(Note to Our Readers: About a month ago, a multi-year struggle by food service workers at Pomona College finally culminated in victory. The college had resisted their efforts mightily, even firing many workers under the pretext of their immigration statuses. On May 22, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice Los Angeles, whose members did much to help win this campaign, honored those workers and their struggle by giving a “Giant of Justice” award to Christian Torres, one of those workers fired by the college. Former UNITE HERE President John Wilhelm gave Christian an absolutely fantastic introduction, and then Christian went and blew John out of the water — as he’d be the first to proudly admit. Christian’s story is a compelling one, both of a struggle to win a union, but also of the struggle of immigrants everywhere. Rather than try and tell it ourselves, we thought best to share his version with you.)
Thank you so much for this; I feel honored just to be here. Last year, I attended Giants of Justice to collect signatures to support the struggle at Pomona College, and I asked myself, What it would feel like to be honored as a Giant of Justice? Now I know, and I couldn’t be more joyful!
At first, I thought that working at Pomona College was different than the other places I had worked at. I thought this because I experienced a real community with the workers and the students. At Pomona College I was with my family, and the students accepted me as their friend, regardless of the color of my skin and the language I spoke.
When I was fired, I felt humiliated. I had always given my life to my jobs, and I had never been fired before. I felt that Pomona didn’t care about all the years that we had given to the College community. I also felt disappointed with the administration that had always told me that I was a part of their community. I saw families being thrown into the streets, people who gave their lives to the service of Pomona College, and yet the administration didn’t do anything to help us. Even though I was angry and scared, I decided not to run away because I refused to let them make me into a document – a document that they had suddenly decided was fake. The pain I felt at work was not fake, the burns I had on my hands were not fake, the blood I had given every time I cut myself while cooking was not fake, our fight was not fake.
I see my parents as an inspiration because they always worked hard just to give my brother and me a future. I started working when I was 10 years old, just to help them. As a child, I hoped to one day go to college and become a chemist, but our poverty was a huge barrier.
So, my parents risked their lives to give us a better future. I remember when my dad was attempting to cross the border. My mom, brother and I would watch the news and see the reports of people being found dead in the desert or crossing the river. We prayed to God and La Virgin de Guadalupe that my dad wasn’t on that list. But he made it.
Then my brother and my mom made it; finally, I made it to the U.S. also. I was afraid to cross the border because I had seen in movies how people perished while trying to make it to “el norte,” and because I was only 15 years old. I wanted to be with my family, though, so I overcame my fear and became one more of the 11 million immigrants, or “illegals” as they call us.
Despite all of the struggling my family had to do to come to the U.S., when I was fired from Pomona College, my dad told me, “Do not risk it, do not struggle, do not beg.”
I told him, “I am not begging; I am standing up, fighting for justice (peleo por justicia).”
I decided to stand up because my family had risked so much to find a good future for me. And if I wanted this good future, I knew that it wouldn’t come without a struggle. That is why I joined the struggle at Pomona College and now the struggle for all workers and immigrants. In my own life, I overcame my fear to learn English. People used to make fun of me for not speaking English, so I learned the language. Then people told me that it would be impossible to win the union at Pomona College, but workers won the union! I was humiliated by the firing and for being undocumented, but with the help of students and community members I was able to complete my GED and apply for deferred action and I just got my work permit!
Through all of these experiences, I learned that with commitment and hard work, we could bring more justice into this world. I learned that by working through my personal fears, I had the power to stand up to those who are unjust.
I wish this would be a world without discrimination and oppression of the working people. I wish this country would do more for those who risk their lives to begin a new life on its soil. I hope for a time when people won’t have to kill themselves at work just to have something to eat. I hope for a time when workers won’t be punished for standing up for their rights.
And I hope for a time when workers are respected and treated with the dignity they deserve. Also, I dream of people standing up together and working for justice together as we did at Pomona College. I believe that change can happen if we believe in each other and work to build a stronger community together!