My name is Julian Root, and I am 32 years old. I grew up in and around Philadelphia, and was raised Jewish by a mother with eastern European roots (mostly Lithuanian and Romanian). After my parents separated when I was 11, I lived with my Catholic father, who was a self-declared ‘mutt’ of heritage. His ancestry (Root’s roots, hehehe) included everything from Russian to Welsh to Native American.
Unlike much of the staff at Casa, my educational and work backgrounds do not include social work. For the majority of my late teens and twenties-as well as through all five years of college-I worked as a bicycle messenger in Philadelphia. I graduated from Temple University in 2010, with a bachelor’s degree in English. I continued working as a bicycle messenger, where I learned a whole lot about the diversity of the Philadelphia workplace. I dealt every day with everyone from janitors and elevator operators to lawyers and CEOs to sex workers and police chiefs. For most of that time, I moonlit as a semi-professional banjo player. After a bicycle tour through Central America, I moved to Guatemala, where I put together the country’s only bluegrass band. We played together for four years. I also managed a used book store (Dyslexia Libros), did a slew of content writing, acted as the male lead in a Guatemalan indie film, and began my lifelong journey as a Spanish language student. After the sudden death of my father in March 2018, I moved back to the United States (to Austin) in April 2019.
During the final weeks of my time in Guatemala, I was telling a friend of mine about my desire to continue speaking Spanish after returning to the states. I wanted this to mean something more than just chatting up the people making me tacos, or the haphazard meetings with native speakers on the street. More importantly, I wanted to pay back a debt of sorts, which I felt I gradually incurred during my time in Guatemala. Thanks to a corrupt Guatemalan government, which favors foreigner money over well-being of its people, my life there was remarkably easy. I wanted to find a way to give back some of the love I had been on the receiving end of for those years in Guatemala. Given the political climate of our time and the disaster of herculean proportion raging around the border, it was high time for me to get involved. My friend (an English teacher in Guatemala) told me about Casa Marianella. I sent their volunteer coordinator/executive director-who’s now a friend, colleague, and inspiration-an email, and was invited to begin volunteering.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I was a pretty good fit. I got to speak plenty of Spanish. The swirling chaos of daily Casa life invigorated me: one person needs a job application filled out. There’s an ICE agent on hold. There are a group of mothers fighting over donations of clothing in the living room. A toddler just puked on the computer. We’re all out of eggs. And I’m only a volunteer!
I was not only invigorated by the work, but by the virtuousness and diligence of the full-time employees of Casa. The disparate set of backgrounds and interest made for a compelling team, and I was happy to join when the need became clear. I went through an official training period, and dug in farther than I had as a volunteer. All of the sudden, my focus in Austin shifted from music to immigrant advocacy! As suddenly as I fell into banjo playing and living in Guatemala, I was warmly welcomed into the bottomless font of benevolence that is Casa Marianella.
As an Operations Coordinator (a more elegant name for office staff / encargado), I’m responsible for steering the ship when my turn at the helm comes. All operations managers act as liaisons between Casa Marianella and its residents, the community at large, and the nationwide network of immigrant advocacy groups. I greet people visiting Casa and attend to their needs, be they donors, would-be residents, volunteers, or community members concerned about a loved one in detention. When new residents enter, I sit down with them and make them feel welcome, while walking them through the steps to becoming a resident. I help residents out with their day-to-day needs, such as bus passes, mail distribution, food items, and simple conversation. I answer the phone and send emails to other staff members about new and ongoing issues between residents and their journeys towards self-sufficiency. On overnight shifts, I organize the junta (an informal meeting at the end of the night serving as a roll call and safe space to discuss relevant issues) and then dish out the daily chores to residents. Then I get to sleep in the surprisingly comfortable futon in the office!
In addition to the aforementioned tasks related to operations coordinators, I’ve also recently taken on two more focused components of Casa life. I’m in the early stages of heading up the bicycle program-which has been sustained and augmented by the tireless efforts of long-term staff member Josh Collier. He and I share a passion for cycling, and I seemed like a natural fit for this job. Bicycles have always been an expression of freedom for me, especially when seen as tools rather than toys. Being able to introduce residents to this relationship scratches a deep existential itch, by passing along something I love and care about to people who have such limited recourse in this new country. Josh has done (and continues to do) a wonderful job with this, but I will be continuing his efforts in order to free up his time for other Casa endeavors. Josh has already accomplished the behemoth deed of a deal for every resident to receive the loan of a donated bike from Austin bike cooperative Yellow Bike Project, and I will assume responsibility for maintaining that relationship. Part of this responsibility will entail the unlocking of the many bicycles locked and abandoned around Casa by former residents. Keeping track of donated bicycles is a challenge, and I’ll be working with Josh to develop a more regulated system of educating residents, tracking bicycles, and keeping them available after residents move to independent living situations. I’ll also be working directly with the Yellow Bike Project, to encourage residents to learn how to maintain bicycles properly through the Yellow Bike Project’s workshop coop program.
Another one of my focused directives is the reading of detention letters. This task is at the heart of Casa’s mission, as it is often the first step in getting asylum-seekers out of detention centers and into our shelter. As part of a small team of other recent hires, I’ll be using my strengths in Spanish to thoroughly read letters and extract the important information therein. The other members of this team will then enter the information in our database, and subsequently write letters of invitation to those who are selected to receive our help. While we only need a few sentences worth of information (including the detainee’s nation of origin, identification or ‘alien’ number, and brief synopsis of the conditions they are fleeing), the nature of these letters makes them compelling and profound reads. For many people, this is likely the closest thing they get to therapy in detention. The catharsis that comes with purging the brutality and suffering behind them and around them in the form of a handwritten letter should not be understated. To hold one of these letters is to hold an essential piece of the history of our time, and that is something I cannot and will not lose sight of. The sad reality is that many–perhaps the majority–of letters we receive will be from people who we are not able to help. While this is a discouraging idea, we cannot lose sight of the significance of the (relatively) little help we do provide. It is, as always, better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.
