A Vision of Nonviolent Resistance
One morning this past summer I was seated on the back porch of our house, meeting with the nonviolent discussion group for the Center for the Working Poor, when I was seized by a vision of nonviolent resistance that resonated in my soul and changed the course of my life. The vision was painted by my friend Kai, a true believer in the power of nonviolence:
“Imagine if over 100 people joined together and went on hunger strike before the November election, calling upon the presidential candidates to pledge to stop ICE raids and human rights abuses against undocumented immigrants. It would be one of the largest hunger strikes in U.S. history. It will inspire immigrants and people of conscience to rise out of fear and vote in historic numbers for change. If we are willing to fast for 30 days, our shared sacrifice will demonstrate that immigration reform cannot be ignored. It will reignite the movement…”
I was silent and reflective for a moment, then I said, “I’ll do it. That’s what I want to do after my 30th birthday.” All of a sudden, those of us in the discussion group felt a pressing sense of purpose. Could this be more than just a radical vision, could we make it a reality?
By the end of the week, I had informed my lead at the union that I would be leaving my job at the end of the summer to join a hunger strike for immigrant rights. What had possessed me? Why would I leave a well-paying job with UNITE HERE, where I had dedicated all of my 20’s to build unions for hotel workers, in order to starve myself for three weeks?
My Cup Runneth Over
The only way I describe why I felt called to join the hunger strike for immigrant rights is to say that “my cup runneth over” which is a quote from the Bible (Psalms 23:5) that means “I have more than enough for my needs.” On that summer morning, I realized that I could no longer continue with my normal life as long as immigrants were living in terror that their families would be torn apart.
As I recall the many undocumented immigrants who have touched my heart over the last 10 years, a flood of faces and stories fill my consciousness. Jose and Maria in Oregon, who were sprayed with pesticides by crop-dusting airplanes as farmworkers, welcomed me into their humble home and helped teach me Spanish. My teachers of mariachi music, Marcos, Estephan and Jaime, always asked me if I knew an American woman they could marry. I even asked my sister Emily if she would consider marrying one of them so that he could get his papers and continue his education. Another mariachi musician, Alberto, devoted husband and father of 4 children, was stopped at a checkpoint on the freeway and deported to Mexico, where he promptly made a risky border crossing in order to be reunited with his family. Esperanza, a hotel worker in California, shared with me the story of how she and her brothers crossed the border into Arizona, surviving on only 1 gallon of water each for three days in the treacherous desert. These are only a few of the heart-wrenching stories that friends have shared with me. All names were changed to protect the innocent.
The final stories which overwhelmed my capacity to remain indifferent were from my summer interns, who had papers themselves but lived with the fear that their parents or loved ones would be deported, and so carried a tremendous burden with them each day. I recognized in these stories much of the powerlessness that affects families that are plagued by addiction. Since I come from a family that has been deeply affected by my grandfather’s alcoholism, I could relate to their experience.
As person in recovery from the insanity of powerlessness, I have learned to live by the mantra, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the power to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” So I had to ask myself, what is within my power to change? Obviously, I cannot change the status of every undocumented immigrant I meet, but as a citizen, I believe that I have a responsibility to speak out and do what I can to shape the policies of my government. History teaches us that the abominations of slavery, segregation and the disfranchisement of women only change when those with privilege join the cause of the oppressed and make great sacrifices to seek justice and systematic change.
Preparing for the Fast
By September, momentum was building for the campaign, which we called “The Fast For Our Future.” On the night of my 30th birthday, I celebrated with close friends and family at our house and announced that I would be embarking on the hunger strike in less than two weeks. My dad made me promise not to put my life at risk if the fasting became too difficult. To prepare myself physically, I followed our doctor Simon Barker’s recommendation to eliminate coffee, alcohol, dairy, and meat from my diet two weeks prior to the fast. (I had a killer headache for a full day after giving up caffeine.) One week prior to the fast, I began a diet of rice, vegetables and fruit. 3 days before the fast, I consumed only smoothies, then fruit juice for 2 days until the day arrived to subsist on pure water. Spiritually, I began to pray daily that God would guide our efforts and give me strength to endure 3 weeks on just water. I reflected on the examples of fasting set by Jesus, Gandhi and Cesar Chavez who fasted both for purification and political reasons.
Launching the “Fast For Our Future”
On October 15, over 100 people gathered in the historic plaza of Olvera Street to participate in an interfaith ceremony to bless the fasters. A Jewish rabbi shared a powerful reading from Isaiah 58:
6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
We took our last drink of juice and were blessed with water as we announced our goal to motivate 1 million people to sign our pledge and vote for immigrant rights.
