It is impossible to be involved in pro-immigrant work in Philadelphia and not run into Carmen Guerrero.
The diminutive, dynamic leader was in the audience at the Immigrant Leadership Institute‘s “N-ever Alone: Immigrants, Social Isolation and the Slippery Role of Social Media” event at Pipeline Philly on June 20, and at the rally in front of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field offices, June 24.
Always warm and engaging, she once described herself to me as an iron warrior, a “guerrera de hierro” — riffing playfully off the meaning of her surname. But it is an apt description. Talk to members of Philadelphia’s Latinx immigrant community and the words you’ll hear most frequently associated with her are “strong,” “dedicated,” and “tireless.”
But even warriors experience exhaustion, and Guerrero’s leadership of a community long and relentlessly harried by ICE has taken its toll on her health, something she shared with Generocity in this Q&A about her extraordinary trajectory from survivor of kidnapping to Philadelphia immigrant leader.
[Editor’s note: All responses have been lightly edited for clarity, and the responses to questions 3 and 4 were translated from Spanish by Generocity.]
Generocity: I know that you were kidnapped in Mexico. Is that why you came to the United States? If you are willing, can you tell me about that experience and about what it was like when you first came here?
Guerrero: My name is Carmen Guerrero, a Mexican single mother of three daughters. I have been living in US for 19 years, in a country I never planned nor aspired to live in.
With a successful small business in full progress [in Mexico], I would say to myself, “I don’t need the North.” [Then] in December 1999, I was kidnapped. I made it out alive of that terrorist attack and that episode marked my life and my young daughters, at that time, with pain that to this day hasn’t been erased.
It also brought about a long list of tragic consequences.
I was completely destroyed —and as if as that pain wasn’t enough — more pain was added when I was forced to make the decision to seek safety and the better economy in the US. I began the journey without my daughters, without my dreams and not a penny in my purse.
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My heart was torn apart because I had to be separated from my daughters. What a nightmare! It took me a month to cross the border, suffering more trauma, humiliation, hunger and loneliness. I finally fulfilled my goal and arrived at my destination.
I urgently needed someone to give me a hug, to tell me that everything was going to be all right. That I was alive. Everything was foreign to me, the people, the language, the place. I was scared. I wanted to find someone to lend me a hand or just to listen to me, but none of that happened.
"I began the journey without my daughters, without my dreams and not a penny in my purse."
So, looking through the newspapers in the trash cans, I started looking for a job. I cut out an ad and I showed it to a taxi driver and asked him to take me to that address. I got to a hotel lobby and using my hands I signaled to the receptionist saying, “Working, working yo [me],” as I pointed a finger to myself.
That’s how I got my first job in housekeeping. I would clean 20 to 25 rooms in 7 hours for $7.25 an hour. The first weeks, I’d fill my stomach with tiny cookies, cheeses and chocolates that we’d put in baskets for the hotel visitors, until I got my first paycheck and I could buy some Chinese food. Ohhhh, what a feast!
My debts in my country were huge and I found myself needing look for a second job as dishwasher in a restaurant. The long working hours quickly took their toll on my body and my health. I didn’t care, because providing the best for my daughters was the most important thing to me, and furthermore because I would see them soon.
On October 2001, I had the great joy to hug them again, to feel their love and energy.
Generocity: Have you always been an activist, or is that something that developed here, as part of the immigrant community?
Guerrero: Since I arrived in the US racism, segregation and incidents violating human rights arose at my daughters’ school, at work, in public transportation, on the streets, just to name a few. That enraged me, and I felt impotent when I couldn’t defend myself or express my opinion.
I looked for resources and didn’t find them.
I began to hear the stories of my countrymen and we were enduring the same problems. In 2003, I made the decision to knock door to door and to go to Mexican small businesses in the area to invite them to do something about it. To show the beauty of our roots, our culture. We organized the first Festival of Independence of Mexico, in Norristown [and] 1500 people attended the event. What a great success!
Days later a young man, Jonathan Smith, contacted me — signaling with his hands, while I spoke a little bit of English — and he invited me to be part of some community meetings. I understood that he was saying, “Come, there’s no one who represents Hispanics here, you are a leader.”
"Living in uncertainty and as if I was stepping on quicksand, I participated in and organized marches against racist bills like SB 1070 in Arizona."
I didn’t understand a thing during these meetings. In addition I thought that because I was a member of the community and not an organization representative, my presence was not valuable or necessary. Still, he continued inviting me and I kept attending the meetings — always with a notebook in my hand where I wrote some words that I understood.
As time went by, he invited me to attend courses and trainings that I paid for. At that point, I was asking myself, “Why am I doing this? Isn’t it there someone else to invite? Nobody is paying me, on the contrary, I’m covering all my expenses. I have to work, take care of my daughters, my home, to rest. Is it that I’m such a gossip? I don’t have time!”
