I’d love to meet up for drinks and tell you the story behind every Arizona Luminaria story we published this year. I’d gush about the care and commitment that goes into a small but mighty team of local journalists who are grateful to every Arizonan — from Tucson and Phoenix to Flagstaff, Patagonia, Sedona and Yuma — who shared their stories with us, so we could share them with you. I’d cry in my own rum and coke con limón

Like I cried while editing John Washington’s story about Arizona border patrol agents violating their own policies and confiscating and trashing Sikh asylum-seekers’ turbans. More tears while editing a story by Beatriz Limón about the magic and music of Juan Gabriel. And again, earlier this month, while reading the final few lines of a story — published with the support of the Solutions Journalism Network — about a Tucson woman who went from being homeless, to earning a degree for a new career that’s made it so she can live, not just survive.

I’d tell you about when a story is so sickening, so unjust you can’t cry because just tears seems disrespectful to the people suffering. Like when editing an investigation into the people who are dying at Pima County Jail.

John and I watched the video — many times separately and many times together — of Wade Welch’s death as guards shot him with a taser over and over. No one should die in jail. These people are wards of the state and in the care of the sheriff, guards and others charged with ensuring their safety and health while they await trial. To be clear, many of these people behind bars are not convicted of a crime. That means no judge or jury has decided yet if there is any crime that merits paying any debt to society.

Each of these stories made me think of my own loved ones. People like my abuelos who crossed borders to give their children a better life and later fought for their community and workers’ rights. Like my parents who worked in the fields as farmworkers, fought for an education, and spent the rest of their lives teaching others. Family members who have spent time making a difference in the lives of others, as well as loved ones who have spent time behind bars, away from those who needed them.

Each Arizona Luminaria story made me think of how journalism and storytelling have the power to create a historic record of truth that embraces us, teaches us, brings us closer, and unites us around something bigger than ourselves.

When I read Beatriz’s stories about Proposition 308, a Dreamers-led measure for equity in education, I thought about the stories my dad, a Mexican immigrant, told me of people telling him Mexicans are only good for farm labor and of being hit for speaking Spanish in school. Dad would go on to serve in the Navy, earn a Ph.D. and give back by teaching and mentoring hundreds of college students. He’d tell me: “Get an education, mija. It’s the one thing they can’t take away from you.”

I’d tell you about my own roots, my own familia and about how my papá lead a group of Arizona State University students and faculty to successfully advocate for an honory doctorate for Mexican farmworker and civil rights icon Cesar Chávez. And then I’d encourage you to please read Beatriz’s consistent coverage of Prop. 308, explaining that you’d learn how this grassroots organizing will forever be tied to voters and migrants who can’t vote across Arizona who believe in the power of an education to change lives and in the power of immigrants in our communities and country.

I’d reach for my phone, order a shot of tequila and pull up a Juan Gabriel song to play for you while I laugh and share stories about what I thought on while editing Beatriz’s lovely story about Ballet Arizona debuting a performance dedicated to El Divo de Juárez. (Like remembering singing with my abuelos to El Noa Noa on an 8-track in their old truck, the same one we used to park on the corner to sell the elote they grew in our backyard, and remembering mom and I sitting next to each other during this ballet, holding hands, singing softly, and knowing who we wish was still with us here on this Mother Earth.)

Music transcends everything, mi gente, and I can hear the voices of my sweet abuelita and my beloved, silly, stubborn, smart papá singing. I miss them beyond any words I can say as their mija or write as an old journalist. I am so grateful for Beatriz’s caring narrative journalism for bringing me back their voices through JuanGa’s music.

In the days following the publication of Beatriz’s story, she had people in Phoenix, Tucson and as far away as Argentina reach out to her to share how the piece moved them. I’ll share one reader’s notes: “Days after the performance I scoured the web for articles about it, thinking what rave reviews there were going to be. Yours is the first and only one I have seen. I so wanted to congratulate the dancers, the choreographer, the costume designer- everyone on what an incredible performance it was – the synthesis of Mexican music with Classical ballet. It was perfection!”

I hope when you read an in-depth Arizona Luminaria story you also feel the humanity of the people we have the privilege of writing about. I hope you feel a connection that makes you feel closer to people who are our neighbors. They could be our child, our mom, our papá, our sister or our brother. They could be you.

After more than 16 years of reporting and editing in our Southwest borderlands state, I don’t really pick favorite stories. I share about the moments when people living in our communities or people reading their stories chose to make a difference. About the people who trusted us with their life stories. And about local journalists who are dedicated to bringing you local news that helps us better understand each other and discover ways to better support one another.

