Interview with Carolina Martin Ramos, Centro Legal de la Raza

Founded in 1969, Centro Legal de la Raza is a legal services agency protecting and advancing the rights of low-income, immigrant, and Latino communities through bilingual legal representation, education, and advocacy. Voice of Witness spoke to Carolina Martin Ramos, Centro Legal’s Director of Programs and Advocacy, about how the pandemic has impacted their clients and how the organization is working to support the community during these challenging times. 

VOW: How has COVID-19 affected Centro Legal de la Raza and the different communities you serve?

CMR: Centro Legal serves the most vulnerable and impacted communities—and because of white supremacy and a racialized settler colonial history, the most impacted communities are primarily Indigenous, Black and Mestizo migrants. Right now, we’re seeing in this heightened way how any threat to public health will have a much more dramatic impact on our communities. 

Our clients and other community members who are reaching out to us are really terrified about their health, but also terrified about losing their housing. Of course, if you’re evicted now or anytime within this pandemic, that means you’re going to be really vulnerable to being exposed to COVID-19. In our workers’ rights programs, we have a lot of clients who are undocumented; they are doing informal labor and in most of that work, they don’t have protective gear. Tons of workers have lost their jobs or at least have had their hours cut. They’re terrified about how they’re going to feed their families, how they’re going to pay their rent, and whether they’re going to end up homeless. They might have to move multiple generations of family into one house, where people are more vulnerable to exposing each other to COVID-19.

VOW: What is the OUR Fund and what are the goals of this initiative? 

CMR: Along with other community partners, Centro Legal is spearheading the Oakland Undocumented Relief (OUR) Fund, an effort to try to raise funds that we can offer to undocumented workers in Oakland who otherwise have no access to any type of financial support. Other workers who have legal status in the United States or who are citizens are able to access things like stimulus checks or unemployment [benefits]. But undocumented workers are not eligible for that type of assistance or relief, even though they pay into the system.

It’s been phenomenal to see so many people in our community reach out and ask how they can support, whether they’re sending $20 or $1,000. That’s been really heartening to see community wanting to support undocumented workers. But even still, we are just inundated with calls right now from undocumented workers who are really desperate and don’t have any support or safety nets. There’s still a bigger need than we can fulfill.

VOW: Many different community organizations are partnering around the OUR Fund. Have you worked with these organizations before? 

CMR: Yes. Traditionally, legal service organizations don’t work as much with community activists. But Centro Legal is 50 years old and we come from a special sort of organizing background and history—we came out of the civil rights movement in the Bay Area and out of radical political organizing. So we still have that grassroots organizing spirit. We’re here to serve the community and we believe in lifting up the leadership of the most impacted people; we’re not trying to be saviors. So it’s critical that we are always in relationship with other organizations that aren’t necessarily legal service organizations, but represent the most impacted peoples and communities.

VOW: In addition to the OUR Fund, what are other ways that Centro Legal is supporting the community?

CMR: Our tenants’ rights program has been working day and night to fight for moratoriums on evictions. We’re also fighting for other policies to protect folks, so that even if people are protected from eviction, they won’t end up in three or six months owing thousands of dollars that they can’t pay and get evicted at that time. 

Centro Legal is in the heart of Fruitvale, which has the largest Mam Mayan community in the United States. So a lot of our community members are Indigenous refugees who come from a history of genocide and severe government repression in Guatemala. So we’re trying to come up with resources that are culturally appropriate to serve those communities as well. 

Another part of that is advocating for folks who are in detention. We’re advocating for people who are detained by ICE and the Department of Homeland Security still. It’s just horrific that folks are locked in these cages. They can’t practice social distancing, aren’t being provided with protective gear, and are getting COVID-19 in detention centers. That’s just a matchbox for spreading the disease. We’ve had several campaigns with #FreeThemAll And #LetThemGo, and we’ve done drive-by protests.. Part of that work also means that we’re trying to figure out what the needs will be if people are released. We need re-entry plans and we need resources. 

VOW: What’s something that we can all take away from this pandemic?

CMR: This should show us all that we’re all related. We can’t just forget about people that are in detention centers and you can’t just be okay with the status quo of racial disparities. This [pandemic] makes it really clear that if somebody else is sick, that’s a threat to your health as well. We have to take care of each other. I hope that the work we’re doing now will help us to create a better world. Como dicen Las Zapatistas, otro mundo es posible: another world is possible. That’s our hope, rather than going back to what was normal and really was not okay. It’s easy to talk about who deserves to be protected or not. And it’s easy for people to determine that people who are incarcerated or detained or who don’t have lawful status in some way aren’t as deserving of the same protections and humanity that the rest of us are. I hope that we can change that.

Visit the OUR Fund website to donate and find more information supporting undocumented communities.