On several occasions, Juana Matias has marched into the Massachusetts House Chamber, eager to advocate for her constituents back in the heavily Latinx-populated city of Lawrence, only to be stopped by security guards who inform her she’s not allowed to step onto the house floor. That’s because they mistake the 31-year-old politico – the first-ever Latina state representative elected in Massachusetts – for a legislative aide. With Latinas so massively underrepresented in politics – constituting less than 2 percent of total elected officials across Congress, statewide elected executive offices and state legislatures – they’re not often linked in the public consciousnesswith members of government. But Matias, who’s currently running for Congress – where, should she win, she’ll become the first woman of Dominican descent in the national legislative body – along with a record number of young progressive Latinas throughout the country are fighting to change that.
Currently, the United States ranks 101 worldwide in terms of women’s representation in national office, with the demographic constituting just 20 percent of Congress, 25 percent of state legislatures, and six of 50 governors. The statistics are even more shameful for women of color. At the present time, there are only nine Latinas serving in the House and just one, the recently elected Catherine Cortez Masto, in the Senate. Hoping to change the direction of the country, at least 575 women, both first-time candidates and public service veterans, are vying for House, Senate or gubernatorial seats, according to Politico, and even more have entered races on the state and local levels. Most of the women running are on a Democratic platform, and many are young progressives ready to bring new ideas and perspectives to government. Already, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Puerto Rican democratic socialist, handed the establishment its most devastating upset when she unseated the powerful 10-term New York congressman Joe Crowley on a platform that advocated for abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, ending for-profit prisons and detention centers, Medicare for all, free public higher education and more. Running in an overwhelmingly Democratic district, Ocasio-Cortez is all but guaranteed to win the general election, but she likely won’t be the only left-leaning Latina to be voted into office that day.
During a roundtable discussion, Remezcla spoke with three young Latina candidates running progressive campaigns on the national and state levels. From Matias, an Afro-Latina immigrant running for US Congress, to Julia Salazar, a 27-year-old Jewish Colombian-American vying for the New York State Senate seat in North Brooklyn, to Amelia Marquez, a 24-year-old trans Mexican-American woman running for State House in Billings, Montana, the contenders together discussed the underrepresentation of Latinas in government, overcoming impostor syndrome, running progressive grassroots campaigns, challenging the establishment and the need to support other women of color in politics, among so much more. Here, key takeaways from the powerful conversation among the nation’s future Latina leaders.
Matias: I’ve seen first-hand how this has huge implications on making sure our communities are well-represented and that the policy being practiced at the state level really speaks to the issues that our communities face. I’m the first Latina immigrant elected to the Massachusetts State House, the only one in the House. There’s a colleague of mine in the Senate, and there is a need for our voices at the table. I walk into committee hearing rooms every day, and I look to my left and I look to my right, and I’m surrounded by white males, and that’s just not representative of our community, that’s not representative of the needs that people have, and, for me, I see it as a full obligation … to advocate on many issues that impact my community, like education equity, immigration issues, criminal justice reform, but also thinking about how I am also using my voice and my commitment to create a path for the young women behind me, young women of color, to know that they can do this as well and they can be a voice for their community.
Salazar: Growing up, I didn’t see many Latinas in office, but really I would say even, in general, in positions of power. I was graduating high school when Justice Sonia Sotomayor was appointed to the Supreme Court, and I remember seeing that and being really surprised, which is sort of sad that by the time I was 18 years old, I was shocked that a Latina would be appointed to the Supreme Court. Now, I find myself in this position running. I’m not an incumbent. This is my first time ever running for office, and I’m running for State Senate, and the New York State Senate is 78 percent male and mostly white men, and it’s very intimidating. I think that it generally discourages women like myself from running and also young women and girls from ever expecting to see, being able to envision themselves, running for office and seeking the positions that men have. It speaks to the importance of representation and the message that sends to all of us of what we’re able to do and what leadership looks like.
Marquez: Being in what many consider a Trump country in Montana, I’m looking to possibly represent one of the most diverse districts here in Montana. I definitely agree with everything that has been already said; it’s not very different here in Montana. We are very diverse in this district that I’m working at, and it’s a very unfortunate scenario where there’s not a lot of representation. Thankfully, being in an area with a lot of reservations, we do see some diversity with our state legislature, with our Indigenous friends, we have a Native American Caucus, but definitely at the the state level here, we do not see a lot of representation for the overall Latino/Latina culture. It’s something that’s definitely needed.