At Arizona Luminaria, we also work toward breaking down barriers in traditional journalism that has left too many people feeling left out of their own local news stories.

Our team at Arizona Luminaria believes that truly reimagining and rebuilding local journalism to be ethical, equitable and inclusive means truly listening, learning and building trust with communities that have been underrepresented or misrepresented by traditional media. We recognize that gatekeeping, injustice and inequalities in journalism have marginalized communities who want to know that their local news organizations see, hear and fairly and accurately represent their truth and their stories.

Making equitable space for journalists of all backgrounds means more ethical and representative local stories about people of all backgrounds. This year, our caring team of co-founders, Irene McKisson, principal executive, Becky Pallack, operations executive and me; Mike McKisson, visuals; reporters John Washington and Beatriz Limón, our first interns Grace Benally and Kirsten Dorman brought you amazing stories from their own communities. I hope you felt their heart and spunk for local journalism and for your stories. I know I did. I am better because of them.

Making equitable space also means collaborating with local and national journalism partners to bring you voices from news organizations that share our values, like co-publishing with palabra., of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, on stories about Afro-Latinas in Arizona and about how more Americans seeking abortions are looking to Mexico, with The Intercept to shine a national spotlight on an investigation into Yuma-sector border patrol agents, and with Cronkite News, of Arizona PBS and Arizona State University, and with University of Arizona journalism students and professors to publish stories from the next generation of amazing journalists.

One story that I hold tight to is a piece of poetry and analysis about gentrification. Beautifully, hauntingly crafted by brilliant writer and artist Rashaad Thomas, the story stands out because of how Rashaad cut through to the truth of what it feels like watching the steady gutting of your culture, heritage and roots. We received notes from readers in neighborhoods across Arizona cities that are seeing families forced out of communities that are being redeveloped in ways that do not care for the people who came before. One note from Mollie Bryant of Big If True about why journalism needs poetry, sticks with me: “Poetry reflects who we are, our humanity … Shouldn’t journalism do that too?” 

And as the night grew in stars and darkness across the desert, I’d read you a few lines of Rashaad’s piece, and ask you to reflect, por favor, on the rest: “The city calls it urban revitalization. The community calls it gentrification. I call it colonization. Why poetry? Why now? Ask us underground street reporters.”

It’s hard and easy to believe that in our first year, Arizona Luminaria published almost 100 original stories from our staff reporters, student interns and local freelancers. We invested in publishing many of those stories in Spanish, presenting the in-depth pieces right alongside each other to remove the barriers that often silo Spanish and English news and storytelling.

Each time, we publish another story in Spanish on Arizona Luminaria, I think of my own abuela and how happy it would make her to read these stories of our communities in her own language. Mil gracias to all of you who have supported us in this first year, to all of you who have reached out, sharing your own stories about why you love sharing bilingual journalism with your familia and communities, and about why local journalism needs local non-profit news now.

It is our goal in 2023 to continue seeking funding to grow more local nonprofit journalism in Spanish, to grow our team and our collaborations. And because of you and your support, we will continue publishing more stories that light the path so you can take action.

I hope you enjoy hearing from your AZ Lu team about the stories behind some 2022 Arizona Luminaria stories! Abrazos y adelante.

– Dianna M. Náñez, executive editor, co-founder

Environmental stories don’t have to be all doom and gloom

Part of Arizona Luminaria’s mandate from readers is to publish stories that go beyond problems and explore solutions and ways to take action. That is particularly important (and difficult) in stories about climate change. Two stories that overcame The Doom to show how Arizonans are working to find solutions to our local climate issues came from freelancer Johnanna Willett who wrote about a flower farmer in Patagonia who is part of a new grassroots slow flower movement toward sustainable flower growing in the desert and the Spring Seeker program which helps hikers learn how to find and track wild springs in Southern Arizona.

– Irene McKisson

From miracle roadway to wa-wa beds and back — Tucson’s purchase of the No-Tel Motel is part of a revitalization now gaining speed

By far the most-read story we published in 2022 was this delightful tale of the purchase of Tucson’s No-Tel Motel. One of the things I love about Becky’s story is the way it places the news in deep historical context. Journalists sometimes forget that not everyone has lived in the same place for 30 years or been paying close attention to every news story about their city. Reporters are weird animals. This story could have been 500 words about the city of Tucson buying an old rundown motel. Instead, it’s a beautiful ride through Tucson’s history and the rise and fall of some of its most recognizable landmarks.

