Updated: Mar 1
Megaphone in hand and Mariah Carey at heart, that’s the best way to picture Edwin Carmona-Cruz, CCIJ’s very first Director of Community Engagement. Edwin spoke with our intern, Alondra Gomez, about his experiences and upbringing and how they have shaped his career.
AG: Can you share a little bit about your background and how that influenced your work as an organizer and advocate today?
EC-C: I’m the son of immigrant parents from Mexico and family members would always retell stories of how they came to the country and it was just fascinating to me to learn and understand what was going on. The older I got, the more that I started asking questions. I was in Middle School at the time of the Mayday protest here in Los Angeles, in 2006, and I organized walkouts at my middle school and did some other activism and organizing as a child. Ever since then, I always had an interest in immigrant rights.
When I went to college at the University of San Francisco I started organizing locally in the Mission, I started learning about all these systems and realized that for us to make effective change, we need to organize, we need to mobilize and do some strategic advocacy to ensure that we see change happen, even locally.
AG: What has your relationship been like with English and Spanish?
EC-C: My mom was on top of me and my brother to only speak Spanish at home. She was like “puro español en las casa” so we would only speak Spanish at home because at school we went to speak English.
I gave the commencement speech at my high school graduation because I was ASB president. In the middle of my speech, I did a whole paragraph in Spanish. The principal was out on vacation at that time and placed a hold on my high school diploma until I spoke to him regarding the portion of Spanish I included in my speech. He said that I could have made fun of him and he didn’t know what I was going to say. Around 90% of the people enrolled in that high school were Latino or identified as Latino. If not the majority of the people spoke Spanish. Most of the parents in the venue only spoke Spanish. So it only made sense to do that. I’m happy to know that now my high school requires one English speech and one Spanish speech probably because of that incident.
I have a Biliteracy Seal that says that I’m proficient or advanced in both languages in English and Spanish which is super near and dear to my heart because just in learning those two languages you are already able to communicate with more than half of the world. And we know that communication is such a key part of being human.
AG: What have been the highlights in your career?
EC-C: What comes to mind more recently are two campaigns that I was able to co-lead with directly impacted people. One of them is the campaign to free Aida Andrade Amaya who was a client of ours at Pangaea. Her story was super impactful because Aida ran and led her campaign from inside detention. She doesn’t know how to read or write in Spanish or English so she dictated to me an op-ed that BuzzFeed News published. We supported her in writing it and took several sessions, listening sessions, recording sessions transcribing just to make sure that her message came across and I think it was done very beautifully.
She was granted asylum in May but the immigration judge denied her bond and denied her release. So she stayed in detention from May until October, even though she had Asylum already granted to her. When she was released, her story was on the front cover of the San Francisco Chronicle. That was a huge highlight for me because she did everything. She wasn’t afraid and she didn’t let her being illiterate stop her from showing her story. So that was super moving to me.
The second one is the campaign to bring Oumar home. Omar is a queer black, Muslim immigrant from the country of Chad in Africa and a longtime San Francisco resident. The great thing about this case was that his friends, his chosen family organized and fundraised for him and made sure that he was taken care of. It shows that you can have deportation defense campaigns without an attorney.
Oumar was deported overnight back to Africa, and we were able to file a temporary restraining order (TRO) to bring him home. COVID hit and he was released in April, that was such a huge victory for us because it took a village. It took all of San Francisco and all of our Senators, our Congressional reps to do their part to bring someone who was wrongfully deported. When Oumar was released and when he was in his best friend’s car and his best friend’s like “he’s in the car we’re driving back”, I broke down and I started crying and I was like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe we did that.”
AG: Can you talk to us about the class you’re teaching?
EC-C: Yeah, so I teach a two-unit course in advocacy skills at the University of San Francisco. This class is a hybrid class that has undergraduate and graduate students in the International Studies department. This class gives International Studies students the tools, the resources, and the exposure that they need to be effective advocates in this ecosystem of issues and movement.
It was super moving and powerful for me as, an alumnus, and as someone who’s doing the work to be back in the classroom, and understand that students want to see that real-world experience, students want to see and have examples to show employers to being like “oh, I wrote a press release in class,” or when they’re in job interviews being like “I’ve drafted a grant proposal.” So getting ahead of the game and making sure that all of our students have those tools is super important.
This is my second semester teaching it and I’m very excited. I know there are some challenges with it being virtual but I think that when you’re passionate about the issues and you love the work that gets to be communicated through the screen.
AG: What are 3 tips you would give someone interested in advocacy?
EC-C: This is in no particular order. The first tip is it’s okay to be uncomfortable. And the reason why I say that is because oftentimes the advocacy that we do challenges the status quo and challenges the systems that are in place and so it could be uncomfortable to go up to these power structures. So it’s okay to be uncomfortable. If you’re uncomfortable you’re doing the right thing.
The second tip is to always center directly impacted folks, that is how you create change in advocacy. The third tip I would say is that we should lead with our shared values of compassion, empathy, love, and common Humanity. Make sure that those values lead your work because, at the end of the day, we live in a capitalistic system that for one way or another, puts people against each other as well. Leading the work with those values ensures that people are seen as humans and that people in positions of power understand that their choices have direct impacts on our communities.
AG: What books would you recommend?
EC-C: I love Are Prisons Obsolete by Angela Davis, such a good book. I just finished reading Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. I also recommend Pedagogy of the Oppressed which I love too. They’re heavy books, but so thought-provoking that you can read a section and then put it away and then come back to it.
AG: Who is Mariah Carey for you?
I think that we all cling to something that speaks to us especially as someone who didn’t quite feel like I fit in, in terms of coming out and how I moved through the world. I felt like I couldn’t share that with anyone. The reason why I’m so enamored by her is that I felt like her music spoke to me when no one else spoke to me. I felt like I wasn’t alone because someone wrote this song. I think that it helped me to feel like I wasn’t alone and with that said, it also sparked a fire in me being like, okay music can help me relate to who I am, and I as a person can help others relate to themselves.
Before I teach a class or do an interview or presentation, I always listen to a specific version of “Make It Happen,” at the Tokyo Dome in Japan 1996. That’s the soundtrack of my life. She talks a little bit about when she was young and didn’t have proper shoes on her feet, she sometimes couldn’t eat and that related to me when I first moved to SF, I had such a hard time there. “If you believe within your soul just hold on tight and don’t let go, you’re gonna make it happen, make it happen” that’s my mantra, that’s my soundtrack.