Not long ago, the state was known for its harsh immigration laws. But a new crop of Latino activists emerged in response—and now they’re catapulting themselves into elected office.
by Fernanda Santos
In the City Council chambers here, a squat, round room that evokes the traditional Navajo home known as a “hogan,” Carlos Garcia is easy to spot. His chestnut hair, long and limp, is perennially fastened in a ponytail that hangs like a string halfway down his back. His feet are shielded by a pair of weathered sneakers. One afternoon last month, he showed up for work clad in a black golf-style shirt—“That’s the most dressed up you’re going to see me,” he quipped—with the words “City of Phoenix Councilman Carlos Garcia” embroidered over his heart.
Garcia joined the council in March, but his style remains as casual as it was during his time protesting a mother’s impending deportation in front of the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in 2017, or chanting into a bullhorn outside the federal courthouse where Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio stood trial that same year, accused of racially profiling Latinos.
“One of my elders a long time ago told me, ‘If you’re going to be a public servant, you have to be ready when you wake up in the morning to meet with the governor and to go talk to a jornalero,” Garcia says, using the Spanish word for day laborer. The elder challenged him to use the way he dresses to telegraph who he really cares for—“Is it your priority,” the elder asked, “that you dress up to impress the governor?”
“My priority is to make sure people feel comfortable with me,” Garcia says.
By “people,” he means the people of color who for years have stood as targets of the politics of Arpaio and Jan Brewer, the former Republican governor of Arizona. Arpaio, perhaps Arizona’s most nationally famous politician, rode to fame in the 1990s with his draconian jail policies and then into President Donald Trump’s favor with his tough anti-immigrant posture. Brewer, as governor,in 2010 signed into law the nation’s toughest immigration bill, SB 1070, powering up the “attrition through enforcement” strategy championed by some on the right to drive illegal immigrants out of the United States.
Nearly 10 years later, Garcia is part of a new wave of Latino politicians in Arizona who have entered politics in response to those policies—a legacy that Arpaio and Brewer likely did not expect. In a state that once compelled police officers to ask about the citizenship status of the people they pulled over and barred undocumented immigrants from getting driver’s licenses and paying in-state tuition at public universities, a growing number of Latino activists are using the lessons they learned in organizing against the immigration crackdown to catapult themselves into elected state and local office.
Garcia was born in Cananea, Mexico, about 30 miles south of the border, and lived without papers in the United States until age 14. For years, he ran the Puente Human Rights Movement, one of the most aggressive immigrant-rights groups in the state. But after five of his family members were deported beginning in 2009 and one was sent to Eloy, a privately run immigration detention center southeast of Phoenix, he says, “I got left with no options. And that’s what has pushed someone like me to actually run for office.”
He is not alone. In the past 10 months, Betty Guardado, a hotel housekeeper-turned-union organizer, took her seat on the nonpartisan Phoenix City Council alongside Garcia. Raquel Terán, the former Arizona director for the civic engagement organization Mi Familia Vota, joined the state House of Representatives as a Democrat. On Tuesday, Regina Romero, a child of Mexican immigrants who was the first woman elected to the Tucson City Council, became that city’s first Latina mayor. To replace her on the council, voters chose Lane Santa Cruz, who grew up in one of the poorest and most heavily Hispanic corners of Tucson and, armed with a Ph.D. in education, worked for more than 10 years as an advocate for her neighbors, many of them undocumented as her parents once were.
Arizona,long considered the home base of tough-minded Western conservatism, has been drifting leftward for a few years now. In 2012, the Supreme Court significantly weakened the “show me your papers” law. Brewer left office in 2014, and in 2016, Arpaio was voted out and escaped prison only because Trump pardoned him a year later, after he was found guilty of contempt for defying a federal judge’s orders to stop singling out Latinos. (At 87, Arpaio is running for sheriff in Maricopa County again, but his candidacy is considered a long shot.) The state’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, has publicly rejected Trump’s idea of denying green cards to people who receive government benefits and questioned recent immigration raids in Mississippi food-processing plants.
Yet this new wave of Latino politicians represents another shift in Arizona politics. While Arizona has had a number of Latino politicians before, this new group has emerged specifically from the statewide push against undocumented immigrants. They have moved past the well-worn formula of increasing Latino participation in elections, though that too is part of their strategy. They’re building on their activism—protests, civil disobedience, grassroots organizing—to enter the halls of political power, and doing so largely without help from the Democratic Party.
“This is about stepping into the electoral space and saying, ‘Hey, not only can we put pressure from the outside, but we can infiltrate these systems and do something radically different,’” Santa Cruz says. “It sounds very subversive, but it is not. This is the way through the front door.”
