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Lazaro Ayala: “Fear itself”

Please vote for what you believe in and don’t sideline yourself because you believe your vote doesn’t matter or that no candidate represents your beliefs. Change begins from the bottom up and it is up to us to change this country, or watch it fall. Remember that your local and state elections are as important, […]

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Please vote for what you believe in and don’t sideline yourself because you believe your vote doesn’t matter or that no candidate represents your beliefs. Change begins from the bottom up and it is up to us to change this country, or watch it fall. Remember that your local and state elections are as important, if not more important, than the presidential election.


As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Laz Ayala.

Lazaro “Laz” Ayala is a naturalized U.S. citizen from El Salvador, an entrepreneur, philanthropist, filmmaker, and author.

Laz came to the U.S. fleeing the violence of the Salvadoran Civil War in 1981, just days after the December 11th massacre during which the Salvadoran Army wiped out the village of El Mozote, killing 800 civilians.

As the producer of his first feature-length film and author of his autobiography, both titled Illegal, Laz hopes to bridge the gap between the current story the American media portrays of undocumented immigrants and the real stories of so many who make the long and dangerous journey in search of a better life.


Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

I came to the U.S. undocumented in 1981. I crossed over the U.S. border from Tijuana with my father and brother packed in the trunk of a brown Cadillac. We were fleeing the civil war in El Salvador that killed more than 75,000 and forced 1.5 million to find refuge all over the world. Like thousands of refugees, my family and I found refuge in the US. It was a grueling journey by bus and train — nearly 3,000 miles over a 20 day period. But, we made it… and my life was never the same.

I went to school, learned English (I knew none when I arrived), and eventually began a real estate career which led me to start my own residential development company in Ashland, Oregon. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to give back to my community here in the U.S. and El Salvador. Through these efforts, I’ve helped to build a soccer field for a local charter school and established a scholarship program for DACA students (Dreamers) at Southern Oregon University. In my hometown of San Ildefonso, I’ve led projects to provide clean water and safe, affordable, fuel-efficient cookstoves to replace dangerous open cooking fires.

Four years ago, when Donald Trump’s dehumanizing anti-immigrant rhetoric was escalating, I considered going back to where I came from almost 40 years ago. My dignity and humanity, like that of so many of my fellow immigrants in the U.S., was and continues to be under attack; every day it reaches new levels. Instead, I realized that this was a moment to stand up and speak out which led me to write a book and create a feature-length documentary to help recognize those who have been silenced. Those who are afraid to speak out given the violence and hateful rhetoric being portrayed through the media today.

It is my hope that Illegal (the title of the book and documentary) will help to separate the facts and myths surrounding immigration in the US and portray the truth: that like the rest of the population, not all immigrants are rapists, murderers, and tax cheats. They are your neighbors, the people growing your food, building your homes, starting businesses, and giving back to their communities here and abroad.

My ultimate goal is to push for immigration reforms to end illegal immigration by eliminating the demand for illegal labor and creating a legal, just and humane path for guest workers to enter the U.S. to provide much needed labor. This is a solution that many undocumented immigrants are hoping for: the ability to come to the U.S. to work seasonally and then return to their native communities and families.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

My entire filmmaking experience was nothing short of a miracle. The entire journey has been guided by divine providence. For me, this was not a project, it was my calling. In other words, this has been something much greater than me.

Throughout this journey, the most interesting thing was doing an interview for Lighting the Torch, a TV show produced by my friend Rick Ogando, while we were filming in Colton, California. We recorded the interview as part of our regular filming not realizing the interview would become the cornerstone of the documentary.

One of the funniest moments came as I was reliving some of my childhood’s mischievous activities. I took the film crew down to a spring where I would go for water everyday when I was a child. While there, I saw a bee hive and could not resist testing my rock throwing aim. I made a bet with my director, Nick, that I could hit the hive on my first try from about 100 feet away. I nailed it on the first throw which caught the crew by surprise and sent us scrambling for our equipment and running back up the hill to get away from the swarm of bees that were coming for us. No one was stung, and we had some great laughs once we escaped!

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

I’ve had the pleasure (and honor) of meeting a number of individuals, but I will share three of them.

The first is Carlos Enriquez Consalvi (alias Santiago). Santiago is the founder of Radio Venceremos, a clandestine radio station that operated throughout the 12 year civil war in El Salvador. Radio Venceremos was perhaps the most valuable asset in the revolution and the most coveted by the government and US military advisors. Santiago is an icon among Latin American revolutionaries, whose voice I heard during his first year of broadcasting in 1980. I was 13 years old at the time. I later learned more about his selfless sacrifice in the name of freedom.

