Major changes beginning in Latino political leadership
(KAKE) - As KAKE News continues their celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, we are now looking to the future and a major change that's begun to happen over the last couple of years in Latino political leadership...
...or should we say Latina leadership?
Two Latina politicians are breaking barriers and leading the way for others. Sarah Lopez is one of them.
"I'm not going to lie," Lopez admits. "I'm a little nervous!"
When Sarah Lopez took the oath of office as a Sedgwick County Commissioner last year, she added another title to her name as well: first Hispanic woman, or Latina, on the commission. Her win added her to a very elite group: she's only one of a handful of Latinas serving as elected officials across the entire state of Kansas.
"I just thought that we, in our community, especially in the second district deserve someone who truly represented the people in that community, hardworking everyday Americans," Lopez admitted.
Janeth Vazquez took office this year as the first Latina Commissioner in Liberal.
"I truly feel that it is time for people my age and younger for women, people of color to have a seat at the table," Vazquez said. "I can't tell you how many little girls and not just little girls but women in general and people who would have thought maybe they've never had an opportunity or that's not a place they belong in. Come up to me and just tell me why you inspired me."
Both Vazquez and Lopez are breaking barriers and setting precedents simply by showing up and getting their jobs done. Yet, as the number of Latinas in elected leadership grows, it still lags behind other groups. Comparing the National Association of Latino-Elected Officials count from last year to those in office now, we found only a small number of Hispanic descent serving their communities this way: Sylvia Ortiz, Melanie Arroyo, Susan Ruiz, Christina Valdiva-Alcalá, and Cheryl Rios.
Hispanics are the largest minority in Kansas, making up almost 19% of the overall population.
"We're the largest minority group of any of them right now. And we just haven't been represented in the way we need to be," Lopez said.
This is why Lopez and Vazquez both feel it's important to serve as mentors to the next round of men and woman considering a run for office. In fact, Lopez helped Vazquez navigate the legal and social hurdles of a run for office.
"I thankfully knew some people who have been doing this for a long time and so it made it easier for me, but if you don't have those connections, it's very challenging," Lopez admitted.
"I don't have anybody in my family that has run out for office and I don't have any close friends that have ran for office. And so, I think a lot has to do with the process can be intimidating," Vazquez said.
Both say they faced some discrimination along the way, but they didn't let that stop them.
"(Begin elected) It makes me emotional. It really makes me emotional. And I'm just so honored to have this opportunity," Vazquez said.
Both Sarah Lopez and Janeth Vazquez have children they say are watching everything they do, and learning about the political process firsthand. They hope that between this and the examples they're setting, it will help develop the next generation of Latina and Latino political leaders in Kansas. This is due in part because of their Hispanic culture, which emphasizes getting along.
"I was raised to keep my head down and get the job done and focus on what I'm doing and not necessarily what everybody else is doing," Lopez said. "But the culture is shifting."