Work/Life

These Latinas Are Changing Politics. Here's Their Most Inspiring Career Advice.

Straight wisdom from Tiffany Cabán, Jessica Cisneros and other Latinas in politics.
Pioneering Latinas in politics share what they wish they'd known before they launched their careers.
Pioneering Latinas in politics share what they wish they'd known before they launched their careers.

The Pew Research Center projects that by 2020, 32 million Latinx Americans will be eligible to vote, making it the largest ethnic minority electorate in the United States.

Although there have been significant wins and firsts with Latinas winning seats in Congress and in state and local elections, the number of Latinas representing these eligible voters is still too few. Of the 535 total members of Congress, there are only 12 Latinas in the House and just one Latina senator, Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.), who became the first elected to the Senate in 2016.

It’s easier to see what you can achieve when you can see who has done it. And if you have political ambitions, take it from these Latinas who have lived through campaign battles, long workdays and public scrutiny. This is the advice they want Latinas who wish to follow in their footsteps to know:

Tiffany Cabán, the candidate for district attorney who took on the Queens establishment

"I would say to other Latinas, get started young," Cabán said.
"I would say to other Latinas, get started young," Cabán said.

As a public defender in Queens, New York, Tiffany Cabán spent years fighting against the district attorney’s office. But after urging from her friends, she ran for district attorney herself. As a 31-year-old queer Latina pledging criminal justice reform, she ran an outsider campaign against the Queens Democratic establishment. But after an extended recount that Cabán came heartbreakingly close to winning, she lost the race ― a process that caused her to feel “all the feels,” as she put it.

But Cabán is not done using her new public platform. Now 32, she is a part-time senior adviser to the Luz Collective, a media company that tells Latina stories, as she figures out her next move. She said she would “absolutely consider” taking a job with one of the current Democratic presidential candidates.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first started working on a campaign?

I went in like “I don’t know that I’m equipped for this,” and I relied a lot on other people. There were times where I would get these gut checks and be like, “That doesn’t seem right, I think that we should do things a little bit differently.” You know more than you think you know; I kind of gained that throughout and started taking more ownership over my campaign. I wish that I had known earlier to trust my gut a little bit more because there are a bunch of mediocre younger white men out there that don’t have that problem.

Is there a mistake you made early in your career that you would handle differently now?

In terms of my public defense career, there are always mistakes that you make or feel like you made. It’s a really difficult job, and you’re making decisions that affect people’s lives in really, really significant ways. It’s important to be critical of yourself but provide yourself a little bit of grace, too, and understand that you’re working within the constraints of a system and a system that’s really stacked against you.

I went to an overwhelmingly white, middle-class, upper-middle-class high school and felt like I didn’t belong in so many ways, and I felt that same thing when I went to college, and the same thing especially when I went to law school. It took a lot of doing work and therapy and other spaces to reframe those experiences and understand that as a Latina from a low-income neighborhood with a lot of different barriers, it wasn’t that I didn’t belong there. I was, like so many others like me, needing to view myself as exceptional, recognizing my own self-worth and value, saying I don’t only belong in these spaces but I should be walking through them with my head held high, really proud. Reframing and having that kind of internalization is really, really powerful, especially as you continue to try to navigate new spaces in your career like I did.

What’s an assumption people make about what you do that you want Latinas to know is not true?

When I was running, I put who I was at the forefront. I said, “I am a 31-year-old queer Latina from a working-class family.” And there were people that were like, “That’s identity politics.” It’s not. What I want to be really clear about is that it is so far from identity politics. What it speaks to is an understanding around intersectionality and the effects of individual and generational trauma on our communities. And that who we are and where we come from has an effect on our experiences and what we bring to the table, and that it’s so important to have that kind of representation, that intimate understanding of what our communities are going through so we can better serve our communities.

When people said, “You are too young,” I always said, “Well, I have the right kind of experience. I have the most direct criminal court experience in terms of the reforms that we’re trying to bring.” I would say to other Latinas, get started young. More folks should be running, and they should be running earlier.

What are three things that are inspiring you right now?
Lizzo. Her entire album. Lizzo is the embodiment of self-love. But then she’s also so very open about her process and how she got there, because she wasn’t always there, and I think that’s really powerful for women and especially women of color to have access to.

