Gustavo Torrez is Executive Direction of CASA de Maryland.
Mr. Torres has been recognized nationally and internationally for his leadership and vision in the immigrant rights movement in the United States. Originally a union leader from Colombia, Mr. Torres came to the U.S. to avoid political persecution. He joined CASA's staff as a community organizer, and has served as CASA's Executive Director since 1994.
Under his leadership, CASA has grown from an organization with a handful of staff members and a budget of under $500,000 to a nationally awarded multi-service Latino advocacy and support agency with a staff of over 50 and a budget of nearly $5 million. Mr. Torres was the founding president of the Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice, a statewide grassroots lobbying organization, and has served as a Board member on the National Capital Immigration Coalition, the Prince George's County Executive Transition Committee, Board President of the National Day Labor Organizing Network, member of the Envision Greater Washington Work Group to develop a strategic visioning process for the region for the next 25 years, and on numerous task forces and leadership groups addressing issues of diversity, immigrant rights, and multiculturalism across the Washington metropolitan area. In December 2001 Mr. Torres received the Ford Foundation's prestigious "Leadership for a Changing World" award, akin to the MacArthur Genius Awards presented to 12 grassroots leaders nationwide.
In 2002, Mr. Torres was named one of 15 Washingtonians of the Year by Washingtonian Magazine. Under his direction, CASA has received numerous awards and national recognition, including: the National Council of La Raza Affiliate of the Year Award in 2004, which recognized one of over 300 Hispanic-serving organizations for their excellence in serving the Latino community; the Letelier-Moffitt Domestic Human Rights Award, presented to CASA by the Institute for Policy Studies in 2003; the Annie E. Casey Foundation "Families Count!" award, presented to CASA in 2005; and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund Community Service Award, presented in March 2006.
National Capital Immigration Coalition rally
September 7, 2006, the National Capital Immigration Coalition held a rally on the National Mall. The protest was billed by immigration rights groups as a post-Labor Day demonstration to show Congress that undocumented workers still wanted an immigration reform bill that would allow them to work in the country legally. Turnout for the march was lower than expected with several organizers attributing low numbers of attendees to the fact that in the four months since the first marches, competing immigration bills had stalled in the House and the Senate.
Speakers were Johari Abdul-Malik Chairman Coordinating Council of Muslim Organizations, Deepak Bhargava Director Center for Community Change, Macrina Cardenas National Coordinator Mexico Solidarity Network, Jaime Contreras Chair National Capital Immigration Coalition, Francisco Gonzalez Valer Auxiliary Bishop Roman Catholic Church-Archdiocese of Washington, DC Bruce S. Gordon President and CEO NAACP, Luis Gutiérrez U.S. Representative [D] Illinois, Chung-Wha Hong Executive Director New York Immigration Coalition, Jose Hoyos Priest Roman Catholic Church-Arlington, VA, Sheila Jackson Lee U.S. Representative [D] Texas, Abdul Kamus Executive Director African Resource Center, Edward Kennedy U.S. Senator [D] Massachusetts, Carlos Lopez Laborer, Timothy McDonald Chairman African-American Ministers in Action, Eliseo Medina Executive Vice President Service Employees International Union, Janet Murguia President and CEO National Council of La Raza, Miguel Rivera President National Coalition of Latino Clergy, Rosa Rosales National President League of United Latin American Citizens, Gustavo Torres Executive Director CASA de Maryland, John Wilhelm President UNITE HERE->Hospitality Industry.
Every May 1 in Medellin, Colombia, Antonio Torres, a carpenter, led his family to watch the worker-solidarity parades. Thousands promenaded from across the city to rally in el Parque Berrio. Gustavo, the second-youngest son of 15 brothers and sisters, would never forget the exhilaration.
To help make ends meet, Ilumina Yotagria would rise before dawn to cook empanadas that Gustavo and his siblings would hawk in the streets.
Just being alive in Medellin in the 1970s and 1980s was a political education. Liberal and leftist activists decried poverty and inequality. Conservatives in power had little patience for even nonviolent protest. Pablo Escobar’s flourishing cocaine empire added another layer of instability.
After high school, Gustavo enrolled in an accounting apprenticeship program, which sent him to work in a bank, where he became a union organizer.
“Even back then, the phrase he used to say was, ‘We all have rights in the community, but also, we all have duties in the community,’ ” says his older sister Martha Torres.
He earned enough at the bank to pay for university and to join a friend in opening a small taverna, called Mama Vieja, or Old Mama, which became a hangout for student activists.
In 1987, things turned savage. Students, professors and union organizers were murdered or disappeared.
Torres and his friends heard that their names were on “la lista negra,” though they never saw the notorious death list.
Torres, then 26, and a fellow student and union leader, Guillermo Useche, decided to get out of town. Torres gave Mama Vieja to his younger brother, Gabriel Jaime, a university student who volunteered in poor barrios.
Several weeks later, as Gabriel Jaime was opening the taverna, strangers arrived.
Is Gustavo here? Is Gabriel Jaime here?
I’m Gabriel Jaime.
They shot him multiple times. He died on the way to the hospital. Nobody was arrested.
Torres and Useche lit out for Nicaragua. The pair got jobs with El Tayacan, a weekly newspaper that supported the Sandinista revolution. Torres also worked on a European-funded study of Sandinista land reform, which sent him into rural areas to interview campesinos.
The campesinos made a deep impression when they grumbled that the revolutionary planners should have consulted them before ordering them to grow rice, instead of more practical coffee or beans.
By the time the Sandinistas were voted out of power in 1990, Torres says he was in love with an American, Lois Wessel, who was working on a public health project in Managua. Wessel suggested they move to the United States so she could pursue a nursing degree.
Torres and Wessel came to Washington in 1991 and got married. Torres arrived on a tourist visa, then applied for work authorization and a green card.
His marriage smoothed his path to citizenship in 1995, he says. He and Wessel were divorced in late 1996, but both say they remain on good terms.
“This is the country I chose to live in,” he says. “But I didn’t choose to be quiet, and to not push for changes.
“If I did these kinds of things in Colombia, I’d have been killed a long time ago.”
Torres’s first job in the United States was painting houses. Controversy was boiling in Langley Park. As many as 150 day laborers congregated daily at the corner of University Boulevard and Piney Branch Road to seek work.
“He was just an amazing personality, charismatic, energetic, and somebody who clearly just had this real-life organizing experience,” says Parish, who suggested Torres as her successor in 1994. “He’s a big-picture thinker, and organizers aren’t always.”
“Immigration reform won’t happen, and the Latino community will not come of age politically, until there are 50 Gustavo Torreses,” says Frank Sharry, founder of America’s Voice, a national immigrant advocacy group. “He’s a pioneer in what historians will write about as the immigrant-led Latino movement, for whom immigration reform is akin to the big civil rights legislation of the 1960s for the African American community.”
Why is it taxpayers are subsidizing an organization that appears to be systematically working to promote, encourage, accommodate and reward illegal behavior?” says Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based group that favors restricting legal and illegal immigration.
In addition to government money, more than half of CASA’s annual budget over the years has come from member dues and corporations and foundations such as the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, Bank of America, Wachovia Bank and Citgo.
“This has got to be the snazziest office of any immigrant-rights organization in the country,” says Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union. “The people who started this plantation, if only they had known it would become the People’s home.”
The guests move from the dark wood-paneled grand salon to an equally elegant reception room.
The ostensible purpose of the evening is to honor Medina, along with SEIU President Mary Kay Henry. But in their remarks, the speakers can’t help paying homage to Torres and CASA.