When 30-year-old Luisana C. Pérez-Fernández left Miami last week on a plane headed for Washington, D.C., she had no aspirations to run for political office.
But just a few days later, after attending the Women’s March on the National Mall and a subsequent workshop in Washington, D.C., she had changed her mind.
“Now I feel like I can do it,” says Pérez-Fernández, who works as a District Aide to Florida State Senator José Javier Rodríguez. “If I really want to see changes it’s on me.”
Many Hispanic Democrats have found the reality of a Donald Trump presidency hard to swallow. From his disparaging comments about Mexicans and women during the campaign, to his mostly white, male cabinet picks, to the anti-immigrant actions he took in just the first days of his administration, Trump has not sought to build bridges with the Latino community.
But rather than forcing Latinos to slink away in fear, Trump may be inspiring a new crop of progressive Hispanic leaders. And that, experts say, could have a big impact for generations to come.
“I think this is a huge inflection point,” says Mónica Pérez, who works to train new political leaders through her work at Wellstone. “If we don’t change who’s at the table, the next eight years will be completely taken over by what’s happening now, and it will move our country backwards. For young people, for Latinas, for women, it’s really a time to rise up and hook arms.”
Despite being the nation’s largest minority group, Hispanics are still largely underrepresented in politics; almost a fifth of the population, they made up only one percent of all elected and appointed officials in the United States last year, according to a Univision analysis conducted in October. Hispanics are less represented in public office than African Americans, who held about twice the amount of elected offices in 2010, despite the fact that they’re 12.4% of the population, compared to 17% for Latinos.
November’s elections were a milestone for the Hispanic community, with the election of seven Latinos in Congress -- all Democrats. In Nevada, Catherine Cortez Masto, the granddaughter of a Mexican immigrant, became the first Latina senator in history. Nanette Barragán was elected to the House of Representatives for California’s 44th District.
Also, former Colorado House majority leader Crisanta Duran was elected as Colorado’s speaker of the House.
The elections were “hugely historic,” says Pérez, who ran for office in Arizona in 2004, when she was just 25.
“When I ran there wasn’t a Catherine Cortez Masto, there wasn’t a Latina Secretary of State in Rhode Island (Nellie Gorbea), there wasn’t a Susana Martinez (the Republican Governor of New Mexico),” Pérez says. “So all of my mentors and people that got me to run were men. I didn’t have anyone to look up to. Now it’s different.”
Groups like EMILY’s List, a Democratic outfit aimed at electing women, and the Latino Victory Fund, which recently refocused to be a Latino progressive organization, are aiming to capitalize on that momentum to get even more qualified Latinas in office.
In conjunction with the Women’s March on Washington, EMILY’s List held a workshop Sunday that explained to some 500 women the basics of how to run for office for the first time and showed them the resources available to do so. The workshop covered a range of topics, like the different facets of a campaign to how to ensure a support system and an effective social media presence. Nearly 50 percent of attendees were between 25 and 34. There were 61 Latina participants.
“Coming together with like-minded women who want to make a difference shows Latinas that they are not alone and that there is an infrastructure in place to support them,” says Vanessa Cardenas, the Director of Strategic Communications at EMILY’s List. “We are at a moment when the authentic and legitimate voices of women of color are needed.”
Carla Bustillos, a 37-year-old mother-of-two who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, says the training left her feeling supported.
“I left knowing that [running for office] is doable for everyday folks,” she says. “I almost feel it’s my duty now. It’s not an easy thing to do when you’re a minority and don’t have the financial backing, but I learned you have to use your network and the resources that are out there.”
In 2016, EMILY’s List successfully helped elect four new women to the United States Senate and eight new women to the House of Representatives. In addition to Cortez Masto, they supported Kamala Harris, the first Indian American in the Senate and second African American woman in the Senate; Tammy Duckworth, the first Thai American in the Senate; and Pramila Jayapal, the first Indian American woman in Congress.
After the workshop on Sunday, Latina participants gathered for a cafecito at the Latino Victory Fund’s offices in Washington, which was intended to be a space for additional “sisterhood and support,” organizers say. They heard from former Democratic member of the Kansas House of Representatives, Delia Garcia, who spoke about her experience coming from a large Latino family and running for office.
“All Latinos face challenges, but Latinas face unique challenges,” says Martín Diego Garcia, the Director of Campaigns at Latino Victory Fund. “You have to ask a woman to run six to eight times for them to consider it, for Latinas it’s even more. But we’re getting to a place now where there are these fantastic women leaders who can build that sisterhood community and really be big power players in our nation.”
Elizabeth Guzman, 43, is running for the 31st District of the House of Delegates in Virginia. If elected in November, she will be the first Hispanic female to hold office in the District.
At Sunday’s cafecito, she spoke to a number of Latinas who expressed hesitation over certain aspects of their identity, such as having an accent or the fear that they may not connect with the wider community.
“I told them ‘You speak two languages. You should be proud,’” she says. “I know people will question my immigration status and my accent during my campaign and I know I have to be honest and say the truth. People can tell when you’re sincere and they will be able to connect with you.”
“As a Latino your experience is unique,” adds Guzman, who currently works for the City of Alexandria, Virginia. “I represent the struggles of millions of people who come to this country just to offer a better future for their family.”
For Cardenas, from EMILY’s List, that is the message her organization seeks to get across to interested Latinas: that their culture and identity are an asset. “Latinas have what is most needed to run for office: a passion and commitment to their families and communities,” she says. “Everything else can be learned.”
Both EMILY’s List and Latino Victory Fund will hold trainings and events specifically for Latinas interested in running for office in the coming months.
Pérez-Fernández, who began volunteering for the Florida Immigrant Coalition three years ago, says she plans to continue deepening her activism in Miami through a number of organizations. The Women’s March and the workshop, she says, were a “spark.”
“There is a lot of energy now and I don’t want that to stop,” she says. “There are many things to do and everything starts locally.”
When asked when she plans to run for office: “Give me five years,” she says.