Kitzia Esteva is a community organizer based in Los Angeles. She was born in Mexico, and left when she was sixteen to live in the Bay Area. She and her family have devoted their lives to the struggle for immigrant rights.
This past summer, she, her mother, and her aunt were passengers on the UndocuBus, a revolutionary campaign that was organized and comprised of undocumented people around the country. The five-week journey began in Phoenix, Arizona and made its final stop at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
I recently talked to Kitzia about the fear and empowerment she embraced while on the UndocuBus, her work as a community organizer, and what Obama’s immigration policies mean to her.
The Rumpus: The story of how you and your family came to live in the U.S. is pretty powerful. Could you tell us about it?
Kitzia Esteva: So, my family actually came to the U.S. before I did. My mom, my two nephews, and my sister came to the U.S. seeking treatment for my older nephew, Chuy, who was diagnosed with leukemia in Mexico. We know now that it was the environmental degradation that was at fault. At the hospital, the doctors didn’t know what was wrong. Said it could have happened to anybody. We did some research much later when we learned about environmental racism through community organizing, and realized that it had to do with the factory we lived near by. Every once in a while there were toxic chemicals that were released into the air, and they said it was accidental. This factory actually belonged to a U.S. company—I don’t remember the name of it, but it was located in Cosoleacaque, Veracruz, where my nephew lived. And we now we know that it was the cause of his leukemia. It was a big deal, especially for my mom, who was doing social justice work in Mexico, and for her to know that it was the U.S. who was responsible for my nephew being poisoned.
My family came to the U.S., and I came two years later. We all had a really hard time finding treatment for Chuy here, and most of my sister’s time was spent in the hospital. It was a really hard battle for five years. Now that we know that his leukemia was really the responsibility of the U.S., it’s one of the reasons why we went on the UndocuBus. We wanted to really challenge this idea that “we’re criminals” or that “we’re crossing boarders because we’re adventurers, or just like to break the U.S. law,” when in reality we’re escaping a lot of bad things like disease and death. We have to escape terrible conditions that the U.S. has contributed to, if not caused.
Most of us are still undocumented in the country. For me, there are a lot of things to say about the idea of the American dream and what that means. When I first got here, we lived in Oakland in a really small apartment. I was used to a bigger home and more of a safe community in Mexico. I came to a community that was ridden by police brutality and poverty. Our apartment had such small living quarters. Four months after I arrived, my mom lost her job and we landed up at a shelter. So we didn’t have this ideal situation where immigrants come and they find fortune and get rich, and buy a house and get dogs. That’s really a fantasy for most people. For us it was definitely rougher than we had it in Mexico. Yet, the only reason why we had to go through this and move to the U.S. is that we wanted my nephew to get better, and we wouldn’t have been able to get that treatment in Mexico.
Rumpus: What was the experience of your nephew getting help? Do you reflect upon it as a positive one, or a struggle?
Esteva: Actually, my family hasn’t told me everything that they went through. I think they wanted to spare me a little of the difficulty and the pain. But I do know that it was hard to find an insurance that would cover for my nephew’s treatment. We had to get him chemotherapy and radiation, plus all the other medicine and drugs that he had to take because of the side effects. It was really expensive, and we had no money when we got here. We spent all the money we had in getting up here from Mexico. So, it was a bit of a rough time trying to find an insurance. But, we did have luck that he did have doctors that were compassionate and really tried to help. Which speaks to the resources that the U.S. is able to accumulate, and provide something like that—whereas in Mexico, you’d have to have three houses to pay for such serious health care.
Rumpus: The No Papers, No Fear UndocuBus is a super, amazingly brave and revolutionary endeavor. You were a passenger for two weeks—what was that experience like, being there with your mom and aunt? And what were your goals for the mission?
