Our story begins 40 years ago, and 3,000 miles south of LA. The late 1970s marked a very dark, violent period in Central America. Major civil wars and pro-communist revolutions broke out all around the region in countries like Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
In hopes of a better and safer life, thousands of Central Americans fled to the United States. Many of these refugees ended up in Los Angeles with no real plan, just big American dreams.
The nonprofit group El Rescate was created in 1981 to not only advocate for this new community, but additionally, to provide them with free, legal and social services. The organization’s building on W. 14th street, in Pico Union, was converted into shelters that housed over 200 refugee families throughout the 80s.
Twenty years later, in 1999, these refugees had already established lives within the Los Angeles community and El Rescate no longer needed the extra shelter space. Lupe Duran, who at the time was a director of LA’s HUD (U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development), sold the $2 million building to a new organization for a staggering discounted price of just $80,000.
That organization was the Institution of Popular Education of Southern California, frequently referred to as IDEPSCA, which has now called the pink building their headquarter offices for the past 17 years. Central American immigrants were not given educational resources, so originally, IDEPSCA’s focus was on literacy expansion.
“We had the capacity to teach a person to read and write [in English] in 6 months from nothing,” said Tito Caledonia, who headed IDEPSCA’s literacy program.
However, their emphasis soon shifted as they realized that other needs of the community were not being met.
Maegan Ortiz, executive director of IDEPSCA said, “Many of the people who needed and wanted to learn to read and write were also marginalized workers, day laborers, household workers, etc. So from that we decided that we needed to organize more intentionally through that sector.”
IDEPSCA’s mission now, is to organize, educate, advocate and provide resources for their members, who are all commonly bound by their low-wage jobs and immigrant status.
"They may or not be working in the informal economy, may or may not have legal status, but they are part of the immigrant worker experience in an urban environment- an environment that’s away from their home country they had to leave either because of political violence or economic turmoil, mostly brought on by US policies,” said Maegan Ortiz.
Today IDEPSCA has 1,000 registered members across its four different worker centers/day labor programs. These centers are the backbone of the organization and help workers find jobs that pay above minimum wage, at $15 an hour. However, connecting workers to job opportunities is only one component of what the institution does.
IDEPSCA provides free vocational training through Los Angeles Trade Tech College, where workers can learn general construction expertise, automotive skills and culinary experience. Additionally, the institution operates year-round food and clothing distribution programs for its members.
“You have to meet people where their needs are at. It’s very hard to talk about high political theory when people don’t have food to eat, or if they have some sort of medical issue or their rent is too high,” said Ortiz.
And with this recent election, politics has been a primary topic of concern for this Central American, immigrant community.
It is no secret that President-elect Donald Trump’s rhetoric towards the Latino community has been, well, quite discriminatory. In hopes of keeping “bad hombres” out, Trump has made building a wall at the Mexican border top on his agenda. However, Ortiz says that prior to the election, many from her Pico Union community were not happy regarding either candidate.
Over the past eight years under Obama’s presidency, more than 2.5 million people were deported through immigration orders, the highest under any United States president. In fact, his administration has deported more than the sum of all U.S presidents of the 20th century, according to ABC News.
Jerry Guardado, an immigration lawyer in Southern California said, “I go to community events every day and notice there’s a lot of fear and also a lot of mis information. Because of their uncertainty, some parents have even stopped sending their children to school anymore.”
In order to better prepare their community of immigrant, low-wage workers for the upcoming four years, IDEPSCA has been holding biweekly ‘Know your Rights’ educational classes…and not a moment too soon. Some of their labor centers have already experienced harassment: people spitting at the workers while outside, taking photos of them and yelling ‘your time is almost up’.
"Racists already existed before, so its not like all of a sudden all these lovely racist, white supremacists came out of nowhere, but now they feel more emboldened. I think one of the challenges is to not necessarily see this as a new political moment but rather see it as an extension of a political moment ratcheted up and really fast, “ said Ortiz.
As of 2015, there are an estimated 560,000 Central American immigrants living in the greater Los Angeles area, according to the migration policy institute. So while IDEPSCA’s work has changed lives, with currently 1,000 registered members, a push for awareness is key.
Social media platforms have been pivotal in spreading IDEPSCA’s resources, including Facebook and an original platform created by the organization itself- VozMob. VozMob is a storytelling app with the goal of closing the digital divide by using cellphone technology for workers to create their own narratives to counter the negative media.
“Social media be damned, sometimes you just need to walk with a piece of paper and talk to people,” said Ortiz.
To get involved with IDEPSCA as a member, volunteer or even donor visit their website, Facebook or Twitter. Or you can directly email executive director Maegan Ortiz.
See how Central Americans immigrants feel in the America in the wake of a President-elect Trump.here