Under a rapidly-warming West Texas Sunday morning, amidst the green fields that surround the Marcelino Serna Port of Entry, a group on nearly 2000 protesters, along with local, national and international press, marched on the newly-opened tent camp housing children of immigrants who were rounded up as a result of the Trump Administration’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ Policy on illegal entry to the U.S.
The Tornillo Tent Camp, named for the town that lies some two miles to the north of the Port of Entry, and almost 4o miles east of El Paso, is at the center of the immigration debate, as the children being kept in the tents and portable buildings at the facility have all been separated from their parents, who attempted to enter the US illegally.
Organized by Congressman Robert ‘Beto’ O’Rourke, who is also running for the Texas Senate Seat held by Ted Cruz, the march featured local leaders including former El Paso County Judge turned Congressional candidate herself Veronica Escobar and Congressman Joe Kennedy III, who represents Massachusetts.
The group marched a short distance from the Tornillo/Guadalupe toll lanes and back; originally intending to meet closer to the bridge, near the ‘Tree of Mirrors’ sculpture, the protesters were not allowed to get that close.
With a handful of security guards mixed in with Customs and Border Protection Agents, they formed a loose line at the gate leading to the bridge, however the group and the guards got no closer than 50 or so yards.
With Texas DPS Officers and El Paso County Sheriff’s Deputies looking on, the group chanted, held protest signs and walked arm-in-arm, never getting within visual distance of the tent city or the children housed there.
Under the watchful eyes of several buzzing drones, and at least one group of CBP Agents who took up a station on top of a building in front of the tent city, the group sang the National Anthem, prayed and listened to speakers for almost an hour.
Video by Steven Cottingham, Photographer / Gallery by Andres Acosta, Chief Photographer, El Paso Herald-Post.
This is Women’s History Month and I recently had a really profound “aha” moment. While I was on the campaign trail with Congressional Candidate, Judy Canales. We were heading to a speaking engagement at the Young Women’s Academy.
Judy has a really awesome story, she is a borderland girl, born and raised in Uvalde and building her life in Eagle Pass which shares an international border with Piedras Negras, Mexico – just as El Paso shares an international border. She graduated from school in the small town of Uvalde, and then continued her education all the way, eventually graduating from Harvard.
Judy would then go on to be chosen as a White House Appointee by first President Bill Clinton and then later, most recently, President Barack Obama. She has broken barriers becoming the first female and first Latina to head the Texas Farm Service Agency under USDA. She is bilingual and bi-cultural, this is why she was invited to speak to our next generation of young female leaders… However I was surprised to find out one of her personal heroes, is one our very own barrier breakers herself: El Paso’s Alicia R. Chacón
THE FIRST WAVE
I like to consider myself a feminist, taking tons of Women’s Studies courses during my undergrad, and I like to think I’m a pretty woke individual, which is why my next sentence is so disappointing. I had very little knowledge on Alicia Chacón. I knew the name and that we have an international school named after her but I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t know much else.
I analyzed this for days afterwards and I felt compelled to write this story for the purpose of refreshing our local herstory.
One of the things I remember from my studies is that our movements come in waves and I feel like maybe I was wrapped up in my own wave back then focusing only on studying great icons like Dolores Huerta, Ellen Ochoa, Frida, etc… that I failed to honor those great icons from Texas that also paved the way… and since I am a storyteller I wanted to make it right and write.
Along our campaign trips (which are usually hours long since we are traveling long stretches of road across Texas) Judy has shared a lot of amazing information with me from a range of topics, when she mentions a name of someone who inspired her and I don’t recognize the name, I make a note and then research it later.
This was the case when she mentioned the name Maria Berriozábal, the first Mexican American woman to be elected to San Antonio City Council, who also became a Presidential Appointee as the U.S. Representative to the Inter-American Commission on Women of the Organization of American States (OAS). She is now 71 and still an activist.
