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From gang member to politician: the story of Tennessee's first Hispanic commissioner

A neck tattoo reminds Tommy Vallejos of his violent past in New Mexico, before he turned into a pastor, a veteran and one of six Hispanic politicians to serve in Tennessee since 1995.
12 Oct 2016 – 06:45 PM EDT

Eighteen name plates identify the commissioners of Montgomery County, Tennessee. And all but one are engraved with Anglo-Saxon names: Harper. Tooley. Allbert. Hodges. Johnson.

In the middle of the third row, a nameplate reads Tomás Vallejos.

Vallejos used to be a pachuco, a Mexican American gang member involved in the deadly turf wars between clans in the southwest United States. His neck is tattooed with memories of bullets, shootings, revenge and death.

But that’s the past. For nearly six years, Vallejos has been serving in the Montgomery County Commission, where he helps decide how the county's $400 million budget will be spent on schools, courts, prisons, roads and emergency services.

“I never thought that someone who talks like me, who looks like me and who has my family history could get elected,” says the 53-year-old Republican, whose victory in the 2010 election made him Tennessee’s first Hispanic county commissioner.

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Latinos in Power: From gang member to politician. The story of Tennessee's first Hispanic commissioner

For Vallejos, it may have been easier to run for office in a state like New Mexico, where he was born and where 40% of eligible voters are Hispanic, the largest rate in the country. In fact, when he arrived in Tennessee in 1991, Vallejos felt like the first "Mexican hillbilly" to ever step foot in the Volunteer State. Latinos make up a tiny fraction of the population in Tennessee, where only 2% of eligible voters identify as Hispanic.

He remembers thinking: I'm never coming back.

But he stayed, and found his way into politics. Before Vallejos, only two Latino politicians had held elected office in the state since 1995, according to Univision News analysis of data provided by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

In all, only six Hispanics have been elected as Tennessee public officials in the past two decades.

How a 'pachuco' became a veteran and pastor

The military came into his life first. Then came religion.

Vallejos joined the Armed Forces after his mother—heartbroken by the loss of two of her sons to the violence in Chihuahica, New Mexico—sent him to El Paso, Texas.

She knew her son's life was in danger: he had pulled the trigger to avenge the death of one of his brothers, attracting the wrath of a rival gang.

One night, Vallejos found himself cornered by a dozen pachucos, who came running towards him armed with guns and knives.

"They were going to kill me," he remembers. "And so at that time, all I did was shoot. We all shot."

No one died that night, but two nights later, his mother, Lupe López, put him in a car in the middle of the night to leave town. "You're going to stop getting into trouble," she told him as they rode to El Paso.

She wouldn't let him visit New Mexico for a year afterwards.

That's when Vallejos decided to join the military. "The Army is always a pivoting point for a lot of Latinos. Sometimes, for Latinos, the military is our only out. It's our only option," he says.

As a soldier he traveled to Iraq, Germany and South Korea, where he found religion. In Korea, Vallejos told his life story to anyone who would listen. He finally ended up in Clarksville, Tennessee, home to the Fort Campbell military base.


On a recent morning in August, Vallejos walks into a detention center, greets the security officials and enters a room filled with ten chairs. Minutes later, the chairs are filled with ten prisoners, each one clad in orange.

Vallejos talks to them for 45 minutes, sharing the script he appears to have memorized after years in politics: the story of how he was engulfed by violence in his youth and later escaped it.

He emphasizes the word "legacy" and its importance, because his dead brothers couldn't leave one for their children. The men listen intently. Some of them nod. Vallejos closes with a small prayer as he walks by the prisoners, grabbing each of their hands. Some are crying now, promising they'll turn their life around.

"Well, every time I go into the prison and speak, I realize I could have been one of them," Vallejos says. "I realize that I got family, you know, that I got old friends that are in prison now, some that will never get out."

From religion to politics

As he settled in his new city, Vallejos founded the Hispanic Organization for Progress and Education and Latinos for Tennessee, two groups to help the growing Hispanic population in the state with things like medical attention or advice for starting a business.

One of the people who came to seek help was Mónica Rivera, an undocumented Mexican business owner who arrived in Tennessee two decades ago.

With Vallejos' help, Rivera founded the taqueria La Laguna with just three tables. Now, it's a big establishment with its own supermarket. She also sends other Latinos to Vallejos.

"People come with a problem, and I call him and he helps them," says Rivera.

As Vallejos helped friends and neighbors, he began getting involved in public affairs in the city of Clarksville, known for its wide tobacco fields, cultivated today by more than 5,200 Hispanic workers who arrived in the state with temporary visas.

His political awakening came in 2006, when he became worried about two local proposals: one that would prohibit businesses from hiring undocumented workers, and another looking to prohibit public services being given in Nashville in any language other than English.

"I remember one of the ordinances they were trying to pass was to make sure illegal aliens weren't hired and I thought, 'We can't do that'," he says. "They're gonna base discrimination on a surname? My kids were born and raised in this country. But they have a Latino name. And they've probably been here longer than most folks. So I opposed that. I simply did."

Vallejos also started getting to know prominent Hispanic politicians, like Alberto Gonzalez, appointed by President George W. Bush as the first Latino U.S. attorney general.

"It is so hard to be a public servant. And so when you're willing to do that, that says a lot about a person. That not only are you talking the talk, but you're walking the talk," Gonzales said.

Vallejo's wife, Carolina, remembers that's when she realized her husband wanted to become a politician.

A Latino voice against Trump

Running for office can be hard for Latinos in Tennesee, which has the smallest percentage of eligible Latino voters in the country.

According to the Pew Research Center, a mere 92,000 Hispanic residents in Tennessee are eligible to vote, which amounts to 28% of the Latino population.

That's because nearly half of the Latinos in Tennessee are seasonal workers who move in and out of the state frequently, and another big part of the population are children, says Nicholas Nagle, a geographer who cowrote a profile of the state's Hispanic population for the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

But demographics weren't an obstacle for Vallejos, who won his seat in the Montgomery County Commission with 398 votes, nearly twice as many as his main competitor, Mark Wojnarek.

On the day he was sworn in, a public official told him: "Do you know you made history tonight? You're the first Hispanic from Montgomery County to ever become a county commissioner. And you're the first one in the state of Tennessee."

Since then, Vallejos is proud to serve all his constituents, and to have become the "the voice of the voiceless," helping people access health care or defending immigrants who work in the tobacco fields.

He's also beginning to make his way onto the national political stage. He served as a delegate for presidential contender Ted Cruz during the Republican primaries, and now speaks out as one of many Hispanic Republicans who reject the insults of the presidential candidate Donald Trump.

"Being a Republican, I want our party to understand, we can't speak this ugly rhetoric and think we're gonna win Latinos over," he says.

Vallejos admits he'll be voting for Trump, because he doubts that the candidate would be able to move forward with his controversial immigration policies, among them the one where he'd deport nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants.

"We need an immigration plan that's gonna address those that are hiding. And those wanting to seek an education. I'm not calling for an amnesty plan. But I think he needs to talk about something that's just."

In the end, he says, "we are all Americans."