Salazar: I was on my way to work, and a friend of mine … who lives in North Brooklyn, reached out and said, “someone needs to run against [Martin] Dilan,” and I said, “yeah, someone does,” oblivious that he meant, “Julia, you need to run.” Initially, I said no and that I would find a candidate, and that I wasn’t ready and I had a whole list of excuses why not to, but then as I talked to people in the community, and a few other friends and another organizer reached out to me and really pushed me to run over the course of a couple months, I finally committed to running. The reasons for me were really that I had long felt, even before I ever considered it being me as the candidate, that we needed somebody who was truly accountable to the people and to our communities to actually be in the state legislature, representing us.”
Marquez: The progressive community here in Montana obviously is fairly slim comparing to places like New York or California, so when you get involved in politics in Montana, you really get involved – there’s no going back. Last legislative session, I was lobbying as a student senator for Montana State University Billings, and we had found my current representative here in House District 52, and we asked him about his leanings on higher education that session, and his response was, “is that that pre-K stuff? I’m not too sure about all that.” And all of us sat there stunned for a moment, like, “no, college, we’re here from Montana State University, over in your hometown.” … That same day, Rep. Jacob Bachmeier, who is actually the youngest legislator in all of the US, made a direct ask, saying, “I need more young people up here.” That same year we elected our first city councilwoman, so it was really inspiring to see another woman, especially a far-left progressive, join our city council here in our small town of Billings, Montana. So, collectively, with all of that happening, with the 2016 election as well, it was kind of that moment of, if not now, when, and if not me, who?
Matias: I’m now running for Congress, but I’ll talk a bit about my first race over a year and a half ago. A lot of the men in my community tried to diminish my intelligence, my capability or my track record. They’d say, “You’re not ready.” “You’ve never done this.” … I would go on radio interviews, I would meet with local, established elected officials, and they would always propose that I’d never been in public office, why don’t I run for city council or a school committee before state representative. I got that nonstop for 11 months. … Here I was: I went to college, I have a law degree, and I dedicated my entire life to making a difference in our district by working with the most marginalized people, whether I was working as a social worker or as a legal advocate defending immigrant children who were facing deportation. I had all of the qualifications, more so than my incumbent, who had been in office and who in years had not accomplished anything in any way, shape or form or passed legislation that speaks to the the needs of the district, but I did it in a very cautious way. … I just talked about, “Well, this is what I want to do in terms of education, this is what I want to do when it comes to this, and I’m just speaking from my experience and what I have done.” … It’s about not being sidetracked and walking into a room knowing you have all of the qualifications to do the job and more so and that you just need to be sure of who you are and talk about your experience and the work you have done so far for the community.
Office: MA’s 3rd Congressional District
Opponents: Jeff Balinger, Alexandra Chandler, Beej Das, Rufus Gifford, Leonard Golder, Dan Koh, Barbara L’Italien, Bopha Malone, Lori Trahan
Primary Election: September 4
Issues: Affordable healthcare, pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, $15/hour minimum wage, dual language early education programs, bail reform. Learn more here.
Now that I’m running for Congress, I see even greater barriers, even greater challenges. You walk into an organization, meet with people who look at you as a young Latina woman of color, and they question your capability, and it’s really based on the fact of whether you can raise money or not, which is really unsettling for me. Before it was just, “You’re not prepared,” and now it’s like, “Well, you don’t have enough money to even be considered a viable contender, when it should be about your track record and service, what you’ve done in the state house. So I think in different ways you’re going to see that, and it’s about knowing that you are prepared, you care about your community and you’re going into this because you actually want to make a difference in the lives of others and you’re using your values to make decisions. You’re on the right path.
Salazar: The doubts that I had initially definitely came from myself, and just that I didn’t match my own mental image or expectation of what a politician looks like, what a state senator looks like, and then, additionally, didn’t feel that I – I’m not even 28 years old, haven’t run before, was working full time as an organizer – could, if at all, responsibly quit my job or reorganize my life in order to be able to run. And then, additionally, I think a lot of people are very excited, especially in New York, about seeing more young candidates run, but my experience is still challenged often. It’s a common tactic for the machine to try to throw candidates off the ballot on technicalities. For example, that’s something that I faced and now no longer, thankfully, have to deal with because the court ruled against my opponent’s attempts to get me off the ballot. But I think there’s been a combination of both these overt process-oriented ways of the machine, and my opponent challenging me, as well as just general doubt that I feel and that people assume about a young woman running.