On a different road trip I heard the name Lena Guerrero, Judy educated me on Lena’s impact. Lena was the youngest woman ever elected to the Texas House of Representatives, was also the first woman, and first Mexican-American female to serve as Texas Railroad Commissioner and the first Latina to hold a statewide office in Texas.
Although her political career would later end up going through some hard times, she was a fighter, even taking on Texas, fighting for the Tiguas to retain their gaming rights here in El Paso. Regardless of what would later happen with her political career, she did break barriers, she was a ‘First Latina.’ Sadly Lena Guerrero passed away from Brain Cancer at the young age of 50. May she rest in peace.
On this last trip was when I heard Judy talking with a friend about trying to see Alicia Chacón while she (Judy) was in town. She spoke about how greatly she admired Alicia what Alicia has meant to her.
As an El Pasoan I had always heard the name, I knew there was a school named in her honor but it is only now as I have become engaged in this 2018 midterm election, that I am starting to really appreciate the huge influence her life has had on our city, our herstory and how far ahead of her time she really was.
Born in Canutillo and then moving across town where she would eventually graduate from Ysleta High School. One could say politics was in her blood, her grandfather on her mother’s side was General Carlos Almeida, who fought along Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution. Her father, was very politically active and became Constable of Canutillo.
After returning from the war, her father would be offered a job in Ysleta and so the family relocated. Alicia fell in love with her new area and here, the doors would open for her through the 4-H club. This is a woman who lived through segregation and in her interviews recalls how when traveling with 4-H often they had to switch hotels, she realized later it was because they didn’t allow Mexicans.
In a time when women and Mexicanos (Mexican-Americans) didn’t continue higher learning past middle school, Alicia graduated from high school. Reading through the transcripts of her past interviews, wow it is really divine intervention and makes you think, destiny does exist.
It would be her first job, which was for her father’s friend Woodrow Bean, where she would meet her future husband and other influential mentors like Sam Cohen and Ralph Yarborough, who saw something special in her and she stepped into her path of politics.
Her father would made sure the family always paid their poll tax, so they could vote. For my generation it is unheard of that there was ever a poll tax simply because you weren’t born white. – Alicia worked alongside her father on all the Democratic campaigns, also to increase awareness and voter turnout in El Paso County (the rural portions that were left out of the city.) Campaigning was a family tradition, including the Viva Kennedy Clubs. Her life would take her to the national arena where she attended the ’68 State Democratic Convention and was elected the first Mexicana to serve on the state executive committee.
In a crazy turn, her next job would take her to the inaugural Democratic Party of El Paso as an administrative assistant – but in her personal life, Ysleta continued to get the short end of the stick being pushed further and further out by the city and the school was suffering. She and other parents decided to take action against the all white school board, they decided they needed to have a Mexican voice on the school board for representation.
After much thought the community decided that no one else would know politics better than Alicia, so they asked her to run. She agreed and began her campaign for school board, not only was she campaigning for herself but also registering each person to vote, at the same time. That is the best story on multitasking!
It seems at every turn in her life there was a need to be met, an action to be taken and so she stepped up. In 1974 Chacón was elected as the first woman to serve as county clerk in El Paso.
Then, in 1978, President Jimmy Carter called on her to serve, Alicia became the first Mexican-American woman to serve as the regional director for the Small Business Administration and was one of 100 Americans appointed by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to serve on the United States Commission to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). She would make history again in 1983 becoming the first Mexican-American woman to be elected to the El Paso City Council.
As we entered the 1990’s, Alicia would shatter the Texas glass ceiling, becoming the first Mexican-American woman elected judge of a major urban Texas county.
As we preparing to go to the polls today; I understand now Judy’s shock when I knew nothing about these trailblazing women that carved the road where there was none.
THE NEXT WAVE
The political landscape looks different today, thanks to the pioneering efforts of these women that came before us, but the road is long and we have miles to go before we sleep. However we have had some FIERCE LATINAS from El Paso breaking down the doors of the “good ‘ol boys club” mentality.
