Despite growing up in the United States illegally, Emiliana Guereca always believed she could achieve anything she wanted, but she never dreamed she would spark one of the most meaningful gatherings in U.S. history. The Women’s March on January 21st, 2017 was the largest single day protest in US history, with the turnout in Los Angeles—organized by Emi—estimated at a record-setting 750,000 protestors. Why are marches important for democracies? And what turns a march into a movement?
Emi: I'm Emiliana Guereca, also known as Emi. I am an activist, a social entrepreneur.
Jeff: Okay. And so you have a pretty inspiring, amazing story. You're a first generation immigrant. Can you tell us a little bit about your story of coming to America?
Emi: Well, I don't know about coming to America, but yes. I came when I was young. I am one of 13 kids. I was brought here illegally by my parents, but of course this is not what we sat around and talked about, like, "Hey, we're here illegal." We just kind of go around through our day. I didn't find out that I was illegal until I applied for university, and figuring that process out and questioning what is going on? What is a social security card? Even just that, so for me, I grew up, we grew up poor in what people called the ghetto. My parents still live there, we call our community. For me, I was the first one to attend university out of 13, and I'm the seventh. I'm the middle problem child.
Jeff: The middle of 13. That's unique.
Emi: Well, props to my mom. I don't know how she did it. I'm struggling with two. But I have, for me, I grew up thinking I could do anything I wanted in the United States, and so far I have. That speaks to the ...
Jeff: The promise of the dream.
Emi: The promise of the dream, yes. I think everybody has a different dream and how they get theirs is different as well, but for us it was about having a choice, and I think it still is about that.
Jeff: Yeah, and about the ability to leave greater opportunity to future generations.
Emi: Oh, absolutely. I don't think our parents came out here for themselves. We came for our kids. We wanted to give our kids a better life, a better opportunity for sure.
Jeff: Yeah, so you went to school here in LA, right?
Emi: No, I went to school in Chicago.
Jeff: Oh, okay.
Emi: Yes. When people talk about the gun violence and Chicago, I'm like, "Oh, yeah. We see that. We still see that." I grew up in Chicago. I moved to Los Angeles to finish school at UCLA.
I was involved in anything entrepreneurial. I've grown restaurants chains where I've waited tables. I currently own an event production company that produces major, major music festivals. I've owned a gift basket company. If a friend says, "Would you do this with me," I say yes.
Jeff: So growing up, had you been to marches?
Emi: Absolutely. I have, yes. I've always been to women's marches across the country. I've been to some in Argentina and Peru and Mexico where most of the time women were out there marching for their kid's rights. I was familiar with marching and a little bit of activism, but I didn't think I was an activist. I just thought, "Well, I'm going to go march. I believe in what they're doing," and that's what we did. My mom was always very involved in her community.
Jeff: So in some ways, it was the perfect storm for you because you knew about producing events, and you knew all about the logistics that go into that from permitting to security and police and parks and all of that, and then you also grew up with going to marches and also in an activist household. Then come 2016, tell me about the kind of first, the germination of the idea to have the LA women's march and how that got started initially and how that might have changed slightly.
Emi: I think it started with a feeling of what happened, but also coming from a perspective of being an immigrant and going through that year of the rhetoric that was out there, there was no way that this person would be elected, right? But also as an entrepreneur, as a female entrepreneur, I've been passed up by opportunities because I do have two kids. Will you be available? All of that sort of played a role in me deciding to organize an LA march, so I saw the Facebook post for a DC march. Being Mexican, I thought, " We're going to get left out of the entire thing again," so for me, it was really clear that I needed to organize something in LA. I didn't know anybody organizing the one in DC, so I sent them a Facebook message saying, "Hey, I'm going to lead the one in LA."
Emi: They responded with like, "Who are you?" Yeah.
Jeff: Put this in a little time context. Does this idea to have the march, did that happen before or after the results of the election?
Emi: The day after.
Jeff: The day after.
Emi: So you had just over two months to pull off a pretty large gig.
Jeff: Yes, something that should take a year.
Jeff: But we weren't going to be deterred. For me, we were going to do it. I think as the week...
Emi: We're going to do it, and I think as the week progressed ... I mean a week, we're talking a week of 30,000 people saying they would join you. So, for me there were more people that were feeling the way I felt. What am I doing as a citizen and what am I going to do to make a difference?
Jeff: Right. And so, then take us to that day January 21st, 2017. You wake up in the morning, you probably never went to sleep right?
Emi: I can take you the day before, it rained in LA, like poured where media, and we had emails of, it's not going to happen. It's a bust, it's not going to happen. The day I was out there at three in the morning organizing and remember the sun coming up like, it's going to happen, because we started seeing people show up at 5:00 am. Even though we weren't going to walk till 10.
So, for me people came out even before media, which is huge in LA because they're out there. Just seeing people congregate. People stopped in the day before to see what we needed 'cause we were actually camped out at Persian Square. People brought snacks, ponchos, so just seeing it swell like that the day before was when I knew people were going to come out rain or shine.
