Behind Every Great Immigration Reform Movement, There is a Great Activist

By Ana Gabriela García

Carla A Mena

Carla A. Mena

Carla A. Mena, 27, is the daughter of a Peruvian Caterer and a laborer. She considers herself to be equal parts Peruvian and American. Specifically, Southern. “Who even likes unsweetened tea?” Carla asks, seriously. “Why would you even do that?” Assimilating wholly into the U.S. and giving up her Peruvian customs, as the Attorney General suggested, is as unthinkable to her as rooting against Chelsea FC in a soccer match. “I don’t want to and I am not going to.” Carla says

Carla spends her time teaching young women in transitional homes sex education. This allows her to merge her professional life with her passion for health education and her strong sense of civic duty. It also allows her to not arouse suspicion for carrying a Ziploc bag filled with condoms and Styrofoam molds of male genitalia.

In addition to her main profession, she does research at Duke University and is on the board of many organizations, such as: Wake up Wake county, ALPES (Alianza Latino Pro-Education Salúd), The Campaign for Southern Equality, and El Pueblo Inc. at Raleigh.

Since 2004, she has advocated for the rights of Latinos and Immigrants in the U.S. Not only was she part of a generation of undocumented residents that lived through various failed attempts at immigration reform, but she was also at the forefront of all three of the biggest reform movements. The 2008 Reform Immigration for America Act, The 2010 Dream Act and the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Precisely how long has she been campaigning for reform?
“For too long, obviously,” Carla says.

The Road to Becoming an Activist

Carla was introduced to the world of activism and advocacy as a result of her mother’s worst migraine attack. It happened three years after Carla and her family moved to the U.S. They had never needed a doctor before this migraine, so they had never been to one. Finding a clinic for her mother took hours of flipping through yellow pages and white pages and newspapers until they found one.

It was in this clinic where Carla and her mother met the “Líderes de Salud,” a group of women that promoted healthy habits and well-being in the Latino community. A group which her mother would later become a part of.

Carla’s eyes are the brightest thing in the room when she reminisces sitting through the group’s meetings, crowded by adults. To Florence, the woman in charge of ‘Líderes de Salud,’ Carla seemed to show much interest in health education and in advocacy. Most of all, she seemed to be perfect for their youth program, ‘El Pueblo.’

“I guess Florence saw something in me… and that’s all I needed… and I’m really thankful for that.”

This youth group honed Carla’s leadership skills. El Pueblo had its own conferences to highlight the group’s goals and how to achieve them. It also joined forces and coordinated events with other groups. With help from a health and wellness grant, El Pueblo began a “No Fuma” tobacco prevention program. Eventually, with the group’s persuasion, many restaurants became tobacco-free.

The Beginnings of Immigration Reform

Three years later, when RIFA made immigration reform an imperative goal and possible reality in 2008, Carla had already developed the skills needed to protest and advocate.

The Reform Immigration for America Act, RIFA, was the first viable proposal introduced to Congress and the community of undocumented residents in the United States. It was also the quickest to fail. For Carla, the reason was simple. “RIFA was citizens trying to tell undocumented people what to do, and not taking us into account,” She said. “And you can’t do that.”

“If you don’t know what your community looks like and how it works, then you can’t get anywhere.”

The Fight Continues

After this failure, there came the Dream Act, which proved to be an equally disappointing battle. And a very arduous one for Carla and her coalition.

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Carla and coalition members during a demonstration. It alludes to senator Hagan’s promise of education for all North Carolinians

Everywhere she goes, Carla takes with her the memory of her and her coalition’s fight for the Dream Act. It is in the confidence of her voice when she speaks. It is in the pride that she expresses for her friends and her community. It is in the dedication and effort she puts in “El Pueblo” today, helping and mentoring the undocumented youth. It is in the vivid details she remembers of Hagan and her time campaigning.

“Her whole campaign was based on ‘S. Hagen for the education of all North Carolinians.’ Like I even know her damn slogan.” Carla said.

For weeks they went to Hagan’s town halls, waited to speak with her staffers, took four and a half hour drives to DC. They dressed up in graduation caps and gowns and stood silent, with white cloth tied around their mouths. She hung “Call Hagan” posters around her neck. Protestors who went to the frontlines ran the threat of being arrested for civil disobedience. Many did.

But this wasn’t enough. Carla said, “She just did not care, she did not stand for what she said she did. Her website said all over that she stood for education, and if that’s what she was standing for then I don’t know why she would leave us out.”

Carla’s most powerful attempt to get Senator Hagan’s attention, and vote, was a fast for two weeks. Three of her fellow coalition members followed the fast with a hunger strike in downtown Raliegh. Senator Hagan’s only response was to tell the group to not stop eating. To Carla, it was an offense on Hagan’s part to say that the Dream Act wasn’t worth doing a hunger strike. “Because it was our lives on the line. And she’s thinking that it’s not worth it.” Carla said.