Norma Chavez – First Latina from El Paso elected to the Texas Legislature, currently running for Congress
Mary Gonzalez– First Pansexual Latina elected to the Texas Legislature, currently running for re-election
Georgina Cecilia Pérez – First Latina from El Paso (and one of only 3 Latinas) elected to serve on the Texas State Board of Education
HERSTORY IN THE MAKING
El Paso voters have a very special place on the national landscape right now. We have TWO Congressional districts within our city and BOTH of them have Latinas in them, if elected they would become the FIRST LATINAS to represent Texas in the United States Congress. These are the women that may be written into the next pages of history.
Congressional District 16 – El Paso
Candidate Veronica Escobar – Judge Escobar served two terms as El Paso County Judge, and previously served one term as County Commissioner for Precinct 2.
Candidate Norma Chavez – First Latina from El Paso elected to the Texas Legislature and has served on multiple State Committees
Congressional District 23 – El Paso County
Candidate Judy Canales (of Eagle Pass) – Two time Presidential Appointee, President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama. First Latina and First woman to head the Texas Farm Service Agency under USDA
Regardless of who wins tonight, these women have broken ground for future El Paso Latinas.
THE FUTURE IS LATINA
The whole reason for this trip was to visit these young women at the Ysleta Academy. I walked around the campus and they had so many images of historic women on the walls. Their everyday is filled KNOWING that they can achieve greatness. I can only imagine how that will positively impact their future.
As Judy spoke to the auditorium they listened attentively and even during the Q & A portion of Judy’s visit they surprised me by asking her about Net Neutrality. There are plenty of adults that have no idea what is going on with the laws and repealing of Net Neutrality, which is actually going to negatively impact the majority of people.
These young women were WOKE. I was so proud looking around the room, just listening to them speak among each other; they have so much more available to them than we did.
At the very end Judy said “and one of you may be the next president!” and the girls all let out loud cheers. They don’t fully know it, but I can see it. They will change the world.
Eighteen months and several political lifetimes ago, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee held court at a table at the Democratic National Committee Texas delegation breakfast in Philadelphia. Just hours before Hillary Clinton was set to become the first woman to accept a major-party nomination for the presidency, Jackson Lee conceded she was “worried … but not panicked” about the advancement of women in politics in her own backyard.
The Houston Democrat’s concerns stemmed from being one of just three women in the 38-member Texas delegation. The prospects of other women stepping in once all three retired, let alone expanding their ranks, seemed dim.
Fast forward to 2018, and Jackson Lee is no longer worried. In fact, she’s elated. Thanks to the polarizing response to Donald Trump and a rash of retirements in the delegation, women are coming out of the woodwork to run for federal office in Texas.
“It is a lifetime ago, and I’m glad I said what I said,” she says now. “I didn’t realize our work would be so accelerated, but it has.”
“I consider young women fixer-uppers — they come in when the country is in desperate need for common sense, for spunkiness, for strength, for nurturing and for knowing how to bring peace in the middle of discord,” she added.
For more than two decades, Jackson Lee has been part of a trifecta of women representing Texas in the U.S. House along with Democratic U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas and Republican U.S. Rep. Kay Granger of Fort Worth. Each of the three women was elected in a succession of cycles from 1992 to 1996. Joining them in 1993 was U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who became the first woman elected to the Senate from Texas.
No freshman woman has come to Congress from Texas since Granger’s election 1996, with the exception of former U.S. Rep. Shelley Sekula Gibbs, who served as a placeholder for less than two months in late 2006. (Hutchison, who left the Senate in 2013, is now U.S. ambassador to NATO.)
The problem in Texas was not so much that women weren’t winning – it was that they weren’t running.
In interviews with candidates, officeholders and campaign consultants, the most-cited reasons for the lack of female candidates were concerns that gerrymandered districts would protect incumbents, an aversion to commuting to Washington while raising children and general apathy, a problem Jackson Lee cited back in 2016.
