As a Mexican-American who grew up in an overwhelmingly white state, Mireya Reith experienced bigotry that inspired her to become an advocate for vulnerable communities. Through her work with the Arkansas United Community Coalition, Reith empowers immigrants and amplifies the voices of the most marginalized in the public policy arena.
We recently spoke with Reith by phone about her work for our ongoing "Voices of Resistance" series, which aims to draw insight and inspiration from the South's deep history of struggle for social change and to learn from a new generation of Southern leaders working in today's volatile political climate. Her responses have been lightly edited for clarity. If you have ideas for other Southern change makers to feature in the series, please contact Rebekah Barber at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Can you tell me about your history and how you became involved in your advocacy work?
As you know, a lot of times our systems don't know how to deal with folks from different walks of life. That was definitely my case. I was an English language learner — my mom and I learned English together. At my school, they never had an English language learner before, so the best they could do was interpret that I had a handicap. So instead of getting put with other students, I got sent to a trailer out back where I had to take speech therapy, and every single time I mispronounced a word I got hit with a ruler until I got it correct. And, unfortunately, when the system treats students differently, many times people follow suit. My nickname throughout school was "the Mexican monkey." They thought that we were not even humans — we were equal to animals.
And so I had many reasons to hate school and hate the system. Then in second grade I had a teacher who did not see me as a challenged student. She saw every kid that walked through the door as being full of potential. And instead of sending me out to the trailer, she kept me after school and gave me individual coaching and mentoring so that I could get up to speed with the rest of my classmates. At the same time my parents bought me this little sweatshirt that said "Harvard University." So they tried to inspire me — that I was not going to be fighting those bullies with fistfights (I was too scrawny and too little) but that the way I was going to combat bullying was by acknowledging that the American dream was just as accessible to me as it was to every one of them. And I was going to do that by doing as good as I could in school. And so I made straight A's that year, and I never stopped making straight A's until I was the first Latino valedictorian in my high school.
But it was in that process that I came to a couple of truths. We have to fight for diversity and making sure that communities from all walks of life feel welcomed in this country. The other one I came to when I was in high school through my family in Mexico, who was part of the democracy fight in that country. Seventy-one years of one-party rule — they were ready for change. They were ready to believe in their vote again. And I had an aunt who was involved in politics — my namesake, her name is Mireya as well — and she was at that time trying to be mayor of our community, the first woman to do so. And she helped me see. She was the first one that forced me to look at our political decision-makers, not just in Mexico but across the world. And I couldn't find anyone that looked like me. It was the male elite. The older male elite of every country was making decisions, and there were not people that looked like me — there weren't youth, there weren't women, there weren't minorities, or they were very few and far between. And she was the one who inspired me to ask the question, "What would politics look like if our politicians looked like the people they represented?" And that was my opening to organizing. It was in the international fight for democracy. It was around engaging marginalized communities and democratic processes and trying to inspire women and youth, indigenous communities. How do we get people from diverse walks of life involved in our democratic processes? And I focused at the international level because of my family in Mexico — they were the ones that gave me hope and gave me inspiration.
I did that for 14 years. I worked for the U.N. and various American nonprofits abroad. I was heading to Afghanistan to support women candidate training for the first municipal elections opened to women under a gender quota when my dad got sick here in Arkansas. I didn't think about it twice. I couldn't be halfway around the world when I knew my family needed me at home.
I was amazed to come back to a very different Arkansas. My family was no longer the only Latino family in Arkansas (or at least that's what it felt like growing up). I actually had someone greet me in Spanish at the airport. In the time I was away Arkansas' became the fourth-fastest-growing immigrant population in the country. And so as I was still doing some consulting with my international work, I was getting involved locally with political parties, with a nonprofit. And it was in that work that I came to know the Arkansas Dreamers.
I was working on a political campaign that was trying to get the Latino vote out. It was with a senator who was a cosponsor of the Dream Act at the federal level. We were in the heart of the campaign a few weeks before the election and a vote came up for the Dream Act in Congress. It was the best chance in this century for the Dream Act to pass, and she voted no. She said, "I think I'm going to lose more white votes than I would get in Latino votes by supporting the Dream Act, and I can't do anything if I’m not in office." And I said, "With all due respect, Senator, you're not doing anything for us in office."
