Arizona state Rep. Arlando Teller says he was ecstatic when the Biden campaign asked him to introduce Cher at an Oct. 25 campaign fundraiser in Phoenix.
“I was actually trying to be calm,” Teller told the Washington Blade a few weeks later during a Zoom interview. “Inside I was a screaming queen, just giddy as all get about.”
Teller said the campaign did not tell him the fundraiser’s location until an hour before it took place. Teller nevertheless described his experience with Cher as “amazing.”
“I opened for Cher,” Teller joked.
Teller is one of six openly gay members of the Arizona Legislature.
He was born and raised in Chinle, a town in northeastern Arizona that is in the Navajo Nation. Teller began the interview by formally introducing himself in Navajo.
“I am 100 percent Navajo and I have four clans,” said Teller. “What that clan system does is establishes who I am, where I come from and the family lineage that I come from as well.”
He also noted in his introduction the places from which his parents come.
“That also further allows other Navajos who have never met me to know where I come from and then establishes a kinship,” said Teller. “I could then be someone’s son, or grandson or father or grandfather, so that establishes the way we communicate with each other in Navajo.”
Teller’s mother and grandparents raised him after his father died from a heart attack when he was 5-years-old. Teller’s paternal grandfather was a Code Talker who used their language to help the Allies secretly communicate during World War II.
“His legacy is definitely part of my continued effort to ensure that family vote, they express their rights,” said Teller. “So, it is very important for my family to share with other members of the community the importance of what my grandfather had to do using our language.”
Teller attended public schools in the Navajo Nation before he enrolled at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. Teller worked at two airports before he accepted a job at the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).
He lived in San Francisco for a decade before he returned to the Navajo Nation 11 years ago. Teller said he was “in a sincere, committed relationship and that happened to dissolve.”
“My grandmother, who was my foundation, my everything, had passed on,” he told the Blade.
“So, a lot of stuff just seemed to crescendo into a situation at that time and I loved living there. I loved my friends. We’re still friends to this day and I had a yearning to come home, but I never really expressed that.”
Teller said he only came out to his mother when he was breaking up with his partner.
“Mom’s a social worker, very clinical, and so the conversation was for the first eight minutes, literally eight minutes, it was all about her, how dare you do this to me! How could you hide this from me? And rightfully so,” he told the Blade. “So, I let her vent and then I said, ‘Hi Mom, this situation is about me, your son. Not about you, and I need your help.’”
Teller said he heard his mother gasp and after a few seconds she said, “I’m sorry you’re going through this. I’m really sorry you’re dealing with this way up there. This is what you need to do and she went into clinical mode right away: Boom, boom, boom, boom … you need to write this down right now.”
He told the Blade his mother one day called him at his Caltrans office and told him she was at Oakland International Airport. Teller picked her up and she told him to bring her to his boss who he described as a “second mother.” He said his mother and his boss held hands and looked at each other before she said, “I accept your resignation.”
“I said thank you for taking care of my son and then she said you can have your son back,” his mother told him.
Teller said his mother then told him as they drove on Interstate 5 that it is “time for you to come home” and “use all that you have experienced, all that you know and you have been for years putting it all in a basket, all that knowledge.”
“She says I need you to come home, pour it on the ground and help us get out of the mud,” recalled Teller.
Teller said a medicine man performed a traditional cleansing ceremony before he entered his family’s home. Teller told the Blade that his uncles and family elders were in attendance, and his mother said in front of them that she wanted to know what his future plans were.
“I want to know what my son is going to bring back home,” she said.
Teller said he would be working with the Navajo Division of Transportation within a year and within two years he would become a manager and make himself “available for the leadership of tribal, state and federal leaders.” One of Teller’s uncles challenged his assertion.
“I said, with all due respect uncle … those are the people that make decisions that affect us at the home level,” recalled Teller. “When they meet me and when I meet them I will remind them that they cannot forget about us. They cannot forget that some of us in this room don’t have running water or electricity, that some of us have to drive through muddy roads to get to school, hospital or church or to see other family members.”
