Alondra Cano, a long-time community activist, is running for the Minneapolis City Council 9th Ward seat, as incumbent Gary Schiff runs for mayor. She currently works as a Minneapolis Public Schools Senior Communications and Public Affairs Specialist. The TC Daily Planet interviewed Cano to find out what makes her tick. The interview is presented in two parts: This article describes her early life in rural Minnesota and Mexico and her movement into student activism at the University of Minnesota. In a second article, she describes her motivation for running for City Council and her experience as an activist with the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network and in the halls of city government.
Cano was born in Cokato, MN on September 26, 1981. When she was two years old, she returned to Chihuahua, Mexico with her mother. There she spent the majority of her time with her abuelita, as her mother went to school, worked, and developed her career. They moved back to Litchfield, MN, when she was 10 years old.
“Not knowing English was hard,” she recalled, “as was leaving my community, my friends, everything that was familiar. Just imagine being thrown into a roomful of kids talking, playing, doing the things they do, and only being able to gesture.” The first year in fifth grade in Litchfield, Cano spent half of her day learning English. With this effort, and because her math skills were more advanced than those of her classmates, she was able to resume a normal school day in sixth grade.
Her parents were undocumented and worked at Jennie-O, the local turkey factory in Willmar, MN. Her life was the life of immigrants in a small rural town, where the economy was lagging, with limited employment opportunities, with few jobs for youth other than in farming. Her parents “did what they had to do,” and never complained to their children.
Cano and her younger brother and sister had to get up at 4 a.m. to go to the babysitter where they would nap until 7 a.m., take the bus to school, go back to the sitter’s after school, get home around 5 or 6, do homework, eat, and go to bed to start all over again the next morning.
In school, there were no Latino teachers, only one or two students of Mexican descent, and only one black American student. She was active in sports, the marching band, wrote for the school newspaper, and worked at the local Pizza Hut. In the summer, like many rural teens, Cano worked detasseling corn.
Her parents divorced. Her father remarried and obtained legal status. When Cano was old enough, she petitioned for her mother to become a legal resident.
At the University of Minnesota
Cano has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts with a concentration in management, Chicano studies, popular education, and the politics of identity.
One of her first student activist experiences came in 2005 through the General College Truth Movement, which opposed the U of M plan to close General College. For 75 years, General College served underprepared students, offering intensive English, writing, and math courses to enable students to successfully transfer to other colleges within the university. Many of the students were minorities and from working class backgrounds.
“We staged a sit-in [in the University of Minnesota’s President’s Office],” Cano said. “It was what we knew to do. I went to jail along with nine others who were arrested [for trespassing]. We had to do something. At that time I could risk being arrested, not now. I didn’t have a family, I was energetic, and I was very sure of what I was doing. I would not change what I did.”
Cano said she learned from the sit-in. “There was much debate, reflection, after the action. … The University is a big institution, a hard organization to crack. Students are there for a short period of time. It’s very different than a private company. The University is really the belly of the beast, a very difficult institution to change. It makes for a perfect case study.”
She was also active in protests over the “dismal” state of the Chicano Studies department, which led to hiring of an additional faculty member, Luis Mendoza, who “brought vibrancy to the department, developed new projects, did more community outreach.”
While a student, she also organized around immigration raids, by doing communication work, gathering clothing, food, and donations. She was also on the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network’s board.
She worked with Professor Rose Brewer, a scholar/activist in North Minneapolis. Organizing around police brutality issues included televised marches, airing grievances, holding the police accountable “to the atrocity,” community events, meetings with lawyers, door knocking, documenting cases, and organizing community response. “It was intense and very heavy work to continue to make movement,” she recalled.
Cano grew up in strong female-oriented family. “Women were empowered to reach and achieve the same as men, they were not constrained,” she said. “I could do what I wanted on my own terms. My grandmother was always fighting, standing up for someone, on the bus, pretty much anywhere. It was embarrassing when I was growing up,” but “I grew up knowing I have something to contribute and that what I have to say is important.”
“My family is amazing and the reason I am so organized,” Cano said. “Children help you focus, because you have to follow a schedule. I have very happy boys, twins, Arameni and Itzuri, who are 2 ½ yrs. old, and a 16 month old, Yaxkin. I can’t wait to see the people they become!” Cano and her partner, José Luis Villaseñor, are passionate about environmental justice. They work to organize and empower South Minneapolis communities. “Our mutual interests lead to a great partnership! We come together to face the challenges before us.”
[Click here for part two, Alondra Cano’s description of her motivation for running for City Council and her experience as an activist with the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network and in the halls of city government.]