Esteva: My mom was on the UndocuBus for three-and-a-half weeks, and my aunt was on there for five days. So, I didn’t overlap with my aunt, Manuela, but I did overlap with my mom for two of those weeks. I’m very grateful that I have a very political family that has a lot of fire for fighting back against injustice and against things that are at the core of our oppression in this country, as well as against things that might not be necessarily at the core, but are solidarity work.
Specifically, my mom has been a huge influence in my life, my worldview, my willingness to fight, and my commitment to the struggle. So, I have to start from there and give her props. She is really one of the people who introduced me to social justice from when I was little. Being on the bus with her was a reunion for us. Since I had been going to school at UC-Santa Barbara for the last four years, and then I moved to in L.A.—I hadn’t spent much time with my mom in close quarters in about five years. I had little breaks where I would go visit my family, but they were never together that long—a week tops, and we don’t see each other that frequently. The bus was a very hopeful space, and I definitely saw my mom heal in my different ways. She had been dealing with a recent diagnosis of diabetes and a bunch of other health issues. I saw a lot of improvement in her health just by her participation on the bus. When it brings hope—when it’s building something—it can also be healing for the builders of that hope and struggle. I can say that I learned from her and the adults on the bus that we’re fighting.
One of the intentions of the UndocuBus was to highlight the stories of those people who are not the “chosen ones.” President Obama made an announcement about Deferred Action and the youth—how great they are, how much they’re fighting for this country, how much they want the American Dream and how hard they’re fighting for it. Yet, he didn’t mention the reality, which is these youth have parents behind them every step of the way. That’s the case with my mom, anyway. He is kind of blaming the parents for their families being here, as opposed to really giving respect to the parents who fought hard to send their kids to college, provide for them, and make the really hard decision to bring them to this country. So, another one of the reasons why I wanted to join the UndocuBus is to highlight that story of my mom. I owe her a lot of my ability to survive. It was good to be there with her, and share our story together. I need to give my respects, gratitude, and, really, credit to my mom’s struggle in this country, and try to create change not just for her, but all of the adults that are being viewed as criminals and viewed as not worthy of getting documentation, or getting deferred action. That conversation needs to change to one about dignity, where we are raised to confront the atrocities this country has imposed upon immigrants.
I think that as I was on the ride with my mom this became more and more clear. I think that maybe the roughest moment was when we decided to do the civil disobedience. It was really nerve-wracking to know that my mom was going to get arrested. It felt very powerful to know that I was going to be there with her and that we’re going to do it together, and that we have a powerful story to tell and share with other people. Also, that we have a powerful campaign to really support the struggle and show other communities and other groups that we can rise together, and show how powerful we can be. It was challenging at times, because I had my own doubts about doing the civil disobedience and especially the risks it held for my mom.
Rumpus: What were those doubts or fears?
Esteva: The fear of being arrested and not just being deported but detained. People end up in detention centers for months and months, sometimes even years. It’s not just about putting yourself in the position to be incarcerated, but there are horror stories of people dying because they’re not getting medical treatment. So, there might not be a guarantee that my mom would get her diabetes treatment. There’s so many doubts beyond the fear: am I going to be removed from this country? We live with that every day. But what can happen to a person inside the detention center? It’s not just a question about deportation, but about criminalization and what it means for our community to be criminalized, which is to be imprisoned for trying to survive. Removal is a huge deal to undocumented folk, because it separates families and creates a lot of hardship. A lot of people are also placed in detention centers for a long time, which is also a hardship. These detention centers reflect a culture and a way of life in this country. We have two million people in prison and they look like us, too. They’re black and brown, so getting arrested embodies all of that criminalization and re-enslavement. I think I had a lot of questions and anxiety about what it would look like if we were arrested and detained for a while—for my mom’s safety and wellbeing.
Rumpus: And did your mom have similar doubts that reflected yours?
