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Maria Luna: ‘I want to help people, just like what America says it does.’

July 22, 2022 Perspective

In partnership with Survival Media Agency, the Home, Not Heartbreak photo series, captures the stories of Californians organizing to end the state’s prison-to-ICE pipeline that cruelly separates thousands of families. While these community members represent just a small example of the thousands of California families and residents harmed by ICE transfers each year, their stories and leadership are inspiring people across the state to urge their legislators and Gov. Newsom to pass and sign the VISION Act (AB 937) and reunite immigrant families and communities.

“I’m just one of many who has changed their life and wants to give back,” says Maria Luna. “[Being deported] will break not only our family’s hearts, but everybody else’s as well as ours. A family is like a whole body…You need every bit of them, so that’s how I look at it. Young children need their parents, their grandparents, and they need their siblings, just like parents need their children.”

Maria reflected on the closeness of her family and her advocacy to protect herself and others from ICE deportation while standing outside Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. She works there multiple days each week as a program coordinator, helping people get their tattoos removed because they were former gang members or formerly incarcerated.

Maria wears a pink shirt and smiles in front of her place of work.

Maria Luna stands outside the main entrance of Homeboy Industries located in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles. (Apollo Victoria | Survival Media Agency)

She explains that “it’s so rewarding to work with them because when their tattoos are finally off, a lot of them feel like a whole different person. They come back and share that they got a job, that they are off of parole, or that they are a supervisor…Through my job here, I get to see that whole transformation and be a part of it. It’s so humbling and it brings joy to know that the transformation is real.”

Maria has been home for a few years now, but while the VISION Act awaits a vote in the Senate, she’s advocating for her pardon so she and her family can live without the persistent threat of ICE. She’s working two jobs, “that’s 65 hours a week,” including Homeboy and Amity Foundation, where she applies her skills as a certified substance abuse disorder treatment counselor.

Maria, wearing goggles and a mask, and a man with a white lab coat operate a tattoo removal device on a community member.

Physician Assistant Troy Clarke uses a laser device to break up the tattoo ink as Maria Luna follows along with a cooling device to alleviate the pain. Several sessions are required to completely remove the tattoo. (Apollo Victoria | Survival Media Agency)

When Maria was three years old, she and her family immigrated from the Philippines as legal permanent residents. She grew up in San Francisco and remembers that “there’s chances here. That’s why a lot of families from different cultures migrated here. We were living in low-income housing. Unfortunately, some of us went to prison at a young age.” She coped with the struggles of being a teenager in these situations by engaging in unhealthy activities that led to her incarceration. Maria was sentenced as a youth and served 22 years on a life sentence after being granted parole.

While incarcerated, Maria became a certified counselor and worked as a peer mentor with other women. Recognizing all of her work on rehabilitation, Governor Brown approved her release in 2018, but the California prison system transferred Maria to ICE detention for seven months where she faced deportation to the Philippines.

Maria shares about the horrors of ICE detention: “There's no help unless you speak English and it was just horrible. People were signing off to get deported because they didn't understand what they were signing. Some people were just signing off because they felt like they were going to die in the conditions of the detention center. If you don't have a strong mind or a strong spiritual background, a place like that can break you. Literally break you.”

Eventually, through relentless community and legal advocacy, Maria was able to get out of ICE detention. She remembers, “the happiest moment I had is when I went to go visit my mom in December for Christmas. Being able to buy my mom all these Christmas gifts and spend time with her, and to be able to take her out to eat. To see my mom and my brother and my whole family, all reunited…And when meeting my new cousins, they’re like, ‘We heard of you, but my God, we missed you.” And then, ‘You’re my auntie. Oh my god. I love you.’ Just to feel that love with your family and knowing that you belong.”

Maria Luna stands with fellow colleagues and community members at Homeboy Industries.

Staff and volunteer members of Homeboy Industries’ Tattoo Removal services. (Apollo Victoria | Survival Media Agency)

As one of the handful of people who have been able to get out of ICE detention, Maria says that “I’m doing everything I can to give back to what I’ve taken. I work to honor everybody I have ever hurt by being the best that I can be and by remaining in service.”

“I'm not scared to speak up. I want to help people, just like what America says it does. You stand up for people and then we're all equal. I think that's all we ask for.”

Earlier this year, Maria spoke at a rally (starting at 45:33) in Los Angeles calling on her elected representatives to protect all immigrants and refugees. In her remarks, Maria highlighted how the VISION Act would help Californians reunify with their families and be of service in their communities, allowing people to have a second chance and start a new life.

"They need to pass that VISION Act bill [...] Don't hand us off to ICE. Allow us to be here– not only with our families– but allow us to give back to the community like we said we would. Allow us to work, so we can take care of ourselves and our families, as well as the community.”

Maria holds a mic and is speaking at a rally to free Vithea.

Maria voices her support for immigrant communities and the VISION Act at a rally to free Vithea. (Hannah Benet | Survival Media Agency)

When people like Maria can come home, California communities are made stronger and safer. She shares with us,“I hope that I will get pardoned, and then I hope that this whole world will get better. I hope that the pandemic will subside. I hope that the VISION Act is passed, and that there could be some kind of reform for humanity… My hope is to go back into the women's prison, and to help women through their addictions and show them how they could change. I hope that I am able to help give people who are being human trafficked some comfort, and some motivation to know that they can get past this. That their lives matter too.”

Maria Luna stands in a parking lot, smiling with her arms open. She is wearing a pink jersey shirt and black pants, and colorful sneakers.

Maria Luna in the parking lot at the end of the day working at Homeboy Industries (Apollo Victoria | Survival Media Agency)