Gaining a heart for justice
My journey as a social and community activist and supporter of human rights and dignity is made up of great intersections and thresholds. It started with being in arts program that is about conflict resolution and healthy self-expression through art and storytelling. The passion got nurtured through the law and government magnet program in high school. I developed a heart for culture care and the integration of art, culture and faith through listening to The Kindlings Muse podcast and reading Makoto Fujimura’s writings on the role of art and creativity in our culture and our Christian faith. My involvement with Asian Pacific American Student Organization during my time in undergrad catalyzed the passion for racial justice. My friendship with a long time college friend who participated in the Occupy Wall St phenomenon introduced me to activists I can call friends, set in motion a drive to seek out Christians who are called to advocate for justice and the importance of economic justice. These experiences deepen my heart for humanity and my calling as an activist. At the same time, I made me very cautious and critical of various aspects of the U.S. political process, structures, leadership and domestic and foreign policy. Not just the U.S. but various nations. Creating empowering structures are important to me and the U.S. political process and structure has not always been trustworthy in being just.
During my summer trip to Washington DC in 2004 as a participant of the National Young Leaders Conference, I took in all that I learned about the U.S. government structure and the three branches, the political process, and elements of U.S. history. I got a taste of each branch of the government through an ongoing simulation where we pretended to be members of congress and senate. I even got a picture with my local congressman when I entered the House of Congress. As a law and government magnet honors student with a passion for ethics and justice, being a part of the conference exposed me the complexities of our government, politics and justice. Looking back at that experience seeing the nature of the process, it fueled my passion for justice and creating better communities. It also led me to see that being an attorney will not be a way for me to channel my passion for empowering people.
Learning about social systems and how they affect people often fascinate me because I am often passionate about having quality structures and cultures that empower and nurture people. Having a deep sense of justice, ethics and care is a part of me. Several people from my father’s side of the family are attorneys. My grandfather and his brother operated a well-respected and ethical law firm in my dad’s hometown in the Philippines. One of my cousins is now in law school, studying to be an attorney. When I enrolled in the law and government magnet program in high school, I thought I want to learn about law and being an attorney because I want to help people and make a difference. I studied constitutional law, civil law and criminal law. We had internships when we worked with offices in court houses, law offices and social services. The senior class competed at Model UN as a part of our international relations class. We performed mock trails inspired by literature we read or historical event we learn in history class to learn about the trail process. I had opportunity to learn about different government systems of other countries during my AP government class. Political and legal discussions are often an ongoing affair. We explored issues ranging from fair trade to affirmative action. The overall deep dive of law, government and politics I had as a student grounded me with critical thinking, civic education and an understanding of how the sociopolitical and legalities affect how people organized and vice versa. It was also through that experience and other experiences as an activist where I figured out not all aspects of government and political process served human rights and dignity.
I learned about the fact that white, male landowners were given privilege to vote when the country was founded. Having a black people being described as 3/5 of a person in the Constitution in the name of compromise along with slavery being primary way of labor was legal and embraced. The reparations of making sure freed slaves received the 48 acre land and mule never followed through. I learned during my third year of high school in U.S. history class. We had a mock trial showcasing the case for reparations for the Japanese Americans who were in internment camps. Much of Congress rushed to pass the Patriot Act, which lower the standard of probable cause and due process, granting local, state and federal law enforcement to search citizens’ private communication through wiretapping in the name of counter terrorism and national security. Through conversations among some of justice minded friends and from my biology teacher in middle school, I learned that marital rape was exempts from ordinary rape laws, meaning that a someone, the wife usually, being raped by her spouse is not considered a crime or even morally wrong until 1993.
One of the more wrenching aspects as an activist for human rights is the constant reminder that a lot of systems are often not up to par in serving the common good unless communities and various social movements pressed it and created their own solutions. Depending on the nation’s history and collective consciousness, there were solutions that worked out while there were others fell short, suppressed by the backlash and political climate. As I became connected with other activists and community members who are participating in various social movements, political battles, community organizing and human rights advocacy communities, I lamented at how deep and embedded the injustice, cruelty and power hoarding is in our systems, paradigms and hearts. I am often overwhelmed with empathy, bewilderment and ache.
