I grew up the daughter of a single mom who was also an elected official. My mother, Anna de Leon, was the first Latina elected to the Board of Education in Berkeley, CA. She also briefly ran for mayor and for judge. In many ways, she was better suited her civil rights work as a pit bull lawyer for the plaintiffs of police brutality cases. She played hardball better than she played nice. She was a mouthy Puerto Rican from the projects in LA. Maybe she was just ahead of her time.
Now, Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores is running to become the first Latina Lieutenant Governor of her state. She’s no billionaire’s wife, no Ivy League prodigy, no daughter of some ruling-class family from Latin America. Lucy Flores grew up poor in a family of 13 children. A daughter of immigrants, she dropped out of high school, got involved in gangs and spent time incarcerated. She saw all her sisters become teen mothers and didn't want that for herself. When she became pregnant at 16, she had an abortion that she doesn't regret.
She eventually turned her life around. She went to college and later law school. Yet she doesn't twist her success into a bootstraps narrative of a self-made woman. Instead, she acknowledges all the support she got along the way. She bears witness to the fact that it was the chance generosity of individuals, and not a reliable safety net in our society that made the difference. Her own lived experience becomes the basis of her progressive agenda for social change.
Lucy Flores as a child, in a campaign ad where she says, "Success shouldn't depend on your zipcode."
Obama has also used his personal story of growing up with a single mom and an absent, immigrant father. However, his story certainly didn't involve gangs, incarceration, or abortion. In addition, Obama has gone on to build a very "respectable" middle class family. Even his efforts to help young people of color—his controversial “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative—focuses explicitly on the goal of making inroads into the “middle class.”
There is a long history in communities of color of “respectability politics.” This strategy stresses community uplift through building lives and families that emulate white, middle class values. Respectability politics have been enforced within communities of color, but most strongly upon women.
For Latinos, the brutal legacy of colonization in Latin America has broken down Indigenous and African cultural models. We are left with a hybrid culture that has many aspects of beauty and resilience, but also a great deal of violence and misogyny. Our culture reproduces the repression of women, held in place by conservative aspects of the Catholic Church, as well as male domination in families and communities. Girls grow up believing that we must be “good”—which means sexually virginal, obedient, helpful, demure, and self-sacrificing. In a classic contradictory message, we are also supposed to be alluring and sexually pleasing to men. In the end, our job is to become attractive and dutiful wives as well as devoted mothers. In this vision of progress through respectability, our job is to uplift our communities through our “goodness.” Also implicit is that we should take a back seat to men in politics.
Lucy Flores defies the politics of respectability. She's single, childless, honest about her sexual past, and fierce in her advocacy for poor and marginalized people. She takes bold stands on immigration, education, and domestic violence. Her experience makes her an effective advocate, but it also makes her a new kind of role model for Latina women. Like Justice Sonia Sotomayor before her, we are watching a smart, single, childless Latina rise from poverty to political authority. But Flores’ background not only includes the “humble beginnings” of poverty, but the stigmatizing experiences that can accompany poverty, like jail, dropping out, and unplanned pregnancy.
Flores has already been hailed by Salon and MSNBC as a rising Latina star for progressives. As the racial demographics of the country continue to shift, we can expect Flores to be embraced by a Democratic party, hungry for rising young Latino stars. We see her embraced by feminists and reproductive justice advocates for her boldness on abortion. And she can inspire grassroots communities to participate in electoral politics, because her connection to our interests is clear. She reminds us of our sister, our daughter, our cousin. Or in my case, she reminds me of my mom.
Related Reading: Latinas Play Big Roles in the White House—But for What?
Aya de Leon teaches creaive writing at UC Berkeley. She is currently completing a sex worker heist novel, as well as blogging and tweeting about culture, gender, and race at @AyadeLeon and ayadeleon.wordpress.com.