My story begins as an immigrant

Photographed by Gerald De Vera

I met Arlene Alvarez in the Fall of 2019 when she was working as a Partnership Specialist for the Census Bureau and conducting outreach at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The official count was completed in October 2020 after a tumultuous year, but exceeded expectations with a self-response rate of 67%. Since then, Alvarez has advanced into a new civic engagement role as a Special Assistant to Las Vegas Councilwoman Olivia Diaz of Ward 3. We caught up in Spring 2021 in the Arts District (which is included in Ward 3) to discuss Alvarez’s experiences growing up in San Diego, her career trajectory and perspectives on race, identity, and politics.

Tiffany Lin: How did you get your start as a community worker?
Arlene Alvarez: My story begins as a first-generation immigrant from Mexico. I was born in Sonora, México in Ciudad Obregón. I was born there but I don’t feel a real connection to Obregón because my parents are from Nayarit that’s further south. My father grew up on a mountain. Like legitimately a mountain! I remember there was a rickety bus that would leave once a day to go to the closest town. I thought that the bus was going to fall apart. I came to the United States when I was 4 and grew up in San Diego in the inner city. My parents didn’t speak English so I relied heavily on my community to support me.

    One of my most important mentors was Mr. Michael Brunker who was then Exe cutive Director of the Jackie Robinson YMCA. What impressed me was he didn’t wait for us to go there. He would come out in person to canvas. He’d tell us “Hey! There’s swim classes. Or Hey! We have tickets to the baseball game.” He came out, saw the neighborhood, interacted with all the kids running around and told us about the opportunities. So the YMCA became a safe space where I spent a lot of my time.

    Student opportunities would come his way, so one summer, I applied to study abro ad through a rotary program. I had been taking French in high school so I was super excited, and after I completed my application materials, they told me I didn’t qualify because I wasn’t a citizen. At that point, my immigration status was a legal permanent resident. As a teenager, this was devastating to me.

    I was raised in a mixed status family. With many immigrant families, especially lower income, poor immigrants, instability becomes a daily part of life. My dad came here first and became a permanent resident while my mother, brother, and I were undocumented. My second brother is a citizen because he was born in America. We lived in Tijuana a while to try and make it work.

    When you reside in a border town, things are quite complicated. Even my friends born in America would live in TJ and cross the border everyday to go to school. That border is almost invisible if you have papers. That border was weird for us as a mixed status family. My father and little brother could go but the rest of us were kind of stuck. Despite all this, Mr. Brunker continued to share opportunities with me. I ended up working as an intern at the tax collector’s office. I appreciate all these mentors in my community that took me under their wing when my parents didn’t have the resources or language.

TL: Yes, it really does take a village.
AA:  Yes, I didn’t understand that immediately. At this point, I was just some kid from San Diego who wanted to go to college because that’s what teachers would tell me. I was a good student, I liked school, I liked learning, I liked everything! But I gravitated toward social studies and reading.

I got into Northwestern on a scholarship. I experienced a bit of culture shock when I got to Northwestern in Evanston, IL – I knew I was smart because I received a scholarship but when you’re surrounded by other kids who seem to know more… It made me more self-conscious of what I knew. I questioned where I came from. I became quieter, and didn't participate as much. But I was listening and absorbed it all.

I initially thought I wanted to study political science but the theory ended up being too abstract for me so I switched into History and International Studies. I took Jewish history, African history, Chinese history because I wanted to know what I didn’t know growing up, what all these other kids knew about the world. With this education, I started to piece together my place within the greater world.

TL: In previous discussions, you’ve mentioned you are hyper conscious of history – that history never dies and follows us everywhere.
AA: Yes, absolutely. Even when I was younger I had a sense we were part of a bigger trend. I knew there was something to the fact that my family wasn’t the only one that migrated. I understood there were a lot of people like us living in Southern California, growing up in a Black neighborhood as a Mexican immigrant. Though John F Kennedy High School was technically considered a poor school, I had teachers who were very proud of our neighborhood and emphasized the black experience here.

And I saw it, though I didn’t know everything. I didn’t know about racist housing policy or anything like that but I knew the struggles. So when I went to college, I remember taking an economic history class about reconstruction, and had this aha! Moment - that as a country, we refused to invest in education for people leaving slavery. And I was like this makes so much sense, no wonder!

TL: It’s a reminder that our lived reality is a direct consequence of these policies. For example, we romanticize and uplift the dream of financial success and capital gain in this country, but so much of it is predicated on existing wealth and good credit. How are you supposed to build good credit if you didn’t have wealth to support it in the first place? This often ends up reinforcing intergenerational poverty.
AA:  Yes, especially if you were profiled then rejected from participating. Right after the Civil War, with the Homestead Act, so many families were given land but it was exclusionary. You see trends in history that repeat itself in different ways.

