‘Without Papers, Without Fear’: Meet the NM Activist Dedicated to Lifting Up Undocumented Young People — Just Like Him
By Beth Hawkins | April 21, 2022
When Eduardo Esquivel was a student at the University of New Mexico, he was invited to go camping in Chama, at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains. An avid hiker, Esquivel had never been to the state’s famously beautiful northern border, so he packed a bedroll and joined a group of strangers for the trip.
Esquivel didn’t know it, but the outing was a wellness retreat for undocumented immigrant youth put together by a group called New Mexico Dream Team. Brought to the United States from Mexico as a small child, Esquivel had been hiding his legal status for years. Up in the mountains, though, his new companions talked openly about being undocumented — and celebrated their roots.
“They were so connected to their culture,” he recalls. “The food, the way they talked. They had a guitar and they were singing songs, old Mexican songs, around the campfire.”
“Sin papeles, sin miedo,” they said.
Without papers, without fear.
Esquivel cried the entire weekend. After so long guarding his family’s secrets — fleeing drug gang violence in Chihuahua, taking refuge in a relative’s garage in Albuquerque — everything about the experience moved him. His undocumented status was just the heaviest layer of the shame he’d been accumulating ever since he was 7 years old.
Esquivel returned home profoundly changed, convinced there was tremendous empowerment in speaking his truth. “I was hooked,” he says. “I was like, I want to do this. I want to be this.”
Soon after, as a newly minted Dream Team organizer, Esquivel found himself speaking to a classroom of teens at Rio Grande High School, on Albuquerque’s south side. In the group was 15-year-old Michelle Murguia, who had been invited by a bilingual aide in one of her freshman classes. At first, she found Esquivel terrifying. With his long hair and shaggy beard, he didn’t look like the kind of authority figure who got speaking invitations.
“It was the first time I heard someone say, ‘Yes, I am undocumented. And I am here to stay,’ ”
—Rio Grande High School student Michelle Murguia
“My first thought was, is he crazy? Why is he saying he’s undocumented?” Murguia, now 23, recalls. “Why is he telling this story? He doesn’t know the people in this room. They could call ICE” — Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But like Esquivel on his outing in the mountains, Murguia found that fear was quickly followed by overwhelming relief. Maybe spilling your secrets was, in fact, the first step on the path to freedom.
“It was the first time I heard someone say, ‘Yes, I am undocumented. And I am here to stay,’ ” she says. “When Eduardo came into the room, I was like, I want to do this. I want to be able to tell my story and to empower people not to be afraid.”
Today, eight years after that cathartic conversation, Esquivel is a co-director of the Dream Team and Murguia is field manager. The organization boasts a number of initiatives, but its bedrock is organizing in middle and high schools and on college campuses. Right now, the Dream Team has 13 chapters in schools in Las Cruces, Santa Fe and Albuquerque, providing a system of support that helps students push past shame and isolation. This fills an important gap for educators who know that unmet mental health needs and trauma can impede academic success but rarely have any idea what a given child’s circumstances are — particularly if a student is working hard to keep that background a secret.
Team organizers provide professional development to K-12 teachers and college faculty to educate them about the particular challenges facing immigrant students. Feedback from participants is overwhelmingly positive, group members say, with teachers reporting that their eyes are opened to experiences they would otherwise know nothing about. As these relationships develop, K-12 teachers and administrators often invite Dream Team leaders into their schools. But while an educator may arrange an initial meeting between students and a team member like Esquivel, the school groups are run by student leaders — many of whom go on to become organizers after they graduate.
Beyond its K-12 outreach, the Dream Team works to eliminate barriers to higher education, health care, basic services and permanent residency for immigrants just like them. Citizenship is a goal, of course, but there are more immediate objectives to increase stability in the community. Last year, for example, group members pushed for and won a state law allowing individuals without permanent U.S. residency to obtain the licenses their nursing, medical or other professional degrees would otherwise qualify them for.
Early in the pandemic, the Dream Team was one of three nonprofits the city of Albuquerque tapped to help undocumented residents address COVID-related challenges — unemployment, lack of access to tests and health care — and the group raised and distributed tens of thousands of dollars to people not eligible for many public benefits.
