There are certain individuals whose lives demonstrate how the decisions a community makes can impact the individual, and who show that it is possible to inspire change. Victor Palafox has spent his young life striving to be one of those people.
He is 21 years old, a sophomore at University of Alabama, a columnist at the student newspaper The Crimson White and an intern at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. But perhaps more impressively, Palafox is already a man of influence in the arena of human rights – and not just in Alabama.
Palafox and his family came to Alabama from Mexico when he was six years old as undocumented immigrants in pursuit of more opportunities for their family. He tells in this interview how his personal struggle has made him determined to change laws, hearts and minds.
Weld: What was your childhood like after you moved to Alabama?
Victor Palafox: I came to Alabama when I was six; I actually came to the Greyhound station that’s just a couple of blocks from here. Growing up it was always difficult, because when I first came here I thought that maybe I would be here for a couple of weeks or months, and reality really sank in after the first year when I realized that I didn’t know how long I was going to be here.
I did normal things in school, was in the advanced programs, and one of the things that I really wanted to do was go to university. In Mexico you don’t really have the opportunities that you have here. You just have money or you don’t, and it’s been like that since the beginning of that country’s history. When I came here I realized that I had to make the best of myself. I wanted to make use of all the opportunities that I had here. For example, in Mexico I had to walk around five miles to go to elementary school. Here I just walk five steps and the bus comes to pick me up.
One of the things that I remember the most is how much my parents sacrificed to bring me here. I remember Father coming in from work around four o’clock and my mother would leave at 4:30 to go to work. They would only be together for 30 minutes of the day. When you’re growing up you take your parents as superheroes, as people who would anything for you, and I realized that mine had done just that. They’d risked their lives and given up their country to give my brother and myself a better life. I realized that I would never be able to pay them back, but I wanted to try, and so I wanted to be the first in my family to go to university. When I was in school I excelled, you know, pretty much advanced everything. But when I got to middle school that’s when things started to change.
Middle school is when kids start to become self-aware. Not just of themselves, but of everything that’s going on around them. I remember talking to a middle school counselor and telling her that I wanted to go to university. She told me about some good schools that I should consider going to, the requirements to get in, and the classes that I needed to take to get on that path. I asked her, “What if I’m undocumented and don’t have legal documents to be here?” And she said, “In that case, then, you’re illegal, and this country has no room for you. You’re going to hit a brick wall eventually and you should just give up now.”
Hearing that at 11 years old was devastating. I came home from that and thought, Well if there’s no point in me being here, then there’s no point in me trying. And so for the next couple of years up until 10th grade I just didn’t care, I just didn’t try. I thought, Why should I make an effort for a country that I won’t be able to excel in? Why would I even waste my time?
In 10th grade I remember thinking that even if I couldn’t go to university, all I can do is finish high school. I wasn’t going to let that suck. I wasn’t going to let legal status define who I am. I decided to try. I started studying again. I finished high school AP classes and honors classes. Walking across the stage for graduation was one of the emptiest moments of my life, because people would say, “You’re going to go off to do great things, any school would be lucky to have you.” Then they’d ask where I was going, and I would just say I hadn’t decided where I was going to school at, which was a half-truth because I hadn’t decided what I was going to do. I hadn’t decided if I was going to stay here, or if I was going to go elsewhere.
Weld: So what was your turning point?
VP: In 2011 I’d been out of school for a year, and that’s when the Alabama immigration law passed. Every fear that I’d had of having to leave this country and of not knowing who I was materialized when HB 56 [Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act] passed. It basically said that if you are undocumented in the state of Alabama, we want you to leave. It made something as simple as giving a ride to an undocumented immigrant person a crime, all employers had to check social security numbers, and in some cases it actually banned undocumented students from public universities.
I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew one thing: that my family and I had given everything that we had to the state of Alabama. We’d given the best years of our lives so far to a state that was now saying, “We don’t want you.” I felt a sense of anger, because my father had started his own small business. He could’ve gone anywhere and Mother could have as well, but we decided to stay in Alabama. I always wondered why, and my parents would tell me that this was home. They would say, “This is where you and Brother have been able to enjoy things that we otherwise would have only dreamed of, this is the state where we want to be and we’re not going to let anyone take it away from us.”
I realized that I needed to do something, so in 2011 myself and couple of the kids in my neighborhood just said, “Well, we’re little immigrant kids, we know that this is wrong. We don’t know what we’re going to do but we know we’re going to fight.” So we went door to door just asking people to help. We asked them to call the legislature to stop HB 56. This was before everything else that I did, and while I was going door to door I realized that my story wasn’t unique. There were families just like mine, students just like me, who had the same anxieties and the same fears, and I realized that this was something much larger than myself.
For the next two years I jumped feet first into the immigrant rights movement. I was able to organize youth. I trained them and let them know that they didn’t have to wait on someone else. They didn’t have to wait on an organization or a politician to say, “Oh, we’ll give this much.” I realized that we had more power than we thought we did. I traveled from anywhere as small as Clio, Alabama, to Washington, D.C. every other week meeting with different members of Congress and with people on the Hill.
Everything moved so fast. Looking back on it now I still have a hard time believing everything that I did. In less than a year I was able to [go] from unknown kid in Shelby County to [being] on the cover of Time magazine. I think that’s just indicative of how much one can accomplish and of how much self-potential and self-worth we all have. It doesn’t have to be about me; the biggest lesson of what I did is that there will always be a need for people who care, and that there will always be a need for people who are willing to toss aside everything that they know and work for something larger than themselves.
Weld: What was the next step after you’d been in D.C.?