We formed an encampment in the middle of one of the Plaza de Dolores (literally means “plaza of pain”) setting up over 50 personal tents, a medical tent, sound system and even an independent radio station. (One of my favorite moments was when we met with the city officials who oversee the Olvera Street monument, and one of them was literally screaming, “Where did they get a permit for this? That plaza costs over $3000 per day to rent! I want to see the permit!” To which the police sergeant responded, “Lady, it’s called the Constitution of the United States. They don’t need a permit to exercise their freedom of speech!”)
The First Week
Our second day began early when the Spanish television stations arrived at 5am in the morning to film us live for their shows at 5, 6 & 7am. We still had lots of energy, so we were singing, playing instruments, and dancing to share our message with TV viewers. On the third day our lawyer conducted a training so that everyone in the encampment would know their rights if Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) should come and try to question or detain any of us.
During the first weekend I was still attempting to operate as if I had full energy by coordinating a benefit concert. Three of my favorite local groups performed: La Santa Cecelia, Taller Sur, and The Libra Project raising about $150 for our cause. The end of the fourth day was one of the most challenging times of the fast, for we realized that even with staff from IDEPSCA helping out, we did not have enough volunteers who were not fasting to handle all the logistics. Some of the campaign organizers would have to break the fast in order to coordinate the encampment, communicate with the press, and take care of the long-term fasters. After several difficult conversations, Paul, Kai, and Nathalie decided to break the fast and provide the support needed to keep the hunger strike going.
Day 6 was a day of letting go for me. My energy was declining and my nose was running (common symptoms during a fast) so I had to let go of responsibilities for planning activities so that I could rest. On top of that, my violin had disappeared after the benefit concern and no one I asked could locate it. During our nightly reflection, I shed tears as I shared that my violin was the most precious possession I owned, for it had been with me for over half my life. It seemed that God was challenging me to let go of all my attachments, and losing my violin hurt more than my hunger.
Shortly after appearing on the morning television the next day, I was visited at the encampment by Mariachi Latino, the first mariachi group I played with in Los Angeles, and they brought a violin for me to play! What a blessing from God— to be visited by my old mentors and to be given a new instrument. We played “De Colores” as Dolores Huerta arrived to share with us the inspiration of her years with Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers. I was beginning to enter the spiritual space where loss didn’t frighten me for I trusted that God would fulfill my every need…
The Second Week
Experts say the first week of an extended fast is the hardest, and that proved true for me. I had not slowed down enough, and as a result I was losing close to two pounds per day— more than I could sustain if I was to last the entire 21 days. By the second week drinking just water, I no longer felt hunger pains, and the smells of Olvera Street— hand-made tortillas, beans & rice, grilled chicken, fresh fruit juice, and cinnamon covered churros — no longer tempted me (that’s a lie).
We were adjusting to the routine of camping in our urban sanctuary. I awoke with the sunrise and often joined the Native American ceremony of drumming, burning sage, and blowing the conch shell to pray to the six directions (East, West, South, North, Earth, and Sky). Every few hours, we had to go to the bathroom, using either restrooms in the nearby Methodist church, or the Port-A-Potties that we rented for the encampment at night. Every day we checked our blood pressure, pulse and weight in the medical tent. Once a week we were transported to a clinic for blood tests to make sure our Potassium was not dangerously low. Every few days we would be shuttled to the Center for the Working Poor for a refreshing shower. When my energy dropped, I would take a nap either in a shaded tent or in the Methodist church basement.
On the morning of Day 9, we were visited by the children from IDEPSCA’s “Aprendamos” program. We played music for them, let them ask questions, and gave them a chance to speak on the microphone. One of the kids shared some wisdom with us, “If you don’t eat, you’re going to DIE.” On Day 10, Maria Elena Durazo joined the fast for three days and shared many inspiring stories. At our evening reflection, she spoke about her experience fasting during a contract fight at the University of Southern California and how important it is to use moral authority to organize your opponents, rather than just be angry at them. The next day, at the student summit, Maria Elena emphasized that even with progressive political leaders in office, it will take protest actions from the grassroots to create an impetus for a change in immigration policy.
