Noemi Tungüi Is a Youthful Force for Change

Now, at only 26, Noemi Tungüi has used her family’s history to guide her as she establishes herself as a voice for indigenous peoples of the Americas.


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Photo by Lance Yamamoto

Noemi Tungüi’s grandmother, like her, a proud Purépecha woman, still dresses in the traditional ways, and speaks the language fluently. She was hired to re-teach Purépecha to local schools in the Michoacán region of Mexico, where the Purépecha trace their history at least as far back as the Aztecs, with whom they were rivals.

Now, at only 26, Tungüi has used her family’s history to guide her as she establishes herself as a voice for indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Her family came north when Tungüi was 3, and she was raised in Oxnard, where her childhood friend Image Meneses remembers her as always having embraced her family’s story. “It’s not something you see often, when kids just want to fit in,” she said. Tungüi describes her father as a “cowboy,” and said she thought she’d grow up to be a rodeo performer.

But by her junior year in high school, when she became a permanent resident of the United State, she was engaged in Chicano studies. She and Meneses competed on their school’s debate team. At Cal State University, Northridge, she joined a multicultural society, where she met students whose families had originated from throughout the Americas. Her interest in feminism awakened, she joined various performances of The Vagina Monologues.

“I was a young, brown woman, and most of all, I wanted to vote,” she said. Although, she added, “I didn’t see myself as a political person at the time.” It was while volunteering for the first Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, traveling to Nevada and Arizona to canvass with other young people, that her leadership qualities blossomed. “I got to see people standing in line for the first time to vote, how some had to leave to take care of their families, how voting centers were being closed down in voter suppression. It was an injustice,” she said.

She met Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva at the Standing Rock protests and became an intern in his Washington, D.C., office. “I was becoming braver and braver about talking to politicians,” she said. “Anytime I met one in an elevator, I would lobby them.”

Returning to California, she interned and then became an organizer at nonprofit Food & Water Watch, and it was through that organization that she first moved to the Bay Area in 2017 as an organizer for its Oakland office.

As she settled into the Oakland community, she met longtime local Native American activist Pennie Opal Plant, one of the “grandmother founders” of Idle No More SF Bay. 2019, the founders had decided, would be the year of the Intergenerational Project, in which the grandmothers would be “sharing and grounding our collective skills, experiences as activists, and wisdom with our younger members in order for them to take the lead in 2020,” said Opal Plant. In October 2019, Tungüi attended a four-day retreat as part of this project.

“We had no idea how exceptional she was until we were able to get to know her much better during [the] retreat,” Opal Plant said. “She brings her intelligence and quiet power to the climate/environmental justice movement. We are grateful that she was led to join Idle No More SF Bay.”

“I was amazed to see such powerful, fearless women,” said Tungüi. She has participated with Idle No More in numerous activities since the retreat, including a blockade at the ICE building in San Francisco, at which she spoke. “Noemi shared her own family’s struggles in migrating from Mexico to California. She was very articulate and powerful,” said Opal Plant.

Tungüi was also part of Idle No More’s Oily Wells Fargo action, in which participants protesting the bank’s fossil fuel investments walked in peaceful prayer for 34 miles from Palo Alto to Wells Fargo’s San Francisco headquarters. “The Idle No More grandmothers had asked me to help lead the peaceful prayer walk during one of the days, and so I did,” she said.

In March 2019, Tungüi began work with Oakland’s Native American Health Center’s Community Wellness Department. A two-year grant, funded by an anonymous donor, has enabled the center to establish trauma relief programs for both students and staff at the United for Success Academy on 35th Avenue and Madison Park Academy on Capistrano Drive. Tungüi, who majored in psychology and trained as a behavior therapist, explained that although both academies are “very vibrant schools,” they also function in communities where violence is a fact of life for many.

Her work there is diverse: bringing a filmmaking clubs for girls and non-binary students, assisting with a staff “creative healing” class, providing de-escalation tactics that can be used to defuse potentially violent situations in classrooms, hallways, and lunchrooms. The program brought back one school's food pantry site as well as a self-defense class for mothers taught in Spanish.

Ideally, Tungüi said, she’d like to continue her work with the Native American Health Center, taking what she is learning about community needs “and turning it into action. I was offered postings to work in political campaigns, but working for a politician is not the boldest thing to do,” she said.

Not that she plans to give up political action by any means. In 2016, she attended a women’s gathering in Chiapas, which had expected 500 attendees. Seven thousand showed up. “Women from around the world showed up to exchange knowledge about issues we are fighting,” she said. She is a Bay Area co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, a parnter of youth climate crisis organization Youth vs. Apocalypse, and is an active member of the Service Employees International Union 1021, which is working to put the “Schools and Communities Initiative” on the state’s 2020 ballot.

“One of the most memorable actions I participated in was 2019’s Youth Global Climate Strike,” Tungüi said. “I joined INM members and indigenous Chief Ninawa Huni Kui from Brazil on stage as he spoke to the sea of youth about the need for no more carbon-based systems.” 

“Our youngsters are inheriting a world that is quickly becoming unsustainable,” said Opal Plant. “It is vital for our younger members to learn that they have a voice and how important it is to use that voice at this time.”

Yet Tungüi has a less-serious side. She loves music and loves to dance. Her mother enjoys merengue dancing, and she does, too, along with salsa and cumbia. “I love to twirl,” said, noting that her work and interests are often intense, and call for making time for self-care.

Meneses said it was obvious Tungüi was destined to make an impact in the world. “I had no idea people like us could be involved in making change until seeing her do it.” And Tungüi has retained her drive and enthusiasm while staying grounded, her childhood friend said proudly. “She is not afraid to be vocal, but she doesn’t pretend to be anything she isn’t. She is strong — but always relatable.”

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