Dressed for ProtestRemodeling the quinceañera for immigration reform

This article appears in our 2017 Winter issue, Devotion. Subscribe today!

Some kids inherit their mom’s dimples or crooked smile. Viridiana Sanchez Santos says she has inherited her mother’s will to make change.

At age 16, Sanchez Santos has organized a school-wide walkout against ICE raids, trooped alongside her mother during the nationwide Day Without Immigrants march, and most recently stood with 14 other teenage girls donning sunny ball gowns in protest of SB4, a law that directs local police resources to identifying people who are undocumented. Although she had been politically active with her family since grade school, Sanchez Santos credits Cristina Tzintzun, executive director of Jolt Texas, with helping her find her own voice as an activist. 

“I knew that it was time for change when my community wasn’t speaking out,” says Sanchez Santos. “When I saw that my community was scared of Donald Trump and his hateful supporters, I wanted to be more involved in helping out, so I just stopped being afraid.”

With the support of Jolt Texas, Sanchez Santos played a key role in an hour-long demonstration dubbed “Quinceañera at the Capitol” that quickly went viral. Equipped with quinceañera dresses and sashes that read “No Racism” and “Accountability,” the girls performed choreographed dances to Los Tigres del Norte’s “Somos Mas Americanos” and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” on the steps of the Texas State Capitol in downtown Austin, a popular setting for quinceañera photo shoots. After their dance, the girls spoke with legislators who backed SB4 to explain how the law would personally affect them and their families. They also reminded legislators of their impending status as eligible voters.

Fifteenth-birthday celebrations honor a girl’s transition into womanhood in Latin American tradition, but Sanchez Santos says the significance of her quinceañera gown shifted during the rally: “This time I was not wearing my dress for my life—I was not [taking] another step into my life. This time it was because I wanted my whole community to [take] one more step into the next step of their lives. I did it for my community.”

When Trump was elected into office, Tzintzun was six months pregnant. As a nationally revered advocate for the Latino community and former executive director of the Workers Defense Project, a group she cofounded at age 24 dedicated to upholding labor rights for construction workers in Texas, she planned to launch Jolt after her maternity leave, but couldn’t wait any longer. She called for a Love Trumps Hate rally the same week of the election and expected about 100 attendees. Instead, 2,000 showed up.

Tzintzun attributes Jolt’s unique approach to organizing as the root of success for its campaigns. She says, “There are two kinds of power that drive change: there’s power of institution and power of inspiration…. I think [for] a lot of the work that [involves] immigration and race, the Latino community tries to say, ‘We’re just as American as everybody else,’ and tries to hide our culture in the process. At Jolt, we say the exact opposite.” 

After witnessing the immense level of change that came from working with mostly undocumented construction workforces for more than a decade, she wanted to expand on these lessons to reach a broader Latino community. Though the current political climate encourages Brown people to retreat in fear, Tzintzun is focused on empowering a new generation of leaders who are boldly Latino. “We put our culture and who we are front and center. People want to see themselves embodied,” she says. “The quinceañera [protest was] about our culture and our pride and who we are, and that is what made it so powerful.”

Sanchez Santos immigrated to the United States from Mexico at age 6, and has lived in Austin ever since. Under President Obama, she became eligible to receive Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which granted her protection from deportation, the ability to get a work permit and driver’s license, and the right to go to school. The fate of DACA is uncertain under Trump, who moved to end the policy in September. 

Yet in the face of fear, Sanchez Santos says her bravery is inherent. “I just hate seeing white [supremacists] step all over Latinos. They don’t even know us and they treat us badly, but we don’t deserve that. We have done nothing wrong to them. We come here to work, to help our families financially, and they have no right to just want to kick us out of this country because we’re still helping out their country. We’re working for them. We’re doing jobs that they don’t want to do. We’re here,” she says. She also admits she fights to maintain her courage. “I do get scared sometimes with what’s going on, like with what happened in Charlottesville. That did frighten me a little bit, but it just made me even stronger because I know that what we’re doing and what we’re working hard for is pissing them off. It’s working.”

As an organizer, Tzintzun says it’s her duty to help activists navigate their concerns. “We live in a time when undocumented and immigrant communities are really under threat,” she says. “We have to honor that fear but we also have to move people beyond fear to courage and conviction. That’s our job as organizers; acknowledge where people are at, and then talk about the power of coming together. Allowing fear to arrest us from action is exactly what these legislators want, and that’s [how] we let them win, so we need to move beyond that.”

In Texas, Latinos currently account for 40 percent of the population and are estimated to become the demographic majority by 2030. Jolt’s long-term vision is engaging all eligible voters; currently one in three is Latino. 

“We see this moment as a real crossroads for Latino and immigrant communities in Texas,” explains Tzintzun. “While we’re going to fight back against SB4, we’re also going to build the real power needed to transform Texas. Where we’re really waging our bet is on young Latinos [who] we believe are the future of Texas.”

Sanchez Santos speaks in affirmations and hopes to become a doctor one day, opening low-cost clinics for people without adequate resources or access to medical care. She says activism is important because “it gave me a voice and it made me unafraid.” For other young people interested in activism, she urges them to just get involved. “Think of all the bad things that are happening now and literally everything that we’re getting put through—think about it and act on it,” she says. “Don’t just let people step all over the Latino community. Don’t be scared. Do it for what you love and what you care for.”

As for Jolt’s future, Tzintzun says she hasn’t had the chance to take her maternity leave yet, but she is invigorated by the future.

“We look forward to the long-term fight. Not just to beat back SB4, but to beat back a slew of legislation that has attacked LGBTQ communities, that has attacked the rights of women, that has been an assault on poor people, and really anybody that doesn’t fit into the elite financial interest of the Republican party and a bigoted minority that currently controls the state,” she says.

“We have tremendous power,” says Tzintzun. “We know what the quince girls represent and what our community represents is the future. The hate and the bigotry of the legislators currently in power represent that past, and that’s why they’re so afraid of allowing our community to have full rights and equality. They recognize [that] when we fully recognize our power, they will no longer be in power themselves…. We’re coming for you because this is our state, our home, and we’re not going anywhere.”  

Interested in supporting Jolt? You can help by following them on social media, spreading the word on upcoming actions, and sharing your artistic skills to tell Jolt’s stories through a variety of mediums. Send an e-mail to info@jolttx.org.

This article was published in Devotion Issue #77 | Winter 2018
by Emilly Prado
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Emilly Prado is a writer, educator, and interim director of Youth Programs at Literary Arts in Portland, Oregon. When not writing or teaching, Emilly moonlights as DJ Mami Miami with Noche Libre, the Latinx DJ collective she cofounded in 2017. Learn more at www.emillyprado.com or @emillygprado on Twitter and Instagram.

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