Struggle and Community with Alejandro Murguia-Ortiz

Aug 10, 2022

Travis Smith

Recently I had the privilege of sitting down with Alejandro Murguia-Ortiz, a community organizer and immigrant rights advocate, who is running for Iowa Senate District 17 as an independent. We talked about Alejandro’s story of struggle, and of power and community and a vision for the future that works for the people.

Travis: Can you tell us a bit about your background? What led you to run for Iowa Senate?

Alejandro: Yeah. So my name is Alejandro Murguia-Ortiz. I go by Ale. I use they/them pronouns. I grew up in Iowa. I actually grew up in Sioux City, Iowa. That's where my parents are still living. And also a couple of my siblings. If you're not familiar, it's essentially a meatpacking town. Of course, there's more than that, but in terms of the immigrant community, there are multiple meatpacking plants in the area either right there in Sioux City, or just jumping over the river to Nebraska and South Sioux City. That was actually where my family migrated to, you know, like decades ago because of the work in meatpacking. So yeah, that's where I grew up, then I went to University of Iowa.

From there I was more active in terms of my advocacy, but kind of in a different way than I am now. It's always kind of been a part of my life. I remember going to protests as young as second grade and just remember that sense of community that existed there. And I think we kind of lost a lot of that in Sioux City as I grew up. So it was kind of a change of pace to kind of start to find spaces like that again. Once I went to college and eventually when I when I moved to Des Moines, where we've seen a lot of great work happen and develop and grow, and folks who in the last several years, and then some folks even much before that, are really just trying to establish things that are going to be long term and an actual solution. Once I started to get more involved in that, as well as just advocacy, more specifically in immigrants rights and workers rights I started to realize and see just how abandoned folks felt, whether that was my own family or just members of the community, the migrant community, essentially the working class community.

They just felt very abandoned by those in power in a way that I'm not sure if it's been as intense, I guess, as it is right now. It's been really great to see how the community has developed here in Des Moines, at least in the time that I've been here. Also seeing that motivation that folks have in terms of something completely different, not just “change” or not just a “little bit” better. I think folks want something completely different.

Maybe that's not everyone, of course, but I think that a large majority, whether or not we know exactly what that looks like or or what that is, I think that a lot of folks truly want something completely different and all those pieces together. Like the other work that was happening here like Indira's campaign or the conversations that I was having with Jalen Cavil and such we start to see that there's a lot of opportunity to, whether it's to run for office or not. I think that the key is finding platforms to continue to ensure that these are the things that we've been saying for many years, that we don't stop saying them, that we keep finding platforms to say them on.

I saw a run for office as an opportunity to do that as that's what it is. It's a platform, and typically a platform that's used to garner money and power for people who already have it. Maybe we can use that same energy that exists there that people, to some extent, still have some faith in. We can use that platform and that legitimacy to talk about things that we want to talk about, and if we win, which I really do think we can, then continue to do that. As an elected official, I would continue to use the platform to actually talk about things, not just to pretend like we care and then all we truly care about is winning the election. Maybe we can have the conversations about a people's government that is truly representative of the folks that are being impacted

Travis: You said people are looking for change and you list off some issues. What issue do you think that hit you the hardest as far as you understanding what change people need.

Alejandro: I figured the biggest thing that really needs to be changed that people see, and maybe don't know how to address or maybe just have different ideas of how to address, is how decisions are made. So whether that's seeing how your employer makes decisions probably sucks and maybe you want to be a part of that. How your city does, how anyone you know, any any institution of power, how those decisions are made. We have little to no control or say in those things, and I think people want that to be different. How can we as workers, for instance, have ownership of our labor and have a say in the decisions that people are making for us in the same way that maybe a city council or maybe a state legislature really isn't the system that's going to actually do what people want. Maybe we can have the conversations about a people's government that is truly representative of the folks that are being impacted and that those impacts are measured in a way that doesn't continue to create this, essentially, this discrepancy, this huge difference, in how folks experience is based on a number of things.

Travis: You said before that you'd been protesting very early on since you were seven, you talked about your parents working in meatpacking. How did that affect the outlook of your politics today?

