An Interview with USYF founder Melissa Ballard and Edgar Lara from Sin Barreras
December 17, 2021
Interviewee Name: Edgar Lara, Executive Director - Sin Barreras
Interviewer Name: Melissa Ballard, Founder - United States Youth Forum
Transcriber: Michelle Blakeslee, Programs Assistant - United States Youth Forum
Contact Method: Google Meet
Date: 17th November 2021
List of Acronyms: MB - Melissa Ballard; EL - Edgar Lara
Keywords: community empowerment; immigration; immigration resources; education; vulnerable people; advocacy; immigration legislation
[Intro] MB: Edgar Lara is Sin Barreras’ Executive Director. Edgar grew up in California where he spent several summers as a migrant worker. After high school, Edgar joined the Marine Corps and was deployed to the Middle East. He received his B.S. in Business Economics from UCLA and worked in consulting and business finance for 10 years. He arrived in Charlottesville in 2012, and was a volunteer with Sin Barreras for 6 years before becoming its first Executive Director.
MB: First of all, thank you so much Edgar for agreeing to this interview and meeting with us today to talk about the work you do and the work that Sin Barreras does in Charlottesville. I wanted to start off with you maybe telling me a little bit more about the mission of Sin Barreras and how it got started and how its mission expanded from there - the moment that it got started - to where it is today.
EL: Okay, so Sin Barreras which means “Without Barriers” translates to “Without Barriers” in English, and Sin Barreras is Spanish. The mission is to empower immigrants and their families in Central Virginia, with a focus on the Latinx population, by advocating, educating, and supporting their needs. I’ll describe that a little bit more. It’s - our process is really to prioritize direct service by helping people with their immediate needs and relieving the stress that they have in those moments of need. That’s the number one thing we want to do. We want to learn from that. But then we also have a number of programs. And that’s English learning, that’s primary and secondary education, leadership, technology, citizenship for those who qualify…Through that, by meeting their immediate needs and these educational programs we hope to empower people so we can then work together to raise their voices and their needs to create change in our community, our state, and our society that better meets the needs of everybody in our community. I’m not sure how familiar you are with the situation with different types of immigrants in the U.S. - I mean, I think it’s similar in other places. But in the U.S., especially in terms of status and when people are undocumented, there’s plenty of - there’s a lot of immigrants that exist in our community that just don’t have the benefits or access to services that other people do. They’re really easily demonized, you know, or called illegal or things like that and it really dehumanizes people. But they are people who exist in our community and that’s a big part of our focus. And it’s not just this community but they are among the most vulnerable.
So that’s who we work with. And you asked how we started. Sin Barreras was started as an all-volunteer organization in 2012 by 5 people who saw this need in the community. And I think primarily in some of the undocumented people who existed but didnt have a place to receive a number of services. Especially in a place like Charlottesville where there are services and resources available, but there was a community who wasn’t accessing any of it. So Sin Barreras started, I think, with this community in mind to connect people to services. The very first thing that they started doing was legal consultations with an attorney who was one of the founders as well. And - everybody thinks they need an attorney for whatever reason, sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. So a lot of what we try to do is receive people, welcome them and provide them information - maybe a consultation with an attorney so that whatever decision or next step that they take, it’s an informed one. If they need an attorney then okay, we’ll clarify that and they may need to speak with one or engage one, but for many cases they don’t need one and a person who’s not an attorney can help them with a number of things or maybe somebody at Sin Barreras can just explain how these different services or resources work, and how they can connect to it. That’s a big part of what we do as well, those connections to services. One of the things that can happen is that going to an attorney, a professional, or some sort of agency can be intimidating for people. They- a lot of vulnerable people don’t know who they can trust so what we try to be is a place where they feel welcome. Because this is why we exist, to help and serve them. We’re happy to speak to them and try to help them and there’s a lot of people out there who, if we didn’t exist, they may not reach out for that help that they need. There’s people that need help that don’t look for it and they just suffer. But we hope that- and we’ve seen that, because we exist, more people feel comfortable to reach out. Maybe it’s first to us, and we don’t promise solutions, but we will do what we can to help them. And even if people call and ask the question, even if we don’t find an exact solution the fact that we take their call, listen to them and look for a possible way to solve their problem and we follow-up with them, we tell them what we’re gonna do and we meet that; that in itself is a service. I’m sorry if I didn’t answer all your questions, but that’s what came to mind.
