest factors that coerced us  to have to come back because that led to my dad having to go to county jail and possibly being deported. It was that, that emotion as Esme was sharing of that constant anxiety and stuff.




Dr. Perla Guerrero:

Thank you, that’s really helpful. You mentioned this a little bit, but can you tell us a little bit about the differences that deportees and returnees experience in Mexico? Because I think a lot of folks think, “Well, they’re both Mexican citizens; they’re both going back to their country of birth” […] And yet, from having spoken with you all over a period of several years, we know that’s not the case. There are real, there’s some real structural, maybe societal barriers, can you tell us a little bit about those?



Esme Flores:

Yes, I would love to. So, let’s start talking about the myths. Leni already mentioned the biggest one, which is “Okay, well your problem was that you were undocumented in the states but now you’re back in Mexico, which is your country of birth; you’re no longer undocumented. Problems be gone.” Lies, because what happens is that we unfortunately become undocumented in Mexico, too. And that is due to Mexico being a country that has historically expelled Mexicans. And has created no system for us to return to. It’s like, the government didn’t expect it; the government doesn’t make any effort to bring us back or give us any kind of comfort when we’re back. Why do we say we’re undocumented in Mexico? We can say a lot of things about different documents, about how hard it is to get a birth certificate, about how hard it might be to get your CURP [Clave Única de Registro de Población / Unique Code for Registering the Public], you know, whatever. But the thing is that the universal identity document is the voter’s ID known as INE [Instituto Nacional Electoral / National Electoral Institute]. Even though it isn’t legally recognized as the universal ID, it is factually so. The problem with having a political electoral instrument function as an identity document is that it was not created to protect your right to an identity. It was created to let you vote. So if you don’t have a house or a domicile, you can’t get an INE. If you don’t have your birth certificate, you can’t get an INE. If you have no other proof of picture ID, you can’t get an INE; and it’s like this never ending cycle because: “How am I gonna get a picture ID if I don’t have a picture ID?” And people are like, “Oh, but what about the matricula consular [consular registration] and the pasaporte that was given by the consulate? And the INE given in the consulate?” No, it doesn’t work? 



Dr. Perla Guerrero: 

I was gonna say, just to clarify: the Mexican government in Mexico says that the matricula consular and the passport issued in the United States to Mexican nationals is not recognized in the country of Mexico. This is not something that people do wrong; it’s that the Mexican government is not holding up their responsibilities. 


Esme Flores:

Yeah, because people are like, “Maybe you should’ve had your passport at the consulate?” What’s the point? They won’t take it because the address doesn’t have an address in Mexico. 


Leni Alvarez:

And how we’ve interpreted even the act of a deportation–that it’s a kidnapping from a nation state. It’s a kidnapping from a nation state. 


We are an organization that is led by women, even though the majority of deportees are men. That is something that we have seen and it’s interesting, and I do think it stems precisely, how we’re able to kind of– if we want–and not that much, but go under the radar. Versus maybe a community member that is coming with three dots on the side of his eye. And, at this moment, in this moment, talking with fellow community members that do have these tattoos and stuff, right now, with the rise of organized crime and stuff, they have been a target. And this is a reality that we know happens to our community. So once somebody is deported in a fronteriza border, many times they can be hit up by organized crime. Be, I say invited in the best way, but I think we all know invited to join or, as well, even kidnapped. And that is the experience of many folks that do arrive to the border; and we also have to remember that they can be dropped off at 1, 3 AM? That this was something that was pushed back at a certain time. But we know that the US government, and even adding onto that the Mexican government, are never looking out for us, but are always trying to coerce us to not try to go back and stuff. So, I would imagine that from like that first step over [they become a target]. 


And then as a returnee, in my case, I came back as a 16-year-old. But then my mom came back as a 30-something year old. So, the experiences were very different. In my case, I felt that basically I was asked to stop talking. That is something that we confronted: “Like, don’t talk!” Even though it was a coerced return because of the situation that was going on with my family; they tried to present it in the way that we were going to finally…they were going to stop working so much. We are going to finally have our house; they are going to spend time with us;  we were going to have fun. We we’re going to be able to take karate classes; they were gonna be able to afford all that. And you come back and from day one [they tell] you to not speak in Spanish because then they’ll [other Mexicans] know there’s something off. I don’t know if… I think that’s part of the society that we’re coming into, and the context that we’re coming into. As well as a woman, coming into the country as a 16-year-old teenager that was coming into the country, to be able to understand some of the social norms and stuff was also part of that culture shock and part of the things that are part of the reality. Other than the institutional ones, like being denied education, because that was also a reality for me like many other community members, and many other hurdles that we confront along the way.



