Sept. 15 marked the start of National Hispanic Heritage Month — or, as it is known in Spanish, Mes de la Herencia Hispana — a time when the United States pays tribute to the history, culture and contributions of past and present Hispanic Americans.
According to the 2010 Census, 50.5 million Americans identify as Hispanic — and that number is growing. Immigration has long been a part of America’s national history, and the role that immigrants have played — and still play — in building this country is one of the reasons “the American dream” is still shared around the world today. America is a place where new beginnings and new lives are possible.
Over the next month, msnbc.com will be profiling outstanding Hispanic activists who are making a difference in the fight for immigration reform and who are providing critical support services to undocumented communities.
Name: Gustavo Torres
City, State: Hyattsville, MD
Occupation/Organization: Executive director, CASA de Maryland
How did you get involved with immigration advocacy?
I understand the immigrant struggle firsthand. I started working with CASA in 1991 as a community organizer not too long after I came to this country. I saw the struggle firsthand of the community that composed the waves of people coming from Central America fleeing war and violence to the D.C. area. There was a demand for assistance. Even the local county government knew that something had to be done. They provided CASA with a work site to organize and orient immigrants who needed guidance. I became the executive director of CASA soon after I started as an organizer. Since those humble beginnings, we have grown into a $9.4 million organization with 129 staff and eight offices spanning Maryland and Virginia.
Give us a sense of what your day looks like:
Like most executive directors of large agencies, my days are filled with meetings and phone calls. I travel frequently to meet with donors, policymakers, and partners around the country but spend most of my time in and around our offices in Maryland and Virginia. While I must spend a considerable amount of time fundraising and lobbying, I also prioritize each and every day speaking with CASA members to understand the reality that they confront. CASA has almost 60,000 members. They are people who struggle to pay the rent and reunite with their family abroad. People who work hard every day and struggle to ensure that their children are advancing academically. My members keep me real. Each day I speak with them and learn about their families and their lives. Unlike many traditional non-profit executives, I have also spent a lot of time this year leading press conferences, engaging in marches, and committing civil disobedience in the fight for justice for our families.
What is your expectation of President Obama and Congress in regard to the border crisis? Were you surprised by the president’s decision to delay executive action until after the midterms?
This is the statement that CASA sent out in response to the announcement of the delay: President’s Delay on Immigration Relief Chills Latino Vote in November.
What type of help is most needed on the ground and how can one get involved?
We need Americans of all stripes to recognize the dignity of the entire American family – whether they live in Ferguson or El Paso, Texas. I believe that winning on issues of basic justice is not a matter of convincing people that they should care but facilitating their greater involvement. At CASA, people can get involved in the struggle at all different levels, from writing a letter to a legislator, to registering voters, to taking to the streets. We have similar partner organizations throughout the country. Figure out your local organization and give them a call!
What keeps you motivated every day?
My members and my staff. I am surrounded by people who are uncompromising when they face injustice yet are filled with hope for their future. The individual stories inspire me, watching our next generation of activists on the playground outside our office inspires me, meeting policymakers who take real leadership inspires me. I know that together we will make this happen.
Check out Michelle’s story: A double-edged sword for LGBT immigrants
(Responses were edited for clarity)