The Underdog Mexican Mom in Office

Why you should care

Because the face of grassroots democracy is always interesting.

Who would vote for a Spanish-speaking mom, an amateur politician who “don’t speak English” fluently and needs a translator’s help to legislate? 

More than 22,000 people, apparently. Who would vote for her again? That remains to be seen. 

The mom in question is 43-year-old Patty López, a California state assemblywoman representing San Fernando whose election story is the stuff of grassroots dreams. Two years ago, López ousted establishment Democrat Raul Bocanegra with some $16,000 against the million-plus dollars he reportedly spent. Some of those thousands came from fellow moms selling pupusas and tamales.  López was “the consummate outsider,” says Assemblywoman Susan Eggman from Stockton. But now it’s 2016, and the election looms once more. In a familiar reprisal of so much at play in American politics, the question is for how long a story, a name and a narrative can power electoral victory. 

Over the past two years, Mexican-born López has introduced 37 bills, five of which landed on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. She has passed four bills into law, including one that focuses on keeping foster families together and another on securing child care for working families. Among her hot-button issues are affordable housing, homelessness and adult education in a budget-strapped district — issues, she says, that affect her working-class constituents. López isn’t interested in playing nice with lobbies or Hollywood, an industry she says her predecessor was cozy with, and calls heavily on her identity as the anti-establishment candidate. (Bocanegra did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) But flouting the party has caused something unusual to happen: In the upcoming race, the Democratic Party is endorsing Bocanegra. “She can survive the struggle,” says Edwin Ramirez, a 59-year-old community activist.

López’s district, on the outskirts of LA, is nearly 70 percent Hispanic. San Fernando struggles with employment for its many workers who lack college degrees and need jobs accessible by the limited public transit route. The town is tinged with irony: The planned route of the state’s high-speed rail project will pass right by San Fernando, but it won’t stop there. López is emphatically against it. 

Originally from Michoacán, Mexico, López came to the U.S. when she was 12. She received next to no formal education because her mom didn’t trust the U.S. government to educate her child; instead, López stayed at home while her mom worked. In her 20s, López decided to get her GED and signed up for English classes. Even now, her English is broken, but some say that’s what makes her a good representative. “While Patty may not be as articulate as others, that’s one of the beauties of her speaking up — she represents people who have been afraid to speak up in the past,” says Lydia Grant, an education advocate from López’s district. López worked on a factory assembly line for six years — her husband still works there — before getting a job with the Los Angeles Unified School District. Today, her house is paid off and she owns a car. “When people say it’s a dream in America, I feel like I am one of those dreams,” she says. 

Over the course of 14 years, that LAUSD job taught López, who became a vocal attendee at public education forums, the inner workings of the school system. Then, a few years ago, looming budget cuts threatened to roll back the district’s adult education programs — the very programs that allowed López and many fellow immigrants to get GEDs and learn English. López felt Bocanegra wasn’t acting. “Nobody was really listening,” says Ramirez. 

López sat at home with family, bottled water and cookies, watching the votes roll in. When she won, by fewer than 500 votes, she couldn’t believe it.

Her record so far looks, to some, amateurish. Paul Luna, a self-described concerned citizen from the San Fernando area, wishes López would focus on “heavier” issues rather than ones that have “felt irrelevant.” “With all the stuff we’ve got going on, [she] wants to talk about butterflies?” Luna asks, referencing a piece of legislation López introduced pushing for monarch conservation. And her inexperience has gotten López into trouble. In March, she settled with the California Fair Political Practices Commission after three constituents filed more than 200 pages worth of complaints alleging that López improperly followed campaign finance laws by failing to file statements on time or into a single bank account, and by dealing in unreported cash when it came to those tamales, among other things. Max Kanin, López’s attorney, says that she “made mistakes as a first-time candidate and someone who is unfamiliar with a complicated finance system.” López paid a $7,500 fine.

“In a funny way, it plays to her strengths,” says Eric C. Bauman, vice chair of the California Democratic Party. “She ran as an outsider and … has continued philosophically to do that.” López has beaten the odds once or twice before. And this time around, she’s backed by the California Nurses Association and labor union SEIU.

When I ask about the butterflies displayed in a glass case on the chair next to me, López tells me they’re a gift from a friend. “Butterflies are like immigrants,” she says. “Many die, but I made it. I’m a testimonial.” 


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