Introducing KDChi President & the Newest, Youngest TX State Rep.

“Part of making a difference is really about personal sacrifice.”

Serving Home: Mary Gonzalez by Eric Baca for Latino Leaders Magazine Jul-Aug 2012

The fire had destroyed everything. The remnants of her life — all 10 long years of it — were consumed as if they never existed. Extinguished. Gone. 

Mary Gonzalez at the TX State Capitol

From this destruction, Mary Gonzalez learned what a community could be. Homeless, Gonzalez and family were taken in by her El Paso neighbors, preventing her from knowing hunger or the sting of not having a present to open on Christmas. For the next year, El Paso — its people, its schools — helped to raise young Mary, who, at 28, recently became the newest and youngest member of the Texas House of Representatives.

About the incident and her hometown, of course, she’s sentimental, but she’s also responsible. She grew up a doer, or for Mary, the family business. Dad served on the school board for a decade; mom was CEO of home life. Managing and raising 11 children — and their schedules — meant mom went to school and community gatherings almost as much as her kids. No wonder Mary never learned the term, “free time.” She was too busy learning about service.So when her hometown needed a leader, Mary, now a third-year Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Austin, came home.

“I think when something like that happens, you feel indebted to a community that helped shape you so much,” she said. “Having been from El Paso, I knew there were issues like education equality. I knew there were issues like access to water. I knew there were other issues like some communities not having roads. I knew I could use my skills to really make a difference.”

Hardly a month has passed since Mary beat out her more senior Democratic opponents, but the results of her decisive May victory continue to echo. The waves of phone calls and emails of congratulations haven’t subsided, nor have the media interviews and post-election coverage. Outlets tend to notice when an under-30 woman of color cracks the establishment’s code earlier than she’s supposed to.To many, she’s the new kid, with emphasis on the kid. When she enters the House in January, she’ll be the youngest representative, entering two years above the State of Texas’ mandatory age requirement of 26. Mary shrugs off any doubters and views her campaign as a historic one for what it suggests for the future of politics around the country.

“My campaign has been labeled the new face of the party or the new face of politics,” she said. “That seems to have been a very common theme that has been attached to my campaign. I think it speaks to the next generation of leadership — a lot of energy, a lot of diversity, a lot of progressive ideas.” Those progressive ideas will soon be coming from Texas’ most diverse rep. As a woman, she joins a collective of congresswomen who comprise around 20 percent of the elected in the House, not to mention District 75’s first woman.

As a Latino, Mary will be entering a Texas Legislature that boasts more than 30 Latinos, not quite in proportion to Texas’ near-40 percent Latino population. For El Paso County, it’s more than 80 percent. 

But what makes Mary arguably the most unique congresswoman entering the 83rd session is that she will be the only LBGT-identified elected official, a reality that, upon announcing her candidacy, had many national outlets following a state election. Not only was she in the race, she quickly became the frontrunner and by default, and by choice, became a face of promise for Latinos and “LGBT folk” across the country.

“I think that the dynamics of identity made this a national race,” she said. “It created a lot of symbolism. Could we elect an out Latino on the border? If we could do it there, then ideally then we can do it anywhere. My fear was if I lost, then people would feel hopeless. We had everything in our favor — we had the most money, we had 28 endorsements. I felt like the most qualified candidate.”

Mary said that when she started the campaign, she had made a promise to her staff.She wanted to run such an honest race that she could recount the entire story to her siblings without secrets or embellishments. She wanted to be known for how she won as much as winning. It’s why being open about everything about who she is was imperative, not simply as a precautionary measure, but as a requirement for sincerity and building trust with her community. She wanted El Paso to elect her, not just the parts she shared with them. She quickly showed her would-be constituents what she meant, even if it meant shocking her staff. 


“That’s part of the reason I decided to be out and to be open and honest about everything,” she said. “I remember I went to the Police Union endorsement meeting, and they asked me what my biggest skeleton in my closet was. I told them, ‘I have lot of speeding tickets.’ And my campaign manager asked me, ‘Why did you tell them that?’ I said, ‘Look, they are going to find out anyways. I might as well tell them now.’”

