Tiffany Cabán and I grew up loving people who in the eyes of society were deemed “bad”, and therefore scapegoated simply for what their circumstance allowed them. It’s a tale as old as time for plenty Black and Brown folks and while the anguish consumes us to varying degrees, there are people like Tiffany who chose to do something about it. As I write this, my father is preparing a funeral for his brother, my uncle, who passed away last month. Roberto was his name and he was one of thousands of people in this country caught in-between the vicious cycle of homelessness and our criminal “justice” system. His death, and the pain now being felt by those he left behind, could have been prevented.
It’s difficult for me to comprehend how little attention is being paid to the reality in which we find ourselves in 2020. It’s alarming because, if anything, this year has brought forth a multitude of facts we must confront as a country if we don’t want to end up in the same place we’ve found ourselves before. What does it mean when we can elect the first Black woman as vice president, but can’t reach the 70+ million people who still voted for Trump? What does it mean when the Black Lives Matter movement becomes a summer trend, but the deep roots of white supremacy continue to prevail?
It is these questions that brought me to this interview with Tiffany Cabán. If you’ve heard the name, it’s probably because just last year, the then 32-year-old public defender received significant national attention for running a progressive campaign for Queens DA that may just have put New York’s establishment on notice. Which is why after her narrow defeat for Queens DA, the number one question she got from folks was ‘so when’s the next campaign?’
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Tiffany Cabán had no plans to run again until COVID-19 hit and, as they did for the rest of the world, her priorities changed. She is now running to represent NYC Council District 22 in the election set to take place in November 2021. I could sense the urgency behind her voice as she shared with me her campaign’s vision. The recognition that this is not a problem for tomorrow, this was a problem for yesterday and there is not one more day to be wasted.
Hearing her also casually reference trauma without a hint of shame in her voice, speak on the origin of identity politics, and even sit in bliss as she told a story about coming out to her mom after being asked by her Tia if she had a boyfriend made me giddy. I realized the giddiness was actually hope. Here was someone whose experiences reflected mine. This is what the voters will see: a reflection of themselves in her.
Christian Becerra: What is the vision of your campaign?
Tiffany Cabán: It is so similar to the vision of my last campaign. The first time around, we said we were running on the idea that it’s not about good people or bad people, it’s just about people; that we needed to divest from policing and incarceration and invest in the true sources of safety, which are a robust public health infrastructure and community led accountability processes that foster feeling and maintain human dignity.
After the results of the last election, I just wanted to put my head down and continue to work. I was not planning on running again until the pandemic hit and then obviously the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In the midst of all that, we had a city council that refused to defund the police in any sort of meaningful way while gutting all of these other resources we needed. You could see the way that our people were struggling, so really the core of our campaign is creating the kinds of communities that foster true safety.
That can be done through ending our carceral systems, through creating a care economy, and bringing a green new deal to our city. Those are the biggest pillars and understanding when we look at every single pillar, goal, or policy platform, that we’re doing it with a really strong race and class analysis; that we’re doing it by centering the experiences of the most marginalized folks that are affected by these systems. So approaching housing, healthcare, education, from the perspective that those things are queer issues, Black issues, Brown issues, immigrant issues, working class and working poor issues, being issues for the disability community. We are making a very intentional and conscious effort to view all of these issues through an intersectional lens.
Christian Becerra: You speak of your time as a public defender as such an integral part of your identity in a way that makes it so obvious that it’s not just a job for you. Can you share with me a little bit about your upbringing and how that impacted the way that you approach your career?
Tiffany Cabán: When I introduce myself in spaces I will often say I am queer, I am a Latina, I am a public defender. I say it in the same breath because it does feel really tied to my identity. Public defense work is trauma work, like being a nurse or a teacher can be trauma work. I think what brings you to trauma work is your own trauma and the desire to have reparative experiences.
There were a couple of really significant things in my life that both politicized me and moved me towards the work that I do now. I went to law school knowing I wanted to be a public defender. My parents grew up in public housing here in Queens. At the core of my campaign is this idea that there aren’t good people and bad people. It’s just about people, access to support, and opportunities to heal.
My grandfather was somebody who was really physically abusive. He was someone who struggled with alcoholism to the point where my grandmother left him and my mom dropped out of high school to help take care of the family. As a little girl, my experience with him was so different. He was my favorite person on the planet. He was patient, kind, and would tell these incredible stories. I loved him so much. Long after he passed away, I think back on who my grandfather was. He was somebody who did a lot of harm but he was also this incredible grandfather. He was a Korean War vet who entered the service as a dirt poor kid from Puerto Rico, came home from war with PTSD, and self medicated with alcohol. He was somebody who could’ve been cycling in and out of our criminal legal system and the question that we should be asking is ‘where were the substructures in place to support him so that he could support his family?’