VP: In 2012 something called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) passed. It is a program for undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements. They can’t have a criminal record, have had to be here for a certain amount of years and had to have come here before this year. It gives them a two-year work period. You get a work permit, a Social Security number, and in some cases you can get a driver’s license. The terms vary state by state. DACA allowed me to pick up right where my life left off. But I felt that it wasn’t enough because it left out so many people that I knew.
I was in DC when it actually was being announced. I was in a room of undocumented youth leaders from across the country. I remember crying. Everyone was crying because everyone was so happy. We had worked so hard to make it happen, and here it was, finally happening.
A few hours afterward I thought of all the people that I wanted to call in Alabama, all of these immigrants that I had met throughout the state, to tell them that it had happened – that there was something for us now. As I went through my list, I realized, “He doesn’t qualify. She doesn’t qualify. I don’t know if they qualify.” I realized that just because I had gotten mine, it didn’t mean that the struggle was over and that injustices weren’t still being carried on. I didn’t know how to handle that. Should I keep going?
I realized that the best way for me to help my community wasn’t just out marching or giving speeches, it was being able to provide a reference point in my community. So that means being able to say to someone who I come across, “No, I don’t know how to help you get into school, but I know someone who does, so let me give you their number and help you get into contact with them.” Right now I’m helping a couple of students get into college and deal with a lot of the barriers that we have here in Alabama. I realized that it would mean more to say that someone from our neighborhood was able to fight injustice and end up at the University of Alabama than to go out and meet government officials or nonprofit leaders.
The biggest compliments that I’ve ever gotten are from people who have known me since I was seven years old who I’m able to help now. That means more to me than any magazine cover, because I’m able to show them that a lot of good can come from our neighborhood and that a lot of it is just about mining out the truth.
Weld: What has been your focus since the triumph of DACA in 2012?
VP: Right now I’m at the BCRI. My main job is to work on Hispanic outreach. When I was first approached with this opportunity I was a little hesitant to say yes. It wasn’t because I wasn’t aware of the institute and their work. It was because when I decided to pick up where my life left off and go to university I had chosen exactly what I wanted to be devoted and invested in.
I ultimately said yes because the institute is the best place for me to be. It allows me to weave together my love of history with my love of community. It allows me to present new ideas to people who would otherwise never hear them, but most importantly it allows me to show the community of Birmingham that every single one of us is invested in the future of another person. What we do, what we don’t do, it all directly and indirectly affects others. And that personal awareness is what has gotten me to the place where I am now.
If you had told me at 13 that in the future I’d be challenging senators on the BBC and that I would be on the cover of Time, I wouldn’t have believed you. Not just because it’s so far-fetched, but because I didn’t believe in myself to that extent. The institute is such a powerful tool that we have here in Birmingham because history isn’t stagnant…it tends to settle, and when things settle, only few things remain on the surface and only few people are willing to go beneath it.
When some people think of the civil rights they think of MLK, or “I Have a Dream,” but civil rights is so much more than that. Bayard Rustin was one of the key organizers in the March on Washington, but he isn’t remembered as widely because he was an openly gay man. If we let those memories settle it will be a lot harder to bring them back to the surface later.
The Hispanic community is very close-knit, which is good. It keeps us together, but it’s also bad because then you don’t interact with other communities as much as you should. I want to be able to show that no matter if you are white, black, Asian or whatever, the amount of similarities that we have are much greater than any amount of differences that we are able to write down.
Weld: Talk about the BCRI exhibit Para Todos Los Niños: Fighting Segregation before Brown v. Board and what it says about the BCRI reaching out to a broadening cultural spectrum.
VP: Para Todos Los Ninos is an exhibit that shows the issue of segregated schools in California, specifically Westminster. Mendez v. Westminster is an example of how a community can combat segregation through the courts. The ruling said no to the segregation of Mexican-American students in California. This is important to me, because when we think of segregated schools, we think of black and white.
What about people that aren’t black and white? It’s an example of how broad a conversation segregation really is. Here in America the race conversation is usually black and white, but what about those who aren’t black, but face many of the same struggles and experiences of the black community? We had a panel discussion at the BCRI to define what it means to be Latino and navigate the school system. It was an interesting conversation. What I brought to the table was that I was an immigrant kid who was able to win and attend university, but what I stressed was that there were many others who were not as fortunate.
I have privilege in the fact that I hold some legal status. That I am able to work, drive and do all of these other things. Many kids that I grew up with don’t have those things. We need to show members of our community in positions that we hope to be in one day. If we don’t do it, no one else will. The exhibit shows the significance of segregation within schools in the past, and it shows how it is now for Latino kids. It shows that difficulties don’t just stay in one time period, they merely adapt, and that is part of a larger conversation.
Weld: It’s interesting that one of your end goals is to show people that there is hope and room to grow within Birmingham.
VP: I’m glad you brought that up. Something that I thought about doing when I gained some legal status was to leave the state. One of the things that I often don’t mention is that when you do this type of work, there is so much baggage that you carry with you. Every story that you hear, every person you meet. For the rest of your life, you carry a little piece of them with you. Carrying those stories is something that will teach you more than any university and any class, but it’s also very difficult.
There were days when I would go home and say, “Why the hell am I doing this? What is the point?” You meet communities in which the work that you are doing means more to them than you will ever understand, for good and for bad. Doing this type of work you meet lots of good people, but you also meet lots of people who aren’t doing it for the right reason. When I gained some legal status, one thing that I thought about was that I could take it to any state and just start over and never have to worry about any of this again.
I realized that I just couldn’t do that, because what message would that send? With everything I do, I ask myself what message it will send. I realized that the message it would send to the kids would be that making it means leaving Alabama eventually. I wanted to make sure that people within the Hispanic community, the immigrant community, and people of color as a whole are able to see Alabama as their state.