Alex Padilla: ‘We Latinos are not going to hide or retreat. We must insist on our presence in the halls of power’

The first Latino senator from California, the son of Mexican immigrants, has become a dissenting voice within his own Democratic Party as he defends the economic benefits of immigration

El Senador demócrata Alex Padilla
Democratic Senator Alex Padilla in Washington on March 22, 2022.Julia Nikhinson (Bloomberg)
Luis Pablo Beauregard

Alejandro Padilla, 51, better known as Alex, says that Pacoima is famous for two things. It is the L.A. neighborhood where Ritchie Valens, the rock idol who wrote La Bamba, was born. And its streets, he says while pointing behind his back, were the scene of the 1992 beating of Rodney King, which sparked the largest race riots in the history of Los Angeles, a dark episode that changed the city forever. Pacoima, located in the San Fernando Valley, is also where Padilla grew up before making history in 2021 by becoming the first Latino U.S. senator from California, a state where 40% of the population is Hispanic.

Alex Padilla, senador del partido demócrata por California
Alex Padilla in San Fernando, California, on May 10, 2024. Gabriel Osorio (© Gabriel Osorio )

“I am not the first in the history of the country, I am number eleven in the Senate,” he says, as if he had to justify being part of a tiny group within a legislative body that has been functioning since the end of the 18th century. But he is first about one thing: “I am the first born in California to immigrants from Mexico. My voice is different because of the path my family has taken.”

The neighborhood where Padilla meets with EL PAÍS helps understand not only the vital journey of the Democratic senator, but also what his arrival in Washington means for this working-class, Hispanic-majority community. The streets are full of small family-owned businesses, many of them with signs in Spanish. In some, there are photographs hanging on the wall of Padilla posing next to the business owner, as if he were some kind of celebrity or hero.

Santos, his father, is originally from Puerto Vallarta, in the Mexican state of Jalisco. He worked for 40 years as a short order cook in various diners in the city. His mother, Guadalupe, was from Chihuahua and she cleaned houses. Each one arrived in Los Angeles separately, met and married. And together they applied for green cards. The senator, who speaks excellent Spanish, describes a modest home but “full of spirit.” “What I remember most from my childhood were my parents’ dreams. They reminded us of it very often, almost daily,” he points out.

Alex Padilla, senador del partido demócrata por California
Senator Alex Padilla holds a portrait of Ketanji Brown Jackson, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.Eric Lee (Bloomberg)

- Do you think that the American dream that brought you here is still alive?

- Definitely, but I do think it is more difficult to achieve. Politicians of all parties should honor their work. If you come, work hard and obey the laws, anything is possible.

Padilla inherited part of that dream in his home. His father had elementary school studies and started working at the age of eight. Today’s Democratic lawmaker also sold burritos on the streets, although he was very good in school, especially at math. “I don’t know how many times, especially in high school, my dad would interrupt me while I was trying to do my homework. He told me: ‘When you grow up I want you to work with your mind and not with your back.’”

And so it was. Good grades secured him a spot at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, where he graduated as a mechanical engineer at the age of 22. Upon his return to California he briefly worked developing software for satellites. However, the city that received him back in 1994 was very different. There was a lot of tension over Proposition 187, a harsh anti-immigrant ballot initiative endorsed by Republican Governor Pete Wilson. The initiative prevented undocumented immigrants from receiving medical care and public education and, in addition, speaking in Spanish was prohibited. The law provoked massive protests on the streets by 70,000 people, including several thousand Mexican Americans. The controversial proposal was approved by state voters in November of that year.

Alex Padilla, senador del partido demócrata por California
Alex Padilla talks with residents of San Fernando, California, on May 10, 2024. Gabriel Osorio (© Gabriel Osorio )

“That changed the political trajectory of the State of California. Today voters see things very differently,” says Padilla. Proposition 187 forced his parents, who had lived with a green card for decades and fantasized about returning to Mexico, to apply for citizenship to protect themselves. Padilla found his political vocation in those turbulent times that ended up sinking the Republicans in California. This catapulted him. In 1999, at the age of 26, he became a Los Angeles councilman, and went on to become the youngest president of the City Council. Later he served as a state senator and Secretary of State, the authority responsible for organizing elections, for two terms.

