October 17, 2003

Latinas in Politics: The New Leaders of San Diego County

By Perlita R. Dicochea

Latinas are taking on more prominent roles in San Diego County politics focusing on pressing issues from environmental degradation to multicultural education to raising awareness about current abortion legislation. As Latina political activists reach higher positions, they build a new foundation for San Diego’s border and gender consciousness.

Each Latina we interviewed encourages those around them to participate in the democratic process. The driving force for each woman’s political careers is for Latina/o communities to become informed and regain control over the future of their own neighborhoods, schools, and cities.

It seems Latina participation in the democratic process is a growing trend nationwide. A recent Hispanic Opinion Tracker (HOT) study, published by People en Español, shows that of those surveyed, 75% of Hispanic women voted in the last presidential election versus 68% of Hispanic men.

In addition, six of the seven Latinas we spoke with are Democrats, resembling the trend found in the HOT study that Hispanics are predominantly Democrats. The majority of the group also reflects the HOT study’s findings that more Hispanic women are attracted to the Democratic Party than Hispanic men (58% versus 48%).

At times, the commitment to political issues has involved immediate family members. Maria García’s teenage children helped with her campaign for the 51st Congressional District. “They’re my helpers,” she said. Maritza Gates, the first Latina regional director of the San Diego Democratic Club, committed 20-plus hours a week to the “No on Recall, Yes on Bustamante” campaign. As a result, she said, “My husband hasn’t seen me since September 2nd. Good thing he knows how to cook!”

Regardless of political affiliation, each Latina political leader interviewed for this story took their own life path engaging in a combination of career, family, and volunteer activities at different points in their vibrant lives. All the while, these women keep themselves informed about local, state, and national events. Their profiles and experiences follow.

Gender and Other Politics

While each Latina interviewed expressed political involvement as a very rewarding career, several explain that pursuing a public role means one must face those with traditional ideas about a woman’s place in the world.

“I don’t want to be another Latina whose voice has been lost because of the persistent machismo in our culture that no one wants to talk about,” Guadalupe Corona insisted.

Guadalupe Corona: Former president of the reconvened Cesar Chavez Democratic Club during its inaugural year; director of USD’s Multicultural Center; Ph.D. Candidate at USD. Corona volunteered for the “No on 54” campaign and plans to run for the San Diego School Board. At heart: Corona has a long track record of promoting educational leadership among Chicanas/Latinas.

Maria García, mother of six, was asked at a campaign press conference, “Why aren’t you at home with your children?” García responded, “I do this for my kids and for my country.” García became disgruntled with the Democratic Party’s treatment of women and the sex scandals during the Clinton years, which compelled her to switch to the Republican Party. A staunch pro-life advocate, García continues to keep track of politicians’ voting records on abortion legislation, among other things.

Latina/o representation and decision-making power is a critical battle in the party system. “We need more strong women role models in the political arena,” Lori Saldaña said.

Mary Salas agrees and observes what she calls a power structure within the Democratic Party that privileges male politicians. “As much as we would like to say there is a level playing field (between men and women), I can see a real difference in how the power structure addresses male politicians. I got in trouble for saying this before and it came to haunt me. But there is a power structure, no denying.”

The lack of internal support for women of color candidates has disheartened several Latina Democrats. “The Democratic Party claims to be an advocate of diversity when they need our endorsement. But when we say we want to work to improve our communities, they are not supportive,” Saldaña stated.

Lori Saldaña: Most known for her past appointment by Former President Clinton to the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission and commitment to border environmental issues. Saldaña has served on the Executive Committee of the San Diego Democratic Party and teaches at UCSD. Saldaña is currently running for State Assembly. At heart: Saldaña advocates improved California/Baja California relations for more effective border water and energy policy.

Maritza Gates confirmed, “Candidates such as Lori Saldaña and Kathleen Calzada are not supported by the Latino legislative caucus. The Latino caucus is waiting to see who wins the primaries before they offer support. It’s a shame.”

Thus far, Saldaña has raised $25,000 for her campaign. Fund-raising includes phone calls and door-to-door requests. But the Recall split people’s funds. Saldaña found that many Latina/o constituencies donated to the “Yes on Bustamante” campaign and, as a result, said they could not contribute to Saldana’s run for State Assembly.

“I am really discouraged. I don’t think people take me as seriously as they would a male candidate. (Latinas) work so hard as volunteers and activists for nothing. And when we want to step up it’s frustrating because the Party goes and endorses another who has not done very much in the community,” Saldaña explained.

