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Working for immigrant rights in Florida: An interview with Lis-Marie Alvarado

Acting in Faith  |  By Genevieve Beck-Roe, May 5, 2016

Lis-Marie Alvarado (center) at a rally in Washington, DC with Fight for Families to Unfreeze DAPA and DACA 

Photo: AFSC

Lis-Marie Alvarado became the Organizing Coordinator for Immigrant Rights with AFSC’s Miami office in November 2015. Lis-Marie has an extensive background in labor and immigration organizing with a variety of organizations in the Florida area, and she was a cast member for the Al Jazeera Media Network’s series “Borderland” in 2013. Lis-Marie holds degrees in Sociocultural Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies from Florida International University, and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Community and Social Change from the University of Miami. Lis-Marie posts frequently on twitter, and can be found @lismariefl. She attended the annual sessions of Southeastern Yearly Meeting in March 2015 and led a workshop. The following are edited excerpts of our conversation. - GBR

This story is also part of the "Let Your Life Speak" 2017 feature. Read the other stories from the project here.

Genevieve Beck-Roe (GBR): You’re a first generation immigrant from Nicaragua who moved to the U.S. when you were 12. How has your upbringing and family history influenced your activism within the immigrant rights community in the U.S., as well as your perspective on community organizing?

Lis-Marie Alvarado (LMA): It has influenced it a lot, because I grew up listening to stories of my family being involved in the Nicaraguan revolution. It was so inspiring to see how a small country was able to keep out a dictatorship and also how it was able to fight against U.S. intervention. It was incredible that everybody was able to participate regardless of your age or your identity. It didn't matter if you were picking fruit in the field or were born in the city. It was always inspiring to know that if a small country can do that, then I as an individual can also do great things.

Quaker faith informs the work

GBR: How do AFSC’s Quaker values shape the work you do?

LMA: Coming from the retreat [Southeastern Yearly Meeting sessions], I think it's more obvious to me now how Quaker values play in to AFSC. Before I didn't know much about the Quaker faith, and I learned so much during the retreat. The gathering was so impactful for me to see how ingrained social justice is within the Quaker faith. It was part of their faith that was very humbling as well.

I was surprised how, when people were giving their testimonies – when they felt the Spirit and were speaking – how a lot of the conversations were not only about them and their relationship with God, which is what I'm used to, or complaining, or asking, but were about their responsibility to one another. There was so much diversity in thought but everything was really progressive, and that was amazing. It touched me, and I wasn't really expecting it. I went with an open mind and an open heart, but it was wonderful for me to see. I have attended many Christian denominations, but it was never linked to social justice in this particular way.

We Are Florida campaign action

Growing up, I read about liberation theology within the Catholic Church and in Nicaragua there was something called La Misa Campesina, which is like the Peasant Mass, which connects Christian theology, particularly the New Testament of the Bible, to liberation and socialism. I knew those things, but I was never part of it because that was something in a different time period. Seeing and listening to the testimonies at the yearly meeting, from people who have been involved for years and seeing them be so passionate and so concerned about the way things are, it was really moving. I'm talking about people who have a strong conviction for years, people who have been at the forefront of movements in solidarity. It was amazing to be in the space. It was an honor, and I really felt inspired.

A lot of people feel inspired by the youth, but we get inspired by our elders who have led the way for us to even be there. It was beautiful to be in that space, that inter-generational space, especially because the majority of them were white. Some of them can remember a time when segregation was part of the norm, and it was really amazing to see how people can change and progress with the times. Some people don't, but some people do, and when your faith actually encourages you to do that then I think that's amazing. I'm not saying that Quakers are exempt from ingrained racism, because that's part of life. But I feel like they had an awareness of it and were humble enough to talk about it and make mistakes, which for me was really moving.

GBR: Was that also true of your workshop experience? I know that you led a workshop on immigrant rights.

LMA: Yeah, I led a workshop with my colleague Vanessa. We were talking about immigrant rights in Florida and most of the people who attended were from Florida which made sense because we made it really specific. We had just finished a legislative campaign specifically in Florida, and wanted to share about that.

Lis-Marie (blue hat) and Madre Tierra Kids at a May First Celebration in Miami

We made the workshop very participatory. People got to share their stories and also look at their own immigrant stories. Sometimes, if you're European-American, you don't get to revisit that. We talked about, where do you parents come from? Your great-great-great-great-great grandparents? We all shared a piece of that with the group to recognize that a lot of us come from somewhere else and those of us that don't have a particular story of displacement and colonization.

We wanted to open up with that conversation to ground a little bit the space so people don't feel like immigrant rights is something removed from them. It's something that concerns all of us, even if you're Native American, to an extent. Then we asked them what things they had been hearing about immigration on the news lately. We wanted to center the space around what they had heard so far, and what they knew had been happening.