One of his first jobs organizing the Latino community in California was thanks to the legendary Senator Dianne Feinstein. Fate would bring the two together in the Senate again decades later, when Feinstein’s career was coming to an end and Padilla’s was reaching greater heights: he filled the vacancy left by Kamala Harris when she was tapped by Joe Biden to become his vice president. Padilla swept the 2022 election with 61% of the vote. His term ends in January 2029.

The years he has been in Washington have not been easy for a politician who considers immigration an asset. The senator finds in the xenophobic rhetoric of the present some echoes of yesteryear. “The dynamics that happened in California in the 1990s can be seen today in Arizona, in Texas, in many parts of the country, Virginia and Maryland not long ago. But my hope is that California can offer the example of how to overcome it as a community. We are not going to hide or retreat. We have to get more involved and insist on our presence in the halls of power,” he says.

Alex Padilla
Alex Padilla poses with his parents after being sworn into office in the Los Angeles City Council in 1999. Cortesía Familia Padilla

The politician sees this new anti-immigrant moment in the United States as arising from the mix between the country’s changing demographics, which are becoming more diverse, and economic fears. “The fear of a recession and what it could mean, fewer opportunities for some, makes people look for someone to blame and it is always the immigrant. It is the history of this country. In the past it was people from China, Italy, Ireland... These days it is Latinos,” he explains.

His position has even led him to swim against the tide within his own party. Democrats have shifted to the right in an election year to make some concessions on border management following record numbers of illegal crossings. Padilla was part of a group of five legislators who in February rejected a long-negotiated bipartisan agreement in the Senate that conditioned aid to Ukraine on tightening border surveillance and modifying asylum request rules. On Thursday, the senators again halted the progress of the proposal. On this occasion, Alphonza Butler, the second senator from California, joined the ranks of No voters.

-My frustration has not only been with my Republican colleagues and with the words of Donald Trump. Also with some of my Democratic colleagues and even with the White House.

During the most recent State of the Union Address, President Joe Biden described an immigrant linked to a crime as “illegal.” The word was repudiated by activists and made Padilla uncomfortable. He discussed it with Tony Cárdenas, a veteran Democratic congressman and a partner in several battles in California, with whom he shares an apartment in Washington. A few days later he picked up the phone and called the presidential residence. “I told them that it was not right and that they had offended a lot of people and that they had to do something to correct it, because I know where the president comes from, what his values are and where his heart is.”

Alex Padilla studied engineering at MIT. Here, on the right, he wears a cap that says Pacoima and poses with a photograph of Emiliano Zapata.
Alex Padilla studied engineering at MIT. Here, on the right, he wears a cap that says Pacoima and poses with a photograph of Emiliano Zapata. Cortesía Familia Padilla

The senator has presented a bill that offers an express path to citizenship for workers recognized as essential by the government during the Covid pandemic. This would benefit about 5.2 million people, from agricultural workers to hospital janitors and nurses who were part of the fight against the health emergency. However, he admits that with the current division in Congress there are no conditions to approve a bill of this type.

Padilla recognizes that there is also a certain disenchantment among the Latino population regarding immigration, but assures that voters in November will know how to recognize the progress that the Joe Biden era has made in recent years. “We have immigration reform as a priority, but many parents also want to know what the future of their children will be, what we are doing to improve access and quality of education, health services and economic opportunities. The low level of unemployment with wages that are rising is something good that people are feeling,” he says.

Alex Padilla
Alex Padilla is very fond of baseball. In his youth, he was a pitcher for the teams he played for. Cortesía Familia Padilla

Alex Padilla recalls a recent meeting with Biden. The president traveled to Culver City, a city south of Los Angeles, to talk about his student debt forgiveness program. During the visit he also held some fundraising events. At one point, the president approached Padilla and told him that he had recently learned that one in five children in public schools in the elementary school system speak Spanish or identify as Latino. The lawmaker responded:

- Do you know what I call them, president? The workforce of tomorrow. The future depends on the success of the Latino community.

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