GREENE COLUMN: Childhood event leads to activism

Diana Salazar

The memory is still fresh after nearly 40 years.

In a Maryland migrant camp in the '70s, a 10-year-old girl watches as workers scream and run as 10 buses haul off hundreds in the night for deportation. It scares her and sears the moment in her mind forever.

"That was the first time I learned about immigration," said Diana Salazar, 47, of North Charleston.

A third-generation Mexican- American, Salazar's early years in migrant camps led to her life as an activist, interpreter, teacher and confidante in the Latino community.

She lived in camps periodically as her contractor father carried workers from town to town, laboring in the fields.

Today, Salazar is president of the Latino Association of Charleston, and immigration is the focus of life, and the single biggest issue facing the Latino community, she said.

Providing help

The 2010 census showed the state's Latino population is 235,893 people, a 148 percent jump from 2000; 55,000 of them are undocumented.

Salazar is the community's champion. She is fierce, determined and speaks her mind in English and Spanish. She holds annual marches to raise awareness.

Spend a few minutes in her home, and she's made several phone calls to find out who is being held in jail on immigration charges, then calls to inform and comfort the families. A notary, she performs many weddings.

Salazar knows how to get help, from legal issues to English classes. Latinos do want to learn the language, she'd like you to know.

She dislikes immigration laws but abides by them, and believes compromise is needed. Most undocumented people -- she hates the words aliens or illegals -- lead productive lives and want to become American citizens.

Agree with her or not, the mother of two thinks only those who have criminal backgrounds should be deported. Otherwise, officials should keep families together -- help them get a driver's license, an identity. She does not know how to stop the problem but believes new reform is needed for those already here.

Regarding a new state law requiring police to possibly check for legal status during a traffic stop or arrest? Salazar thinks it leads to racial profiling. The color of your skin or eyes and your accent don't say whether you are here legally or not.

Proud of heritage

Misconceptions abound, she said. Many say undocumented people take away jobs.

"The truth is, they do work that we Americans don't want to do. They are dirty, sweaty and many don't have bathrooms. They are robbed, abused and exploited for cheap labor. It's a sad life."

Salazar, who has American and Mexican flags in her home, said, "I am blessed because I am an American and proud of my Mexican heritage.

"If I die today, I want to be recognized as a woman that fought for her beliefs and human rights and respect because 'we are all God's children.' "