When we talk about women, migration and the i-word, understanding the transnational identity is crucial. I spoke with Leilani Montes, a transnational mujer who celebrates and weaves the roles of organizer and advocate across her professional, activist and personal life. Montes’ mother fled Guatemala’s decades-long civil war and settled in Los Angeles, where she worked in sweatshops for 17 years. Leilani was born in L.A. and while growing up she spent entire summers in Guatemala. She is currently a labor organizer for the 1199 New Jersey health workers’ union and the lead coordinator of AF3IRM NY, an activist organization of transnational women. She is also a filmmaker and media arts event organizer.
In 2011, Montes led AF3IRM in a seminal multimedia exhibition by 14 transnational female artists around the theme of Arrival/Departure: Women’s Experience of Migration Under Globalization. At the moment, six transnational women artists are being gathered into the 2012 AF3IRM multimedia exhibit, this time around the theme of La Bracera: Women & Work, which opens on April 21st.
1. How are women impacted by the current immigration system?
We prefer the term “transnational women” to avoid being marked as the “other,” just as the term “migrant” signifies a transient person. Transnational women are often discriminated against in the processing of visas, access to state and city social services, and are demonized as taking an unfair share of the state support for healthcare, childcare, and so on. The current trend to allow police to demand documentation if a person looks different is very dangerous to transnational women. In New York, we have had incidents of police raping women. This racial profiling trend that begun in Arizona places transnational women in increased vulnerability. In NY, of course, we have the stop-and-search practice. Then we have the issue of non-recognition of domestic work as work; which prevents transnational women workers from entering this country legally, on the basis of a labor shortage in this field. AF3IRM’s position on transnational workers is summed up by its slogan: “good enough to work, good enough to stay.” Currently, AF3IRM takes cases of trafficking and refers them to lawyers who work pro bono. We’re currently processing about 200 trafficked people brought in on the H2B visa and enslaved. We provide psychological support and a community for people going through this process.
2. You shared with me the story of Erica Delgado, who burned herself to death with her daughter Miriam Ortiz because she was afraid ICE would separate them or that she’d be found by her abuser. I was surprised to hear of this for the first time.
This tragic story is the result of the ultimate cry of desperation. It’s so upsetting that a woman could find herself to the point that she’d be willing to kill herself and her baby. It reminds me a bit of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” She got a notice from ICE and she didn’t want to go back. She felt trapped. You know, what I haven’t heard here in the U.S. that we hear in other countries is the issue of impunidad, impunity. The impunity of ICE the impunity of NYPD, the impunity of Oakland PD—there’s no consequence or payment. And this mujer, she’s from Chihuahua. That’s where Juarez is. She must have felt there was no place for her to go as a mujer. There are thousands of women that have been killed there to this day. We are talking about a mass femicide and the impunity crosses oceans, deserts and mountain ranges. That brings us back to the whole transnational experience. Hasta adonde, until when?
And this woman was afraid of her abuser. The GOP has wanted to cut the part of women getting their status adjusted from the Violence Against Women Act because they think it’s an avenue for more “illegal women” to come into the country with that “excuse.” It makes me think, Are you serious? They’re here because of your foreign policies. You think our mothers wanted to come here because they wanted to cook your food and sew your clothes and clean your houses? You think that that is the American Dream? That’s nonsense. They’re here because multimillion dollar corporations are over there. This whole thing is a consequence of foreign policy. Migrating is a demand to live. It’s only a demand to live, if there are no living conditions where you are, you will leave.
3. Where are people looking for inspiration?
But there’s a lot of inspiration to be drawn from the idea of pa’lante siempre (always charging forward). First generation immigrants come here, and they have all the hope in the world for their kids. The inspiration for a lot of older people are the DREAM activists, they’re so inspired by this youth-led movement, what an act of resistance. That is a clear example of where the transnational story will continue.
4. How are women organizing and fighting for their rights?
AF3IRM’s new national campaign is against labor trafficking, as embedded in the Guest Worker Program. This program provides non-residents with ten-month visas that allow them to work with corporations. The visas are renewable up to three years. The short visa duration give recruiters inordinate power over the transported workers and enable them to impose near-slave conditions over the men and women they recruit. While a large chunk of those visas go to agricultural workers, the number of those hired for subcontracted housekeeping, grounds keeping, catering and laundry work is increasing. These jobs were until now protected by unionization but are persistently being reduced to casual hire jobs, with no security and few benefits. Women staff many of these operations.
5. How can we honor and celebrate working women?
First, let’s understand the significance and range of women’s work: from the home to the office to the factory and field … and even when the woman does not work outside the home but inside the home, she does the work that makes all work possible, whether such work is paid or unpaid. This is of great importance. Let’s honor migrant working women by not only recognizing ourselves as a transnational force contributing to the global economy, but staying vigilant and actively supporting current campaigns to improve working conditions, prevents trafficking and hold contractors accountable for exploiting workers. Aligning ourselves with the transnational working women’s fight for just wages and safer working conditions directly strengthens the fate of all current jobs.
If you live in New York City, we invite you to join us on April 21st for AF3IRM’s 2nd Annual benefit women’s art show where proceeds directly support the Summer School of Women’s Activism.