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'Si, se puede': With inauguration, Latina legislators make history in Congress

Congress's youngest member, its first two Texan Latinas and first South American were sworn in on Thursday.
From left, Sylvia Garcia, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell,  Veronica Escobar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
From left, Sylvia Garcia, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Veronica Escobar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.Getty Images; AP; Reuters

The youngest woman ever elected to Congress, first South American and first two Latinas from Texas: With their inauguration on Thursday, a group of Hispanic women made history in the 116th Congress.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., enters the Congress as its youngest woman elected and its current youngest member. Ocasio-Corterz, 29, of Puerto Rican descent, beat a veteran Democratic incumbent in the primaries with a grassroots campaign focusing on progressive policies such as "Medicare for all" as well as free higher education or trade school for all. She has publicly said she will oppose her own party's rules against deficit spending if it takes money away from areas such as health care.

On Wednesday, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted out a picture of her and other incoming women legislators with the phrase "Si, se puede," (Yes, we can), the words that were coined by labor activist and United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta and then immortalized by President Barack Obama during his campaign.

Another women in the picture is Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, one of two Latinas who are the first to represent Texas in Congress.

Escobar takes the place of Beto O’Rourke, also a Democrat, in representing Texas’ 16th Congressional District, which includes the heavily Latino border area of El Paso. She was previously a county commissioner and county judge.

On Twitter, Escobar took on Trump's insistence on $5 billion for a border wall — which has led to the current government shutdown — by writing that "the border has never been more secure" and "immigration is lower today than it was a decade ago." Escobar instead argued for the need to work with Central American countries to address the root causes of migration.

Escobar has also pledged to expand access to health care — Texas blocked expanding Medicaid access and other mechanisms under Obama's Affordable Care Act — as well as improving veterans' services.

Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, is the other Latina making history as a Texas congresswoman. A former state senator and city controller in Houston, she will be representing the areas of Houston and Pasadena.

Garcia reminded Twitter users of Thursday's significance and wrote as one of her hashtags, #LaCongresista. Under her signature issues, she lists advocating for women, touting her support for health and abortion access and her work to pass a state bill making revenge porn a crime.

Both Escobar and Garcia are Mexican-American.

Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., won a race against Republican Cuban-American congressman Carlos Curbelo and is making history as the first member of Congress of South American descent, as she wrote on Twitter shortly after her election. She came to the U.S. as a young girl from Ecuador and started her career working at nonprofits; she's also a former associate dean at Florida International University.

One of Mucarsel-Powell's main campaign themes is access to health care. “I started working at the [Florida Atlantic University] College of Health and I understood the issues that our community was facing here in South Florida, which is lack of access, a shortage of doctors and nurses because they can’t pay for their education," Mucarsel-Powell told NBC News during her campaign.

She said then she would propose increasing funding for community health care programs.

Another Latina entering the Congress is Rep. Xochitl Torres-Small, D-N.M., a water-rights attorney who developed connections in rural communities when she helped design a water plan while working for Sen. Tom Udall, also a New Mexico Democrat.

She previously told NBC News her skills as a water attorney would help her transcend partisanship in Congress. With water issues, "you have to accept science and look at every situation," she said. "Some things you have to take as facts and work with them."

Torres-Small says in her bio that one of her grandmothers emigrated from Mexico and worked in the fields "to build her American dream."

Latinos also had some 'firsts'

Republicans made history with the election of GOP congressman Anthony Gonzalez, who is of Cuban descent and the first Hispanic elected to Congress from Ohio.

Another new face is Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia of Illinois, who is taking over for Luis Gutierrez, a fellow Democrat who is of Puerto Rican descent and is retiring. Garcia is the first Mexican-American to represent Illinois in Congress.

The new Congress will include at least 38 House members and four senators who are Latino — including a few others who are newcomers — according to the official count of the National Association of Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund. NALEO still is working to confirm the tally.