Words: Andrea Serrano
When you’re a person of color, the question “Where are you from?” always comes in the form of “When did your family come to the United States?” The answer should be: we never did. Of course, there’s this part of the family history with Spanish colonization, but there’s the part of us that’s indigenous, that’s been in this area since time immemorial. So I like to say, “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.”
I grew up in a neighborhood in Albuquerque, N.M., called Duranes. I’m the youngest of six sisters. We were the first generation of our families to be born in Albuquerque. My dad is from northern New Mexico, and my mom is from the other side of the Sandia mountains – the East mountains. My mother and grandmothers were all amazing women, so I am lucky to have had such a dynamic female influence surround me and be a big part of who I am today.
Our parents were pretty old school, which really informed the way we were raised. My father was a state representative in the late ’60s; of course, he would watch sports, but really politics was his favorite sport. My mom was a cashier at a grocery store in the union, and when she was pregnant with me, they went on strike and walked on the picket line. Those are the stories I grew up with, and I feel have informed my life.
When you’re a person of color, the question “Where are you from?” always comes in the form of “When did your family come to the United States?” The answer should be: we never did.
In middle school, I was convinced to go to a three-day youth retreat the summer before my freshman year in high school, which completely changed the trajectory of my life. All of a sudden that political upbringing and my mom’s stories of the union all made sense. It was a three-day retreat for Chicano youth, with great workshops about the Chicano movement and what people had fought for. For much of my high school years, I got to plan future youth convenings and go to other youth conferences. We even went to the Latino march in Washington, D.C., in ’96 and read excerpts from Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which is when the activist in me really came roaring out. My parents had an expectation that I would go to college, but the funny thing is they didn’t go to college. We weren’t a wealthy family, so whereas my folks encouraged me, this youth organization actually helped my family figure it out so I could go to college.
I started my career at the Rape Crisis Center of Central New Mexico as a work-study job in my early 20s. I would watch the community educators and I remember thinking, I want to do what they were doing – which eventually I did further on. I was there during Sept. 11, which I will never forget. I remember thinking, what is going on? We didn’t know what was happening that day. It was a day of chaos, and I just wanted to go home. We were scared. But the words of our executive director at the time have always stuck with me. He said, “People are going to be triggered today. They’re going to be calling us, so we have to be here to answer the phone. I know you’re scared, but this is the work we signed up for and we have to be here.” That moment has stayed with me and is guidance for my job today.
I came into Ole three weeks before the election in 2012. Ole was one of the lead organizations trying to raise the minimum wage. I walked into this bustling organization and thought to myself, what the hell did I get myself into? I was a conservation organizer with a two-year fellowship. I was really interested in urban conservation and the way that people of color interact with land, and that’s how I was able to shape my job. When we won the minimum wage, my job started to make sense. I became deputy director, then executive director and organizer shortly after.
In the beginning I wasn’t sure if organizing was my thing, but I have learned it really is. I’m a poet and a performer. I’ve written plays, acted, and played in a band, but nothing feels as good as seeing your members, the members of your organization, grow and become comfortable standing up and taking over a meeting or standing up at a city council meeting or lobbying.
Our members fight for paid sick leave, fight for early education, fight for democracy reform and fight to become citizens or the right to vote. They are all working toward that same goal of just wanting to live and not worry about choosing between paying for childcare or paying for your electric bill.
When I say our members get up and speak, that’s central to our work. There is a youth organization in South Africa that coined the phrase “Nothing about us without us is for us.” That’s really what it’s like here at Ole: The people who should be at the center of this movement, leading this movement and speaking for this movement, are the people who are most affected by it.
It’s not my job to go up and lobby for Early Education. It’s not my job to be on the microphone speaking about paid sick leave and rattling off a bunch of statistics. My job is actually to create a space where members can grow their own power.
My role is to create space, not take it up. I think being the youngest of a big family teaches you that you have to share space, but it also teaches you that you have to fight to be heard. I think for me, if I can use my position to open up a floodgate for other women of color, other gender-nonconforming folks of color, poor and working-class folks, I’ve done my job. That’s the point of being ED: kicking down doors for other people to run through. And when we’re in those spaces – then you go to another door and kick it down.
It is our role to have an understanding of power and the way power systems work. We do get angry, and we get frustrated, and it’s disheartening; and sometimes you just think, why are we doing this? But I think what we understand our role as a staff, and I understand my role, is to hold the space. Our members are still the ones who are fighting for these very basic human rights. There is no room for giving up because our members aren’t giving up.
This last election is an example. We all came back to work Nov. 10, and we were scared. We didn’t know what to do and we didn’t know what lies ahead under this administration. But the thing we also knew is that people were poor Nov. 7, and we knew that immigrants were being deported in mass numbers under the Obama administration. Before Nov. 8, things were really bad for people of color, for women, for trans people, for LGBTQ communities, for immigrants. We already knew it was bad, anyway. It just become louder and crueler under Trump in a very public and in-your-face kind of way – but it wasn’t like things were beautiful and perfect before. We didn’t live in this multicultural, let’s-all-hold-hands utopia. So I gave the same speech I had heard back on Sept. 11. I said, “I know you’re scared and it’s unknown and we are all freaked out, but we have to create a space and hold this space.” And that’s what we did, and that continually is and always will be the premise of Ole. We can’t give up.
And I know it isn’t always going to be OK and not everyone is going to make it through. I feel like it’s my responsibility to say that out loud. But if collectively we’re listening to one another and not waiting for someone to do it for us, things can happen. It’s our job to be the ones creating change. If we’re together, and if we’re following the lead of women and people of color – particularly women of color and gender-nonconforming folks of color – if you follow our lead, we can create that change. Indigenous women have survived genocide attempts and are still the most brutalized group in this country. So listen to us: listen to black women, listen to indigenous women, listen to Latinas, Asian women, mixed-race folks, and also our white allies and accomplices. I think if you are listening to us and following our path, then you’re going to know.
If collectively we’re listening to one another and not waiting for someone to do it for us, things can happen.
This is the time where you fight, and you fight like hell. It isn’t about stooping to another person’s level. When they go low, you step on their necks and you keep them down. You have to fight if you want to survive this, and you have to be willing to fight. Sometimes that fight means listening to other people and letting other people lead. Then there are other times where you have to step up and be the leader, but you have to be willing to do it right.
My advice is to be gentle with ourselves and not beat ourselves up. I stress eat jelly beans – and I make no apologies for it. Whatever we’re trying to do to keep ourselves going is doing the best we can. We just have to keep going and keep fighting.
Looking back, if I could go and tell my 20-year-old self to hang in there – I know it sucks right now because you’re just answering the phone and organizing files – but someday you’ll get to do what you love to do. I don’t know if the 20-year-old me would have believed it, but where I’m at now, 20 years later, I feel like I’m doing the work that I was meant to do.
Andrea is an Albuquerque native who has been working in non-profit and social justice organizations since 1999. Her roots in political activism began with her mother, who was on a picket line while pregnant with Andrea; and her father, who served as State Representative in New Mexico in the late 1960s. Her experience includes Community Educator at the Rape Crisis Center of Central New Mexico; program coordinator at South Valley Academy as well as extensive involvement in community organizing and activism with various community organizations. Andrea has always used writing, poetry and theater as a way to connect arts with activism. Andrea began working with OLÉ in 2012 as a Conservation Organizer and is now Executive Director of the organization.
Narrative written by Tricia English in collaboration with Andrea Serrano