One of the most inspiring aspects of the second week of the hunger strike was that people began showing up at the encampment who had no prior connection with the movement or action organizers. They either heard the buzz through student organizations, the radio, television or other press, a phenomena that we call mobilizing outside the structure. “El Cubano” arrived after seeing us on TV, and proceeded to tell the story of his 35 day hunger strike in jail after Castro seized power in Cuba. Joshua was train-hopping across the US when he came across the encampment and decided to help out for a month. Yolanda came to the Placita Olvera as part of her Aztec dance group “Danza Mexica Cauhtemoc” and decided that day to join the fast for 18 days. Jean Carlo of Costa Rica heard about the hunger strike on the radio and packed up his gear to join the hunger strike and fast for 17 days. Oscar from El Salvador was homeless for 3 months before he found a community at the encampment that welcomed him and thanked him for taking security shifts to protect us at night. Teresa, a recent immigrant from Africa, appeared literally on our doorstep and offered to help in exchange for a tent to sleep in. Julito from Puerto Rico joined the encampment and found a sense of purpose and spiritual guidance at a difficult time in his life. These examples demonstrate that if a vision resonates with people and they are inspired by the spirit of the participants, some will join the cause and make great sacrifices even if they have no previous connection with the movement.
The Final Week
On Day 15 we marched (I admit, I was pushed in a wheelchair) to an immigration facility located just 2 blocks away from the encampment. We heard powerful testimonies from the family of Victoria Arellano, a transgender immigrant from Mexico who died on July 20 after the San Pedro, California detention facility where she was being held denied her HIV medication. Several immigrants in the detention center were also on hunger strike, but they were denied access to telephones to share their experiences during our press conference.
Those of us who had been fasting for more than two weeks were visited by a class of medical students from UCLA who were being trained on how to monitor an extended fast. As they took our vital signs, we shared with them the physical symptoms we were experiencing, as well as our personal reasons for doing the fast. As the medical students debriefed their experience with the supervising doctor, one of the students was moved to tears as she shared about the people in her family who were undocumented and the challenges they faced. She expressed heartfelt gratitude to the fasters for what we were doing.
I was experiencing sore legs, low energy, a bad taste in my dry mouth, some stomach pains, a tendency to get cold easily, and no hunger whatsoever. All of these ailments are considered normal during an extended fast, in fact they have been described by Dr. Furman as a positive “healing crisis” that occurs as the body detoxifies itself.
However, one of my compañeros in the fast, Frank, was informed that his blood test showed his Potassium levels were dangerously low. We were all surprised, because Frank had been one of the most active and positive of all the fasters. He did not want to stop, but he had promised his wife that he would not put his life at risk during the fast. In an emotional and spiritually-charged ceremony, Frank drank watermelon juice from a Palestinian chalice as we offered prayers for his health. This nourishment combined with rest stabilized Frank’s condition, and after a blood test showed his Potassium back at a healthy level, he continued the fast on water until the final day.
A Cloud of Witnesses
By the final days of the fast, we were literally being carried by a “cloud of witnesses” who helped us run with endurance the race before us to election day. In many cases, those who were not fasting had a harder time than the fasters because they were worried about our health and didn’t feel the constant support that we did. Although this is nothing close to a complete list, I would like to thank all of those who supported me personally: Paul Engler, who endured great personal and financial sacrifices in order to support the fast; my father, who despite his worries continues support me and make donations; my sister Emily who visited me several times at the encampment; musicians Taller Sur, Santa Cecelia, Libra Project, and Mariachi Latino; Victor Narro and all the lawyers who offered pro-bono support; Hilda Delgado, who coordinated our press outreach and raised money for the campaign; Simon Barker, and all the doctors who donated their time to monitor our health; Julia, Sarah, Mike, Bethany, and others who donated camping equipment; friends who visited including Diana, Vorga, Nancy, Erika, & Favian; jornaleros from IDEPSCA who helped maintain the encampment; LaMikia from CLUE who fasted with us for 1 week; Alexey, who took us on shower runs, and graciously helped in any way he could; Father Estrada for promoting the fast and offering spiritual support; and a big THANKS to Pastor Lara who generously opened up his church to us and let us use tables, chairs, sound system, bathrooms, office space, internet, and the sanctuary. There are many more who supported each of the fasters, and this action would not have been possible without your love & support.
In the pre-dawn hours of election day, Frank, Elvis, Jean Carlo, Yolanda, and I awoke and were driven to the Los Angeles County Recorders office, where a line was forming to begin voting as soon as the polls opened at 7am. We sat in wheelchairs under umbrellas as the rain came down, sharing with early morning television viewers our determination to vote in this historic election, no matter what the obstacles. Around the country, it soon became clear that immigrants and people who wanted change were turning out to vote in record numbers. Several participants in the “Fast For Our Future” voted for the first time.