After the war ended, he founded Museo de la Palabra y Imagen (MUPI) with the goal of recovering and protecting cultural and war artifacts, and stories which are today featured in exhibits all over the world. I contacted MUPI in search of war archival footage for the film and was connected with the man himself who gladly offered digitalized footage for our use. A friendship grew from there and he even attended the first public screening of the documentary, Illegal, in my native San Ildefonso. Few people selflessly dedicate their entire life to social causes where they risk it all (including their life). He is one of those people. He is a hero, a modern day Simon Bolivar.

Another individual I got to know intimately is Mike Naumes, CEO of Naumes Inc. Mike is a third-generation pear grower and heads one of the largest pear producers in the world. I had known Mike for about 15 years prior to interviewing him for the film, but I have never had the opportunity for a deep conversation about the topic of immigration as it relates to the dehumanizing rhetoric of recent years. To hear this 75 year old farmer express his frustration with the current system and it’s inhumane treatment of immigrants and refugees gave me a lot of hope for change. Seeing him break down in tears in front of a camera restored my faith in the compassionate USA I’ve come to know and be a part of.

Lastly, I met a number of migrants while filming in Tijuana during the arrival of the migrant caravans. One of these individuals was Maria, a hopeless and tired Honduran refugee who had just arrived in Tijuana. She had just learned that her brother had been hit by a car in Mexicali. All she wanted at that time was to return home with her brother’s body so he could get a proper burial. The desperation in her eyes and the sense of hopelessness brought me to tears and gave me a much deeper understanding of the desperate circumstances thousands of migrants find themselves in. It also reminded me of the desperate circumstances my family and I found ourselves in when we made the same journey 36 years earlier. It was a very touching experience and one that connected me even more with my own humanity and the importance of the work we are doing.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

The most interesting and exciting project I’m working on is Illegal the Project, a movement that is quickly gaining national attention. As part of this effort, we are producing a second documentary to follow up the film Illegal which is currently making its run on the film festival circuit. This film will be focused on the issue and the solution of our movement — overhauling our current guest worker program and making E-verify mandatory in order to create an environment where legal immigration can thrive. We hope to complete the film by the end of the year.

Which people in history inspire you the most? And why?

I find President Franklin D Roosevelt to be one of the most inspiring individuals of the last century. I am inspired by his determination and resolve. He was a pragmatic man of action who saw solutions, not problems. I admire his ability to deal with what is perhaps the biggest crisis of the century (WW2) and put the country on a path to becoming the greatest industrial nation, resulting in the largest economy in the world.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

In addition to the book and film, I founded a non-profit called Illegal The Project which seeks to humanize the conversation around immigrants and their families in the U.S. through advocacy, coalition building and community engagement in an effort to create a system where immigrants, employers, and American born citizens may thrive.

The issue of undocumented immigration has mushroomed into a divisive topic over the last 10 years. Today, we have reached a breaking point as mass deportations, human rights violations, where children are being locked up in cages and our overwhelmingly divided public viewpoints, have pushed this problem to a point where a solution must be brought to the table.

Illegal The Project is a movement that seeks to shed light on facts and myths about undocumented immigration; humanize the topic, educate, engage, and organize Americans to demand common-sense legislation that addresses the problem’s root: an illegal employment system that lures undocumented immigrants with the prospects of illegal employment. A system that taxes undocumented immigrants without rights, votes or representation, demonizes and criminalizes them and then exploits them as political pawns.

ITP demands a new chapter in this country and encourages other groups in the social justice space to join us in speaking out.

This is not just a fight for policy change, this is a fight for protecting our food supply, industries that depend on foreign labor, and to protect the workers that provide that labor. This is a fight for humane and dignified treatment of people; a fight to end modern day slavery in the US.

We stand in solidarity with every POC who has had to stare into the face of our nation’s long history of exploitation and racism. We stand with every man, woman, and child imprisoned at our borders who tried to escape violence, famine and drought. We stand with all fighting for justice in this world who seek an end to the dehumanization of people.

Now is not the time to stay on the sidelines. Now is the time to speak out and stand tall in unity.