I think a lot about de jure and de facto – what the law says and what the law does in reality; that really sticks with me.

TL: You’ve worked for a law office before, correct?
AA:  Yes, but before that I actually worked for the Census in 2010! Getting a job around the recession wasn’t easy so I ended up going back home and found work as a Census crew leader (which is a step up from enumerator).

I was the youngest crew leader in my group and it was a great experience. Eventually, I wanted to be in DC because I wanted to be in the capital. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do – I thought about non-profits and international work – but I knew it had to be DC because that’s where so many of my interests were concentrated. When I got there, I applied for a lot of jobs and ended up working for a law firm. That was my first job out in DC and I was pretty miserable; it was a pretty sketchy place! They paid me late and the way they treated their clients didn’t sit right with me, so I only lasted 6 months.

I found out about the Mexican Cultural Institute through the Mexican Embassy, researched it, wrote a cover letter, prepared my resume and literally rang the doorbell, knocked on the door. I went there with the excuse of seeing an exhibit because it was free and open to the public. I spoke to someone and told them, hey! I’d be interested in working here. I talked to someone, and the timing just worked out.

TL: That type of cold calling doesn’t happen enough!
AA: I sent so many cover letters and resumes into the void, so I was very intentional with my application to the Cultural Institute. I knew it would be perfect for me. The mission of the cultural institute is to reinforce the ties of friendship between the US and Mexico, to create a better understanding of our countries. The Cultural Institute is the cultural arm of the Mexican embassy and has extensive programming throughout the year that includes temporary exhibits, films, culinary programs, and tours of the space. There were also diplomatic functions. As an immigrant, this mission called to me. I was given the chance, it was basically an internship, I was paid peanuts but I wanted to do the work and learn. They gave me a chance and I ended up there for five years.

It opened my eyes to so much. The public space was open for free, anyone could walk through those doors. And they did. We had a lot of schools visits, young children, even random people who were just like “What is this?” because it’s this beautiful mansion in the middle of Columbia Heights. We were really in the heart of a Latino community.

TL: So you were at the Mexican Cultural Institute for about 5 years. What happened after that? How did you end up in Las Vegas?
I met my now husband at a St. Patrick’s Day party. He was an attorney working in corporate law. Two years after we started dating he wanted out of that, so he started thinking about being a public defender. He looked across the country and he asked me what I thought about Vegas. My initial reaction was pretty typical of a newcomer - I thought it was a shallow place where people weren’t supposed to live since there’s no water. I didn’t know much since I had only been once with my girlfriends, going to the Strip and dancing the night away. But I said yes, I’m ready. I had been working at the Cultural Institute and there was no upward mobility as a local staff member within an embassy. So I asked a colleague - I asked, hey! I’m moving to Vegas. Do you know anyone, anything?

He put me in touch with someone from Mi Familia Vota which is a local grassroots advocacy organization. It was July 2016, we moved July 5th. I worked as an organizer - I had never done that in my life.

TL: But your work with the Census?
AA:With my first Census job I wasn’t canvassing and going door to door. With this job, I got to see what it was like to recruit and encourage people to be civically engaged, telling them about upcoming elections and helping them register to vote. It was like bootcamp! I had long hours during the presidential election in 2016. It was hard work but important work. I found it fulfilling because of its political significance.

In 2017, we helped lead Latino lobby day. We took students and community members up to Carson City to lobby around a couple bills and met with elected officials. I learned so much about how politics worked. I had never really been political before.

TL: I think your work has always been political. But perhaps, this job was more obvious in its advocacy and direct services. AA: Once you learn about advocacy and political involvement, you really cannot shut it off. You see how the work you’re doing is leading to significant change. Mi Familia Vota advocated for issues within the immigrant community that resonated with them, especially around pillars of education and health. There is so much work still to be done, but I can see the little steps that can lead to big change.

My whole life I knew I wanted to get into politics, which is why I first thought about studying political science. I knew my father was a resident because of the Reagan amnesty, so I understood there was a law that allowed my dad to be in this country legally. He petitioned for us but it took seven years. I saw this inefficiency in how the immigration system works - but that desire for change has always been in me. Like, hey - this needs to be fixed. For me, it is personal. I didn’t know how to channel that in college or even at the embassy. Now it’s coming full circle. It’s policy and some laws at the state level. For instance in Nevada, allowing undocumented people to drive and have a license. These won’t solve the bigger issue, but they help the day to day.

TL: To your point, many folks feel the government is inaccessible or doesn’t represent issues they care about. Or in some cases, it’s made to feel confusing so people have even less incentive to participate.
AA: Exactly, but it’s about building that bridge as a community organizer. But it was such hard work - I burnt out after 1 year. Between the presidential election, moving offices three times, and leading Latino lobby day. 2016 dovetails into a legislative session so that’s when I led the lobby day. I needed a better work-life balance so I returned to working in a law firm. I worked for an immigration attorney and witnessed firsthand the super impactful work, because you’re working on cases around asylum, deportation, helping those in detention or prison. A lot of this also intersects with domestic violence, there were so many issues wrapped up in a single case.

