We present with admiration and respect the interview for the month of April, for this edition we have the life story of Altagracia Tamayo Madueño, an activist for 34 years, who describes herself as an idealistic woman who has not stopped to see the injustices that happen around you.
“Are you asking me who I am? I am a woman just like everyone else, a human being, with her virtues and flaws, with her downfalls, but I like to stand up, I like that the things I do are not just for me, but for the well-being of those around me. What the new generations enjoy today is the effort we made for years, there are few survivors”, she said.
“They think I’m very strict, but in reality I’m not as tough as I look, I live my life without crushing others, trying to be as fair as possible”, she said.
Altagracia has dedicated her entire life to fighting, since she was in elementary school she defended the children around her.
“I learned not to shut up, I learned that not everything the teacher said was true, I have been very rebellious, I think that is my nature,” she said.
We invite you to read the full interview with her, who was also awarded “Citizen of the Year 2022” by Grupo Salinas after working on behalf of migrants in Mexicali for 34 years.
How did you decide to dedicate your life to defending the human rights of the migrant community?
What things… I am a baker by trade, my father had many bakeries, he is a migrant from Sinaloa, along with my mother they came with the dream of white gold, cotton in 1943, little by little they brought our whole family, I come of an upbringing of people standing up for work, for fighting, for not giving in to life, and looking for things as if they were.
I was always brave, along the way I met two very valuable men, Félix Luna and J. T. Rivero, they had an Association of Bars and Restaurants in Mexicali, where more than 4 thousand women worked, most of them sex workers.
I worked with them and with my dad at the bakery, which was in the tolerance zone, open 24 hours. It remains very present to me when I left the bakery and the bar workers came, I began to defend them because the police came and dragged them away, grabbed them by the hair and put them in panels, I got very angry because my best clients were the sex workers, they I told the police “hey, but you’re not doing anything”, the police didn’t do anything to me because my father sold them all the bread they ate in a prison.
He gave me the luxury of supporting those women, and didn’t let them take them away. I was a child.
And that is how I began to defend them, I began to take the good things out of all the bad things that the authorities had and doing what was good for people. I began to get involved, one thing led me to another, to defend them, from one fight another joined.
Later, I did a study with the Union of Alcoholic Beverage Vendors on sex workers, there we found that only 1 percent were from Mexicali, the rest were from other states of the republic, they came to work, many were from Sinaloa , Sonora, Mexico City, Puebla, in short, all very brave.
We began to implement programs for them, so I got involved, I helped as an association and in groups, we set up the first Social Welfare Community Center, it was small but there we defended all those migrant women equally, we gave them workshops, then a project was born, I I had never done one and one of the people involved almost kept all the money, a very bad experience, but well learned.
I began to have a shelter for all the families of migrants, first it was general, but with the experience that life gave me I found that putting single men with women who have children is not good.
I realized that, if before they came for work, now they came fleeing from their place of origin, they had the need to flee from crime in states like Michoacán, Oaxaca and Chiapas, added to that came Haitians, Venezuelans, Cubans, Africans and now the Ukrainians, I gave them shelter.
My priorities are the LGBT community and the migrant children and adolescents who did not ask to be displaced, did not ask to be migrants and are brought here from top to bottom, waiting for an American dream that who knows if it will come true, there are many challenges.
What has it meant to work to defend the migrant community?
A satisfaction of being able to help, to be a haven of peace for those children who come unprotected, I made my shelter for the whole family. In the shelter El Refugio del Migrante and La Posada del Migrante first are the children, then the women and then the men. Be careful… not because I discriminate against them, but because I prioritize, children cannot defend themselves, they are vulnerable, women too, but not to the degree of children. I recognize that men are also discriminated against, but we try to help everyone by order of priority.
What are the biggest challenges that have come your way?
The first challenge is the governments, every time a new one enters they have to explain everything to them again, it seems that instead of doing their homework, a decent and dignified job for all migrants, they discriminate against and segregate them, they say that if they help them, but there is no help as it should be or transparent.
On the one hand they let them enter our country and on the other hand they ignore them, every time a government representative sits down it is a fight.
I am very transparent, I say things as they are and it does not seem fair to me that, for example, they have taken away the immigration fund, I helped many pay their rent and their electricity, they do not comply, how can a senator or deputy let the president of the republic withdraw support from civil associations? We who do the work and who are really honest.
After almost 40 years as an activist, no one can single out Altagracia Tamayo, because quietly and raising my voice I always say things as they are, as I see them.
What message can you give to human rights defenders in the migrant community?
That they continue in the fight, this is not winning every day, you have to learn to lose, that they do not give up completely, if they fall a thousand times, they must get up a thousand times, follow their convictions, not what others want.
