I conducted this interview with Adriana Cerrillo on May 31st, one week after the Minnesota Legislature finished their 2016 session. The lawmakers had failed, once again, to pass a bill allowing driver licenses for undocumented immigrants — an issue that Adriana has been organizing and lobbying for since 2015. This, and so many other things, were on her mind, as we sat down to talk. She asked for strong coffee with cream and sugar and I obliged. Aided by caffeine, her normally agile brain and tongue raced. I tried to keep up.
When I introduce myself at political meetings I say: I was born and raised in Mexico, lived in Florida 20 years. I have been in Minneapolis three years. I am in love with this city, but I would be a trouble maker for social justice anywhere. I don’t believe in borders, I don’t believe in countries, I don’t believe in flags that separate us as humans.
I came to Minneapolis to visit for the first time on April 18, 2013. It was snowing. My first snow! It was beautiful. We went to visit my partner’s family in Shakopee. We visited the German American Catholic church his family had been attending for decades.
I was amazed. Out of the church came all these Brown people! The demographic shift from White to Brown felt like a sign that it was the right time to move to Minnesota.
In Minneapolis, I took a walk in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood. Coming toward me on the sidewalk was a women with a tan hijab and long skirt. She smiled at me. She was so beautiful. Her face stayed with me all these years. She seemed so comfortable in her surroundings. In comparison to Palmetto, Florida, Minneapolis seemed like a welcoming place for a woman of Color.
We moved here a couple months later, into the Loring Park neighborhood. The park, with its fountain, pond, and walkways was so beautiful. I also loved my view of downtown – a mini city. I loved that the area was economically and racially diverse. You see Mercedes’ and penthouses alongside low-income apartments. A good number of people are homeless. The Basilica in downtown Minneapolis is within hearing distance of my home. When I hear their bells playing, I think of my grandmother’s town in San Luis Potosi where my mother grew up.
I live blocks from Nicollet Avenue in downtown and I walk it all the time. I noticed there is a Black side and a White side of the street. I walk with my brothers and sisters on the Black side. I am not comfortable in neighborhoods that are predominantly White because I have been discriminated and hurt by many.
We need more affordable housing in Minneapolis so we can preserve and grow racially diverse neighborhoods.
I first became involved in police accountability after talking to Latinos at the Church in Carver and hearing their stories about a racist cop who targeted Brown people. I helped organize a group to testify at a city council meeting and met with the Chief of Police of Chaska. We filled all the seats with Brown people facing the White city council. We got the cop suspended and after a long investigation, he was terminated! It was this experience that led me to join the Minneapolis Police Oversight Commission.
Getting Brown and Black people to work together is central to me. I began doing that kind of work in Florida, and won an award for it from the NAACP there. I joined the NAACP in Minneapolis a few months ago. I am pushing MIRAC,— (Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee) — and the NAACP to jointly lobby at the Capital to agitate for voter’s rights for former felons and drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants. We need to have laws that give people of color a better chance to get out of the shadows.
How did I become a trouble maker? I think it comes from being an undocumented student in Texas in the 1980s, before DACA, before DAPA, before there was a movement of youth declaring themselves “Undocumented and Unafraid.” * I was fifteen when we moved to Brownsville,Texas, from Reynosa, a border town in Tamaulipas. It was my mothers choice. I did not want to leave. I felt very alone in my struggle. I was determined to make sure my daughters — and all youth of color — would not have to deal with the indignities I experienced.
My education was much better in Mexico. I didn’t speak English. I remember so clearly my first day of Home Ec. The teacher was giving out a quiz. When I asked a girl who spoke Spanish to help me, the teacher yelled at me. To the whole class she said, ‘I don’t know why people like her come to this country.’
When the girl told me what she said, I felt a pain I never felt before. I began to cry like a little girl, but I also asserted my dignity. I told that teacher: “You think I made the decision to come here? I actually don’t want be here.”
At age 18 I had my first daughter Jasmine. That is when my life took a 360 degree shift. I became a single mother . I knew that the border life was not what I wanted for my baby. I moved from Texas to Palmetto, Florida, where my best friend lived and had my second daughter Stephanie four years later. My daughters have been my biggest motivation to fight and work for social justice.
In Florida, I helped to start a non-profit UnidosNow and I joined other trouble makers”organizing in a coalition for immigrant rights. Florida has very few non-profits, so resources were slim. Churches were essential sources of space and funds. It is so different here in Minneapolis — the land of 10,000 nonprofits. In Florida it was easier to get people to work together as they were not all competing for the same pot of money.
I’m not religious in the formal sense, but a big believer in recognizing the people and events in your life that can enlighten you. I look for signs that I’m moving in the right direction. In Florida there was a moment when a vision came to me that changed the way I organize.
We were in an evangelical church talking to the congregation — a Now Your Rights forum put together by UnidosNow. We were following an agenda. An idea came to me out of the blue. I saw a group of young kids and I said ‘Pastor, can we bring the children forward? Can we pray for them? Because from this congregation we are going to have the next President, Senator, Congressman, Doctor, Lawyer.
People began shouting “Amen’! and “Praise the Lord!” It was a pivotal moment in my life. Now I do this every time I do a presentation in which there are youth present. I tell the Moms and Dads, if you don’t tell your children they are going to succeed and lead, no one will, because the system is set against them.
Youth are my personal check against ego, reminding me this is not about me. I am working with Latino kids with LYDC at the Sabathani Community Center in South Minneapolis. I’m teaching them “American Basic Civics, ” a program I helped create in Florida. I am introducing youth to the political process and teaching them to assert their voices. If we are going to be fighting for social justice we have to have a clear vision of our future. This is about our kids; the future leaders of our communities and the world.
Adriana confronts “Minnesota Nice” with uncompromising directness. She has learned that her appearance — a petite, beautiful, brown woman who speaks perfect English with a lilting accent— leads people to believe they have nothing to fear from her presence. Legislators who oppose the bills she supports, police who engage in racist behavior and activists who want to take the less confrontational road, know she is capable of a piercing critique. She is a woman of uncommon courage, willing to speak truth to power. She is also one of the most optimistic people I know.
I can feel something big and good coming. A time for healing. A time for true reconciliation!!!
*DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is Obama’s executive decree giving young adults brought to this country without documents by their parents, two-year, renewable green cards. DACA can be rescinded by the next president. DAPA is a similar temporary program for the undocumented parents of resident children.
Poem that so inspired Adriana, she had the last lines tattoed.