Dream Team members also pushed New Mexico’s immigrant communities to participate in the 2020 census, demanded the release from U.S. detention of a transgender asylum petitioner from Mexico and raised funds to help immigrants denied even basic COVID-19 relief by the Trump administration.
The grassroots organization, formed by students at the University of New Mexico in 2013, was a response to the creation of the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and named for Dreamers — undocumented young people brought to the U.S. as children. Esquivel and his colleagues believe the Dream Team, unlike most immigrants-rights groups over the years, is the first such organization in New Mexico led by people who are undocumented or in mixed-status families — in which some members are permanent residents or citizens and others are not.
Although members put their own New Mexican framework on their activism, the Dream Team is part of a loose network of youth-led groups around the country that broke away from what was then the mainstream immigrant advocacy community some 15 years ago. While those activist organizations had relied on non-immigrant U.S.-born leaders or organizers with legal status, the people behind the new movement felt the time had come for undocumented youth to tell their own stories.
This identity-focused organizing strategy is a lineal descendant of the gay rights movement of 20 years ago. And many of the new groups share a particular focus on the needs of undocumented LGBTQ youth, who often risk being cut off from the support of their families. Having experienced one kind of coming out as empowering, the queer women of color who founded the Dream Team and its sister organizations recognized the potential of a support system for undocumented people wanting to step out of the shadows.
“I saw what was possible when you’re supported, and you’re loved, and what it means to not be,” says Esquivel. “I want to make sure other immigrant youth are able to develop these skills, are able to develop a healthy identity, have safe spaces to tell their truth and are able to grow into their own power.”
‘I would cry because I saw little me’
The story of Esquivel’s undocumented journey starts, as it does for many of his Dream Team colleagues, with the takeover of his home city by gangs of drug traffickers. A menacing presence on the streets of Chihuahua City, located some 200 miles south of the U.S. border, men in SUVs paid several visits to the auto repair shop owned by Esquivel’s father, demanding money in exchange for “protection.” After his father refused, the same cars tried to force Esquivel and his mother off the road as she drove him to school.
Somehow, the family got temporary visas and moved into a great-uncle’s garage in Albuquerque. It was less dangerous, but hardly peaceful. The new neighborhood had its own gang problems, and other kids — even Esquivel’s cousins — taunted him about his dark skin and legal status.
“I don’t know if I understood we were here forever,” Esquivel says. “As a kid, I wondered, is it really any better here?”
Now the Dream Team’s education justice organizer, Esquivel’s younger brother Andres recalls hearing so much teasing about Eduardo’s skin tone that as a 4-year-old he asked his parents if his brother belonged: “Why can’t Lalito go back to Mexico and stay?” he asked, using the family’s nickname for Eduardo.
“I was deeply ashamed to be Mexican, deeply ashamed of my immigration status. I pushed it down. I was determined to learn English with no accent that would identify me, so no one would know.”
School was a mixed bag. Esquivel connected with a number of teachers of color, including one from Chihuahua who, on finding out that Esquivel was involved in music at church, made sure the boy joined his guitar club. He was identified as gifted, which opened doors to opportunities. He took honors science, learned to weld and competed on a mock trial team at the University of New Mexico School of Law.
“But there was still a lot of bullying,” he says. “I was deeply ashamed to be Mexican, deeply ashamed of my immigration status. I pushed it down. I was determined to learn English with no accent that would identify me, so no one would know. My identity, it was completely destroyed.”
Esquivel’s senior year brought two significant experiences. He took a Chicano studies class, where he learned about the Mexican-American War, the U.S. lynching of Mexicans and the Zoot Suit Riots of the 1940s, in which servicemen, off-duty police and others in Southern California clashed with young Latinos known as pachucos.
“I started to understand that [being undocumented] is not my fault, that this is something that happened to me,” he says. “That started breaking down the walls I had built up.”
At the same time, his U.S.-born friends were making plans to attend colleges all over the country. “I was afraid to tell my counselors that I didn’t have a Social Security number,” he says. “So I pretended. I was like, ‘Yeah, maybe I’ll go to California,’ knowing very well that my family could not afford that and I couldn’t even fill out those applications.
“It was worse after I took my ACT. The schools were sending me all these packets in the mail and I couldn’t even feel proud of myself. I just felt really, really shitty.”
