Member Spotlight: Teresa Vivar

"For Native people, we believe that we walk on Mother Earth with momentum. Every step that you take, make sure that you do it right because somebody else is following you. You’re opening and building that path for others to follow."

Pictured above, Teresa Vivar, Executive Director of Lazos America Unida

Teresa on who she is, and her role and journey in forming Lazos…

"My name is Teresa Vivar and I am the executive director of Lazos America Unida, which is a Mexican-American organization in the state of New Jersey. We’ve been serving the community for the last 30 years. I started organizing when I was 18 years old. The reason I do this is because when I came here back in 1995, there were few places that would offer health services and legal resources to community members that spoke languages other than English. Most of these places that offer those services did not have translators. Therefore, getting access to these resources was difficult. Most of us young, women organizers came from rural towns with Native people. A lot of people use the word “Indigenous” people, but we prefer the words “People from the First Nations”, or “The First People”. We’re Native people from this land, so for us, immigration does not exist and persist in the view of Anglo people, or White people. For us to walk Mother Earth, it’s one. We don’t see the divisions, we just walk by whatever is needed in the transition of one place to another which is something natural for us. For example, as I said I grew up in a rural town, so our agricultural practices and food practices were organic. We don’t buy canned food, we buy fresh produce at the market. We even farm with our own animals and hunt. A few days ago, I was speaking with Oaxacan community members talking about the practices of hunting for our tables. By trying to find a way to connect these practices of health and human resources that only speak English, and build this bridge where this exchange of knowledge can coexist, we have to establish an organization where Anglo people could collaborate with us. I found that everyone from the Oaxaca area and other Native groups, although the cultures differ, we have to collaborate with the state government in order to find translators to help us communicate with health departments, hospitals, clinics, jails, and in trials in courts. Many things around Native or Original Peoples needs this collaboration from Lazos, not only in New Jersey, but also in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts in order to create this network of language resources. 

Right now, I think we have more groups that have come up because of COVID. As Native Mothers, we have the sense of caring and nurturing other people. If you care about your kids, you need your kids to get up for others as well. Not just Native people at home, but Native people here share that. Regardless, we care. So I think that’s the reason behind my and other Lazos’ women’s work."

Teresa on the importance of policies that preserve Native heritage, language, and tradition … 

"Well it’s a process. Right now, we don’t all know what specific policies exist to protect Native people. So first we need education on what policies are already in place in New Jersey, especially on who they consider to be Native people. Starting with research about it, we’ll see what the needs are. From there, we can start writing policies that maybe are present in other states, but that we’re not doing here. Also, we need to collect data on who these Native people are, what languages they speak, what resources they need, or if they need translators. All of the housing leases are in English, and don’t always have translations. A lot of people don’t know about the services that are available to them. If Natives aren’t already protected, then we can start somewhere. Also, with all the money that has already been given for cultural preservation and history, we need to see where that money has gone and who it has gone to. For example, in New Jersey, I noticed that funds aren’t necessarily given to the Lenape tribe. There’s research about Native people that isn’t being used for Native people. I think we have to start thinking about Native people year round, globally, not just during this month. And then I think little by little, we can start changing the sentiment of only paying attention during Thanksgiving, or during Native and Indigenous People’s Day. Something I want to work on is a Native People’s Day in New Jersey. We might lose our elders soon, so we need them now to speak at higher levels. Definitely, we can do more."


Some of Lazos’ recent successes and core values…

"I grew up educated in arts and humanities in my country, and I learned very young that if we didn’t have the connections with our original towns and roots and try to preserve the cultural events and activities, we might lose our identity. By losing this, we are taking away the future of our children, and the authenticity of who we are. Every activity that Lazos did in the beginning was connecting back to folk art, folk dance, Original music, and the history behind these dances and music. We taught youth how to dance certain things, where they come from, and where it originated from. These activities that Lazos did for years brought people from Mexico. We would invite people to speak to the youth, and teach them about their hometown and what it means. 