But I realized that my profit was knowledge. Thanks to the information I was getting, members of my community came to me as a safe, reliable resource in Spanish; [someone] who guided, counseled and accompanied them to the places they requested; helped them to fill out money orders or interpreted for them — with my heavy accent, in broken English — at hospitals, police stations, schools, etc.
In 2007, I began my volunteer service at Women’s Center of Montgomery County. Besides being the only person who spoke Spanish, I had to attend to the five offices of the County. Living in uncertainty and as if I was stepping on quicksand, I participated in and organized marches against racist bills like SB 1070 in Arizona.
Without realizing it, we had organized the community — groups of women, young Dreamer students, day laborers. We were a big family.
In 2011, massive deportations began with the enforcement of law 287(g). The community crumbled and lived in fear. Trust was lost, families were destroyed, and my body was tense all the time because of fear that my daughters would be deported.
Finally, there was light at the end of the tunnel in 2012, when [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA] was a relief for them. I felt that the elephant I had been carrying was gone from my life.
I had to continue the fight, but it was too many years of sacrifices, of being separated from my family, of great exhaustion.
Help was sparing. Some [members of the community] were able to stay. Their personal stories were extremely painful. Using my hour break from work, I organized what I called the little Sunday School, which immigration lawyers attended, and where community members could find the resources they needed to overcome this crisis.
We also organized the Latino small business owners. I was running from one place to the other, looking for and creating resources, attending conferences, helping people in their deportation process not only on a local level, but state and national levels as well.
In 2014 with the disappearance of the students of Ayotzinapa in Mexico, I joined international groups dealing with my homeland’s issues of violence, misery and wars. That experience gave me wings, and I started helping refugees from Central America, Syria, Yemen and Palestine.
My local community benefits from having us organized into a group called Coalición Fortaleza Latina [Latino Stronghold Coalition], whose mission is to empower each other based on the knowledge and skills of each of its members. We’ve had great success.
The only small detail is that doing so much I forgot to take care of myself, my family and my parents. The exhaustion translated to high medical bills when I became very ill.
I cannot stop now, but [recovering my health] was like finding a needle in the haystack. I found it seven months ago when by chance I went to a nutrition class and a woman adopted me, who I lovingly call “Universal Mother.” Thanks to her knowledge I was born again. I want myself alive! I need myself to be alive! We all need to be alive, so the work is not done by a few, but by all!
Generocity: Which nonprofits or community organizations do you work with?
Guerrero: I have collaborated with all the pro-immigrant and refugee organizations — PICC [Pennyslvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition], NSM [New Sanctuary Movement], Philaposh, Make the Road PA, HIAS PA, Friends of Farmworkers. My volunteer work in Montgomery County has been with Women’s Center of Montgomery County for the past 12 years, and also NSM. None of it is paid work, it is all volunteer.
I’ve also worked with educational institutions like universities, colleges and school districts. And at a national and international level, I’ve worked with organizations like Colibrí Center, Pueblos Sin Fronteras, and Border Angels to figure out how to find disappeared migrants, dead or in detention on the border of Mexico and the US.
Generocity: Many consider you one of the most important immigrant leaders in Philadelphia. Who do you consider important immigrant leaders in the city?
Guerrero: It is an honor and an enormous responsibility to be one of the leaders of the pro-immigrant movement.
One day I realized that coming to the US was a decision propelled by a system that had already rejected us in our communities of birth. It is no coincidence that millions of people are trying to come to the US, for reasons that are similar or even dissimilar to mine. I search, gather information, and persist almost — almost — tirelessly in looking for ways to ensure that we are treated as human beings, something everyone deserves, worldwide. That’s become my theme. It’s what I work for, and study, daily.
There are many immigration leaders in the city, so many I may forget to name them here: Javier Hernandez, Carlos Pascual, Blanca Pacheco, Zacarias Steele, Natalia Nicastro, Hillary Blecker, the lawyers Abel Rodriguez and Dave Bennion, Benjamin Miller, Leticia Nixon, Tamara, Adan Jesus Marin, el Brujo de la Mancha, Martin Hernandez … there are a lot of leaders. We’ve been organizing our communities for many years. We continue today with all our actions and all our distinct activities, to strengthen ourselves. We are starting to see the fruits of our efforts now.
Generocity: What are the qualities of a good immigrant leader?
Guerrero: One of the qualities is love for our communities. Perseverance. We can’t tire, not in these circumstances. These qualities are evident in the many who have made our mark on the city, with our work and efforts to show that immigrants and refugees enrich and enliven life in Philadelphia and the nation.
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