When Omar Garcia and Benita Rodriguez came to the United States almost three decades ago from Mexico, they were searching for a chance to have a better life for themselves and the family they hoped to build.
From that journey came Daniel Garcia Rodriguez, 26, who was born in Brownsville, the southernmost city in Texas. In 2017, he co-founded the local grassroots organization United Fort Worth.
“I’m a proud son of immigrant parents who were too afraid to have a child in Mexico because of the conditions and wanted to assure that I had a close proximity to the American dream,” Rodriguez said. “My mom did everything that she could — she lived in a shack for several months — so that I could be the first U.S.-born child in my family.”
After his birth, his parents still traveled between countries; Rodriguez spent five years living in Mexico, before his family left everything behind to move to Florida. He said they did not initially have a space to go to, and his parents felt unwelcome as undocumented people in the U.S. They spent some time homeless. The fear in his father’s eyes around police officers will “never be erased” from his life, he added.
In school, Rodriguez said he often witnessed how disproportionate discipline was. He attended middle school at Lehigh Acres Middle School in Florida, North Crowley High School and the Fort Worth Can Academy. He said he noticed how many more Black and brown students were in in-school and out-of-school suspension compared with white students. (The Texas nonprofit Intercultural Development Research Association released a study in 2020 that showed students of color are disciplined at higher rates than white students in school.)
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In 2009, when he was 14, Rodriguez and his family moved to Fort Worth, during an economic recession in the country. His family members were often the first let go from construction jobs because of their undocumented status, he recalled.
As all of this was happening, Rodriguez was in and out of his family home. He said he felt overlooked by the education system and became a felon at age 15 with charges including grand theft auto and evading arrest.
“I found myself down and out,” he said. “I was like, ‘Yo, I’m making my mom cry every day because I’m out here in the streets. All the people around me are going to prison. One of the guys that was trying to get me into a very violent space just got arrested for murder.’ So I was like, ‘What am I doing with my life?’”
This realization led him at around the age of 15 or 16 to seek out a Marine recruiting station, and there he met Ray Franklin, the recruiting officer.
“This man hung out with me, spent personal time with me,” Rodriguez said. “He’s the one that helped me get back into school after I got kicked out. There was a day that he took me and another Marine, and they were all dressed up, they took me down to the mall, so I could find a job. Those are the things that really changed my life and allowed me to have a second chance. This is deeply personal to me because I feel like I’ve been gifted with a second chance.”
Franklin, 36, said Rodriguez did not meet the qualification requirements to join the military because of the felony charges, but he kept an interest in mentoring and helping him.
A lot of that mentorship was through school. Rodriguez went to the Fort Worth Can Academy, which is for students who did not succeed in a traditional school setting, according to its website.
Franklin checked in with Rodriguez’s teachers often and helped him mature and do better in school, Franklin said. The two still keep in touch, mostly through social media or occasional dinners when Franklin is in town.
“I’m proud of him,” Franklin said. “The craziest thing about it is that he’s a success story of my recruiting experience, even though I didn’t get him an opportunity to enlist.”
In 2016, Rodriguez started volunteering with local political campaigns and the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. At the time, he said, he wanted to become an attorney.
When he was 16, Rodriguez had a car, but no license. By the time he was 17 or 18, he had many tickets to pay and hired an attorney to help with the court appearance because of his warrants. The attorney, James Mallory, asked him what he was going to do. Rodriguez said he told him he was trying to figure it out, and asked if he had any jobs.
Mallory hired him as a legal assistant.
Then, in 2017, Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 4, which immigrant communities considered dangerous for them, and Rodriguez decided that was enough: He helped found United Fort Worth, which is a multiracial grassroots community organization that actively works to challenge discriminatory policies and systems of oppression while empowering Black, Latinx and other historically marginalized and working class communities to join the fight for justice through collective action, he said. He wanted to become more engaged in organizing a deeper movement in Fort Worth.
The law requires local law enforcement to comply with federal immigration detainers. Before it was signed, immigrant rights advocacy groups across the state urged their cities to fight the constitutionality of the law.
One of those advocacy movements was in Dallas. Rodriguez started working with some people organizing in the city and was able to travel with them to Austin to testify against the bill.
He saw leaders from other cities and the energy their movements had on a community level. This led him to see the need for similar work in Fort Worth, he said.
“There was a demand from individuals that were a part of my community to create a movement to get our local leadership to join onto that lawsuit,” he said. “It just really started with the idea of this is messed up and we have to do something about it. We have to amplify voices and demand justice and demand that these folks in these elected positions are responsive to the needs of communities, especially the most vulnerable residents of Fort Worth.”
The first meeting of what would become United Fort Worth was held in a small church in North Side Fort Worth. Organizers pulled about five chairs out, expecting a small crowd — 60 people showed up, Rodriguez said.
“That just was a clear representation that people are hungry to advocate for justice and advocate for the fight for people’s dignity,” Rodriguez said. “Before you knew it, that meeting room filled up, and we had to go to another space in downtown because we had over 100 people joining our meetings.”