Their arrival hasn’t come without challenges. They have struggled to find middle ground between their in-your-face style of activism and the more measured ways that are necessary to build alliances. They remain the targets of the anti-immigrant sentiment in Arizona, where Trump has a loyal base of supporters. Even in the Democratic stronghold of Tucson, there were signs on Tuesday that voters are willing to go only so far: A proposal to designate it a sanctuary city was soundly rejected at the polls, in part because many feared the designation could invite retaliation from the Trump administration and the Republican majority in the state Legislature.
“Our goal is to at least dismantle this system that was created to hurt our people and to get rid of us, and that takes time,” Garcia says. “But brown people are coming out, and now we have the numbers and the organization in place to be able to turn the tables in our favor exactly because we have a seat at the table.”
Mexicans and, later, immigrants from other parts of Latin America have played important roles in Arizona’s development. They worked on the system of canals that delivered a steady supply of water to farmers and, today, plant and harvest greens along the border to feed most of the United States in the winter. They dug the desert to carve out the streets of Phoenix and, now, build the high-rises that are transforming this city’s skyline.
Latinos, however, have long struggled for equal access and equal rights in Arizona. Their resistance took shape in the labor unions that opposed legislation in 1914 threatening to ban non-English speakers from working in mines, and then a dual-wage system that paid Mexicans less for doing the same work as Anglos. It manifested itself in court, when, three years before Brown v. Board of Education, Latino leaders in the city of Tolleson, then a farming outpost west of Phoenix, successfully defeated Anglo school officials who believed Mexican Americans were inferior and, because of that, deserved to be segregated from white students.
In “The State of Latino Arizona,” a report published in 2009, Christine Marín, a historian, archivist and professor emerita at Arizona State University, writes about these early generations of activists who, in the late 1800s and early 1990s, mobilized in groups with names like “El Centro Radical Mexicano” (The Mexican Radical Center); “Liga Protectora Latina” (Latino Protective League); and “Los Conquistadores” (The Conquerors).
Decades later, in 1969, Congressman Raúl Grijalva, then a college student at the University of Arizona, co-founded the Mexican American Liberation Committee, which organized school walkouts in Phoenix and Tucson to protest overcrowding and the absence of bilingual classes and courses on Mexican culture. “We were fighting for equity. We were fighting for our identities, fighting to give our community power to change our lives,” says Grijalva, a Democrat from Tucson, where he was the first Latino to serve on a school board.
The defiance that grew out of the Brewer-and-Arpaio era represents a new chapter in the history of Latino activism in Arizona. Some 15 years ago, anger over illegal immigration rose in the state, fueled by the record number of migrants apprehended along the border. Activists like Garcia trained their focus away from Washington, weaving together a network of local organizations that taught the people whose lives were affected by Arizona’s heavy-handed enforcement how to fight back.
Groups like Garcia’s Puente, founded in 2007 in response to an agreement allowing Arpaio’s deputies to act as federal immigration agents, held weekly classes to teach undocumented immigrants what to do if they were stopped by the police. Lucha—which stands for Living United for Change in Arizona and means “struggle” in Spanish—trained teenagers who had lost a parent to deportation to use their stories to get voters on their side. In Tucson, volunteers created “redes de protección,” or safety nets, for people who needed money to post bail for detained relatives or for child care if they were detained themselves. Their advocacy contributed to the voter-approved expansion of worker protection laws in 2016, which included the largest minimum-wage increase in the country, and legally mandated paid sick days for all employees in the state.
Now, these activists say, they want to move past opposing those who have opposed them, and to be defined by the positive changes they make. They’ve worked on that together, counting on the same coalitions of grassroots groups that registered record number of Latinos ahead of the last presidential election, carrying out voter mobilization drives and spreading the word on issues of common interest, such as workers’ rights, better schools and safer neighborhoods.
“What really woke us up as a community were the anti-immigrant laws here in Arizona, and it was Arpaio, and it was Jan Brewer, and it was those anti-immigrant policies that they were pushing—that’s what took us to the streets,” says Romero of Tucson, who grew up speaking English and Spanish in the rural city of Somerton, near where Arizona meets Mexico and California. “But we also realized that if we wanted to change the systems that have oppressed us, we had to do it from the inside. We had to change the faces of these policymakers in Arizona.”
They ran their political campaigns as they ran their grassroots groups, drafting people into leadership positions who didn’t have much political experience but did have knowledge of communities and the issues they face. Some, like Santa Cruz, are alumni of New American Leaders, a national program that prepares children and grandchildren of immigrants for elected office; Terán has been an instructor there. As candidates, they joined forces to knock on doors and raise money in communities that are not often the targets of establishment politics.
And they rode into office over the past year by building on the success of the yearslong efforts at voter mobilization that followed SB 1070. According to a report released earlier this year by the Latino Vote Project, a network of advocacy groups, 75 percent of Latino voters in Arizona cast their ballots for a Democrat in 2018, a 22-point increase from 2014, which helped to tip the political scales in Arizona to the left at the national, state and local level.
“The point isn’t just winning. It’s what we do after, and that’s on all of us,” says Marisa Franco, co-founder of Mijente, an online organizing platform that has its roots on the anti-immigrant battles in Arizona. “But we’re actually starting to lay tracks of an alternative direction, an alternative way forward.”
Arizona is changing fast. One in three of its residents is Latino, and Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of its population, putting the state on track to become majority-minority by 2030, 15 years ahead of the rest of the country. Latinos are already the majority in Arizona’s public schools, which are also among the poorest performing schools in the country. That’s one of the state’s biggest tests for the future: how to prepare the next generation of Latino leaders if the institutions that serve them are flawed.
While this new cadre of Latino elected officials is finally in the position to make laws and ordinances to improve the lives of fellow immigrants and children of immigrants, they say they’re finding it’s a lot harder to push the same issues now that they’re in power because they’re not yet fully trusted: Voters who put them in office are wary that they will forget where they came from now that they’re in politics, and their colleagues see them as potential adversaries.
At the meeting that brought a semi-dressed-up Garcia to the council’s chambers last month, council members had convened to consider a civilian oversight board for the Phoenix Police Department, whose officers fired on more people than officers from any other police force in the United States last year. Increasing accountability among local police is the issue Garcia most aggressively campaigned on, a stance that the city’s powerful police union has taken as a deliberate act of defiance.
When Garcia wore a T-shirt that read “End Police Brutality” in June, the union posted on its Facebook page a picture of his arrest during an immigrant rights’ protest in 2017 and asked, “Does he serve the best interests of the people who reside in the nation’s fifth largest and fastest growing city?” When he traveled to El Paso, Texas, last week, the union used his own Facebook Live feed to question his commitment to his constituents. A few weeks ago, Garcia was criticized—not just by the union, but also by plenty of online commenters—for confronting a pair of Arizona State University police officers who had pulled him over on the edge of the campus, telling him that the license plate of the car he was driving had been suspended.
“I don’t believe you have jurisdiction,” Garcia said before handing the officers his driver’s license and asking them to hurry because he had a meeting to go to.
At the council meeting, Garcia squeezed his lips as he listenedto his colleague Sal DiCiccio, a build-the-wall kind of Trump supporter who is the most conservative voice in the council. “There’s a perception among some that our police officers are bad when I don’t believe that that’s true,” DiCiccio said. “I think that our police officers have done everything admirably well. They’re just amazing individuals, and quite frankly there’s just a lot of B.S. that’s happening toward them right now. And I think that’s just wrong.”
“We have a very different understanding of where we’re at,” Garcia retorted. “I believe we’re already in that crisis of confidence.” Garcia was measured in his tone. He seemed to be struggling to find the right approach to building partnerships that don’t compromise his convictions. (This month, the council will meet again on the oversight board, this time to hear community input.)
One thing these activists-turned politicians don’t want to be is one-offs. They’re trying to create political roots by hiring people like Adriana Garcia Maximiliano, a once-undocumented immigrant from Mexico who trained first- and second-generation Americans to run for office and is now, at age 27, Carlos Garcia’s policy director. They want to change the face of Arizona’s politics much as the growth of the Latino population is inevitably changing the face of the state.
One Sunday morning this fall, Maximiliano stood under a Palo Verde tree, one of 20-some Latino and black activists who had gathered to raise money for Santa Cruz at the home of Marisa Franco. The get-together was more neighborhood party than fundraiser—these were longtime friends, united by a shared heritage and common goal.
In a blood-red shirt adorned by colorful indigenous crosses, a tattoo of the brother she lost to a drug overdose covering her right arm, Santa Cruz listened as, one by one, people gave her the reasons they were behind her.
Franco: “We need to have people like you that are strong and willing to take positions that are best for our communities.”
Maximiliano: “We do need a lot of folks who are willing to change shit up and do things differently.”
Terán: “I’m here because the state is changing, and as the state changes, we don’t have time to have imperfect allies.”
Then came Garcia, who was wearing a crimson T-shirt with a picture of the Tejano superstar Selena. He and Santa Cruz went to the same high school in Tucson. “I was a little gangster,” he said, “getting into a lot of trouble. Lane was a tennis rock star, big in her church.” They reunited in college, when both of them joined MEChA, a Mexican-American student group founded in the turbulent 1960s.
“We raised our families together, talked about organizing together,” he said. “And now in the very lonely world of running for office and governing, I think it’s a privilege to have someone like you, Lane, to share this space with.”
On Tuesday, they celebrated her victory together. “Now,” Garcia says, “we have work to do.”
Fernanda Santos is a journalist and professor of practice at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.