The Woman in the Elevator

Read this story in Spanish.

Ana María Archila became a national newsmaker when she cornered a senator in an elevator before a critical vote on Supreme Court nominee. She did not end up there by accident.

By Tomas Navia and Diana de Lourdes Baptista Rojo

Ana María Archila inherited her activism from her parents like some people inherit wealth or the color of their eyes. She said she remains guided by the saying her mother taught her as a child: “all people deserve the freedom to be themselves.” Her father, a physician, was involved in the left-wing Revolutionary Independent Labor Movement in Colombia before fleeing to the United States.

Archila, 39, a native of Bogota, Colombia became a national figure when just moments before a scheduled vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, she confronted U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake in a senate elevator with Maria Gallagher, 23, a fellow sexual assault survivor. Kavanaugh had been accused of attacking a teenage girl in high school and of exposing himself in college. The nation was transfixed by the confirmation process at the U.S. Capitol where thousands of protestors like Archila and Gallagher had gathered.

“We started fighting against the Kavanaugh’s nomination initially because we were worried about the impact he would have on civil rights and the rights of women to choose what to do with our bodies,” Archila said.

Charting Her Own Path

Archila moved to New York City at the age of 17 with the aim of studying English for six months while living with her father. Six months turned into a year, which then turned into several decades. Since the 1990s, she has been involved in the fight for immigrants’ rights in the United States and has influenced new generations of young activists to join her.

“I am a daughter of the movement for immigrants’ rights,” she said sitting in the lobby of the Brooklyn-based Center for Popular Democracy where she is the executive director.  “That is my home. It’s my origin. It’s the fight that helped me spread roots in this country and feel like this country is my home.”

Archila refers to her adopted country in the feminine saying she bears the “responsibility to fight for her.”

Now Archila finds herself in a moment where the various life paths she’s carved out for herself are coming together serendipitously. It reminds her of her favorite poem, “Traveler There Is No Road” by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado who left his country due to the Spanish Civil War that began in the 1930s and died in exile.

“Traveler, your footprints are the only road, nothing else.”

Archila became an activist almost by accident, called by her blood. After graduating from Montclair State University, her aunt, Sara Maria Archila, a lawyer, asked her to work for her organization, Center for Latin-American Integration, in a small office in Staten Island. In the 90s, the borough was seeing an influx of new Mexican immigrants. Archila accepted, thinking that she would be teaching art classes to young immigrants.

“Traveler, there is no road.”

Instead of teaching art, she found herself teaching English classes to undocumented Mexican immigrants who found in the center a sanctuary where they could speak their native tongue and be with like-minded people after grueling 12-hour workdays in a foreign land.

In 2002, her aunt was diagnosed with cancer and died nine months later. Archila replaced her as the director of the organization at just 23 years old.

As part of her work, she met Crisoforo and Gustavo, two 15-year-old undocumented Mexicans who were working 12 hours a day at $3 an hour at a Staten Island deli. She recalls that they worked for their boss on weekends, too, doing odd jobs for no pay. Archila said what bothered her most was that the employer called both boys “Pancho.”

“He never bothered to learn their names,” she said.

Archila said she quickly came to view them as family. Indignant about their exploitation, Archila sought out a lawyer, and together they successfully sued the deli owner for lost wages, marking the beginning her fight against abuse.

In the following years, Archila formed a network of activists that drew in young people from all over New York City and the surrounding region.

Cristina Jimenez came to the Center in 2002, after discovering that as an undocumented immigrant she was not eligible to attend college. She remembers Archila as a mentor who taught her how to organize and empower communities. Jimenez said that since then, Archila has been a leader who has helped ordinary people lift their voices and take action.

“With her, I lost little by little the fear of telling my own story and using it for activism to create a safe space for other immigrants,” Jimenez said.

Jimenez founded United We Dream, a Washington D.C.-based organization that is the largest youth-led immigrants’ rights organization in the United States. The roots put down by Archila continue to grow through Jimenez’s efforts and those of the young people in her organization.

In 2006, the Center for Latin-American Integration merged with Make the Road, an organization operating in a similar space, to form Make the Road New York. The organization has grown to serve immigrants in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Nevada.

“As you walk, you make your own road.”

The Kavanaugh Fight

As a child, Archila never attended protests in Colombia because they were too dangerous, she said. Still, she became a veteran of civil disobedience in the United States.