 “She (Senator Hagan) was one of the last people that shut it down and vote ‘No.’ And I will never forget that moment.”

A Silver Lining

In 2012, these bleak moments were finally followed by one semi-successful achievement, DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act. It lasted 4 years and allowed over 600,000 undocumented immigrants to apply for jobs and to institutions of higher education.

Carla said that “When it was signed a lot of us said: ‘we’re finally able to breathe a little bit better.’ And we hadn’t been able to breathe in a long time.” To breathe, for Carla and many others, meant to be able to drive with a license, to not be afraid of getting sick for lack of medical insurance, to exist without the constant fear of being deported.

DACA, for Carla, brought the feeling of being validated. “We wanted to exist for a minute. At least I did.” She confesses. “I wanted to be able to just be for a second.”

DACA also brought Carla a sense of achievement, a feeling somewhat like pride. Since it was a result of the pressures that immigration activists put on Barack Obama. Carla said, “I mean Obama didn’t wake up and was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this because I’m a good person.”

Starting Again

Its repeal by President Donald Trump did not surprise Carla and her coalition. “This was not a permanent solution.” Carla said. Meaning, it was never a path to citizenship. There is in her a deep regret for what has happened. Not for the repeal, but for having let her guard down, for waiting until ’45’ (as she refers to the President) got elected to do something about DACA.

But, Carla said, “we take care of more than just ourselves. We take care of our families.” And maybe that is why she and many others had, for a few years, let their guards down.

“We have had to pick up where we left off, or where some of us hadn’t left off.”

Carla has gained much insight from her time being at the forefront of all three reforms “At this point, we’ve learned what has worked, how we need to tackle things.” Carla said. For her, things seem oddly hopeful. Immigration might not be a new story, but this time it’s different Carla said. “More people seem to be on the bandwagon.”

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Carla and her Coalition advocating for the 2010 Dream Act, they will all  have to pick up where they left off.

The Reason People Listen

When Carla talks, everyone listens. Carla’s words aren’t boisterous or arrogant. Her voice is laced with dry humor and holds a meticulous patience that comes from having to endlessly narrate your experiences to panels, government officials, colleagues, friends, and people within your own community.

Tito, a fellow advocate and close friend, said that Carla and all dreamers are expected to repeat their stories, “because some people feel like we owe them that explanation.” Carla explodes in laughter after this comment, the same welcome surprise of when she saw him say it on live television overcoming her.

But that is part of educating people. Of using your voice and your story to represent countless others who are unable to tell their own. It is also part of the burden of representing your community. Within Carla’s rhetoric lie many voices.

Documented residents, white people, they have privilege in general, but they also have the privilege to surround me, Carla argues. This is especially true when it comes to the misconception of what undocumented residents look like. Many Carla’s white friends assume or have assumed that she is a citizen. Often because of who she is or where she is in her professional career.

“If I had for some reason not been around and they hadn’t been around me, then they would continue to have the misconception of what we look like.” Carla said.

“It’s not so much about how they can change me, but how I can change them.”

The Fruits of Activism

Carla is representative of the great changes an activist can bring about on both a national scale and more importantly, on a person-to-person scale. Her advocacy work awakens a sense of civic duty and responsibility outside of and within her own community.

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Carla Mena holds a sign durign a rally, while a father and his daughter embrace.

An Elon student, Dreamer and Veteran approaches Carla after he sees her speak at a panel about Daca. He remembers when DACA was just a rumor, and he remembers seeing Carla’s and Tito’s efforts on Television. “I got here in 1995, and I seen all these movements, I’m 31 years old.” He tells her. “That’s why, when I heard you talk, you amazed me… because everything that I was seeing on TV, it was all you. And him (Tito) too.”

It wasn’t just amazement that Carla gave him, it was also the will to use his voice to empower others and to push for immigration reform. He told her, “Now that I heard you, I heard him and I heard others, I’m like, ‘you know what, If they are able to do that sacrifice, why do I have to pull back?”

“Me being a veteran, I think the war that these guys fought it has such a great merit. Because it takes a lot of skill, courage to come out and talk and to go through this type of movement. It’s… my salutes to you.” – Elon Student, Veteran and Dreamer

Cristina, a sophomore and undocumented student at Elon University, also praised Carla after seeing her speak about DACA, she said, “I am so glad I met you. I was seeing this stuff on TV, and I was young, I didn’t know that I was undocumented. Then to meet you and to know that you were doing that and that I was watching it on TV it’s like, damn.”

Carla identifies as many things: American, Southern, Peruvian, a woman, an undocumented citizen. By everyone around her, she is identified as a fighter, as someone who incites change.

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