Immigrant Brings History and Tactics to Meatpackers

I was born in Guatemala thirty-eight years ago. My father's family is from the Maya town of the Mams, my mother's descended from Spaniards. Their relationship was full of conflict, reflecting that of my country.

I remember the beginning of the war and violence in my neighborhood, and this is where my sense of organization was born. To end the fighting on my block, I organized four soccer teams and created a tournament. Then the guerillas came to my neighborhood. They used a strategy called "mail box carrier." They gave me leaflets and I distributed them to the doors of every home. I read them too, and asked the guerrillas questions, and this way I began learning the skill of political analysis.

My conscience was born like Rigoberta Menchu's, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for opposing the war and the government's massacres in my country. I saw injustices every day, dead and more dead. Soldiers killed my neighbor, who was like my brother, in front of his house. All this begins to create something inside that enrages you, and you want to do something.

This was the time when the governments of Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia and Gen. Efrain Ríos Montt led the scorched earth policies. The army couldn't tell who was pro-guerrilla and who wasn't.

I left the university to enter the seminary, because I felt the Church could influence the political situation. I wanted to be a priest to help end the violence in the political system. With others I began to organize young people against the violence. This way we could begin to re-create our communities, I believed.

We started with the non-violence idea among Church youth groups, and followed that by meeting with laborers in urban areas. Our goal was to offer the Church as a space for political participation. We organized groups where people created their own theater, a way of examining their own situation. But many of the young people began to be seen as guerrillas because they were advocating political change. All our social activities were prohibited.

The Church gives one power. The minute you are ordained a priest -- Pow! You have power. Nevertheless, I never became a priest. I was impatient because the Church was not willing to allow indigenous people to become church leaders and make decisions about programs.

When I fell in love and married, I had one condition with my wife, who was an American -- that I would never come to the United States. I had a preconceived idea about gringos, because I held them responsible for what happened in the war in Guatemala. I knew the United States had trained the army and given it money after the CIA overthrew President Jacobo Arbenz -- who had been democratically elected -- in l954. They supported the army even after the world knew it was committing massacres. The United States used its power and we buried the dead.

But with my wife I began to understand that people are more than any label, title or ideology. She worked for the Church, and the army had threatened to kill her too. By the time our child was born, much of what I thought had been transformed.

I think I am one of those many immigrants who say, "Let's go for a year just to try it out," then never go back to their home countries. For the first six months I felt disoriented. I didn't know or trust anyone.

In Omaha, I met Fr. Damian Zuerlein and Tom Holler, an organizer for the Industrial Areas Foundation, which is a national network of church- and community-based organizations. Each talked to me for a long time about my experience in Guatemala. They hired me as an organizer.

With them I've learned about tactics for community organizing here in the United States, like one-on-one meeting. You create relations with people, discover their interests, look for talents, and identify leaders. But I've discovered that this is the same thing we did in Guatemala. For Latin Americans, this way of using social networks to organize people is part of our culture.

We've been able to develop strong roots among meatpacking workers in South Omaha, many Latin Americans. There are common elements in our cultures. We each know where the Salvadorans live, where the Guatemalans live, or the people from Chihuahua, or the folks from Oaxaca. We know who are the ones people pay attention to, who the leaders are. On Sunday after mass everybody eats, you drink some beers together and you spend time together.

I think the art will be to connect these social networks we know with African Americans, with Anglo-Saxons and other communities. Latinos can do many things and this is our moment. But we can't do them alone.

Finally the Mexican meat-packers decided to join forces with the United Food and Commercial Workers to organize the Omaha plants. We've won elections now in two of them.

We are a new generation of immigrants -- some undocumented -- the point of a lance which has to open the road for the next generation, who will become full-fledged citizens. We carry knowledge and history with us. With the kind of organization we leave our children, they will contribute politically and someday help to define this city.

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