LGBTQ, immigration and political activist Tania Unzueta has spent the last three years living in Georgia involved in political and electoral organizing. She returned to Chicago in January with her partner.
Unzueta came to Chicago from Mexico City with her parents and sister when she was 10. Her family members are immigration and labor rights activistsas a child, Unzueta went to rallies and protests for various causes.
"I've always seen organizing as an option," Unzueta said.
A teenage Unzueta, who was undocumented, was faced with the issue of her immigration status for the first time when she was in high school and getting ready to apply for colleges. This, she said, was her first experience of activism for herself and her community.
She went on to earn a bachelor's degree in gender studies and a graduate degree from the Latin American and Latino Studies program from University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).
Around 2010 she did lot of organizing around undocumented youth and that is when she said she decided to lean into it. Among her many experiences, she was a volunteer with a national group of young people fighting for the DREAM Act, co-founded the Immigrant Youth Justice League, worked on different campaigns including the Not One More campaign, Jesus "Chuy" García's mayoral campaign in 2015, and she worked on Stacey Abrams' gubernatorial campaign in Georgia. Additionally, she is a former journalist and public radio producer.
Unzueta, who identifies as queer, is the political director and co-founder of Mijentea hub for Latinx and Chicanx people to build campaigns and connect around racial, economic, gender and climate justice.
She is also co-founder and on the board of directors at Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCHAD-).
"Part of our values as an organization and why I'm at Mijente is we believe in local people making decisions for themselves," she said, explaining Mijente always partners with local organizations.
She said when she started Mijente she was coming out of immigrants' rights organizing, particularly around deportation defense, but she had an interest in getting into electoral and political work.
She observed, when she went to work for the Garcia campaign in 2015, that the biggest problem reported in Chicago was that Latinos did not vote, so turnout was always low.
"So we have the problem where Latinos were the majority of our constituency and everyone was afraid the vote wouldn't happen," said Unzueta. "So, I feel like I've been spending the last five years at Mijente really thinking through what's missing in political organizing, what needs to happen differently, what do we know from grassroots organizing that could help political work?"
"I just think there's people who aren't excited about electoral politics and what we're trying to do within the organization is talk about the different strategies that it takes to create change and that includes outside the state, within the state, and non-electoral grassroots work as well as political work," Unzueta said.
Over the last year, Unzueta has run the entire
political program at Mijente, and her roles included supervising teams in Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia for the general election, supporting
local candidates and campaigning against Donald Trump. For the U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia that took place this past January, she ran the organization's political campaign in that state for the Democratic candidates. Unzueta explained that her responsibilities covered designing the plan, figuring out who to target and why, choosing the messaging, recruiting people on the ground and making decisions about payment for canvassers, among other things.
In Georgia, particularly for the runoffs, Unzueta said that she and her team succeeded in reaching every Latino voter in the state.
"I feel like it's part of why the political parties and candidates don't choose to invest in Latino communities because it takes a lot of resources to get us there and it's also why it needs to be done different than the way it is," said Unzueta. "It's worth it to invest in these people to be able to allow our voices to be heard."
As for the successes in this political work, Unzueta said that being able to reach every single Latino person in Georgia for the runoffs is something that has never been done in the state before.
"So we did a lot of microtargeting, for example, and the targeted messages for the communityand I think that was a huge success," said Unzueta. "I feel like having an independent political vehicle that's progressive, that's organizing Latinos nationally is important. Being able to participate for the first time in a presidential election is a win for Mijente."
When asked about efforts for future elections, Unzueta explained it is about figuring out how to support people who are interested in mobilizing in their own states.
"None of the work in Arizona and Georgia or North Carolina would've happened without people being really invested in it," she said.
"It doesn't mean the only way of participating has to be voting or has to be doing political work," she said. "I think there's a diversity of work that we could be doing and people just need to be involved in some way."
Unzueta said she is driven by the idea that that things can get better in time.
"I got into organizing because I was seeing the different ways in which my life was being impacted by being undocumented for most of my life and the only way that I was able to figure out how to get into school or how to find resources, how to find people who were telling me I couldn't do stuff, is to organize and so I feel like when I see injustices in my community and in my family," she said. "My experience has been by coming together and making a plan and figuring out how to leverage your power."
Unzueta said an important lesson from her years of organizing is to not just criticize, but to propose solutions.
"I think we spend a lot of time as organizers talking about what's wrong and don't often have answers for what is the thing that we are suggesting," said Unzueta. "So, I feel like that's part of the challenge for us this year too, like even if we have criticisms of the Biden administration, it's not about saying what they're doing wrong, but actually being able to figure out what can work and what are we actually proposing going forward."
Chicago Latinx, LGBTQ activist and Mijente member Emmanuel Garcia has been friends with Unzueta for about 15 years. They met working at a radio station.
"Tania's fearless," said Garcia.
Saying she inspires constructiveness in activism work and finding solutions, he described her as "an incredible organizer," a storyteller and someone who also works behind the scenes, as well as someone who would coach and motivate others to get their point across.
"It wasn't just that Latinx people are left out of electoral politics, it's like but what are we going to do about that and so you can see clearly what the outcome of that was for her in Georgia and all the places that she's been to," he pointed out. "For me that's the reminder; what are the solutions and how are we being more proactive about what we're building."
For future generations, Unzueta insisted that institutions can change. She shared a piece of advice she said she personally learned early in her activism: "Just because something is against the law, just because something is set in the institutions' rules, doesn't mean it can't change. I think the history of immigration and the history of the LGBTQ community are great examples of that. To think just because an institution, a government, an organization has a way of doing things, I actually think our experience and our organizing and all of the ways in which we come together can change those things."
To continue organizing efforts, Unzueta suggested staying safe, being forgivingand being patient.
"Understand that some things are going to take longer or be less efficient or just less clear and that's okay," she said. "Maybe be creative. … It's a time where we need new strategies and new ways of doing things."
Justice might not take breaks, but Unzueta understands and practices work-life balance.
She believes that life varies and is not always 50/50. Sometimes the organizing requires a 15-hour work day or an all-nighter, but it is necessary to take a vacation.
"We shouldn't punish ourselves when that happens," she explained. "We should take the time on all of that to do what needs to be done and at the same time there's times when actually that's not needed. There's times when we can say no because we can. There's times when we need the vacation. When you have to step back, other people have to step forward. I think that's a thing to keep in mind."
For more information, visit mijente.net .