By Marisa Trevino
Sunday, November 25, 2001
Latinas are surging ahead in politics. They win elections more often than Latinos and other women. Increasingly, they are formalizing their knowledge and skills and learning how to run campaigns, develop an image and raise money.
DALLAS (WOMENSENEWS)--Rose Rodriguez's local paper dubbed her the "Cinderella Candidate" in 1999 when she won her first El Paso City Council election.
Few observers expected one of the city's oldest districts, North Central, to be represented by this youthful Texas Latina with no political experience, little money and the unorthodox strategy of standing on busy street corners gripping a banner emblazoned with her name.
But she did.
In fact, Rodriguez not only won, but also, when she was thrust into a runoff with her seasoned rival, she waltzed off before the clock struck midnight with 75 percent of the vote. Her success made her the only Latina representative on the City Council and the youngest elected official, at age 27, in El Paso County.
"I don't see my age as being an obstacle," said Rodriguez. "It's being the only Latina on the City Council where I feel the difference. I pull different issues that are very crucial and important to me."
The unlikely win might have felt like an Oscar de la Hoya punch to the gut to Rodriguez's opponent, but in reality, her victory followed the national trend of Latinas increasingly entering public office.
Latinas won elections at much higher rates than Latino males, at least in Massachusetts, said Carol Hardy-Fanta, director of the University of Massachusetts' Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy and the co-author of the article, "Latina Politics: Gender, Participation and Leadership."
According to the article, co-authored with professors Lisa Montoya of the University of Texas at Austin and Sonia Garcia of St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Latinas constitute a rapidly expanding share of today's Latino leadership.
The National Association of Elected Latino Officials supports that claim. Keeping tabs on Latinos in political office across the country, the association found that in January 2001, Latinas constituted 38 percent or 1,952 out of the total Latino elected positions across the country compared to only holding 32 percent or 1,661 elected positions in 1996.
Overall, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, in 2001 women held 22.4 percent of seats in state legislatures, a slight drop from the year before, when women occupied 22.5 percent of the seats. Five (10 percent) of the governors of the 50 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico are women; 13 (13 percent) of the 100 U.S. senators are female, as are 59 (13 percent) of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Latinas' success rates are significant because their victories even surpass those for women politicians overall.
It's news that doesn't surprise Latina officials.
"We have actually decided to start taking charge of our own destinies," explained Councilwoman Rose Rodriguez.
Three-term California Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez takes it a step further: "We come from a culture that the people who get things done tend to be the women. The women in our families are very, very strong."
Though research has yet to prove that today's Latina leaders get their "ganas," or motivation, from the females in their families, it is clear that certain factors influence Latinas' decisions to run for office.
"Latina politics is a sensitivity to the need for change," said Hardy-Fanta. "The thing that distinguishes Latina politics from politics in general is that the individual goals, the personal goals, are under this driving force to make things better for their families and their communities."
It was just such a need to improve her neighborhood that spurred Dr. Elba Garcia to entrust an 11-year dental practice to associates and make a successful first-time bid for the Dallas City Council this year.
"I live right across the street from a park," said Council member Garcia, a naturalized American citizen. "In my opinion, the state of the playground was deplorable, the condition of the streets was bad, and there were a lot of stray animals abandoned at the park. I used to spend one to two hours calling City Hall on the days I wasn't working. After thinking about it, I thought, 'Hey, I can do something about this.'"
Garcia credits her confidence in running for political office not so much to being a professional businesswoman nor to the example of her husband, who also happens to be in politics as a Texas State Representative, but from her years being involved in her community, church and children's school.
It is a route that researchers say that many Latinas travel before they enter the political arena.
"I've found that Latinas' participation in the school activities of their children and in church activities are good predictors of political participation," said the University of Texas' Montoya, a researcher into the mass political behavior of Latinas. "This is especially strong for stay-at-home Latinas, which makes sense, since school and church activities are their most important interactions with the outside world."
It is a world that can prove to be mighty unfriendly to novice politicians.
In addition to inexperience, the Latina candidate also faces what scholars call the "triple oppression"--racism, sexism and negative aspects of the culture that impose "passivity, fatalism and submissiveness" upon its women.
Most Latina politicians experience one or more of these barriers.
Perhaps of all the current Latina politicians in office, none so publicly faced the first component of the triple threat than Democratic Congresswoman Sanchez.
Incensed that he should lose to a Latina newcomer, Sanchez's incumbent opponent, Bob Dornan, railed publicly that she won because illegal Mexicans had voted for her. It was soon found to be an accusation without merit, but Sanchez says that wasn't the only barrier.
"The traditional political arena is a man's world," said Sanchez. "Women are discounted, and most women who make it to Congress get there despite the fact that the institution and the machinery are against them."
With no real role models to follow, Latinas entering politics learn the ropes of the system "solas," on their own, with hands-on determination.
Hardy-Fanta discovered that the skills Latinas learn in other fields, such as school volunteering, translating for neighbors and families, business-work interactions or community organizing, are easily transferable into invaluable political skills for the aspiring candidate.
Yet, Latinas have never been the type to attempt something new without a support network of some kind. In addition to family and friends, who always provide staunch support, research shows that more and more Latina candidates are seeking out the help of established Latina organizations.
One such organization that has made it its mission to help Latinas achieve their political goals is Hispanas Organized for Political Equality, or HOPE.
The 12-year-old, statewide California organization was founded by five Latinas who were dismayed that their "comadres," or fellow Latinas, were not visible in local politics or other leadership positions.
"Our major focus is to try to inspire, empower and engage Latinas to pursue leadership positions," said Susan Sifuentes-Trigueros, president of Hispanas Organized for Political Equality. "The philosophy is that if you have a strong Latina leader, that will transcend to all communities at-large."
The organization conducted its own research to see what Latinas needed to be politically successful.
"In that research, we found that Latinas learn from doing, but they needed strategic skill development and that their learning is increased when it's done in an environment that is non-threatening, an environment amongst their own," said Sifuentes-Trigueros.
Hispanas Organized for Political Equality took to heart their findings and established in 1999 the HOPE Leadership Institute. Latinas interested in pursuing public office apply to the institute, where they learn presentation skills, how to raise funds, develop an image and run a campaign.
Already the training institute boasts distinguished alumnae, including Rosario Marin, the 41st Treasurer of the United States and the highest-ranking Latina in George W. Bush's administration.
Across the country, more and more Latinas can be found sitting on city councils, school boards and walking the halls of state and national legislatures.
"This is the future of government," said Hardy-Fanta. "If Latinas are getting elected at higher rates than Latinos, and make up a large portion of elected Latino officials, then they are going to have a role in the governing of this country on both the local and national levels. Latinas are aiming for power."
Marisa Trevino is a Dallas-based free-lance writer who regularly writes on Latina issues and contributes to local public radio.
Hispanas Organized for Political Equality, HOPE:
National Association of Latino Elected Officials:
Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy:
Center for American Women and Politics: