Of the 24 Latinos serving in Congress, only seven are women, according to figures from the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed officials (NALEO). We spoke to Latina elected officials in two big Latino states, California and Texas, and they told us the reasons for this phenomenon could be boiled down to three main issues: economics, organization and culture—but that none of these should be impossible barriers.
“You need to plan, plot, strategize — because it isn’t going to just happen,” said Gloria Molina, current Los Angeles County Supervisor, former LA councilwoman and assembly member. Molina said that California’s four Latina congresswomen came to office through strategic organization over the course of several years, and after pushing Latinas to run for the state legislature. In addition to California’s four Latina representatives, one each is from Florida, New York and Washington state.
Interestingly, although California’s population of 14 million Latinos and Texas’ 9.4 million come out to roughly 38% of each state’s population, Texas has never had a single Latina congresswoman. Recently, the state’s best hope for one—Sylvia Romo in the San Antonio-based and largely minority 35th district of Texas—lost the Democratic primary to Austin Congressman Lloyd Doggett. Before Doggett entered the race, Romo seemed a shoo-in; however conversations with Latinas in both states illustrate the many factors involved in creating Latina congresswomen.
Economics is a big factor. California’s full-time legislature allows women to serve without considering finances, whereas in Texas the part-time legislature only pays $600 a month. And, that’s if you pass on the health care plan, which costs $322 a month, said Texas State Sen. Leticia Van De Putte (D-San Antonio), who’s been active in the state legislature since the 1990s. For Latinas who are not independently wealthy looking to serve in Texas, there are few options.
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“The difference between California and Texas is that I don’t know many Latinas that are independently wealthy, [such] that they can afford to serve in the legislature,” Van de Putte said by way of explaining the differences in electing Latinas to Congress.
Van de Putte, a pharmacist, said her experience of coming into office as the owner of pharmacies and medical clinics was an outlier: she could afford to hire help when she left for legislative business in Austin. Since, though, she has sold her businesses, works part-time and still loses potential income every year by spending her time representing the 880,000 people in her district, instead of working.
“Most people in the [Texas State] Senate are pretty damn well off,” she said.
This issue of economics is tightly entwined with another issue—education. Even if a woman is educated, there’s no guarantee she will have the political skills to run for office—or access the mentorship to help her learn. “It is my belief that the primary reason more Hispanic women do not run for office is that they lack some of the key skills,” said Texas State Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo). As the first Mexican American woman in the state senate, Zaffirini said the support of friends, family—and especially her husband—was vital to her success.
“[Latina candidates] must develop fundraising and organizing skills to engage successfully as candidates at the state, local, and national levels, while ensuring the support of their families and friends,” she said.
A cultural component to this political education is potent, something that was at the forefront in interviews with these Latina politicos. Molina called it “assertiveness;” Zaffirini said she experienced “prejudice about my gender” and Van de Putte called it “The Burnt Tortilla Syndrome,” characterized by humility.
“‘Qué sea humilde,’ that was a part of my upbringing. We are not supposed to be boastful, you are not supposed to toot your own horn. The Burnt Tortilla Syndrome: when a tortilla gets a little tostadita, who eats it? The mother does, she serves everyone else the tortillas that come out perfect,” Van de Putte explained. “It’s a beautiful part of our culture, [but] ‘Qué sea humilde’ doesn’t cut it when you are trying to run for office and you are trying to solicit people to donate to your own campaign.”
The women we interviewed stated explicitly that asking for exactly what they wanted, then working for it over—or despite—the objections of others was how they finally achieved their political goals. Molina said, “There has to be very aggressive action” in order to get women to participate. Zaffirini said she developed a sense of humor after being asked by an elderly man on her first run, “You are running for the Senate? Everyone knows women should stay home to clean house.” (Her reply was that she was going to “mop up in November.”)
Van de Putte said that running for office when she had six children under the age of 10 helped her get over her cultural proclivities “real quickly.” The toughest questions she got on the campaign trail were not from men—but other Latinas: Who is going to take care of your children while you are campaigning?
“I went through this whole guilt trip where I had to leave my baby with a sitter because I had to work,” she said, noting that a lot has changed since. “I think we are changing how we perceive legislators, and our role as mothers. I will tell people ‘I’m so sorry, it’s my children, I have to take this call.’ We are changing the paradigm.”
And part of that change will be challenging Latino men for political power. For example, in Texas when longtime Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez retired, his son Charles ran to take over the seat. Whereas in California, when former Representative Ed Roybal stepped down, his daughter Lucille Roybal-Allard occupied his former seat. Latinas in Texas need to challenge their male counterparts for political office, Molina said, “It does take a very aggressive and brazen approach because the men in our community, are ready to go—but it’s like a strategy, like anything else.”
The macro part of that strategy is electing Latinas to citywide and statewide offices so they gain the experience they need to pursue an office at the federal level. Another component is the organization needed to create organizations to mentor Latinas to run for these offices. And the most basic, and perhaps most difficult part, seems to be the individual component of challenging perceptions and stereotypes and deciding that Congress isn’t just for men—be they Latinos or not.