When Elizabeth Guzman decided to run for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2016, she knew she faced a tough road. An immigrant, political newcomer and the first Latina ever to run for a seat in the assembly, she would also be running against an eight-term Republican male incumbent.
But Guzman, 44, won the election by an almost 10 percent margin, or nearly 3,000 votes.
Her rise to prominence was marked by milestones. By the time election day arrived, Guzman was the second-highest Democratic fundraiser in the state and had garnered the endorsement of former Vice President Joe Biden, as well as the support of a number of progressive groups.
It hasn't stopped there. Just days after her January 20 swearing in, Guzman received a call from House minority leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday. The Democrats had unanimously chosen Guzman to give the Spanish-language rebuttal to President Trump’s State of the Union speech, Pelosi said. Excitedly, Guzman accepted. Her speech will air tomorrow night.
“When I decided to run it was my dream to explain to Latinos why the Democratic party is the party of the working class, of immigrants,” she told Univision. “I’m excited and I want to use this as an opportunity to expand my message. I just didn’t expect it to happen so fast.”
Throughout her journey into politics, Guzman has never strayed far from her roots. An immigrant from Peru, she is an outspoken progressive who ran on a platform of inclusivity. She’s also a devoted mother and considers her culture and background to be assets to her politics.
Like many immigrants in the United States, Guzman’s story is one marked by struggle and perseverance.
In a statement, Pelosi called Guzman a “respected advocate and community leader who represents the best of our nation’s ideals.”
“Driven by her faith and her belief in the promise of the American Dream, Elizabeth has been a vital, relentless leader for the voiceless,” Pelosi said.
From three jobs to the 'American Dream'
Guzman grew up in the port town of Callao, Peru, in a politically active family. Her father, a union organizer, encouraged his four children to stay informed, have opinions and speak up for what they believed it. He often hosted union meetings in the family’s home, which Guzman would observe attentively. In high school, she was the president of her class. Guzman was bright and a good student, but her family didn’t have money to send her to college. At 18, she had a daughter, Pamela, and became a single mom.
Unsure how she would provide for her young daughter, Guzman decided to migrate to the United States in 1998. She and her six-year-old landed in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., where she worked three jobs to pay the rent for a small apartment.
Her days were grueling: after dropping Pamela off at school, Guzman went to work at Wendy’s until the afternoon. Once Pamela went to bed, Guzman headed to work at CVS on the overnight shift. She arrived home at 6:30 a.m., just in time to wake her daughter up again. On the weekends, she worked as a cashier at a department store.
Eventually Guzman found a job as a receptionist in the office, where her boss encouraged her to continue her education.
Guzman enrolled at Northern Virginia Community College, obtaining her degree in Office Administration and Management at night. She then pursued a Bachelor’s online, in Public Safety from Capella University.
She remarried, to a Peruvian American. With his support, she pursued a Master's in Public Administration from American University and then a Master's in Social Work from the University of Southern California. The couple have four children and live in a Virginia suburb.
For Guzman, her story proves the promise of the American Dream for those who work hard. “I went from being the least educated in my family to the most educated,” she said.
Entry into politics
When she became a U.S. citizen in 2005, Guzman began to research candidate positions and found she felt aligned with many of the values of the Democratic party. In 2008, when she saw presidential candidate Barack Obama speak in Virginia, she was sold.
“I loved the way he connected to people, his vision,” she said. “Since then I’ve been a member of the Democratic Party.”
But she credits Senator Bernie Sanders with pushing her to get involved in politics. In 2015, Guzman, who was then working for the City of Alexandria, Virginia, as a social worker, connected with Sanders’ ideas and his vision for the future of the Democratic party. When he ended his presidential run in June 2016 with a call for others to consider running for political office, Guzman listened.
“He mentioned decisions are made at the local and state level and he wanted this revolution to continue,” she said, “and in order to do this you have to run for office and stay involved.”
Guzman volunteered for Hillary Clinton in the general election, but she knew even before Clinton’s loss that she would run herself. By October, Guzman had announced she was running for delegate.
“I realized we’d never had any elected officials who could tell the reality of why immigrants come to this country,” she said. “Just because the color of our skin is different doesn’t mean we are criminals. I didn’t see anyone talking about how immigrants are hardworking, how they leave their homes and families and professional careers to come here to start all over. They don’t talk about us being family-oriented people, we just hear bad things. So, I decided to step up.”
Guzman won on an unapologetically progressive platform. An outspoken pro-choice candidate, her legislative priorities include Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, early childhood education, a higher minimum wage and immigrant rights. She didn’t shy away from telling her own immigrant story, either.
A national stage
On January 20, Guzman had tears in her eyes as she took the floor in the Virginia statehouse, dressed in blue, to be sworn in as delegate. Her husband Carlos stood just a few feet away; her four children sat in the front row. With her left hand atop a Bible, she stated the oath of office in English. Then the room erupted in Spanish cheers:
Si se pudo! Si se pudo! Si se pudo! (Yes she could!)
Now she will take that same energy to Washington, to respond to a message from the president that is likely to contain a vision of immigrants that differs entirely from her own lived experience.
Tomorrow, Guzman said she plans to share her story, to underscore how Hispanics make up the largest immigrant group in the country and will not stand for disrespect. Her message will also advocate for sensible immigration policies that keep families together.
“The message is that we are here, that we are gaining strength, that there are many Hispanics that are succeeding,” she said. “We’re going to send a message to the nation that we have a voice.”