Jeff: And this is all volunteer led at this juncture?
Jeff: You're laughing.
Emi: All volunteer led. We are all volunteers, still are.
Jeff: Yeah. So, give us a sense for the scale of what happened that day both in Los Angeles and globally.
Emi: Well, for us in LA I remember getting the signed permit and I put down half a million people attendees just so that all social services would be on, so that everyone would be safe. And I did have some LAPD officers laugh at me.
Jeff: Yeah, like no way.
Emi: Are there some extra zeros? Did you mean 5,000? I said, no.
Emi: Walking away with that, but then for me the fact that women were leading this was very important. The fact that women across the globe were coming out. And it was at the end of the day, it was about political power, it was about socio economic power, and a lot of people came out for different reasons, but at the end it was women and equality.
Jeff: Yeah, in LA I think you got about 800,000 people is that correct?
Emi: Correct, 750,000 was our last number from the fire department.
Jeff: From the fire department. And then globally there were 600 some odd events, and what was the aggregate participation on a global [inaudible]?
Emi: So the last numbers we have were that it was five million, but when we've seen aerial photos we're like, no way.
Emi: The last number we have is five really.
Jeff: And would that make January 21st, 2017 the biggest single day protest in history?
Emi: Yes, as of now.
Jeff: And of that day the gathering here in Los Angeles was that the biggest?
Emi: The gathering in Los Angeles was the biggest, yes.
Jeff: Congratulations. That's a long way from a Facebook post on November 9th.
Post. Right. We didn't expect it to be the biggest, but what we did expect it to be was the most diverse 'cause we mapped out each of the neighborhoods, and we mapped out the entire LA area. And so, for someone to say to me, "You know, LA was the most diverse."
I was like, "Yes." Because we are, as a city.
Jeff: Yeah. And so, what was the agenda going into the march? And then, you've brought together all of these people and created this sort of high point of collective joy and energy, and then people wake up the next morning, that fight needs to continue. So, maybe you could talk about, what was the purpose of the march going in and then how do you sustain that purpose on January 22nd and on?
Emi: Right. So, first we had to do the cleanup the day after, that was horrible.
Jeff: Start with the cleanup.
Emi: Like, oh, okay. There's a news van in front of my house. The city called me that I'm responsible to clean up.
Cleanup all around.
So for us the purpose to come out was to actually put this administration, what people would call in check. We are watching. Yes you have been elected, but the rhetoric that has been out there will not longer be accepted. We will hold our politicians accountable. I'm just thinking back to it was protest, and marches that stopped the Vietnam War, it was students. So for me it was really clear that if we wanted to affect what was going on that we needed to be out there, and we needed to be vocal about it, and we couldn't back down. So, I think for me it was really clear that if we were to hold the administration accountable that we needed to voice that.
Jeff: Yeah. So, there's kind of the optics of the show of force, like we're not going to take this [crosstalk]. We're not going to take this lying down. We're going to hold you accountable every day and here we are five million of us.
Emi: And that can't be ignored.
Jeff: No. But then on top of that was there a specific kind of legislative agenda associated with it? Were there particular policies that then came forth either before or after the march of like, "Okay, well here's a platform that goes with this movement"?
Well I don't think we were thinking about it as we were organizing, we weren't. We organized so organically that we weren't out there thinking about policy. We were more thinking about, how are we going to keep our community safe? Because we were afraid that whatever was talked about was going to happen, and now as we see is happening. The immigrant rhetoric, the female rhetoric, so I think that for us we didn't have that as part of our organizing tools, but what we did know was that we wanted more women in political office. Women are 51% of the population. We don't represent that in our government. So for us it was more of, how do we move this forward? And unless we're building political power we're going to continue not to have a say. So, post march we have been working towards getting more people elected to local office, to state office, and then national. So, I think that's most of what we're working on.
Jeff: Got it. And I think you've seen there's record levels of women running for office.
Emi: Yes. That's exciting.
Jeff: Yeah, it's very exciting. So that I guess speaks ... I'm interested almost kind of now sort of at a meta level around marches, and why people march, what the societal importance is of these kind of mass gatherings as it pertains to kind of the role of the citizen, the rights of citizenship, can you talk about that?
Emi: Right. So for me I think people march for a common cause. I think originally people would march for a common cause. I think people march now to sort of show their discontent but also to hold people accountable. But then moving forward, how are people going to plug into the system? Because as a citizen at some point you feel a little bit powerless.
There's these politicians making these policies that may affect me negatively. So, I think most people that march end up volunteering in some sort of organization, in some capacity to change things, and I think that, that's the importance of the march. That it's not just people going out to march, what happens post march is the importance, which is women running for office, which is people signing petitions, which is people volunteering in different organizations, and that's the important takeaway from marches.
Jeff: Yeah that's interesting. It's almost like the role that marches play in the political process is almost like as a spark.