I think that that’s something that I’ve really internalized from a pretty young age. Then my own personal experiences with certain kinds of harms. Certainly what was modeled for my mother were unhealthy relationships so it’s not surprising that what she found were unhealthy relationships. I’ve also been open about the fact that my father has struggled with alcoholism and a lot of other things that come along with that and I look at my trajectory in life and think about how on any given day there really is nothing that separates me from my clients that I represented but for a couple things that I can point to.
Probably the biggest thing is that my father got a union gig which meant I had a certain level of stability. I had access to an education, I had access to healthcare, and probably most important to me is that I had access to therapy services. I’ve also had the luck and good fortune of being in relationships with women who have been very patient and kind around my traumas.
The other thing that deeply politicized me was that I went to public school from elementary to junior high and private catholic school for high school. Two buses, an hour, and some change away and it was like two entirely different worlds. I grew up in schools that were majority Black and Brown. Most of the kids were on assisted lunch programs, suspension rates were high, and there was a lot of over policing in the neighborhood. Then I went to high school and it’s the same dumb kid shit that goes on, but the responses were different, the access to resources and activities and supports were different, and the investment was different. The combination of those things led me to doing my work as a public defender.
Christian Becerra: I want to talk about growing up queer in a Latinx household. Our parents come from a very different time and place, and I think a lot about the young queer Latinas growing up right now, who perhaps don’t know how to navigate those two identities. Do you have any advice for them based on your personal experience and how you’ve grown into becoming so comfortable with both those identities?
Tiffany Cabán: We find support where we need to. I’m a firm believer that if you’re rooted and grounded in yourself, that the universe will bring you the community that you need when your family isn’t there to hold you down. There’s plenty of family to be had around you. That is something that I consistently experience, whether it is finding community with other queer folks, abolitionists, or anyone that finds themselves on any sort of margin.
Christian Becerra: I think it’s one thing to be open and proud among your group of friends and family but I can imagine it’s a whole other thing to claim that identity as a person running for office. Do you ever consider how being openly queer affects the way voters perceive you subconsciously or consciously?
Tiffany Cabán: A lot of folks told me that I shouldn’t step into certain communities and say that I was queer. That I could talk about being a Latina, that I could talk about being a public defender, but that maybe I should leave out the queer part. I made a very intentional and conscious decision to say ‘no, absolutely not’.
I am bringing my whole self to this. There are a couple of reasons for that. One, I entered the last race not for a second thinking that I could win. All I wanted to do was to disrupt, to call people out on their bullshit, to hold people’s feet to the fire, and to uplift the stories of my clients, my friends, my family, and my neighbors. It obviously turned into something much bigger than that. I still maintain in this very moment the fact that I can move unapologetically because at the end of the day, worst case scenario, I go back to being a public defender and I’m good with that.
That was work that I loved and was so proud to do and felt so privileged to do. I have also seen, and it’s been affirmed for me over and over again, how important it is to have that visibility. We did this big rally and this woman came up to me and said ‘I’m thankful that you’re running on the things that you’re running on but even more important than that, I have an eleven year old daughter at home that identifies as a queer Latina. You don’t know what you mean to her.’ I get emotional just thinking about it now. I just remember hugging, thanking, and crying a little bit with her because that is so real.
People like to weaponize and twist around the word “identity politics” but when you look back at its origin, when you look back at Barbara Smith and the Combahee River Collective, you understand that identity politics are actually incredibly important. It is the idea that we get to and must bring our whole selves into our politics because it is our experiences at the margins, with systems that have oppressed and shaped the way we think about policy and the way that we think about implementing policy and how it affects our lives, that is so important.
It was really important for me to also be really clear that I identified as a queer woman. Political spaces are often spaces filled with privilege. LGBTQIA Democratic clubs and all of those things are overwhelmingly white cisgender gay men. It was a hard thing navigating and feeling rejected in those spaces; feeling that queer people of color and the issues that are unique to our experiences weren’t being validated, centered, or understood. So that’s another reason why it felt so important.
Christian Becerra: What do you think is the largest barrier to your campaign?
Tiffany Cabán: What I think of as the challenges are the goals that I have set for myself, this campaign, and our movement beyond just having the privilege of representing my district. This is about making sure that we’re using all the resources and momentum that we have as an organizing opportunity. That when we are talking to our neighbors that we are creating more onramps to civic engagement. So that we’re meeting people where they’re at and easily getting them involved. That we’re creating different pipelines and also that we are coalition building across council districts. That’s going to be a challenge enough. It’s not going to be enough for me to win here. I don’t want to be a lonely vote in the council. I want to make sure that we have a crew of people so that we could not just drive the objective but set the agenda.
Christian Becerra: Kind of like forming a squad!
Tiffany Cabán: It wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a good, dope city council squad.
Christian Becerra: If someone wants to get involved in the campaign, how would they go about doing that?
Tiffany Cabán: So many ways. They can go to our website and sign up for our emails. You can also check out our social media; on Instagram and Facebook I’m @cabanforqueens and my Twitter is @tiffany_caban. Even donating a few dollars to the campaign goes a very very long way in our organizing efforts.