It is easy to take for granted that Philadelphia is a Sanctuary City. Ever wonder how we got that status? It takes the work of dedicated activists from our community who are fighting for our rights. One of those activists is Miguel Andrade, currently the communications manager for Juntos, a Philly-based immigrant advocacy nonprofit. We talked in December about his hero’s work and the resiliency of Philadelphians.
Ailbhe Pascal: Hey Miguel! Let’s dive in: Who are you?
Miguel Andrade: I am a queer immigrant from Columbia, South America. I have been in Philadelphia since I was five years old, and I’m 29 now. I have been in social justice work since I was 17. I am a believer in the power of community organizing, and the strength of community members to be active members of change. And when I’m not fighting injustice, I play video games. But also, I’m still trying to figure out my place in the world. As I get closer to 30, I feel pressure to have things figured out, which I don’t necessarily think anyone has.
Ailbhe: I feel honored that you do the work that you do in the same city that I live in. What got you into communications specifically?
Miguel: I’ve always been drawn to film and TV. I was 17 when my mom saw an ad in the paper for a course by Movement Alliance Project [formerly known as: Media Mobilizing Project] to learn video. I took the class and fell in love with the medium; there’s something about grabbing a camera and going out into the field to film that I really enjoy. I stuck with it, volunteering with MAP to document different social justice campaigns in the city. One of the first videos I ever made was about folks who were in civil disobedience to protest the opening of the Sugar House Casino.
Ailbhe: It’s so powerful that you got to start young. Do you work with teens in your work now?
Miguel: My first job was as a youth organizer. Right out of high school I got to start doing youth organizing work. In 2011 I co-founded one of the first Latinx youth groups in Philly, Fuerza. One of the impetuses for founding that group is that I grew up undocumented in Philadelphia. After all of the things I went through, I wanted to make sure there was a space for young people with similar experiences to talk about these issues, because when I was growing up there was nothing. It’s still up and running, it’s still empowering young people from the Latinx community; that’s powerful and I’m happy to leave that behind to grow.
Ailbhe: Do you have a line of advice you pass on?
Miguel: Meeting people where they’re at, and getting them to understand the power and knowledge they already have, is huge. People at any age need to realize they have the power to change their lives for themselves.
Ailbhe: What keeps you coming back to organizing? You talk about starting out as a teen, but many people burn out after only a few years.
Miguel: I have been doing this a long time. Even the time I take breaks–or “breaks”–I am still going out to protests and doing the work. There’s a sense of community that comes with doing social justice work that is intoxicating–you just want to be with like-minded people who share this passion and vision.
As corny as it sounds, I have to say my mom is my role model. She is also known in the community for her activism, and she’s somebody who has this fire within her that has never gone out. As long as I’ve known her, she has been advocating for people and making her voice heard whenever injustice is around. She’s tenacious, even when the odds are against her. I love my mom!
Ailbhe: She sounds amazing! You’re so lucky to have her in your life. And when you were talking about taking a break, I wondered: how are you taking care of yourself?
Miguel: This is something I’ve had to learn about the hard way. I really care about my work and want to be selfless for a cause, so I had a really bad habit of being a workaholic. When I was first starting, there were days I was working seven days a week, until 9 at night. But last year, because I was going at such a hard pace and not really taking care of myself, I was hospitalized for five months. The takeaway has been to have hard limits and boundaries to my work, and also having a soulful life that is outside of the same circles I work in all the time. I need to talk to people who are outside of the “movement,” too.
Ailbhe: You talk about being hard on yourself. What do you love about yourself?
Miguel: The biggest thing I love about myself is my sense of humor. I’ve always been a little bit of a jokester and I’m also not shy about laughing about things that feel difficult. I think sometimes we take life a little bit too seriously. I’m happy if I can crack a joke and make someone smile in the middle of the day.
Ailbhe: How do you think that shows up in your organizing?
Miguel: In immigrant justice work, we meet people who are coming to the office when they are in a moment of crisis and need support–not the highest points of their lives. Once you’re able to help them get the resources they need, it’s important to try laughing at how messed up the system is. Because if you start thinking about it, it doesn’t make sense that corporations are profiting off of incarceration and deportation. It makes absolutely no sense that our schools are underfunded. It’s laughable that people don’t have medical access or healthcare. It makes so little sense, you have to laugh at it.
Ailbhe: These systems are absurd! It’s so subversive and powerful of you to laugh at them. As you say, you’ve been organizing a really long time. What projects are you most proud to have been a part of?
Miguel: I was part of the team that led Philadelphia to become a Sanctuary City. That was one of the biggest achievements of the immigrant community, and our city in general. I remember when only a couple of years ago, even the proposal had people saying, “Oh, that’s impossible.” People forget that when Philadelphia became a Sanctuary City, we were only number 19 or 20 in the entire country to have such a protective policy. Years later, it’s one of the principal calling cards for the city. Our mayor went to bat to fight the federal government and the Jeff Sessions lawsuit to keep the Sanctuary City status.
Organizing has opened so many doors for me. If you told 15 year old, undocumented Miguel that he would be hosting a television show when he was 19, or that he would MC a rally with a thousand people; if you ever told him, “You’re going to be on the board of an organization that does work with the United Nations,” I would never have believed you. Every once and I while I have to say to myself, “You did the damn thing!”
Ailbhe: Why is it so important to have “For Us, By Us” organizing?
Miguel: It’s about representation. Seeing people who look like you thrive and be resilient is empowering because you don’t get to see that every day as a queer Latinx. To be a role model for young people is important to me because the first step to breaking the shackles of oppression is being able to envision a future, and envision what it looks like to fight back against oppression. Let’s get people out of that shackled mindset!
Ailbhe: How does your queerness contribute to your resiliency?
Miguel: There’s a misconception that the Latinx community is inherintly homophobic, and it affects queer Latinx youth. I spent a lot of time in the closet, but now I’m able to be 100% myself in my community, and people don’t care. That shows, at the end of the day, what people care about is if you’re a good person.
It was such an honor that Louie Ortiz asked me to be part of the Gran Marones Project. It first started with 10-15 of us in the city and it has gone on to be a national showcase of queer resilience. There’s a lot of acceptance and love that our people don’t get credit for.
Ailbhe: How do you hope readers can support you and support your work?
Miguel: Unfortunately there’s ageism in social justice work. Even though a lot of us are about youth empowerment, there aren’t actually a lot of spaces for youth leadership. There are so many of my peers who started off 16-18 getting involved with organizing, who are doing amazing work now. Cultivating youth leadership is the only way our movements will carry on. It’s not about individuals who “lead” organizations, or individuals who are on boards, it’s about creating a path for the next generation to join the movement and recognizing that you have to pass on the baton.
Ailbhe: As someone who’s dedicated so much effort to helping this city heal, what do you love about Philly?
Miguel: I love that we are a city of neighborhoods, and it feels like you can know everyone. The people of Philadelphia are hella resilient. The amount of organizing and resistance that happens on a day-to-day basis is beautiful. You don’t want to mess with Philly. You tell us we can’t, we say, “Nah, we’re going to do it.” That push-back is on a city-level, and I think that’s what led to so many victories over the years. It’s amazing to see how we’re all growing: good job, Philly!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
My Philly Neighbor is a project done in collaboration with Broke In Philly, a news media initiative among 19 local news organizations to provide in-depth, nuanced and solutions-oriented reporting on the issues of poverty and the push for economic justice in Philadelphia.