MB: Thank you. How did you build the connections? So you bring people in the community to, for example, lawyers that can help with certain cases; you provide Spanish language classes and these types of things. How did you build the connections for the lawyers and the teachers and do that in a way where you can build a bridge between the community - the immigrant community - and them?
EL: Well, the programs that we have, we start them and it’s, like, peers that we have that we train or work with to develop these programs. I think...well the attorneys, it depends on the type of attorneys. A lot of the professionals that are out there - be it mental health, health, attorneys, those types of things - it’s their job to help people in these situations. They have these services and this is who they serve, But the challenge is that there is a ton of need but some of the most vulnerable people don’t make it into the office for - their office or to see them - for a number of different reasons that include- these are just different barriers: at times there’s language barriers, there’s cultural barriers when people are new, there’s education barriers because a lot of people that immigrate here and are vulnerable here - and they were also vulnerable where they came from. They might be Indigenous people. Mostly, who we help are people - immigrants that speak Spanish because that’s our strength because that’s who we were when we formed Sin Barreras. But some of those immigrants, Spanish might be their second language because they spoke an indigenous language first. Even where they were displaced from, they had it pretty difficult there too, oftentimes. And that’s partly the reason why they’re here now. So you asked how we make those connections. I think- yeah, so those professionals, I think this is what they’re looking for. They’re looking to connect and help this community but the challenge is that they don't have that trust or don’t know how to reach this community. I think that’s a strength of ours because we’re led by people who come from this community that we’re talking about. One of our founders, her name is Fanny Smedile, she’s an immigrant from Ecuador and she just has a great connection with the community just based on who she is, her charisma. When you reached out to me I think I was still the community engagement director, it was a volunteer position - I’ve been a volunteer with Sin Barreras for about 6 years - I forget exactly how long, but awhile. Over the summer we decided that we were going to- it was time for us to hire our first executive director and I was the selection. I applied for that and so I have [had] a little over a month as the executive director. And I’m a person who comes from the community too. I can share a little bit of my story if you want.
MB: Yeah, I think that would actually be really great.
EL: So, when I share a bit about my story I start with my grandfather. My grandfather came to the U.S. as part of the bracero program in the 1940s. And the bracero program- bracero means, brazo, means arm in Spanish - and this program where the U.S. recruited people, mostly from Mexico - from rural parts, from the mountains, all these areas, places that didn’t have a whole lot of education - but they recruited people from there to come work the land in the U.S. when the U.S. entered World War II and women entered the labor force. Braceros came to the U.S. and were recruited and brought in to work the land, and they were called lifesavers at the time because they fed the country. But you [go] forward ten years later, they weren’t needed anymore. The opinions changed and people like my grandfather weren’t allowed to stay. So he had to leave. But there’s this pipeline that’s been created of this farm-labor workforce. In Mexico and other parts it was just known that you can follow that path with permission or not because permission isn’t given to these types of people. These people just know they can come to the U.S. and work because there’s a demand for it - they’re wanted. But at the same time these people come here without permission so they’re- they don’t have all the same rights and a lot of people out there want them in this position because they’re easier to take advantage of. And that’s what happens.