The state has policies designed to make college possible for undocumented immigrants, so Esquivel enrolled at the University of New Mexico. His first two years were pretty miserable. He studied biology even though he was far more interested in continuing Chicano studies.
He was in a dark place and coping by self-medicating, Esquivel says, when his dad got a call from someone at his old elementary school, seeking a volunteer to work with fourth graders in music and science. He signed on through a university community engagement initiative and loved it.
“Sometimes,” Esquivel recalls, “I would cry because I saw little me.”
A staff member from the program stopped him one day to invite him to go camping in Chama. “We have a cabin,” the man told him. “All you got to bring is a sleeping bag.”
If a wellness retreat seems like a strange place to birth a hard-edged political movement, it’s important to understand that a near-universal experience among undocumented people is living in constant fear. Even DACA recipients, with their temporary permission to remain in the U.S., can be removed from the program at any time, and their loved ones who didn’t qualify are at constant risk of deportation. Research has linked depression and anxiety to the program’s uncertain future and the lack of a path to permanent residency.
“Mexican individuals who immigrated to the U.S. before age 13 have a significantly higher risk of developing mood and anxiety disorders than those who do so later in life,” a Fordham University scholar reported in a 2018 survey of existing research. “This may be because of their fear of being deported and separated from their family.”
Add to this, the report continues, an “intense fear of ‘being hunted’ by immigration officials [that] may never disappear, which can significantly affect their long-term mental health.”
Asked about Esquivel’s leadership, Dream Team members praise his willingness to share — about his struggles with depression, his history of self-medication and his youthful shame about his skin tone — and say it makes them feel safe in opening up.
Esquivel is particularly gifted at helping young people connect their personal circumstances with the upheaval that pushed their families to abandon their homes, says Felipe Rodriguez, his Dream Team co-director: “Eduardo is an educator by nature.”
‘There are 30 me’s right here’
Like many team members, Murguia was brought to this country as a child to escape drug gang violence. Born just across the border from El Paso, Texas, in Ciudad Juarez, she was terrorized by drug gangs, or narcos, who conscripted and sometimes killed young children, leaving their bodies in open lots to intimidate people. Her single mother, terrified to leave her three kids home alone while she worked, moved them to Albuquerque when Murguia was 10.
Talking about the secrets she had bottled up until Esquivel’s visit to her high school, Murguia starts to cry. She had never talked about having to take care of her siblings when her mother’s trauma became overwhelming. She had never told anyone she had been abused. But because of what had happened, she avoided wearing girls’ clothes.
“What’s wrong with you?” relatives would ask. “Eres macha?”
Are you butch?
“I had no one to talk to,” she says.
Murguia thinks of the secrets as rocks she carries in a bag strapped to her back. Telling his story at her high school, Esquivel lightened her load. And strong as she now feels, she has learned from him to let her colleagues help when she’s overwhelmed.
“Every day I listen to people’s stories, and it’s traumatizing,” says Murguia. “What we do, there is no one else to do it.”
Now the team’s campaigns manager, Fernanda Banda was born in Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua. Her mother carried her across the border when she was 1. When she was in the eighth grade, her father was deported. Her mother didn’t want her two daughters to be scared, but they were.
Her freshman year at the University of New Mexico, Banda took a deep breath and approached a sociology professor who had given her an assignment that involved identity. She confessed her undocumented status, and the professor suggested she check out the campus Dream Team chapter.
Banda’s family was slow to accept her activism. “They were like, ‘What is this organization making you do? Why are you so bold?’ ” she recalls. “But they adapted. Now my mother gets really proud when she sees me on TV.”
When Banda first met Esquivel, she says, “the sense of belonging was immediate. It was when I realized, ‘Oh, there are 30 me’s right here.’ “ He is very good at helping youth reframe their experiences, she says, undercutting the popular narrative — especially loud during the Trump years — that undocumented people are criminals.
For Banda, internalizing a different story about her legal status was the first step toward learning to talk to lawmakers and other people in positions of power about the needs of undocumented people. Esquivel, she says, taught her to see storytelling as a source of both personal healing and political strength.
Linking activists’ health to their effectiveness in the public arena is exactly what Esquivel is seeking to do, he says. “What we are trying to do is build people power,” he explains. “We do that through the process of building identity.”