Some argue the Democratic Party is sending a message that, despite its professed values for diversity, the Party will support a candidate who they assume has the better chance of raising the most money in the shortest amount of time.

Jill Galvez: Ran for the Chula Vista Elementary School Board earlier this year. Galvez is developing the website for Rosebank elementary and fundraises for special school projects. Previous to public service, Galvez (engineer by training) held managerial positions for IBM and AT&T. Galvez recently earned the support of the teachers to run for the Chula Vista Elementary School Board again this year. At heart: Board member accountability, parent participation, and the unification of the Sweetwater School District and Chula Vista Elementary School Board.

“But this is not necessarily true,” Gates contends. “If a candidate walks at the grass-roots level and connects with the people, this is what is important and impacting. Look at Bill Simon, he has lots of money but that did not help him win.”

The recent lack of endorsements sends another message made clear by Corona, “If you are a woman you have to work twice as hard to prove that you can lead the community.” She continued, “Women serve the community in different ways. We don’t have the big titles in front of our names. But even with experience, people still question my credibility.”

Motivating Forces

Yet, old-school ideas about women’s roles in society and the lack of Latina/o participation in the political process are major reasons that Latinas become so determined. “We saw the challenges our mothers faced as they were much more limited in what activities they could partake in,” Corona explained. Corona, like other Latina politicians who are also mothers, says her son motivates her to be a good example of a Latina who can overcome struggles and lead her community.

Overall, the communities in which these women serve have embraced their leadership and passion for real social needs.

For example, as an undergraduate, Corona observed that MEChA did not prioritize the needs of Chicanas/Latinas. In response, she developed a leadership organization, the Association of Chicana Activists, her first year at SDSU and also started a chapter at USD.

Proposition 187 and the Wilson regime compelled Gates to join her city’s Democratic Club. Maritza Gates’ husband encouraged her to get involved. “My husband saw how furious I was about 187 and he suggested there must be some Democratic organization in our city that I could join,” Gates explained.

As Regional Director of the San Diego Democratic Club, Gates was instrumental in the creation of a second regional director, now held by Xavier Martinez, in order to better serve San Diego’s growing population.

Mary Salas: First and only Latina elected on the Chula Vista City Council. Salas has served on Chula Vista’s Civil Service Commission and Planning Commission. Salas was also a former Economic Development Specialist with the California Trade and Commerce Agency. Salas recently decided she will run for a School Board of the Sweetwater School District next year. At heart: Salas encourages civic involvement among Latinas in particular and feels it her responsibility to recruit up-and-coming Latinas/os onto boards and councils.

After volunteering against Prop 187, Gates continued volunteering and moved quickly up the ranks in the San Diego Democratic Party. She attributes her leadership success to her fairness and passion. “People also tell me I’m gracious,” Gates said, “I guess it’s just that I acknowledge that a lot of people work full-time and volunteer extra hours for the Party and this is not an easy thing to do.”

García’s disdain for Bob Filner’s pro-choice and other policies at first motivated her to seek an alternative Republican candidate. She tried to recruit other Republicans, including her husband. In turn, García’s husband encouraged her to run against Filner. While García says she prefers to take care of the details behind the scenes for another candidate, we shouldn’t put it past her political convictions to run against Filner the second time around.

For Calzada, the challenge of organizing democrats in North County drew her in. “The Democratic base was practically non-existent in North County. People thought this area was a lost cause. And it made me more determined to work in this region,” she said. Calzada is Vice Chair of the North County Latino Democrats, which has become a force that local media now recognizes.

Calzada’s concerns about health care and workers safety and compensation are central to her commitment. Her father worked for a company for 38 years and he never received health care. When he retired he received $200 severance pay. Soon after retirement, Calzada’s father died of diabetes because he never received treatment. “One way or the other, everybody has to be taken care of,” Calzada stated.

Be Informed and Get Involved

The seven Latinas agree, accountability among all players, including city council members, political officials, school board members, teachers, parents and youth, is critical for a more democratic and humane San Diego County. An urgent call for all of us to be informed and get involved emerged from each interview.

“I’d like to see more accountability among school board members. We need to elect board members that live in our cities, that have children in our schools, and that have a direct relationship with the teachers, students and parents whose lives their decisions impact,” Galvez said.

