Know Your Latina Congresswomen, Part One: The Southerners

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To celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re honoring the important work that each and every Latina is actively performing for the country from Congressional office. 

And when we say “The Southerners,” we mean south of the US mainland. Three of the Latinas currently holding Congressional office were born outside of the 50 United States, hailing from Puerto Rico, Ecuador, and Guatemala. As transplants to their communities, they have paved the way for other candidates to do the same. Their strengths lie in the way that they are able to bring a uniquely global vision to their national roles.

Rep. Nydia Velázquez

The first Puerto Rican congresswoman to serve in office wasn’t Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: It was Democratic Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez. 

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Voted into New York’s 7th Congressional District in 1993, Yabucoa-born Rep. Velázquez was the first Puerto Rican woman to hold office. She represents parts of downtown Manhattan, northern Brooklyn, and a bit of Queens. Velázquez serves as the Chairwoman of the House Committee on Small Business, where she is able to focus on unsung but important progress toward protecting vulnerable members of the workforce and supporting entrepreneurship that builds up the strength of local communities. She’s also pushed for more equitable pay structures within big corporations, telling the CEO of Citigroup in April (who makes $486 for every $1 the average Citi worker gets paid), “If you’re not happy with the pay ratio, lower your salary or raise the salary of others.”

And, of course, Rep. Velázquez has been a vocal advocate for Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. Earlier this year, she introduced a bill that calls for the government to assemble a nonpartisan “9/11” style commission to examine the federal response in the aftermath of the storm in order to determine what failures occurred to improve preparedness for future storms; the commission would also investigate the glaring role that racism or other bias played in limiting recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.

Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell 

Another official who has made history, Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador and has been serving as the country’s first South American immigrant to hold a seat in Congress. Representing the 26th Congressional District of Florida — including the southern tip of the state as well as parts of Miami-Dade County — Mucarsel-Powell recently flipped a seat held by a Latino Republican incumbent. 

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Mucarsel-Powell lost her father to gun violence in Ecuador, so her work toward gun safety in America is utterly personal. “When you get that phone call that someone you love, someone that you just spoke with, was shot and was taken from you in such a violent way, that feeling never goes away,” she told The Hill over the weekend. “I think what happens is that you become even more firm in trying to obtain justice for those victims of gun violence and the sense of responsibility that there are things that we can do, there are laws that we can pass.”

Along with Georgia Rep. Lucy McBath, who lost a son to gun violence, and California Rep. Mike Thompson, Mucarsel-Powell introduced to the House red flag legislation this past June. 

Rep. Norma Torres (D-CA)

Norma Torres represents the 35th Congressional District of California, which covers the “Inland Empire,” including communities due east of Los Angeles and parts of San Bernardino County. Born in Guatemala, she is the only Guatemalan-American to have ever served in Congress.

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At the international level, she has been an advocate for improving conditions in the Northern Triangle, as well as personally vouching for the need to treat undocumented immigrants with compassion. “My story is not much different from the story of the children separated from their parents sitting in cold holding cells at the border,” she recently shared with the Washington Post. “During the Guatemalan civil war, my parents were forced to send me to the United States to live with my uncle. My childhood was stolen from me by the corrupt government officials and criminals running the country then.”

She has also been a fierce feminist, pushing to preserve women’s reproductive rights. One of her most recent bills protects Native American women: Alongside Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington, Torres recently reintroduced the bipartisan Savanna’s Act, a bill designed to procure justice for missing and murdered Native American women, many of whom are unaccounted for when taken from their communities; the legislation is named after 22-year-old Savanna, a member of the Spirit Lake Tribe, who was murdered in 2017.