UC Berkeley staffer Alejandra Domenzain fell in love with the immigrant and labor rights movements when she was a graduate student at UCLA. Fighting for immigrant rights felt natural to her — it was something she’d been doing in all sorts of ways since she was a kid.
Domenzain was born in Miami, Florida, in 1974. When she was 2 years old, her parents got homesick and moved, with their family, back to Mexico City, where they were from. Every morning, Domenzain and her younger sister would travel to school in a tiny van, and the driver would stop at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant for steaming-hot tamales. (Domenzain liked the sweet, pink ones with raisins.) Her parents had big families — her dad was one of nine kids and her mom, one of three, so the two girls were always surrounded by dozens of aunts and uncles and cousins.
Although Mexico City was vibrant and full of family, it could also a difficult place to live. It was polluted — Domenzain’s sister had developed severe asthma — and it lacked job opportunities. So, when Domenzain was 7, her parents decided to move back to Miami for good.
When she arrived in Miami, Domenzain didn’t speak English. “It was a shock,” she said. But she quickly picked up the language, and as the years went by, she made good friends, did well in school and got used to the culture — mostly. “I was really baffled by pep rallies,” she said.
Although Domenzain was from an immigrant family, she felt privileged: Her parents had professional careers — her mother was a physician specializing in ultrasound and mammography, and her father was an obstetrician-gynecologist — and she was outgoing and got along with people easily. “I know a lot of people faced a lot more challenges,” said Domenzain. “I was always very aware of that.”
So, in high school, Domenzain started Lean On Me, a program in which high school students were paired with new students from abroad who needed help navigating the school and culture. And she volunteered at a community center, where she helped students from farmworker families with their schoolwork. “I feel like human connection is the most healing thing,” she said.
Domenzain went on to work as a program coordinator for a national civil rights organization in Washington, D.C., as an organizer for garment workers and as an elementary school teacher in LA. For the past seven years, Domenzain has worked as program coordinator for UC Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program. And last year, she wrote her first children’s book, For All / Para Todos, about an undocumented young girl who fights for labor and immigrant justice after she and her father immigrate to the U.S.
Berkeley News spoke with Domenzain about her work at Berkeley and why For All / Para Todos tells an important story about immigrant activism that is often overlooked.
Berkeley News: You are program coordinator for the Labor Occupational Health Program at Berkeley. Can you tell me what the program does?
Alejandra Domenzain: Our mission is to improve working conditions — in particular, health and safety issues. We work with a variety of populations, but I focus on low-wage immigrant workers.
We work with the workers themselves, designing educational programs and trainings for low-wage workers. In my case, it’s domestic workers, day laborers, janitors, farmworkers, restaurant workers, hotel housekeepers, food processors — all of the essential workers you can imagine. Our trainings are meant to be skill- and leadership-building. They’re very interactive: We start with the workers and ask them what their goals are and then try to give them the tools they need to be able to take action to improve their conditions and know their rights.
We also do some policy work, trying to get standards, laws and policies passed that are more protective for workers. So, we might help do research on issues so that we can provide the public health perspective on what we think is needed, or we might be involved in implementing regulations once a law gets passed.
We recently released an amazing multimedia project, Taking Action for Safety and Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic, which highlights five stories of low-wage workers in California who engaged in creative strategies to advocate for themselves.
The case studies range from fast food workers who organized a work stoppage in Oakland to farmworkers in Santa Maria who stood up to the largest berry distributor in the world. These are the types of campaigns we support and the organizations we partner with. The Labor Occupational Health Program produced these videos to highlight how workers can take action, and the role of worker organizations in supporting them. We also developed a toolkit in English and Spanish to help workers who want to take action in some way.
You drew from your experiences working as an immigrant rights and labor rights activist to write your 2021 English-Spanish children’s book For All / Para Todos. First, can you describe what the story is about?
The book starts with a young girl named Flor and her father in an unnamed country, but it’s implied that it’s Mexico because they are on the other side of the border. Her mom died from being exposed to chemicals when working in a factory. And Flor is kind of idealizing life on the other side in the U.S. because she’s seen on TV that it’s a place where people are happy, and the law makes things right, where kids get mounds of presents on Christmas, and everyone has enough. It seems very different from the life she’s living.
Her dad says, “We can’t stay here anymore. We have to leave.” Flor is really excited, but he’s like, “Well, you know, it won’t be easy, but they say that those who work hard make it, and there’s justice for all and opportunities for all.”
When they cross the border, they’re given two papers with an X on them. Flor says, “What is that?” And her dad, who wants to protect her, says, “Don’t worry.” The adjustment, learning the language is really hard and you see him working jobs that are not well-paid or safe. He feels he can’t speak up.
Flor asks him why, and that’s when he tells her what the X means — that it’s like a deal that says, “You can come here and do all these jobs, but you can’t complain because we’ll send you back. But I did it for you. I wanted you to have better opportunities.”
