For undocumented immigrant, traffic stop could be much more

Aug 11, 2021 | News

By Nicholas Wagner

It was a typical Friday morning on April 7 for Diana Lopez, just another day driving her son, Donovan, to school in Nashville traffic. Lopez conversed with her son about his upcoming tests, while her short stature perked up to see over the hood of her friend’s car as she cut around backed-up traffic and into an opposing lane to proceed to the turn lane for Harding Place.

The biggest worry on the 29-year-old Mexican national’s mind was getting through the workday to make it to the weekend; at least until a Metro Nashville police officer flipped Lopez’s day upside down and injected uncertainty into her life for the coming weeks.

As an undocumented immigrant, Lopez was unable to produce a driver’s license when the police officer requested one. Instead, with shaky hands she passed him her Mexican passport.

Not only did she not have a driver’s license, but she didn’t have the ability to effectively communicate with the officer. Although she can understand basic English, Lopez doesn’t speak the language, even an elementary level. Instead, her 12-year-old son had to translate.

“I am so mad,” Lopez, a passionate community activist for immigrant rights, wrote in Spanish on Facebook that morning. “Fucking Nashville cops, those assholes only want to intimidate and criminalize us.”

Because of the traffic stop, Lopez must appear in court on May 4. Driving without a license is a Class C Misdemeanor in the state of Tennessee, punishable by up to 30 days in jail. Should the judge sentence Lopez to jail time, Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents could take her into custody, which could lead to deportation.

She would lose her job.

She would lose her boyfriend.

She would lose her two children.

She could lose her life.

“It would be a death sentence,” Cameron Chase, Lopez’s boyfriend and fellow activist, said. “What nobody realizes is that being deported isn’t a ‘homecoming’ for people. Most often deportees go back to a country they left behind years, even decades ago.”

In 2012, Lopez fled her hometown of Ecatepec, Mexico, due to the rising rate of femicide. She feared she would become a victim at the hands of her husband after she left him.

“He could’ve killed me given how angry he was,” Lopez said. “Fucking sexist.”

After her husband kidnapped Donovan and his sister, Zoe, for two weeks, Lopez came up with a plan. She asked her husband for permission to eat lunch with her children before returning them to their father. He agreed, and Lopez took advantage of his mistake.

During the two weeks she was without her children, Lopez made a life-changing decision to kidnap them and head to Tijuana, where they would cross the border into the United States.

“I was scared to lose my life, but I was more afraid of never seeing my kids again,” Lopez said.

Lopez crossed legally with a visitor’s visa, but that was the easy part. She had to manage the illegal crossing of her children.

Lopez enlisted the help of her uncle who lives in Tijuana to find trustworthy coyotes, as Mexican smugglers are known, to smuggle her two children across the border and into San Diego. Lopez made sure her children were in the hands of women instead of men, as Tijuana is a hotbed for human trafficking.

Still, anything could happen. The kids could have been detained at the border, kidnapped in Tijuana, or abused at the storehouse in California.

Before crossing, then 6-year-old Donovan and 5-year-old Zoe had to learn basic English and their new names to match their forged documents.

While they were learning how to trick Customs and Border Protection agents, their mom was impatiently waiting stateside.

She had no appetite and she couldn’t overcome her worries to fall asleep.

“I was thinking about a thousand things… everything that came to my head was bad,” Lopez said, sitting on a couch in the living room of her boyfriend’s home, wearing an “I am an immigrant” T-shirt. “I had no clue what was happening.”

Lopez called her contact in Tijuana to figure out what the hold up was. An hour later she received a call and was told to wait another day because it was too risky to transport her children due to “surveillance” in the area where Donovan and Zoe were staying.

Then, a vehicle arrived outside of the house where Lopez was waiting. Her children were inside the van, but first she had to pay $7,000 to receive them. It was worth putting an end to the “longest week” of her entire life.

