Back in high school in east Anaheim, California, I had a run-in with law enforcement and had just been expelled from the school. I was lucky enough to be a part of a GEAR UP Trio program at my old high school that, despite being a part of a continuation school now, I was still allowed to be a part of college access programs. It was during a mandatory program I attended during the summer of my junior year that I met Cal State Fullerton Professor of Chicano Studies, Alexandro Jose Gradilla.

Part of his curriculum was to share the history of Latinx/o movements across the century and how it has shaped both the forms of identity – making for our community but also how it has also furthered the liberation and lives of all people of color. It wasn’t until we got to the part about immigrant rights movements, from Proposition 187 to the blowouts of 2006 that my ears truly sprang up and where I saw a mirror in my academic journey for the first time.

Growing up, I knew I was an immigrant. From hiding when the cops would drive by, to avoiding San Diego or never being able to travel back home to family in Mexico the way my friends were, I knew as I kept getting older that I was different.  Dr. Gradilla was told, as I found out later, that I was an immigrant student who was on the verge of dropping out of school and who had no plans to attend college. He did not hold back on explaining the connections of immigrant rights to the classroom after that.

I learned about the students who occupied offices in Washington D.C. to force conversations about pathways to citizenship. Or the stories of young immigrants who infiltrated detention centers to help free detainees. The one that struck me, however, were the stories of students here in California who held hunger strikes and blocked off detention center entrances in order to pass AB540 and the California Dream Act.

Most of what I do is for people whose names I do not know and for people who haven’t even been born yet. Many of the immigrant writers, artists and organizers over the last century did work that helped me understand the importance of leadership and that imagining a better world was possible. The work of strangers is the work that helped me understand who I am.

While it was important information for any young immigrant to pursue higher education, it all came down to one thing: I realized I was never alone. 

After high school, became an organizer for PICO California for over five years where I helped establish ethnic studies and poetry workshops in my old high school district. 

Part of or most of my angst as a teenager was just that, pure rage born of loneliness. Once I knew there were other people who were just like me, who were just as angry, I decided I would funnel that energy into something. I didn’t find advocacy right away but I did leave that classroom with a mentor and with more readings, art and movies to watch that helped shape my identity. 

francisco aviles pino is a Mexican writer whose work has appeared in Vogue, The Intercept, The Nation, Netflix, and HarperCollins. They are alum of the Macondo Writers Workshop, the NALAC Leadership Institute,...