When Jonathan Jayes-Green stood before a group of Black student activists in Baltimore to talk about the Maryland DREAM Act several years ago, Jayes-Green felt unsure about seeking help. As an Afro Panamanian who grew up undocumented in Maryland, they didn’t expect Black youth leaders to take on an immigration issue as if it was their fight, too.
But Jayes-Green soon saw the Black students knocking on doors and hosting news conferences in support of undocumented students.
“They knew what it was like to be on the opposite side of a system that didn’t recognize their work, and they wanted to fight injustices wherever they saw it,” said Jayes-Green, 28. “Young African American kids in Baltimore are my people. We are one, we’ll defend each other.”
While it has not always been the case in the past, activists in Baltimore’s Black and Latino communities have increasingly been working together to fight for a range of social justice issues. Multiracial organizations like The Intersection, Baltimore Algebra Project and SOMOS have tackled school equity, while others work on digital equity and translate those meetings into Spanish.
In August and September, a coalition, the Latino Racial Justice Circle, co-organized three rallies for Black Lives Matter along with other faith-based and social justice groups. And the diverse group, Campaign for Justice, Safety and Jobs, centered on police reform and racial justice, is now made up of 34 organizations and holds bilingual town halls three to four times a year.
“There are more people who are really working to break down those barriers and understand that our collective safety and liberation is tied together,” said Ralikh Hayes, 27, deputy director of Organizing Black, a grassroots Baltimore organization focused on Black liberation that works to organize citizens and get the community more involved in government.
In 2020, that dynamic has grown stronger, as the pandemic and its fallout have laid bare structural inequities, and the police killings of people of color have galvanized citizens across the country.
“We decided that instead of fighting each other, we are going to target our energy toward shaping and shifting the balance of power in the country,” said Jayes-Green, who grew up in Silver Spring and Baltimore and co-founded the UndocuBlack Network, a national grassroots group that advocates for currently and formerly undocumented Black immigrants.
Some of the collaboration in Baltimore was born in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in 2015 and the uprising in the city.
Lydia Walther-Rodriguez, who is Afro Panamanian and was a community organizer at the time, spoke often and urgently to Latinos to get them to see police violence as a Latino issue, too. Now as CASA’s Baltimore & Central Maryland region director, she helps convene the Campaign for Justice, Safety and Jobs.
In June, that coalition joined more than 60 diverse organizations in outlining five main police reform demands to the Maryland General Assembly. In 2017, campaign members held two summits during the consent decree process, where over 200 participants shared their neighborhood’s experiences of being overpoliced. Last year, the coalition pushed for a more transparent nomination process for the city police commissioner.
“Having both Latinx and African American community members participate … has really built the foundation of understanding that the same system that is trying to deport our brothers and sisters is the same system that’s killing our brothers and sisters in the streets,” Walther-Rodriguez, 30, said.
Darlene Cain, who is Black, said members are like a family: close-knit, constantly in contact on Zoom and phone calls, and supportive of one another, even outside the coalition.
“Even when the legislation season ends, we’re still strategizing,” said Cain, 59, founder of Mothers on the Move, a support network of and for families who have lost loved ones due to police violence.
The Latino and Black communities haven’t worked so closely together in the past. Activists, like Jayes-Green, who had been surprised and happy to see the support of the Black students on the DREAM Act, remembered noticing that the Latino and immigrant rights communities weren’t turning out in large numbers after Gray’s death.
According to the U.S. census, about 62% of Baltimore’s population is Black, and about 5% are Hispanic or Latino.
Franca Muller Paz, a Baltimore public school educator and a Green Party candidate for the City Council’s 12th District seat, noted this divide.
“For a long time, Baltimore has been interpreted and felt as a two-race city, not just to the Latinx community,” said Muller Paz, a Latina who incorporated Organizing Black’s public safety demands into her campaign platform. “There has been a struggle to find where our communities fit into the landscape.”
Advocates say the work has meant confronting biases and tensions between the Black and Latino communities, like the competition for jobs, and the perception among some Latinos that Black people are dangerous, said Felipe A. Filomeno, associate professor of political science and global studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
A native of Brazil who immigrated to the United States, Filomeno is co-chair of Latino Racial Justice Circle, which was founded in 2015 after members noticed that while immigrants, white Americans and African Americans shared faith-based spaces, they rarely engaged in community dialogue.
The 30-member social justice group started having tough conversations across identity lines at a recurring workshop called Honest Conversations. So far, the group has held the workshop in partnership with four Catholic parishes and, Filomeno said, African Americans and Latinos are making connections about the discrimination both groups face.
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The circle’s work on immigration has focused on the intersection of racism and xenophobia. Filomeno spoke to the long legacy of racism in Latin America and how Latinos can perpetuate that ideology in the United States with Spanish phrases like mejorar la raza and pelo malo that glorify white skin and denigrate Afro-textured hair.
All Latinos, not just Afro Latinos, have a role to play in combating anti-Blackness and white supremacy, Jayes-Green said.
“Oftentimes when Latinos come to the United States, especially if they’re not Black like me, this country issues an invitation to pick either to blend in with whiteness or to be ‘othered’ and criminalized with Black people,” Jayes-Green said.
Advocates said that working in these coalitions alongside people from other communities forces them to see issues that don’t always affect them.
Hayes, from Organizing Black, noted he has looked at voting and protesting with a different lens, as those rights are not equally accessible or present more risks for noncitizens. And with policing, different communities have different takes on what public safety means.
“Even though we don’t always agree,” Hayes said, “we agree that we deserve better.”
Stephanie García is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities.