I imagined that I would enter politics as an “adult” in my home country of Uruguay.
Perhaps I had become alienated from the idea of voting and political change here in the United States, feeling like not having my own voice heard because of my undocumented status.
Maybe I am jaded by the prevailing radical idea that capitalists do not make good politicians (or maybe they do) and what we really need is to re define leadership and power and uproot capitalism altogether.
There are many reasons why I loathe politics in the U.S., a name and subsequent ideology imposed to a Place and People that have been here long before colonizers began recording history through their viewpoint while ignoring, stealing and destroying ours.
Settlers profited off of stealing land and bodies from indigenous people from all over the world as they bestowed upon themselves the privilege to enjoy the luxury “playing politicos of the ‘new’ world” every February for four hundred and plus years here in the lands we call now Virginia.
This January I found myself in the halls of power of the Virginia state capitol.
I took up work as an Immigrant Justice Advocate for a (name to be redacted) advocacy non-profit that focuses on Immigrant issues such as obtaining drivers license access to all residents of Virginia regardless of status, discouraging legislators to vote on anti-migrant, xenophobic bills while also educating the ones that actually do want to do right by my people. I applied for the position out of necessity as the previous month I was involved in a car accident—as a single parent I needed more work to get out of my financial setback.
Honestly, I did not think I would be contracted for the type of work that involves decorum, pretenses and favors respectability politics but went through the application process regardless. In the words of Cardi B, “I got a baby, I need some money, yeah, I need cheese for my egg!”
I accepted this position knowing that working in the seat of white supremacist power would be a dangerous game to play and that people walk in and completely change. I was afraid this place would change me and my values too. I am a community organizer, a self-made artist, a huge shit poster on Leftbook and an even bigger shit talker in real life.
I did receive my first contract for social justice work and within a week, that contract was terminated. A lot happened in that week, and in the subsequent weeks in the Virginia General Assembly.
Not surprisingly, these things did changed me.
I would like to share with you stories about my first session lobbying at the former capital of the Confederacy, and current capital of white supremacy in my state. I want to give you some insight on some of the incredible things I’ve seen and learned in this short time. I want to tell you how horrible it all has been and why would I am looking forward to coming back next year.
So if you’ve been wondering, “What the hell is going on in Virginia?” or “What can I do to change these things?,” here is el chisme.
I thought I had made it through my second day in the Virginia General Assembly intact.
I had just begun work as an Immigrant Justice Advocate. On the agenda: watch a bill dubbed by its creator “The Anti-Sanctuary City Bill” being presented by a man aptly nicknamed Dick.
Bill-watching has become the bane of my existence. It’s a tiresome process of sitting in uncomfortable chairs, listening to bills being presented, discussed and voted on.
People are reduced to numbers and People of Color are only invoked when it is time to call something criminal. It is also commonplace I found out, for them to put the most controversial bills (the ones that usually get community to show up in support or opposition) at the end of the agenda, hoping to weed people out with time, I can see how this tactic works—you need a high tolerance to the pain of hearing blatant racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia to sit there, unfazed for hours. If making folks wait doesn’t work, legislators alway can and will call capitol police (some of whom are linked to white supremacists, by the way)
While everyday folk sit there in meetings and hear our lives being discussed and played with in political terms, the legislators often pass each other notes and read their phones. They look bored and annoyed at the presence of the public.
Here in Virginia it is not required to present an ID of any sort to go into the state capitol and the legislators’ offices. It is our right as Virginia residents to see our representatives.
Being my second day and the newer worker in the group, I had the cheerful disposition to be resilient to the racism and make a difference.
The weight of ancestral lines and migrant culture and expectations were on my shoulders, I felt that to be working there was a privilege I could not squander.
The work would provide for my children, my mamá is finally proud of my career choices and I will be able to do what I love, which is to help educate on social justice issues.
As Senator Dick Black spoke, I was asked to speak up as a member of the community that would be affected by this bill.
I did my best and publicly gave a clumsy prayer. I hadn’t come with talking points or prepared speeches. I did not know what to say and so I prayed that God would touch Dick in a way that would make him drop persecuting my people and keeping good Christian people from doing what is right and holy. I couldn’t stop thinking of the congregation at Wesley Memorial Methodist in Charlottesville, who opened their church to offer Sanctuary to my friend María while she fights for her right to asylum. This bill could potentially affect so many folks here in Virginia.
The committee only gave more than a dozen community people, organizations and faith leaders five minute ALL together to make their remarks in opposition to this bill. I was angry at them and then mad at myself. I wished I did not speak, that instead, others with fact sheets and prepared work would have had priority. A friend of mine told me to not think on that, “They hear stats every year, we give them talking points before these meetings, they know the facts and chose to ignore them. Maybe they won’t ignore the People. That is why you should be here!”
White supremacy does this to us all. It make us think that our voices and experiences are so small, they are unworthy of being heard, especially in a place like the General Assembly, when the complete opposite should be true in a free society the most marginalized voices must be heard, centered and acted upon.
My head spinning, I needed a break.
“Day two! made it through!” I thought as I walked out for a smoke. I hate smoking, it’s a bad habit created out of bad anxiety—an excuse to get away from people. A reward for making it through something socially uncomfortable. I had to shake off the gross feeling of respectability,
I even shook that racist’s hand and told him I’d stop by his office to pray again!
I doubted that I could change his stance of issues of human rights to be honest.
Dick is so far gone into bigotry that it is hard to imagine any word from anyone but Jesus himself would change his mind (if he could even recognize Brown Jesus) which was overall the attitude of most folks there, “that’s just how Dick is!”
I came back into the building named after an Indigenous Child, a victim of colonialism, sexual abuse and lately cultural appropriation/white washing. “The Pocahontas Building” is where all the legislators and staff offices are located. A cold chill goes through my back each time a text comes through asking if I am at said building.
As I enter, I see a friend of mine, founder of Fight the Muslim Ban Seema Sked, wearing her Proud Muslim American shirt, speaking with Dick. At some point the conversation becomes escalated as Dick becomes belligerent, yelling and pointing his fingers at my friend’s face.
He begins railing against Affirmative Action, remarks that men that look like him (white) are vilified in America and that Seema had to give him respect because he is a veteran. That is when I tried to explain to Dick that if we are to talk about respecting veterans, we need to talk about how there is fellow veterans right now being deported to their own countries. He asked for police escorts up to this office and later on the afternoon, Senator Dick Black gave a speech in which he called us Sanctuary Activists and said he was attacked by us.
Non-profit white-led organizations such as the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, whom I thought work for immigrants’ rights and whom have used both Seema and I and our work in the past, apologized to Senator Black and condemned the actions of ACTUAL immigrants AND Faith Leaders in our communities before he made his floor speech and before even seeing the footage of the alleged confrontation.
He garnered enough attention to have Amanda Chase open carry a handgun on the floor. When asked by the press why she was strapped, she said to keep the activists like the ones that attacked Senator Black away and enough sympathy to get his bill passed with little trouble through Senate and House. Now it is up to Governor Ralph Northam to veto this bill, although the Governor has been spending so much hiding from community accountability, trying to convince the state that he isn’t a racist that he is ignoring his duties.
Days after my “confrontation” with Black I was terminated from my position as Immigrant Justice Advocate for doing my job, advocating for the rights of immigrants such as Seema and myself.
And that’s really when my work began.
Leonina Arismendi Zarkovic (D. Div) is a non-binary artist, writer and political analyst originally from Montevideo Uruguay now living in the DMV. Her page: yaninaangelini.com.