Lazos is also women-directed. All of us, even the board members, are women. This is the only Mexican organization in the tristate area that is organized by women. We provide this example for more than 300,000 Mexicans that live in New Jersey. During COVID, a lot of women started selling handmade items from their own countries, like Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador. To form these connections, we found that it’s important to invite the people that are actually doing the art. Everything can be lost in the commercialization of our art, and if we don’t keep the essence of it, we have to remind people that we are Protectors. Protecting our resources and our culture means preserving the identity of the youth. Native Mexicans survive because we have to learn to transform our beliefs, but we continue to pray to everything that we believe in so that we never let it die. Now, what we try to do is embrace and connect with other people. For example, in New Jersey, we connect with the Lenape people who exist in our state and let them know that it is okay to let others know that they are here, to fight back, and extend themselves with pride. It’s hard for me to see how many youth have been lost in the transition. In order to “fit”, it feels like you have to lose who you are, your language, your dresses, you feel shame- it’s so sad. 

Right now there’s a collaboration in New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, and even California to create a group of translators- it’s called Cielo. Each group in each state is part of a network that offers translations and legal services, which is something that we’re so proud of having, especially now that the Mexican Consulate is going to be opening in New Jersey to serve NJ Mexicans. We’ll be able to include  the network that Lazos has spent so many years building in the government as well. 

Since we’re talking about Thanksgiving, Native people teach our youth to be grateful- grateful and respectful for other people and languages, as well as service and supporting others. For Native people, we believe that we walk on Mother Earth with momentum. Every step that you take, make sure that you do it right because somebody else is following you. You’re opening and building that path for others to follow. You need to teach your youth to be gentle, to be kind, to be a service to others, and to be grateful for and protective over what you have. We are protectors, and we have to teach people how to protect these traditions too."


What does the month and tradition of Native American Heritage Month and Thanksgiving mean to Teresa as a leader in the Native social justice movement in New Jersey…

"I think it’s about getting involved, as I mentioned before. Maybe with your family, try to collect some funds, go to places  and work with them on an activity that they might use these funds for, or help to establish a program. These projects could be something that is going to provide support to women, something where you can learn about the culture. The holiday is a commercialization. In our hometowns, we invite people that don’t have food to eat, we send money to people who are working on projects back in our hometown. Right now, we’re working on raising funds for women in Oaxaca that make dresses and jewelry. We need to transform this celebration into something more active. Every year, we collect groups of people to raise funds to provide for projects back home."


One thing Teresa wants everyone to know about the Mexican community is that…

"We’re keepers of the traditions and legacies of our ancestors who were here to preserve the environment, protect our resources, and teach us how to live in that organic way with everything that is around us. The Native people are keepers of these values. The commercialization of these “past lives” takes it away. Native people represent the balance of these scales, to keep our feet in the ground. They’re connection between these scales and Mother Earth. Our connection is so important and beautiful that it needs to be nurtured and learned from. If you attend a ceremony with Native people, you learn so much from the elders, dancers, speakers, and practices. In any Native group in any country, they teach through music, arts, and anything their hands have made. It’ll all differ, but all art is like a human being- it’s all different. When they offer you something, it’s all unique. That’s something I think we can all learn from it- be unique, be yourself, don’t be afraid of your existence. You have to cultivate yourself in a way that’s in peace with everything around you. But also, the capacity of resilience that they offer to us is important. 

Something that we need to do, and that I suggest, is visit these groups and learn from them. You become part of something more real. You can either be a viewer, or an agent of change. You have to become a light and inspire others to do the same. You’ll never be able to learn exactly what we go through unless you see it. Elders still find ways to teach us now. They’re weaving history and traditions for younger generations."


Teresa’s tips for observing this holiday alongside loved ones while also making space to dismantle and confront white supremacy and the legacies of settler colonialism…

"My suggestion is just to find groups that provide for Native people and work with them on their activities to help establish programs and projects that provide for women and the Native culture. We have a lot of Native people that do folk art, but they just need the space to sell it. Invite speakers, invite artists to showcase and sell what they make, they just need the chance. These programs should be year round, not just one day. Every day, someone should be able to contribute to it, and it should continuously be used to preserve the culture and support tribes. It can even expand, and should be made to be more sustainable. For example, we always need volunteers at Lazos. Any kind of knowledge is welcome to continue building this bridge. This is a transnational effort that Lazos runs throughout multiple countries, and we need people to help coordinate these efforts so that they don’t die. Here in New Jersey and the tristate area, we need people."