So my mom actually followed this same pipeline years later after my grandfather. She moved to California in the center where it’s an agricultural capital for California and worked there. And it was just understood that you could do this work as long as you remained silent and didn't speak up and cause problems. So that’s where I was born, in California. And so I was born there and was a citizen. But a person who is an immigrant or undocumented, you know if you want to get rid of them, if they speak up, you deport them. You detain them, you deport them, that’s what you can do. Someone like me, who is a citizen, there’s still these different forces that may want to silence someone like me, but at that point it becomes something different. I feel like where I grew up, society or the community tried to put me behind bars. I was arrested many times and I’m not- I wasn’t a criminal. I’m pretty much the same person I was then. I was a teenager and I got into a little bit of problems but I was not- you know I’m much more likely to help people just like today. But I was arrested many times and I was released because I hadn’t done anything. I was just [in the] wrong place, wrong time, but I felt like anywhere I stood was the wrong place, as long as I was out. So that happened and for me, I ended up joining- graduating high school and I joined the military, the Marine Corps and that really changed a lot of things for me. I mean, I could go on about that, but I think sharing that, you know my grandfather, my mom, and even my situation kinda, the way that kinda turns out - it’s not uncommon. It’s a very common history that we share here and those experiences are not different from what happens today. So the immigrants that come here, they still - especially in this part of the U.S. where I live, Virginia in Charlottesville. It’s generally a smaller population than other parts, the Latinx immigrant community. And it’s generally newer, although many have been here for a while, but it’s not like multiple generations, it's more like people have been around for 10/20 years. And the next generation, the young people - the youth, they are still very young and they don’t have many generations of people that grew up the way they’re growing up today. I think I’m one of those people for them, but it’s very few. And they’re growing up in a place where at times…they may still be vulnerable themselves if they were - they’re also immigrants, if they weren’t born and they’re not citizens. Even if they are citizens, they’re still growing up in a situation where their parents are and their culture and who they are - they can often feel devalued. And their parents are in a very precarious situation where, you know, a couple of wrong moves and their life can be turned upside down. So they’re growing up here with that and they speak the language, they’re part of the culture, but it’s a confusing way to grow up. But yeah, so that was me sharing a little bit of my history. But also, I come from this community so a lot of the trust or the connection that we can build it’s because we know what this is. I have many family members in the same situation who either are with status, without status - but to me it’s like, it’s the community that I grew up with, that I know, that I’m trying to serve, that we’re trying to serve.
MB: Absolutely. You touched a little bit upon this but I want to ask you further about it. As a person who went through what many people in the immigrant community are experiencing, how do young people - how do they deal with some of those challenges that they face being a part of this immigrant community, some of the challenges you outlined? Not only [how] does that make them feel, but how do they move beyond that and what are other effects because of these challenges?
EL: Yeah, I mean that’s a tough question. It’s still something current that we are dealing with. I think one of the ways- and I do interact with youth a bit, but not, I don’t directly focus on youth. I think a lot of the people that I work with at Sin Barreras, it’s the family. And oftentimes what happens - and this says something too - but a lot of them, we deal more with the parents. And oftentimes it can be the young people as well, but in those situations the parents are still taking the lead. And a lot of times the young people there - I’m not fully sure I can’t really explain the full dynamic of why, but I think when, you know when you have a family who is established and has privilege and isn’t in fear, that speaks the language, knows the culture - they’re able to know and pass on how things function, how to succeed. When you’re newer and you’re in a vulnerable situation you’re just trying to survive. You don’t exactly - you’re not exactly able to pass on those skills and that knowledge that will help the youth succeed. Like these are things in a lot of ways that they have to pick up in other ways. Or the things that they learn is “I have to work”. A lot of the time the youth here are in this situation where they have this mentality that “I just need to work” and that “I need to get a job,” and they’re not always as focused on school and education. So I think this is a challenge that many are still going through.
One of the things I find myself focusing on is really working with the parents and through that - I feel like there’s a lot of potential still in the parents. We don’t need to say - yes absolutely the youth is the future and there’s so much potential there - but for me, I work with the parents because there’s a lot of potential there now too. And what better way to inspire their children than to have them see their parents become empowered and grow, like learn and grow and even participate in advocacy to make change. And I see that oftentimes parents bring their kids. This is a family affair in so much of what we do. They bring their kids to Sin Barreras, they bring their kids at times to these different advocacy efforts that we are involved in, and they learn. They learn, they pick things up. It’s not like we’re always necessarily trying to talk to the kids and say “hey this is what you need to do.” It’s more like, you know, they learn through watching, through participating, through seeing what their parents are doing, what we’re doing. I would love to engage the youth more but it’s not - we’re not exactly at this moment. We don't have a youth-focused program. It’s more the entire family and usually it’s the parents who are moving forward but that’s something that’s definitely very important and on our minds in the work that we do; but part of it is, you know, it’s a family that’s moving ahead and moving forward and we hope that the youth are able to pick up on that. But there is a need for more attention too. But it's not like- we’re still a small organization and the way we help in these areas more is - with the way we help the youth more and their families - is to continue to focus and reflect on what we’re doing and to become stronger so that in the future we can have more of those programs that might focus more on them.