I thought that night for sure there was no way in hell Dreamers would show up, but they did. And they said, "We have no other choice but to keep after the system and keep holding our elected officials accountable and hope they will eventually do the right thing because I want to go to college and I want to work." And that was the night we forged a commitment to each other. We said, "This is not Arkansas' legacy. It is not about holding back potential but unleashing the potential of every single Arkansan and that means not holding any of us back. We're going to organize, we're going to build a movement, we're going to start engaging in advocacy. We're going to make this possible." Unfortunately, our other senator, Mark Pryor voted "no" when the Dream Act came up for a vote again in December 2010, but it only forged our determination to move forward. And that's how we started Arkansas United Community Coalition.
Can you talk about the importance of vulnerable groups asserting their agency and standing up for themselves?
Arkansas has an interesting story. We have had a history of grasstops groups working to try and fight on immigration. They did forge an agreement around 2005, 2007 that they didn't want to see anti-immigrant laws passed in Arkansas. It was a coalition called the Friendship Coalition. In recent years there has been a business-led initiative called Engage Northwest Arkansas that's worked hard to try and make Arkansas more welcoming. We've appreciated those efforts and appreciate that we're in a unique place in the state, where there can be a grasstops role and a grassroots role. At the end of the day, we as immigrants want to be positive agents of change for Arkansas. We want to be a part of the solution of fighting for change in our community. We have a story to share and we want to be able to share it in Arkansas United.
That's why organizing is a tenet of all we do. And it's story-based organizing. It all starts with everyone's individual story. That's how we start everything — by story sharing. And so we wanted to be able to own our stories and share them, and share them frequently and everywhere so that other people don't tell the story for us. We have shared with our grasstops. We are grateful for allies, but give us a space. Let the Arkansas Dreamers speak for themselves. Let the Arkansas immigrants speak for themselves on these issues. If you're really going to help Arkansas achieve its potential, it takes everybody. It takes everybody being able to identify what the challenges are but also finding those solutions.
It's important to look at things that remind us of the power of organizing, the power of our communities.
Being in the Bible Belt, there's a lot of instincts around saving our communities. A lot of allies believe and offer to try to help save us, but we actually think that true salvation of Arkansas is going to take all of us working together and equally respecting each other's ability and need to be part of the solution. That continues to be a huge part of what we do. We never stop organizing and finding new people who can come out and share that story with others and creating safe spaces so that we can have these conversations around reform. It's just something we have to do.
In Arkansas, we're still 75 percent white. As much as our immigrant population is growing, our African-American population has declined over the years. We believe in what we have to offer the state, but we also believe in a chance to change hearts and minds. That's part of where our strategy is right now: What role can we play as immigrants or as the Black Belt Coalition in helping our white community be better allies? How can they be a part of truly empowering our communities and helping in that process so that all of us achieve a bigger potential?
What have been some of the victories in Arkansas?
In 2013, Sen. Pryor voted no twice on the Dream Act. We stalked him for two years. Every time he was in Arkansas, we were there. And we kept after the vote. Between 2010 and 2012, we doubled the Latino and Asian vote in Arkansas and registered over 2,000 new voters. And we were able to show an upward trajectory of our community getting involved in the civic processes. We also started tackling citizenship. We as immigrants led that movement. Through the rallies, the vigils, the presence at the town halls and also just the relationship we built directly with Sen. Pryor, we were able to turn him into one of the "yes" votes that got comprehensive immigration reform out of the Senate in 2013. Unfortunately it died in the House after that. But in two years, we turned him from a "no" vote on the Dream Act to a "yes" vote. We had so many national groups depending on us. We had never seen so much attention on Arkansas and immigration, but everyone knew Sen. Pryor was one of those targets. I still remember the night before the vote in the Senate, I had SEIU and other big national groups calling me about Pryor, saying they had heard he was going to vote no. But I had talked to his chief of staff and they had assured me he was going to vote yes, and he did. And when they asked him why he voted yes, he said it was us. Our canvassing.
