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Central American voices missing from discussion of refugee crisis
Thousands attended the Families Belong Together SF march and rally on June 30. Photo: Desiree Rios

Americans from across the demographic spectrum have joined together to express their outrage over the separation of refugee families at the U.S.-Mexico border, but many Central Americans have found their voices either drowned out or ignored completely.

Some advocates such as those at CARECEN SF—the Mission District-based resource center for Central American immigrants—believe that the Central American narrative is being purposely suppressed, as evidenced by the June 30 Families Belong Together SF march.

According to Lariza Dugan-Cuadra, executive director of CARECEN SF, the Families Belong Together SF organizers such as MoveOn, Women’s March and others who coordinated a national demonstration that took place in multiple cities across the country, turned their backs on representatives from her organization when they requested a turn to speak on stage. Eventually they were allowed to speak, but were pushed to the end of the event and asked to share a space on the stage with others.

Dugan-Cuadra took to Facebook to air her frustration at the fact that while the vast majority of those being affected are Central American, the leaders and experts representing those communities were disregarded and pushed to the end of the event.

“I can’t help but ask myself, what if The Women’s March, Indivisible and MoveOn.org organized a march and rally for #BlackLivesMatter, or against the #NoMuslimBan and basically almost the last to speak were the Black Community, or the Muslim Community?” Dugan-Cuadra wrote. “After all the politicians, after the labor unions, the queer community, the API community, etc., etc…what if? How would that be acceptable!?”

Roberto Lovato, a Salvadoran-American journalist who established the country’s first Central American Studies program at CSU Northridge, believes that advocates such as himself and CARECEN SF have been purposely excluded for political reasons, namely their criticism of Democrats.

The detention of thousands of unaccompanied migrant youths from Central America by the Obama administration which began in the summer of 2014 is something that Democrats have tried to downplay.

Lovato thinks that left-leaning organizations such as MoveOn are worried that first-hand accounts of Central Americans’ immigration experience would implicate the policies of former Democratic administrations, and that volunteers would become “disillusioned” if they knew that many of those who are organizing for this cause have also been a part of separating families during the Obama era.

“This is about political manipulation,” he said. “I’ve been to one of the marches and when I pointed out that this separation also happened during Obama and Clinton administration, they tell me that I’m a racist or I’m a Trump supporter and that I’m not for the cause.”

Both Lovato and Dugan-Cuadra believe that sensationalized media coverage has served to further distort the reality of the crisis.The mainstream media, for the most part, seems only interested in focusing on the trauma and suffering of the children. While that approach has ignited demonstrations nationwide, excluding Central American voices from the discussion means that stories lack vital context and authentic historical analysis.

Lariza Dugan-Cuadra, Executive Director of CARECEN attends the Families Belong Together March in San Francisco on June 30, 2018. Courtesy: Lariza Dugan-Cuadra

“Where are the Central American scholars?” Dugan-Cuadra asked. “I listen to KQED and they’re great, but I don’t see them ask people who are consistently involved in our current situation. [Media] expose the suffering and the trauma of these children and families but don’t talk about why they’ve come so far to come this country despite knowing the consequences. There are desperate stories that are not being told that includes violence that these families are trying to escape.”

U.S. Government statistics show that over 66,000 families arrived to the United States in fiscal year 2014. Dugan-Cuadra wants people to acknowledge this surge and why it has occurred: These migrants are fleeing violence caused by economic inequity that is directly connected to the United States and its policies.

“All people are interacting with are two dimensional images of child pain or sound bites of Central American suffering,” Lovato said. “Those images or sound bites don’t have context. As a journalist, I’m disgraced and ashamed of the journalism surrounding Central Americans.”

Lovato referenced the infamous TIME magazine cover that pictured the image of a two-year-old Honduran girl crying, and created the impression that she was being separated from her mother. Not only was it inaccurate, he said, it hurt the cause by allowing opponents of immigration to claim “fake news,” and slow the momentum for the surfacing of the actual truth. (TIME never issued a correction for the image.)

“What TIME did [with that picture] is a metaphor of what is happening to the Central American voices. It’s like there’s a cookie cutter image that is searched for and used when it solely benefits their own narrative,” said Lovato.

In a recent article for the Columbia Journalism Review, Lovato observed how attention has shifted from the families themselves toward a blaming contest between Republicans and Democrats. Both parties are actively seeking to exploit the immigration debate for political gain in the runup to the 2018 midterm elections.

“When denying that 5,100 children were separated from their families, you are erasing the stories of people who have endured the same cruel policies, except under a different administration. What has happened and is happening are both terrible and inhumane,” he said.

Lovato also argues, that the lack of Central American voices has caused the movement to stagnate. Without the presence of those affected, and given that there has been no change of policy (not to mention that thousands of children remain separated from the families), the  movement has become somewhat directionless, because people feel powerless to change anything.

In her Facebook post regarding the June 30 demonstration Dugan-Cuadra was careful to acknowledge the importance of allyship and solidarity, but criticized the mistake of excluding Central Americans from their own story.

Families Belong Together SF march and rally on June 30, 2018. Photo: Constanza Hevia H

“We are appreciative, and we stand with everyone that was there today,” she wrote. “But we are also offended, and we will not be invisibilized, or objectified. There was no Central American voice other than María from MUA [Mujeres Unidas y Activas], the sister who told her story of separation and CARECEN SF (we had to fight to get on the program before everyone left), no migrant scholar, not David Campos our only Central American elected official, not our teachers, union workers, faith leaders, queer leaders, our students.”

Lovato further emphasized that point, directing it at the media.

“Instead of including Central Americans, much national coverage provides extended time and talking space to Obama surrogates,” Lovato said. “Jeh Johnson, Eric Holder, Michelle Obama, former Deputy Assistant Attorney General Leon Fresco, and other ex-Obama officials are positioned in stories as experts on immigration policy, critics of Trump, or in defense of their administration: ‘We detained them together. We didn’t separate them,’ or ‘I could not separate a child from her mother in that way,’ or ‘And so we said on that line of morality is we’re not going to separate them.’”

Holding the Obama administration accountable for its role in the current immigration mess hasn’t won Lovato a lot of friends in the the Democratic Party, but to those who accuse him of being divisive he had this to say: “Some of us have a little more than 10, 20, and even 30 years dealing with issues you’re barely waking up to in the last two weeks. And unlike many, we have years of contact with actually existing Central Americans and were not driven to ‘action’ by disembodied sound bites of suffering or decontextualized images of pain used for political gain.”

The underlying economic and political issues that have led us here remain unaddressed, making it unlikely that this situation will resolve itself. What the solution looks like and whether or not Central American voices will continue to be excluded from the dialog, remains to be seen.

Story by: Kelly Rodriguez Murillo