A light-bulb moment
Soon after his experience in the mountains, Esquivel was invited to a training at Georgetown University to learn to use his story as an advocacy tool. At the time, the Dream Team was part of United We Dream, a national network of youth groups descended from early, LGBTQ-led efforts. Esquivel took some convincing.
“I was so scared,” he recalls. “I didn’t know I could travel. I had been told I couldn’t.”
New Mexico residents don’t need immigration documents to get a driver’s license. Using his, Esquivel got on a plane for the first time in his life. When he arrived in Washington, D.C., he walked around in awe, taking in the National Mall and then the Georgetown campus, “which looked like Hogwarts.”
Just as astounding was the training itself. Calling themselves the UndocuHoyas, the university’s organizers were educating faculty on barriers immigrant students face getting into and succeeding in college. It was every bit as stunning as hearing his new colleagues speak their truths in the woods, except these students were talking to authority figures.
The Georgetown organizers weren’t telling their stories to bond or to heal, he quickly noticed. His hosts were framing things in a way that would illustrate, to affluent professors presumably insulated from experiences like his own, the practical realities of being undocumented. It was effective in its context, Esquivel says, but he couldn’t quite see how it would work in New Mexico, with its distinct history and demographics.
The state has a very different posture toward its immigrant population than many other places, starting with the tenor of the public discourse. While officials in neighboring states demonize immigrants, many elected leaders in New Mexico talk about the contributions immigrants make to the state’s civic and economic health.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, as of December 2021, some 5,400 New Mexico residents had DACA status and an estimated 9,000 more were considered “immediately eligible,” whether they have applied or not. There are more undocumented youth — it’s unclear how many — who do not qualify.
All told, the nonprofit New Mexico Voices for Children estimates there are 60,000 undocumented state residents. Using the Individual Taxpayer Identification Number provided by the IRS to people who can’t get a Social Security number, they pay nearly $68 million in state and local taxes a year.
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham tapped Dream Team members to serve on a racial justice council she convened in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. And before being appointed the first Native American secretary of the interior, Democrat Deb Haaland had represented Albuquerque in Congress. During her time in office, she invited the group to numerous conferences and public events to share, among other topics, how Dreamers fill jobs in health care, education and other short-staffed fields in the state.
New Mexico’s architecture, food and tourist industry all celebrate the state’s Latino and Indigenous roots. One in 10 New Mexicans are immigrants, and one in nine have an immigrant parent. The thousands of residents who have naturalized over the last decade — mostly women from Mexico — constitute enough of a voting bloc to swing tight local or state elections.
When Esquivel got home from Georgetown, he took an anti-racism workshop put on by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, which offers training throughout the country, and a light bulb went on. “That shattered me,” he says. “It was like ‘The Matrix.’ It was fully life-changing.”
Suddenly, he saw a relationship between the U.S. war on drugs and the violence that had driven his family — and those of Murguia, Rodriguez and countless other Dream Team members — from their homes in a different light. In Esquivel’s new understanding, neither he nor his parents had initiated a shameful chain of events.
A different kind of coming out
In 2001, when the Dream Act was introduced, a young, undocumented LGBTQ woman from Chicago was scheduled to testify before Congress. Then, the 9/11 attacks upended everything, and Tania Unzueta never got the chance to speak. But a movement had been born, led in part by young queer activists who saw the gay rights movement as a model.
Nationwide, an estimated 267,000 undocumented people identify as LGBTQ, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA. Approximately 81,000 are Dreamers. In the eyes of many of their families and neighbors, coming out as undocumented is just as taboo as coming out as queer.
Undocumented people, the new leaders among them believed, could benefit from their own coming-out process. Not only does one person speaking up embolden others, but personal stories are a powerful tool.
Soon after 9/11, administrators at a Santa Fe high school began towing cars belonging to undocumented students who, because they lacked driver’s licenses, could not get parking permits, Esquivel recalls. Activists fought to change state law so any New Mexico resident could drive legally. On the heels of that victory, they succeeded in winning access to the higher education system and to state financial aid.
When President Barack Obama authorized DACA in 2012, the group that would become the Dream Team was born. New Mexico immigration rights activists held a series of clinics to give prospective applicants legal and financial help; signing up for the program is complicated and expensive, and the status must be renewed every two years. As of March 2020, some 1.8 million people meet the eligibility requirements, but just 800,000 are enrolled, according to the Center for American Progress.
