By Krissah Thompson
Eliseo Medina sits in what looks from the outside like a big, white party tent on the edge of the Mall. But inside, this is an encampment for fasters, adorned with a photo of Gandhi and an ash-colored old shoe found in the Arizona desert.
The 67-year-old Mexican-American union leader and immigration activist lost 24 pounds during a 22-day fast that ended Tuesday. His gold wedding band now spins on his ring finger. His face is gaunt. His eyes, though, have an intensity as he talks about how to persuade members of the U.S. House of Representatives to follow their Senate colleagues and enact immigration legislation.
The fast has “created a moment in which the public is focused on the problems of this broken immigration system,” says Medina, who drew visits from the president, first lady, vice president and the House minority leader. “When those moments come, you have to take advantage of them.”
Medina stepped down as secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in October to focus his full attention on overhauling immigration laws. He says he was haunted by the feeling that reform was going nowhere.
His passion, in part, stems from his days picking grapes and strawberries in Delano, Calif., and later as a member of the movement led by civil rights activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. The potency of a unified Latino political bloc, one powerful enough to pressure big business and lawmakers to act, seemed real again.
Huerta, 83, sees an unmistakable link between Medina and Chavez, who fasted in support of nonviolence and farmworkers’ rights.
“[Chavez] never called it a hunger strike,” Huerta says. “He thought it shouldn’t be coercive. It’s a spiritual offering. That’s the spirit here in D.C.”
In 1956, Medina’s family immigrated from Zacatecas, Mexico — a “dirt-poor state with a long history of sending immigrants because you can’t survive otherwise,” Medina says.
“What I remember was being driven from Tijuana to Delano at night and being pulled over by Border Patrol,” he says. “They flashed lights in our faces and asked for papers. The only reason we were pulled over was because it was a car full of Mexicans.”
Leaning into the conversation, he says he still remembers how he felt as the light shone in his face. He was 10 years old.
In Delano, Medina found himself in an insulated Spanish speaking world of farmworkers. His father was a bracero, a guest manual laborer, and at age 15 Medina worked in the fields on school vacations and weekends, making 80 cents an hour.
“There was horrible treatment and lack of respect,” he says.
By the time Medina came of age, Chavez had launched a strike in the grape fields of Medina’s home town. The goal was better wages and working conditions, such as clean water in the fields for workers to drink.
“So many people came from all over. They weren’t farmworkers. Many went to jail. They had nothing to gain from it, but they came,” Medina says. “It was a huge revelation for me about the values of this country and the belief that if you work hard it ought to be respected.”
If he had not connected with the farmworkers union and Chavez, Medina would likely have become a foreman in the fields, says Randy Shaw, author of “Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.” Instead, Medina became a union organizer.
By the time he was 21, the leaders of the United Farm Workers sent him to Chicago to help implement a boycott of table grapes. He arrived with $100 and no coat. Other organizers took him in, and he helped to implement a successful boycott. Medina continued to rise in the union, including an organizing stint in Florida where he avoided Ku Klux Klan members, before leaving the UFW in 1978.
At that time, historians say, Chavez had begun to consolidate the union’s power and distrust allies. Medina, once thought of as Chavez’s heir apparent, eventually took a job leading an SEIU local chapter in San Diego, says Shaw.
Medina gained greater prominence among union and immigrant activists in California. He brokered a deal between striking cemetery workers and the Catholic church, which made the way for a greater alliance between immigrant workers and church leaders.
In 1995, Medina joined former SEIU president Andy Stern’s slate for national office and became one of the most visible Latinos in the labor movement. Soon after, Medina made the argument to other union leaders that the nation’s demographics were changing and they should embrace immigrant workers — regardless of whether they had entered the country illegally.
About the same time, Medina focused on the aftermath of California’s Proposition 187, which prohibited illegal immigrants from using public health care, education and other social services. Medina worked to register Hispanic voters.
“We called it the Latino Project, and we believe it sent Mr. Pete Wilson into retirement,” recalls Ben Monterrosa, Medina’s longtime adviser, referring to the California governor who had supported the 1994 ballot initiative. They turned that push for greater political power into Mi Familia Vota, a national nonprofit group focused on boosting Latino political participation.
Medina’s mixing of politics with immigration policy bothers Vernon Briggs, a professor emeritus of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University who has debated Medina publicly. Briggs argues that immigrants who come to the country illegally hurt the existing U.S. labor force.
“Fundamentally, what immigration is about is labor,” says Briggs. “You can get into these other issues about diversity, but is it congruent with the labor needs of the United States?”
Medina believes so. He has been a central figure in Washington’s immigration debates dating back to 2001, when the George W. Bush administration supported of an overhaul before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, stalled that legislative agenda. Political analysts say it will be nearly impossible to get an immigration bill through Congress this year, and midterm elections may also make passage difficult next year.
It is that kind of political paralysis that led Medina to conduct his fast, which others in the encampment are carrying on.
Medina’s family was apprehensive, says his daughter Elena, a graduate of Harvard Law School who is an SEIU attorney. (Eliseo Medina, who has been married twice, has four children. His wife, Liza, is also a lawyer.)
“He told us what he was doing,” says Elena. “I wouldn’t say that he asked permission.”
Medina’s age added another dimension. Chavez, who died at 66, worried supporters by fasting late in his life.
The visits by dignitaries during his fast were nice, Medina says, but it was a different encounter that gave him strength in his final days without food.
After the heating system failed in the church where he was staying, Medina moved to a nearby hotel. A cleaning lady heard he was there and asked to see him. She came in weeping. “Dios lo bendiga” — “God bless you” — she said, and thanked him for his sacrifice for the people.