Local Activism   |   Tucson, AZ

Interview with Imelda G. Cortez; Youth Educator,
Activist and Co-Conspirator at Pueblo High School

December 2020 | Interview by: Raye Winch | Photos by: Rachel Castillo

Imelda Cortez standing outide of Wakefield Community Center

Imelda Cortez; educator and activist stands outside of Wakefield Community Center in South Tucson, Arizona.

Imelda G. Cortez (she/her) is an openly queer, proudly Brown organizer and educator dedicated to supporting the Wakefield neighborhood in Tucson, AZ where she has lived almost her entire life.

 

She began community organizing with Tierra Y Libertad (TYLO), now known as Regeneración, when she was a student at Pueblo High, planting gardens in her neighborhood.

 

She now co-conspires with current students at Pueblo, where she encourages students to question what it means to "be good." Imelda is a living example that success can look like staying in your neighborhood and contributing to making your community a better place.

Original music produced by Jaime J. Soto

Latina woman standng outside or building, looking intently at camera.

Imelda Cortez; educator and activist stands outside of Wakefield Community Center in South Tucson, Arizona. 

Transcripts English

Raye Winch: Imelda G Cortez is an openly queer, proudly brown organizer and educator dedicated to supporting the Wakefield neighborhood where she has lived almost her entire life. Imelda, what is it like for you teaching at the school that you went to yourself?

 

Imelda G Cortez:

When I was in high school, I felt like I couldn't be myself, and I felt like if I were, people were going to judge me or look at me weird. So for me, being able to be somebody who's more masculine presenting, who identifies as Queer and Chicana, I feel more empowered now as a teacher to try to be the person that I wish I would have had when I was in high school.

 

Raye:

You describe yourself as a co-conspirator with students. What does co-conspiring mean to you?

 

Imelda:

To co-conspire for me is to be that person who is willing to push the administration in different ways. Students have these ideas, right. But they need a little bit of guidance and with my background and my knowledge, I'm able to help students build the environments that they want to have. It's just facilitating giving them the tools that they need. And then stepping back.

 

Raye:

Do you have an example?

 

Imelda:

Yeah. Um, there was, there was an incident at the school with one of my gay students and he, you know, he felt comfortable going to the female identified, restrooms and nobody would say anything like, they're just like, whatever, like go to the bathroom. It's not that big of a deal. Um, but there was a teacher who thought that, she thought that he was having sex in the bathroom. I was really upset and I went to the teacher and of course, like it's hard to change old people's minds, so I'd rather just work with the youth. Um, and then the youth said, okay, let's, uh, let's have a gender neutral restroom. I made them do some research about it first and they did their presentation to the site council. And, and then I had to have a private meeting with the administration. We talked about what it would be like, and then we got a gender neutral restroom.

 

Raye:

One of the important lessons you're teaching your students is to question what it means to behave or to be good. Could you say more about that?

 

Imelda:

Yeah. Um, you know, in the, uh, Mexicano Latino community, which is what I grew up in, um, it's often like in order to be good, there's these criteria, that you need to follow, right. Like get good grades. Uh, don't talk back. Your teachers, know everything and you're just there to take it all in, right. And with my students, um, I always try to push them, even with me, right. Like if you don't agree with me, like, let's talk about it. I don't always consider myself a teacher because I feel like that word, and just that idea, it's so hierarchical. Um, and I really tried to facilitate students learning and expose them to different ideas.

 

Raye:

Are there any messages that you'd like your high school students to leave high school knowing and believing?

 

Imelda:

To the students that I work with and those who I don't work with yet--It's very important for you all to push the envelope, to go beyond what you've been taught for such a long time. And it's okay to be who you want to be. Um, and it's okay to do things that aren't always looked on as good things. Right. And it's okay to recreate your own ideas of good or bad.

 

Raye:

You're deeply committed to your neighborhood. What message would you like to share with those who believe they need to leave in order to be successful?

 

Imelda:

Success can be defined in different ways. You can leave if you want to, right. But it doesn't mean that success is going to be out there every time and it's okay to stay and be here and make your community a better place. And it's okay to grow and learn here. You shouldn't have to leave a place in order to be better or do better.

Imelda Cortez standing in front of

Imelda Cortez; educator and activist stands outside of Wakefield Community Center in South Tucson, Arizona. 

