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Ylenia Aguilar: A new citizen cast her first ballot for herself

Ylenia Aguilar

Ylenia Aguilar

The American Dream means different things to different people, but to Ylenia Aguilar, it meant being able to vote for herself in the first election she was able to vote as an American citizen.

“I became a citizen towards the end of 2014 … and the first thing I did was run for office,” Aguilar said. “I voted for the first time in 2016, for a woman president and for myself.” 

Originally from Orizaba, Veracruz, Mexico, Aguilar spent most of her life living in Tucson, hiking and enjoying the community life. She never expected to get involved politically and even decided to run for office as a “distraction” from her personal life. 

Now, she’s the sole Latina voice on the Osborn School Board in Phoenix, heavily involved in the education world on the Governing Board for Save Our Schools Arizona and trying to make as much of a difference as she can, all while raising two kids. 

“For me, voting and running for office has been an incredible experience. And all that came with access to quality education,” she said. 

Being involved with SOS Arizona, how do you think schools in Arizona need saving?

In every way. I’m sure you hear this all the time. You need the money, the resources – and resources don’t always come in money, but in order to get those programs or those resources, you need the money, so it’s that [and] it’s our policies. … One of the reasons that we struggle in our educational system is because of the way that we haven’t updated our policies to suit the needs of our changing demographics. We’re no longer just one demographic. We are a very diverse Arizona and until we address the needs of our students, then we won’t be able to get ahead.

You were an interpreter before, how did you get into that?

It was in 2008. I had my second son. I used to be a loan officer working in the mortgage industry and the market crashed. I lost my job so I started working for attorneys doing consulting work here and there. I served a labor and employment attorney. Then I went off to a criminal defense attorney. My job was to translate plea-offer sentencing memorandums, plan the calls and meetings, pretty much everything. Then some lawyer once told me, “You should be an interpreter, you’re really great at this.” And that’s how I got started. So I start going to the prisons. And that’s where I got my start with the Criminal Justice Act – the federal cases. That’s where they are detained [for] illegal reentry. So that’s how I became an interpreter.

So what do you do in a situation as the interpreter if you’re trying to tell someone what’s going on and they don’t understand?

I’m just the voice. So you’re the attorney, the inmate is here and I’m the interpreter. You speak and you’re like, here I brought this is what the government’s offering you. I never ever give my own opinion. Unless I was friends with the attorney, I would tell them that they seem like they don’t understand and you can tell. The lawyer can understand without speaking Spanish. You can understand human behavior. You do not need to speak the language to know that someone is in fear.

How do you take experiencing something like that and apply it to your own life? Does it change how you operate on the school board in any way?

Absolutely. These are the parents of the children that I serve sometimes. And also my mother’s siblings, they’ve been deported as well. So I remember visiting my family members in the detention center, so it’s not something that is too far away from me. So I can relate to being the little child waiting in line to see their uncle.

How old were you?

I want to say the first time my uncle was deported, I think I was six or seven because I remember the first time I went as an interpreter and they let us walk to the front of the line because I’m with an attorney and I just remember seeing a little girl playing with the rocks and I remember having that same experience.

At what point in your life did you want to start getting into politics? 

Never. I never thought that that was something that I would ever do actually … One thing I will say is I didn’t used to think education was political and now I know everything is political. My ex-husband taught Mexican-American studies in Tucson and in 2011 [John] Huppenthal and Tom Horne banned ethnic studies. That’s the reason we moved from Tucson to Phoenix. And there was some resentment from me to board members even though I didn’t really know what they did, because I remember everyone was demoted into other positions, but my ex-husband was the one that was blackballed, because his dad was a lawyer who filed the lawsuit against the state for battling ethnic studies. That was my first experience with politics.

And then you ran in 2016.

I was encouraged by a former school board member who was going to move and I hadn’t even shared with him that I wasn’t a citizen yet so I was like, “Oh, cool, thank you.” I was humbled someone thought I could be smart enough. Then my divorce began and I became a citizen and I didn’t even think about it. And I was asked again. … He told me, “All you’re going to have to do is work hard and knock on doors” and I thought, “I can do that.” So that’s what motivated me and I just wanted a distraction from what was going on in my personal life. 

And your distraction was running for office?

I didn’t know any better. 

Would you run for higher office?

People have asked me that. No, I really do believe that the school board is what makes me happy. I love the children. They’re what inspire me and given our current political system here in Arizona, I don’t have any aspirations or any desire to be part of all that negativity. I just want to be positive and optimistic no matter what happens in our country and our state. I want these children to have a safe environment, to be happy and prepared for life. So the school board provides me that sense of purpose that I need to feel fulfilled. So I enjoy it.

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