Esteva: I take leadership from my mom. I think she had a position where she was really hopeful. She knew if we did get detained, the community was going to fight back and get us out. That’s one of the things we were trying to accomplish there. If people see we’re organized and have the numbers on their side, then they definitely can fight back, win, and get out of a detention center and get out of harm’s way. Because when an arrest becomes public, the public eye can actually save people from I.C.E. and deportation. So, my mom was on the hopeful side. She knew that she wasn’t going to stay inside for a long time.
For me, after hearing all the horror stories, I was a little on the freaked-out side. I was worried: what’s going to happen if we’re inside for a while? Or: what’s going to happen if I was able to stay in the country because of Deferred Action and she doesn’t get to stay? We knew all of those risks, and we had a huge, super-brilliant group of lawyers that were fighting the legal battle. We had an amazing community throughout the country that was organizing itself to get us out. I didn’t share most of my anxieties with my mom, but she did share her hope and it was contagious. So, in that sense, my mom had a more in-depth understanding of what was going to happen, and understood the legal and organizing tactic would work together to get us out, as it did.
Rumpus: I’m sure that memory of being at the Democratic National Convention this September is still very vivid. Could you illuminate your experience of staging a civil disobedience at the DNC and being arrested?
Esteva: So, there were ten of us who were committed to being arrested on the second day of the Democratic National Convention. It was a very diverse group of people. It actually kind of happened organically how we decided to participate. We had youth, we had elders. I believe my mom was the oldest within the people of the group, and there were domestic workers, day laborers, I think five of us were queer, there were two families. It was a very diverse group and really represented the diversity of the immigrant community in many ways. We were not just representing the UndocuBus as a whole, but the groups of people who are being criminalized and attacked.
We went to the convention with the idea that the action was going to happen pretty quickly. If you know about conventions, they always have a ton of police force. They bring police from out of state—police officers from all over just to have “enough” police presence at the convention to repress the activism. I guess they’re always expecting that there’s going to be some sort of marches and people protesting, so they’re ready for it. When we arrived at the intersection, there were already police there. As soon as we put up our banner, down the police proceeded to block the street right behind us. I don’t know if I could count how many police officers there were on bicycles; my focus was on my comrades who were chanting with us, who were also there. I was centered on the struggle we were in together and not necessarily on the police. At some point, I forgot that they [the police] were there, because we were expecting to get arrested right away. It actually took a little over an hour of the demonstration before they proceeded to arrest us. One thing I thought was amazing is that there was a lot of media there. We had a really successful media team. We had a team of artists who were creating the beautiful art that we displayed throughout the campaign, and the media team was basically making sure that we were getting a national level of attention. I don’t know how many media outlets were there, but I could count with my eyes that there was about one hundred different media outlets that showed up to the action.
I remember feeling a nervousness walking to the demonstration, but once I got there I felt a little bit more relaxed. I felt [a] huge sense of liberation and empowerment with the people who were there with me, and specifically holding my mom’s hand. It was really the power we have as a family, and two women who are committed to the fight for the long term, and with all the other comrades who were being arrested. We were speaking out our stories. We were on point about what we were arguing about and why we were there. I think it was an important step to go to the DNC; to make that space outside ours when we are always excluded from it. We used that space to speak to the President and his administration in the middle of the election, and really talk about what he has done to our communities. You know, he has been the president who has deported the most people in the history of the U.S. We were bringing the demand to stop deportation and stop the criminalization of our communities. We were demanding that the Obama Administration stop the terror and attacks from the police and other racist forces. It felt like a really powerful, strong moment in history. I think I’m always going to look back with very different eyes every time I’m learning from it. And, I feel twenty times more powerful because I was holding my mom’s hand and I could feel the connection of generations of people struggling to end injustice.
Rumpus: I am in very much awe of what the UndocuBus did. The videos documenting the efforts of the UndocuBus are extremely powerful and inspiring. You were talking about Obama and how he has deported nearly 1.2 million immigrants, more than Bush or any other president. What do his DREAM Act and Deferred Action mean to you?
