By Sue Henninger
Now a well-known Tompkins County community activist, Carlos Gutierrez became politically involved while still in high school in Chile. He started reading newspapers, participated in student government, and joined a socialist youth group that supported many of his beliefs.
“We didn’t leave Chile just to escape what was happening there,” Gutierrez said. ”When I came to the United States, I came to educate myself and learn English quickly, to tell the world what was happening in Chile, and to build community support and advocacy for Chile here that could help get rid of the military system there.”
In 1970, Salvador Allende Gossens, the first Marxist to become president of a Latin American country, was elected to office in Chile. Gutierrez recalled that his homeland was struggling with high poverty levels at the time. Economic policies were put in place by the national oligarchy which led to a state of revolution and counterrevolution, fueled by misinformation and destabilization tactics. The United States increased support to Allende’s political opponents, further polarizing the country.
In 1973, when Gutierrez was 23 and a student at Universidad Tecnica del Estado, General Augusto Pinochet led a successful military coup to overthrow Allende and assassinate other government leaders. During the siege, a strict curfew was imposed and a large number of Chilean civilians were killed or imprisoned, including Gutierrez.
He was picked up by the police, given a military trial, and held in a jail in his hometown of Antofagasta for more than two years. Next he was transferred to a Santiago prison for eight months. There, primarily due to national pressure to get Chileans both out of jail and out of the country, many were exiled.
“Exile is when you commute a jail sentence if the person leaves the country for good,” Gutierrez explained.
He was given an application to fill out and granted a visa to come to the U.S. under political asylum. Friends in Boulder, Colorado, sponsored him and he began to adjust to his new life in a new country.
The U.S. didn’t have any programs or financial assistance for Chileans, Gutierrez recalled, so he immediately found employment. He was required to show up at the Immigration Office every six months to check in and eventually received his green card as a permanent resident. It was several decades before he applied for U.S. citizenship.
“Immigration policies were changing,” he said.
Gutierrez remains strongly invested in promoting human rights, professionally and personally, believing that his own life experiences give him a deeper understanding of what others’ needs are.
“I grew up with very little,” he explained. “As a teen I joined a socialist youth group, which gave me some perspective on my country and helped me develop a passion to educate, support, and organize for the poor.”
He is currently employed by Tompkins County Workers’ Center, where he educates Latino farmworkers about labor rights and teaches them about Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.
Once he relocated to Ithaca, Gutierrez learned about a group of undocumented workers living in the basement of a Collegetown pizza place. They had an extremely poor quality of life, including no breaks during work, sleeping on a floor, and having to live in secrecy. Gutierrez formed a committee, went to the landlord to protest, and a formal complaint was filed with then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. A subsequent investigation revealed that more than $7,000 was owed to the workers. Unfortunately this type of situation still exists today, Gutierrez maintained.
In 2010, a conference focusing on immigration reform for America took place in Ithaca. Gutierrez attended this and connected with local residents and college students to form an “Immigrant’s Rights Coalition.” These days, the group’s main purpose is to train advocates in “Rapid Response.” Community members learn how to be active witnesses, taping or speaking up when an immigration raid or arrest occurs, finding out where the person or people are being taken and who is taking them, and helping them find legal services.
According to Gutierrez, there’s a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation about people who come to America, as opposed to being born in this country. Some U.S. citizens have the erroneous belief that people worldwide think America is the best place to live, he said. Others believe that those who come here from other countries are jealous of Americans and want to take away or destroy what rightfully belongs to the American people.
Opening minds as well as hearts is key to breaking down barriers.
“You need to contextually understand what is happening in other countries,” he contended. “Otherwise it’s like playing piñata. Hit or miss.”
His suggestions include reading nonfiction books about other countries’ political and economic histories, attending global talks, discussions, and workshops sponsored by local colleges or community organizations, and taking the time to talk to, and ask questions of, people from other cultures to gain a deeper understanding of why they left their homeland.
According to Gutierrez, there are many people in Tompkins County who can share their experiences as immigrants, refugees, political exiles, or migrant workers.
However, Gutierrez is quick to observe that sharing an individual story is highly dependent on where a person is at emotionally in terms of leaving their country of origin. Just coming to the U.S. doesn’t make everything else go away, he observed. It’s also hard for undocumented people living in America to talk about their situation publicly if they feel they have too much to lose. If they are surviving and working in America, and able to send money home on a regular basis, they may not want to risk jeopardizing these things.
It was important for Gutierrez to share his personal history with Tompkins Weekly readers.
“I had to move to find a place that had my values,” he said. “My home country no longer did.”