That same year we had our last push at a state Dream Act. We had Republicans and Democrats support it. It lost by one vote in the Senate because a Republican who was supposed to vote for it didn't show up. He said he was sick. But we did get really close. Since then we have been able to work with individual universities to look at more fair policies for in-state tuition, and we're taking that conversation across the state.
Another victory we had in the last legislative session [in 2017]. It was our first anti-immigration legislation since 2011, and our Democratic leadership told us that there was no way we were going to be able to defeat those anti-immigrant bills. They said, "Be prepared — you don't have the votes." And we said, "We don't have the luxury of taking that for granted." We've been working to build relationships across party lines and we knew that there are a lot of farmers and pro-business Republicans who have expressed support to our Dreamers. We're not going to take it for granted. Instead, we're going to try to engage everyone and hold them accountable. And I'm proud to say our organizers sat on that legislature for two months. They were there every single day at the capitol. When we knew there were key votes we rallied up to 150 immigrants, many of them undocumented, who showed up. We testified with our own voice. It was actually the feisty Republican women who defeated the bill for us. And we were able to keep Arkansas a state that has not passed anti-immigrant legislation.
They did pass an anti-Sharia bill, although it was so watered down there are no immediate effects to our community. We have spoken up against the governor and everyone for throwing our Muslim community underneath the bus just because it's a small community. We thought that was unjust and unfair. But it wasn't an immigrant-specific bill.
Overall, we have kept Arkansas a state that has not passed anti-immigrant legislation. We have about 10 mayors who have officially signed welcoming proclamations, and we are working on several more, and state agencies as well, to counter the narrative around hate crimes and bullying. A couple of months ago when there was a case of a customer at a Walmart who bullied a Hispanic customer, Walmart came out and told that bullying customer they're now denied entry to any Walmart ever again and that their actions do not reflect the values of citizens in Arkansas. We're not a California or New York — we're not going to be the most progressive leaders in the world. But through the constant use of our community speaking for ourselves and the strategic engagement with grasstops allies, we have been able to make sure that we're not an anti-immigrant state. And we keep working, especially at the local level.
We are a state where there's a lot of attacks happening at all levels. Immigration is not a priority. It's not going to naturally emerge to the top for a lot of our allies and coalitions. And so I think it's tremendously important for our community, the role that we've been able to play and the movement we've been able to build — an immigrant-led, immigrant-serving movement — because we've been able to make sure that this doesn't fall through the cracks. We've been able to hold allies accountable. At the same time, as we've gotten bigger and are becoming more familiar with these processes, now we're trying to see how we can add value to broader coalitions — not just immigrants fighting for immigrants, but how can we stand as Black, Brown, or other marginalized communities together for shared interests? And that's part of what the road ahead is going to be for us, and we're excited.
What gives you hope in this fight?
Our immigrant communities.
There have been times this last year when I have almost given up on politics. You deal with privilege and helping. In Arkansas, there's a lot of people that will say "I'm not racist," "I don't have racist intentions," "I don't have racism in my heart," "I don't see race." And they don't realize that because they're so ingrained in their white lens that they don't have the ability to really have empathy for other viewpoints. And it's a savior mentality. They think that history is going to do them right at the end of the day and say that they've saved the Black and Brown kids.
Here in Arkansas, there've been times when that privilege has been so hard, and I question inside strategy. And every time I do, all I need to do is go back to our immigrant base, our community, our organizers, the Dreamers that have been with us from the beginning that are now my staff. It's their hope, it’s their unwillingness to give up that keeps me motivated.
And also remembering how we have succeeded — celebrating those small successes along the way. We made sure we celebrated defeating the anti-immigrant legislation. It's important to look at things that remind us of the power of organizing, the power of our communities.
I believe in the movement. I believe that people with shared interests in social justice working together and speaking for themselves are always going to prevail. But we need to have that organizing family. None of us can do it alone. So anytime I'm frustrated, I just go down to the organizing family and feel the energy and power and remember what we're fighting for. It's in the truth telling and in the organizing where I find hope and inspiration. It's the compass that keeps me going anytime I feel lost.