Teresa’s favorite activities outside of Lazos…

"I grew up with priests, nuns, and elders all around me who I felt so connected to. We call them old souls, “espiritu viejo”. I love to speak with elders and hear stories. It’s never lost time to sit down and hear these stories, knowledge, and experiences. You learn so much. Also, I like hiking and outdoor activities. When we go hiking and light a campfire, I speak with Grandpa Fire, and it helps me a lot in terms of mental health. Speaking with Grandpa Fire  outdoors in the night with a little mezcal and tobacco- I love it. With my grandmother, she used to keep her mezcal by her side on her altar. She used to use incense and tobacco as sort of a healing process. You don’t use these kinds of things to abuse them, it’s medicine. Every society has something. I enjoy the solitude. In New Jersey we don’t always get that, so just enjoying a nice sunrise or having moments to yourself is what I like."



New Year, New Team, New Session | Same Fight for Justice

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January Newsletter

Archived 2017 picture of NJAIJ rally against the Muslim Ban.

Friends, I'm writing with a personal message this month.
January marks one year since I joined NJAIJ and one year since we grew our team to include our Movement Building Coordinator, a role that has transformed how we empower immigrant communities all across the New Jersey. In my twelve months in coalition with you, I feel both grateful and galvanized.
In that year, New Jersey also
became the first state on the East Coast to ban ICE detention agreements. We became the 15th state to enact a status-neutral drivers' license program, and fought for a first-of-its-kind direct cash benefit program, the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund, to provide relief for households excluded from federal stimulus. We made history together, and I'm humbled by and in awe of your fight.
It's January again and we are pleased to announce that we are growing our team again, too!
I am thrilled to be joined in this work by advocates who have an unwavering dedication to social, racial, and economic justice. Please join me in welcoming:

Michelle Ancil, she/her, Communications Coordinator. Laura Bustamante, she/her, Policy & Campaigns Manager. Aidee Pascual, she/her, Administrative Assistant. Kat Phan, she/her, 2022 Intern.

Click to read more about our team.

January is a time of renewal and reflection.
This month, we highlight Selaedin Maksut, Executive Director of the New Jersey chapter of Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR-NJ). CAIR-NJ is at the fore of the fight to designate January as Muslim Awareness and Appreciation month. Selaedin reminds us about the importance of reflecting on the legacies and movements that came before us and celebrating the richness of our diversity.

In Solidarity and Community,
Amy Torres


Member Spotlight

 It's a blessing to be a part of a social movement that stands on the frontlines. We proudly and humbly stand on the shoulders of those that came before us, and the legacies of those who did tenfold of what we are doing today. Championing these causes and being a voice for the voiceless is a huge honor and blessing," says Selaedin Maksut, Executive Director, CAIR-NJ

A header image with the words


The Values Act was re-introduced in the Assembly and Senate as A1986/S512. The Values Act would provide critical protections that allow New Jerseyans to seek support from state and local agencies without fear of deportation. Tell your legislator you expect to see their support!


NILC Features NJ's Anti-Detention Law

National Immigration Law Center

The incredible campaign behind the bill that banned new ICE detention agreements, renewals, and expansions was featured in the National Immigration Law Center's annual report on Winning in the States.

The report celebrates New Jersey's win by acknowledging the many fronts of the battle: "The anti-detention fight in New Jersey has been a decades-long movement...but with closure announcements and the ban on new and renewed contracts, New Jersey will not have any ICE detention centers after 2023."

Excluded NJ Fund Falls Short

In the midst of the news that major parts of the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund had been diverted and then quickly restored, New Jersey Policy Perspective released a report.

NJPP's analysis finds, "[e]ven if the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund were kept at its original funding level, it does not match the aid provided to others facing financial hardship due to COVID-19." The report goes on to say, "not only do payments...fall far short of the cost of living in New Jersey, but the size of the fund is also too small to reach all excluded workers."

Fair Legislative Districts

Legislative redistricting is still underway but time is running out! Your voice is needed to make sure maps are fair, racially just, and representative of your community. 

NJAIJ is a proud member of the Fair Districts coalition. 
Research shows that public testimony at redistricting hearings is effective when it offers specific instructions to mapmakers, focuses on small-scale changes (like keeping a neighborhood together), and effectively defines a community and its needs for representation. You are the expert on your community. Get involved!

Ready to act? Spread the word:

New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice

P.O. Box, 200492,  | Newark, New Jersey  07102| [email protected]

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