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Staying Power: Arizona activist has fought for immigrants’ rights for decades

The Show  series Exit Interview featured a series of conversations with people who had made their mark on Phoenix — and then left. They hit a ceiling or needed to grow.

The Show series  Staying Powerlooks at people who have made Arizona their home. This activist has been in the Valley for a long time, fighting for his community.

Luis Avila has been a community organizer in the Valley since the days of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s immigration raids. He’s fought for the DREAM Act and campaigned for Barack Obama in Arizona.

He came to Phoenix from Mexico when he was just 18, purportedly to study English. He didn’t know it at the time, but his mom wanted to get him out of Mexico. He was publishing a political magazine there and she was worried about his safety. He was supposed to stay six months to a year — and is still here, 23 years later.

"One of the most shocking things for me was that I, I remember knowing about the United States through movies and TV, right, in Mexico," Avila said. "And I always imagined these kind of like really dense cities with people walking around and everybody had cars and looking great. And you know, and that's the image I had of the United States. And it was a really interesting shift when I came here because I didn't have a car and I had to get public transportation. And I was faced with the reality of the country, which is that there are many people who live in really tough situations and, and I started learning that, you know, well, there was a lot of opportunity here. There were also a lot of people who were stuck inequities."

At the time, he thought he was going to be a journalist. But, it became clear to him soon enough that he couldn’t be a neutral voice. It was a different time in immigration politics in Arizona, and he remembers encountering anti-immigrant sentiment everywhere.

"I remember arriving home one day and you know, seeing all these post-its, like colorful post-its, green, yellow, all these things that were kind of like along the stairs and the door of my apartment," Avila said. "And I asked my mom if she knew what they were. And she said no, and I started reading them and they said things like "beaner" and "go back to your country" and you know, just terrible things that I actually didn't knew what all they meant. But a neighbor in the apartment complex who put those constantly and yell at us and [sent] the police to us. And that was just the first interaction I had with the anti-immigrant sentiment that was growing in this, in this state.

He hosted a radio show that became an organizing place for activists fighting against it.

"People would communicate the things that we needed for the march or we would interview other activists," Avila said. "And, and that was really an, an a door opening for me to, to the world that, that I, I know I'm really proud of being part of. But, but even, even then I, I've always had an interest on telling stories and learning why we live in the situation that we do. And that's kind of been my approach to the work that I do.

He got deeply involved in efforts to pass the DREAM Act, and Avila said he thinks it was those students who taught him to change his mindset.

Full conversation

AVILA: Like, no, we are also contributors in this country. We're also adding a lot of value to being here, not just with our work, but also our mind and our culture and our richness. And, and I think that that mindset has really changed in us as immigrants. And I mean, this is a generalization, of course, there's all kinds of people, but this is a generalization about how like there's a sense of pride now. And I think a sense of value in, in our society, even if the political conversation hasn't advanced, to be honest, like, you know, we haven't had any major immigration reform progress since the late '80s."

So it is really interesting for me to see how immigrant communities have, I think, taken more of their futures and imagine a different future for them and for ourselves. And I think that's changed. The fact also that, you know, our population has grown dramatically has made our conversation about political power completely different.

GILGER: It's interesting that was like an internal shift that had to happen for you. Like it wasn't something you assumed when you came here that you should have these rights.

AVILA: Yeah. And I think that that is a really common thing in immigrant communities that, you know, we feel that this thing that we are told of like if you don't like it, you should leave. It's a very common narrative. And I say, I think sometimes we believe it ourselves and, and you know, now when I hear it, I always say that, you know, regardless of your status and documentation, if you are contributing to this country and you're living here, you are American and, and you should be treated as such and as a human that deserves respect and dignity and, and I think that it took me years to understand that and, and now it's taken me years to realize that and, and make it possible for others as well.

GILGER: Yeah, I want to talk a little bit about your activism work through some of these really controversial times in the state because you've been here for so long doing this work for so long. What do you remember about sort of the, the Joe Arpaio days, the SB 1070 days, these moments when it was very contentious?

AVILA: Yeah. Sometimes I describe it as, you know, like a cat that is kind of like fighting on its back, you know, like just kind of like scratching back whatever you can and, and, and really not being on my, on my feet, that's how it felt, you know, it, it was a really traumatic experience and I, I've been actually thinking a lot about the amount of trauma that we collectively lived in Arizona. And when I, when I say that, you know, of course, immigrant communities lived a level of oppression of waking up one morning and there was a raid, you know, in a car wash down the street with Arpaio mocking us and, you know, parading us on the streets with chains and, you know, making fun of us.


AVILA: And then later that day, you know, Russell Pierce would say the most draconian things at the Legislature and be reported as like neutral news.

