Why you should care
Because the Democratic Party might want to look to her for answers.
Yvanna Cancela stands at the top of the grand staircase that leads into the lobby of the Hotel Aria, in Las Vegas. Behind her waits a phalanx of more than 150 housekeepers, cooks and dishwashers; some of them hopeful, all of them anxious. It’s been a long day for the Culinary Workers Union: After months of campaigning, Democrats have lost state after state, and now they look to be losing the White House, too.
But a different election night story is unfolding in Nevada, and Cancela has good news for the workers: They flipped both chambers of the state legislature, put a Democrat in a Republican-held seat in Congress and elected the first-ever Latina, Catherine Cortez Masto, to the Senate. Together, the workers march down the staircase, chanting “sí, se puede,” making a sea of red T-shirts. They burst through the ballroom doors and into the Democrats’ gathering. The room turns electric — a moment of joyous defiance at what had to be the strangest election night party in the nation. The country zigged, but Nevada zagged — and for that, many in the room credit 29-year-old Cancela.
Until a few weeks ago, Cancela was the political director of the 57,000-person-strong Culinary Workers Union in Las Vegas, likely the youngest American to hold such a position. On her watch, Nevada became a focal point of the election season: During the third presidential debate, the Culinary Union staged its taco truck protest outside the Trump International Hotel; later, it rallied so many people to vote early that a Mexican supermarket turned polling place stayed open until 10 p.m. to accommodate them. (A judge promptly dismissed the suit Donald J. Trump’s team filed against Clark County Registrar.)
Now, Cancela, who has taken the seat just vacated by newly elected Congressman Ruben Kihuen, has become Nevada’s first Latina state senator. As the Democratic Party searches for its soul, some are urging its leadership to look to Cancela’s approach — eschewing massive ad buys and marketing campaigns in favor of person-to-person connections. “She’s one of the top political organizers in the country,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a national immigrant rights organization. “The progressive movement should put her in charge.”
Cancela’s trajectory has been unlikely. The Miami native joined the Nevada union leadership almost straight out of Northwestern University, but she lacks rank-and-file union credentials and, indeed, almost didn’t end up in politics at all. Toward the end of college, she turned down a position with Teach for America, deciding instead to join the Peace Corps. In response, her mom launched what Cancela now recognizes as an organizing campaign. The emails trickled in, one by one: “Yvanna, you like nice shoes and air conditioning. You won’t get that living in a village,” her mom wrote. Next: “So sad you won’t be here for Christmas. Tanzania is 8,000 miles away from Miami.” Two weeks later? A YouTube video featuring flesh-eating ants, native to Tanzania. By the last email, which mentioned how sad it would be if her grandparents passed while she was gone, Cancela decided to stay in the States.
The summer prior she’d worked as Nevada Senator Harry Reid’s Hispanic press intern in D.C., so she decided to head to Vegas for the summer to help campaign for Reid’s reelection. Then, almost just as her mother had foreshadowed, her grandfather was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “It felt like the universe was telling me I made the right choice,” she says. That’s when she met D. Taylor, then head of the Culinary Union. He told her, “If you want to learn how to fight, you should learn how to organize.”
For Cancela and many in the Culinary Workers Union, the fight against Trump is personal, and, throughout the year, her singular goal was to prevent him from taking the Oval Office. Last year, the Culinary Union won a lawsuit against the Trump International Hotel in Vegas, after which, they argue, it refused to comply. (Today, the workers are unionized; Trump’s team did not respond to a request for comment.) More generally, candidate Trump’s views on deportation and immigration have alienated many in the union, which is 56 percent Latino. The daughter of Cuban immigrants, Cancela centers much of her work around how it affects new Americans.
As a millennial woman and somewhat of a wonk, Cancela is perhaps an unconventional union leader, but her approach to organizing has been old-fashioned: citizenship drives, helping members with homeownership issues, Sunday prayers, neighbors talking to neighbors — a Bellagio housekeeper talking to a Monte Carlo housekeeper. She and her team focused on consistent contact and “constant reminders that we were doing something that was bigger than us,” says Cancela. On “kids’ days,” children of union members would stand up and say why they’re proud of their parents. The election became about “fighting for more than a candidate: for their pension, for their health care,” says Cancela.
Would such organizing strategies work elsewhere? Not easily, argues Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University. Across the country, “the union movement is reeling,” he says, with membership and dues on the wane and leaders cast as special-interest mouthpieces. McCartin surmises that labor’s “existential threat” may have cost Dems the 2016 election. He says that over the past eight years, union rolls in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania have declined by twice the margin of Trump’s victory in those states. Nevada has been an exception to the national rule because of the casino industry; owners can’t easily threaten to move operations to another state.
Now that Cancela has swapped advocacy in the trenches for legislating, she’ll need a different approach, one that emphasizes compromise and finesse. “Even though the work she’s done at the Local is good, she’s in a different arena now,” says D. Taylor, who now heads up the national Culinary Union. She’ll also, of course, need expertise in a broad array of policy issues, from school choice and natural resources to wild horses and cannabis. But there’s no question the post could be a stepping stone to political stardom.
For her part, Cancela says she’d rather work on national immigration policy than be a national luminary. Then again, the last time civil service came calling, she answered — even though she’d had a one-way ticket booked back to Miami. “These are the kind of moments you don’t get to say no to.”