“Some of us have to fight for education,” he added. “That’s why I want to meet them because I want them to remember the difficulty of everyday living that we go through.”
Teller did get a job with the Navajo DOT and became the manager of its Department of Airports Management. Teller later became Navajo DOT’s deputy director.
Former Arizona state Sen. Jack Jackson, Jr., a gay Navajo man, became one of Teller’s mentors. Teller also said he befriended U.S. Reps. Ruben Gallego and Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.) and U.S. Sen.-elect Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and other tribal leaders.
“And so, I decided to run,” said Teller, who was also a member of the Arizona State Transportation Board. “I decided to utilize my professional expertise in transportation, in addressing the needs of Arizona, of rural Arizona.”
Teller has represented the 7th District in the Arizona House of Representatives since his 2018 election. He won re-election last month.
“The main variable in my personal professional equation is not forgetting where I come from, not forgetting that I have four clans, not forgetting that my grandfather went to war and used his language, my language, to help beat the enemy and not forgetting the fact that my mother was a single parent and how she was able to manage funds,” Teller told the Blade.
Coronavirus continues to ravage Navajo Nation
The Blade spoke with Teller eight days after the Associated Press declared President-elect Biden won Arizona. The interview also took place as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the Navajo Nation.
Navajo Department of Health notes as of Monday there were 19,608 confirmed coronavirus cases in the Navajo Nation. Statistics also indicate the pandemic has killed 720 people.
The Navajo Nation’s population in the 2010 Census was 173,667.
Teller noted the Navajo Nation’s current unemployment rate is around 70 percent because the pandemic has “just absolutely gutted the economy and people working.” Teller said many people in the Navajo Nation are struggling with mental health issues.
He said his mother one day brought donated food to a “poverty-stricken family” who lived in a rundown home. Teller told the Blade that one of her clients was living in a car sitting on cinder blocks because her mother and grandmother who lived with her had coronavirus.
“I can’t go to their houses, so I’m out here,” the client told Teller’s mother. “I don’t want to get sick.”
“My mom saw the desperation in that client’s eyes,” said Teller.
The client died by suicide four days after Teller’s mother visited her.
“The desperation is that bad,” said Teller. “My mom last week when she was talking with me and my sister said I wish I could have done more. I knew something was wrong and she hung herself. I’m like, ‘oh my God.’ That bothers her. It bothers me.”
Teller described the Navajo Nation — which encompasses northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico and southern Utah — as “pulsating in a red COVID map.” Teller said the lack of infrastructure, access to running water and electricity and broadband internet have only exacerbated the pandemic’s impact.
“Some folks have been defeated, spiritually defeated and that’s what this COVID has done to some families,” he told the Blade. “Other families are holding strong. That’s great. We still need resources. We still need PPE (personal protective equipment.) Winter’s upon us. What does that mean? It means that folks that didn’t get any firewood or coal or even prepare for the winter are going to have a dark winter. It gets really cold up north, in northern Arizona.”
The pandemic also prompted Teller to end public events for his re-election campaign.
“My family were ready to go walk parades, go to country fairs, and so forth, but I’m like, ‘No we can’t do that. I love you guys too much and I’m not going to allow the exposure to happen in my own family,’” he said.
Less than 50 people attended the Biden fundraiser at which Teller introduced Cher. The event took place outside, and the campaign required attendees to wear masks and did not allow them to leave their seats once they arrived.
The Navajo Times newspaper reported Teller on Nov. 25 tested positive for coronavirus after he checked himself into a hospital in Chinle. Teller said he suspects he contracted the virus while he was in Phoenix.
Teller remains in the hospital. He tweeted on Dec. 7 that his mother had died.
“ShíMa (the Navajo word for mother), you were called home to be with the angels,” said Teller in a tweet that included pictures of his mother. “Your light and love is cherished and remembered. Journey on, ShíMa, you have equipped us with your teachings and prayers.”
Teller’s mother contracted the coronavirus and died in the same hospital where he continues to recover. Her funeral took place on Dec. 9.