“To this day, I believe, we are here on this planet earth to live, grow up and do what we can to make this world a better place for all people to enjoy freedom.”
—Rosa Parks School pledge
When Margot Pepper speaks at an event honoring the legacy of Cesar Chavez on Wednesday, her former second-grade student Gerardo Espinoza will be foremost on her mind.
A bilingual teacher at Rosa Parks School and a prize-winning journalist, Pepper and Gerardo’s classmates said goodbye to Gerardo on Valentine’s day—just before the little boy, his brothers and parents were deported to Mexico.
Pepper will speak at 4 p.m. Wednesday at Berkeley City College Auditorium (2050 Center St.) as part of a panel that will include Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer Los Angeles County Federation of Labor; Hilary Abell, executive director of Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security, and Mayor Tom Bates.
As Pepper tells it, Gerardo’s father, the hard-working Felipe Espinoza, had been in the country 20 years, since he was 14 years old, and his wife Norma Espinoza had been in the United States for 14 years. The senior Espinoza held down two jobs, working five to six days a week at a steel mill and in a restaurant to support his family.
Felipe Espinoza’s mistake was to trust Walter Pineda, an immigration lawyer—disbarred last November—who instead of gaining the parents legal residence, caused the family’s deportation. “It’s tragic—he really botched up the Espinozas’ case,” Pepper said.
Pepper has stayed in touch with the family, and she says their stories are heartbreaking. “They’re living in a town of 1,000 with no gas [for cooking or boiling water] and stagnant water. The three boys have been sick,” she said, adding that the community can help the family by sending donations to Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action (BOCA) at 2606 Dwight Way, Berkeley, 94704 and putting Espinoza in the memo line of the check.
Pepper said she doesn’t know how many people in Berkeley face similar deportation. Some leave without saying a word. “The Espinozas almost didn’t tell us why they were leaving—they were so ashamed,” Pepper said.
The cloud of deportation disrupts more than the lives of those deported, Pepper said, explaining that she has had to do a lot of therapy-like sessions for Gerardo’s frightened classmates.
Still, while the recent sweeps that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has made in the Bay Area has frightened people, it has had another consequence, Pepper said: it has intensified a determination to fight back.
In addition to the Wednesday conference, Pepper is working on two related projects.
One is an ordinance that will come before the City Council in May, calling on the city to become a sanctuary city. The city has already passed a sanctuary city resolution, but an ordinance will be law with more teeth, she said. At the same time she also noted that ICE “sweeps are less likely to happen in Berkeley because of the activism.”
The other project is a “know your rights” event, which will include immigration lawyers. It will be presented in English and Spanish from 6:30-8 p.m. Thursday, April 26, at Rosa Parks School, 920 Allston Way.
See Pepper’s “Open Letter to an Immigration Judge” about the Espinoza family, first published in the Daily Planet in February, and other writings at www.margotpepper.com.