In the evening, we set up a projector in the plaza to watch election results come in, and a live concert began with numerous local bands who shared their vision for the kind of change that is needed throughout the Americas. I remember shivering in anticipation as key states were called for Obama, especially Virginia and Florida. As the odds closed for the Republicans, I was filled with disbelief when McCain appeared to give a surprisingly heartfelt concession speech. I will never forget the nostalgia of the moment when Obama and his family assumed the stage in Chicago and he proclaimed, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible…tonight is your answer…Its the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled – Americans who sent a message to the world…” I looked around me at the people celebrating in the encampment, and at that moment I believed it was true.
Breaking the Fast
On the final day, hundreds of supporters arrived to join us in a march to the Federal Immigration Building. We did not have enough wheelchairs for all the fasters, so Elvis, Jean Carlo and I braced ourselves on each others shoulders and walked the whole way. Aztec dancers led the way as we circled the immigrant detention facility chanting slogans of freedom for immigrants. When we arrived at our destination, an interfaith ceremony honored the sacrifice of the fasters. I summoned the strength to speak from my heart, saying that we are all immigrants to this land, that we must all unite and make sacrifices to obtain justice for undocumented immigrants.
Religious leaders filled our cups with watermelon juice and we toasted to our future. After just a few sips of that sweet nectar, I could feel my senses reviving, my headache subsiding, and color returning to my skin. To end the ceremony, Frank announced our new petition: “President-elect Obama, we congratulate you on your historic victory, and we celebrate this moment with great hope that under your leadership we will finally be able to achieve a humane, inclusive immigration policy that unites families and offers a path toward citizenship for the undocumented.” Frank then reminded us all that greater sacrifices will be required, and that some of us may be beaten, jailed, separated from our families, or even have to give our lives in order to achieve this vision. We walked forward carrying this sense of determination and possibility in our very souls.
The Post-Fast Future
I lost over 25 pounds during the fast, returning to my weight at the time of my graduation from high school. Fasting experts including Gandhi often emphasize that breaking a fast is the most challenging aspect of a fast. This also proved true in my case. For the first week after the fast, I followed our doctor’s recommendation by drinking only juices for 3 days, followed by 3 days of fruit and vegetables. Yet every morsel of food tasted SO DELICOUS that after a week I think I splurged and ate too much. For my shrunken stomach and intestines, the introduction of large quantities of bread, corn tortillas and fiber blocked up my system and later caused damage on the way out. One month later I am still experiencing difficulty with bowel movements, a painful reminder of the need for restraint and discipline when breaking a fast.
Despite these difficulties, I feel 10 years younger and am excited about building my strength in a healthy way. My legs and hips were initially sore when I resumed a normal routine after 3 weeks of inactivity, but I have since been hiking, dancing, bicycling, swimming and practicing yoga. I now fit into all of the clothing I had outgrown, including my mariachi suits, a nice incentive for those who may not have otherwise considered a hunger strike…
I have now joined the ranks of the unemployed, yet for me the simple life at the Center for the Working Poor is deeply meaningful. My days are filled with joy as I spend time cooking, writing, meditating, delivering food to families in need, playing music, dating in moderation and contemplating my future. One of my top priorities is to help the Center regain its financial stability, so if you can donate or become a monthly sustainer, please do so generously. I finally have time to apply to theological seminary or divinity school and am considering the path of being a minister. I strive each day to discern God’s will for me as I engage in the struggle for liberation during these times of challenge and change.
January 22nd, 2018
It is amazing that the Trump election and inauguration was over a year ago. The Center for the Working poor (aka the Center), has been dramatically affected by these cycles of Trump and the protest movement. In the weeks after … Continue reading
January 9th, 2017
Many have asked how I am feeling after Trump was elected to President of the US. The largest natural disaster in my lifetime just hit my community. It reminds me of both the day after my father died in my … Continue reading
August 5th, 2013
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August 5th, 2013
I wrote this article with my brother Mark Engler about strategy in the movement to combat climate change. It was published in Dissent magazine and Truthout.org. You can read the complete article below or read it on Truthout.org: Climate of … Continue reading
December 18th, 2012
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December 17th, 2012
The Center for the Working Poor, (aka the Burning Bush Community), continues to share in the wonderful mix of serving the poor, communal living, prayer and meditation, and nonviolent movement organizing that distinguishes our beautiful home. In addition to delivering … Continue reading
November 5th, 2012
By Isabelle Nastasia The impact of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission allowing unlimited and anonymous campaign spending has been profound and could yet be decisive in this election. With an estimated $9.8 billion … Continue reading
December 15th, 2011
By Paul Engler Every once in a while, a rare and special moment comes when you realize that you are doing more than turning out for just another protest. Instead, you realize that you are in the middle of true … Continue reading