Marquez: I’m glad we are using the word establishment, because I think that was my first overall barrier when I had announced my candidacy last year. Right away, partner organizations of the Montana Democratic Party were asking to meet with me, and I often joke around that I consider myself a triple threat, where I’m trans, Latina and a progressive, and obviously that doesn’t play well with the establishment, so right away everyone was asking me, “What are you going to do if somebody starts to go low? What if they attack you because you’re a person of color? What if they attack you because you’re trans?” and each time I was like, “I know what I’m getting into and I’m ready for any of it.” …. A lot of people considered me the underdog candidate during my primaries, where I was going against a white, cisgender male, who actually shared a lot of similar views as me, so when I came out with more than 30 percent of the vote, a lot of people were shocked and stunned, but I think it also, hopefully, let a lot of people, especially woman of color, know that this is possible here in Montana. … Now, as we head into the general election, my Republican opponent is deadnaming (using her birth name) at the doors, but I know we just have to get out there and do the work. One of the first things I always tell people is, “I literally live right down the street from you all. Although we might be different, I might be a different color than you or different looking than you, I still am your neighbor and I know what we’re all dealing with.”
Matias: I think it would be great to see organizations that already exist and are trying to make sure that we are elevating Latino voices to do a little more, to do the training, explaining how fundraising works, how do you establish a campaign, how do you build it and keep it moving forward and also resources. As working-class Black and Latino candidates, we don’t have access to resources. When you don’t have a network and come from a working-class household, watching your parents work in factories their entire lives, how are you able to raise money and elevate the voices of your community? So there’s a lack of resources available for immigrants or working-class candidates who are trying to run, and I think these organizations that already exist have a responsibility to create paths that provide any Latino in this country who needs access to resources and training and also connecting them to funders who are interested in making sure that our voices are elevated and that we have representation on all levels.
Marquez: With national organizations that normally support women of color, Latinas or trans individuals, I feel that it’s still difficult to get access to those resources here in Montana, because people often look at us and go, “Ah, it’s Montana. You have no hope whatsoever,” and I’ve actually heard that before from different organizations. And it’s really sad to hear that narrative because we’re never going to be able to change the nation if we are not working right here in the state and local level. … National organizations have to look at the places they’d consider not winnable states or local elections and consider those just as much as national elections and those bigger states that lean a little bit further to the left. We are over here in Montana fighting the good fight, and we have a lot of great progressives running, especially progressive women, and so it’s so important to not give up on those rural states.
Salazar: We are running a deeply grassroots campaign, although I would say that we’ve learned a lot from grassroots campaigns locally that have preceded us. One thing I’ve done differently, both as the result of not having a self-finance campaign or a wealth of resources and as an intentional decision, I have not hired any consultants on the campaign.
Office: House District 52 in Billings, Montana
Opponent: Rodney Garcia
General Election: November 6
Issues: Tuition-free education, affordable housing, more protections for victims of domestic violence, $15/hour minimum wage. Learn more here.
I’m a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and have been active in the organization for the last couple of years, and what I think is sort of unique about my campaign is that, even from other DSA-endorsed and DSA-driven campaigns, is that a lot of people who encouraged me to run have been people who I organized with within and outside of DSA, so it’s created some unique approaches. The organization and this movement group are really fueling the campaign and providing hundreds of volunteers rather than relying on hiring people who have a ton of electoral experience. So it’s a lot of constantly learning how we are doing this, and learning together throughout the course of the campaign because a lot of us are doing this for the first time.
Marquez: My personal friend network is ready for this election to be done. You’re tapping your resources so, so much, and it’s all personal networks. I would agree with what Julia said: DSA has been a great resource altogether and the networking that’s come with that, but, also, since the very beginning of this campaign, I’ve been saying to anyone who has wanted to jump on board is this isn’t my campaign, this is our campaign, and that’s because I’m a first-time candidate and some of the individuals that are volunteering on our campaign have never even stepped foot into the political realm before.
Instead of thinking of getting consultants, like a traditional campaign, it’s us all sitting down at the table at a bar at 9 p.m. and just brainstorming about what steps we want to take next and the best ways to move forward. … You have to be so resourceful and grassroots all the way; you have to use every little nook and cranny in your head to think about the best ways to reach voters and just get people to be excited about the campaign.
