Elle: Blanca Rubio Was Deported in Grade School. Now She's a California State Assemblywoman.

May 31, 2017

As told to Mattie Kahn:

The statistics aren't good. According to recent estimates, women make up just under 20 percent of Congress and less than 25 percent of all state legislatures. Only six of our nation's governors are women. But we are 51 percent of the population. And the research shows that when women participate in government, we make it run better, more collaboratively. Historically, women have needed to be convinced to enter politics. But within weeks of the 2016 presidential election, thousands of women announced they plan to run. And we want them to win. So we're giving them a weekly example of a woman who has run and won. The point: You can, too.

Blanca Rubio had to go the distance to get where she is now—all the way from Juarez, Mexico. Rubio first ran for office in 1997, elected to the Valley Country Water District and a member for two full terms. Since then, she's been a classroom teacher, school board president, and a passionate advocate for ESL students. In 2016, she was elected to the California State Assembly, representing the 48th district. According to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, she is the first immigrant to represent the heavily Latino area in recent memory.

I was born in Mexico; my family came up to the United States when I was eight. We'd been here once before, earlier than that; we'd come to Texas and we were deported. That first time, we'd moved because my dad was in construction. He was a bracero at the time; he was building a bridge in Port Arthur, Texas. We didn't speak the language at all. When we were in school, they didn't know what to do with us. I remember we were the only non-white kids in the area. All the teachers just put us in the corner to color, but young minds learn quickly. I was picking up English, but not at a very high level. When I would try to participate in the class, the teacher would just move me back to the corner. I guess she decided I couldn't keep up or she wanted to keep me occupied. During that time, my dad was working, and he didn't have the proper documentation to work. He was caught, and we were deported. I was probably around six or seven. I had no idea what was going on. I just remember my dad saying, "Let's pack up our things. We're leaving." We moved back around two years later.

We're from Juarez, Mexico, which is one of the most dangerous cities at least in Mexico, if not the world. My parents were adamant about us not growing up there. When I was eight, they tried again. We moved to California, still undocumented. My younger sister, though, had been born in El Paso, Texas, and so we were able to get our documents through her, even though she was only four at the time. Through the process, we eventually became documented. If this had happened now, we wouldn't be able to become citizens because the laws have changed and a four-year-old couldn't sponsor a family. Thank god at the time they didn't have those requirements. We came in 1977. We finally got our documents in 1983.

With both my parents working, just trying to make it, trying to survive, they really didn't understand a lot of what we were learning or going through at school. But they did tell me and my brother and sisters over and over, "Keep going to school. You better not miss [class]. You better do your homework." It was always that. They didn't understand the system, but they did understand the value of education. When I was in high school, I made an appointment with the counselor. I said, "I want to go to college. What do I have to do?" It was the mid-1980s, and I'll never forget it. He looked at me and said, "Oh, honey, why? You're just going to get pregnant and have kids." He had me put in a home-ec class.

In the end, I didn't go to college right away. I started at community college, but needed to go to work because we didn't have much. I meant to go back to school pretty quickly, but, like it happens a lot, I didn't go back immediately. I was working in a human resources association; through that, I got a job at Mount St. Mary's University in west L.A. They have tuition reimbursement, and if you're an employee, you can take two classes per year for free. I was already there, so I figured, "Well, I'll start here." I took, I think, four classes, and I was hooked. I got the fire. I was like, "I need to go back to school." I got a job in human resources for the City of Vernon. Through their tuition reimbursement program, I got my associate's degree. After that, I earned my bachelor's degree. The whole time, I was still working in human resources.

It was 1997, and a friend of mine was sharing offices with us; he was a water board member. I complained all the time about the water board. He said, "What are you going to do about it?" I said, "What are you talking about! I just want to complain!" He said, "Nope. If you don't have a plan, I don't want to hear about it anymore." I was like, "What can I do?" And he said, "Run. You can run. We have open positions. You can run." I think he saw that spark in me. He promised to help me, and we registered to run. It was really tough. Even now, it's hard for me to knock on doors. I have to kind of give myself a pep talk. Back then, I was really scared. I had never done anything like that before in my life, not even student government. I won that election by 18 votes.

After that race, I went to work for the school district, which brought me even closer to the community. I went to local events on a regular basis. I introduced myself to folks; a lot of the parents got to know me. In 2000, there was a teacher shortage. At that point, they needed somebody with a degree and somebody with a pulse. I had both. I was literally in my HR office on Friday and in the classroom on Monday, which got me involved with the school board. I thought they weren't doing what they were supposed to; they weren't taking care of the kids, and a lot of them were English-as-a-second-language learners. Of course, I'm thinking about my own family, and I'm like, "Oh my god, I have to do something." I ran for the school board and won. I had been a teacher in the district at that point for three years, but I couldn't be a teacher in the district anymore now that I was on the school board. It was really scary. I realized, "Oh god, I have to quit." I found work in a nearby district, but it was a really important experience: like, this is what I want to do—whatever that means for my job, whatever problems that causes. I want to make change.

A few years later, I found out that my local assemblyman had termed out and the seat was open. I had just read Lean In the year before, and Sheryl Sandberg has a quote in there: "If not now, when? If not me, who?" When the assembly seat became available, I tried to find an excuse why I shouldn't run: "I can't raise the money, I won't get the endorsements," and on and on. I was thinking about it the wrong way. The book really showed me—forget about why you can't; make a list of why you can. I'd been an elected official for almost 20 years. I was a teacher, on the school board, on the water board. I knew the community. I had a business degree. I had an education degree. But I still felt unqualified. It was a wake-up call. I had everything I needed. Once I broke through my own mental block, I was like, "I'm doing this. And if I'm doing it, I'm winning."

I got my mom and dad involved, my sisters, my friends. I had a huge network. I can guarantee you that at least 90 percent of women have those networks in place just like I do. I couldn't have done it without the friends who dropped my kids off at school, who cooked them dinner, who took care of them when they were sick. Everyone got on board. My sister said, "Oh, Blanca, we've been waiting for this." And guess what? We won.

When I got sworn in in Sacramento, I brought my parents up for the official ceremony. They still don't speak English very well. My dad turned to me and said, "I never ever thought that I would see Sacramento and even less for the reasons that I'm here now." We grew up poor, just coming here was so hard, but I have no regrets. This country has given me the most incredible opportunities, and I'm so grateful and proud for what we've been able to build here.

This interview has been condensed and edited.