Historically, women have needed to be convinced to enter politics. But since the 2016 presidential election, thousands of women announced their plans to run for public office. And we want them to win. So we’re giving them examples of women who have run. The point: You can too.
In 2018, it was impossible to ignore Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The first-time candidate won against an influential incumbent Democrat, becoming the youngest Congresswoman ever and solidifying the power of Justice Democrats, the progressive organization that recruited her.
Now, for 2020, Justice Democrats has introduced a new slate of candidates, including Jessica Cisneros, the 26-year-old whose race has often been compared to Ocasio-Cortez’s, even though hers took place in the solidly blue Bronx. Cisneros, on the other hand, is running in Texas’s 28th congressional district, going up against eight-term incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar in the state’s March 3rd primary. (Cisneros once interned for Cuellar but was shocked by his voting record; she now calls him “Trump’s favorite Democrat.”) If she wins, she’ll eclipse AOC for the title of youngest Congresswoman. Here, why she decided to run.
Whenever I talk about my story, it always starts with my parents. They came here from Mexico because my sister needed an operation that was too high risk; no doctor in Mexico wanted to perform it on her. My parents were able to find a doctor in Houston that would, so they moved. After the 1986 immigration reform, my parents were able to become permanent residents, and they moved down here to Laredo, Texas, where I was born.
When people ask me, “Why did you become an immigration attorney?” it’s because of that, the fact that I was born into this very cross-cultural environment, this unique area of the country right on the border. My elementary school was right next to the river, and in the mornings, we could see families crossing into the United States. I remember saying I could not spot a difference between a mom and her child, and me and my mom. I know that my citizenship is a privilege. To many folks who are on the border, we know our lives could’ve been very different had we been born five minutes south of where we were.
As you can imagine, being an immigration attorney under Trump was a very difficult and heartbreaking experience. You go in there and the odds are already stacked against you, but under the Trump administration, it just felt like it was almost impossible to win cases and keep families together. It got to the point where I was trying to console one too many families. I thought, if they keep telling me that the law is a problem, then I’m going to go to Congress and change it.
Now I’m still making my case, but instead of being in a courtroom in front of a judge, I’m in a district and the voters are the judges.
I was nominated to run for office by my high school teacher; I think he saw Justice Democrats recruiting and thought of me. I got a call from Justice Democrats, and they asked about my roots to my community and what I believed we should be doing here in South Texas. I think it’s very fitting that it was my high school teacher that nominated me because, being the daughter of recent immigrants, my parents knew that education was going to be a game changer for me and my sister. One thing they always told us was, “Seek out mentors. Pay attention to your teachers. Listen to their advice, and they’ll help you navigate things that we can’t help you with.”
As for the comparisons to Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, we’re both young brown women, underdogs, that are just trying to do our best to help the Democratic party and provide true representation for our districts. What Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez and Congresswoman Pressley did in the last cycle is really the reason why I’m talking to you. They showed the nation that it was possible to take on entrenched incumbents that weren’t representing their districts correctly. Thanks to the work and the victories that they had, South Texas now believes that we can do it here, too. It’s a different ground game, but they definitely inspired folks down here.
But I’m not naive. I’m sure a lot of people in the beginning were thinking, “What is this woman doing? 26 years old and running for Congress.” I’ve also seen firsthand how the current system isn’t built to encourage working class people like me to run.
There’s a lot of investment that you have to make in the beginning of the campaign. There was this contract we were entering into for initial operations, and I wasn’t sure where we were going to get the money. I’m in six-figure debt from school loans. I knew we were doing the right thing and that people from our district were going to respond in a positive way, so we took a leap of faith. But obviously that’s scary because you don’t know if it’s actually going to turn out the way you thought it would and, if all of a sudden, you’d have to pay back this money. As a working class person, I don’t have those networks where I can just call friends and ask them to donate large sums of money to the campaign. We’re very blessed that it worked out, but that certainly is an obstacle that would keep someone like me from running.
In the end, it’s about this campaign team coming together and taking this risk, knowing we have the hard work and the determination. That’s how we were able to reach our version of the American dream. Even though the odds were against us, each one of us and our supporters were scrappy people, and whenever anybody takes a bet on us, we’re going to deliver. People are taking a bet on us, and we’re going to work really hard and prove them right.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.