– Irene McKisson

Often overlooked in the mainstream media, Native American fashion is getting its turn in the spotlight

A stunning visual feast of an article from Grace Benally about Native American fashion is one of my favorite AZ Lu articles of the year. 

Grace writes about Ojibway fashion model, Fern Hoover, and Navajo model, Jaylene Yazzie, as she explores the Indigenous fashion world finally getting its due.

Always a pleasure highlighting other great outlets — especially those punching above their weight. Grace was able to speak with Native Max Magazine founder Kelly Holmes, who told her, “I just want to showcase how talented, how beautiful, and how powerful our people are. We have always been very beautiful and very powerful but we have just been so abused all these years that it’s gotten to a point we were considered invisible.”

It’s a good reminder to remember how many ways there are to tell stories, and fashion is too frequently overlooked as a narrative vehicle, so it’s great to read Grace unpacking the growing trend, and power, of Indigenous fashion.  

– John Washington

The love story behind Phoenix Coqui

It was easy for me to love Kirsten Dorman’s Arizona Luminaria article about the Puerto Rican restaurant, Phoenix Coqui, because it made me salivate. I love Puerto Rican food. (Who doesn’t?) I also love food writing that delves deep into the politics of gastronomy. 

I haven’t had a chance to eat at Phoenix Coqui yet, but it’s first on my list for my next trip to Phoenix. 

Co-owners and fiances Alexis Carbajal and Juan Ayala are “among the more than 59,000, or nearly one in four, Latinx or Hispanic business owners in Phoenix,” Kirsten reports. 

“Food is a universal language. It just brings us all together,” Alexis says. “From the get-go, we would have people from all different walks of life. Different cultures, different backgrounds. After years of cooking and selling out of a cooler and then a food truck, they opened a permanent restaurant late last winter. 

In both communities, Alexis points out, family is a big factor. Many Latino cultures hold family in high regard, and many LGBTQ+ circles act as found families when biological ones are not accepting. Kirsten captures this lovely story of a couple building a restaurant, and a community, in Phoenix.

– John Washington

When I first pitched The love story behind Phoenix Coqui, it was because I felt a sense of loneliness. There is a longing, and almost an ache that comes from being part of a diaspora on its own.  

Every time someone asks me why I chose to write this story, the simple answer is: Because it’s so close to my heart. 

Before I moved to Arizona roughly three years ago, I had always known several other Boricuas in my area. Suddenly, I was una Boricua en el desierto. 

Latinos share so much between our cultures, which is beautiful. There are also many things that distinguish us from each other. Struggling to find guava paste for a recipe to cure my homesickness was one of my first realizations of just how different the Latino/a/x culture in Arizona is.  

One thing I have always admired about la cultura Mexicana that I’ve seen while living here, is how connected Mexicanos can be to their culture, their ancestors, their roots. It’s a craving that part of me suspects is in all of us.   

When I originally pitched covering Phoenix Coqui in a different newsroom, the question was essentially: “Well, wouldn’t it be much better to cover a local Mexican place? What’s the difference? Why does it have to be Puerto Rican?”  

David Rodish, my then-classmate, was on board almost immediately and contributed so much to the reporting process. His thoughtful questions and fresh perspective helped eventually bring the story I was able to put together for Arizona Luminaria into reality. I am very grateful to him, and to Alexis and Juan for allowing me to help tell their beautiful love and work life story.  

It’s somewhat rare for us to get the chance to tell joyful stories about ourselves, ourselves; as Latinos, and as members of the queer community. Getting to do so, and in a way that felt authentic to myself as a person and reporter, reinvigorated me. This story encapsulates so much of what I set out to do as a reporter, as a writer, and as a person. Sharing it with the people I care about, and with the community, is something I will always be exceptionally grateful for.

– Kirsten Dorman

Arizona’s anti-immigrant history turns the “Grito” and celebrations of Mexican Independence Day political

Uno de los mejores artículos de este primer año de AZ Lu fue uno que me sorprendió. Se supondría que un artículo sobre el “grito” mexicano, celebrando la independencia de nuestro país vecino, sería algo sencillo, directo. Pero en las manos de Beatriz, no hay que bajar la guardia. 

One of the best signs of a terrific reporter is that even simple stories reveal to them, and to their readers, the many layers of complexity that are contained in all human endeavor. The fact that celebrating Mexican Independence Day in Phoenix sparked some controversy is not surprising. What’s surprising is where the controversy came from. 

