Politics & Society
Shifting Identities: From Victims to Changemakers
An interview with José Luis Loera
José Luis Loera is the co-founder of Programa Casa Refugiados, a UNHCR-backed non-profit organization in Mexico that works to promote the rights of people displaced by violence. He is the head of the organization’s board of directors and leads the “Education for Peace” team, supporting the long-term integration of refugees that allows them to keep their culture and identity.
Bertelsmann Foundation’s Chloe Laird sat with José Luis in April 2023 to chat about the changing context in Mexico and how it has impacted the nature of his work.
Since 2020, the United States has experienced an influx of Mexican migrants due to the declining economic situation and rise of organized crime in the country. Mexico has also long acted as a buffer state for the United States, hosting Central American migrants and refugees. The evolving situation in Mexico has led to monthly encounters at the border being the highest seen in over two decades.
We are facing different common crises across borders: environmental, political polarization, the pandemic, social violence, and economic crises. All of these lead to displacement.
What made you get into this line of work?
I had my first experience with refugee people coming into Mexico in 1983. I experienced the beauty of the jungle in the south of Mexico sharing a border with Guatemala. The juxtaposition of beauty and violence. The contradiction between being in this beautiful jungle and hearing the sounds of bombings in the distance and violent stories being told by those who had left their war-torn country. Their stories — and this experience — has impacted me to this day.
I’m faced daily with the challenge of understanding the capacity of man to have incredible compassion and the ability to peacefully coexist while at the same time being able to inflict an incredible amount of pain and suffering on their own people.
Tell us about your organization, Casa Refugiados, and the work it is able to accomplish?
Casa Refugiados was never intended to be the organization that it has become. But as we have faced different challenges, the context has led us to become what it is today. Initially, it was set up to provide opportunities for refugees to have temporary housing, access to health services and job opportunities. From there, it grew and evolved into a fully developed program.
Today, we provide humanitarian assistance to those displaced by violence, we work alongside UNHCR and other institutions to create the best possible conditions for those coming to Mexico. But we also try to focus on preventive work and promote reflecting on the various impacts of armed violence, and ways in which to foster peacebuilding.
Casa Refugiados builds community centers for individuals to gather. How do physical meeting spaces lead to better approaches to integration and peaceful societies?
Providing conditions for refugees to meet with local community members in dignity and with an attitude of openness is where the work starts. All these projects at Casa Refugiados started to happen when people had a place where they could meet and get to know each other — breaking their negative stereotypes on both sides. Getting to know each other and trying to find common experiences through common activities: it created what is now Casa Refugiados.
What are the different crises facing Mexico today?
I think we are in a context of global crises. We are facing different common crises across borders: environmental, political polarization, the pandemic, social violence, and economic crises. All of these lead to displacement. In Mexico, we are unique because of our geographical location. We are seeing that all these crises cross through Mexico. Mexico is at the border — at the last part of the journey for many.
In Mexico itself, we are experiencing a severe economic crisis. In 2020, 56 million people were living in poverty conditions. That’s 44% of the population. This has a big impact on the Mexican reality. 9% of the population is currently in extreme poverty.
We are also experiencing a rise in political violence, especially post-pandemic. In 2022, 31,000 people were murdered. 26 people go missing every day. Officially, the violence is not recognized as an internal armed conflict. But if you look at the figures, the number of people affected by violence is similar to those of war-torn countries.
In Mexico — just like the U.S. — we are approaching an election next year. This surge in violence makes us particularly vulnerable to those who are thinking of using violence as a tool to gain political influence.
People in the U.S. who don’t want migrants or refugees to cross into their borders need to help us from the other side, by blocking the arms traffic to Mexico.
There have been calls by states in the U.S. to have Mexican drug cartels labeled as terrorist organizations. What are your thoughts on this?
Organized crime is taking control of almost every economic activity in Mexico, even humanitarian aid is affected by this reality. We are also facing a stark reality that people are increasingly viewed as part of this illicit market. If they are kidnapped, they are worth a ransom. In my opinion, criminal gangs could be considered terrorists. Their capacity to inflict violence has an impact on society that controls the community — and the behaviors and thoughts of the population. It will also be interesting to think of the impact across the border, because these criminal gangs operate on both sides.
Which areas need more work to help address the refugee situation in Mexico?
We could be doing more research about the causes of and conditions in which people are fleeing the impact of armed violence. This is one key issue that we should be working on but are not yet at Casa — documenting the impact of armed violence for the displaced people we are assisting. Tracking their displacement from their country of origin to when they arrive in Mexico.
I also think it’s important to understand that people in the U.S. who don’t want migrants or refugees to cross into their borders need to help us from the other side, by blocking the arms traffic to Mexico. Mexico shares a 3,000-kilometer border with the U.S. and there are at least 9,000 arms shops on the other side of the border. A lot of the people who are fleeing into the U.S. now were previously able to create job opportunities in Mexico. But they are forced to move again because of the impact of armed violence in our country. It’s now one of the key factors of displacement. This will require a new approach, a new type of engineering to connect all these cross-border actors.
It's a challenge, but also an opportunity.
What do you think of the belief that national identity and migration don't always easily mix?
It’s a reality that people can be threatened by the different challenges we are facing. The impact of unemployment, of people having to close their businesses, and of artificial intelligence taking jobs. People fear these things and have many threats they are experiencing daily. The key issue is that the media — and sometimes political speech — focus on the possible enemy, and those who are different. In human history, that particularly vulnerable group has been the foreigners. It’s not that they themselves represent a threat, but they are used as a focus for these feelings.
In the case of Mexico, I think we actually have a weak national identity. There is a very small minority of people who have a clear indigenous identity. There is another group who have ties with Spanish ancestry. But most Mexicans are a mixture of identities. We need to develop these multiple identities and extend beyond these limited historical identities — to expand into new identities. Identities allow us to collaborate with each other and see each other as part of a new community. That’s what I’ve personally witnessed at Casa Refugiados.
Do you believe that crisis forges identity?
Something that I am personally very interested in is our resilience and how Casa Refugiados promotes resilient identities.
You can be affected by violence, and then forced to reduce your identity to being a victim of this violence. You’ll see that — in many cases — people will crumble under the weight of being a victim. But some of them find opportunities to go beyond this victimhood and label themselves as survivors, and then ultimately, they can develop an identity as changemakers. I would argue that these three identities can present themselves under crisis.
I think our main challenge as humanitarian organizations is to try and promote the conditions to develop individual and collective identities so that people can feel like actors of change. Whether that’s advocating for change in their own families, their communities, or beyond.
At Casa Refugiados, we have proof of this. Refugees who came to our community center as children are now leaders of the community, invited by the UN to go to Geneva and speak about their lived experiences and current work as leaders in their communities.
I would like to insist on the fact that even if the context is quite challenging, and even discouraging at times, we are convinced that it doesn’t matter. If we manage to reshape the humanitarian system so that all the stakeholders — public, private, social and displaced people themselves — are involved, we can prove that things can be different.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.