These Family Separation Activists Discuss The "Rage" & "Hope" Of Their Work

by Alexandra Svokos
Diane Bowens, Demand Justice / Kisha Bari

Paola Mendoza, an artist who is also part of the Women's March, and Jess Morales Rocketto, an organizer who also works at the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Care in Action, met this past spring to organize Families Belong Together, an activist organization dedicated to combatting immigration policies that separate families. While working on an exhausting issue, they found that they "vibed on a molecular level." Bustle listened in on their conversation in early October about their activism and how it affects their lives.

PM: Families Belong Together, family separation, really broke our emotional strength this summer. I think the desperation of the pain and the horror unified us in a way beyond the bullshit. There's a lot of bullshit sometimes with organizing, and I don't feel like that's the case with us, and I think it's because there was so much pain over the summer.

JMR: There's an adage in organizing that it only moves at the speed of trust, and the stuff we were trying to move — and the intensity of the circumstances — I think just made it immediately move into BFF sisterhood, fast.

PM: So when was your first organizing moment?

JMR: Well I grew up in a super Catholic family, and my first activism moment actually was a pro-life thing. So I've come a long way since then.

PM: Wow, so you went to a pro-life activity. I'm so curious — how did you change to pro-choice?

JMR: In high school and college, the teachers were religious, but in the sort of Catholic social justice teaching. Once I started hearing that, for me, there were a lot of inconsistencies. Part of my challenge with the church as an adult is that I don't feel that around reproductive justice in particular they have updated with the times. My faith really still guides me, even though I don't always feel like there is a ton of room for who I am in my faith.

PM: That's beautiful.

JMR: How about you, Paola? What's your first activist moment?

PM: There's obviously the first formal one, but the first time I stood up for someone was when I moved to Colombia at 14. I lived with my aunt, who was very wealthy, and I got thrust from poor working class in the States to upper echelon in Colombia. Once I was in this expensive area, and [I saw] a street girl who was probably five was selling candy. I bought something and realized how amazing she was at math. So I started talking with her and giving her math problems and she was just brilliant.

At that time in Colombia, you didn't ‘do that,’ and I remember feeling very angry at the way people were looking at me. It was my moment of personal rebellion for the system that just didn't make sense to me, because in the United States — while not to that extreme — I was that little girl. It was an important realization that [you] can't forget where you come from and also that organizing sometimes — a lot of the times — is taking risks and being uncomfortable in spaces you are trying to change.

Kisha Bari

And with that, I've been totally wondering, what would the Jess now tell the Jess two years ago, before we started down this crazy road of the Trump administration?

JMR: In 2015, I was working on the Hillary campaign. One thing I try really hard to do is to be hopeful and also exhibit that hope out loud to be somebody people can look to to be positive and focus on victories we have even in tough times. I don't think I quite realized the level at which that could be tested. I would just always be like, 'We just gotta keep our eyes on the prize! All these things are going really well; we're on the right side of history!' And now, 2018 Jess is like, 'Well, sometimes it's harder than others. Be optimistic.'

Now, I really have to get deep down into my inner well to believe it is possible to make progress. I think it’s essential for every organizer to have and maintain a hope that comes from a deeply raw and authentic place. And it does make me really emotional because of that — I'm getting emotional right now. It forces me to access parts that are so tender.

PM: Obviously, the past two weeks with the Kavanaugh situation have been atrocious. I had a lot of rage over the summertime because of family separation, and I was able to work through that, and that rage is back now. But I think what is below that rage is the profound pain of being looked at as less than human or dispensable — that we as women can be thrown away, or that we as immigrants can be locked in cages and separated from our parents and not a second thought has been put to it.

It’s hard to have that vulnerable hope that a majority of people in the country don't feel that way, but I agree with you: it's so, so necessary. I think that if not for that hope, then we become like the 'other side.' And I’m angry, but I don't want to be like them — I don't want to disregard and dehumanize even them and not listen and plow forth with ideas when they're not best.

JMR: You sort of alluded to this — we’re both in relationships where our activism is something we share, and activism is a core part of me and [my husband, Run For Something co-founder] Ross’ relationship. I feel like that's also true with you and [your husband, activist] Michael [Skolnik]. How does your activism impact your personal life?

PM: Our son, who's 5 years old, is confronted with difficult issues because we have meetings at our house, talk about the horrors of what's happening, bring him to marches. I get asked a lot about how we teach our son equity, and my response is that we both want to instill compassion in Mateo as the most important value. I feel that if we are able to succeed in instilling compassion into Mateo, the other things in life will come naturally.

Because I think ultimately, this country is suffering from a mass contraction of the heart. If we had compassion, we wouldn't be locking kids in cages. I firmly believe that. I think that Steven Miller doesn't have compassion. He has self-interest at heart. You would listen to these mothers and let them tell you their story of why they escaped their home country, if you have a compassionate heart; you would hear them out and want to figure out a way to help them as well as to deal with whatever concerns you may have within the immigration system.

