Long before Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez graced the cover of Vanity Fair, trailblazing Latina politicians have spent decades making indelible marks in our political landscape. In 1946, Felisa Rincón de Gautier became the first woman mayor of a capital city in the Americas when she was elected as mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Half a century later, in 1989, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was the first Latina to serve in the U.S. Congress. Nearly three decades later, in 2017, Catherine Cortez Masto became the first Latina U.S. Senator and, just two years after that, Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman to serve in Congress.
While it is worth celebrating these important firsts, Latinas remain underrepresented in the candidate pools for the U.S. House and Senate, even though they represent 9.1% of the U.S. population. “There are 60 million Latinos in the United States. Despite being 18% of the total population, Latino elected officials are only 1% of our government,” Mayra Macías, Executive Director of the Latino Victory Fund, told Refinery29. “It's vital to level this glaring disparity. Our government must reflect the country it represents.”
It’s not surprising that a third of young Latinx registered voters aren’t able to name one politician who goes out of their way to support their community. “That’s a devastating statistic,” Paola Ramos, political contributor and author of FINDING LATINX: In Search of the Voices Redefining Latino Identity, told Refinery29. “In the last few years, we’ve recognized something important: We need to take matters into our own hands.”
There are signs that this is exactly what’s happening: Latinx folks are showing up for themselves by running for office and creating opportunities for other Latinx people to make history up and down the ballot in November. A record-breaking number of Latinas are running for congressional office this election cycle. There are 75 Latina congressional candidates for the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate, including those who may have lost their primary elections. This is the largest number of Latinas to run in both parties in a single election year.
With that, Latinas have already made history during the 2020 election. Ahead, we highlighted a few of the Latinas who are running this year.
This year, Latinas are running for U.S. House seats in Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, and Kansas — none of which have ever sent a Latina to Congress. Should Candace Valenzuela win in Texas’ 24th District, she’ll be the first Afro-Latina in Congress. Valenzuela was homeless as a child and is outspoken about the importance of childhood education as a means to combat the school-to-prison pipeline. “Our representative in Congress wasn’t fighting for us, so I stepped up to run for this community,” she told Refinery29.
Teresa Leger Fernandez
Teresa Leger Fernandez, a 17th-generation New Mexican — long before the region was a state — is running for the Third District seat in her home state and could become the first Latinx person and first woman to represent her district. “The first Latina to ever run for Congress was Adelina Otero-Warren, a suffragist who helped New Mexico pass the 19th amendment. A hundred years later, New Mexico is poised to elect an all-woman of color delegation to the House who will bring lived experience to our policy-making decisions,” Leger Fernandez told Refinery29.
Tolleson, AZ, Mayor Anna Tovar is running for the Arizona Corporation Commission — if she wins, she’ll be the first Latina elected statewide. “I was extremely motivated to run for office to help shape public discourse in a way that reflected the growing influence of the Latinx community while also building a cross-constituency alliance that could move our community forward,” Tovar told Refinery29. “We need more Latinx representation so that the faces and voices of our community are reflected at every level of government and in the policies that will help drive our country and Latinx communities forward.”
Janet Diaz is a frontline healthcare worker who could be the first Latina in the Pennsylvania State Senate. She ran to serve her community and those who struggle to navigate a system that is built for the powerful, and her platform focuses on affordable healthcare, a $15 minimum wage, combating climate change, and more. She was endorsed by former President Barack Obama. “Without representation, our community's voices aren't heard and our issues aren't prioritized. Representation matters because it also inspires the next generation of leaders,” she told Refinery29.
Not only is there a record number of Latinx candidates on ballots, but Latinx voters are expected to be the dominant force in the upcoming presidential election as the largest non-white voting bloc with an estimated 32 million strong, which is about 13.3% percent of the electorate. Latinx voters have long been deemed “the sleeping giant” — but that’s expected to change this election.
Given the high-stakes election, Macías expects an all-time high Latinx voter turnout. “The Trump administration's xenophobic attacks on the Latino community and immigrants are mobilizing Latino voters to head to the polls,” she said. Mark Hugo Lopez, Director of Global Migration and Demography Research at Pew Research Center, agrees. “It’s likely there will be a record number of Latino voters this year. With four million more Latinos eligible to vote, more are likely to cast a vote,” he told Refinery29. “In 2018, Latino voter participation nearly doubled compared with 2014, both in the number of voters and in the voter turnout rate.”
Nationwide, 52% of young Latinx voters are expected to vote early, according to poll results from the Alliance for Youth Action and Civiqs. “In our vote, we don’t just carry our own voices, but also those of our parents, grandparents, and all ancestors who paved the way for us to be here today. We vote for those who came before us and for those who cannot vote,” Ramos said. “I have no doubt Latinx voters will show up to the polls this November.”