In addition to sponsoring chapters in different parts of the state, the organization hosts frequent training sessions for educators, an effort spearheaded by Andres Esquivel. He uses a curriculum he and his brother developed that mixes material from the National United We Dream network with an anti-racist framework Eduardo Esquivel created to tailor the approach for New Mexicans.
Two of the group’s workshops are now a regular part of Albuquerque Public Schools’s teacher training. In the future, Dream Team leaders want to be able to offer educators continuing education credits — something they believe would draw more participants.
In an era when school boards are under tremendous public pressure to prove they are not exposing students to the graduate-level academic framework of Critical Race Theory, it may sound improbable that a network of undocumented activists is invited into K-12 schools. But Dream Team organizers are typically welcomed by school administrators, Esquivel says.
“They see the issues, but they don’t know what to do,” Esquivel says. “Once they understand what we do, they want us there.”
Holding feet to the fire
Jocelyn Barrera came to the United States with her mother when she was 3. The week before starting middle school in Santa Fe, she was finally supposed to meet her father, who was on his way to see her in person after years of FaceTiming.
“He was in El Paso, and then in one quick second everything changed,” Barrera says. “He stopped calling…. Someone had reported him.”
His deportation scared Barrera into withdrawing from lots of everyday activities. She had never told anyone what had happened to her father for fear of exposing herself and the other undocumented members of her mixed-status family. Joining the Dream Team brought her out of her shell.
Now 22, Barrera works with students in four Santa Fe schools and is trying to build relationships with youth in two other communities, Española and the Pueblo of Pojoaque.
In February, Dream Team members were among students who protested outside the New Mexico School for the Arts. A poster in a display about missing and murdered Indigenous women that had been created for Native American Heritage Month had been defaced, the letters rearranged to spell out a slur. Students were angry at what they saw as administrators’ tepid response to a pattern of racist incidents.
Coincidentally, the 25 to 30 students carrying banners and posters showed up outside the school while a staff training on cultural responsiveness was happening inside. An administrator came out to try to convince the students that the session was aimed at addressing their concerns.
Then, the consultant running the session stepped outside for a break. Hearing the protesters’ concerns, he volunteered to facilitate a conversation with the staff inside. Students and faculty emerged with several agreements: a public apology from administrators; a safe room reserved for Native American students; the hiring of more people of color; and the creation of a garden commemorating lost Indigenous women, among other measures.
Dream Team members were pleased, says Barrera: “But we let the principal know we would be there every Friday with more and more people if they don’t do it.”
“We can’t become one of those organizations that have the same leadership for 20 years.”
‘Building a better world’
In a few months, Esquivel will turn 28. Rodriguez is the same age, and the two have been talking about stepping down in the next few years to ensure that the organization remains truly youth-led. Because student chapter members often stay with the Dream Team and go on to organize others, the group has a built-in pipeline of future leaders, he says.
“For me and Felipe, it’s not much longer we’re going to be here,” Esquivel says. “We can’t become one of those organizations that have the same leadership for 20 years.”
When he leaves, Esquivel wants to go back to school to earn a teaching license and a principal’s credential. He plans to teach science at a charter school the Dream Team will open next fall with the NACA Inspired Schools Network, an organization that helps people open schools in Native American communities. NACA stands for Native American Community Academy, which operates three Albuquerque charter schools.
Like the Dream Team, the school network prizes a healthy sense of identity and holistic wellness for students and families. Many undocumented Latinos come from Indigenous communities or are not far removed from them, and the two organizations have had a close relationship since the Dream Team’s early days.
“We share a lot of the same oppressors, we’re very connected to the land,” says Esquivel. “For us, it is important for our youth to develop an indigenized identity.”
After several years of planning, the new K-5 school is scheduled to open in August in the city’s International District, a densely populated, diverse neighborhood that is home to immigrants from many countries, not just Latin America. The school will start with 60 students in kindergarten and first and second grades.
One goal is to see what happens when an entire staff starts with the same vision and set of beliefs, and is able to help younger immigrant and Indigenous students grow up with pride and a sense of empowerment.
“I don’t believe anyone accomplishes anything on their own,” says Esquivel. “I want as many people as possible to join us in building a better world.”
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