After the group sharing I talked about the legislative campaign, "We Are Florida."  We were confronted by nine anti-immigrant projects or pieces of legislation. They all passed the House, however we were able to prevent them from passing further and we were able to beat all of the bills. The bills included things such as forcing police to collaborate with ICE, and charging them with a fee if they didn't comply. We shared with [workshop participants] the victories of that campaign.

Gender and immigrant rights

GBR: Your academic background includes studies in many subjects, but one of those is women and gender studies, and there's also your lived experience in the world. How has your use of gender analysis influenced the work you do in immigrant rights?

LMA: I try to have a gender analysis for everything in life. I don't think I'm the gender expert, because I don't think anyone is. But I do see the benefit in having a gender lens when it comes immigration issues. I think I have been able to benefit from some of the relationships I have built with women in the community. A lot of the children who are participating in the programs we have at AFSC right now are from women I have relationships with from the program that I had before called Comadres. These are relationships I wanted to maintain and also to support their families, in this case their children. So I think that's a direct link and also to continue to support them.

Lis-Marie (middle) with the We Are Florida youth participants

It’s not only an issue about immigration status. There are also sometimes cases of domestic violence or work abuses specific to women. It’s important to have someone who makes this part of the conversation within immigrant rights. I think there are several organizations that try to link some of those things and I think they do a good job, but I think with me at the grassroots level I want to connect with the different families.

One thing I've had in mind to bring to AFSC is a workers co-op. One of the things I used to do with a group of women in Homestead, and it was informal, but we would sell food around the neighborhood because they weren’t able to find jobs "the regular way." These women were very entrepreneurial, and we had more or less a papusa business where we had customers who would buy regularly, but we would also go around selling papusas and we would share the money among the women.

We were never able to develop that into something concrete, but that's been lingering in my mind for a long time. I think it's time to talk about alternative economies when there’s no other way within our economy.

Youth at an immigrant rights rally in Miami

GBR: It seems like you bring a lens to organizing that looks at organizing as being relationship-based. That it’s not solely about a job, but about a community. A job can give resources for doing that, but it really seems like you are building relationships that are able to transcend wherever you’re working.

LMA: I see AFSC as a vehicle we can utilize for the community, for community development. Not in the capitalist sense of development but in the sense of self-determination.

A story of hope

GBR: I'm wondering if there's a story from your organizing experience that was really particularly moving or important for you.

LMA: A story that always lifts me up and gives me a lot of hope is a story from an organization, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. I've been supporting the Coalition for a long time through the Student/Farmworker Alliance. It always made me feel hopeful because it was people like me, people like my family, farmworkers in the fields, mostly immigrants, who were able to bring corporations in to the negotiation table.  That was always a really powerful story, because it also changed people's lives concretely. It wasn’t only in an emotional way, or an inspirational way. It was, “here's your paycheck” and then, “here's your paycheck with a salary increase.” It was also about the dignity of the farmworkers themselves.

Youth at a Coalition of Immokalee Workers action march on March 12, 2016 / Credit: Lis-Marie Alvarado

I’ve been part of so many actions they have led through the years: fasting, doing a hunger march, and all of those things have helped me know that we can do things even if we are in belly of the beast. It's not even an option, we have to. There are so many expectations from our campañieros and compañieras around the globe for those of us that are inside here to be the change, because they need us. They're really doing what they're supposed to be doing, fighting multinational corporations, the mining companies, and sometimes even the U.S. government. The story the Coalition has taught me is that we win sometimes, and when we win it's really wonderful. When I feel down or overwhelmed I always think about that, and it keeps me going.

GBR: Is there anything else you want to add?

LMA: I just want to thank all the Friends, particularly from the southeastern region, from Florida. It was wonderful for me to be moved spiritually. I'm always used to being moved politically through reading and meeting people. But in this case it was a combination of both that really took me to another level so I really appreciated being in that space. I just want to thank them for what they do and continue to do and I hope that we can work together more closely here in Miami and I definitely would like to continue to learn about Quaker values and make sure I honor them in the work that I do. I just want to say thank you.

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About the Author

Genevieve Beck-Roe is serving as the Friends Relations Fellow with AFSC as part of Quaker Voluntary Service's Alumni Fellowship for 2015-16. Genevieve grew up in Chicago and graduated in 2014 from Earlham College. She has previously worked and been active around issues of mass incarceration and immigrant detention at the intersection of LGBTQ rights, and is excited to engage those issues in a Quaker context at AFSC. She swam in the ocean for the first time in August and it was great.

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Lucy Duncan works with other AFSC staff to foster strong relationships between AFSC and Quakers.

Lucy is AFSC’s Director of Friends Relations. She has been a storyteller for 20 years and has worked with Quaker meetings on telling stories for racial justice and of spiritual experience. She attends Green Street Friends Meeting (PhYM) and lives with her son and partner in a Quaker cemetery.

Sophia is the Friends Relations Fellow this year who works closely with Lucy. She is a recent graduate of Guilford College where she majored in Sustainable Food Systems and Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies.