In 2010, Jacqueline “Jackie” Garcia-Martinez, now the program director of the immigrant youth-led organization 67 Sueños, was 15 years old and dealing with the threat of family deportation. That same year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the “DREAM Act,” a bill that would have provided undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children a path to citizenship if they attended college or joined the military for two years. However, the bill died in the Senate that December, coming up short by five votes.

The defeat of the pro-immigration reform legislation and Garcia-Martinez’s own family experience ignited her desire to get involved and help advance the conversation around this contentious topic. 

That same year, she met Pablo Paredes, a co-founder of BAY-Peace, a youth-led counter-military recruitment organization based in Oakland. Paredes invited Garcia-Martinez and half a dozen other youths from mixed-status families to join him in launching a youth-led collective to lift the voices of underprivileged immigrants into the national conversation. That’s how 67 Sueños—now part of the American Friends Service Committee—was born. 

“I was passionate about the issue of immigration,” Garcia-Martinez said. “When I met Pablo and the rest of the cohort, I found a safe place to talk about my experience coming from a mixed-status family.” 

When the then-unnamed collective formed, the group wanted to shine a light on others in the undocumented community—those who arrived in the U.S. as adults, for example—that wouldn’t benefit if the DREAM Act was passed. 

“We were one of the first groups who came out being critical about the DREAM Act,” she said. “Not because we didn’t want it to pass but because we wanted it to expand.” 

Jacqueline “Jackie” Garcia-Martinez, 67 Sueños program director, works with a program participant as they paint a mural at 36th Avenue and International Boulevard in the Fruitvale district in Oakland, Calif., on July 19, 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton

The name 67 Sueños comes from a 2010 analysis by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan group that studies immigration policies and analyzes how they can be implemented. Their report found that 67% of undocumented youth would not qualify for the DREAM Act if it passed. 

In the 13 years since 67 Sueños launched, it has evolved from an organization focused on helping youth who are undocumented and in mixed-status families advance conversations around immigration reform, to one tackling issues such as the housing crisis, police brutality, and school closures.

“Our young people are struggling with a lot of the things that we see due to poverty in our neighborhoods,” said Garcia-Martinez. “All these issues were impacting those showing up to be part of 67 Sueños.” 

One of 67 Sueños’ first interns was Guisela Ramos, now one of the program directors. Ramos moved from Guatemala to the United States when she was seven. Since 2012, she has benefitted from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Implemented through an executive order by President Obama that year, DACA allows some individuals to avoid deportation and become eligible for a work permit. The order was a direct result of efforts by students nationwide who came out as undocumented to tell their stories and push the government to create a legal pathway for undocumented youth after the DREAM Act was defeated.

Guisela Ramos, 67 Sueños program coordinator, watches the progress as program participants paint a mural at 36th Avenue and International Boulevard in the Fruitvale district in Oakland, Calif., on July 19, 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton

The Trump Administration revoked DACA in 2017, but the Supreme Court overturned the administration’s decision in 2020. Then, in 2021, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen ruled the program illegal, leaving the program’s future in doubt. As a result, current DACA recipients can continue to renew their permits, but first-time applicants are blocked from applying.

“I wanted to intern with [67 Sueños] because being undocumented and growing up in Oakland, there was a lot of fear instilled in you,” Ramos said. “When I got introduced to them in ninth grade, it was the first time I saw other people my age being open about being undocumented and having a space to talk about your journey.”

Even with having DACA, Ramos wants others to know that the program doesn’t solve all of the problems faced by undocumented immigrants. She likened it to “a two-year subscription to the U.S.”

Using murals to spread their message

Today, the work of 67 Sueños falls under four main pillars: political education, trauma healing, community organizing, and “artivism.”

The organization runs a nine-month internship program for 15-20 young people at a time, and a summer internship where youth learn how local politics affect their daily lives and get trained in political organizing. The artivism workshops teach youth how to paint, write poetry, and perform spoken word. They learn about ancestral practices, such as using medicinal herbs and music for healing. The organization also teaches a quarterly ethnic studies class for students at Rudsdale Continuation High School in the East Oakland hills.

Murals are one significant way the group uses art in service of healing. The youth develop a theme and receive mentorship from local muralists; Oakland artists like Pancho Pescador and Francisco “Amend” Sanchez have previously worked with the group. To date, 67 Sueños have painted 16 murals across Oakland and San Francisco. The group’s first mural, titled “No Human Being is Illegal,” was painted in 2011 on 9th Street in San Francisco, but has since been covered up by a condominium. 

Garcia-Martinez estimates the cost of each mural to be around $50,000, with funding coming from foundation grants and donations. 

Individuals from 67 Sueños, an organization that supports undocumented youth, paint a mural at 36th Avenue and International Boulevard in the Fruitvale district in Oakland, Calif., on July 19, 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton
View of the mural in progress from International Boulevard. Credit: Florence Middleton

“The beauty of being in a community like this is that people randomly stop by to donate. Yesterday, someone donated watermelons and bananas for the youth,” she said. “Other people come by and say hello.”

Earlier this month, youth from the organization began working on the group’s 17th mural at the corner of 36th Avenue and International Boulevard. The group started conceptualizing in late June and is being mentored by Francisco “Amend” Sanchez. The theme is “healing,” and the mural’s images represent what that looks like to them: indigenous faces, children reading, people swimming, Aztec dancers, a Guatemalan woman weaving, and other bits of colorful imagery.

For Ramos, it was crucial to have Guatemalan representation on the mural. Oakland has seen an influx of Guatemalan immigrants over the last decade who’ve built a community in Fruitvale.

“The woman weaving is representative of a youth in our program and the community that we live in,” she said. “I wish I would have seen more of that in the murals in our community, not just the ones by 67.”

As part of their internship, the youth have learned about color theory, how different shapes and images convey certain feelings, and all of the behind-the-scenes work that comes with painting a large-scale public artwork. The group hopes to have the mural completed within the next two weeks.

Jessica Gallegos, 20, from 67 Sueños, an organization that supports undocumented youth, works on a mural at 36th Avenue and International Boulevard in the Fruitvale district in Oakland, Calif., on July 19, 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton

Part of the mission of 67 Sueños, Garcia-Martinez said, is to help dispel the narrative that young people “don’t know any better.” Through art, they’re allowed to express their own ideas for creating change in their community. 

As presidential administrations come and go without passing comprehensive immigration reform, 67 Sueños will continue helping young people navigate growing up undocumented while still holding out hope that change will come.

“That’s our sueño, that one day, we’ll see a path to citizenship that doesn’t take years and decades to achieve, that is inclusive to everybody, ” Garcia-Martinez said. “Not just young people but our elders, our tíos and tías—they also deserve a path to citizenship. We can’t let go of that hope. We need it to keep pushing forward.”

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.