Alejandro: Yeah. You know, it's difficult to say exactly how it did, but the biggest thing that I would say, at least in like those early stages of what I got to see in Sioux City was the community piece. Like where there was a lot of space for members of the community to come together and plan out actions and events and be a part of a community in a way that isn't just in church. There was a lot of support from the Catholic Church in Sioux City for that at the time that has been lost. From what I've seen recently, the leadership in the Catholic Church in that area has stepped back in their support for creating those sorts of spaces and in general for the immigrant community. So seeing that, I think that there just wasn't space for us to come together and really think about what our experience is like and whether that's my parents and they just working conditions or just a government that isn't truly listening or even acknowledging our existence.

Also seeing the experience of my parents, of myself and my siblings growing up in western Iowa with Steve King as our congressperson for most of my life which kind of transformed into Trumpism or whatever you want to call it, and being even more uncomfortable when I go back, just given the dynamics of what is proudly displayed versus what used to be proudly displayed and kind of seeing an imbalance there that is just not comfortable anymore. So growing up in that environment, seeing what is possible, learning from others here or elsewhere, what our world could be. And you know what? Some folks are actively working to create and have found some success in establishing whether that's here or globally in terms of creating communities that are wildly different from what we have here. I think a lot of that has truly those that have all been things that have really pushed me and motivated me to continue to be active as an activist and doing what I can to help elevate or support the work that others are doing. Especially if you have some more power as a large institution or even a smaller organization, it's ensuring that the needs and it's the will of the people that is at the forefront of whatever work that it is that we do.

Travis: You know, going into that, one of the things I remember from all of your campaign materials is that and what we talked about earlier is your campaign as a platform. What role do you think some of these other organizations that you've been involved with? What role do you think these organizations play in building up worker power long term?

Alejandro: I think it depends community to community, but I think the most important thing is that whomever it is that we're talking about, whether it's the Catholic Church, whether it's a nonprofit organization or a group of activists like BLM, that the work that is being done is being led by the people, and I think that replicating what we hope to see in say, like somebody's workplace, is something that we're incorporating.

I mean, really, any space that we have for folks that we enter into, we change the dynamic of how we even think about who we are as humans and what we deserve and what level of power that we should have over ourselves and our communities Right? So I think that whether that's creating space for the community, uplifting, elevating other work that is happening. Especially if you have some more power as a large institution or even a smaller organization, it's ensuring that the needs and it's the will of the people that is at the forefront of whatever work that it is that we do.

So what that could look like could be a lot of things. There's so much that we can even look back at as models that have existed that have probably existed here that were maybe pushed out or forced out. Just seeing what we can bring to our communities or uplift in our communities to have actual solutions for things here locally, whether that's something as simple as community gardens, which are things that have been really great to see how we've started to see a lot more.

Even back in Sioux City, I was seeing some [community gardens] and it's something that doesn't seem like a huge thing, but truly is, in my opinion, a very large step towards a community that is actually a community versus our hyper individualistic kind of communities that we have now. So as organizations, as leaders it's creating those spaces for folks and if you have a platform, it's handing that platform over whenever you can... one of the biggest things folks can do is claim their autonomy and their power, and their, essentially their rights in the classroom.

Travis: What would advice be for young people who see the issues we face and want to make a difference but don't know where to start. As someone who's been involved in the struggle since they were seven years old, what advice would you have for young people trying to make a difference today?

Alejandro: Honestly, I think one of the easiest, well I don't know about easy, but one of the biggest things folks can do is claim their autonomy and their power, and their, essentially their rights in the classroom. I mean in terms of the dynamics that often exist with different power imbalances, especially in a situation where someone has so much direct influence over you and what you think, what you believe. Your voice and your knowledge is important and it matters, and if there's an issue that isn't being addressed or that you disagree with, you should and should be able to speak up about that if that's what you want to do. I would say challenge the existing institutions that when we're young, we're kind of forced into. Right? That is one of the biggest things that I think really needs to change is how we perceive, how we treat and the amount of power and autonomy that we give them to use, which I think is currently still very problematic in terms of how that dynamic looks.

Even in our own households, how that has been for generations and generations. I mean, even what we consider family has really become something where the goal doesn't seem to be to care for one another, but rather some level of power over each other or from parents towards kids and such. And I think that knowing that you can change those dynamics or push for change that's, I think, something that I wish I would have heard, at least when I was young. And in terms of what I was going to challenge and what I wasn't.

Alejandro Murguia-Ortiz is running as an independent for Iowa Senate District 17, a deep blue seat with no current incumbent. You can find their website for more information about their campaign here

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