Recently the [Los Angeles] community came together and put enough pressure on the Legislature to cancel an already-signed $2.2 billion plan to build a new jail. It was like a decade’s worth of organizing and advocacy on the ground, this incredible success saying, “No. Our communities are saying ‘no’ to jails. We are not going to further invest in our prison industrial complex and our carceral systems, and we are going to demand this money is reinvested in our communities in more meaningful ways to help us get better public health and public safety outcomes.” That was so, so inspiring to me, because people are like, “That’s too bold, too big. We have to make compromises and talk about incrementalism,” and it’s just like, no, like, fuck it, we need to be saying that we are just going to go unapologetically all the way.

I really try to buy books by women and especially women of color. I recently read “America Is Not the Heart” by Elaine Castillo, and it was a really powerful story. And right now I am reading “Fruit of the Drunken Tree” by Ingrid Rojas Contreras. There’s something really great about reading somebody’s debut novel. I like reading things with my friends at the same time because I just love how it’s a different experience for different people.

Genny Castillo, Stacey Abrams’ former star intern who works to diversify campaign staffs

"I wish I knew how many tears were involved in making change!" Castillo said.
"I wish I knew how many tears were involved in making change!" Castillo said.

In 2011, wanting a way to help people, Genny Castillo joined Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams’ staff as an unpaid intern. The Dominican-American has stayed in politics, rising to senior political adviser for Abrams’ groundbreaking 2018 gubernatorial campaign. In her memoir, Abrams described Castillo as “my go-to for constituent services, my coach when I needed to learn Spanish phrases, my innovator-in-residence when we decided to launch a statewide listening tour.”

Now 33, Castillo is the chief operating officer of the BLUE Institute, which aims to bring “more young people of color to the leadership of progressive campaigns.” The role is not her full-time job but is her full-time passion, she said. Her dream political position would be serving as a right hand to a first lady or first gentleman or for a vice president’s spouse in the White House: “I think that would be really cool.”

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first started working on a campaign?
I wish I knew how many tears were involved in making change! When you lose, it stinks, but when you win, your whole heart and mind are so excited they just make you cry. We tend to be more critical of emotional people doing this work, but that is why I am still working in this. I give my whole self to make sure that I see the change that is needed.

I also wish I’d known how many options are available for this work. When I first got involved, I did not know how many skills could be transferable and how many connections there are between the field department, fundraising and communications. This is a great industry for recent graduates to strengthen their leadership and management skills. A campaign is a small business, and you learn a lot of business practices very quickly.

Is there a mistake you made early in your career that you would handle differently now?
I would call them challenges. Not making real money doing this work is hard at first. I think one of the challenges that many Latinas face is not wanting to disappoint our parents. Having parents who have sacrificed so much, and they just want you to do better than [they did], I did think, “Is my salary matching their expectations?”

I think it was super important for me to find something that I was passionate about. I am a firm believer that “the money will come,” and I work with my heart of service first. My parents are very supportive. If your family is there, you literally can do anything you want to do.

What’s an assumption people make about what you do that you want Latinas to know is not true?
Outside of everyone thinking that I have either worked directly with President Obama or Secretary Clinton, people assume that the work I do has regular 9-to-5 hours, a large office and that I can send a text to Michelle Obama to say, “Hi.” LOL. There are no regular work hours, as you can have a day that is filled with events from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., working weekends, traveling across the country and maybe even driving a celebrity to a rally two hours away.

It is different every day, and I really enjoy that.

What are three things that are inspiring you right now?
When I started, there was one other Latina doing this work in my area. In the last eight years, I have mentored, helped and encouraged so many Latinx students to join these efforts. Last year, a group of amazing Latinx leaders created the Young Dems Latinx Caucus, and all the work that they are doing individually is incredible. When we get together, it moves my spirit.

My culture continues to be a moving inspiration in all the work I do. We are all so diferente pero [different, but] we all move in the memory of our ancestors. I love adding flavor to outreach events, I love making sure that I speak Spanish to our constituents, and I love being able to introduce others to our culture and in our movement. I have even signed up volunteers at the salsa clubs and had people tell me, “Mi amor, I voted because of you!” That is enough to keep me going!

“One Day at a Time” on Netflix is also an inspiration to me. This show about a Cuban American family going through real-life situations is so powerful. Even more powerful [is that] Netflix canceled the show, but that did not stop all the fans [from banding] together to get a new season on a new network.

Gabriela López, the youngest elected official in San Francisco

"There is more power with people than any political seat," López said.
"There is more power with people than any political seat," López said.

When she was a 27-year-old public school teacher, Gabriela López decided to run for a school board position. “I’m so grateful that I was running while teaching full time,” López said, because her students saw her as a candidate who was “running off of no sleep, still coming for school and work, and being involved, and pushing for bettering their experience.” In November 2018, she became San Francisco’s youngest elected official.

Now 29, López has an active Instagram presence where she shows constituents what it’s like to be an elected official. Being a Board of Education commissioner is not López’s only job. It pays only about a $6,000 annual stipend, so López supports herself by teaching in a different district more than an hour away to avoid conflict-of-interest rules. The Los Angeles native, born to parents from Mexico, says her dream is to become secretary of education.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first started your campaign?
There is more power with people than any political seat. When I first started running, I was consistently reminded that a single politician with voting privileges is the one making decisions for whole communities ― which is why I was advised not to run, since I didn’t fit the mold. What I have realized is so long as information is withheld from the people, their strength will go with it. Now I make consistent efforts to share what we are doing so people can come together and push for better conditions as a united force. A balance of power is what’s going to create change, and I have always known this work cannot and should not be done alone.

Is there a mistake you made early in your career that you would handle differently now?
Following protocol. I’ve been in so many situations where I’ve had to wait to speak or have missed opportunities to make amendments because of following specific guidelines while trying to learn the process and better understand what the rules and procedures are. What I’ve learned is that I am in this seat for a reason ― to represent students, families, educators, community members, people who have been let down by these very systems that were not created for them, systems that have rules that are set up so the control stays one-sided. I now push those boundaries and remind myself that I get to do this because of the people who put me here.

What’s an assumption people make about what you do that you want Latinas to know is not true?
Before going to board meetings, many people shared that I need to control my facial expressions and reactions. I have since come to realize that is a sexist way of keeping me in line with behaviors that are considered the norm. I have made it evident that if people say something I don’t agree with, something that is out of line or offensive, then I have to show my emotions so the public understands where I fall on certain issues.

"I have to show my emotions so the public understands where I fall on certain issues," Gabriela López said. 
"I have to show my emotions so the public understands where I fall on certain issues," Gabriela López said. 

There is also an immense amount of pressure I felt all at once when taking on the responsibility of a commissioner on top of everything else I do. My mental wellness was seriously at stake, and there were many moments when no one understood what I was going through. So, for me, it’s important to share that while this work is incredibly gratifying, it is also strenuous. On top of being an unpaid position!

What are three things that are inspiring you right now?
Really exciting to me are the idea of getting my Ph.D., pursuing writing a book and the “Let Love” album by Common.

Jessica Cisneros, the Democratic primary challenger running against her former boss in 2020

"When people think about the kind of person that should be running for office, I think there’s a specific prototype. I am a counter-narrative to that," Cisneros said.
"When people think about the kind of person that should be running for office, I think there’s a specific prototype. I am a counter-narrative to that," Cisneros said.

This summer, Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old South Texas native and immigration lawyer, announced her decision to challenge Rep. Henry Cuellar for Texas’ 28th Congressional District ― a seat Cuellar has held for 15 years. Cuellar has an A rating from the National Rifle Association, voted for anti-abortion legislation and was once Cisneros’ boss when she interned for him on Capitol Hill. Cisneros describes her ex-boss as “Trump’s favorite Democrat.“

The daughter of two Mexican immigrants, Cisneros said she is blessed to be an ”abogada that fight for families who look just like mine.” She is running on a platform to end family separations at the border, pass “Medicare for All” and enact a Green New Deal. Her campaign is backed by Justice Democrats, the progressive group known for helping Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) oust a Democratic incumbent in 2018. If she wins, Cisneros will be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first started your campaign?

Knowing the kind of support that I was going to receive by complete strangers. Before we launched, we were really taking a leap of faith because we were investing resources into the campaign that we weren’t sure we’re going to have. And it was scary. It really was a leap of faith hoping that the rest of the community was going to respond.

That’s something that I would have felt better knowing before launching the campaign.

Is there a mistake you made early in your career that you would handle differently now?
Maybe it’s a woman of color thing, maybe it’s a woman thing in general, but sometimes you feel like maybe your opinion isn’t as important as other people’s, or you feel like you don’t know as much as the next person, but that’s not true. I’ve come to learn that.

Being so public about where I stand and what I believe in, and who I’m fighting for, is the complete opposite of those feelings that I had growing up, in school and then transitioning into my professional career.

What’s an assumption people make about what you do that you want Latinas to know is not true?

When people think about the kind of person that should be running for office, I think there’s a specific prototype. I am a counter-narrative to that. I am a young woman who is Latina, who is from the barrio, who is from a working-class family. We need more people like that, people that have different experiences. There’s no one set way to prepare to run for office.

