Elena Herrada

By Elena Herrada

April 24, 2024: Several years ago, I and a small group of friends started an organization in response to several newly arrived immigrants who had gotten fired for joining a large immigrant rights march/rally in Detroit.

For many years, there was not much new migration in Detroit. Many of us are second and third generation; many of us did not grow up speaking Spanish.

Then one day, it all changed! 

I received a call from LA SED (Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development), the oldest Latino organization in Detroit. The chair, Jane García, told me there was a group of workers who had gotten fired for skipping work the day before the march/rally. They all worked at Wolverine Meats at Eastern Market and went to LA SED for help.

Our rag tag army assembled to meet up with the workers at LA SED. Some of us had worked for unions, going back to United Farm Worker days of boycotts and picket lines and on to industrial unions. We were organizers and activists from here, for the first time meeting new immigrants to Detroit.

This led us to create Centro Obrero with the help of the UAW Local 22, who loaned us chairs and tables and ultimately allowed us to use their union hall. We held English classes every weekday.  The students set the curriculum by answering the question “What would I have said today if I knew English?”

We met people from México, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras; everyone who could came to our classes.

We also took on the task of posting bonds for people detained in jail, driving to far flung places to pick up people who were released, accompanying people to court and many other things that could best be described as “ministry of accompaniment.” This is what one does when nothing can be done except to be present.

Every day held new lessons for us all. One Guatemalan man called us to let us know he was in a suburban Detroit jail being held on an immigration warrant.  We arrived at the jail to get his keys to take his truck out of the impound and put money in his account so he could call home. Speaking through the glass lockup, we told him we were putting $100.00 in his account so he could make phone calls. He asked us if we would not mind instead putting $50.00 in his account and the other $50. in the account of another Guatemalan man who was also detained there.

We put our own money up for all these activities—we had nothing to spare. But out of our scarcity, there was always abundance. We did as asked, …purchased the pick-up truck from him and sent his money to him when he arrived back in Guatemala. Years would pass before we heard from him again. Conditions have worsened since.

Yesterday, I received a call from a detention center in Arizona. It appeared on my phone as “Jail/Prison.” I answered it and heard all the prompts in Spanish. I accepted the call and was surprised to hear from this old friend. After the usual Central American formalities, he asked if we still help out immigrants. I asked what he needed. He said there was a young man from Guatemala who had no one to sponsor him if he could get out; a requirement for being bonded out of detention until court, which can be years away. Fifteen years hence, this man who has so little asks on behalf of his cellmate.

The finest fellow travelers can be found on this journey.