Learn from your mistakes and move on, we are the voice of the hidden faces, of those who have no image, of those the government knows are there, but do not raise their voices, we human rights defenders are the voice of a people, a sector or a group of repressed by false morality and lack of rights that our rulers say they give us.
What needs to be changed or done differently to strengthen the defense capacity of human rights defenders?
First, we defenders have to be more united, make all the networks that we can, help each other, not be selfish or vain, we have to make faces that can be seen, make ourselves known, make ourselves visible every day, that allows us to go ahead.
Not being in hiding as we have been for years, that we understand that human rights are for everyone, not for a few, that my rights are your rights and my rights are yours, no one is more than anyone else.
We need to be empathic ourselves, as colleagues and as defenders of human rights we have to recognize the work of others. We need solidarity and empathy among ourselves. One very important thing that we fight for, not to discriminate against each other, as well as to recognize the new generations of young people who come.
Secondly, the government needs to take away the share of power from our rulers, they forget that we put them in a chair, when I say that I have a municipal president, a governor and that I want a president of the republic it is because I have faith in the women.
Unfortunately, politics and the quota of power is a very big mafia, so big that they do each other favors, we really need our rulers to be empathic with our human rights, not just saying it to look good, to recognize the effort and the work of activists.
Finally, as a society, we are so focused on surviving, although we are activists we are human beings, we are worried about how to get the migrant forward, so society is so busy how to pay their expenses, the little time they have left is used to rest, but if that time were divided a little bit into helping, we would change many things, being empathetic and supportive is also needed by society, respecting each other.
Perhaps it is not the money that you give me as a civil association, but with a word of encouragement and knowing that you will be there when I need it, it is more important than all the treasure in the world, the most sensitive part of one is not to stop being human, not stop loving. If we have time to live we have time to help others.
What can you share with us about your shelter in Mexicali?
Cobina A.C. la Posada del Migrante is a family security shelter, 100 percent of the people who are there were violated, there are violent mothers who come with their children fleeing from their husbands and the delinquency of their places of origin. Currently, 192 migrants are cared for in the shelter, of which 63 are children.
They are all from different places, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Venezuela, Cuba, even Africans, it is a cultural heritage, many cultures in one place, you see how they speak, how they express themselves, how they dress, how they walk, how they educate to their children, but all with two things in common, they are displaced migrants who bring the same history of violation of their human rights and physical integrity, they come dragging their children and with the American dream, which is not as dream as they make it out to be.
The shelter is 8 years old, there they are given food three times a day, the children are given kindergarten, primary and secondary classes, as well as workshops and occupational therapy. We have a doctor’s office where they monitor the health of the children and carry out medical examinations.
Cobina is a multidisciplinary work. I look for opportunities and support. We have a Community Social Welfare Center, a filter place so that the migrants who arrive are valued and know if they need to go to a family shelter or we refer them to shelters for men.
There are people who don’t want to be in my shelter La Posada del Migrante because it has rules, you have to work for yourself, the children have to study, the mothers have to prepare the three meal times for them, twice a week a doctor to provide federal Welfare health services, we give them legal advice, we open a file so that the pro bono licensee seeks asylum and has all the migrant’s documentation. Also together with the Sanitary Jurisdiction, Save the Children and HIAS we give workshops.
Likewise, a social worker and the OIM help us in the psychological area and, for example, Unicef helps migrants by bringing them hygiene kits.
Cobina is a safe shelter, we try to ensure that children, mothers and fathers live with dignity, it is a hotel with 28 rooms, a multipurpose room with three rooms, we have grown out of the need to provide lodging for all the mothers and children who arrive to Mexicali vulnerable.
How did you feel when you won the “Citizen of the Year 2022” award?
It has been an honor, what can I tell you, many mixed feelings, on the one hand they recognize your 34 years of struggle and on the other never of all those who were there have supported us, no one has raised their hand to say “tell me what I can help you”.
Acknowledging 34 years of work has not been easy, a constant struggle of going to bed thinking and getting up without knowing how I am going to do tomorrow, how to be empathetic to the government and not be seen as an enemy because I raised my voice.
Companies must have empathy and support civil associations, I recognize and give thanks for the appointment, but it is not only a trophy, as an activist I know that we need more things than a painting or a trophy, we are not about trophies, we are about working. I am grateful that they have recognized my work, I feel that I am not going to leave in vain.
It is not easy to be an activist in a country where things are backwards. Human rights defenders exist because we see things differently, human rights are for them to have fair, equitable and dignified treatment, I think they have forgotten to educate and transmit what human rights are for.