And I know you get this a lot, but let’s talk about balance, because I know people always want to know how you stay balanced.

JMR: Just to keep it all the way 100: not well. I think when people ask that question, they're hoping I'll tell them my house is always clean and my bills are always paid on time, and also, I do skincare every morning, and in between all of that, I find the time to, like, save the world, and that's not what happens. There's many unanswered emails, and sometimes the bill collector calls and I'm like, ‘Shit, I haven't paid that bill.’ We order takeout more than I want, and we travel all the time. It's really, really, really hard.

I'm the type of person who always runs into the fire and never wants to feel like I didn't do everything I possibly could to fight for what I believe in. I have to be gentle with myself and think, 'Well, I guess we'll just have to order takeout, and that's OK.’

And Ross and I try to be with each other as much as humanly possible. Our rule is if you don't need to stay overnight, don't stay overnight. It does require sacrifice; I have way more early morning planes than I want, but it is worth it to go to sleep with the person I love every night. So I don't have balance. But I try, in my own way.

PM: I think balance is overrated, personally.

JMR: I totally agree. I think for some people this is a detour until they get back to their regular life, but this is my life. And so, it's like how do I make it easier for me to live that life and do that work better?

PM: Definitely. And because it's not work, we're not waking up in the morning like, ‘Ugh I have to go to work,’ but like, ‘I'm excited to do this, this has to get done.’ So the people that are closest in my life in this moment are the people I'm in the trenches with, organizing.

JMR: It is fun. It's bad that that's what brought us together, but it's like any other kind of collaboration. We're sharing the kind of really deep parts of each other, our hearts, our brains, and even sometimes our bodies, too, depending on the action.

Diane Bowens, Demand Justice

PM: I want to talk with you specifically about something you did recently, which was confront Sen. Ted Cruz during the Kavanaugh process. I think there are people afraid to get into activism because of fear, and I would love to hear from you about that moment.

JMR: I did have that split second out of body experience thinking, ‘Should I do it? What do I say? Do I even want to say it?’

But ultimately, it's kind of what I'm trained to do, but also I thought of my friend Ana Maria Archila, who earlier in the day had done the same thing to Sen. Flake. So I stuck out my hand and said, 'Hi Sen. Cruz, I'm Jess Morales Rocketto, my family is from El Paso and my in-laws live in Houston, and I really want to talk to you about this.' I really didn't know what to say to him — I don't spend a lot time talking directly to United States senators, even though I do this work. So I just talked from the heart. I’ve talked about having an abortion and being sexually assaulted a bunch, but I didn't ever think I would tell that story to somebody that really could influence things.

In retrospect, because this is the work I do, I'm really critical of all the things I should have said, but I think in those moments you just have to speak your truth. Part of why I'm really proud is I think he didn't know what to say, because it's really hard to look somebody in the eye when they're telling you they were raped on a date and you're still going to vote against them. What he said was, ‘Thank you for exercising your First Amendment right.’

PM: Gross.

JMR: Gross is exactly right. Ted Cruz is an elected official — who, may I add, is up for re-election — and he should have to answer for his vote. Women are 50 percent of America and he's saying, with a vote to approve Kavanaugh, that he doesn't believe Dr. Ford and the millions of women coming forward with their stories.

Dr. Ford and I have similar stories: It happened when I was pretty young, I never reported what happened because I didn't think anyone would believe me, and the only reason I'm saying it now is because I see so many other women saying it. When somebody is brave as she was, I think it's really incumbent on all of us to be brave, too. So that's why I did it and I'm really proud I did it.

PM: I'm glad that you did it, too. I was inspired by you, so thank you.

JMR: Thank you. It's hard to live in that fragile place, and I don't think of myself as a fragile person. But I feel like it's very, very important for me to live there, because that is what makes me feel in this incredibly grueling time.

PM: Absolutely. I don't shy away from the emotions that come with this work, and when I'm feeling frustrated and angry and desperate, I really latch on to the ‘why’ I'm doing this, which is, ultimately, love. I think about my love for immigrants — I myself am an immigrant, my mom is an immigrant. Then there is also my love for women and our desire to be treated with dignity and respect.

I try to focus on the love aspect of it versus the rage, because I think the rage takes away from me versus the love gives back to me. Love is infinite, right? I can love indefinitely; I can't rage indefinitely. This was really hard for me to realize until Donald Trump was elected, but I had a hard time saying I love this country, for a whole host of reasons. It wasn't until he was elected and I felt like this country — as flawed as it is and has been for centuries — was slipping away from me that I realized that I actually do love it. And it's a complicated love, just like all relationships based in love are, but nonetheless I do love this country, and so again, that is the thing that I look to during moments of darkness and despair.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.