“Undocumented and Unafraid!”

I am undocumented and unafraid.

These were the words that my friend, Uriel Alberto, boldly stated directly to an immigration committee in Raleigh, North Carolina, affirming publicly that he valued his life as an undocumented immigrant and was unafraid to say it to anyone, regardless of the risk. During this hearing, Uriel was arrested and, soon after, was fighting—both online and offline—his own deportation case from inside the walls of a detention center.

Uriel, who fought for the Dream Act with El Cambio—a local grassroots immigrant, LGBTQ, and racial justice community organization in Yadkinville, NC—shared his story and took that risk intentionally so that his community was able to lift up that story and build the power needed to keep Uriel home, where he deserved to be. When Uriel was arrested, he was determined to do anything possible to raise awareness about his undocumented status and to empower youth and community members to come out of the shadows as unafraid. When his deportation case began to move forward, Uriel went on a hunger strike inside the jail where he was being held. This ignited a flame of courage within Uriel and his community that spread to the local media and inspired others around him to also come out of the shadows. Members of El Cambio decided to join the hunger strike with Uriel from outside of the jail, which sparked both an online and offline movement for liberation throughout rural North Carolina.

Silvia Rodriguez, one of the lead organizers behind this effort, helped spread the word by going on the hunger strike for more than two days. She and the other hunger strikers shared pictures of themselves online, calling publicly on ICE to release Uriel. Soon, Uriel was sharing his story from inside jail with the outside world, doing interviews with reporters in Spanish and English. Silvia then turned to YouTube to provide a platform for Uriel’s family to speak to community members directly. Uriel’s mother, sisters, and friends spoke on camera, some sharing why they were on hunger strike in solidarity with him. His mother, through tears, was begging for his release: “Es otra parte de mi vida…No veo mi vida lejos de el.” (“He is a part of my life and I do not see me living away from him.”) Silvia wanted to remind Uriel that he was not alone and that his hunger strike for over 138 hours had empowered her to continue with the hunger strike to show her love and solidarity.

Giovanna Hurtado, another leader of El Cambio, started a petition online, calling on Mike Kidd and John Morton from ICE to release Uriel from detention. The petition received more than 2,600 signatures and read:

Uriel Alberto (A# 089-828-718) needs to be near his son, Julian. He took a brave stand for immigrant rights, and now he may get deported for it.

Growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Uriel’s life seemed full of hope. He graduated from Parkland High School, where he was a track star. He was offered scholarships for track by various college recruiters but was unable to accept them because of his immigration status.

Life got hard for Uriel, but he kept his head up. He attended Lees-McRae College, where he continued to run track despite not being able to accept a scholarship. Not everyone knew that he had also become the head of his family’s household, providing for his mother and sisters and defending them against an abusive father. While all that weight on his shoulders depressed him and led him to having a few run-ins with the law, he has done everything he can to stay above the fray and be a role model for his sisters and young son.

Help keep Uriel with his family and baby boy. His family depends on him, and so does his son. He financially provides for Julian and his family.

Uriel’s story continues to inspire me on so many levels. I grew up in Yadkinville, North Carolina, and am also a member of El Cambio, which is now a chapter of GetEQUAL. I was 17 years old when Uriel was in jail, and all of my friends were on a hunger strike. I wasn’t conscious at the time of the amount of courage that my friends were showing and the love that they had for one another, especially for Uriel. The last time I saw Uriel was at the Yadkin County park, playing with his son Julian, and the happiness that radiated from his smile filled me up with a tender feeling of warmth.

On March 15, 2012, Uriel was released from the Wake County jail. This is what he said in an interview: “I thought about not having a chance to give my family and friends a hug and a kiss…. I want to go back to Winston-Salem and do that and say things to my family and friends that need to be said.”

Now, I have the privilege and honor to be able to discover new ways of telling stories both online and offline through GetEQUAL, a national grassroots network that empowers the LGBTQ community and allies to take bold action to demand full equality. Uriel’s story is a reminder that we cannot win solely by taking action online. We must do what it takes right at this very moment to get free by taking bold and courageous action online. For Uriel, at that moment, it meant not eating until he was released. For Silvia, it was not eating until he was released, and sharing videos of his family members telling their stories about what Uriel means to their family. For Giovanna, it was creating the petition and organizing rallies, attending vigils, and speaking with reporters.

When we are advocating for justice and for our own liberation, we must ask ourselves what we can do at this very moment to make that change possible. What action right now, in this moment, can you take to support something that you believe in? To change people’s hearts and minds requires telling our stories on all different levels—be it to our friends, family, reporters, community members, or even to the universe—because when you speak your truth and demand more of humanity, you are bound to get an answer.

Luis Aguilera Garcia