Born the daughter of Mexican immigrants in Laredo, Texas, Jessica Cisneros made headlines in June for garnering more than $80,000 from grassroots donors a mere 24 hours after launching her campaign for Congress. Backed by Justice Democrats, the same group that stood behind Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, Cisneros is running a progressive grassroots campaign that champions medicare for all, free public college, the Green New Deal, and abortion rights. She is tasked with challenging her former boss, the well-established Congressman Henry Cuellar, who has represented the district since 2005. Cisneros has criticized Cuellar, who identifies as a centrist Democrat, for being out of touch with his constituents. Among the many things Cuellar will have to defend on the campaign trail are his less-than-ideal ties to the NRA, his stance on anti-abortion rights, as well as his past support for harmful immigration bills introduced by his Republican colleages in Congress.
Cisneros is part of a growing new wave of young women running for office using nontraditional methods of support to disrupt the status quo. Voters will have the opportunity to cast their ballots during the primary elections taking place on March 3, 2020. With much speculation as to whether or not Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise victory can be replicated in Texas, Cisneros’ campaign will certainly be one to watch in the months to come. The day after she launched her campaign, I had the opportunity to speak with Cisneros to get a better sense of who this woman is and why she is running for office.
Read on to learn more about Cisneros.
What motivated you to run for office?
I grew up seeing how the laws just weren’t made for people like us. I remember being on the playground at my elementary school, located right by the border, and seeing undocumented families trying to cross, all to start a better life for their children. I have this one specific memory of seeing a family running from border patrol. I was just 8, but I knew that it was wrong and that I wanted to help. I couldn’t see a difference between my family and that family. I felt powerless, but that moment, I committed myself to becoming an advocate for communities like mine, for people that looked like me, and for people that looked like my parents.
I focused on performing well at school, so that I could get scholarships to fund my education. I graduated valedictorian of my class thanks to my parents’ support and I made it to law school. When I got to law school, I realized there weren’t many people that looked like me. Once I started working, people would be freaked when I would tell them that I was the attorney on a case. People like me don’t usually become attorneys. After law school, I continued seeing instances of the laws not being made for us. There were so many times when a judge would tell me they wanted to help my client but because of the way the laws were written, they couldn’t. It just happened so often that I thought, “Well you know what? If the laws are the problem, then let’s go change the laws.” Especially in my district where our leadership has been silent for so long. My opponent, Henry Cuellar, has been in office since 2004, and throughout those 14 years, people in South Texas haven’t seen a change. People are afraid to stand up to this man. Well, I’m not afraid. I’m going to run a people-based campaign, a campaign for la gente.
“People are afraid to stand up to [Henry Cuellar]. Well, I’m not afraid.”
You’re challenging an eight-term Democratic incumbent who has got some major corporate backing. That takes guts. Where do you find that courage?
Those who know me know that I’m a fighter for the people I love. I love the people here in South Texas. I am who I am because of the people here. Growing up in Laredo inspired me to be an immigration and human rights lawyer. Standing up for people has always been something that I feel a moral obligation to do as a Christian woman. That’s something that I take seriously.
How did you get involved with Justice Democrats?
I was nominated by my high school teacher and mentor. From the moment I walked in his classroom, he recognized the fiery passion I had to serve my community. Even throughout college and law school, he’s been very supportive. Just like him, there’s so many educators in South Texas that also take on this commitment of investing in our youth seriously. This campaign is about them, too, because teachers everywhere aren’t getting paid what they deserve. I think investing in them and the children is also very important. Hopefully that can lead to more success stories like mine.
“Imposter syndrome is real… It’s something that I still struggle with to this day.”
What advice do you have for young Latinas who are watching you right now?
Que si se puede. That you can do it, too. Imposter syndrome is real, and I really do think it affects women of color the most. It’s something that I still struggle with to this day. I love talking to my girlfriends because we remind each other of how awesome we are. It’s crazy for me to hear how they’re also struggling with similar insecurities as mine. My job is to be there to remind them of their accomplishments. That’s the support that we need to create for each other as women of color. What the public didn’t see [after our successful launch] was the doubt I felt leading up to [it]. That’s why [the launch] was so validating because it cast away every doubt that I could do this. Now I’m 100% sure that I’m the right person to stand up to a man who isn’t doing his job right. I’m a woman who can do the job right.
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When my parents came to the US from Mexico, my dad ran a trucking business and my mom took care of me and my sister. They never imagined that their daughter would be running for Congress to fight for families like ours. South Texas deserves a Democrat who shares our values.
What do you want the community of South Texas to know about the campaign you are running?
This campaign is for everyone. It’s for la gente. My opponent, Henry Cuellar, hasn’t been paying attention to the people of South Texas and has taken them for granted for 14 years. [In the first two days of our campaign, we] talked to so many members of the community because that’s what this is about. It’s the people that have been forgotten that we’re trying to get engaged in this campaign. This isn’t about me. It’s about everybody. We are going to see the change that we have been waiting for down here in South Texas.