July 9, 2008

Day laborer organizer ‘served the people’

Alejandro Abarca, leader of day laborers in New Jersey, died last week in Mexico. His death at the young age of 32 marked the untimely end of a life devoted to the struggle of the oppressed.

Like millions of Mexicans, Alejandro Abarca was forced to migrate to the United States. He settled in the Borough of Freehold, New Jersey, where a sizable number of Mexican workers tried to survive as day laborers. Abarca immediately embroiled himself in working for the dignity and rights of Freehold’s Mexican workers. Most of them had been forced from their homeland by the North American Free Trade Agreement. Based on the greedy profit motive of U.S. transnational corporations, NAFTA effectively drove the Mexican farms out of business. Some of these families moved to Freehold to work and to live in peace.

But there was no peace. Abarca said, Freehold “officials did not show any respect” for the immigrant population. He said officials profiled all Latin@s, “assuming that all dark-skinned Latin@ people are in the United States illegally.” (New Jersey News) So he organized the Workers Committee for Progress and Social Welfare, which called for an immediate end to harassment and intimidation and for the right to be respected. (NJ News)

Abarca became a leader of Casa Freehold, which was organized to defend the rights of Latin@s in their homes, at work and in the streets. He devoted his life to a simple concept: “Serve the people.”

For Latin@s, life in Freehold was difficult. The Borough of Freehold was settled by the English in 1683 who stole the land from the Lenne Lenape tribe. Descendents of the original settlers show open racism against residents speaking Spanish at Borough of Freehold town meetings. Representing 30 percent of Freehold’s population, the Latin@ community has faced official harassment in their homes, in the schools and in their freedom to assemble.

When men, seeking work as day laborers, gathered at a “muster zone” on a road outside the main part of town, local police hounded them.To defend the workers’ rights, Abarca organized with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Foundation, National Day Laborers Organizing Network, International Action Center and the Workers Committee for Progress and Social Welfare. The PRLDEF won the case guaranteeing the right of Freehold day laborers to seek work in public places.

Cognizant of the difficulty Mexicans have in establishing bank accounts and other financial and legal activities, Abarca brought the Mexican Consulate from New York to Freehold to issue “matricula consular” identity papers to hundreds of people in the borough. (Asbury Park Press) Organizing with his community for his community, Abarca also spearheaded a struggle to win day laborers $10 an hour for their work. In 2006, when the national May 1 organizing began, Abarca brought the Freehold workers into the national struggle for immigrant and workers rights.

Speaking at a 2005 anti-Iraq war rally in New York, he said, “In Latin America, we understand occupation, and we know that the transnational monopolies have been occupying us for years, but the moment is coming when the people will tolerate this occupation no longer.” (La Ventana, March 21, 2005)

One year ago he suffered a severe accident and returned to his native country to undergo a series of operations. “Probably he died of complications from one of these operations,” said Rita Dentino, who worked with him. “Alejandro made Casa Freehold into a broader organization against the war, against racism, for women’s reproductive rights. His life was dedicated to social justice.”

Alejandro Abarca Presente!

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