That all changed this year, in part due to a national backlash against Trump on the Democratic side and, in Texas, a wave of retirements on both sides.
Approximately 50 women have lined up this year to run for Congress in Texas, among hundreds running around the country. Of that sum, a handful are running well-funded, professional campaigns and have viable paths to serving in Washington.
“What a difference two years makes!” Dolly Elizondo, a 2016 candidate who came up short in her South Texas Democratic primary, wrote in an email about the new environment. “I am amazed and proud to see so many women and women of color running for office across this country and winning.”
Despite the Trump effect being seen across the country, the main reason so many women are running in Texas this year is the recent rash of vacancies of Texans in Congress. Most were retirements, but U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke created a vacancy in his heavily Democratic El Paso-based 16th district when he announced his run for U.S. Senate.
It is there that a new female member of Congress from Texas is most likely to emerge.
Former El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar and former El Paso School Board President Dori Fenenbock are the best-funded candidates aiming to succeed O’Rourke, and former state Rep. Norma Chavez threw her hat into the ring just before the December filing deadline. Escobar and Fenenbock both cited the same reason as contributing to their decisions to run: Their children are old enough that they felt comfortable making the Washington commute without creating disruptions in their families.
Three men are also running in the Democratic primary, but the betting money among political observers is on El Paso sending a woman to Washington.
Another potential future congresswoman is state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, a Houston Democrat who is seeking retiring U.S. Rep. Gene Green‘s 29th District seat and has drawn Green’s endorsement. She faces a crowded field in a Democratic primary that will likely determine the outcome of the election. Houston political insiders say that, while there are no assurances, Garcia is in the driver’s seat for the nomination.
She ran for Congress previously in 1992 against Green and lost. Back then, she was part of another crush of women entering politics, at that time in response to the controversial Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings.
On the GOP side, Texas women running for open seats in Congress include political fundraiser Bunni Pounds and communications consultant Jenifer Sarver. Both women are in ferociously competitive primaries.
Pounds was a longtime fundraiser for the outgoing congressman in her district, U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling. She, like Garcia and Escobar, has the support of the man she is aiming to replace.
The stakes for the Republican Party to send some of these women to Congress are high, from a national perspective. The House GOP conference is bleeding female members due to retirements and women who are vacating their seats to run statewide. Making matters worse, other Republican women represent some of the most vulnerable districts on the 2018 map.
“Certainly, in D.C., there’s an awareness that there’s a lot of movement in female-held seats,” Sarver said. “While a lot of that movement is upward, some of that could be a loss of female members [in the U.S. House.]”
But for Democrats, this is also about a backlash against President Donald Trump.
“It was like a punch in the gut when she lost,” Fenenbock said of El Paso’s reaction to Hillary Clinton’s defeat. “And we have a very strong representation of female voters. But I think there was a wake up call where we said, ‘Look, we can’t lose these opportunities if we are going to make a difference.’”
A number of the Democrats running attended their local Women’s Marches last year following Trump’s inauguration. Former Air Force intelligence officer Gina Ortiz Jones is running for the Democratic nomination to take on U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, in the most competitive seat in the state.
Jones served as a crossing guard at the national Women’s March in Washington that day.
“I knew after the election that night, I knew my time in public service would be different,” she said.
If elected, Jones, who is a first generation Filipino-American, would be the first Texan of an Asian-American background and the first openly LGBT Texan to serve in Congress.
Jones recently earned the endorsement of EMILY’s List, a Democratic fundraising juggernaut that backs female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights.
That so many women are running – some in the same primaries – has created a sticky situation with the group, which has also endorsed Escobar and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher of Houston, both of whom are running in competitive primaries that include other women. Fenenbock called EMILY’s List decision to endorse her primary opponent “extraordinarily frustrating.”