After this, I found this position with the Census as a Partnership Specialist. The listing described the position as working with hard-to-count communities and engaging stakeholders to get a complete count. I already knew the importance of the Census and that the Trump administration was making it hard, blatantly scaring immigrant communities. Las Vegas has a high immigrant and undocumented community, so I knew it was improtant to have trusted voices to arm the people with solid information. I jumped at the opportunity!

TL: The Census count was conducted in the middle of a pandemic! And then you found yourself looking for work as it was coming to a close.
AA: It was unclear when the Census was going to end. There were initial talks of it ending October, then reeled back to September, so I was looking for my next job. I had been working in community outreach and advocacy long enough that I became interested in working for the city, making change at a local level, especially in a ward I live in! So that’s how I ended up working for Councilwoman Olivia Diaz, right here in Ward 3. Diaz was born and raised in Ward 3, so she knows her community. This ward encompasses all the way to city hall. It has businesses downtown, the arts district, east Fremont, then into a largely Hispanic residential community. So it’s a very diverse ward. That’s exciting to me, in my role I do a little bit of everything, constituent support, community outreach, and then assist with social media newsletters.

TL: How did you like working with the Census? In this role, you fostered relationships with so many schools, non-profits, and community organizations. For you, what is the most important part of the Census?
I enjoyed the experience. The Census is important to me because of the data and story you’re able to tell. One obvious benefit is having the numbers to allocate funding and political representation. Data gives you a picture – the numbers don’t lie if you do it accurately. We are able to know exactly what we’re talking about, even if the correlations are negative. For instance, we see where poverty is concentrated, often among communities of color. We can see they live in lower income areas, polluted areas. With federal programs, it seems so bureaucratic and that the money doesn’t trickle down, but through this process, it really does and we’re able to see how policy impacts people and we can design programs to help with equity. I am hopeful. I am an idealist by nature. I’m hoping with data and good legislation we’re able to fix and improve the lives of people.

TL: In terms of data, do you think data should be doubted? Particularly when it comes to race? Or is American existence too racialized, our bodies too marked?
AA: For our country, race is correlated with indicators that affect people’s health. We cannot get rid of it. If there was a way to unmarry race from the Census and we could compile the information in a fair way, sure, but right now there is no alternative.

TL: You’ve worked across so many different organizations, but consistently found yourself in roles where you organize identity and cultural heritage. Could you speak on the importance of racial identity in your work?
AA: For me, it gives me a sense of integrity with who I am. I know I am able to be a better advocate for people like me when I know my history. I am able to see through gaslighting and arguments made that dismiss identity. Why do you need race this, race that – I push back against this colorblind argument because we live in a society where our social conditions are influenced by race. The lowest education, health - all these indicators are racial, you cannot deny it. Economics and race tell us who we are as a country. In terms of categorization, most people are still confused around the language. Younger, more woke latinos question it, asking “Why do we identify this way?” with a split in the race vs. ethnicity question. The older generation simply identifies with nationality and/or country of origin. For them, ethnicity is nationality.

TL: Do you think this conflation is influenced by the racial politics of Latin America?
AA: Not really. Most people are willing to be under the Hispanic/Latino umbrella because we associate it with language and culture. Yes, it’s a point of contention since the term Hispanic gives so much power to Spanish as a language, as an empire, where a Latio focused on geography. But most people do not second guess themselves when they check off that box. Again, it differs among generations and education levels. When you talk to the everyday immigrant, like limited English learners, they simply list their national origin. Some of them know their indigenous heritage. It depends how conscious they are. I do know the Mexican census included Afro-Latino as a category for the first time this year.

TL: What do you think is the future of racial classification in the US? Let’s say, in the 22nd century?
AA: I think we’ll all be mixed by then, given the latest trends. I believe the racial categories of today will persist because people are proud. People are proud of where they come from and their history. Maybe that’s the millennial in me, but this movement toward mindfulness of who you are… I think race is a big part of that. Acknowledging your racial heritage is important; it will remain part of our language.

What are your thoughts?


Arlene Alvarez is a Special Assistant to the city of Las Vegas Ward 3 Councilwoman Olivia Díaz. As a first-generation immigrant, she is passionate about contributing to make her community a better place through education and civic engagement. Prior to joining the city of Las Vegas, Arlene was a Partnership Specialist with the U.S. Census Bureau during the 2020 Census. Other past positions include Legal Assistant to an immigration attorney, Nevada State Coordinator with Mi Familia Vota, and Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Embassy of Mexico at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, DC. Arlene graduated from Northwestern University with a B.A. in History and International Studies.

Photography by Gerald De Vera at