Through her work at the Center for Popular Democracy, Archila employs the tactic of “bird-dogging,” or confronting politicians in person so that they are forced to look at and listen to the people they represent.

“Politicians almost never have the experience of having to respond to constituents’ faces,” Archila said. She wanted to provide elected leaders a human face to take responsibility for their actions.

Her organization joined the movement against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court out of concern for what his appointment to the court would do to the rights of women and communities of color.

As a lesbian who is married and raising two children with her partner, Archila could envision how her and her family’s rights could be directly threatened, she said.

Archila went to Washington, D.C. with the goal of staying for 30 consecutive days of protest. She joined hundreds of women outside senators’ offices in protests that often ended with arrests. She heard woman after woman tell her story of sexual assault.

During one of the protests, a few days before she confronted Sen. Flake, Archila shared her own story of sexual abuse publicly for the first time. She had not planned to talk about it, and she still harbored doubts about revealing what happened to her as a child. After hearing other women tell their stories at the capitol, courage took over.

Archila told her fellow protestors that she saw herself in Doctor Christine Blasey Ford, 51, who brought forward the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh from their time in high school. When Archila was only five years old, she was abused by a boy10 years older than her. Despite her telling some adults after the abuse, not including her parents, nothing was done.

In that moment in the Capitol, she told some friends, new acquaintances and strangers that she had been abused. As the final words about her assault escaped her lips, so too did a deep breath, Archila said, one she had held for nearly a lifetime.

“At five years old, I learned that women are not believed and that assailants are forgiven or they aren’t made to take responsibility,” she recalled. “I don’t want my children to learn that lesson. I want this cycle to stop this year.”

As the final hearings with Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh were concluding, Archila met Maria Gallagher, whom Archila said was new to protesting and had taken the day off from work because she was enraged by the way Dr. Ford was treated in the hearings. Gallagher suggested that they wait outside of Flake’s office to see if they would run into him. At that point on Sept. 28, Flake was seen as a possible swing vote on the Judiciary Committee that was deciding whether Kavanaugh’s confirmation would move forward to the full Senate. With just 30 minutes until the vote, Archila followed Gallagher to Flake’s office.

“I told her, ‘Tell him why you’re here,” Archila said. “Don’t try to have a political debate. Tell him your story and speak from your heart.”

The now-viral elevator encounter broadcasted her story to the national court of public opinion and to the world, but it also had the unintended result of reaching Archila’s father for the first time.

Archila had told her mother when she was 15 about her abuse, but she had never told her father for fear of hurting him and making him feel as though he failed to protect her.

After the emotional confrontation in the elevator, Archila quickly texted her father explaining that he might hear about something that she had never shared with him. She apologized but said she wanted him to know that she had moved on.

Archila said her father was heartbroken that he had failed to protect her. For Archila, this is the highest cost of her sudden fame, but with it also comes the release of a heavy burden.

“The most immediate cost was that the story that I had not told for 30 years was now going to be heard by my parents, and in a very overwhelming way,” Archila said. “But afterwards, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief.”

The Path Forward

“When you look back, you see the path you will never travel again.”

Shortly after the encounter, the Senate confirmed Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court after a much-criticized FBI investigation into the new sexual misconduct allegations.

“My immediate reaction was one of profound sadness and rage,” Archila said. “So many of us take the risk of telling our stories which has a large personal cost so that politicians will have the opportunity to be leaders, not just politicians. I was enraged because we are repeating the same history again.”

Despite this, Archila said she now feels stronger and less burdened by her story.

“Right now, with all of these women coming forward and telling their stories, we are helping each other share the pain,” she said. “We are doing it collectively.”

Archila views sexual assault as a deeply personal experience that everyone has a right to share or not share until they are ready, but she also believes the impact of such assaults are also a collective experience, and the response to them must be shared too. Together, survivors can repair the harm and demand accountability, she said.

With the 2018 midterm elections in a few days, Archila is focusing her energy on galvanizing the national vote of women and people of color, like she galvanized Jimenez and other young people to advocate for the DREAM Act.

Archila wants women to continue feeling empowered and raising their voices.

“We are mining our power in a way that will transform the country, despite the politicians not wanting to hear us,” she said.

Moving forward, she plans to organize others who attended protests for the first time when she made her impassioned plea to Flake. Given the strength of this movement, she has a message for politicians: “They don’t know what’s coming!”

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