Voices For Their Community
Local organization provides representation for Corsicana’s Hispanic population
By Guy Chapman – Navarro County Gazette
There was once a time where Ismael Huerta never saw himself as an activist for his community. During his high school years, he planned to join the armed services and serve his country. To his disappointment, he found his dream denied.
As many Americans did after 9/11, Huerta felt the need to serve the country he considered home, attempting to enlist in the marine corps. Despite beginning training, was unable to complete his paperwork during his senior year because of his undocumented status.
“Here I was wanting to go fight for a country that I’ve known my entire life, and yet even that I was unable to do because of my status in the country,” Huerta said.
The experience greatly discouraged him.
Huerta’s American story began when his mother had brought him to Texas at twelve months old.
“I took my first steps as a child on American soil,” Huerta said. “I took them on Texas soil. And since then I’ve been in the country, and this is all I’ve ever known. And I love Texas.”
“The person that taught me how to speak my first words in English was a World War II veteran. He lived right across from my parent’s house.”
“I have photographs with this man,” Huerta reminisced. “I used to sit on his porch when I was very little, 2, 3 years old. And every time a car would drive by, he would tell me the color of the car, or if it was a truck. My first words in English were color, truck, or car. And that was something that I cherish. I cherish that memory a lot because here you have this poor little immigrant kid that doesn’t speak any English, and yet you have a World War II veteran that’s an American, that’s teaching him his first words.”
As far as Huerta knew, there was never a reason to feel out of place.
“I never knew what it was like to be undocumented until I got to high school, because as a child growing up, you don’t know what the difference is between being undocumented and being documented,” Huerta said. “I grew up like every other kid. I rode my bikes down the same streets that a lot of kids in Navarro County did, swam in the local creeks, played baseball on Sundays, watched baseball games…. I would have hot dogs. Me in my mind, I was just like every other American kid.”
In 2013, a weekend of detainment opened Huerta eyes to a need of better understanding the immigration process. The activist credits his high-school friend Jose Santoyo as getting him involved in activism.
In tenth grade, Santoyo recalled a high school counselor told him he couldn’t go to college due to not having a social security number. With no seeming future in sight, Santoyo started skipping school and letting his grades drop, until he started getting into the choir and fine arts programs.
He credits Margaret Alfaro (then Moreno) for helping to turn his life around. Alfaro, then a recruiter for Navarro College, provided support and encouragement for Santoyo to continue his education, which he did so through choir scholarships and financial aid. Her support led Santoyo to graduate Navarro and eventually become the commencement speaker during his graduation ceremony at Southern Methodist University.
Santoyo became politically active back in 2012 after becoming a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient. Primarily living in Dallas, he started meeting people and getting involved in politics and campaigns through various jobs. From knocking on doors, to engaging with people, Santoyo realized the need to paint a picture for people to understand the impact of elections, community awareness, and voting.
He later got to travel throughout Europe for two months, in which he spent one month in Spain. Santoyo said the moment changed his life, as it opened up the possibilities and options that were out there for people.
“You could truly live in a peaceful world that has open borders.”
Today, Santoyo and Huerta provide a more unified voice of representation for Corsicana’s Hispanic neighborhoods.
The United Latino Foundation originated in 2014, its name selected to represent the more inclusive needs of the people it represents. For the first year, Huerta and Santoyo worked in the background of their community looking for ways to provide information and resources for the city’s Latino population.
“Our organization has always been about helping,” Huerta said. “And as far as donations and mobilizing the community, this was something that Jose and I always did alone until we actually got our organization off the ground. And that’s when other people wanted to get involved.”
The group’s mission gained momentum in 2015 after a series of local visits from the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. As Huerta mobilized the community, he found guidance and assistance from the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, of which he is a member. News stations from Dallas covered the foundation’s efforts during this time. The foundation also received assistance from the North Texas Dream Team out of Dallas.
Over the summer, Huerta and Santoyo met with the city council and local law enforcement to further discuss their community’s immigration concerns, and protect the individual rights of its Latino residents. In late August of that year, Santoyo organized a peaceful march in Corsicana to bring attention to the issue.
While the summer of 2015 put the United Latino Foundation in a more public spotlight, the group formed a leadership council, with volunteers voted on to serve as members during their monthly meetings. Huerta points out that not all of their work deals with immigration.
“It’s not just about politics with us,” Huerta continued. “I’ve always been about helping people. I’ve always been that way.”
Without an official organization to represent Hispanics in Corsicana, the United Latino Foundation’s activities evolved from simply representing immigrant rights, to encompassing more of the community’s needs. The range of support expanded to include working with the United Christian Fellowship to gather donations for fire victims that lost their homes during an apartment fire. The group cooked hot dogs to feed the affected families, and gathered to items to provide the parents and their children.
“It seemed like the perfect opportunity to show the community that we were more than just an organization about politics and immigrant rights,” Huerta said. “We were also an organization that was there to help out the community, the entire community, and not just the Hispanic community.”
In 2016, they helped to register first-time voters at the Immaculate Conception Church, and over time, became more of an informative resource to provide assistance to the local Hispanic population, while exposing injustices in the community.
Activism, however, comes with working long hours and spending time with even longer lines of people who need help.
“It takes a toll on you, being an activist and wanting to help people with issues that sometimes don’t even pertain to you. You carry a lot of weight,” Huerta said.
Since 2017, the group has largely reverted back to Santoyo and Huerta overseeing the foundation and providing more online support, such as translating public announcements, promoting more involvement with local schools and education, and sharing voter and registration information.
“We haven’t had boots on the ground, I guess you could say,” Huerta said. “But we’ve been there to show support to our community in other ways. Through social media, especially.”
The foundation’s work is still involved in more recent events. When a local teacher had been indicted for inappropriate behavior with students in 2019, Huerta assisted several families by pointing them to the right resources to file reports and charges, acting as an interpreter for parents that don’t speak fluent English, and spent time speaking with some of the affected children.
For this year’s elections, Huerta and Santoyo shared their thoughts on the importance of getting people registered and involved, as they believe community representation is necessary. Due to the high rate of impact COVID-19 has hit the Hispanic and African American communities, large groups and in-person meetings have remained challenging.
“People don’t get involved in politics until it ends up affecting you personally,” Huerta said. “That’s when you care. If it’s happening to your neighbor, if it’s happening across the street, you don’t care. But if it starts to happen to you, your family, your parents, your daughters, whoever, that’s when you want to get involved.”
Since moving here in 2004, Santoyo has seen the Hispanic population in Corsicana grow significantly, with many residents moving to smaller towns like Corsicana from larger cities.
“I think there’s a lot of work that needs to happen here, and it’s going to happen as the city keeps growing with more people coming in, where they are better equipped to challenge the systems that were put in place prior to our arrival,” Santoyo said. “It’s a lot of ongoing work.”
“The voters are there,” Huerta said. “We have a lot of Hispanic voters in Corsicana. It’s just a matter of getting them interested enough to take the time out of their day to go register to vote and go vote.”
Santoyo currently resides in Dallas, having recently relocated back to the city. Huerta relocated from Corsicana to Arkansas, though his family is still in town. The activist plans to move back home eventually. Even though both men are no longer local, they are still ensuring support is available for Corsicana’s south side residents.