By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected]
When Canek Aguirre, a first-generation American citizen and the son of Mexican immigrants, was growing up in California, he often served as an interpreter between Spanish-speaking parents and school faculty.
Later, when Aguirre moved to Alexandria, he served in that role again in a professional capacity at Alexandria City Public Schools as a liaison between bilingual parents and George Washington Middle School.
“I was really excited to have the role I had with ACPS. It allowed us to take the burden off some of the kids. You can have an adult there that can interpret and have conversations that you wouldn’t necessarily have if a child was interpreting or if someone was just using Google Translate,” Aguirre said.
Though Aguirre left his job at ACPS for a community relations position at health care company Anthem four years ago, he still hopes to represent marginalized and vulnerable communities in the city by serving on city council. The Del Ray resident announced his intention to run for council at an Alexandria Democratic Committee meeting Jan. 12 and will officially kick off his campaign Feb. 10.
“The big thing is I bring perspectives that, at times, are lacking. I don’t think it’s always there,” Aguirre said. “I have firsthand experience with a population that crosses a large section of the city … I want to be a welcoming face for immigrant families that don’t necessarily feel welcome.”
Aguirre draws much of his inspiration for running from personal experience. Aguirre said he understands the plight of young professionals struggling to make ends meet because he’s been there.
“When I first got here, I was a young professional struggling to get by. I know the difficulty of making the transition to being a homeowner,” Aguirre said.
Aguirre said affordable housing is the most important issue for him as he campaigns, in addition to education and health care.
“We’ve lost 90 percent of our affordable housing and this affects everyone. It’s a real struggle. When I got here, I was making less than $25,000 and there was no way I could afford to live,” Aguirre said.
It’s not just a concern for young people, Aguirre said – it’s an issue that transcends age and background.
“When you’re trying to age in place, it’s a real concern if you’re going to be able to stay in the city,” he said.
The issues facing immigrants are also of particular importance to Aguirre, who serves as president of the board of Alexandria immigrant advocacy group Tenants and Workers United.
“Some of the issues that immigrant families face I can always relate to,” Aguirre said. “I have a strong connection and a strong sense of wanting to serve the community, and not just the Latino community. That goes for the Ethiopian community, Arabic, Asian – anyone who has been an immigrant can relate.”
Aguirre said he sees himself as generally aligned with sitting council members on most issues. He added, though, that there are some issues that aren’t coming in front of council. He said, with his experience, he will be able to bring more of those discussions to the forefront.
Aguirre said he will draw from experience he’s gained serving on city boards and commissions, which in addition his position on the board at Tenants and Workers United, includes being chair of the Economic Opportunities Commission, vice chairman of the Health Systems Agency of Northern Virginia board, on the Leadership Council for the Alexandria Campaign on Adolescent Pregnancy and on the steering committee for the Partnership for a Healthier Alexandria.
Helen Morris, chair of the Leadership Council for the Alexandria Campaign on Adolescent Pregnancy, met Aguirre four years ago.
“I think he’s very smart, he’s really well-connected in the city and he always has great follow-through and knowledge to share related to the topics we’re working on for young people and their families. He’s very willing to share expertise on behalf of the families we work with,” Morris said.
Morris said Aguirre would be an advocate for communities that often aren’t represented in city meetings.
“Many of us who are more politically astute or have voices in Alexandria are those of us who have more resources and more money. It’s a wealthy city with a lot of resources, but Canek knows the other side and he knows the side of the city that needs a lot of help. He understands what they need and he has a deep passion for finding ways to equal the playing field for young people and for all people, whether it’s housing or health care or education,” Morris said. “He puts his money where his mouth is.”
Morris said Aguirre’s experience building relationships with parents and families while at ACPS would be helpful if he were to win a seat on council.
“There are a lot of people that don’t come out to public meetings and you have to go out to where they are,” Morris said. “He’s already got those relationships and so he wouldn’t have to build them. He would be able to bring those relationships to council – he already knows what their needs are.”
Morris said, though he’s not the loudest person in the room, he always brings something to the table.
“He’s a strong, deliberative voice. He’s always prepared, so when there’s something on our agenda … he’ll bring background material, he’ll bring knowledge to inform the material. I imagine he’ll bring his knowledge and his data points to conversations,” Morris said.
“He’s not a person that backs down when he thinks an issue is important. He doesn’t let points get lost.”
LaDonna Sanders, who has worked with Aguirre through Tenants and Workers United and the Economic Opportunities Commission, said, at the end of the day, Aguirre is an advocate.
“I think he would focus on ensuring that there is a lot of equity across the various programs and the laws that are enacted across Alexandria,” Sanders said. “Affordable housing is one of the things he’s been a big proponent of and making sure there are equal opportunities for people who would like to live in the city. With his work in the school system, he’ll be an advocate for having additional infrastructure and making sure the needs of the city are being met.”
Sanders said she sees Aguirre, if his campaign is successful, becoming a leader.
“With the amount of work he’s done and with the time he’s taken to ensure that he’s knowledgeable about the various areas that we need improvement in or are working well across the city, I think he’ll be able to speak well,” Sanders said.
Aguirre joins four other new candidates, including Dak Hardwick, Mo Seifeldein, Amy Jackson and Robert Ray, who are vying for the Democratic nomination for the six seats on council. Two seats are being vacated by Councilor Tim Lovain, who announced last fall he wouldn’t seek reelection, and Vice Mayor Justin Wilson, who announced his candidacy for mayor in November. Incumbents Willie Bailey, John Chapman and Del Pepper have either announced or told the Times that they will run for reelection.
Should Aguirre be successful this election season, he said relationships will be central to his approach on the dais.
“We need some new ideas. I’m very open. I’m willing to have conversations with everyone. I think that’s part of why I’ve been successful in the different positions I’ve held – not only boards and commissions, but professionally,” Aguirre said. “You have to build trust and relationships. I would like to think I’ve excelled at that.”