Jorge Mendoza Yescas, the consul general of México in Phoenix, in celebrating the fact that Sept. 16 would be celebrated in Phoenix, described Mexican immigrants as people who “go from home to work and then still go to church on Sundays.” Mendoza then issued a warning: “let’s maintain that image with the authorities.”

Beatriz neatly picks apart that patronizing and reductive view of Mexican immigrants. She does so by listening to an array of voices, including Sen. Martín Quezada, the son of Mexican immigrants and a Democrat representing Glendale and parts of Phoenix, as well as Viridiana Hernández, founder of Phoenix-based Poder in Action. 

“I am Latino, my mother emigrated from México and I am a lawyer,” Quezada said. “We are lawyers, scientists, doctors, we are more than labor force. We are more than workers who go from home to work and from home to church.”

Overall, a lovely and important article taking a public official to task for what could have easily been a simple regurgitation and publication of his comment. It’s the kind of work that an experienced and perceptive journalist like Beatriz does best — and a shining example of AZ Lu’s approach to every article we write. 

– John Washington

Tiny home, big impact: New grant helps low-income Tucson homeowners get started building casitas

Part of this story’s headline reflects something that is also true of Arizona Luminaria; tiny newsroom, big impact.  

The core of this story also reflects that philosophy. Reading Sharayah’s story, it almost felt as though I had met her before. Sharayah is a woman on a mission. Not just for herself, but for others, too. There is so much about this story that reaches into the past for context, views current challenges through the lens of solutions, and looks toward the future with hope.  

Becky’s skills as a reporter and talent as a writer shine through in that she seamlessly blends this very personal story with context of the bigger issue. Providing news about affordable housing in a way that addresses the needs of specific communities, like for the older barrios and for BIPOC neighborhoods of Tucson she writes about, is a complex and colossal topic to untangle.  

Taking a look through the lens of one solution and one person, as Becky does with this story, brings the discussion back down to earth.  The list of resources on how to start a casita project puts tools and resources in readers’ hands.  Arming them with information on where the funding for casitas grants comes from, how the program works, and why it matters to people like Sharayah puts power in readers’ hands, too. 

It’s a special blend of delivering important, actionable information without losing the personal touch that I think AZ Luminaria is known for (or should be, at least).

– Kirsten Dorman

New monochromatic mural adds historic representation for Indigenous Peoples Day in Arizona

Beginning my internship with AZ Luminaria I wanted to write stories that matter to me, because if they mattered to me, they mattered to at least one other person and that’s all I wanted to do with my writing. Connect with others.

Hearing about the new Indigenous Peoples Day Festival happening in Phoenix, it made me feel so happy because growing up I never had a big festival or anything like it within a big public space, such as downtown Phoenix and I thought it was amazing! I wanted to write about the needed representation within big spaces like Roosevelt Row or areas that represent such a diverse group of people and how it’s celebrating the people that came before them.

I had a great time interviewing Eunique and J Valley because they showed me what it felt like putting so much work and love into the mural they painted and you can see how much love was put into it. It’s almost like how much work and passion I want to incorporate into my writing.

– Grace Benally

‘Unconstitutional hole’: How Pima County jail deaths  — one recently ruled a homicide — are part of a grim pattern

I remember when John had talked about the increasing number of people dying within jail and how no one had really covered it. I thought surely someone in a major news organization would cover it because it is really concerning that people are being treated this way, but no one did. Seeing John talk about how awful it is and telling us how it was to get the information he did, it took so much dedication and passion to get such a story out like he did.

Reading the finished product made me feel so many emotions because of how detailed and well written John had described every little detail to make the readers feel the rage that Melissa Welch was feeling as she marched down Fourth Avenue.

The justice that was needed was well said throughout John’s story and I hope that it comes to light with how concerning these cases are without being heard by a wide audience.

– Grace Benally

Border Patrol agents are trashing Sikh asylum-seekers’ turbans 

En mi opinión, un buen periodista debe tener un corazón bondadoso y John tiene uno muy grande, lo ha demostrado al escribir sobre temas que son sensibles, temas que quizás pasen desapercibidos para otros reporteros, pero no es el caso de John, quien ha sabido tocar las fibras más profundas, con temas que van desde las voces que se levantaron en contra de la penalización al aborto, las negligencias en la cárcel del Condado de Pima, hasta el trato denigrante que reciben los inmigrantes por las autoridades migratorias.

