By Daniel Jimenez for South Kern Sol
On Labor Day, thousands of activists came together in Bakersfield to welcome 15 individuals, who walked 285 miles in 21 days from Sacramento to Bakersfield to advocate for immigration reform for the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country.
Dr. Gonzalo Santos was one of the “pilgrims” who walked this journey. Dr. Santos, 63, is a well-known social science and social justice professor at California State University Bakersfield, He has been teaching at CSUB since 1992. Dr. Santos is also a social activist, a husband, and a father of three.
Dr. Santos walked from Bakersfield to Sacramento with 14 fellow activists to demand that Bakersfield Congressman, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, vote for immigration reform in Washington DC. The goal of the pilgrimage was raise the moral question in the immigration reform debate.
South Kern Sol interviewed Dr. Santos to learn about his motives for walking, his thoughts, and experiences during the walk.
South Kern Sol: Tell us, Dr. Santos, who or what motivated you to go on this journey?
Dr. Gonzalo Santos: The source of my inspiration to join this pilgrimage was my students. I teach a large number of DREAMERS. I hear their personal tragedies. They share with me the pain and suffering that they are undergoing. [I am] especially [inspired] when a parent is deported and they are forced to raise their siblings by themselves, go to work, come to college, and somehow make things work despite all obstacles. I see them as heroes. They don’t capitulate. They do not give up, but they keep going. They keep going for the sake of their own families, and they keep going for the sake of themselves.
I had great moral obligation. I felt compelled to join this pilgrimage as my way to contribute to solving their tremendous problem of being in the shadows, and their families being torn. It was my way of extending to them my solidarity.
SKS: We are sure there were many challenges you faced during this journey. What was your biggest adversity?
DGS: My biggest adversity was my age and the fact that I’m not a sport-oriented person. I had to go through a painful adjustment, especially during the first two weeks. Everything that could hurt in my body did, and it was a challenge to continue.
I was able to make it through because the community of pilgrims was very mutually supportive and spiritually sustaining. We had a nurse that backed me up every day, so I was able to slowly adjust my body to do the grueling schedule.
We had to wake-up at 3:45 a.m. We would be on the road walking by 5:00 a.m. and end around noon. We would take a break to rest and clean ourselves, and then go to a community event that sometimes [lasted until] 9:00 p.m. After that, we would drag ourselves to some place to sleep to get up again the next morning.
That kind of schedule was very difficult for my body. I was the oldest of the pilgrims by far; I’m 63. This, everybody understood, was my biggest challenge, and everybody showed their support and love to make it possible for me to get through.
SKS: Was it worth it? Would you do this again?
DGS: Oh yeah! I would do it again in a second. It was worth it because we achieved every objective we set up to do. We did reframe the issue around the question of the human tragedy of our families being torn apart, and that this is a human issue not a political issue.
We were also able to put substantial pressure on the five congressional districts that we visited. We had a quite successful turnout of politicians that came out in support, including Republican Congressman Jeff Denham, who embraced us, and agreed to fight for a pathway to citizenship in front of over a thousand people in a packed church. So this political achievement of having Congress people come and meet us, and commit to support us, was very successful. We are confident that if we have a vote [for immigration reform legislation] in the House, the majority of the House of Representatives would vote in our favor. We set the ground to make it possible to do that.
On a personal note, it was an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime, extraordinary experience that I wouldn’t trade for any other experience. It was a successful and a wonderful journey of discovery and transformation. Also, I discovered a new family. I now feel fortunate to count among my family, 14 pilgrims.
SKS: What comes next? How is this movement going to continue moving forward?
DGS: The movement is a very diverse movement. There are many sectors involved. You have a labor movement, you have a faith based community, and you have other sectors also involved.
I think the movement has to step-up and unify. The next big step, which I hear is gathering all the different sectors of the immigrant movement, is the October 5th mobilizations across the country. I look forward to seeing the kind of turnout, and the kind of voices raised, like we saw on the marches of 2006.
SKS: In your opinion, will there be an immigration reform this year?
DGS: It depends on whether or not the political leadership and the Republican Party finally comes around to realize that they have much more to lose by postponing, by obstructing, by slowing down what is essentially the first truly good opportunity to fix our immigration system.
The country desperately needs it for its economy. The immigrants desperately need it for their rights. The Latinos desperately need it to prevent racial profiling. Everybody would be better off, including the Republicans.
Every indication we have right now, is that if the vote was held today, it would pass with a “path to citizenship.”
But we need to put pressure on McCarthy and the entire GOP to get on with it. We are not to be seeing it as a political football. Our people are suffering, and we have been very patient. We say it’s enough. They have to come forward or else [they] have to face the consequences when we go vote next year, and later on in 2016 at the next presidential election.