“I thought about staying in Tijuana, but [my husband] could have easily came to find us,” Lopez said, providing reasoning for crossing. “We had to feel safe. We have that feeling now in the U.S.

“I liked my life back home. And although you miss your country, your friends, your family; life is worth more.”

Lopez and her two children now live in Antioch, a Nashville suburb, in her parent’s home. They enjoy late nights watching movies, sometimes even on school nights. They pick on each other like best friends, and show affection for each other when one is feeling down, or simply just to express their love. Before exiting the car each morning, Lopez receives a kiss goodbye from Donovan and Zoe. They also help out their “mama” with her activism at Dignidad Obrera, or Worker’s Dignity, a worker-led organization fighting for economic justice and dignity.

They’ve always been by her side.

Zoe and Donovan marched alongside their mom during the women’s march after President Trump’s inauguration. They carried signs while she shouted through a bullhorn when Trump held a rally in Nashville in March. And they helped Lopez organize a May 1 strike and march to recognize International Workers’ Day.

The march stressed the need for sanctuary for every immigrant and demanded not one more immigrant be deported. Zoe and Donovan know that one more deportation could very well be their mom.

It may be the reason behind the “te amo” Diana directed toward Donovan as they set up tables for the march. Or the extra squeeze Zoe received while she walked with her mom to a community meeting to discuss how to stop deportations.

But for Lopez, it’s no longer just an act of solidarity with those facing deportation; now it’s her reality.

“I live with fear everyday,” Lopez said. “But everyday I transform my fear into a desire to fight.”

Lopez wasn’t always a fighter.

Before she became a volunteer with Dignidad Obrera, Lopez was like thousands of other undocumented, single-mother immigrants hiding in the shadows while stuck in a monotonous routine of waiting on tables and caring for their children.

But now she uses her personal injustices to motivate herself to help others in her community. And her involvement in Dignidad Obrera has enabled her to become more effective in what she does, and she has shined brighter than ever since Trump was elected to office.

The day after the election, Dignidad Obrera organized a community meeting to get people together to process and grieve what had happened. Margaret Ernst, Lopez’s friend and a community organizer with Nashville Community Defense, first realized Lopez’s capabilities at that meeting.

“I was really impressed by her ability to find strength fighting for and with other people,” Ernst said. “After she got pulled over, she was really worried for herself. But she takes her concern from her own situation… to help other people.”

On May 4, though, all of Lopez’s concerns were focused on her court case.

Her baggy eyes were illuminated by the interior light of Chase’s silver Nissan Altima as she sat with him in a parking garage across the street from the Justice A.A. Birch Building criminal courthouse.

She wasn’t using the light to apply makeup to cover up the acne that dotted her cheeks and forehead. Nor was she using it to find an end to the wrapper of her favorite Hershey’s chocolate candy. Instead, Chase took her forearm and applied Sharpie marker to it, inking his own phone number, as well as that of Lopez’s mother in case she leaves the courtroom in handcuffs.

She was sure to hug her children a little bit longer before leaving for the courthouse.

“I told [my kids] ‘Alright, you’ll probably see me the morning of my court date, but I don’t know what will happen after that.’” Lopez said between deep breaths. “But I will fight until the end.”

Under a light rain, Lopez and Chase proceeded to the courthouse holding hands. First Lopez passed through a security checkpoint, then a room to register finger prints and to have a photo made for her file. Then, she hugged the six friends who came to show support and headed for the non-English speaking courtroom’s imposing wooden doors.

One after the other, like clockwork, the judge called a defendant’s name before delivering an order after most plead guilty to driving without a license.

After nearly two hours waiting for her name to be called, Diana’s name sounded from the courtroom’s speaker system.

Dressed in her black “Mi Jente” hoodie, which stands for the Spanish expression of “Mi Gente,” or “My People,” except spelled with a “J” to symbolize “Justicia,” Lopez proceeded to the stand.

She received an order to attend traffic school, allowing her to go home, kiss her kids goodnight and fight another day for immigrant rights.

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