“I’ve tried to live a life of choices in a life I didn’t choose,” said local labor leader Pablo Alvarado Thursday evening in a talk to the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, as part of a two-week, area-wide interfaith dialogue on the subject of immigration.
Alvarado resides in Pasadena and heads the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON), based in Los Angeles. He grew up in civil-war-torn El Salvador and saw firsthand the pain and fear of injustice.
“I would walk miles to school,” he recalled, “and I would often see paramilitary officers beating peasants, or limbs and bodies scattered along the side of the road.”
The war lasted 12 years and left 75,000 dead.
Alvarado said that when he was ten years old, a tense standoff over the use of a local field — owned by a wealthy family — for soccer games, drew him to a life of working for justice.
After he emigrated to the U.S., and as he became a naturalized citizen, he took every job he could find — painter, gardener, driver, factory worker. In each position, he worked closely with people like himself, strangers in a strange land, who had left home in the hope of a better life.
“In the factory, there were Mexicans, El Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, everything, and they would play soccer every day during lunch, and they would always fight. Finally,” said Alvarado, “we combined the players and mixed them up on every team, and registered the team in an official league. That brought them together.”
It was a little bit of United Nations there on the pitch.
He took the same team to San Francisco in 1996 for a match against a San Francisco team, and he noticed that when the players took time outs, the questions to each other were all the same: “When you don’t get paid at your job, what do you do? When you get hurt on your job, what do you do? When you are treated unfairly, what do you do?”
These conversations actually led to the official formation of NDLON, and that has become a calling that has consumed him ever since, he said Thursday.
While the threat of deportation has long hovered over these workers’ head, “It is a different kind of threat now,” he said, referring to the current administration’s ramped-up efforts to target and deport all undocumented workers, whether or not they have any criminal violations.
“I am just waiting for a raid at our office,” he said, pointedly. “This is a real threat to our existence,” he added. “The government has chosen to stigmatize and humiliate us, and make American citizens afraid of us.”
“It is the policy of the Trump administration that is not safe, not the undocumented” said Alvarado. “He is a threat to all of us, and to the planet. We need to create an America where no one is illegal.”
Alvarado also introduced Stephanie Ortiz, the daughter of Carlos Ortiz, a Pasadena resident who was recently detained when ICE officers came to his family home, seeking a previous tenant.
The officers determined that Ortiz had been previously deported in 1999 and had since illegally returned to the U.S., according to federal officials.
“They said they just wanted to talk to him, and make sure he was not the person they were looking for,” Ortiz recalled of that February morning raid. “They said it would take a few hours. It’s been three months.”
Ortiz, who has no known criminal record other than allegedly illegally re-entering the United States, has been held at the Adelanto Detention Center “pending removal” since the raid.
“Why can’t we be an America that is united?” asked Ortiz. “Why do we have to live like this?”