Escribir sobre el respeto y la dignidad que merecen los inmigrantes es esencial en estos tiempos donde en ocasiones se deshumanizan otras culturas y razas. Quizás para algunas personas cubrirse la cabeza es intrascendente, pero para los solicitantes de asilo sij los turbantes son piezas sagradas con connotación espiritual, y John supo plasmar la importancia de respetar otras creencias y culturas exhibiendo los abusos por parte de las autoridades migratorias en una serie de historias que iniciaron con el artículo titulado “Border Patrol agents are trashing Sikh asylum-seekers’ turbans.”

Pero su trabajo fue más allá, logrando que la Oficina de Aduanas y Protección Fronteriza de EE. UU., emitiera una nueva guía provisional que instruye a los agentes a dejar de quitar, confiscar y tirar innecesariamente los turbantes de los solicitantes de asilo sij.  Un ejemplo de periodismo con corazón, un trabajo que remueve la conciencia y logra cambios. Sin duda este trabajo de seguimiento se encuentra entre mis favoritos, entre otros tantos. 

– Beatriz Limón

We learned about the experiences of Sikh refugees crossing the border to ask for asylum in Yuma, where Border Patrol agents would require them to remove and throw away their religious headwear — a humiliating situation. We wouldn’t know about this without the deep-dive reporting by John Washington in August and September. These stories were impactful in more ways than one, and ultimately the reporting led to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency changing its policy to protect the religious and civil rights of Sikh refugees. 

– Becky Pallack

How the city of Tolleson and its school superintendent represent the strength of Arizona’s Latino heritage

La primera vez que conocí a Lupita Hightower me llamó la atención su amabilidad, era el primer encuentro que teníamos en un evento público, y sin embargo conversó conmigo como si me conociera de hace mucho tiempo. Me contó sobre su trabajo al frente del Distrito Escolar Primario de Tolleson, ubicado en una pequeña ciudad habitada en su mayoría por inmigrantes mexicanos.

Mis años en el oficio de periodista me hicieron suponer que detrás de esa mujer de raíces mexicanas, había una interesante historia, y no me equivoqué.  En Tolleson está plasmada una larga lucha por los derechos de la educación igualitaria en las aulas escolares. Esa lucha la han venido librando generaciones tras generaciones de estudiantes latinos.

En particular me cautivó la historia de Lupita, una niña inmigrante que llegó a Arizona sin conocer el idioma, y pese a enfrentar un sin fin de barreras que podrían haber derribado al más fuerte, demostró que con perseverancia, educación y llevando en alto su identidad, se pueden lograr grandes cambios.

Antes de iniciar la larga entrevista con Lupita, quien fue el eje principal de este reportaje, mientras esperaba en la recepción del Distrito Escolar Tolleson, observé un cuadro de colores tenues colgado en la pared pálida. Lo había pintado uno de los estudiantes, y decía lo siguiente:

 “Soy un niño con esperanza. Soy talentoso, inteligente y capaz de tener éxito. Tengo sueños para el futuro y escalaré para alcanzar esas metas y sueños todos los días. Todos los niños son capaces de tener éxito. ¡Sin excepciones!”.

En ese momento sentí que estaba por escribir una gran historia.

– Beatriz Limón

Intensifying, increasing wildfires put Arizona mountain towns like Crown King on edge as feds review protocols

One of my favorite stories of the year was one that gave me chills. Griffin Riley’s story about the mountain town of Crown King left me feeling like Arizona is one careless spark away from a wildfire disaster. But it also helped me remember there are a lot of smart, caring, prepared people who are trying to solve this problem. Griffin’s photos made me appreciate these people even more.

– Becky Pallack

Three stories about community collaborations

In my own reporting this year, I loved working on stories that showed off some of the community collaborations that make Tucson special. One was about Arizona Stitch lab, which is part factory, part school, part entrepreneurship hub that brought together many partners to meet their workforce needs. Another was about the BIPOC Loan Fund, which is Arizona’s first character-based lending program and an experiment in change for financial systems with a history of under-serving and discriminating against people of color. Yet another was about a collaboration between university scientists and state agencies to solve some of our state’s biggest and most urgent problems, like Valley fever. So much of the news we all read shows us examples of division and fighting, but these stories about collaborators and problem solvers make me feel optimistic about 2023 and beyond. 

– Becky Pallack

Dianna M. Náñez

Dianna Náñez is Arizona Luminaria's Executive Editor and co-founder. She is an investigative journalist, narrative writer/editor and storytelling coach whose story of Indigenous and borderlands communities...