Anybody who thinks that there is a path, that maybe you have to go to law school and you have to do X, Y, Z things, and jump through these hoops and then maybe, once you’re like 50 year old, you can run for office, because you’ve already proven that you have the credentials –- I think that’s just a way from keeping people like me and people that look like me from running. That’s an assumption that people make about candidates that are running for office that is completely wrong.

What are three things that are inspiring you right now?
The people that I’ve come into contact with during the campaign. Getting to hear their stories and who they are and what they believe in and what they hold near and dear to their hearts, and hearing why they support your campaign, that’s definitely super inspiring right now and is the thing that keeps me going.

Color Esparanza” by Diego Torres. When I think about the campaign, it’s the song that I think about, because we’re standing up. There’s that hope that we’re fighting for.

María Antonietta Berriozábal. She’s a Chicana activist that I met at the beginning of our campaign. Even though she’s older now, she still fights for the community she loves, and she’s been supportive of me. That’s the kind of person I want to be, someone that has dedicated her entire life to fighting for the community. I’m actually reading her book right now. It’s called “María, Daughter of Immigrants.” That’s me, too. She was the first Latina on the City Council in San Antonio; she ran for mayor, she ran for Congress.

María Quiñones-Sánchez, Philadephia City Council veteran

"There is an assumption that successful candidates all have access to traditional power structures," Quiñones-Sánchez said.
"There is an assumption that successful candidates all have access to traditional power structures," Quiñones-Sánchez said.

To work in Philadelphia politics for over 30 years, as María Quiñones-Sánchez has, you have to be prepared to make enemies. The Philadelphia councilwoman is currently serving her third four-year term representing the city’s 7th District, and in May she won her fourth consecutive victory in the Democratic primaries without official support from her own party members.

Quiñones-Sánchez, who is Puerto Rican, grew up in the Hunting Park section of Philadelphia and is a pioneer in politics. In 2007, she became the first Latina elected to a District Council seat in Philadelphia. Local news outlets have speculated whether she will run for mayor in 2023. If she does run and win, she would become the city’s first female mayor.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first started your campaign?
As an Afro-Latina and Puerto Rican woman, nothing in my cultural upbringing prepared me to be a disciplined candidate in my first (unsuccessful) run for office in 1999. I didn’t want to brag about myself, so I had no easy “elevator pitch” to tell my story. I didn’t fundraise well because I wouldn’t ask people for money. I didn’t understand that it’s a mistake to try to perform constituent services on the campaign trail ― especially as a first-time candidate! When I went out door knocking... I’d stay 30 or 45 minutes trying to resolve individual issues on the spot. I lost a lot of time, and the campaign wasn’t effective.

I learned the hard way that campaign time is for telling your story, getting your message out and making personal connections. There’s plenty of time for constituent services once you win.

Is there a mistake you made early in your career that you would handle differently now?
I had always found success as a process-oriented person, but I lost track of that in my eagerness to give voice to my historically silenced community. I spent most of my first four-year term calling people out and trying to disrupt the system, and not enough time educating my colleagues, studying and strategizing.

I was right when I called out racism and systemic disparities, but being right was not enough. I needed to learn how to operationalize the reforms I championed. Real, transformative change comes from making good policy that works for your constituents.

What’s an assumption people make about what you do that you want Latinas to know is not true?
There is an assumption that successful candidates all have access to traditional power structures: privilege, connections, personal wealth. Latinas typically don’t have this, but that doesn’t mean we can’t win.

Latinas are super voters. If we vote and volunteer for you, you know our husbands, parents, kids, cousins and neighbors are all voting and volunteering, too. Our community ties are deep, and we can bring tremendous strength and energy to a campaign. At every level, grassroots campaigns are competing and winning against traditional party structures, dark money and the old way of doing things. We win when we embrace our communities, rely on each other and share our stories.

What are three things that are inspiring you right now?
My mom. Her energy level is amazing. I can’t always keep up, but she is my role model.

My Philly-Rican community. Our diaspora community is growing and diverse, but we rallied together two years ago, forming a grassroots relief effort and long-term recovery strategy after Hurricane Maria.

This July, Puerto Ricans stood up and got the governor to resign. That was inspiring to see, and I hope the action leads to better advocacy for the future of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans on the mainland and on the island. Our Hispanic Month celebrations grow and multiply every year, so this is a fun and proud time of year for my office.

Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Nuestras Voces Unidas (Our Voices United) is a HuffPost series created to honor Hispanic Heritage Month and amplify the diverse voices within the community. Find all of our coverage here.