Among those attending the first meeting was community organizer Norma Garcia-Lopez, who saw a social media invitation for a small meeting of people against SB 4. She said she was excited there was a group in Fort Worth pushing for the city to challenge the legislation.
Upon hearing Rodriguez speak about his experience and the bill, she knew he was someone who could lead people in that cause.
“I was just in awe,” she said. “I was just happy, I was feeling all kinds of mixed emotions. I was feeling nostalgic because it spoke to my heart.”
Garcia-Lopez said Rodriguez made a call to action that the community answered — and it was simply inviting people who cared to gather and organize.
“We grew together, we developed together,” she said. “This was something new to the city of Fort Worth, this type of organizing, because if it wasn’t for United Fort Worth, that summer of 2017 wouldn’t have been a one to remember.”
Those meetings turned into two days of advocacy of people speaking out to demand the City Council join the lawsuit against SB 4 during a rally downtown. However, the council voted against joining the lawsuit.
“It wasn’t ultimately a loss because it’s now built this space in this movement for demanding justice, for demanding holistic representation, for demanding the imagining of the way that we really hold space for directly impacted voices,” Rodriguez said.
About the same time, advocates were pushing for accountability from the Fort Worth police Department after an officer used excessive force against Jacqueline Craig and her daughters. That sparked the connection to build movements for Black and brown communities together, Rodriguez said.
One way United Fort Worth tries to make change is through policy. Legislation can be an “instrument to uphold white supremacy,” or it can be used to liberate people, Rodriguez said.
As the organization grew, it eventually was able to acquire the Community Justice Center in the Polytechnic Heights neighborhood. Along with Rodriguez, Criminal Justice Leader Pamela Young and Immigration Justice Lead Organizer Gloria Mendoza are leading teams of activists to create change in the city.
Rodriguez also is part of the W. James Middle School Site-Based Decision-Making Committee, a board member for Tarrant Transit Alliance, and a member of the Texas Wesleyan University Diversity and Inclusion Council.
“We understand that relationships and social consciousness is first in our work,” Rodriguez said. “Whether it’s the leaders of the Black Panther Party movement, or some of the voices from the Chicano movement or our folks who fought against colonialism in a real revolutionary way, we learn from them and they guide us on how to navigate this work and navigate the relationships that we have, where we can keep each other safe and healthy.”
That community and legacy are part of what makes the fight so personal for Rodriguez.
“There’s very little power in individualized leaders,” he said. “But there’s so much power in a collective movement of people building together because they see that that’s where the real movement derives from; it derives from the ideas of community, the ideas that a collective can have.”
Garcia-Lopez, a suicide prevention advocate, said she continues to be impressed with Rodriguez, who she described as a young man who is fearless, eager and ambitious.
“There were people that just were dismissive because he was young,” she said. “But that’s exactly what we needed. We needed people like Daniel to lead the way because eventually they are the leaders. They transform to the leaders that we want to see, and they’re bringing new ideas, bringing new hope to communities.”
Daniel Garcia Rodriguez bio:
Birthplace: Brownsville, Texas
Moved to Fort Worth: In 2009 from Fort Myers, Florida
Family: The son of Immigrant parents, Omar Garcia and Benita Rodriguez, two siblings
Education: Lived experiences. Fort Worth Can Academy Campus Drive, Tarrant County College, Texas Wesleyan University.
Work experience: Food vendor at the Dallas Cowboys Stadium, sales associate at Footlocker, sales associate at The Hookup Fashion, dishwasher at Pappasito’s Cantina, general labor at multiple warehouses, construction site helper with Ortiz Framing & Remodeling, legal assistant at James R. Mallory Attorney at Law, legal assistant at The Queenan Law Firm, and United Fort Worth co-founder and community organizer.
Volunteer experience: 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, 2016 SW Voter Registration Education Project Fort Worth co-chair, W. James Middle School Site-Based Decision-Making Committee, Tarrant Transit Alliance board member, and Texas Wesleyan University Diversity and Inclusion council member.
First job: Selling drugs as a youth. Ray Franklin helped Rodriguez get a job in retail later. “I feel like I’ve been gifted with a second chance,” Rodriguez says.
Advice for someone learning to be a leader: Don’t be afraid of being outspoken, even if you are the only one in the room. Challenge systems and practices created from the legacy of Settler-Colonialism. We were not intended to be included in these colonial structures, so it’s worth using our imaginary power to rethink how we love and support one another through structures, policies and relationships. You are only as powerful as the community you are building with. Decentralizing the concept of leadership is essential in building enduring movements for transformative change. Meaningful change must come from people-power and solidarity. As individuals, we play a small but substantial role in creating a world free of oppression within a collective. This must include intentionality in how we show up and make space for marginalized and directly impacted voices. Nothing about us, without us, is for us.
Best advice ever received: Your ancestors love you; trust them as they guide you through your journey.
Kristen Barton is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.