ITP envisions an America in which immigrants are no longer labeled as criminals and have the opportunities and resources they need to thrive in the U.S. We envision a nation with thriving industries no longer affected by labor shortages where legal and humane guest worker programs are accessible to those who wish to participate in them. And, we envision a system that provides enough opportunities to bring an end to the illegal employment and the exploitation of undocumented workers.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

Four years ago, when Donald Trump’s dehumanizing anti-immigrant rhetoric was escalating, I considered going back to where I came from almost 40 years ago. My dignity and humanity, like that of so many of my fellow immigrants in the U.S., was and continues to be under attack; every day it reaches new levels. Instead, I realized that this was a moment to stand up and speak out which led me to write a book and create a feature-length documentary to help recognize those who have been silenced. Those who are afraid to speak out given the violence and hateful rhetoric being portrayed through the media today.

It is my hope that ILLEGAL (the title of the book and documentary) will help to separate the facts and myths surrounding immigration in the US and portray the truth: that like the rest of the population, not all immigrants are rapists, murderers, and tax cheats. They are your neighbors, the people growing your food, building your homes, starting businesses, and giving back to their communities here and abroad.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Martin, a guest worker from Mexico whom I met at one of our local screenings of the film was so grateful to see us tell his story and the story of others, who like him, leave their families for months so they can work in U.S. fields and earn, in 2 months, what he would earn in Mexico in one year. But, the most important thing Martin shared with us is the opportunity he has to reunite with his family after his work season ends as opposed to being separated for years or decades, living in the shadows as an exploited undocumented immigrant. A person left without rights, a vote, or representation. A person who is taxed without receiving the benefit of those taxes. And a person who is dehumanized, criminalized, and lives in fear of being locked up in for-profit detention facilities.

Through my efforts, I’ve had the honor of speaking with both documented and undocumented Hispanic students who were empowered by hearing their story in a positive light through the film, and who were excited to see many of their fellow Hispanic students share their stories.

I’ve also seen the difference the scholarship I started, the Lazaro Ayala Opportunity Scholarship Fund, has made in the lives of the many DACA/Dreamer students at Southern Oregon University. Many of these students have graduated with degrees in nursing, business, psychology and are now making a difference in our community.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

  1. Visit https://www.illegaltheproject.org/raise-your-voice to learn how you can take action and become an Illegal The Project Ambassador!
  2. When you see someone in need, being demeaned/abused/mistreated DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!
  3. Write to your US Senators or Representatives and ask them to support this effort by providing discussion opportunities with legislative action in mind.
  4. Please vote for what you believe in and don’t sideline yourself because you believe your vote doesn’t matter or that no candidate represents your beliefs. Change begins from the bottom up and it is up to us to change this country, or watch it fall. Remember that your local and state elections are as important, if not more important, than the presidential election.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I’m unable to respond to this question as I don’t look back at life with regret and do not believe in mistakes. I believe everything happens for a reason and, over the years, I’ve learned to just get out of my own way.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I believe we can all make a difference as we journey through life. Do not wait until you have money and time, because chances are you will never have both. Making a difference is not a destination, it’s a journey. It should be part of our daily experience. It’s what gives true meaning to life.

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

I would love the opportunity to collaborate with Oliver Stone in the production of a documentary about Carlos Enriquez Consalvi “Santiago”, an iconic hero of the Salvadoran Civil war. I consider Santiago the modern Che, with the exception that after the war ended he recognized the need for a new fight; a fight to gather, preserve and share the long struggle of the Salvadoran people through history, archival footage, stories, film, and books, all of which are stored and shared with the world through Museo de la Palabra y Imagen MUPI. He is a brilliant and selfless individual whom I admire for dedicating his life to the betterment of Salvadoran society.

Why Oliver Stone? I’m a big fan of his style of film production and I also believe he connects with stories like that of Santiago’s. Oliver Stone also produced “Salvador”, and other documentaries involving US foreign-policy twists in Latin America.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorite quotes is from Franklin D. Roosevelt: “first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself”

I find nothing more empowering than those words. It’s that kind of thinking that keeps me dreaming and believing that anything is possible if we believe and take action without any doubt and without any fear. Because there is no such thing as failure. The only failure in life is to fail to dream, and act, in pursuit of those dreams.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can learn more about the book, documentary, and our efforts at Illegal The Project by visiting www.illegaltheproject.org

You can also follow us on:

  • Facebook @illegaltheproject
  • Instagram: @illegaltheproject
  • Twitter: @illegalthemovie

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!

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