BE Latina: Candace Valenzuela Is One Step Closer to Becoming the First Afro-Latina on Capitol Hill
By Tatiana Mena Ramos
UPDATE 7/15/2020: Candace Valenzuela, the Afro-Latina looking to flip Texas’ 24th Congressional District in November, has just clinched the Democratic nomination in yesterday’s run-off primary election. As a former educator, a daughter of veterans, and someone who has experienced homelessness, she is ready to challenge our broken systems to empower communities from the ground up. Check out our interview with Valenzuela from earlier this month to celebrate her victory and cheer for her to become the first Afro-Latina in U.S. Congress.
As women of color make their voices heard this election season, the importance of representation becomes clearer. Alongside this, national awareness around key issues that affect communities of color are taking the lead in widespread conversations about policy and legislation.
Congressional candidates like Candace Valenzuela are determined to elevate the importance of challenging our current systems in pursuit of better futures. She is running against retired Air Force Col. Kim Olson in the Democratic primary runoff for Texas’ 24th Congressional District on July 14th in hopes of flipping the seat that has been occupied by Rep. Kenny Marchant for sixteen years.
With a background and upbringing steeped in experiences that encompass the current American experience, she brings the perspective of someone who has lived through the ins and outs of the existing institutional systems. I had the opportunity to talk with her about her platform and what she’s about.
The times we’re living in are prompting a sense of recognition in people on the importance of representation in government. Alongside your background, the fact that you’re a woman of color is also very important to point out. How does your background influence your role and commitment towards your constituents? What’s the importance of representation to you?
My story is one that is inherently American in so many ways. My great-grandfather came from Mexico after fighting in World War I, my grandfather fought in World War II, and my parents met in the military. I feel a sense of legacy with the fact that my family chose to be here and protect their country. That service is important to who I am because it’s who they were.
However, even with this legacy of service, my mother, brother, and I still ended up homeless. We got to know how our veterans are treated, how difficult it is to navigate treatment services, and what it means to have to accept help. Even as our housing situation fluctuated, public education became a source of stability for us. It helped both my brother and I get to college with full scholarships.
I got to study the foundation of the systems that served me and that I would eventually serve through my work as a school board trustee. I think all of those things make up a really important voice that has exposure to what it’s like to be involved in these systems while also having that same exposure to education and government.
Being able to fuse real-world and academic experiences, and bring them to bear in my classrooms as a teacher allowed me to bring it to bear in my governance as a school board trustee. I’m trying to bring that voice to Congress because we don’t have enough Latinxs, working-class people, nor people who have been totally broke.
The struggles you’ve faced in your life along with the work you’ve done as a community leader and educator have seemed to shape your campaign significantly. Could you talk a bit about the issues you’re planning to address and how these unprecedented times are shifting these?
I wish the times weren’t making a better case for me but we’re seeing a lot of the things that I’ve been talking about: making sure that families have a living wage, access to paid sick leave, affordable housing, and that healthcare can’t make you go broke someday.
I’ve been talking about this for a long time and we’re now seeing people compelled to vote for the kinds of leaders that are going to talk about these issues in a very competent way. That competency comes from experiencing these systems as they exist right now for most people.
Something you’ve said previously regarding public education encompasses a lot of what you’re about beyond just education, which is the idea of “growing the economy from the middle out, rather than from the top down.” Could you talk more about this?
We now understand that when we invest in people that are doing work that we consider essential, folks can contribute more to the economy and are able to build a thriving society. Compassionate policy-making is also an economically intelligent thing to do. When we don’t punish people for circumstances for which they have no control over, we get a huge return on that investment. Our public education system is proof of that. The fact that people are trying to take it apart and make money off of it is abhorrent; our education is foundational to our democracy. That’s one example of that critical investment that needs to be made with everyone from top to bottom.
During a time where people are taking to the streets and seeking justice for these essential workers and communities of color, how have the recent manifestations shaped your campaign and/or your perspective?
As a woman of color, it’s traumatizing to see these images of folks who can’t breathe, who get shot for being in their homes or for going to the grocery store. I think a lot about Tamir Rice for instance: at the time he died, I was pregnant with my first son and it was very difficult to see this child being shot just for playing in the park. To see his 14-year-old sister running for him, being tackled and put in the back of a car while watching her brother die is something I carry with me every day. I think a lot of mothers do.
We’ve known for a long time that the way we approach policing needs to change. I am grateful that we have continued to find footage because it means that this is where the gaslighting ends. When accountability, witnesses, and transparency start making their way into a system to make a change, we are getting into better shape. We’re in the midst of a powerful moment that is awakening many Americans to the ways that institutional racism hurts families like my own every day. Not just in our interactions with the police but also in our financial institutions, healthcare systems, and our pursuits for public office. We’re in a delicate time in American history.
In order to have justice, equity, and understanding, we need more people of color that have been subjected to these systems. They need to be willing to commit to ending private prisons and incarcerations of folks on the border, to community policing, and even commit to giving police officers a living wage. When you underpay police, you either have someone with a good heart who will get burnt out or someone who likes carrying a gun and will do it with low pay. That’s not a system of protection, it’s a system of abuse. We need reform to protect everyone in our communities, police included.
What message would you like to leave folks with?
I’m trying to fight for change and empower communities that face injustice to build diverse and inclusive community coalitions. Now more than ever, we need leaders that can speak to issues of hardship and racial injustice from a personal perspective. I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles and lived experiences of racial injustice. The only reason I’m standing here is because of the investment of leaders who came before me. They didn’t intend that to be the end of their work; we have to continue to push the ball forward.