“To me, the American Dream meant having the right to vote,” says Ylenia Aguilar, who ran for election the same year she became a citizen.
Growing up as an undocumented immigrant in the United States, Ylenia Aguilar frequently found a safe haven in schools. Her mother, who only completed sixth grade, worked hard to provide her with opportunities, particularly when it came to education.
“Teachers taught me to believe in myself,” the Veracruz, Mexico native says from her home in Phoenix.
Aguilar became an American citizen in 2014, voting for the first time in the 2016 elections. “To me, the American Dream meant having the right to vote,” the single mother of two says. But here’s the twist. That same year she also ran for a seat in her local school board. And she won.
Aguilar’s two boys were among the 64.5% Hispanic students that make up the community of Osborn School District in Phoenix, Arizona.
“I never thought I could aspire to this role,” the former translator at detention centers and current VP at PR firm Strategies 360 says. “As women, we don’t see ourselves in these roles. We have doubts and impostor syndrome. I still have questions.”
As she tells the story of the decision to run for the Osborn School District governing board, you can feel the deep well of optimism that fuels her. Aguilar, now president of the board, is the only Latinx board member.
“A life of adversity has prepared me for this role—a role I don’t take for granted,” she says.
“So many people that are crossing the desert come with the illusion that their life is going to be better,” Aguilar says, reflecting on the experience of her family, some of whom were deported back to Mexico. A big difference in making things better, she says, compared to Latin American countries, is the access to public education.
Aguilar also notes that the mostly-low-income families of her school district were not prepared for remote learning during the pandemic.
“It’s unfair that it’s now an expectation that they have Wi-Fi,” she says. “You have to choose between paying for electricity and rent. The families in our district are the ones working in grocery stores, front line workers. If it’s hard for me as a single parent with a profession, with an ability to speak two languages, to navigate the system, how can we put these expectations on our families?”
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Arizona is “a state that loves Latinos when it’s convenient,” she says, where 23.6% of the eligible voters are Hispanic, yet the proportion of Hispanic students between kindergarten and 12th grade is double that at 44%. Aguilar worries about how in Arizona too much has been left to be decided at the local level in relation to reopening schools, which amount to life-or-death decisions. She wants to see more leaders across the state seeking to strengthen, rather than dismantle, public education.
“We are writing the future of our nation,” she says. “That is dependent on us, on our children and on us educating our children. We can’t just complain. It is our community that is going to suffer the most. Voting is the most important thing that we can do in November.”