LAW Student Combines Legal Studies, Activism
LAW Student Combines Legal Studies, Activism
In a combustible year, Mario Paredes works the front lines of politics
A Brazilian coffee shop shares storefront space with Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King, and other businesses near the Maverick Square subway stop in East Boston, home to many immigrants from Central and South America. Outside the subway entrance on a sunny mid-October Saturday, Mario Paredes muscles a folding table upright—it holds two signs: “Registro de Votantes” and the English translation, “Voter Registration.”
Paredes (LAW’18) is on the board of Centro Presente, a nonpartisan East Boston immigrant rights group that has been busy signing up Latinos (and anyone else who happens by) for the November 8 election. When 72-year-old Florinda Leiva approaches the table, she tells Paredes and two fellow workers that she’s already registered, but the Salvadoran native needs the address of her polling place, which the workers look up for her.
“Right now, we’re really focusing on who’s to be the president,” she says in Spanish that Paredes translates. Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant comments cost him Leiva’s support. “Thank God that at least Hillary Clinton doesn’t speak bad about the community,” she says.
This is one of a half dozen “tablings” to register voters by Centro Presente in recent months, says the 27-year-old Paredes. Add to such activities the monthly two-hour-or-longer board meetings he attends and it’s clear that he has ample extracurricular activities to juggle with the grind of law studies. While Paredes may practice immigration law after graduation, he says, his drive really comes from his personal experience of watching newcomers struggle and seeing the limits on their time for political involvement.
His parents, now US citizens, came here without documentation after his mother’s father was murdered in the strife-torn Guatemala of the 1980s, and he says he has “a lot of family who are undocumented in New York.” Growing up, he remembers his parents working multiple jobs to support him, his sister, and his half-brother. “My mom was working, and is still to this day, cleaning houses, you know, babysitting; my dad, in factories.…And because of that, and trying to keep us in school and keep food on the table…I don’t think there was always the opportunity for them to stay involved politically.”
Centro Presente is far from alone in encouraging Latinos to get involved in this year’s election. The English version of the New York Times, which has endorsed Clinton, ran its first editorial in Spanish earlier this month, along with atranslation, calling for a high turnout among the nation’s 27 million eligible Hispanic voters to defeat the Donald.
“In a tight race, a resounding Latino showing could flip battleground states for the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and change how political parties perceive and engage with Hispanic voters in the future,” the editors wrote, adding that “the implicit point of [Trump’s] campaign theme—‘Make America Great Again’—is that America was great when it was a less diverse nation and that resurrecting that era will require drastic measures,” such as the billionaire’s vow of mass deportations of immigrants who came to the country illegally.
But events other than Trump’s ascent suggest an increasing anti-immigrant hostility, Paredes argues, including this year’s defeat in Massachusetts of pro-immigrant legislative measures. “Because of all the hate that’s going around, if our voice isn’t heard, we’re risking putting our families’ and friends’ lives in danger,” he says. “If we have somebody in office who’s really just going to ignore the Latino community or spew hate about them, by that point, it’s going to be too late.”
Paredes acknowledges that it’s legitimate to ask whether rights for undocumented immigrants might be unfair to those who wait in line for legal entry. “I think there is that issue,” he says. But “there are some issues that a lot of candidates aren’t talking about that much, like why is immigration even happening in the first place” and the unemployment and corruption back home that drive immigrants to flee. “They came here out of need.…They’re escaping gang violence, poverty.”
Centro Presente was founded in the 1980s by Salvadoran refugees. In addition to encouraging voter registration, the group will operate phone drives reminding the folks it registered to get to the polls. It also sponsors citizenship classes, forums with local officials, and educational workshops about the political process—“how a bill gets created, how it passes, what role do our legislators play…and also how it works at the federal level,” Paredes says. He joined the organization after hearing a staffer speak at Harvard, where he studied for a master’s in education before coming to BU.
Once the voters choose the president in November, Paredes is hoping Bay State Latinos remain engaged in local and state politics, “because that’s where some of the change is going to happen.”