MB: And having - the fact that you’re focusing on the families is really important because, as you mentioned, the stable family is really important for young people growing up and that’s one of the problems I imagine in immigrant communities. There’s a lot of unstable family situations.
MB: Just due to outside effects. One of the things you mentioned as well is how some of the parents get involved in advocacy work, and I also saw on your website that this is something that Sin Barreras also wants to transition into - doing more advocacy work. What would that look like? What type of issues do you imagine tackling in that advocacy?
EL: Well, in advocacy, I think what I’ve mentioned, it all goes together. The first thing that we look at is the direct service, of course, immediate needs. Then we have these educational programs where people can also become empowered and more informed, but the goal of all of this is to come together and advocate- like raise your voice, share your story, share the challenges that you’re going through. At times part of the advocacy is just that, sharing your story. There are people at times that feel like “well, my story isn’t that dramatic. I didn’t go through these huge challenges,” but they do go through challenges. It’s just not the type that they see in the movies, or like - I don’t know, to them it doesn’t feel too dramatic. But the simple fact that at times a person might just say “I live in this community, I’m married, I have kids, I go to church, I try to do the best for my family.” Just that alone is powerful. Because there’s so many people out there that have a misconception about who they are…and they apply all these negative traits to them because they don’t know. So the simple fact that a person is able to speak up and say “this is who I am”, regardless of if they speak English or not, that’s powerful.
So a lot of our advocacy is about that - about people talking about the difficulties that they go through, about just sharing their lives so that people get to know them and realize that these are not the demons we made them out to be. These are not criminals, these are just people who are trying to do the best they can for their families and for themselves. These are really assets to our community and our society and we should recognize that. A lot of the advocacy comes from that. There’s times when we have the opportunity to advocate for things that benefit the community. Other times we have to advocate against harmful legislation that seeks to either discriminate or attack immigrants, make their lives even harder because some people feel like their lives should be as hard as we can make them and in some ways keep them in their place. I think that’s what happens at times. So our advocacy is trying to stay alert and promote legislation that can benefit, raise the voice - and even propose legislation at times that can benefit and also raise our voices when there’s harmful legislation that doesn’t make sense. Again, a lot of that advocacy is just having people share who they are.
MB: Yeah, it does seem a bit paradoxical that, as you mentioned, these programs - that brought over Mexican laborers into the United States in times of crisis or when they were needed - was proposed by the U.S. government, pushed by it, and implemented, and then they were just shipped back. It’s just very paradoxical that the richness of U.S. history has come from its history of immigration and now we’re in a time in the U.S. where there are so many negative stereotypes and…misinformation and disinformation about the immigrant community. At USYF, the United States Youth Forum, we’re a community of young people, we’re a youth-led organization and one of the things that we want to be is more engaged, more empathetic, more - just in general - more educated on this type of topic. So I think it’s important for us to ask how we can better engage on this topic and how we can be more empathetic when it comes to discussions around immigration and the immigrant community.
