The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She helped bring down Sheriff Arpaio. Now she’s ready to take on hate nationally.

Marisa Franco discussing campaign strategy. (Courtesy of Marisa Franco)

For Latino-rights activist Marisa Franco, election night was bittersweet.

For years, she had focused her advocacy work on Arizona, a state that in 2010 approved a law allowing police to ask anyone during a traffic stop for their immigration papers. The public face of that controversial measure, which was widely criticized for leading to the targeting of Latinos by police, was Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Arpaio had been the top cop in Arizona’s Maricopa County since 1993. He was devout about his crackdown on illegal immigration — federal prosecutors charged him with criminal contempt of court for defying a judge’s orders to stop racially profiling — and never gave up on his empty quest to prove that President Obama forged his birth certificate. Arpaio embraced the candidacy of Donald Trump, seeing the now-president-elect as a kind of kindred spirit. Trump, in turn, lavished praise on Arpaio, telling a crowd in late October, “He is a good man, he was one of the first endorsers of Donald Trump. Vote for Sheriff Joe!”

Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County in Arizona said that "terrorists" are coming across the border into the United States. (Video: The Washington Post)

But come Nov. 8, Arpaio lost. And Trump won.

“I was floored. It was a scenario I didn’t see,” Franco said in a recent interview. “There were people celebrating, folks who had been targeted by [Arpaio], and others crying that [Clinton] lost. You couldn’t tell if someone was crying because they were happy or they were sad.”

Can family trump Trump? How to survive political disagreements with relatives this Thanksgiving

Though Trump’s campaign message, one that promised to build a wall to keep out Mexicans and to ban Muslims and to restore “law and order,” was right in line with the Arpaio philosophy, riding Trump’s coattails was no match for the multiyear grass-roots campaign waged against him.

Franco, a 38-year-old Mexican American, was on the front lines of that effort, and offered it as a case study for how to reject the hateful, racist elements of Trump’s presidency.

In the days after Trump’s victory, there was a marked increase in hate crimes across the country. Attendance was up at an annual white nationalist convention in D.C. over the weekend. And Trump chose as a top adviser Steve Bannon, the leader of Breitbart News, which provides a platform for the alt-right.

But when Franco woke up the Wednesday after Trump won, Arpaio’s loss gave her hope.

“Some of us have already been living in Trump’s America,” she said. “There is a bright spot in Maricopa County, and I think there are significant lessons to be learned: We don’t make excuses for bigotry, and we don’t normalize the abuse.”

It’s personal

Franco was born and raised in a barrio in Guadalupe, Ariz., where almost everyone she interacted with was Latino. Her father emigrated from Mexico in the 1960s, and her mother was a second-generation Mexican American. Growing up, she described herself as Mexican. She didn’t particularly feel American.

She felt like an outsider. There were the snapshots that stand out — like being at the store with her mom and hearing someone mutter that they should speak English. There were the bigger feelings of not fitting the standards of beauty in high school, with her wild curly hair and curves.

So, when Arizona passed SB1070, the most far-reaching anti-illegal immigration law in the country, Franco took it personally.

“People would be like, ‘You have papers. Why do you care about this?’ It doesn’t make sense why I wouldn’t care,” Franco said. “You have my people’s names in your mouth. It’s not a question about papers. In Arizona, if I go to a protest, the first thing they tell me is go back to Mexico, I understand it as something personal.”

I’m a Hispanic-Arab American, and Trump’s election doesn’t shake my belief in America

She had left Arizona in her 20s, doing community organizing all over the country, mostly around the issue of labor protections for domestic workers. But she returned in 2010, to help her own community fight back. They registered thousands of new voters. They campaigned on the message “Love Against Hate.” And perhaps most effectively, they encouraged undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows and tell their stories.

Like so many social movements, it’s only when people come out and put a human face to an issue that change occurs. It set up two distinct sides, she said. It gave voters a clear picture and asked them to make a choice. It left very little room for ambiguity.

“The core of the victory is a community being denigrated and abused. The risk of losing, the risk of retribution was less than the risk of continuing to suffer,” Franco said. “Once that decision gets made, you strip away the fear, you strip away the hesitance, you strip away that no one cares.”

Now, with Trump headed to the White House, Franco wants to take that strategy national.

Building a coalition

Franco is taking Trump on his word. He promised mass deportations and Muslim bans, and until shown otherwise, she said, she has to believe those are his plans. She said groups singled out by Trump and his supporters can’t afford to be complacent.

“His campaign was one where he talked about what was wrong with this country and assigned blame to whole groups of people about why that was,” she said. “To say it might not be too bad is not the antidote to hate, the antidote is to believe in our own human rights, not to make excuses for bigotry.”

But it won’t happen if each group tries to go it alone, she said.

She helped found a national organization for Latino activists in 2015 called Mijente to work on behalf of not just Latino issues, but also ones that are “pro-black, pro-woman, pro-queer, pro-poor.”

During the election, one Trump campaign strategy seemed to be pitting one group against the other in an attempt to peel off voters, a tactic Washington Post political reporter Jose DelReal noted in late August. 

But Franco said many groups face the same societal and economical challenges, and she’s always wondered why, particularly between Latinos and African Americans, there hasn’t been more collaboration. She also said while white progressives have talked about how to better dialogue with other white people, there should be a more unified strategy to reach out to white voters who either didn’t vote or voted for Trump.

The key, she said, is to build on the successes and lessons learned from every group that has ever fought back against discrimination, and to see this moment as protecting humanity, not just one group’s rights.

“No one is going to build it, no one is going to give it to us. Positioning folks like the people in Arizona who built resilience and strength, positioning people who have been survivors to teach others. People in the South, in Arizona have been doing that for years,” she said. “We’ve got to build bridges across communities.”

Read more Inspired Life:

Deep in Trump country, this Clinton voter found renewed faith in her neighbors and America

This election has divided the country. Getting Clinton and Trump voters talking is one way to heal.

This professor devotes her life to countering dangerous speech. She can’t ignore Donald Trump’s.

Want more inspiring news and help to improve your life? Sign up for the Saturday Inspired Life newsletter.