[RUSSELL PIERCE SOUNDBITE]: You know, illegal is not about race, it's a crime. You know, we're going to enforce the laws in Arizona. We're going to stop apologizing. We're going to protect the citizens of this state. But you know, again, the deaths, the millions, the billions of dollars in cost. Enough is enough. We're going to enforce our laws.

AVILA: And, and that, that environment of, of like a constant attack was so damaging to our lives. I mean, people didn't want to go out to buy milk. People were so afraid of calling the police, going to the hospital. I mean, I remember a friend one day calling me and saying that his mom had tried to commit suicide and she didn't want to go to the hospital. I mean, she was in really bad shape and she didn't want to go to the hospital because she was undocumented. And she thought that she was going to be deported. That was the, the situation we were living in Arizona.

I mean, it was an amount of fear that that was everywhere. And at the same time, that fear, you know, became the very fuel that we converted into what I think is now in our resilience and our ability to fight back that I am very, very confident that we will continue to protect because we're not going back to that.

GILGER: So I will have to ask you because this is for Staying Power, right? Like we're talking to you about why you are still in Phoenix and why you have chosen to stay here after having lived through those kinds of things here and the trauma that you just described and the challenge that you've just described. Why have you stayed all this time?

AVILA: You know, back then when the situation was so dire during the anti-immigrant days. And by the way, I want to also say, right, like it's not like things are all amazing now, right? Like we, we still have every year really crazy anti-immigrant ideas that come up, right? But now we have ways to fight it back. And we still have a national, a national narrative on anti-immigration that I think has, has really, really kind of moved us back.

But at the same time, one of the things that I keep thinking about, about those days, is that we, we came together as a community in a way that really made me proud it, seeing the people, you know, out in the streets, really fighting for their rights, knowing, knowing your rights, workshops in schools and, and living rooms really gave me hope back then. I mean, the thought about leaving, it wasn't even like in my head to be honest, because we had to fight, right?

GILGER: This where I'm needed, yeah.

AVILA: And more than that, this is where I needed. For me, it was like this is where my life is being fought, right? Like walking away from that would be like, meaning that I will give permission for that to follow me wherever I was, right? And hundreds of thousands of people left at the SB 1070. And our economy was hit dramatically because of that. But, but really, I was so immersed in the desire to fight back and, and, and the desire to be with others in the community that I think I never thought about leaving.

I think it was a few years after 2010, I had an opportunity to go and seek some professional opportunities that took me to Washington, D.C. But, but to be honest, my mindset was always, I'm going to go and learn more and try to, you know, equip myself to come back and continue work here. Through that, moving out of Arizona, it gave me a different perspective, right? Like I never lived in another place of the United States that was so far from Mexico, for example. So there were times that I was, I really missed going to eat Sonoran hot dogs and speak Spanish for days on end and feel like this is a place that I can recognize. Other parts of the U.S. are not like that for me. So Phoenix is so familiar that it keeps pulling me back because it's home. I mean, I've been living here longer than I lived in Mexico.

GILGER: So I mean, it sounds like there are other things that you really love about Phoenix that you really relate to and have found home in.

AVILA: Yeah, one of the things that I've learned in the last few years is that there is a sense of collective trauma, unfortunately, that have bound a whole generation of us together. And this kind of familiarity, it's something that I don't get anywhere else in the country, right? And the way that that collective shared trauma was developed, also created a whole generation of people who now are trying to shape the future in a different way, right? And that for me, it's a very unique opportunity because I feel like we were living in someone else's imagination.

During 2010, 2012, we were living on Russell Pierce's imagination or, you know, Arpaio's imagination. But now we have an opportunity to actually imagine a future that includes us and not only includes us but includes those who have also been left out. And that gives me so much, so much hope and so much excitement.

GILGER: Do you think Phoenix lives up to its potential or does it feel for you kind of frustrating at times? Like we could do more, we should do more.

AVILA: I mean, the truth is, is that this city has a lot of potential, but we haven't realized their potential. I mean, I get when people choose to leave the city where they are finding professional opportunities, you know, I migrated here for a reason and that's the same reason that sometimes take people away from a place. But at the same time, I do think that we have to reflect as a community that stays on how we not lose more people, right? What are the opportunities we create for them?

So when I think about, you know, the amount of students that were leaving behind in high schools that are, you know, not going to colleges or not finishing college, I think about the fact that we're also creating a lot of inequities that force people to find other ways to, to live and move out to other places that might have more opportunities. And I think that's the key for me about Arizona is, what is going to be our collective imagination that includes all of us, right?

So that includes opportunities for those people who are being left behind by the system. But that also creates opportunities for those of us who wanna fight for this place and creates opportunities for those who also are moving in, right? Because who are we to say who belongs here? You know, if we all been fighting to be seen as, as people who belong in the place that we live in?

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.