Transcripciones Español

Raye Winch: Imelda G Cortes es una organizadora y educadora queer, Chicana y muy comprometida al barrio de Wakefield dónde ha vivido casi toda su vida. Imelda, vives y trabajas en el mismo barrio donde creciste y enseñas en la misma escuela donde graduaste. ¿Puedes compartir lo que más te gusta y porque te quedas?

 

Imelda G Cortez: Lo que más me encanta del Barrio Wakefield es que siempre ha sido para mí un ambiente acogedor. Un ambiente donde me siente en casa. Ahí crecí, ahí aprendí a andar en bicicleta. Afortunadamente tenía el privilegio de viajar a diferentes lugares, pero siempre me gusta regresar al barrio. Siempre cuando se baja del Freeway en la 6, no, es como un descanso, puedo respirar.

 

Raye: Te describes a ti misma como un cómplice. ¿Qué significa para ti?

 

Imelda: Los estudiantes tienen un poder muy grande que no siempre lo pueden ver ellos. Yo trato de ser esa persona que les ayude y los motive para hacerse cambio social, no, de qué tal forma todo que todos queremos, pero no siempre sabemos cómo hacerlo

 

Raye: ¿Puedes compartir un ejemplo?

 

Imelda: Ah sí. Tengo una estudiante específicamente que es gay, se identificó como gay, y usaban el baño de las mujeres. Las muchachas no le decían nada, no estaba haciendo nada. Y hubo un momento en que una maestra pensó que este estudiante que es gay estaba en el baño teniendo relaciones con otro estudiante. Y eso pues, no es cierto. Entonces decidimos, los estudiantes decidieron más bien, tener un baño dónde, se, no importa el género. Eso es lo que tenemos en casa, es un baño, un baño es un baño. Entonces hicimos una de los baños para que cualquier persona pueda entrar no importa el género y esa fue una victoria muy grande para los estudiantes.

 

Raye: Eres persona LGBTQ y estas abierta sobre esto en la escuela. ¿Porque decidiste hacer esto?

 

Imelda: Si, ah, regresar a la Pueblo siempre dije, yo quiero ser esa persona que siempre necesite cuando yo estaba en la Pueblo. Entonces, cuando yo estaba ahí, yo hubiera querido que los maestros se sintieran libres de a sí mismos y decir nos “Yo soy gay, yo soy lo que sea,” no, y para mí siempre ha sido muy importante en mi manera de ser en las cosas que enseño que los muchachos se vean en sí mismos en alguien mayor que ellos. Porque es importante para los jóvenes tener esa, esa visión que tal vez ahorita no estén en un ambiente muy bueno para ellos pero que vean que si se puede lograr crear tu propio ambiente y crear tu propia vida fuera de los estigmas sociales.

 

Raye: Una de las lecciones que les enseñe a los estudiantes es cuestionar qué significa comportarse bien. ¿Puedes hablar más de esto?

 

Imelda: Si, como personas mexicanas, yo crecí en una familia mexicana me considero chicana, siempre nos enseñaron que las mujeres tienen que ser ciertas cosas, obedecer a los maestros, no podemos contestar. Y yo pienso que esas cosas no siempre son buenas o no siempre son cosas que ayudan a los demás. Entonces yo quiero que los muchachos desafían a la sociedad, desafían a sus padres si es el caso, ¿no? Porque a veces que los papás no siempre nos enseñan cosas que los ayudan entonces para mí es importante que ellos sepan el poder que tienen y que está bien no siempre ir con la corriente o no siempre ir con lo que diga la sociedad.

 

Raye: Tienes un compromiso bien fuerte a tu barrio. ¿Qué quieres compartir con los que piensan que tienen que salir para tener éxito?

 

Imelda: Un mensaje que quisiera darle a los demás es que no tienes que salir del barrio para mejorar. No tienes que ir a buscar algo mejor, pero tú puedes crear esa cosa que es mejor para ti. Que espero que todos entiendan que nosotros tenemos el poder de crear y recrear las cosas que los hacen bien, las cosas que lo van a mejorar nuestros vidas y las vidas de los demás.

Imelda Cortez standing at the entrance to her childhood daycare center at sunset.

Imelda Cortez; educator and activist stands outside of Wakefield Community Center in South Tucson, Arizona. 

Left image: Interview in studio with Raye Winch (interviewer), Marcel Castillo-Larriva (audio technician), Imelda Cortez. 

Center image: Portrait after interview with Rachel Castillo (photographer), Imelda and Raye. 

Right image: Behind the scenes of Imelda's photoshoot with Marcel and Rachel