“I have many friends who have given fundraisers for EMILY’s List and have friends, including myself, who have supported it for years,” Fenenbock said. “This is a bad trend, right now. We have women running, we should be supporting women who are running rather than pit them against each other. I don’t understand.”
“They’re getting a lot of phone calls about this race,” she added.
An end to the drought
There are dozens more women running for Congress in Texas, and the next round of campaign finance filings at the end of the month will show which candidates are prepared for the lead up to the March 6 primary.
Democrats Laura Moser, who is in the race to take on U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, and Lillian Salerno, who is running in the primary to run against U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, are among those who already posted strong fundraising reports last year.
But many of these candidates are still getting their footing with fundraising. Some could burst through into a runoff as the March 6 primary looms. Other candidates running in long-shot races could emerge as serious contenders if a strong enough Democratic wave sweeps through Texas and catches an incumbent or two napping.
But even if some of these women run the best campaigns possible, many are likely to come up short anyway. Some are running in the wrong party to win their seat. In other cases, open seats and Trump ire have similarly attracted talented male candidates as well.
And for the women hoping to take on Sessions, Culberson and Hurd – three Republican incumbents drawing strong attention from Democrats this year – it’s worth remembering that incumbents keep returning to Congress year in, year out for a reason: They know how to win in their districts.
Regardless, the influx of enthusiasm and candidates means that it is very likely that a year from now, at least one woman from somewhere in the state will be sworn into the Congress for the first time.
Few of the women interviewed for this story initially understood of the historical stakes of their campaigns.
Pounds, the Republican running in East Texas, downplayed gender in her race.
“I am a conservative who happens to be a woman, not a conservative running as a woman, and I’m honored by the overwhelming support I’ve earned across all 7 counties in the short period of time since announcing my candidacy,” she wrote in an email.
Fletcher, one of the Houston candidates, took the opposite tack. She first became aware of the decades-long drought during a May interview with The Texas Tribune and has since used that as a rallying point among her female supporters.
“When I tell people that here, they’re similarly shocked,” she said. “Especially women.”
Democratic state Rep. César Blanco was the one who told Escobar, one of the El Paso candidates, that no Texas Latina had ever served in Congress.
“I thought that had to be some kind of mistake,” she said. “I could not believe that was really the case. I didn’t quite believe it because it does seem so shocking.”
She hopes she will not be the only one to make it. She considers Garcia, the Houston state senator, to be a friend and hopes they can break the glass ceiling together.
“It would be incredible to be in the freshman class with her, but also incredible by [not just sending] one Latina but by sending two,” Escobar said.
Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.
Disclosure: Jenifer Sarver has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.
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El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar has officially started her run for Congress.
Escobar, a Democrat, submitted paperwork Friday to the Federal Election Commission to begin a campaign for Texas’ 16th Congressional District. U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, is giving up the seat to run for U.S. Senate in 2018.
Escobar is expected to make the campaign official Saturday, when she’s invited supporters to a “special announcement” in El Paso.
Escobar, who is close with O’Rourke, was almost instantly seen as a potential candidate to replace him when he announced in March he would challenge U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. She already has his backing in her bid for Congress.
In recent weeks, Escobar had also received support from a draft effort by a national group, the Latino Victory Project. If elected, Escobar would become the first Latina member of Congress from Texas.
A number of Democrats are already running for the solid-blue 16th District, the most prominent of which is Dori Fenenbock, the El Paso school board president. She’s been campaigning for the seat for months.
Escobar’s current term as county judge ends in December 2018. Though she has already announced she will not run for re-election, her announcement Saturday is likely to have a ripple effect. Under state law, county officials like Escobar automatically resign when they announce they’re running for another office with more than a year and a month left in their current term.
At their Monday meeting, El Paso County commissioners are scheduled to “discuss and take appropriate action to fill the vacancy of the El Paso County Judge,” according to an agenda that was updated Friday.
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Federal judges have invalidated two of Texas’ 36 congressional districts, setting up a scramble to redraw them ahead of the 2018 elections. [Full story]