Matias: I think that the most important thing anyone who wants to be in public office needs to do is ask themselves, “What are my values, is it transparency, effectiveness, being a voice for people?” … And you should walk into a legislative body with those values and create changes to the issues. You’re in that office to really make a difference and be a voice for others, and I’ve been in a state house in a state that’s considered Democratic and I can tell you that’s actually not really the case. … Our issues aren’t being addressed because we don’t have people like ourselves in the legislative body that are being impacted. So when I talk to my colleagues and they tell me, “Well, immigrants don’t really need to live in fear; they’re all fine,” it’s because they don’t really understand the fear of people like ourselves who are being impacted. I think it’s so important that young people get involved because we are the future, we are the majority and we really could change the direction, but we need to be civically engaged. We need to be idealistic. I walked into that state house with all of these ideals and values, and I understood that I was walking into a hierarchy, but I still was able to accomplish a lot. I still was able to be a relentless voice for my community regardless of the dynamic that exists in the legislative body, and we can create change gradually and slowly.
Salazar: I think we are increasingly seeing that it’s a myth that the electorate isn’t ready for the more progressive platform that all of us are running on and the bolder policy demands that we are making. I think that, in my experience, it speaks more to mainstream elected officials or political pundits being actually out of touch with what voters really want and what people are really ready for and not understanding that our political imagination has expanded and that people are ready for truly comprehensive reforms and to demand policy solutions that all of us really need to transform our lives.
Matias: Throughout the campaign, I’ve had people ask me, “Rep. Matias, who’s your political role model? Is there someone you looked up to as a young girl that inspired you to go into public office?” And the answer is no. I had no one. I always had this desire, which came from my upbringing and my mother, to use my career to somehow make a difference in people’s lives, and that’s what brought me personal and professional gratification.
Office: State Senate in NY’s District 18
Opponent: Martin Dilan
Primary Election: September 13
Issues: Rent stabilization, free tuition to CUNY and SUNY schools, a healthcare system that covers all (including undocumented immigrants), free access to abortions and contraception, climate justice. Learn more here.
I can never recall someone, a woman of color that came from a poor background, who I could look up to and say, “Wow, she’s been able to overcome all of those challenges and she was able to achieve success, so I can.” And so, for me, I hope I never forget where I come from and that I never forget my commitment that I have an obligation, a duty, to make sure that young women of color, Latinas, young women of color of African descent, understand that they can accomplish it. … As women, we have a responsibility to empower each other, to understand that we are not a threat to one another and that if we elevate each other’s voices, we elevate our community voice and the needs of our community.
Salazar: It’s a very exciting year for New York politics. There are several progressive women of color running at the state level and so I definitely, of course, reject the myth that there could only be one of us. In fact, as all of us know here, there needs to be more than one. There needs to be as many of us as possible so that our movement can be strong, so that we can support one another, so that we can do so much more than what just one or two of us can do.
[There are so few of us that], in my experience, I have been relentlessly compared and mistaken for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez because we are both Latina, with similar policy platforms, running against entrenched male incumbents. I love and support Alexandria, of course, it’s just absurd how many times people, voters and the press, have literally confused us with one another. It’s hilarious but also a little insulting.
Marquez: In Montana, we did something really great as a state last June, in all of our primaries where there was a woman facing a Democratic man, every race the woman won. It was remarkable, and we’re seeing more women run here in Montana than ever before, which is also true for people of color and young people. It’s amazing to see that the overall political revolution is happening here in Montana, where people view us as Trump country, a red state.
But as we continue to hit this overall momentum, where we’re seeing women, people of color and young people move up in politics, people also want to lump us all as one. Hopefully it doesn’t take too long to realize that we are all individually minded and, while there’s a lot that we all agree with, there are still things we disagree on.
Matias: Be courageous. Your community needs you. Until our community gets the representation we deserve, education equity, immigration, real true criminal justice reform and pay equity are not going to get addressed. We need your voices, and know that you have all of the qualifications to move forward. You have women, like myself, who are breaking barriers, who are willing to lend a helping hand and make sure we are elevating your voice as well. It’s incredible to do this work. It’s tiring, it’s a lot of work, it takes a lot of commitment and sacrifice on yourself and your family, but, ultimately, the work that you do is so, so important. You leave a legacy and pass legislation that really addresses the issues that you see impact your community.
Marquez: Be bold. So many individuals want to believe that you have to be this perfect image of a politician when you run for office, … just be bold. Go with what you believe and, at the end, if you believe in your core message, that will be the thing that pushes you through.
Salazar: I think we are making history here, not just in winning elections and the practical effects this is going to have on policy, but also really for all the next generation who are watching and for young women of color and gender nonconforming people of color. And I’m really honored to be in this movement with all of you.