In a recent example of a lack of accountability, Galvez described the insensitivity of the Chula Vista Elementary School Board when they distributed 400 layoff notices. Only the board knew that the layoff decisions were not final nor were they necessary in a district with a reserve budget of $9.9 million. After much parent, student, and teach pressure, the notices were revoked.

As others we spoke with, Galvez suggests a slight lifestyle change among under-represented communities so that knowing how and what decisions are being made at local levels becomes a party of a family’s everyday life – much like watching the evening news. With this knowledge, Latina political leaders urge that more of us also set the agenda.

“It behooves Latinas to be educate about the issues. Decisions are made by our neighbors, by ordinary people. We need to take a stand and be proactive. After all, it is a lot more fun being on the decision-making side of improving our communities versus the receiving side of bad policy.”

It’s not enough to join a cause or limited issue. Gates furthers, “It’s a shame that we don’t see more (minority) representation in positions of public office. And it is partly because we don’t get involved until a conservative movement, like 187 or 209, is already well underway.”

Border Visions:

Several of our interviewees admitted that San Diego County must find a way to address the border. For Corona, this begins with a consciousness, particularly in San Diego, of the binational border. “San Diego needs to address international migration issues more respectfully. I hope that this city can one day value Latino identity as a critical part of San Diego identity.”

On the other end of the political spectrum, García admits that the Republican Party has not dealt with issues of immigration. “I grew up seeing border crossers come to the U.S. not to do harm but to work. We need a worker program so they are not exploited.” While García acknowledges that vigilance is needed in lieu of 9/11, she contends, “We’re neighbors. And we need to address the U.S. need for labor. The Republican Party needs to support a mutually beneficial immigration policy.”

Focusing on environmental issues, Saldaña says more effective collaboration between California and Baja California agencies are necessary for environmental improvement. “We share the same water and the same air. We need to work together. It is still a struggle. We can do so much better for the environment on our border,” she said.

Saldaña said the City of San Diego often gets slammed by officials who represent other border cities. “People think that San Diego has turned its back on Mexico,” she said. “But we need to collaborate with Mexican border cities and share our resources. We have so many U.S.-owned businesses open in Mexico. We (the U.S.) need to be a good neighbor and contribute to things like Mexico’s infrastructure.”

The Balancing Act: Family, Career, Public Service

García went to college and soon after graduating raised a family of six. Now that her children are grown she has time and the family support to commit to a political career. Other Latinas we interviewed have managed to juggle motherhood and careers at the same time.

Galvez, raised on the feminist movement’s ideas of doing it all, now concludes, “You can’t have it all and do it all at the same time. You have to make choices and decide what you are going to focus on and at what phases in your life.”

Galvez had a high-tech six-figure career. But her desire to start a family meant she had to quit her job if she wanted to spend time with her children. “I began to resent my work because I wanted to be with my children. And I have no regrets about that decision.”

Calzada advises, “Politics can get very disappointing. It is important to take breaks from the political scene to keep from burning out.” She adds, “Just remember, the good times are great. The victories are wonderful.”

Words of Advice

A personal connection to democracy is key to regaining control over the shape of our cities. Corona’s advice sums it up, “Don’t be afraid to get involved in areas where Latinas are not as visible. There are plenty of Latina mentors in other areas that can help guide you along. It’s important to have a personal connection to democracy – volunteer to phone bank or walk precincts. See for yourself how things work and how the public gets informed about an issue.”

Even as Saldaña admits to feeling frustrated, she remains steadfast in her determination to overcome stereotypes and assumptions. “Don’t take things personal. People do and say things that have nothing to do with people. And there are still people that will discourage us and underestimate us. Don’t take setbacks too hard. Get out there and look for opportunities to volunteer and help solve problems,” she concluded.


Evidently, the Latinas interviewed tend not to seek positions of decision-making power as a means toward a political career for the sake of a political career. Instead, they seek positions of leadership as a way to expand the inclusion of others, particularly underrepresented Latina/o communities, in the democratic process beginning at the local level.

At the heart of Latina approaches to politics is a strong and consistent relationship with the communities they were elected to represent and a wide knowledge of current events. While the women who shared their stories with us faced many struggles, they have also found mentors and community support to get them where they are today.

Here is a list of a few political organizations in San Diego County. Join one!

North County Latino Democrats: nclatinodemocrat@aol.com
Cesar Chavez Democratic Club: 619-280-5353
The Republican National Hispanic Assembly: www.rnha.org
Mexican American Political Association: www.mapa.org
Chicano Democratic Association: 619-282-0217

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