Dr. Gretel Vera Rosas:

Thank you, Leni. There’s this kind of silencing that sort of embodies shame. I think it’s based on the ideas that we have in terms of what kind of immigrants we should be. Because if you deviate from that idealized notion of what a “good immigrant” is then you’re automatically not good or not good enough. So you left everything, and then you come back with “nothing”, right? So there’s this shame…. 


Leni Alvarez: 

I respond to that because it was an emotion that I felt when I came back as a 16 year old girl. At 16,  I learned that I was documented. I had no prior knowledge of my status so my mom did a really good job of protecting us in that way. But that shame was carried over here precisely; and the shame broadened and grew because when we came back there was no money in the bank that my parents had sent over. That money, the family had eaten it; the house or the land they thought we were going to build our house in was actually pawned like, etc. etc. And even hearing like my uncle whose house is like three stories but with like a Mexican teacher’s salary, who was the one that actually was managing my mom‘s finances for building and stuff. He actually told her (because he’s the older brother; she’s the little sister) that, “You went to waste your time in the United States, that you wasted basically 14+ years of your life over there and you have nothing to show for it.”



Esme Flores: 

If most of the returnees and deportees that get help are men, the leadership roles are held by women; and I think that one way that deported and returned women, specifically, have found to resist is precisely through organizing. I think that or what we have seen with the comité de mujeres, and even now when we meet a new, returnee or new deportee woman is that they have already– we have already individually walked our walk in community organizing through our own cases or through organizing in different spaces like feminism, defensa de la tierra, derechos de las comunidades indígenas. When I got to college first I did human rights in general, and then feminist and women’s rights, and then LGBT rights. Así hasta que un día I walked into a forum and there was Xime, and there was Maggie, and I was like I didn’t even know this existed.  But we had already walked the walk. The same con Caro, the same with Yari. That’s the reason, for example, that we met Yari was because in 2018 we set up the first colectivo to go to the 8M march [shorthand for March 8, International Women’s Day; in Mexico many women organize marches across the country]. And we were chanting in Spanglish; she was already there, not knowing anybody. She decided to go for herself because that’s what moved her; and then, we found each other. Las luchas se entretejen [struggles are intertwined]. And that is how women come to ODA.  



Dr. Perla Guerrero: 

I love that because it circles back to something that [Gretel] and Leni already talked about, which is like the shame that either your family places on you or Mexico, the receiving community places on you, so like part of the way you’ve been able to find each other is like when you break the silencio; and you do speak Spanish, you speak Spanglish, and you know, other folks hear that and see you and can identify with you. And, in ways that [are] really powerful. 


I also wanna add here that the law mentioned 286 [Acuerdo 286 established the procedures necessary to revalidate studies completed outside of Mexico; created many obstacles]. Through coalition building [and] organizing with other organizations, ODA helped to push for the change in legislation which required the apostille [an official seal from a government entity] for education related diplomas. So that’s a really big deal because for so many returnees and deportees […] that was the first, amongst the first hurdles if they want to study is: that if they cannot go back [to the U.S.], if all of your family returned, and if there’s nobody […] to go to your high school county to get your high school diploma, then you were already out of luck. In terms of trying to do that, in terms of organizing, it also seems that it’s true coalition building with these other organizations that serve migrants or other folks.


Leni Alvarez:

Right now what you are mentioning about education–and you would think okay check; one of the things in our demands [is] that [we] were able to obtain [changes to 286], and yes, we’ve been able to advance in that. But then, where does ODA keep on coming in for this function? When somebody comes back to Mexico, has their high school diploma, if they were able to come back with the paper in hand, they go to the local high school and they don’t know how to do the process [the diploma], or they say “[we] still require an apostille.” So, it’s also understanding how we’re navigating in a bureaucratic country that hasn’t even merged its database with the passport of its Mexican citizens expedited in el extranjero, wherever it may be, and Mexico. So we’re dealing with a government that has no connection within its different institutions. So many of the things that sometimes we’re able to advance gets lost in translation. That’s why ODA has to keep on insisting for those rights to be respected. 