Esteva: There are a lot of people fighting for the DREAM Act. I have a lot of respect for people who are fighting for the struggle, and the youth that is staging civil disobediences and engaging in a more militant way. I definitely think that it’s an important act to have, but I think that a lot of people have a delusion as to what Deferred Action means. I think that on the one hand, people who are able to apply for it feel that they have a little more of a leeway. They think it’s really the right thing for our community, but it really doesn’t help a lot of our family members. It doesn’t help my mom, nor my sister. It’s really not enough. For myself, it gives me the opportunity to work legally in this country if I’m able to get it, and I’m still in the process of getting my paperwork together; I’m not even sure if I will get it. But I feel like it’s only a small step for so many of the small things that need to happen.
However, I need to remember that Deferred Action would not even be an option if people hadn’t been fighting for it and fighting for something even bigger. So, I think that in a broader scope, our demands have to be bigger and our struggle has to be bigger, too. I think that our power is the responsibility of the community and the people fighting—not the other way around. To say that the Obama Administration has done anything really great by enacting it, I think that the real credit goes to the people fighting. Yet, it’s not enough, it’s really not enough. We need comprehensive immigration reform; we need to stop the attacks on our communities; we need to stop criminalization and all the really racist attacks on our civil rights coming from a lot of places in the South but also a lot in California. And so that goes beyond Deferred Action or the opportunity that people might get through the DREAM Act if it passes. Perhaps a little more than a few thousand people will benefit from these opportunities. It’s a small minority, and the majority of us are not criminal in any way or form—we are just struggling to survive.
Rumpus: So you think the majority of immigrants can’t benefit from Deferred Action or the DREAM Act?
Esteva: I think that a good amount of youth will benefit from it, but the discourse of who’s deserving of staying in the country is not helpful. To say that I deserve to be here, and then turn around and say that my mom doesn’t deserve to be here, is a disservice to me and a disservice to my mom and our struggle as a people. Maybe some people feel like it’s some negotiation, or it’s something where you have to take the good with the bad. However, I think that this country has already attacked Mexico and the rest of the Third World so much, and the repercussions are the reason why we are here. We are at least owed our dignity and our ability to survive in a way that’s legal so that we can actually defend ourselves.
There are just so many abuses that workers receive because they don’t have documents. For example, there are the day laborers that don’t get paid after working weeks for a few weeks, because their boss has decided that because they don’t have documents they can just call I.C.E. on them. It leaves people vulnerable to not have documents, and it’s really hypocritical because everybody’s really benefitting from the labor and the resources we as immigrants provide. The discourse about who deserves to be here and who is criminal gets really blurry. How do you even figure out who’s who? We’re all in the same family. To say that the blame is on the parents—I don’t blame my mom, and I don’t think most people would blame their parents for being here in the country and being undocumented.
Rumpus: I agree—there are a great many reparations that still haven’t been delivered on behalf of the U.S. to Mexico. The New York Times ran a debate piece that compared the struggle of immigrant rights to the struggle of the LGBTQ community for civil rights. What are your thoughts and feelings about that comparison?
Esteva: I think that there is some room for comparison, and I don’t want to get too much into comparison, but just to say that queer people are also undocumented. On the UndocuBus, a third—if not more—of the riders were queer, and I include myself in that group. So, when we talk about civil rights as immigrants, we talk about the ability to even become a legal resident. Marriage is one of the ways to become documented. If you’re in a committed relationship with someone of the same sex, what does that mean? It means you’re aren’t able to qualify for relief, because we don’t have marriage equality in the country. I think that the queer community experiences similar levels of criminalization and the distinctions in the law that says that some people are outside the law. In most states, if you’re transgendered, you’re not protected by anti-discrimination laws, and that’s the case for undocumented people, as well. That’s an exclusion from the law.