I remembered the outrage and shock I felt three years ago when I received the news from my friend’s Facebook that she had been wrongfully arrested and charged for suspicion of inciting a riot along with her five other friends who were doing a protest demonstration at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium against the Mexican ex-President Vicente Fox. Fox was there as one of the speakers for the “Distinguished Speaker Series”. The Pasadena Police charged her ‘crime’ as a misdemeanor. She invited me other friends to her home for dinner after being released to explain what happened. The protest was to call out Fox for enabling and instigating state violence toward the Indigenous population and to call for international solidarity with autonomous Indigenous communities called the Zapatistas. What the protesters did was outreaching, and passing out flyers and literature to educate pass byers and attendees about the State violence toward the Indigenous communities. There was no civil disobedience involved. Yet it still end up receiving confrontation with the Pasadena Police. My friend came to the demonstration at a later time since she spent time supporting a friend of hers who was a victim of unlawful eviction earlier in the day. When she walked to the protest site, the police didn’t think she was with the protesters until they saw her walking toward her friends. It did not help that racism and racial profiling played a role in this. When she and the five others were arrested, four of them were charged with felonies while she and her other friend got charged with misdemeanors. My friend is white while most of her friends that charged with felonies are Latino. Most of them are male as well. It was chilling and scary that this happened in my backyard.
There were times that I wished that I did not know the things that I know about the banality of evil and injustice in the mist of my backyard and beyond. I questioned myself on whether I am actually impacting anything. Since I am a part of the society and its systems, am I automatically complicit of its destructive nature by virtue? Is there more that can be done? So many injustices to tackle, so many movements to connect with, so little time. Where do I start? Many thoughts like these raced to my mind more than once. Once one starts a journey to stand for the least of these, that person’s life will not be same. It will be a living tension to face the depths of injustice while remaining to be giving and open to receive love and grace. Between giving care to yourself and constantly find ways to put yourself out there to be in solidarity with the disempowered and tackling symptoms and root causes of injustice.
I can say that it is through the grace of God that my heart is still the heart of flesh. The fear, the sense of powerlessness, the hurt, the guilt and disillusionment and the feeling that everything is futile can make you want to drop off the face of the planet and shut off everything. I often remind myself that I am dealing with principalities and powers and that everyone is my neighbor. Stepping away and dropping out is not option. If I just drop out, I know that I will be enabling the banality of evil, separating myself from being a part of the possibility of a transformed world. I have no faith in the imperialist structures and ideologies that made up the American political process. However, I am called to bring Shalom in this world and it means engaging with the political realities that my communities and other communities.
It is ongoing emotional labor to stay plugged and to continue with relationship and community building. I keep my finger on the pulse to sense transitions, conversation and consciousness shifts and collective morale. Being a social and community activist since my last year of high school, I have observed a lot of conversation shifts and movements ranging from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter. From the increased interest in economic alternatives to capitalism to gentrification. I also saw shifts regarding presidential election cycles in every four years that is revealing a long overdue major wakeup call regarding the truth on how the systems actually functions to serve the principalities and powers. The overall experience is nothing short of overwhelming but dropping out is not an option when so much is at stake. Rather, I accepted the call to be a vessel of God’s goodness, love and justice, bringing forth the new heaven and earth through transforming ourselves, our relationships and our communities.
Xeres Villanueva wears many different hats between a budding entrepreneur, a comrade and a social activist for various social justice issues. She worked with InsideOut Community Arts as a mentor, an art education organization dedicated to empower middle school students. She was involved with various groups, past and present, such as Asian Pacific American Student Organization, Gay Christian Network, St. Monica Catholic Community Gay and Lesbian Outreach, Food Not Bombs and Stop the Traffik. Xeres is currently a part of network of social justice thinkers and practitioners called Asian American Pacific Islanders Christians for Social Justice and Jesus for Revolutionaries.
She also wrote an Oral Oratory speech “Living Miracle”, which won the 2005 Spirit of Hope Award. She takes delight in reading, cooking, and watching live music performances.