So, Flor studies and studies, but then isn’t allowed to go to college. She discovers the second paper with the X is about the limitations she will face being undocumented. But she doesn’t give up. Instead, she’s like, “Well, no, this isn’t fair. This isn’t good enough.” So, she goes around and interviews immigrants about their experiences, and she joins a bigger movement to pass better laws. She does it because she feels loyal to her new home and its promise. She believes in justice for all and she’s willing to work hard to help her new country live up to its ideals.
Why do you think it’s important to make Flor not just someone who is struggling, but someone who organizes for social change?
That’s the most important part. Many other children’s books show aspects of the immigrant and refugee experiences, but I didn’t see many where immigrants were portrayed as agents of social change. That’s a problem because, first of all, it’s the actual truth. When you look at the movement for immigration reform, it has been young people, it has been immigrants themselves, who have been on the front lines. They are in the streets. They are in meetings and demanding answers from people in the White House.
Some of the biggest leaders in the immigration reform movement are actually labor rights organizations, such as domestic worker, day labor and farmworker organizations because they know that workers will not have full rights as long as employers can threaten them with deportation. The same goes for the labor rights movement. Some of the most vibrant campaigns are being led by low-wage workers — in many cases immigrant workers who are the leaders, despite the risk. We don’t often see it in mainstream news, let alone in children’s books, and yet that’s what I see every day.
And then, second of all, it’s just important because that’s the imagination that we need kids to have, to think, “Yes, someone like me can do this.” It’s even more than that — I hope that this book is an active invitation. The book directly questions young people: “What do you think is fair? What will you vote for?” When you don’t see labor rights struggles in children’s books or you don’t see immigration reform as possible, then how would you even know that it’s an option, right?
So, it’s saying to the next generation, “We need you. We need your talents, whatever they are.” And I think that anyone with any personality or skill set can contribute to something they care about. You don’t have to be an extrovert. It was really important for me to invite kids to think of themselves in that way.
It seems like kids have such a strong, almost innate sense of what’s right and wrong. They’re really good at being like, “Why? Why would you hurt someone like that?”
Children are primed to be our social justice advocates. Who asks, “Why?” more than kids? And what’s the other thing that kids always say? “It’s not fair.” Usually the cause is that they want another cookie. But if we can grow that sense of justice to incorporate causes other than what they want for themselves in the moment, then we help them channel it into something really meaningful and powerful. Children are very keen on knowing the truth. They know when someone is trying to B.S. them, you know?
Especially when they get to the teenage years, they’re also very impatient with mediocrity. Older adults are often like, “Well, let’s monitor the situation. Change takes time.” Whereas teenagers, they have a sense of urgency, like, “No, that isn’t good enough.” So, yeah, it’s the perfect time to get kids connected with their passions and the change they want to see.
What impact do you hope your book has? Would you like teachers to incorporate it into their curricula?
That would be my dream — that it’s a resource for those already teaching these subjects and who just need more materials or maybe a thought-provoking story they can share with their students. Teachers don’t have to have a whole curriculum unit around immigration or labor rights in order to educate students about the issues. It could be just your read-aloud that you choose, followed by a structured discussion.
There’s a lot of pushback — you’ve heard about the book banning that’s been happening across the country. Some people ask about social justice books: “Is it appropriate? Are kids ready? Will they be uncomfortable?” My response to that is that there are already millions of families who are uncomfortable because they’re facing these issues.
So, the question is really: “Whose comfort matters?” Plus we have the chance to redefine what’s comfortable. Many injustices — child labor, suppression of voting rights, segregation — were legal and normalized. Each generation has to question what’s right, even if it takes us out of our comfort zones.
For those who aren’t aware of these social issues, then it’s important for them to learn. If we want young people to be active members of their communities and civically engaged, they have to know what’s going on. We have to understand how we got here, what people believe needs to be changed.
Do you think how we teach about civic engagement needs to change? If so, in what ways? What would that look like?
Definitely. I heard this great analogy on a podcast that compared learning to play basketball to learning how to be civically engaged. When someone wants to learn to play basketball, we wouldn’t be like, “Well, first read this, and then maybe in 10 years you can touch a ball. And then, if you’re lucky, maybe you can watch a game.” That’s not how we do it, right?
But that’s how we teach civics. We don’t actually teach them to ask, “What’s going on? Who’s in charge? How can things be changed?” Most kids don’t learn how to have a productive debate or conversation with someone on the other side or act collectively or analyze systems of power and privilege. These are actually skills of a healthy democracy.
High school students might take one unit of civics in 12th grade, but that’s not enough. It has to start way earlier. Kids are already aware of important social issues, either because they’re living it or witnessing it or they’re hearing adults talk about it. So, we have a choice: Are we going to leave them to process it on their own? Or are we going to provide them with a safe environment where they can explore and have their questions answered in a responsible way?