Exclusion hurts everybody, not just a specific group. That’s a similarity I would bring up. Also, when you allow somebody to be discriminated [against], that means that there’s other groups that are going to follow. There are a lot of queer people who are undocumented and are fighting for just immigration reform and anti-criminalization for the undocumented, but also for queer people. Our struggles are not seen as being connected, they’re seen as two different things we have to fight for. But, in our case as “undocu-queer,” they come together. One of my favorite people on the UndocuBus, Angel, used to boast about how when he got arrested and ended up at a detention center, he was in drag. He was just coming out of a show that he did at a bar. He’s a drag queen artist and super-involved in the queer community, and to him it was a funny, exciting thing that he was still in drag when they took him to a detention center. Our communities are very diverse, and even though it’s funny and an exciting thing that he was able to express his queerness while as an undocumented person, at the same time there’s a lot of vulnerability that queer people have in detention centers. We see transwomen that have been killed at the hands of I.C.E. in detention centers, because they were not provided AIDS medication, for example. There are so many vulnerabilities that queer people can have in detention centers and through the immigration process.
Rumpus: Do you feel that being undocumented is a status or an identity?
Esteva: I had a conversation about this on the UndocuBus with a few folks there, and specifically people that came to the U.S. when they were younger. I think it’s both a status and an identity. For some of us it’s an identity, because it’s the only identity we’ve known for most of our lives. It becomes an identity when you present it and introduce yourself with it at every point during your struggle because of what you’re fighting with. It becomes an armor of really representing yourself with a fierceness of what it takes to be who we are. On the UndocuBus we’d introduce ourselves as, “My name is Kitzia Esteva. I’m undocumented, I’m queer, and unafraid.” To say “undocumented” and “unafraid” and is a part of our identity. The undocumented part might not be our choice, but we’re not afraid of saying it. It’s something that we’re struggling with, but it’s also something that we shouldn’t be struggling with.
On the other hand, when we talk about it, it’s to bring about pride and to say we’re proud to be in this struggle, even though it’s a difficult struggle. Even though those labels mean a lot and might mean a lot of pain, they also mean a lot of learning, growth, and the fire to fight. So, I think that it’s both. Being undocumented is definitely a status that creates a lot of limitations and difficulties for our communities. While we were on the UndocuBus struggling with that fear to speak out and fight and change the conditions we’re facing. It’s a status of vulnerability and exclusion for a lot of us who are learning to cope with it, and come out in some ways, and talk about the parallels of being queer and undocumented. To talk about it as a source of strength and really confronting the state who put us in this position without fear—that’s the message that we’re putting out.
Rumpus: Would you say that vulnerability is a big theme in being political?
Esteva: I think that issue of criminalization is something that I’m really committed to fighting. Not just in the realm of immigration, because it goes beyond that. The U.S. has the biggest prison industrial complex in the world. That means a lot of people are pushed to criminal acts because of poverty. A lot of people are criminalized for things that shouldn’t even be considered crimes. One of the organizations that I participate here in L.A. is fighting back against the criminalization of black and brown youth who are getting ticketed and having to go to court for arriving late to school, something that shouldn’t even be considered a crime. There’s a lot of other ways to solve that, but it’s not through the police state and not through the courts. It has a lot to do with the students’ economic background, with the resources they have in school, and with the transportation in L.A. (which sucks, but people are also fighting to make better). A lot of youth and communities are fighting to make this better, but the state is not really responding to the problem. It’s causing a lot of issues, including students leaving school. It’s criminalization, and it’s also an issue on how the system is abandoning black and brown communities. It’s about fighting for resources that are also needed.
Rumpus: Can you go into detail on the fight against truancy tickets in L.A. public schools?