There are challenges abound in this job. Most of the people who get involved in this kind of work want to help everyone. More importantly, we want to believe everyone. Unfortunately, we cannot help or believe everyone, at least not all of the time. We get numerous calls and letters every day from detention centers, and there is simply no way we can accommodate everyone who asks for our help. I think that this is an easier reality to deal with than the triaging of assistance which happens in the flesh while actually in the office. It’s one thing to say no to someone over the phone, but having to look someone in the eye and tell them you simply cannot help them-or at least cannot help them now- is tougher. Complicating things further is the urgency with which many residents request the help of office staff. Triage is the essence of our resident management strategy. If I’m printing out some coloring sheets for a kid who wants to pass the time drawing, and another resident comes in to tell me that someone is bleeding outside, that kid’s going to have to wait-and may be less than happy at having to do so. Other times, I have to consider the past behaviors and actions of a resident when they ask for something. Some residents are simply needier than others, and easily grow accustomed to having their need prioritized. Inevitably, these residents will occasionally bristle at being told to wait, when the more urgent needs of another resident arise. The higher-maintenance residents will often exaggerate their needs or even falsify claims, in order to be prioritized. While this is certainly not the rule, it does happen. Nipping these instances in the bud requires an approach in stark contrast to the benevolent, philanthropic compulsions which led me and many others to this work in the first place. Simply put, it is challenging to say “no” to people who I essentially would like to help all the time.
Another difficult challenge is the inevitable mediation that comes along with staffing at Casa. Disputes invariably arise between residents, and while all staff try to build positive relationships with residents, conflicts of interest pop up any time there are arguments. This is particularly relevant during night shifts. For example, just last night I was making the final rounds after the chores were completed, and was approached by a woman who claimed that a new family was using the bedding/floor space which had been reserved for one of the children. In these situations, I think it is important to not pick sides, but rather address the needs of each party and create a new solution. In this case, I was able to find some more makeshift bedding for the displaced child, providing him a space on the floor. Meanwhile, the new family was able to sleep together on their segment of the floor. Naturally, this made for some overcrowding, but most of our residents are just so grateful to be out of detention, that sleeping in a crowded room (without bars and locks!) is not such a horrible ordeal.
The highlights of this job are innumerable. The perspective shift that comes with every shift is invaluable. Whatever problems I’m dealing with in my own life diminish immensely in my mind’s eye after just a few minutes of reading the letter of a person being detained at the border, who is fleeing oppressive gang violence or political persecution. The satisfaction that comes from knowing I’m no longer throwing stones at the river-but rather, swimming upstream-provides a constant sense of purpose and gratification. So many people in this era carry on loudly on social media and elsewhere about the injustices of our current administration, without doing much beyond that. While vocal dissent is important, resistance and progress must spring forth from the loins of action.
Additionally, I’m grateful to be included on this team of tireless souls, which literally works around the clock. The implicit selflessness of my colleagues is inspiring and contagious! While everyone at Casa understands the urgent and chaotic nature of the needs of our residents, they also all understand the paramount importance of our mutual self-care. We are always checking in with each other about mental health and the fallout from the various crises which arise, and doing everything we can to utilize our various strengths to protect, heal, and encourage each other. As a relatively new staff member, I’m eternally grateful to the more senior staff members for extending such a warm welcome to me, and for their vocal support for what I bring to the table. I’ve always treasured working as a part of a team, and this is one of the most cohesive and loving teams I’ve had the pleasure of belonging to!
While living in Antigua Guatemala, I formed a band called Los Gatos Fugitivos. We affectionately labeled our music ‘bluegrass with an identity crisis’, and put together diverse medleys featuring everything from Appalachian bluegrass standards to Guatemalan folk tunes to sophisticated interpretations of classical themes. We spent nearly four years as one of several house bands at Café No Sé, the flagship bar of Ilegal Mezcal. The entire team at Ilegal is committed to progressive political causes, and has been a steadfast, vocal opponent of the draconian immigration policies of the Trump administration. Although I currently live in Austin, the other two members of the band are still in Antigua. Recently, we were all together in Austin, and arranged some gigs at Whisler’s, an Austin bar which is a sister bar of sorts to Café No Sé. After speaking with representatives from both Ilegal Mezcal and Whisler’s, we arranged a fundraiser. For every Ilegal drink sold on the two nights we performed at Whisler’s (7/26 and 7/27), Ilegal donates $1 to Casa Marianella. We are still waiting to hear how many drinks were sold, and will look forward to publishing the results!
As I am still quite new to Austin and its thriving music scene, I do not yet have a working band with any regular gigs. However, our gigs at Whisler’s went over very well, and it looks like I’ll be assembling a pick-up band there every few weeks to keep Guatemalan-infused bluegrass alive and well in Austin! Once I’ve got a more steady band out and about, I’ll be sure to get the word out to the Casa community at large. In the meantime, mark your calendar with a fundraising event at Sahara Lounge on August 18, which will feature a band comprised entirely of past and present Casa/Posada Esperanza staff, volunteers, and residents!!