She gained their endorsement and 27 others with this seemingly radical approach. With each speech and presentation, she learned how to effectively deliver a message without relying on large amounts of time to adequately convey her point. It was a lesson for the young professor, who quickly learned to curtail her speeches, many which were better suited for her college students than a diverse community looking to hang on to a central, defining message.

“As a professor, I tend to be a little long-winded,” she said. “In politics, it’s all about bumper-sticker statements. I learned how to message myself in an authentic way, but to do so in a way that people could listen and understand.”

Mary laments stories from young people frustrated about politics, a system that rewards a politician’s ability to massage truths to justify a specific end. That’s not service or leadership, she said. The reverberations of her victory continue to cause ripples among the various communities she represents. Some are familiar voices of families and friends, while others are from young people thanking her for example.


Gonzalez and her younger sister after voting

“I can’t even tell you how many messages I’ve received from people (around the country). Whether it’s young Latinas or some young LGBT folks, it’s just an overwhelming amount of support and just shows how this race has impacted their possibilities.” Her win could be a preview into what many feel is a changing landscape of leadership. Mary credits young leaders’ focus on inclusiveness and placing a high value on diversity as a necessity for life and for decision-making.“I think inevitably we’re going to see a diversification of leadership,” she said. “We are going to see more women get elected; we’re going to see more LGBT get elected; more people of color get elected. Because the truth is that this country is diversifying at very rapid speeds. I think we are going to see the diversity in the leadership. It’s just what’s happening around the country.”

But trends don’t always lead to reality. Mary said that Latino population numbers, while making for great headlines, don’t simply beget more Latino leaders. That, she said, requires institutional and dedicated support — mentorship, financial and strategic.Mary specifically sites one that helped her campaign and offered her an early boost in her campaign. The most significant was Annie’s List, which has worked for nearly years to increase the number Democratic women in the state of Texas. It’s not enough to hope for it, Mary says. Goals must be set, and strategies must be developed to meet them. Anything else is just talk.

“I couldn’t have done this by myself,” she said. “Even though I have all the skills to be a state representative, I needed the institutional structural support. I think if the Latino community wants to see more Latino leaders, then the Latino community needs to continue to develop infrastructure and institutions that support the development of Latino leaders. So if Annie’s List said they wanted to have more women, and then they found the infrastructure to do that, that’s why we have seen an increase in elected women officials.”

Leadership Is A Process. Not An Inheritance

With a large family in El Paso, Mary learned how to work with others early on. Dad and Mom were active community leaders, and Mary saw the radial impact an individual could have on many.As she began high school, she also began her own leadership story, joining 11 organizations and serving as president of six of them. That continued in college, where she served on the Latino Leadership Council and was active in Kappa Delta Chi, a national sorority that she now leads as its National President. They had long-term effects and provided the institutional foundation Mary recommends for leadership formation.

“What high school and college organizations allowed me to is they brought me a micro reality to the macro,” she said. “They were learning laboratories — I was developing leadership schools. I was developing effective tools of mobilization and ways to see what really created change. Then I took the skills that I learned in the micro situations, and now I am going to use them on the macro level — as a state representative, as national president, as a professor. These roles are going to be using the skills I used at the micro level.” 

She plans on continuing her role as a professor and complete her Ph.D., hoping to inspire students to ask the right questions and spur innovation in their approach to serving their community. Partially, she admits, that requires a pretty big departure from the norm. It holds true as an educator or an elected official.“As a professor,” she said, “I always used to tell my students that the current dialogue for young people is finish high school, go to college, get a job and make good money. I am always trying to shift that conversation with somebody who works with young people — and a young person myself — to say it’s not always about yourself or making money. Part of the conversation should be, ‘How do my actions and work make a difference?’” It really does take one to know one: “Part of making a difference is really about personal sacrifice,” she said. “I don’t think we talk enough about personal sacrifice when it comes to leadership.”


KDChi President Mary Gonzalez front and center with KDChi National Administrative Council and the Four Founders on the top row

Share this post:

Comments on "Introducing KDChi President & the Newest, Youngest TX State Rep. "

Comments 0-5 of 0

Please login to comment