Young immigrant follows father's community organizing path
By CONNOR SHEETS
Feb. 17, 2018
ALBERTVILLE, Ala. (AP) — Julio Cesar Baeza was not yet one year old in 1994, when his parents brought him from Mexico across the Rio Grande into the United States.
His father, Jose Baeza, spent most of the family's savings on a broken-down old car he found in New Mexico and got it up and running for the long trip to Florida, where he and his wife, Rosa Luna, hoped to move in with relatives and find work picking oranges or peppers.
They only made it as far as Albertville, a north Alabama town which at the time was home to about 15,000 mostly white residents. The Baezas were part of the front crest of a wave of more than 5,000 Latino immigrants who settled in Albertville - and thousands more who arrived in other Sand Mountain communities - over the past 25 years.
They lived in a stranger's house with multiple families at first, eventually upgraded to sharing a mobile home with another family, then got their own trailer and ultimately were able to buy their own house.
The close-knit family from the central Mexican state of Guanajuato had achieved their version of the American dream.
'We aren't going anywhere'
Both of Julio Baeza's parents worked in the chicken plants at the beginning, but his father was a skilled welder so after about a year he shifted into metalworking. In 2001, the Baezas opened a restaurant called El Rinconcito in an Albertville strip mall, building the business over the ensuing years into a cornerstone of the local Mexican community.
Over time, Jose Baeza came to be seen as a man new arrivals could go to for help securing housing, getting jobs and establishing lives in Marshall County. And in 2006 a group of high schoolers went to him when they wanted to find a way to make a strong political statement.
In April of that year, the elder Baeza became a key figure in a watershed moment for Albertville's Mexican immigrants, when he helped the teens organize a march of thousands of the community's members in support of immigration reform.
It was a political awakening for the local Latino community, for the Baeza family patriarch, and for Julio, who said it was that event that demonstrated to him for the first time how much power his people wielded.
"The march surprised the white and older community who had been here," he said during an interview in a booth at his family's restaurant earlier this month. "Some people may have a grudge or something against us, but I think people are now used to the fact that we aren't going anywhere."
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey in September, Julio Baeza - who was then 23 years old and ready to organize and lead on his own - turned the energy of his community into concrete action. He solicited and collected more than a dozen pallets piled high with donated non-perishable food, toiletries, water bottles and other essential items from 33 mostly Hispanic-owned area businesses, loaded up a couple of U-Haul trucks, and drove them to Houston with some close friends.
His life had come full-circle 11 years after tragedy had rocked his family. On Dec. 28, 2006, Julio's father died in a catastrophic car accident in Utah when he lost control of his vehicle during a heavy snowstorm on the return leg of a cross-country family road trip. The car rolled several times and careened into a deep ravine, but every other member of his family survived the crash.
Julio Baeza's mother eventually remarried an American citizen, which helped her surviving family members get their green cards and permanent residency. Over the past decade, Baeza says he has been driven by his father's example and by the attainment of his legal immigration status - which many of his friends and neighbors have not been able to obtain - to help both immigrants and U.S. citizens in Marshall County and beyond.
Growing up in the dining room and kitchen of El Rinconcito, Baeza says he met many people and learned the value of hard work, two things that have come in handy as he has pursued his dream of taking the torch from his father and being an effective organizer for area Latinos and other people in need.
"My father wasn't a superhero, he's just someone who liked helping other people," he said. "A lot of people appreciated a lot of the stuff he did for them, and I just grew up seeing all that. I'm my father's son."
Bridging the gap
Though dozens of Latino-owned businesses selling everything from Mexican food to Quinceanera dresses are thriving across Marshall County, the county courthouse in downtown Albertville still flies the rebel flag and has a Confederate monument prominently displayed on its front lawn.
Yet Baeza believes that through doing good works in Marshall County and beyond, he may be able to help bridge that gap and bring people together.
Before that can happen, Baeza says that it is vital that protections for immigrants remain intact and are strengthened. The divisive rhetoric of President Donald Trump, combined with the increase in deportations of immigrants who have not committed crimes, has led to a rise in fear among many immigrants over the past year.
That growing fear reminds Baeza of the passage of the anti-immigrant state law H.B. 56 in 2011 and the ensuing couple of years, which he remembers as "a low point" for immigrants in Alabama.
Thousands of Latino immigrants fled Alabama that year to avoid the impacts of the law, which allowed local police to check immigration status during traffic stops, made it illegal to employ undocumented workers, and even directed schools to inquire about children's immigration status.
The law was eventually largely neutered through federal court challenges.
But that dark period gave rise to a number of advocates like Baeza. Victoria Siciliano, spokeswoman for the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, said she believes the backlash to Trump's rhetoric and policies is having a similar impact today.
"We saw the same thing happen during 2012, when H.B. 56 was tearing apart immigrant communities throughout Alabama. Times of strife make community leaders emerge to help their neighbors," she said. "With an anti-immigrant federal government in place, many have realized the importance of enacting change locally."
'You shall receive'
Baeza says his next goal is to get Hispanic business owners in Albertville to attend local public meetings, as he says most local governmental bodies do not have any non-white members, and many area meetings do not even feature a Latino in the audience.
"The reason I organize is because I feel like we're lacking involvement in the Hispanic community now, and I feel like there's not enough of the government and community reaching out to us either. We've been here 30 years and there's still no Hispanic person of the City Council," Baeza said.
"At the same time it's like, ask and you shall receive ... I feel that we need to speak up and make our voices heard."
Siciliano feels similarly. Though there are many barriers to immigrants participating in local politics, she says it is vital that they find ways to make their concerns heard and advocate for themselves.
"Local government meetings are notoriously inaccessible for many in the immigrant community, either because of lack of language access or because meetings are held during inaccessible times of day for working people. Local governments do very little to encourage minority attendance at their meetings," she said.
"Still, people like Baeza are becoming engaged everywhere around the country, and it makes a huge positive impact."