ODA doesn’t just exist for those of us that live the direct experience but also the effects of it are seen in our families and stuff as part of mixed status families. I just wanted to emphasize that for folks in the United States; that we are still on the side of the border, as well fighting for rights here as well to be respected. And that has also taken into consideration gender perspectives and stuff like that, what happens when the dad is not there or maybe there’s like gender violence, etc. etc. And that takes me to the audience that is on the other side of the border from us, that there is this whole generation as well of US citizen kids and families that are being raised without maybe one parent or both. And in this case, and once again sharing part of my story, my [younger] siblings had to go back as teenagers [….] My brother says that till his senior year his guidance counselor actually knew he was living by himself. These are the experiences that are also going on on the other side. And I just placed that as well within the intersectionalities and everything that this contains. How we are affected and how we are part of…I don’t know what roles, what after effects, what… I think of it in Spanish—como nos salpica [how it splashes us]— this broken immigration system when you’re not even an undocumented  immigrant. 



Dr. Gretel Vera Rosas:

I think that just to give credit to all the work that you do; I think that yes, your organizing is transnational in the sense that is US and Mexico, but I think that is beyond that.  Because you also work with Central American migrants, with people from South America, the scope of the organizing that you do is really global. Also kind of demystifying this idea that the US is like the only place where immigration exists, full of immigrants. That Mexico has always been a country of immigrants but today is even more so in that it is return, deportation, crossing, staying. That sort of expansive way of organizing [… is] also kind of a center stage to ODA. And I think it is also very important to recognize and to talk about because people have all these misconceptions. And I think that’s one of the reasons why, for members of ODA, self-representation is very important–the ability to tell your own stories and demystify all these ideas that people have about deportation and coerced return. 


Esme Flores:

Going back to the myths about our community and why people don’t like us socially–not only that the government ignores us and tries to act like we don’t exist. But socially, it’s like pero es que: “You’re asking for all of this! Not even I have that.” And I’m like, “You don’t see the problem? You don’t see the problem with you not having [that]?”


The wording that ODA uses, that it’s not “reintegration” because you cannot be reintegrated to a country where– I think it’s a bit lower than 50%– but it’s more than 40% of the population lives under poverty How are you gonna reintegrate people [to that]? 


And so the fight for human rights, yes is targeting and centering the community of deportees and returnees because that’s what we do. We can’t fight all fights but we can fight fights that benefit more than just our community. 


For example, el Acuerdo 286: any foreigner, or immigrant, or any person, privileged or not, that did their high school elsewhere now doesn’t have to present an apostille. Same thing with the fight to access health without having an ID. Same thing for– this is more of a fight that has been headed more by CAFEMIN [another organization] and other sister organizations– but the fact that it’s illegal for them [Mexican officials] to require a CURP for your child to enter school, which benefits US kids that come with their parents so that they can enter school whether they have their dual nationality or not. It means that Central Americans, or immigrants in general, that do not have documents can also have access to basic education, which means elementary and middle school, without having a CURP, without having to prove anything and they [schools] have to take them [students] and they [officials] have to provide a provisional CURP.



Leni Alvarez:

I want to add onto that real quick and, even share the experience if I’m not incorrect, it was Baruk who went down to Chiapas and was in a space with other communities and the majority were communities in transit, refugees, etc. etc. And there he found out that they recognize the name of ODA, and one of the moms mentioned, “thanks to you guys’ community effort, my kid (they were coming from El Salvador) is now going to be able to enter school in Chiapas.” So as you mentioned [Gretel], yes, advocating for others. But I think– and I’ve learned it a lot– it’s liberation for all. We invite other people from different movements to share with us what’s going on and how it intersectionalizes because I think we see it as this interweaved thing. We’re not wanting to fight between ourselves. Let’s look [at] where is the origin? What are the roots? We need a dignified life. We want to flourish. And we all want to flourish. 


Dr. Perla Guerrero:

Thank you all for joining us. It’s been really great to have this conversation and we’ll see you again soon, I hope.


Dr. Gretel Vera Rosas:



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