EL: Well, there are many ways. It really depends on honest reflection, on how motivated a person is to - like, the way it works best for an individual to engage. A lot of people show up and say “I really want to get involved”, but, you know, they’re busy and maybe they don’t have, you know, they have too many things going on and volunteering may not be the way for everybody. If it is, great. But it’s just taking a look at - an honest look at what you have to give. Sometimes what they need is just to become more informed about what’s happening. Volunteering and getting directly involved, that’s amazing and that would be the best, but we know not everybody’s gonna be super involved. For those who can be, I would say, like, locally - there’s other organizations out there that are local to people - the ones that are grassroots where people can get a direct sense of…this community and the people who are vulnerable and understand a little bit more about what they go through so they can be advocates and raise those voices - and help to empower those people. When we talk about the youth, that’s one of the challenges. The same powers that would like to keep immigrants or certain vulnerable communities vulnerable, they’re also likely the ones that are not gonna listen to or might dismiss or discount the youth. But the youth connecting with, getting to know these vulnerable communities - this is a place, these adults, these people that are vulnerable - can really benefit from the power of the youth. It’s a way for them to really, I don’t know…have more attention paid to them. At the same time, connecting with these communities - you know, sometimes the divide is between elders who may not, I don’t know, honor or respect the youth enough and sometimes the youth who aren’t able to honor their elders enough. But I think when working together, especially through challenges, I think both of those things happen much more. Oftentimes, elders, or what you might consider an elder, definitely respect the effort and energy and skills the youth bring and I think in that process the youth also honor those elders and what they bring - through that work. And I think that’s pretty powerful. One thing that I’ve often told - or shared with volunteers - is that if you’re really motivated, at times with small grassroots efforts you might feel pushback and some people might feel like “oh, maybe they don’t really need me, maybe they don’t really want me.” Because, you know, those small organizations, they’re just really busy and they’re also trying to figure things out. They don’t have it all down, it's not this well-oiled machine yet, or it may never be. And you may feel pushback, but if you’re really motivated, then you need to push harder. If you really want to be involved then you have to be the one that pushes harder and you move ahead. When you see the need, especially people who are trying to do what they can and they’re doing something positive, they’re not gonna check every box and do every single thing that’s necessary, but you can go in and find your place. Find a way that you can assist and really help them, and that’s great when you can do that. When you can’t do that, become informed and be a voice and share those stories somehow.
MB: And I think on your website you have some content from the 2018 symposium that you hosted - The Hispanic Experience - I suppose that’s one way to start to become more informed.
EL: Yeah, absolutely, yea. We would love to update that, but yeah that’s still good information. Even though it was a couple years ago. A lot of that, especially the historical stuff, hasn't changed. It’s still…
MB: It’s a good place to start, minimally.
EL: Absolutely, absolutely.
MB: My last question to you is actually about how people can support Sin Barreras and the work they do specifically.
EL: You know, I think, and I kinda touched on it here too. A lot of times people think first about volunteering, and that’s great when people are motivated. I think it takes reflection on what a person is - like how much time does a person actually have. But an easy way to support is through donations - whatever the amount is, because there are a number of us who are very dedicated to doing everything we can and we often do it with very limited resources. I think what we need is to be able to build more capacity. I think if people are able to donate that would be the easiest, most impactful way to support. If someone is motivated enough to - oh definitely join our newsletter, although we’re always working to improve it, that is where we share different activities, there’s good information in there oftentimes. So definitely that, follow us on our social media and if people look and say “wow they really need some help here and there”, I agree. And if you’re really motivated to make a difference there, come join us. And I would say, when you come join us, maybe start by learning what we are, who we are, how we’re doing things before trying to, I don’t know, push your own ideas. That probably doesn’t come off that great the way I say that. But there’s - people come in and everyone has a ton of ideas and that’s great, but it's not the most helpful thing all the time. Learn, listen, get involved and over time as you become part of it then you’re able to offer more ideas. A ton of ideas is not helpful, like sometimes one idea - one idea, which is the best one, maybe that's the one you can share and try to focus on. But besides that, coming in and learning what’s going on and trying to figure out, “how can I support this effort, this specific effort.”
MB: Support and enrich the work that’s being done, yeah. Makes total sense. Well, thank you again for sitting down and talking with me about the work that your mission does and some of your own background and history. I really appreciate it and appreciate the work that Sin Barreras does, so thank you again Edgar for joining me.
EL: No, I appreciate it, and thank you for being interested and best of luck in all the work that you’re doing. I really like what I’ve seen on the site and good luck.
MB: Thank you.