On the corner of 13th Avenue and University Street last spring, Maria Alejandra Gallegos-Chacón and a team of Associated Students of the University of Oregon (ASUO) hopefuls campaigned in lavender T-shirts with the words “Ducks Together” printed in yellow block letters, surrounded by the same phrase in various languages in dark purple. They stopped passers-by to discuss the upcoming ASUO elections, for which Gallegos-Chacón was running for president.
The scene at the Ducks Together campaign tent was boisterous: music played, everyone danced and laughed and took photos. Throughout the multi-week campaign, Gallegos-Chacón and other slate members engaged with students, listened to their thoughts and encouraged them to vote.
From behind her “grandpa-style,” wire-rimmed glasses framed by dark curls of hair, Gallegos-Chacón is approachable, but she’s direct and won’t sway from her goals. She leads by example and uses her experiences to inform her politics.
“Her work ethic is amazing,” said Tan Perkins, ASUO chief of staff. “She’s the person that’s out there tabling and is like ‘Hey, there’s too many people behind the table. Get out there,’ and then she goes out there, too.”
Despite receiving nearly 70 percent of the vote, Gallegos-Chacón, a senior ethnic studies major, never expected to win.
“I was just really excited [when I won]. I was also in shock though because it didn’t feel right,” said Gallegos-Chacón, who didn’t see herself as a leader in the past. “I think my slate and my VPs deserved it more than anyone, more than myself.”
As ASUO president, Gallegos-Chacón represents the university, oversees funding for student groups and advocates for the student body. This year, she plans on tackling major issues ranging from tuition increases and food insecurity to fighting discrimination on campus.
And for the first time in ASUO history, the executive team — comprised of vice presidents Imani Dorsey and Ivan Chen, Perkins and Gallegos-Chacón — all openly identify as queer people of color.
“This is actually pretty historical,” Gallegos-Chacón said.
Ethan Shafer, a freshman who ran with Ducks Together and was elected to Senate, said that while campaigning, Gallegos-Chacón “was not afraid to stand up for her constituents.” In the upcoming year, Shafer said, students can expect the same from their president.
“She was not afraid of what other people thought of her and her opinions but was there for her constituents and no one else, and that’s what I really admire about Maria,” he said.
As the daughter of Ecuadorian immigrants, Gallegos-Chacón came the the United States when she was 2 years old. She lived in Chicago until her early teens, then moved to Hillsboro, Oregon, where she said she struggled adjusting to the different culture. “It was just shocking how white Oregon is,” she said.
Gallegos-Chacón said the transition from Chicago to Hillsboro was difficult because she was far from family and friends. She got in trouble for using Spanish slang in school. She was a chatterbox. She started fights. She struggled to do well in school. And her mom called her peleona, meaning little fighter.
Gallegos-Chacón said she noticed she was different from most people in her new community because of her Latinx identity and felt the sting of microaggressions from peers and teachers, something she still faces on a regular basis.
In middle school, a substitute teacher once told Gallegos-Chacón she’d be pregnant in high school because she was “boy crazy,” playing into stereotypes surrounding Latinx women. Gallegos-Chacón said she internalized those comments about race and gender.
“I think it hurt me in a self-esteem way more than anything,” Gallegos-Chacón said.
Things turned around for Gallegos-Chacon when Bill Huntzinger, her English teacher at Glencoe High School, introduced her to the ideologies of the Black Panthers and Malcolm X. She discovered an interest in discussing social equality.
“I was really interested in that aspect of racial justice, so that’s what got me into school and what got me intrigued to go to college,” she said.
Huntzinger encouraged Gallegos-Chacón to take classes like AP Government. Although she said she was never the best student, she remained dedicated to the schoolwork. “I think having two particular teachers who were invested in my writing and invested in my ideas as a queer woman of color was really helpful to me,” she said.
In addition to discovering a passion for learning about social justice, Gallegos-Chacón took on her first leadership role in high school. In her senior year, she was required to do community service after getting in trouble for something she no longer remembers. Rather than joining a community service club, she founded her own organization. As the director of the Environmental Impact Club, Gallegos-Chacón realized she had a knack for leadership and activism.
“I really liked being in charge of something, setting agendas and putting events together, which is funny because I’m still doing that now,” she said.
Since graduating high school, Gallegos-Chacón has volunteered with Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group (OSPRIG) and interned with Organizing People, Activating Leaders (OPAL) Environmental Justice Oregon. With OPAL, she campaigned for a law that allows low-income individuals in Portland to get a free or reduced-price bus pass.
She also worked with Planned Parenthood to pass legislature to provide free reproductive health care to Oregonians. Both pieces of legislature, Keep Oregon Moving and the Reproductive Health Equity Act, passed in the Oregon Legislature.
Gallegos-Chacón said she’s not afraid to be persistent when campaigning for something she cares about. She uses her friendliness to her advantage when approaching strangers but has noticed some pushback, specifically from older white men, who she says don’t take her seriously.
While campaigning, people have badgered her about her height and age, rather than discussing a bill or petition with her. “I feel like a white man whisperer sometimes, and I’m okay with it,” said Gallegos-Chacón, regarding her ability to reframe conversations to be more productive.
Beatriz Gutierrez, a former ASUO president who worked with Gallegos-Chacón at OPAL Environmental Justice, said she learned from working with Gallegos-Chacón how “to be really intentional about the conversations that she had with folks and giving folks her whole attention.”
Gutierrez and Gallegos-Chacón got to know each other during their fellowship with OPAL, and Gutierrez has provided advice and support to Gallegos-Chacón throughout her campaign and presidency. She recalled a time when Gallegos-Chacón felt discriminated against while fundraising and wasn’t afraid to speak up about it. Gallegos-Chacón is “unapologetic when she sees injustice,” said Gutierrez.
Andrew Rogers, formerly the Oregon Student Association campus organizer who worked with Gallegos-Chacón, said “something that stands out to me about Maria is she has a really good analysis of how power works in institutions.”
She listens to the issues students face on campus and finds the root of the problem, he said, and addresses them “in a productive way that’s going to hopefully get the results that students want that makes student lives better.”
This year, the ASUO executive team plans to advocate for underrepresented student groups and alleviate injustice.
“We’re looking at campus more holistically while making sure that we are standing up for those marginalized folks,” said Perkins. “We just want to make sure that every decision we’re making is going to affect the most people in the best way possible.”
Though Gallegos-Chacón faces challenging tasks of fighting injustice, food insecurity and tuition increases, she said she is looking forward to the more light-hearted moments that make it worth it.
For her, some of those moments were the campaign days leading up to her election as president.
“Even before we won,” she said, “there were some really good times.”
And the good times were unexpected.
About 20 members of the Ducks Together slate gathered at Pegasus Pizza on April 12 to celebrate the end of campaigning while they awaited the results. The group filled several tables and enjoyed a spread of pepperoni, cheese and vegetarian pizzas.
Vice President Ivan Chen was first to receive the email congratulating the slate. Perkins didn’t want to get too excited, as the results seemed too good to be true. But, as the congratulatory emails stopped coming in, reality sank in that Ducks Together was victorious.
Gallegos-Chacón stepped outside to call her mother and collect herself. It had been raining all day in Eugene, but for those few moments, the sun shined through the clouds.
When her mom answered the phone, she said, “Oh no, what happened?”
Gallegos-Chacón responded, “No, ganamos, we won!”