Jeff: It's like you come and experience something collectively that's so intense that then you're motivated to take that personal responsibility into your own life.
Emi: Yes, my mom calls it pain to power. You go out and your march in this pain and you turn it into power. And so, collectively everyone usually shows up with their demands, but as you meet other people you figure out a way to move forward, and sometimes to just heal to be honest, to heal with what is going on.
Jeff: So you started specifically for the LA Women's March, and you might have thought that on January 22nd you'd have your life back, but that's not what happened.
Emi: No. Even as we organized the LA march we helped 22 chapters across California organize a march that day 'cause I had a little bit of experience with permits, and insurance, and all of that logistics, so I brought that in to these 22 chapters. And then post march I really thought I could go back to just running my business and doing that, but I think that as a citizen in this current climate that I owe more to the planet, to do more. I also think that it's a little interesting that although we're very new at it, we're now sort of the veterans. Like almost every march emails or calls us to help.
Jeff: Right. Not a market that you expected to corner necessarily.
Emi: No, not at all.
Jeff: So, the tradition of marches in America is really interesting and it goes back some ways. And I'm wondering what kind of inspiration you drew from other marches that had happened in the past and were there particular ones that stood out for you as examples for either good or for bad.
Emi: I think there's a lot of them. I think for me the Argentina March where these women march for their lost kids, they're still doing this every week. And so, now I'm equating that to the immigrant marches, there's still kids that aren't reunited. And then I'm thinking of the Black Lives Matter Movement who started as a march and is centralized. And so, how do we learn from all these marches?
How do we learn from all these marches? I think we touched base on most of the marches traditionally were organized by men, as well as organizations, and so for us, how do we turn from this march into a movement, and continuing that so that we don't just disappear?
Jeff: Yeah. I think what was really amazing about the first Women's March, and subsequent ones, were how many there were across the United States. It was over 400 just in the United States, and I know that, and some that were quite large, and then others that were probably very small and potentially under-organized and under-resourced.
I think it's been really interesting, the role that you've played in terms of creating best practices and toolkits that essential empower people in their local communities to be able to organize people, organize marches, civil disobedience, public protect. How did you go about putting that together, and do you feel like that is helping people with their organizational skills as now you've seen a year and a half or so since that time?
Emi: Oh, absolutely. I think when we originally put together a toolkit, we were a little naïve.
We've had to revisit. We didn't expect there to be so much want for it. I thought I would put this toolkit together for these people that sort of reached out to me via social media or online. What I didn't expect was to send out 2,000 copies to different emails, people that wanted to organize across different states. Someone from Indiana reaching out and saying, "Hey, my permit's $50. How should I fundraise?"
"Okay, here's a toolkit. I want you to do this." I think she had like 5,000 people show up, so to me, that's the power of technology and spreading out information. I think for most people, post-march, when we talk about, did the toolkit help you, absolutely. It gave them framework, but also, they realized that everything was there, and they were going to move forward with it, because they almost felt embarrassed to say, "I didn't do it."
Jeff: Right. In some form, you could gamify it.
Jeff: I think this is part of what we need right now, because you alluded to earlier, it's so easy to become paralyzed and numb in the face of the enormity of society's problems. People look in the mirror all the time and they say, "What can I do?"
The idea of organizing a march in your hometown might seem like way, way too big. It may seem way too daunting, but really there's just this list of actionable steps that you can employ to organize people around shared passions, and shared beliefs, and a shared cause, but also I think the service that you provide by doing that is one of incredibly personal empowerment, where people can say, "This is not something that's happening to me. I am part of this, and I can be part of the solution, and now I've got the tools to empower me to do that."
Emi: Absolutely, and being part of your community is also being a solution for your community, right? If you organize your community, it's sort of like opening up this other world for yourself. I've had people say, "Well, I put it together, and I didn't realize that what they thought was a weakness ends up being a strength," right? I think someone said, "Well, I'm just a writer." You're not just a writer. You just put together this entire marketing plan for us. You just helped, so the empowerment that comes from participating in your community is insane.
Jeff: Yeah, so you started this as an event, or now a series of events. Is it really a movement for you? Is that what it is?
Emi: For me, it is a movement. Growing up, I don't think anyone came to my class to register me to vote and talk about a march, right? I think that it is a movement. I think that we just did a summer of resistance, where 300 girls showed up to talk about what it would look like to run for political office. You're talking between 16 to 21. I didn't have that growing up, so I think that it is a movement, in a sense that we feel empowered to continue, that we feel that we will be closer to equity, because that's what we're working on.
I do think it's a movement. I also think that we are judged with a different perception because it should just been a march. You should just leave it alone. I can't leave it alone. I need equity. I need equality. I have two young boys that will grow up not knowing what that looks like, right, so for me, I can't leave it alone. It has to work itself beyond a march, whether I'm in the movement or not. The goal is that there are 51% of girls need that.
Jeff: God bless you for what you're doing. Thank you.