This article closes out a series of articles that NPQ has published over the past few weeks in partnership with Hispanics in Philanthropy to raise attention to some of the many economic justice issues that Latinx communities face. (Prior installments in the series are here, here, here, here, and here). While the series concludes, the conversation continues. Additional contributions to NPQ on the topic are welcome.
For this story, I interviewed Viridiana Hernandez, who is executive director of Poder in Action in Arizona, and Brenda Elodia Ochoa Ortiz, executive director of Fray Matías de Córdova A.C. Human Rights Center (Fray Matías). Hernandez grew up as a child during a time that Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s raids terrorized immigrants in the state. After the “show me your papers” bill, SB1070, became law in 2010, Hernandez became, at the age of 24, executive director of Poder in Action, where she has supported leadership development of hundreds of young people. This work ultimately led to the electoral defeat of Arpaio. She views the goal of her work as creating spaces of community and love. For her part, Ochoa considers herself a human rights defender, and feminist; in her work, she aims to repair the damage from structural violence faced by migrants. I conducted both interviews in Spanish and translated them into English.—Inarú Yarí Meléndez Vázquez
Can you tell us a bit more about the organization you work for?
VH: Poder in Action is a grassroots organization focused on building community power to disrupt and dismantle systems of oppression and determine a liberated future for people of color in Arizona. Right now, the fight against state violence means a focus on the crimmigration system—the way the immigration and criminal justice intersect. We are fighting to abolish systems of harm and punishment and instead invest in the health and safety infrastructure in our communities.
We have two programs, Youth Poder and Barrios al Poder. These programs were created by members directly impacted by the crimmigration system. Youth Poder organizes youth ages 13–18 and 19–35 to take action against injustice, white supremacy, and machismo. Barrios al Poder organizes Spanish-speaking immigrant families to take action against the crimmigration system.
BO: The Fray Matías human rights center is a local organization founded 24 years ago that responds to the recognition of the need for handholding, care, and support of one of the highly vulnerable migrant and refugee populations on the southern border of Mexico. We recognize that global policies have a strong impact on the life and dignity of people, subjecting them to serious human rights violations and constant political and social criminalization. Our mission is to provide people with the psychosocial and legal support they need. From the individual to the collective, we aim to strengthen their political capacity for social and political influence.
What does your day-to-day work look like?
VH: My days are spent providing support for our organizers or community members. We work with many families impacted by police violence. This means they have a need for individual support, as well as support for common demands or campaigns.
Immigrant families in the US constantly face crises. In 2020, the impact of COVID in our communities led us to create a fund to support undocumented people who have been excluded from government assistance programs. Our communities are constantly seen as disposable, and this role means also responding to those moments at the same time we fight for the long-term changes necessary for our communities.
BO: It is a great question. My tasks range from taking care of my team, making decisions to be able to provide external care, as well as respond to the political needs of the moment. It is difficult to describe a normal day. For me, that ranges from internal organization meetings, internal conflict resolution, inter-institutional meetings, liaison and representation, reporting, drafting proposals, and responding to informational emails with other organizations and donors.
Can you tell me a little more about the people in your community?
VH: The people in our community are resilient, hard-working, and strong. We organize in West Phoenix, home to many Latinx immigrant families and youth. These are working-class families, living paycheck to paycheck to push their families through. The communities we build with have been impacted by institutional racism, leading to higher contact with the carceral system and health disparities. Despite these obstacles, our communities have survived and learned to thrive.
Immigrant communities in Phoenix are the backbone of our economy. Nonetheless, immigrants in Phoenix and Arizona are often not valued or respected. Neighborhoods with higher populations of immigrants are less resourced, over-policed, unattended, and are made to believe these racial disparities are our own fault rather than the product of structural racism. For decades, the Arizona legislature has created and passed laws that target immigrants, from denying healthcare, to denying in-state tuition and access to grants, to making it legal to racially profile through SB1070. Our community’s ability to prosper is constrained, and yet immigrants in Arizona find ways to be seen and live joyous lives.
BO: We are in an impoverished region. There are not enough government resources for education and public health. We see few resources arrive because they become diluted by political corruption that occurs through the manipulation of information. The data is inflated to indicate progress, but that is not the reality, as we have seen with the issue of maternal mortality. There is also a large Indigenous population that the authorities often disregard. In a community ignored by the government, it is common that people feel suspicious about the help that migrants receive when the community already receives so little.
How have your identity and personal experience shaped the work you do?
VH: I do this work because, like many in my community, I was an undocumented young Brown woman being denied an education and whose life had become a political pawn. My different identities and life experience have led me to this work. At first, I organized to defend myself and my family, but it has now become the only way to fight for liberation for our communities. I believe deeply that we deserve more than just survival; we deserve to live happy, healthy, and joyous lives.
BO: I am a woman born in the region from a family with a history of social struggle. I believe that my mother and father left a strong mark on me. These are principles with which I carry myself, including empathy to recognize shortcomings, inequalities, and opportunities. I have been able to participate with groups of young volunteers in the community for many years, which made me recognize my strengths, including my experience in my professional development as a doctor. I face the harshness of the system and the impacts of life, which allowed me to recognize the need to focus my energies on places where I could confront the inequalities and violence that states themselves originate.
