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Latina Elected Officials Make History in States like Colorado, Illinois

Latina elected officials are making strides not just on the federal level with the first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate and sworn in on Tuesday, but on the state and local level.

Colorado in particular stands out: It's making history in 2017 with two Latinas in top positions.

Democrat Crisanta Durán becomes the state's first-ever Latina Speaker of the House. Fellow Democrat Lucía Guzmán was re-elected Senate Minority Leader.

Colorado Senate Minority Leader Crisanta Duran (D).
Colorado's Senate Minority Leader Crisanta Duran (D). Crisanta Duran

"This is a great honor (to be elected Speaker). I never would have imagined being Speaker of the House," Durán tells NBC Latino, adding that she first decided to run for office because she felt "frustrated" by the lack of attention to several important issues. "There were a lot of issues in my community that I wanted to raise at the state level."

One of the issues she worked on was making sure that undocumented immigrants gained access to in-state tuition in Colorado, a bill that had previously come before the state legislature seven times. Durán became a sponsor of the bill that finally passed and was signed into law.

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Durán is a multi-generational native of Colorado, as are many of the state's Hispanics - they comprise 28 percent of the state population, the fifth-largest in the country.

"It's important to understand the Latino contribution to our country from our very foundation and those contributions have lasted for many, many years here in the state. Latinos care about the issues that other Coloradans and other Americans care about - access to healthcare, good-paying jobs, affordable education," said Durán.

State senator Lucia Guzman speaks on in favor of Hillary Clinton during a press conference, February 25, 2016.
Colorado Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman speaks on in favor of Hillary Clinton during a press conference, February 25, 2016. AAron Ontiveroz / Denver Post via Getty Images

Colorado has the highest percentage of women legislators of all the states — 42 percent. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, 24 percent of state legislators nationwide are women, and of those, 22 percent are women of color. Since 1971, the number of women serving in state legislatures (both Assembly/House and Senate) has quintupled.

Latinas made history in other states as well, including in Illinois, where Susana Mendoza is the first Hispanic elected to statewide office and the first Latina state comptroller in the nation.

Image:
Democrat Susana Mendoza, second from left, is sworn into office as Illinois comptroller at the Illinois State Capitol, Monday, Dec. 5, 2016, in Springfield, Ill. With Mendoza are her mother Susana, left, and her husband David M Szostak, right, and son David Q Szostak. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman) Seth Perlman / AP

In California, several Latinas joined the state Assembly: Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, a co-owner of her family's farm who was also the first female mayor of the city of Winters in the northern part of state; Monique Limón, a former school board member in the city of Santa Barbara; Blanca Rubio, a former school board member in suburban Los Angeles and a native of Juárez, Mexico who arrived in the States as a young child; and Sabrina Cervantes, a former district director for Assemblyman José Medina and the daughter of a former mayor of the city of Coachella.

In Oregon, Teresa Alonso León, a former city council member, joins the state House as only the second Latina legislator - and the only one in the new session - in the state's history. Alonso León, a native of Mexico and the daughter of migrant farmworkers, also becomes the first Latina immigrant elected to the Oregon legislature.

In Texas, Latina "firsts" include two new Democrats to the state House, Victoria Neave and Gina Hinojosa, both lawyers.

In Nevada, Sandra Jauregui becomes the first Latina from her district elected to the Assembly. Jauregui is a native of California who moved to Nevada to finish college and stayed, also interning with former Senate Leader Harry Reid.

Sandra Jauregui becomes the first Latina elected to the Nevada Assembly.
Sandra Jauregui becomes the first Latina elected to the Nevada Assembly. Sandra Jauregui

"I always knew I wanted to serve my community since an early age. When I was working for Senator Reid on foreclosure mitigation I was able to work one-on-one with Nevadans during one of the most financially difficult times in our state history, and I was on the front lines helping them, and I knew I wanted to keep helping Nevadans and Nevada families - I knew there was no better way to help them than by serving them," Jauregui tells NBC Latino.

Jauregui says she wants to not just serve as a role model but also shatter some stereotypes.

"As antiquated as it sounds, some people still have the perception that Hispanic women are all homemakers and wives and moms, and that's not the case anymore. I'm a single, educated Latina with no children, but I'm also an Assemblywoman for the state of Nevada and I think that's the face of the new Latina," adding, "This (new position in the Assembly) means so much to me because I want to be a role model and an inspiration to young girls and young Latinas and show them that there are people who look like them in leadership roles and in leadership positions," says the daughter of immigrants from Mexico.

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While there has been a lot of focus of late on the presidential and congressional elections, Durán says it's important that people realize that state and local elected officials are there to serve their communities.

"So often people don't think they have a voice at the state level or in their communities to be able to create change and they forfeit their power," says Colorado's Durán. "I really believe there is truly more that binds us together than divides us. In Colorado we focus on doing a lot of community outreach and you'd be surprised on how easy it actually is to set up a meeting to talk about the issues."

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