When you search “SB 1070,” Google returns a lot of results detailing how the Supreme Court (mostly) upheld the law, too many articles about Arizona Governor Kay Brewer’s lack of regrets 10 years later, and a few hopeful headlines celebrating a “new generation of immigrant activists” inspired into action by the discriminatory measures invoked against them and their families.
This week’s contributor describes the intense frustrations and traumas she experienced as she dove headfirst into politics, beginning with a bright-eyed dream to right a system of wrongs and ending with something much more disillusioned. Estella’s words speak to a serious conflict in our political system: the desire to have women, people of color, and other minority groups represented in public without actually listening to what those groups have to say.
And while Estella describes her experiences working on political campaigns, her story is not unique to campaign life. We can find instances of this sort of discrimination in every aspect of our political, social, and economic systems. Sometimes unintentional, and sometimes very much on purpose, people, companies, and politicians use the optics of diversity to cover up a lack of diverse ideas - or at least, a lack of willingness to listen to them.
Including people from traditionally marginalized groups as the face of an advertising campaign or in building out a staff is a great first step. But we won’t really make a difference unless we also include their voices in the fabric of those businesses, organizations, and political entities. Our hope for The Issue is that we can use our platform to build up those voices - not just for optics, but for real.
NOT YOUR TOKEN BROWN GIRL - Estella Amaya
I’m a first generation American. Both sides of my family are from Mexico, but on July 4th, 1996, my mother brought me into this world complete with a firework celebration. My dad was watching a baseball game, and my grandmother was in the hospital lobby. As American as independence.
In 2010, our governor enacted the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (SB 1070). It was the broadest anti-immigration measure in the whole country at the time. This law requires that Arizona law enforcement officers attempt to determine a person’s immigration status when arresting or detaining a person for a state crime if the officer has any suspicion that the person “is an alien… unlawfully present in the United States.”
My mother started making my brother and me carry our birth certificates with us wherever we went. Some of us with mixed status families would rarely leave the house because of the fear of getting profiled. For the first time, I started believing that my government didn’t like my family because we looked different. This event was what sparked my interest in bringing diverse voices to the table; I wanted to make sure that decisions like SB 1070 wouldn’t be made again. I developed an interest in the grassroots organizing of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in the 70’s. I went on to graduate high school, and became the first in my family to attend university. I studied Political Science with the goal of one day working on a Presidential campaign.
After I left college in 2018, I worked for The Arizona Democratic Party to help elect candidates up and down the ballot. Though I began with big hopes, I quickly realized that I was nothing more than their token brown girl. I worked under horrible conditions and waited patiently as my manager kept putting off the housing I had been promised. With the long hours and meetings I had to schedule 45 minutes away from each other, I was sometimes forced to sleep in my car. My coworkers never experienced this; their housing was provided, or at the very least they had coworkers to stay with.
This was my first campaign and naturally, I needed a lot of guidance on how I would manage such a large portion of the state. My manager, however, would go weeks without a check in or meeting. Whenever I brought this up with my coworkers, I was always met with one of three responses:
“You’re doing so well, though!”
“Your manager is the best manager, hands down. This is happening because he has so much on his plate.”
“It’ll all pay off when your candidate wins.”
I felt weak because working in this environment was taking a toll on me. I thought that if my coworkers were in my shoes, they would quietly put up with everything like I did; I told myself I shouldn’t complain. It took me awhile to realize that this mistreatment wasn’t just about me as a worker; it was about discrimination between my white coworkers and me. What I was really learning was that - no matter what the Democratic party claimed - spaces like this weren’t meant for people like me.
After the election, I was still riding on the high of victory. In retrospect, this is where I set my standards. I reflected on my experience and - given mine and the campaign's great success, I determined that everything I had endured and sacrificed was worth it. I made a mental list of what campaign management could request we sacrifice in order to win. I accepted a Field position on a Presidential Campaign in New Hampshire where I was asked to tell my personal story more times than I wish to admit. I shared it with everyone I worked with, voters I had meetings with, and everyone I met while knocking on doors for candidates. I was reliving my childhood traumas every single day, multiple times a day - because I was told that this was what won elections. Sharing one's story is so powerful and there should be spaces to make all voices heard. That being said, white managers never think about the fact that the stories minorities tell often stem from trauma. I couldn’t go one day in two years without revisiting the same memories, for the sake of a candidate who was more interested in winning than actually listening and learning the experiences from their constituents.
In November I flew to Arizona to be with my family for Thanksgiving. When I landed I found out that my grandmother had fallen and suffered a head injury. She passed away the day before Thanksgiving. I reached out to my manager and told him what had happened, and all he replied was that I was entitled to two days of bereavement. A colleague on the political team was able to take a week off after a similar family tragedy. I missed my grandmother’s funeral. I told my mother I needed to fly out the next day and asked her to grieve without me. I convinced myself that this was for the greater good, but I knew that I couldn’t keep up with this toxic cycle.
Eventually, between the mistreatment and my mother’s begging me to quit, I left my job and moved back home to heal. I’d been forced to make so many sacrifices to work on that campaign. I needed time to reflect, to decide if any of it was actually worth it - without the influence of anyone else working in politics. I had decided to work in the political field because I wanted to represent myself and my experiences. Instead, I'd spent all my time reciting tales of trauma to improve optics instead of inspiring change.
I’ve been going to therapy for three months now, and with a lot of emotional unpacking, homemade meals, and support from my family and friends, I have realized that I am worth so much more than the nights sleeping in my car or missing the chance to grieve with my family.
To any brown girl reading this: don’t ever excuse your own exploitation on the assumption that your white colleagues would allow themselves to be mistreated. The answer will almost always be no. Don't accept the demand to relive your trauma over and over without asking what you are getting in return. Our stories are so powerful, and we can empower change - but only when we are sharing with those who want to uplift our voices, not use our faces for their own gain.
MORE TO THE STORY
Arizona passed SB 1070 into law in 2010, kicking off years of controversy and court battles. In this piece written in the wake of its passage, The New York Times discusses the ongoing conflict, and the effects of the law on Arizona's immigrant population.
The passing of legislation like SB 1070 is not only discriminatory and harmful to immigrant communities. The ACLU outlines many of the key economic effects of SB 1070.
Read our past Issues on racial bias. Check out The Law Enforcement Issue here, and The Power Issue here.