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By Julianne Pepitone

Latinos represent almost 40 percent of the population in Texas, but the Lone Star State has never before elected a Latina congresswoman.

Now, two Latinas are poised to change that: former El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar, who is running to replace Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, and state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, who is the Democratic nominee for the 29th Congressional District. Both candidates easily won their Democratic primaries and are expected to be victorious in November’s general election.

Escobar’s campaign has been especially historic, as she is running to represent the Mexico-border area surrounding El Paso. She reflected on Hispanic Heritage Month – observed from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 – in a wide-ranging conversation with Know Your Value:

Why this political moment is a crucial time for Latino leaders and voters

“This really is a critical juncture in American history for all of us: not only Latinos but women, African-Americans, the LGBTQ community. We’re at such a significant crossroads that it’s almost too much to comprehend. It’s a dark time in American politics. We’re living with a government that is literally working against our communities.

This administration has targeted Mexicans and Central Americans in particular, in the cruelest, most dehumanizing ways whether it’s a tweet denying the deaths of Puerto Ricans, or separating children from their families ... We’ve never been witnesses to anything like this. So in many respects I think it’s these politics of cruelty that have inspired a new generation of leaders on a federal level. There’s a wave of women and people of color who are running and winning. It’s a silver lining to a very dark cloud.

For Latino candidates, the challenge is energizing our voters to turn out. It’s on us to make them understand just how important their vote is, especially because right now the only place their voices count is the ballot box … We must rise up and must turn out in record-breaking numbers. We are a force to be reckoned with.”

How Escobar’s Hispanic heritage shaped her career path – and her life

“For Latinos, mothers are the center of the family. It’s a strong matriarchal society that puts a lot of faith in women, so I feel we have latitude in expanding [our] leadership. Having grown up with the strong powerful force that is my mother, I never saw limits despite knowing the challenges. I’m surrounded by a lot of love and support – I couldn’t have raised children alone or run my campaign alone – and this loving community keeps me going.

So it’s an incredible privilege and honor to be representing the Latino voice, especially in the year of the Latina, the year of the woman – and in Texas. The Latino community is definitely diverse; we’re not a monolith. But there’s so much we share in common. We did a ‘border bus tour’ with Beto [O’Rourke, who vacated the 16th Congressional District seat Escobar is running for in order to challenge Republican incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz in his Senate re-election bid] and in traveling around the Rio Grande Valley it felt so much like El Paso. We’re unified on familial bonds.

Family is the center of everything for Latinos, especially in border towns. These are the values that should drive our public policy.

"I feel a responsibility of not just serving my community but serving with the values I was taught. That’s what being a Latina is all about.”

On her toughest challenges and greatest triumphs

“This [congressional campaign] is my fourth race. I’ve served as County Commissioner and County Judge [with a re-election for the latter position]. But running for Congress has been by far the hardest, the most expensive, and the most challenging. It’s tough for any candidate, but I think it’s especially challenging for mothers. Even if you’re in the most equitable of partnerships, we tend to shoulder more of a parenting burden.

The biggest triumph is forcing myself to do something I never wanted to do. I looked at the office with fear and dread. It’s very scary. When I ran for office the first time I had to quit a job I really loved, and you also give up your private life – all so you can be attacked and [scrutinized]. So many times fear is what ends up being the deciding factor in many important decisions in our lives, so I’m proud.”

Best advice for young Latinas interested in politics

“I’d tell them first that I didn’t set out to do this. But I got civically engaged in my early twenties because there was a topic I was passionate about: immigrant rights.

I joined an association and we put together beautiful events and panels to educate people. I was working as a teacher at that time and volunteering nights and weekends. It changed my life and gave me my voice. I had to step up because I was speaking on behalf of marginalized groups.

Secondly, my experience on campaigns before actually running myself was priceless. Between 1993 and 2006 I volunteered for campaigns of those who inspired me and those experiences connected me deeply to the community.

There’s no better way to get to know people than standing on their doorsteps talking about what’s important to them.

Having always believed I was better in the background than the foreground, I finally threw my hat in the ring in 2006 – and by then I knew how to run a winning campaign.

There’s no better way to learn about running for office than to work for people who inspire you.”

Looking to the future

“I feel very excited. I have never seen so many great people mobilized, volunteering for candidates and serving in campaigns. This is our moment. It’s our turn at the leadership table. And we need to keep pulling up the generations after us. It’s an absolutely pivotal time.”

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