By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Women refugees living in an Iowa City Catholic Worker House were among the first leaders of Escucha Mi Voz, a faith-based community organization that means, “Hear my voice.” Formed in Iowa City in April 2021, Escucha Mi Voz has grown into a collective of immigrant-led groups striving to empower working-class, immigrant and refugee communities in Iowa.
Their tenacity in fighting for dignity and justice, beginning with securing pandemic relief funds for many essential workers excluded from funds, has put them in the national spotlight along with a diocesan priest who motivated them. Their victories include the approval of pandemic relief funds for essential and excluded workers in Johnson County and its county seat, Iowa City.
The organization continues its efforts to secure funding for essential workers living in West Liberty. Efforts to do so in Columbus Junction fell short, but they believe their voices have been heard, as one Escucha Mi Voz leader said in the award-winning documentary, “Rising Up in the Heartland: Latino Workers Fight for Pandemic Relief.”
Now, Father Guillermo Treviño, the pastor who opened his parishes’ doors to Escucha Mi Voz and encouraged the group’s advocacy in the public square, is in Baltimore to receive the 2022 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) award honors young adults “who demonstrate leadership in fighting poverty and injustice in the United States through community-based solutions.”
Bishop Thomas Zinkula was to confer the award at a reception Nov. 15 during the U.S. bishops’ annual General Assembly. Silvia Juarez, a member of the Columbus Junction Parish and a leader of its Escucha Mi Voz group, and Maria Lopez, parish secretary of the West Liberty Parish, accompanied Father Treviño to Baltimore for the award ceremony.
Juarez “has been there since the beginning of Escucha Mi Voz. She got invited to one of the first meetings and she’s been inviting others ever since. She may have even helped bring new members to the Columbus Junction parish,” Father Treviño said. In an email, Juarez told The Catholic Messenger she got involved with Escucha Mi Voz because Hispanics “do not realize that we have rights and I like to help (others) when they have questions.”
Maria Murguia of St. Joseph Parish in West Liberty joined Escucha Mi Voz to help people with limited resources and people who are undocumented, she said. Her daughter, Karla, served as translator. Murguia also appreciates the support of Father Treviño and retired priest, Father Dennis Martin. “They’re always at the meetings when we go to the city (councils),” she said.
Maria F. Ayala, another Escucha Mi Voz leader with the Columbus Junction parish, said the organization helps keep people informed and she has a desire to facilitate that effort. She also serves St. James Parish in Washington County. She noted, “The priests’ support is important to us.” Like Murguia, she hopes to advocate successfully for driver’s licenses for individuals unable to establish legal presence in the U.S., but who meet other requirements.
David Goodner, co-founder of Iowa City Catholic Worker, said that organization and Quad Cities Interfaith “really deserve credit for helping launch Escucha Mi Voz Iowa.” A CCHD grant through Quad Cities Interfaith enabled him to work full-time as a community organizer and to start a new affiliate that became Escucha Mi Voz.
“The Catholic Worker brought to the table already established relationships with 17 Iowa City area churches and a multiyear history of serving, sponsoring and accompanying refugees,” Goodner said. Father Treviño, for example, started two Escucha Mi Voz core teams at his parishes last year and serves as chaplain for teams at his parishes and in
Iowa City. “The groups have been a constant presence at local and county government meetings asking for stimulus checks for excluded workers,” Goodner said.
“With Father Treviño’s support, last year Escucha Mi Voz reached out to the Diocese of Davenport’s Hispanic Ministry parishes and built relationships with priests and lay members,” Goodner said. “Anita Munoz, a live-in trustee of the Catholic Worker House, and Ninoska Campos, now a full-time Escucha Mi Voz organizer, knocked on doors in immigrant neighborhoods across the Iowa City area.”
Persistence pays off
“Together, between the parishes and the neighborhoods, they built a contact list of more than 1,200 excluded workers. With that list in hand, Escucha Mi Voz invited everyone to core team formation meetings at their local parishes in August 2021.”
Father Treviño was the first local leader of Escucha Mi Voz in the rural areas and facilitated the first core team meetings. “Local leaders stood up, were elected by their core team membership, and
took over chairing the local meetings within the first four weeks,” Goodner said. “Those local elected leaders, along with Father Treviño, now make up Escucha Mi Voz’s board of directors. The EMV board is 100% immigrant workers.”
Escucha Mi Voz members ran Excluded Workers campaigns in Iowa City, Johnson County, Columbus Junction and West Liberty. Those efforts led to securing $1,400 in pandemic relief funds for each of 2,238 essential and excluded workers who live in Iowa City or one of the other communities in Johnson County.
Escucha Mi Voz and the Catholic Worker House also were among recipients of grant funds that Catholic Charities USA applied for and received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The new Food and Farmworker Relief Program will provide $600 relief checks to qualifying meatpacking plant workers, grocery workers and farmworkers who incurred out-of-pocket expenses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Now immigrant workers in urban and rural areas are getting some relief. And our organizing campaigns proved we had the relationships and the capacity to administer the USDA and Catholic Charities aid,” Goodner said. “As for my motivation, if excluded immigrant workers had the legal ability to organize and form their own unions, they wouldn’t need charity from the Catholic Worker House. Now, they have their own voice and vehicle.”
“It’s a dream for a pastor to empower their parishioners to do things,” Father Treviño said. “I became involved in this work for the community by listening to the people. It has impacted me because the people are doing amazing things on their own.”