‘It Is Time’

Iris Carías joins the Mount Vernon City Council

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now…This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos or community.” —Martin Luther King Jr.

She won by just 52 votes out of more than 5,200 cast for her position in November, but Iris Carías arrives on Mount Vernon City Council with a landslide of support.

According to census data, 34 percent of the city’s population is Latino, but Carías said Latinos are rarely present in government discussions. Carías intends to change that, and wants to encourage the whole community to participate in local politics, not just the usual speakers on the council. She began early, making her own personal pledge to a packed house when she was sworn into office Jan. 4 by Skagit County Superior Court Judge Laura Riquelme.

Carías took her oath of office in English and Spanish, and also spoke in both languages. Following her pledge to uphold the Constitution and the laws of Washington, the new Council member said:

“I swear this, as did those who came before me, as a way to reciprocate all the good done by the founding fathers and the immigrants who built this country. They did this for the sake of freedom and prosperity, as I do. I also take this oath on behalf of my constituents who trust me to represent our community and perform my duties in this honorable positions.”

Many of those constituents, crowding a Mount Vernon City Council chamber for the first time, among them those who had worked on her campaign, erupted in thunderous applause.

Carías said she has served as an advocate for the families and students she works with, and sees serving on the council similarly.

Carías emigrated from Honduras in 1994. She and her husband went about their business, raising their daughter in Mount Vernon. Her daughter went on to study sociology at the University of Washington, where she discovered an interest in politics. Her daughter joined the Bernie Sanders campaign. After the election, her daughter encouraged Iris to join her in the Million Womxn’s March in Seattle.

“I never had an intention to go into politics,” Carías said. “I’ve always been an activist, I liked being behind the scenes to inspire others and help others. But these times—after January 2017, when we had the new election of a president and we saw the march of millions of people, millions of women—we have so many things going on in the country and the community, it was an awakening.”

From there, her entry into politics sounds deceptively simple, yet her story is an emotionally complex but familiar one:

“I saw so many messages from women and others, and I knew that even though I thought I was doing as much as I could in my community, I knew even then it was not enough,” Carías said.

“In the beginning I said, no, I don’t think a City Council position would be a good fit for me because I don’t know anything about politics. I just know we must work with people, I just know know how to be a voice and to advocate for the families in the community. I did not know I would win; I just wanted to reach—how should I say it?—a higher advocacy level for families I care about by campaigning for them.

“To have somebody speak the language, and understand the culture, it’s going to make a big difference,” she said.

It is no small matter to say that Latinos are vital to the culture of Mount Vernon and Skagit County, and they form the working backbone of a vibrant agricultural economy.

“We have a tremendous number of Hispanic and Latino students in our schools, unless I am wrong perhaps 50 to 70 percent,” Carías said. “What I would like to see in my community is more inclusion—to see more equity. I would like to see equal opportunities for everyone, and particularly in our schools. Our schools have a great campaign working for 100 percent graduation, to have more students move on to higher education. I want to be part of that project, and to help connect parents to resources in the city that can help them; and if they need more, to be a voice that can help them reach higher.”

Carías believes housing and homelessness are among the major issues facing the city. She praised the city for partnering with the county to hire an embedded social worker in the police department, and the pledge by both the administration and the police that they will not assist in aggressive federal immigration enforcement efforts. But it’s not enough, she says, the community deserves more.

“Many families have been at work for many years here,” Carías said. “They need to feel represented, and secure in the community. They need to feel they are protected.

“Whatever their legal status is, the documents they carry, we need to recognize them as hard workers,” she said. “We need to recognize how much they contribute to the economy. We could not be Mount Vernon or the Skagit Valley agricultural zone without them!

“Here we have the best berries in the whole country. We have the most beautiful tulip fields, and when it is time for the Tulip Festival we will see thousands of tourists—who does that work? Our workers and our families.

My admiration and my respect,” Carías said, “is for the Mexican families, because when you go through those fields you don’t see another ethnicity working on them. You will see just Mexicans, and they work hard. Without them and their work, we would not have all that we have in Skagit Valley.

“They are doing dignified work.”

Mount Vernon is not a sanctuary city and has not laid out the kinds of defined police policy declarations as other cities, but the city could do more, Carías believes.

“We can work harder to make families know they are living in a secure environment and not feel afraid to go to work, and to know that when they come home they will also find their children at home. We want our children to not go to school because they are afraid. We want families to know they can call the police when they need to, when they’ve experienced a crime or domestic violence, and not be afraid because the police are there. Many women are afraid to call the police because they are afraid they may be separated from their children.”

Carías said one of her inspirations was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a champion of civil rights who exhorted people of good conscience to rise up and defend the defenseless.

“Martin Luther King is one of those leaders we look up to, the ones who help the weak and give them a voice. People understand it is time,” she said. “It is time to fight for civil rights.”

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