The Rev. José Landaverde sits cross-legged in front of the glass building at 525 W. Van Buren St., his back pressed against the wheel of a police officer’s bicycle, arms linked with two women. There is no sign that marks the building as an immigration court, but Landaverde knows the building well, having attended hundreds of deportation hearings on the fifth floor. A sign scribbled in childish writing rests against his legs, “Obama, don’t deport my mommy.” As protestors chant, “The people united will never be divided,” he quietly mouths the words while eyeing the police behind him. He is waiting to be arrested.
Forty-five minutes later, he will be, along with another activist, when they refuse to move from the doors. Landaverde estimates he’s been arrested seven to 10 times, after more than a decade of immigration activism and his trademark civil disobedience in Chicago. He has gone on a hunger strike, lain in front of buses at Broadview Detention Center and organized sit-ins like this one in front of immigration court.
“We need radical activity to change the system,” he said. “By being arrested, you are sending a message that [you] are willing to take any risk. If a person just protests, the system will not take you seriously.”
Landaverde first came to the U.S. in 1990, as a political refugee from El Salvador. He was around 8 years old when the civil war broke out and he was conscripted to join the guerilla FMLN party. He fought in the jungle for nine years before a military arrest and beating caused him to flee.
In Chicago, he stayed with a group of nuns at Su Casa Catholic Worker, a shelter for Latino families in Back of the Yards. There, he got involved in community organizing on immigration and labor issues. “There was a time that I thought I had no family,” he said. “So I got involved in the church. Now I consider the community my family.” After getting his masters in divinity, Landaverde—“Father José” to most—started Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission in Little Village five years ago. He now provides legal and spiritual guidance to the congregation members, 90 percent of whom are undocumented, he said.
The Chicago Reporter sat down with Landaverde to discuss his approach to activism, after he returned from a three-day, 30-plus mile march to downstate Crete in protest of the proposed construction of a $60 million deportation center.
Why is it important to stop the construction of the detention center in Crete?
The detention center in Crete will give the structure to the central government to incarcerate our community. It will send a clear psychological message to the immigrant community that they cannot be here. The language the U.S. [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is using is no different than the language that Sheriff [Joe] Arpaio uses in Arizona.
We would like to ask this company, the mayor of Crete and the politicians here that instead of creating a jail, they should be creating a university. The mayor of Crete has said that by creating a jail he is bringing more jobs, more economy to a middle-class town. Shame on him. How will you bring jobs, a better economy, by incarcerating people?
How did you come to the United States?
I was born in El Salvador in a very small village. My family was not farmers but farm workers. We didn’t have anything to eat. Everything we earned we had to give to [the landowner]. There was a lot of suffering in my childhood. When I was 8 years old, I was split from my family, both my siblings and parents. I lived in a [rebel party] FMLN camp.
I left El Salvador in ’90. At that time, we were able to apply for political asylum. After five years, we could apply to be a permanent resident. When I was a little kid, I was taught that the Americans were bad. I learned early on that the American government was the one that perpetrated all the massacres and killed families. But when I came to Chicago, I started living with the nuns at Catholic Worker. I had a lot of conflicts with them, not because of what they said or what they did, but because they were white. I used to have resentment but not anymore. Now I work with organizations, and we open a dialogue.
How has your background influenced your immigration activism?
I remember my mom going to the front lines. I remember her sitting there with her rifle, and she would tell me, ‘Look, son, I love you. But it’s because I love you that I’m in this struggle.’ [She] told me that, ‘The kingdom of god is peace, justice and love.’ But you will not get peace, justice and love by just sitting or praying. You have to fight for it. And you have to question the system. The enemies of peace, justice and love are those that manage the capital and don’t distribute the wealth to those that are suffering. I haven’t stopped fighting since I got here.
It’s all I’ve ever done since I was a kid. During my childhood, we fought against the system that exploited us. The fight that we carry on with the immigrants is essentially the same fight.
Why is the religious community so active in the fight for immigrant rights in Chicago?
As a people of faith, if we deny people who are suffering, we are not a church. A priest or pastor who turns away from the people who are suffering—he is not a priest, he is not a pastor. This is why you see the people of faith walking with the immigrant communities. We have to do this. If we don’t, we are away from God.
I am very happy that in the marches, I meet some people who are Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, all people of faith. We all come together for one purpose: to save the immigrant community. I [even] know some people who are marching with us—they don’t believe in God but they are feeling the love. And if they love, then God is there.
President Barack Obama has conducted more deportations than any predecessors. What are your hopes for the next election?
Before Obama was elected, we had a protest at Broadview [Detention Center]. Someone asked me, ‘What hope do you have for Obama?’
There is no hope in Obama. Our hope is in God. Now that the election is on, we say the same thing. No hope in Republicans or Democrats.
It is our task as religious leaders to be questioning our politicians, because politics are under God’s supervision. Nobody talks about corporate politicians, but those are the politicians the U.S. has. Their main goal to be in power is to protect the corporations. They believe through protecting corporate power they are protecting their country. But they are producing wars, and they end up protecting corporations but not the people who produce the economy. That’s why we have this mess now. There is no hope in this type of politics.
We might not get immigration reform with Obama or the Republicans, but we will continue to contribute to this society with a tremendous happiness and hope. People who are without documents always have hope.
Why do you choose to use civil disobedience?
It is very important to march and meet with politicians, but it has to be something more than that … [to] show that there are people who can take a risk to create change. Most of the time, we say, ‘Well, we did one civil disobedience, and nothing happened.’ But no, something happened, because society is getting educated about the issues.
We talk about [Martin Luther King Jr.] and Cesar Chavez. We talk about them but we don’t talk about the people who were arrested with them. For example, last year, we went to Broadview and laid down in front of the buses. It was raining; it was 6 in the morning. We went to jail. One woman—they were questioning her because she was not white and she was undocumented, but the media didn’t publicize anything. Then Rep. Luis Gutierrez did a civil disobedience, and all the media came. But in reality, the people from the neighborhood took more risks. Gutierrez was in jail for 20 minutes. They were in jail for six, seven hours. This isn’t against Gutierrez—I love him and I support his struggle. I am just using the analogy. It’s very important to do civil disobedience, to march, to have radical activities, because the community gets involved.
All these women are the heroes. They are the ones who make the phone calls, organize the marches, help in the mission, and empower the people. In this mission, if we wanted to have a protest tomorrow, we would just make some calls and by tomorrow we will have 100 people protesting. Ninety percent of people in this mission are undocumented. Many people don’t want to talk, but we let them know they have rights. That is where spirituality plays an important role—when you tell them they are not alone, God is with them, and you are there to protect them.