The authentic voice of Latino California: a conversation with Congresswoman Norma Torres of California’s 35th District

Norma Torres is the member of Congress for California’s 35th congressional district, having previously been mayor of Pomona, CA, and a member of the state legislature. During Hispanic Heritage Month, she spoke with CPI’s Brian Zuluaga, sharing her views on government legitimacy. “Legitimacy goes hand-in-hand with authenticity,” she replied. “When we truly care about the work that we do and the policies we’re fighting for, that comes across to people, even though they may not agree with us 100% of the time. That’s what got me across the finish line in every election, people trusting me because they know I’m using my own life experience to meet the needs of the citizens I represent.”

Legitimacy has been damaged by distrust

Representative Torres went on to address Hispanic people’s worsening relationship with the government. “It’s an alarming issue that we have to face head on: the community I represent, which is 70% Latino, lacks trust in the federal government. We’ve been called out as rapists, drug-traffickers, and murderers by a presidential candidate, who then gets elected to office. And that’s followed by those horrific images of children behind cages, separated from their families. Those are things that instill distrust in the government. And right now, in the middle of this coronavirus pandemic, it’s even more important to be as honest as we can be about what we can deliver for our constituents, or they will continue to mistrust us.”

Examining the roots of mistrust further, Representative Torres explained that the Latino community has experienced adverse effects of some Federal policies. “When they look at the federal government, they’re thinking about ICE and how those actions are impacting them and their kids personally. There are many legal immigrants, whose citizenship application may still be under review, who feel they can’t access food banks, reduced-cost school lunches, or a COVID test, simply because that will be held against them.”

If we just worked on the basic things that our constituents need, we would be in a much better place.

Reflecting on her own actions to rebuild trust, Congresswoman Torres notes, “I’m addressing that growing mistrust in the federal government by meeting my constituents, going to their doors, participating in virtual meetings, trying to shop locally in the small grocery stores and other businesses where people are struggling to keep their doors open. I’m talking with them about the things we’ve achieved on their behalf, about the programs that are available for them.”

The diversity of Latino culture

Representative Torres tries to inspire her constituents with a hope for change. “I was born in Guatemala, but we came to America because we dreamed of a better life, to be able to work and provide for our own families. My community isn’t looking for a handout. And as I’ve often said during the time when I was mayor of my home city of Pomona, or a state legislator, or now in Congress, we are hardworking families here in the 35th congressional district. We want government to work for us in a way that helps our vibrant community.”

“We Latinos are very diverse in how we look, even in our language. While Spanish is our basic language, we have many dialects within that. Our food is very diverse. So, don’t just talk to us about immigration. It’s a big issue and one that we care about, but we also care about good jobs. We care about the health of our aging population. We care about our young people who are trying to enter the working environment, who are looking for an opportunity to make a name for themselves and earn a good living. Those are the things that Latinos care about, those are the things that we need to focus on, and they are bipartisan issues. If we just worked on the basic things that our constituents need, we would be in a much better place. But when you engage in discriminatory, racist policies then we’re unable to deliver for the people who put us in office.”

Engaging with the Latino community

Rep. Torres suggested how her fellow Members of Congress should engage with Latinos in their districts. “What I’d say to my colleagues in Congress, during Hispanic Heritage Month, is don’t just savor great Mexican food like guacamole or corn tortillas, don’t just enjoy our drink and our music, but get to know our community. I’d invite them to tour my district, so they can talk to the families I represent. My constituents are no different from many of those workers who’ve been displaced by automation, by a global economy that doesn’t necessarily respect the rights of workers to earn a living wage, workers who have to take on two or three jobs to make ends meet.”

So, don’t just talk to us about immigration. It’s a big issue and one that we care about, but we also care about good jobs. We care about the health of our aging population. We care about our young people who are trying to enter the working environment, who are looking for an opportunity to make a name for themselves and earn a good living.

“We care about quality of life and family values; we don’t want our children to be latchkey kids. We want them to have after school programs and an opportunity to get an education, not an opportunity to fall by the wayside. We don’t want them to look at gang affiliations or narcotics as a way to immunize themselves against the tough life their parents are living, or what they see in their communities. That’s our responsibility, and that’s what our communities are hungry for.”

Inclusive policymaking in the 35th Congressional District

Congresswoman Torres described how she has involved her own constituents in the policymaking process. “During my days as a local elected official, I began a Labor to Neighbor program, as a way to encourage my constituents to join a labor union, to bring them together through apprenticeship programs. For example, I put up government money for supplies to re-plaster homes in our area. There was a group trying to organize in my district, and I brought them together with the community to help in the beautification process, to work on the homes of very poor seniors who couldn’t make modifications to their homes themselves. And by learning a new trade, the workers were able to make a difference in their own community.”

We can’t continue to elect people to represent us who do not represent us. We have to read through the fine print and be active participants.

She also led the local response to the hardships resulting from COVID-19. “I brought food banks to my district because I recognize my constituents’ needs. I know they’ve been left out of many of these programs, and I’m working to bring the same types of assistance through other means such as non-profit organizations, all working together to deliver for them.”

Enough is enough, don’t stay on the sidelines

Representative Torres had some final words on fostering legitimacy and strengthening the relationship between government and citizens. “I want to take this opportunity to encourage the Latino community to speak up for their concerns. Enough is enough. We can’t remain silent and watch how our local, state, or federal government works around us. We can’t continue to elect people to represent us who do not represent us. We have to read through the fine print and be active participants.” When asked how she would respond to people who see her as a role model and are inspired by her to run for office, she is firm in her response. “You’ve got to do it. We can’t sit on the sidelines.”

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