by Daniel Lowry
When Ariana Velasquez learned a pro-Nazi group planned to hold a rally in her hometown of Pikeville, Kentucky, she decided to take action. The white nationalist group cited Pike County’s mostly white population and overwhelming support for Donald Trump as perfect reasons for the location, but the hate group was in for a surprise.
Ariana is 18 years old and a high school senior. She’s also a sophomore in college with the Big Sandy Early College Academy. She has expressive, brown eyes and speaks with an honest, straightforward style.
Get out of this country
The bullying really kicked in about 8th grade after President Obama was re-elected. Ariana comes from a long line of Democrats, and she supported the president.
“They would say things like Obama is the Anti-Christ. They’d say he’s a Muslim and stuff like that.”
The kids would follow her down the hall and taunt her for being a Democrat. They would yell at her in the hallway and write cruel messages on the dry erase boards in her classrooms.
“They thought I was Mexican,” she says. Her surname comes from her grandfather, who was from the Philippines, which belonged to Spain until after the Spanish-American War.
“They would tell me to get out of the country. Go back to where you’re from, they’d say.”
Ariana’s family has been in Eastern Kentucky since the 1700’s. She was born in Kentucky, her mother is from Pikeville, and her father was born in West Virginia.
She would go home and feel overwhelmed. The tears would come and she would feel so alone at school. In a class of 30 students, she says about all but maybe two would be vocal Republicans.
Time for a change
Ariana’s parents signed her up for a three-hour test to see if she could be admitted to the Piarist School, which is about 35 miles from Pikeville in Johnson County. It’s a college preparatory school that is free for gifted students who pass a three-hour exam.
She passed. She loved going to the new school, and she could be herself. She was able to develop her love of music, and now plays upright bass in a Bluegrass band. She could be a Democrat and not be bullied.
She became more active politically. Last summer, she attended the Kentucky Democratic Party’s State Convention, where thousands of active Democrats met to elect party leaders. She was in a large meeting room at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville when her mother urged her to speak to the crowd of people from her congressional district. They were holding an election for who would serve on the State Central Executive Committee, which is the highest level of leadership for the party. Each person who wanted to run was allowed a few minutes to speak.
“I was just there to learn,” she says. “But my mom said I should run for the public speaking experience, so I did.”
She was just getting over strep throat and her voice was scratchy. She spoke from her heart, and talked about why she was a Democrat.
“Democrats are about freedom,” she says. “Religious freedom, pursuit of happiness, to be whoever you want to be. Democrats fought for women to be able to vote, they fought against racial injustice. We are for science and we are for progress.”
She spoke for a couple minutes and promised that she would stay connected to the people in her district. She would see what issues were important to them and she would stay connected to her area, and not lose touch like she had seen from many politicians.
The crowd burst into applause. Former state lawmaker and Eastern Kentucky native Leslie Combs hugged her and told her she had done a great job.
She became the youngest member elected to the top governing body of the state party. “I was elated,” she says. “I never thought I’d win in my wildest dreams.”
Bringing people together
One of her goals is to bridge the gap between the established Democrats and the young activists. She also wants to make a change in Eastern Kentucky, where she says many people feel neglected. She says there’s a lot of misinformation. For example, Republicans scream that they are for coal, but she says it’s clear that Democrats are the ones fighting for coal miners.
Ariana points to how Republicans in Kentucky have stripped down safety inspections in mines and been against the Miners’ Protection Act. “If you want to help coal miners, you make sure they have their benefits and make sure they are safe.”
Then, in February, she heard about the pro-Nazi group’s rally in Pikeville. She talked to Travis Scott, the president of the Kentucky Young Democrats, and said someone should do something about it. Travis Scott had one response for her: you’re someone. He said he’d help her, too.
She made a Facebook event called “Rally for Equality and American Values.” She made phone calls. One of her friends, Christian Marcum, started helping with the planning. In the first day, hundreds of people signed up that they were going or interested.
Ariana added bands to make the event include a concert, and she started reaching out for speakers. Big names like Sen. Ray Jones, Rep. Chris Harris, Rep. Angie Hatton, former lawmaker Leslie Combs, all agreed to speak at the rally.
Then Paul Patton contacted her. Paul Patton, the former governor of Kentucky. He said she could use the plaza at the University of Pikeville for her rally.
“It really snowballed,” she says. She talked with an attorney and formed an LLC for legal protections and secured event insurance. Ariana flashes a perfect grin. “This has gotten big.”
Jason Belcher, a contributor for the Huffington Post has reported on the event. He sums it up well: “As a region we have our share of economic challenges and political divisions, but liberals and conservatives, religious and non-religious, rich and poor here are united on this issue. We may not agree on a lot, but we agree pro-Nazi groups can get lost.”
Ariana expects Republicans and Democrats will be on hand. It’s not about politics, she will tell you. It’s a stand against hate.