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Cristina Jiménez Moreta: from undocumented immigrant to winner of 'genius' award

Born in Ecuador, she is one of the three Latinos who were awarded a MacArthur Foundation 'genius grant' this week, for her work in defense of immigrants.
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13 Oct 2017 – 1:17 PM EDT

The experience of living in Queens with little contact with Anglos is what Cristina Jiménez Moreta says shaped her world view. "I grew up in a diverse community with Latino, Asian and African people, an experience that makes you understand the difference and the similarities," she says.

But that cultural richness came with the tough aspect of being undocumented: observing how her father went unpaid, feeling the fear of deportation, and living with discrimination.

"At 11 my brother was arrested and a policeman broke his neck for no reason. That is not a unique experience. It's something that happens in our communities every day," said the co-founder and CEO of United We Dream, one of the leading immigrant organizations in the country.

The work she put into creating United We Dream is partly why the MacArthur Foundation honored Jiménez Moreta, an Ecuadoran-born activist who came to the United States aged 13, with one of the most prestigious awards in the United States, which comes with a $625,000. Past winners of the grant include remarkable individuals from all walks of life, such as the writer Junot Díaz or the inventor of the internet, Tim Berners Lee.

The beneficiaries - known as 'MacArthur Geniuses' - can do whatever they want with this grant, which seeks to "invest in the originality, vision and potential of a person," as the foundation says.

Another of this years' winners is University of Michigan Anthropology Professor, Jason De León, founder of the Undocumented Migration Project, a long-term anthropological analysis of clandestine border crossings between Northern Mexico and Southern Arizona. Since 2009 de Leon, has traveled every year to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona to collect artifacts abandoned by migrants on their way to the United States: backpacks, handbags, fabrics, virgins, shoes, bottles, bibles, water jugs, T-shirts with Statue of Liberty t-shirts.


In the case of Jiménez Moreta, the money will be used to deepen the mission of her organization, which has more than 100,000 members and 55 affiliated organizations throughout the United States. "This award helps us make sure the collective vision of United We Dream stays on track," said Jiménez Moreta, who at 33 is the youngest of the 2017 winners. "We particularly want to support and develop the leadership of young immigrants to be leaders of social justice, who will create change in their communities at the local and federal levels."

In short, the plan is to create more Jiménez Moretas around the country, something that is not easy at a time when the undocumented are threatened by a hostile government and the federal program for those who arrived as children, DACA, has just been rescinded.

Jiménez Moreta's brother is a DACA beneficiary and, although she has already regularized her immigration status, her parents are still undocumented. As a result, she is aware how difficult it is to protest and take action, as she explains in the following interview:

In the beginning, how did you overcome the fear of speaking despite being undocumented and why was it important for you to do it?

Many of us were afraid of being deported. I did not want to share my story publicly. When I was asked to do so, I used a false name. At that time almost nobody shared their stories in a public way. The spirit of being undocumented and without fear hadn't been built yet. The first time I shared my story was a complete release, like coming out of that secrecy, and it marked me for life. Seeing how the community supported me, my friends and my teachers, that filled me with hope that a change can be generated.

A friend from that time, who is my partner today, was arrested and almost deported. Being so close to the deportation of a close friend is so difficult and so agitating that it was something that made me separate the fear of the fact that they can stop you. That shook me and from there I said that we had to keep sharing our stories, raising our voice and what matters if it's with my name or not. I decided to completely change my approach to this struggle, because I did not want other young people to go through the same experiences.

You today run a national organization, but you started as a grassroots organizer, in the group Make the Road New York. How did that influence your career?

I started this job simply to survive. In Make the Road New York I started working on a workers' committee and with young people. My desire to continue empowering the people of my community, to achieve justice and dignity, led me to meet other young people with stories similar to mine around the country. After having such friendships every year, a group of us decided to create the United We Dream network in 2008, with the dream that young people have their own voice.

United We Dream has not been afraid to take radical actions, including methods of civil disobedience or protesting in offices of congressmen. Why is this attitude important?

Our struggle is for a life with dignity and for us to nbe seen as human beings in this country. That applies not only to immigrants, but to discriminated communities, such as women, LGBTQs, African-Americans. That's the work we do, social justice. We use various strategies and practices to achieve that vision, which includes drawing on social movements such as the civil rights of African-Americans.

They used all the strategies, in the courts, in politics - to pressure for the Dream Act that we need - and also in direct actions that confront immorality, injustice and racism. We apply different strategies of civil disobedience in a peaceful way, since that is one of our values, but without ever ceasing to confront immorality, racism and hate that are at the root of many of the laws that we are trying to change.


You already managed to get President Obama to sign DACA a few years ago. Today you are pressuring politicians to pass the Dream Act. What lessons did you draw from the first campaign that you are applying now?

One of the lessons is that without pressure nothing is achieved. This means putting pressure on the two political parties to have a Dream Act this year to protect young immigrants. This will be achieved only if we get involved and keep up the pressure in Congress, on both political parties.

The second is that change comes when people who are affected by the laws are the ones who lead the strategy. This has been demonstrated in almost all social movements: it is something very basic.

And the other thing is that the last thing you lose is hope in our own community and in the allies that support us.

History of the Dreamer struggle: five years of DACA

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