Esteva: Yeah, sure. There’s a coalition of different community organizations that were fighting the truancy tickets and one of them is the Labor and Strategy Center. They were fighting for the Commuter Rights Campaign. It’s one of the biggest campaigns fighting truancy tickets here in L.A. Truancy tickets were when high school students were getting ticketed on their way to school a few minutes late. These are $250 tickets and are usually given to very low-income students. It’s a fine and a citation to appear in court. It’s an economic hardship, but it’s also having to miss school, the difficulties of being in court, and the intimidation from the police when they’re stopped for “truancy”—which is actually just lateness for any reason that could cause a person to be late. I know that when I was as in school, I was late a bunch of times because either the bus was late or I had to take one of my nephews to school before I went to school. So, I related to these students. Ninety-five percent of those students were black and brown, and certain high schools were getting more targeted than others, where there the population is more black, brown, and low-income. So, the Community Rights Campaign, along with other organizations that are also fighting against criminalization, fought to change the law and were able to amend it. The Truancy Law is a city code that says students should be ticketed. So, now thanks to the campaign, the new law is they get a warning the first two times, and then only the third time can they get a ticket, which can never exceed $200, including court fees.
So from $250 each time that you’re late, to $200 total after three strikes is a huge jump. The $250 didn’t even include court fees. It could have been up to a thousand dollars. It might be a student that was late because they couldn’t pay their monthly pass, and so they had to walk to school instead of the bus—they already have a huge economic hardship. Instead of finding a way to provide that student with resources so that they can succeed in school, and get to school on time, they [the state] are creating more economic hardship. At the end of the day, it’s really favoring the police state over the welfare state. We need more counselors and teachers, yet teachers are getting laid off left and right, and we have more cops taking over space in the school and intimidating youth. Our communities don’t really have a good relationship with the police, because we are under attack from police brutality every day. So, truancy tickets are not really an answer for the youth.
Rumpus: There’s a major lack of political theater in this country. I know that as a community organizer you’ve been involved in political street theatre. What are your feelings on the impact it had on you and the community you were reaching out to?
Esteva: I think that art and theatre are really great tools to both bring people out, and agitate the community and raise consciousness. But it’s also a tool for fighting. My first experience with political theatre was when I was seventeen, back in high school in San Francisco. I participated in a youth program called the Mime Troupe. Everybody thought it was silent theatre, but it was actually acting satire. It was a political space in the way that we learned to create plays was through using satire in combination with the Theatre of the Oppressed. We created our own skits and performed on two different weekends. The first play I was in was about immigration and gangs in San Francisco. It was about connecting immigration and racism, and the question of who gets involved in gangs and why. It was the background story of people who are involved in gangs. The point we were raising is that we could have been gang members because of the conditions we face in the city as immigrant and poor working class youth with little opportunity.
When I was living in San Francisco, I was a part of PODER (People Organized to Demand Environmental and Economical Rights), an organization where I was in charge of building the theatre component in the summer. With the youth, we presented a theatre piece based on difference sites of pollution in San Francisco, and who is being affected by it and side effects, like workers and residents in the Bay View Hunters Point who are being poisoned from the hazardous waste coming out of the PG&E plant. The plant used to be a navy base where they were testing nuclear power. There’s still leftover toxic chemicals, and the community is being contaminated with radiation. It’s the only black community left in San Francisco, right, and our performance was about the conditions of environmental racism, and focusing on the side effects of how it affects people’s health and their psyche.
The last performance I was involved in was with the Bus Riders Union. It was a piece about Measure J, which was just defeated. If it went through, it was going to put a lot of money on the MTA to continue building rail and freeway, thus contributing greatly to the already very polluted area. It was also an issue of environmental racism and pushing away the already-gentrified black and brown communities here [in L.A.] to bring in transit-oriented development. So, we staged also a street theatre performance as a tool for education, and to expose Measure J. I was actually the “J Monster,” who accelerated gentrification and pollution—the evil things that our communities are facing, and are yet being asked to pay for. To me, street theatre is a didactic way of presenting information. It’s a way of personifying the attacks on our communities and demonstrating the ways of how we can fight back.