Addressing Voter Intimidation and Building Power: A Conversation with OLÉ New Mexico

Andrea Serrano and Miles Tokunow of OLÉ (Organizers in the Land of Enchantment) on their efforts to combat white supremacist voter intimidation and build power for working people and people of color in New Mexico.

By Laura Williamson

Laura Williamson: I’d love to start with what I understand is an important question in New Mexico. Red chili or green chili — where do you land?

Miles Tokunow: I think this is our state question, actually.

Laura: Now I have even more questions about chili, but we’ll save those for later. For now, tell us about OLÉ and your work.

Andrea: We’re a membership-based organization, and our work is driven by members who come from lots of different walks of life, and we center the experiences of working people and people of color. Our work is rooted in four areas. First, worker rights, everything from raising wages to paid sick leave, to hazard pay. With the pandemic, this has been a topic that our members are really focused on. We also focus on early education for all. Our newest program is democracy reform, everything from voting rights to re-enfranchisement. And our fourth program is citizenship. We work with permanent residents who are ready to become citizens, and support folks when they are getting ready to take their exam.

Laura: New Mexico has been mostly a blue state for decades. And the population is nearly 50 percent Hispanic and 11 percent Native American. Why is voter suppression and white supremacy an issue in New Mexico?

One of the reasons OLÉ entered into democracy reform is because in some ways, neither party is listening to us.

Miles: One of the reasons OLÉ entered into democracy reform is because in some ways, neither party is listening to us. We continue to be left out of elections and civic engagement and the democratic process. One of the big elements we’re working on is getting rid of big money influence in our local elections. To quote Wu-Tang, “C.R.E.A.M.,” Cash Rules Everything Around Me. We see our policies being shaped by people who are listening to corporations instead of listening to the people. It’s a vicious cycle, and a lot of our work is to change and break that cycle.

There’s also a misconception that when you’re a people-of-color majority state, there’s magically no racism or white supremacy.

Andrea: There’s also a misconception that when you’re a people-of-color majority state, there’s magically no racism or white supremacy. There’s a long history of white supremacy playing out in this region, first with the Spanish in the 1500s, all the way through when the U.S. took over, through the Mexican-American War, and then into statehood.

Laura: This summer, communities of color hit the streets to protest racial violence against Black people. In New Mexico, armed white supremacist militia groups infiltrated protests and perpetrated further violence against protesters. Tell us how the presence of such groups impacts your communities and how it might impact voter turnout.

These armed militias, they’re domestic terrorists, let’s call them what they are.

Andrea: These armed militias, they’re domestic terrorists, let’s call them what they are. There are reports of some Albuquerque police officers working with them. And we have a president calling on groups like the Proud Boys to show up at the polls, to “stand back and stand by.”

Laura: Throughout New Mexico’s history, communities of color have resisted voter suppression. How are OLÉ and partners fighting back and keeping voters safe this year?

Andrea: We’re opening up our office line as a hotline, we’re working with partners to make sure people know there’s a place to call if something is happening that doesn’t seem right at a polling location. We’re going to have to keep that up, and think about how we codify these protections, how we make them a habit and practice, so we don’t have to be afraid all the time when it comes to voting.

Image for post
Image for post

Laura: This election is critical, but it’s not going to save us by itself. There will still be work to do, whatever happens after November. So, once we get through this election and your people are safe, what will OLÉ turn its attention to next?

Laura: What is the first thing that you’re going do post-Election Day, to unwind and take care of yourselves?

Miles: I’m a big fan of being with water. The first thing I did the day after the 2016 election was take a walk through the Bosque along the river, along the Rio Grande. I’m probably going to do the same thing this year.

OLÉ is a community organization, who uses grassroots organizing within the local community of working families in New Mexico.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store