|Pastor Rolando Rostro of Iglesia Nueva Vida church, Memphis, Tennessee|
Guest post by Ralph Noyes
I sit in the lobby waiting for Pastor Rolando Rostro to finish the last proclamation of the Quinceañera ceremony. “Felicidades a la princesa del dia…” The children too young to sit are playing in front of me, switching with ease between English and Spanish, running in circles around the rug. When Rolando finally emerges, he leads me down a long hallway to the heart of his Iglesia Nueva Vida, the pastor’s office.
Rostro, originally from Rio Verde, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, immigrated with his parents and 9 siblings to Brownsville at the insistence of his mother. He and his family grew up working as pickers in the fields of South Texas, dodging the authorities. “We always had a fear of being questioned and discovered. We were intimidated, mentally unsettled. That fear creates dangerous conditions. People are afraid of going to the police, checking into a hospital, or dealing with any kind of bureaucracy. These services are in place to help people, not scare them away.” As a result, domestic abuse was rampant and “most crime went un reported in the neighborhood” during his childhood.
The Immigration Reform and Control Act, commonly known as “amnesty" or “legalization”, was passed by Congress and signed by President Reagan on November 6, 1986. Rostro recounts an incident shortly after that, when his mother was pulled over with him and his siblings in the car. “The officer asked us for identification and my mother took out all 11 social security cards, handed them to him one by one. That was a big moment for us. It created confidence and a freedom to open up to the authorities.” Although the law changed his legal status, it did not change popular opinion. “Laws don’t change popular opinion, taking personal action by opening your mouth does,” says Rostro, whose mother forced him and his siblings to learn English early.
These verbal skills have served him well in the years since then. Rolando has become pastor of his own Memphis church, President of the Hispanic Pastor Network, and a leading provider of Spanish translators to the 911 emergency system. In 2001 he participated in La Coalición Memphis, a group of a dozen individuals who lobbied successfully for the passage of a Tennessee law that enabled undocumented aliens to obtain driver’s licenses. “These are good people, working people. Give them a way to be included, to participate and assimilate into the system, to generate revenue and pay their dues. You want to be able to ID them out in the open, not to have to search for them in hiding.” Rostro believes that including immigrants can benefit the economy in the form of taxes, administrative fees, and traffic fines. “Whatever they charge, they will pay,” he states flatly, citing the overnight appearance of long lines at driver’s license centers as soon as the licenses became available.
According to Rostro, the future for today’s Hispanic immigrants is unclear, but “there’s always a fear of immigrants and there will always be opposition.” This opposition is fighting a tide that grows stronger everyday, a growing community that he believes will throw considerable weight behind the next presidential candidate who favors pro immigrant legislation. “The first generation doesn’t speak English or vote, but their children and grand children do. The next candidate who proposes something similar will win the Hispanic vote. It will happen again. Not this term, maybe next, or the one after. Without that law, I wouldn’t be educated. I wouldn’t have been able to provide private education for my kids, or give them the confidence, opportunity, and peace of mind to do something productive”.
As our interview turns to casual conversation, my ears drift to the music still thumping inside the church sanctuary. I wonder what opportunities await tonight’s “princess,” whether the world outside Iglesia Nueva Vida will accept and embrace her burgeoning identity, or whether she will become what Rostro fears - another “bright mind being robbed of the country’s benefits.”
This is the fifth and last story in a HispanicNashville.com series on the Reagan amnesty bill signed 25 years ago. The first piece in the series was by Cindy McCain, titled "'Manuel' remembers November 1986;" the second was last Friday's story/opinion piece "25 years of my own spiritual amnesty;" the third was a Thanskgiving-themed PSA called "Founder of the Feast," featuring a picker in the field, like Rostro and his family; the fourth was a guest post of mine called "Reagan’s Amnesty Bill Impacted Families for the Better" that was published on the web site undocumented.tv; and this story by Ralph Noyes about Rolando Rostro is the fifth.