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
As women leaders, what challenges do you face, and how do you overcome them?
VH: I became the executive director at Poder in Action at the age of 24. Being a young Brown woman has been one of the biggest challenges. My expertise was constantly questioned. Living the systems that I was fighting was not enough expertise for some. I did not have the degrees that some deemed necessary. The only way to overcome it was to continue doing the work I needed to do. I had to surround myself with a tribe of people that supported and uplifted me. It has meant practicing reflection, grounding myself on why this work is important, and being accountable to the families I organize with.
BO: Being a young woman from the community means I face challenges within these social structures. Even within our civil society organizations, these gender-based issues are present and internalized. We are often underestimated in our technical and professional capacities. Personally, machismo is one of the great challenges that I have faced within my work. I have overcome this by recognizing the structures, pointing them out when they are present, becoming more assertive with my words, and paying close attention to how they constantly show up.
Has the context of the work changed over the years?
VH: We work with youth and families impacted by the crimmigration system. At the beginning of Poder, we worked on issues of education, immigration, and policing. But today it is more focused on police violence and the polimigra.
For many years we focused solely on immigrant rights and resisting attacks on immigrants. But after the 2016 election, it was clear that our strategies had to shift. Stopping deportations was becoming harder. Part of our shift to a focus on policing was rooted in stopping deportations. Local police departments were the biggest contributors funneling our people into the deportation machine. The shift to this work has also led us to see the huge impact of police violence in immigrant communities. We have worked with undocumented mothers who’ve lost their children to police violence and on top of that have been questioned for their ID and immigration status.
BO: It has changed only in giving greater emphasis to the entire complex of the defense of human rights, with special interest in violence against women, girls, boys, and adolescents. These are the people who are most vulnerable and in greatest need of recognition of their rights in the face of a capitalist, patriarchal, and adult-centered system. As the most vulnerable populations are protected in their rights with full recognition and guarantee of the same, the other populations will therefore be respected their rights, thus ensuring that rights are not a privilege.
Fray Matías has always focused strategically on women and children. The move to create a space only for women is something that has come from the migrant women themselves. It is important to create these spaces that go beyond physical space to provide a safe space where women are listened to, understood, and motivated. Fray Matias provides the physical space, but it is from the meetings of the women that the motivation and work arises.
Is there an impactful story or moment that makes you reaffirm your work in the field that you would like to share?
VH: This work is hard because state violence functions as it was intended to, continuously harming Black, Indigenous, and Brown people. Under the Obama administration, we had the most deportations in history. Young people were learning how to fight deportations through public advocacy campaigns. In 2012, I went to a training led by undocumented youth on how to launch and sustain these campaigns. A month later, a family I worked with contacted me. They were in a crisis: a dad, husband, friend to many, Edi Armas, had been detained and was facing deportation.
This became the first #Not1More deportation campaign I worked on. After several months of protests, meetings with congressional representatives, and press conferences led by his children, Edi’s deportation was halted, and eventually, Edi was released from the detention center. To me, this was a clear example of community members coming together as friends, family, and strangers to help a family remain together. These months of campaigning were an example of our humanity and deep love for our people.
BO: In October 2018, the first caravan from Honduras departed with more than 2,000 people. Alongside colleagues from other organizations, we headed about 15 miles away from Tapachula to the border of Guatemala. It was there where we formed a monitoring group that continues to denounce the political repression and violence against migrants and refugees. That day was the first of many where we reached the banks of a river on the border that was said to be where people would cross. On that day we encountered more than 2,000 people in front of us who made it to the edge of the river, but they did not cross and only stayed on the shore. On the other side of the river, for over 10 minutes, they chanted slogans and hymns from their countries. The image and voices are recorded in my mind and my heart. Every day, I witness the strength people have to simply live.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
VH: This work is not a choice. It is a necessity as people of color. To create a more just, free, and healthy life, we must undo the systems we function in that thrive on white supremacy and patriarchy. There is a role for everyone, and if one is not actively fighting to dismantle these systems, we are perpetuating them. So as a reminder, let us reflect and have clarity on our role in this work and how each is disrupting and dismantling these systems.
BO: What we do is a long-term struggle, based in collective and individual activity. One key part of this work is the recovery of our social fabric by educating our community, so that we can all be defenders of human rights through our everyday actions. By so doing, we strengthen our ability to counter the systemic violence we face.
Viri Hernandez is the executive director of Poder in Action, an Arizona-based nonprofit that seeks to build power to disrupt and dismantle systems of oppression by and for the people of color in the state.
Brenda Elodia Ochoa is the director of Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Matías de Córdova A.C. (Fray Matías), a human rights organization that works to protect the rights of migrants and refugees in Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico.
Inarú Yarí Meléndez Vázquez is senior manager of communications for Hispanics in Philanthropy.