For the first time ever, Texas will almost certainly send a Latina to Congress this fall. Her name is Veronica Escobar, and she’s running for Congress in Texas’ 16th congressional district, which encompasses the border city of El Paso and its surrounding areas. It is a deeply blue district, where 80% of the voting population is Latinx, which hasn’t elected a Republican in 55 years. This means that much like it is for another history-making Latina candidate, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, November’s election will mostly be a formality in Escobar’s path to Washington.
Escobar tells Refinery29 that though she’s dedicated her life to public service, she never thought she’d run for Congress. But after the 2016 election, she saw no other choice but to act. “I thought, ‘There are really horrible things happening in our country right now and I would not be able to live with myself if I didn't do everything possible to stand up against it,” she says.
As a long-time county judge in a border town, she’s witnessed first-hand the effects of both the failure of previous administrations to pass comprehensive immigration reform as well as Trump administration’s immigration crackdown. El Paso is on the front lines of the fight over the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy that separated thousands of minors from their parents at the US-Mexico border and has increased the number of detainees by 55% in the district.
Last month, federal officials unveiled plans for the construction of President Donald Trump’s border wall in the Chihuahuita neighborhood of El Paso, while a 20-mile fence was announced last April for the nearby town of Santa Teresa, New Mexico. Both announcements unsettled El Pasoans, who’ve long enjoyed annual cross-border multicultural celebrations and economic trade. Federal authorities say El Paso Border Patrol sector, which includes parts of New Mexico, has seen an increase of 61% in undocumented entries.
But Escobar says the so-called “immigrant crisis” is not real. In an op-ed for the New York Times, she defended El Paso’s immigrant communities, saying they contribute over $980 million in taxes and have a spending power of $3.1 billion. “To hear it from the White House, America’s southern border is a war zone. Things look a lot different up close,” she wrote.
The intense attention on immigration issues, as well as the ongoing hateful rhetoric aimed at Mexican-Americans and other Latinx immigrants, is exactly why Escobar feels someone with her background is needed, desperately, in Congress right now.
Currently Latinxs make up 40% of the population in Texas, and that number is only growing, with the Hispanic community expected to become the largest demographic in the state by 2022. And yet the state’s only sent 18 Latinos to serve in Congress, including current incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz. “I feel like because I have this deep connection to our values and the opportunities and vibrancy that we represent for the rest of the country I feel hopeful about helping build legislation and change minds, have people come to appreciate what we represent to America,” she says.
I remember thinking, 'Even if I lose, it is important for me to at least try and to participate in this way.'
Born in El Paso, Escobar describes growing up in West Texas as a “magical” time. Her mother was born in the United States but grew up in Chihuahua, Mexico, which is just across the border from El Paso. Her father’s family, who owned a dairy farm, had been established in El Paso for over 100 years. She recalls taking day trips to Juarez as a kid, where she’d stroll the food market with her mother, while her brothers accompanied their dad to get haircuts. Juarez, says Escobar, was just an extension of El Paso.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), Escobar moved to New York City to pursue a master’s degree in English at New York University. When she returned home two years later, Escobar says El Paso was plagued with an “alarming xenophobia” she’d never witnessed before.
In 1993, Silvestre Reyes, the country’s first Latino US Border Patrol Sector Chief, had implemented “Operation Hold the Line,” which increased the presence of Border Patrol in West Texas to reduce crime and drug trade, and proposed the construction of a border wall. Her anger toward Reyes’s rhetoric drew her to join the non-profit Border Rights Coalition as a part-time coordinator in 1994, and later volunteer on her first political campaign in 1996, supporting Reyes’ opponent in a race for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Although she’d originally planned to stay in El Paso for only a year, Escobar developed a passion for activism she couldn’t resist and renounced her dream of pursuing a PhD, turning to politics instead. “I understood there was a place for me here where I could do some good and put my values to work in a way that is important a satisfying and part of something bigger,” Escobar tells Refinery29.
Still, she stayed behind-the-scenes for nearly 10 years, holding a full-time faculty position at the University of Texas at El Paso, volunteering on multiple local political campaigns, and later serving as Communications Director for Mayor Raymond Caballero from 2001 to 2005. It was Caballero who finally convinced Escobar she’d be a perfect fit to serve the local county government. “He said something to me that was very powerful. He said, 'Look, I know you help candidates but I just don't know how you can ask other people to do something that you are not willing to do.' And I was like, ‘Ouch’! I remember thinking, 'Even if I lose, it is important for me to at least try and to participate in this way,” she recalls.
In 2006, Escobar ran for county commissioner in El Paso, becoming the only woman in a five-person governing body, and eventually serving as county judge for two terms. Her work helped Escobar shape a legacy within local government, completing El Paso’s first children’s hospital, extending health care benefits to domestic partners for LGBTQ county employees, and denouncing corruption by other Democrats in El Paso.
But then, when Trump won the 2016 election, Escobar feared once again for her border community, as she did when she first moved back to El Paso in the 1990s.
If you have an expectation for a certain type of governance, you better be able to step up and provide it. You can't depend on somebody else.
This time, the problem was coming from the outside, and so Escobar knew the thing to do was meet it at its source. After Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who currently represents the 16th district, announced he would step down from the seat in order to challenge Sen. Ted Cruz, she saw her opportunity to do so — though at first she second-guessed whether she could really do it.
To run, she would have to leave her current job, meaning her family would need to operate on their savings for at least a year, while her two kids were still in college. She says one of her biggest fears was losing the race and having to start from scratch in her career as a public servant. “It's a lot harder for women to walk away from their profession and walk back into it,” Escobar says. “For men, they are [considered] far more experienced after they have done something like that. But for women, you're basically leaving a space that you clawed your way to getting to.”
But ultimately, she felt she had to try. "If you have an expectation for a certain type of governance, you better be able to step up and provide it. You can't depend on somebody else," she says.
In March of this year, Escobar won the Democratic nomination for Congress with over 60% of the vote, defeating front-runner Dori Fenenbock, a former board president for the El Paso Independent School District. It was her determination to stand up for the border against bad stereotypes and cruel policies that Escobar says won her the Democratic nomination. “I am excited about the opportunities that border communities like mine represent. I try to be a truth teller to challenge the myths that are being told in places like Washington D.C. about us,” she says.
When asked now, just weeks from when it becomes official, why she’s the best choice for El Paso, Escobar says her lifelong commitment to her hometown speaks for itself. She says she understands the community with all of its cultural, political, and economic diversity and is able to target their needs because she understands her district is not a monolith.
“We can't be taken for granted. Many of our minority communities have felt locked out of the system and ignored and under appreciated,” she says. “We have a racist in the Oval Office that is targeting immigrant communities and border communities, and we need candidates who are willing to speak to that, who are willing to call it out.”