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Padilla's California nomination helps heal America's historical omission of the Latino experience

The Latinx community has born the brunt of loss, deaths and omission. Padilla’s nomination brings the possibility of a new day.
Alex Padilla, California's secretary of state, speaks in San Francisco in 2018.
Alex Padilla, California's secretary of state, in San Francisco in 2018.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file

Latinos have lived in California before California was a state, yet it took a 170 years to finally see ourselves represented in the most esteemed body politic in the world. For this reason alone, the selection of Secretary of State Alex Padilla to fulfill Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ Senate term is so historically significant for California and the nation on multiple fronts.

The geopolitical trends in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas reflect California’s politics from two decades ago.

For those of us who grew up under Pete Wilson’s reign and the stain of Proposition 187 — the original show-me-your-papers law against anyone not white — Padilla's heading to the Senate is the fruit of tireless organizing seeded 25 years ago, led by young Latinx and Asian Americans fighting to turn California into a safer, equitable state for us and our families.

Harris’s election and Padilla's selection carry the same significance for Asian Americans who’ve called this country home for 200 years — yet still don’t get acknowledgement of their “Americanness.”

Like Padilla and Harris, the aftermath of Prop 187 politicized me. Watching neighbors singling out families because of their accents and surnames, teachers tracking students based on race rather than their abilities, and police pulling over young men for simply driving while brown in small-town Sonoma are just small examples that led to my life’s work. I joined millions of other young people at the time trying to claim a piece of California, a piece of America that tried to deny our existence, our equity and our citizenry simply for not being white.

The organized pushback against Proposition 187 by the community became the blueprint for my organization Voto Latino, where we applied a model from Arizona to Georgia as those states’ leaders led similar anti-immigrant trends.

One in 3 Americans believe that the majority of Latinx are undocumented despite whole swaths of our country where the border migrated — not the people.

When 1 in 3 fellow Americans believe that the majority of Latinx are undocumented despite whole swaths of our country where the border migrated, not the people, it speaks to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s appointment of Padilla as writing history.

If we look to our government, newsrooms, executive suites, education, health care, tech and the film industry, one would never guess that Latinos have been the second-largest demographic in the United States since 2003. The geopolitical trends in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas reflect California’s politics from two decades ago — young Latinos and Asian Americans rising, registering to vote, running for office as a response to racial profiling legislation, increased hate crimes, national and local rhetoric that penalizes us for seeking our American birthright in a land that omits our history, our story and our contributions.

It is perhaps why it’s just as significant that Newsom chose Padilla in the same week the Senate greenlighted the Latino American Museum after a near three decadeslong fight.

Covid-19 exposed the vast inequities across our institutions in how this country treats the most marginalized. A McKinsey report in July noted that the nation’s 60 million Latinos “have experienced a disproportionate share of the health and economic effects of the pandemic … are about three times more likely than white residents to test positive for the virus, experience more challenges with accessing care, and are more economically vulnerable.”

Since the pandemic began, 50 percent of Latinos were laid off or had hours reduced, yet just 18 percent of Latino-owned businesses received Paycheck Protection Program loans to help save many of those lost hours and jobs. At a time when 60 percent of Latinos are under 34 years old, many will miss some of their best earning years as a result of Covid-19-related pre-existing conditions and a Depression-era economy. Congress’s own Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act omitted 20 percent of the Latino workforce, including U.S. citizens living with undocumented loved ones.

Just 18 percent of Latino-owned businesses received Paycheck Protection Program loans to help save many of those lost hours and jobs.

The nominations of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, Alejandro Mayorkas to the Department of Homeland Security, and Miquel Cardona to the Department of Education are as significant as Padilla’s appointment, as our nation rebuilds from the pandemic. All three have deep expertise to run their respective departments, but equally as important, but often overlooked, is that they possess the cultural competency required to address the needs of a sizable but little understood population that will be key to our rebound.

There remains work to be done to better reflect Latino representation in America. The broad historical omissions of the Californian and American Latino experience are what make Padilla’s pick so meaningful today. The Latino narrative of struggle and awakening through organizing against the odds is woven into the American story.

After four years of Trump pummeling the Latino community through policy, action and language, coupled with the pandemic’s ravaging effects, December has given us some glimmers of hope that a new course is on the horizon with the passage of the Latino Museum, three Cabinet appointments and the selection of California’s first Mexican-American senator.

The Latinx community — which has born the brunt of loss, deaths and omission — now sees the possibility of a new day through Padilla’s appointment. His rise is one rooted in a people organizing and claiming their space and their American identity despite the force of opposition that we have endured.

It sends a message to a child who has witnessed her parents interrogated by authorities, questioning their citizenship simply because they speak Spanish, the second most widely spoken language in the world, in public: that her possibility in America is limitless, that the American dream is still possible and that her ambition is not outsized. And that she, too, may someday join the Senate and even occupy the White House.