Nanette Barragán is used to fighting strenuous battles – and winning.
In November, the political newbie beat out a popular contender in the race for California’s 44th district. Before then, the now-Democratic congresswoman was one of just 10 percent of people in her district, which extends from Compton to the Port of Los Angeles, to go to college, putting herself through UCLA and USC Law School. As a member of Hermosa Beach’s city council, the former lawyer also fought against E&B Natural Resources, an oil and gas company trying to drill wells on the beach, and came out on top.
The child of Mexican immigrants, 40-year-old Barragán has throughout her life turned disparity into hope and struggle into prosperity, making her an insurmountable match for President Donald Trump in Congress, particularly when it comes to issues of environmental justice.
Barragán, a Latina representing the largely low-income, immigrant and people of color district she grew up in, understands that while environmentalism impacts everyone, it’s the people on the margins who find themselves facing most harm.
We chatted with Barragán, who’s the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ newly formed environmental task force, about environmentalism, representing her ‘hood, showing up for her community, beating the odds and the need for more Latinas in politics.
Your November win was pretty amazing. You’re a political newcomer, with two years experience as an elected official on the Hermosa Beach City Council, who beat out Democratic favorite, Isadore Hall III. How do you think you were able to do that?
I think it was a matter of talking about my story to the voters. It’s a story of hope, of the American Dream. My parents were immigrants from Mexico. My mom came with a third-grade education and wanted a better life for her kids. People in the community can identify with that. Also, with such a divisive political battle on the presidential level, people were looking for something positive, for hope, and we provided that. I talked about the issues they cared about, including the environment, health care, creating more jobs and education. It was a combination of my story, the issues and people feeling like they could sense someone who understood their struggle and understood their voice.
What does it feel like to you to represent the district that birthed and raised you?
It’s hard to put in words. It’s sometimes hard to believe it, but I’m just honored to be representing the people of the 44th, where I grew up. To have my mom live to see it, it’s just amazing. It means the most when people in the district come up to me and show me their approval, when they say they want you to be their voice and fight for them. It’s a heavily Latino district, and a lot of us are in fear, either for our families or ourselves. I’m honored and proud to represent this district.
During your years at Hermosa Beach and now as representative of LA’s 44th district, you have largely supported environmental justice issues. Why are these issues important to you?
I always had an interest in the environment. As a kid, I would go to the beach and thought it was the most amazing place, but I thought only rich and successful people lived by the water. I initially wanted to protect the coastline. As I’ve gotten more involved, I learned about the health impact of these issues, particularly air pollution. In my district, I see kids walking around with inhalers around their neck because of asthma.
But it’s hard for them to speak up about these issues. Once, when I was running for Congress, I was taking photos right outside of an oil refinery, on a public street. I was there for about two-to-three minutes before a security officer came by and began questioning us. We didn’t respond to his questions. We were doing nothing wrong. They called the police. If you think for a moment, of course people in this community, who are low-income and undocumented, are going to be afraid to speak when you have that kind of intimidation happening. That makes it more important to have someone stand up to corporate polluters, which is something I’ve done in the past.
In the past, you’ve said that, "People who are suffering [from environmental injustice] are in communities of color." Why do you believe this issue is racialized?
I think it’s a number of factors. For starters, people in these low-income communities are often working two jobs, leaving them with no time to organize, or they are folks who feel they can’t speak up, maybe because they’re undocumented. I’ve lived in my district for 30 years and I have also lived in a city that’s’ more affluent, and you can see the difference. People with more money often have more time on their hands. That’s why we need to have someone who is vigilant and will fight back to make sure our communities aren’t taken advantage of.
You are a chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ newly formed environmental task force. Tell us about your work with that.
It’s a relatively new task force. I’m trying to work with my team to look at issues that are impacting the Latino community as it relates to the environment and coming up with ideas to better message to them. If you just talk about the environment, sometimes it doesn’t resonate. We want to talk about it in a way they can understand and relate to. In my district, I’ve done this by showing the community that environmental justice is a public health issue. Another task I have is in uniting people. Oftentimes, issues are assigned to an identity: immigration is a Latino issue, criminal justice is an African-American issue and equal pay is a woman’s issue. We want to show that issues of the environment impact, and should be a top priority to, immigrants, women, Latinos, African Americans and everyone.
You’re also a member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, chaired by climate denier Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican. What's this been like for you? What are some of the biggest challenges?
The hardest challenge is that a lot of our votes are party-line votes. We’re not having full committee hearings to talk about the issues, and that’s frustrating.
It’s not just Bishop. As you’ve said, “President Trump’s executive order guts our climate policies and clean energy jobs in order to boost the profits of corporate polluters.” How do you intend on preventing President Trump's environmental rollbacks?
We just did with the budget. Trump wanted to cut the Environmental Protection Agency by a third, but in our deal, just 1 percent was cut. We saved a lot. At the time we’re in, even though it’s a loss, it’s a win for us because of what we could save. We can also fight back by making sure we can work with groups across the country to be a voice and help influence members. It’s not just the president, but Congress, too.
You’ve stated that your upbringing has prepared you for the battle against Trump. How so?
My entire life, I’ve been fighting for something, whether it’s graduating from high school, fighting to go to college (only 10 percent of people in my district enter higher education), fighting to get a good-paying job, winning city council where only 5 percent of the population is Latino and no one thought I had a chance, fighting against oil companies and winning the race last year. Beating the odds is a theme for me. I know what it’s like to fight back when the odds look insurmountable.
What can everyday Latinas do in this fight?
First, we need people engaged. Sometimes you read an article and move on; you don’t take action. We need to make sure people keep engaged, especially in our communities. We need people calling their representatives, voting in presidential and local elections, supporting people who share our values and really knowing what an individual’s values are. For instance, there are often candidates who fight for the environment but take oil money. I don’t take a dime of oil money. Also, consider running for office. Women in particular need to be asked seven times to consider running, and that’s compared to a guy who just wakes up in the morning believing he’s prepared to be the president.
Talking about everyday Latinas, many of our readers are college students, some with political dreams. In the past, you've said that your life story is to beat the odds. Do you have any advice for these young women, who hope to do the same in the sphere of politics?
First, they should make sure they network. What I mean by that is, start an address book of your friends, keep in touch with people, especially when you meet someone who is in a position you’d like to be in one day. Follow up with them. We all want to help those behind us, well, most of us do. There are also great organizations like EMILY’s List, which has a wonderful one-day program that teaches you how to run for office, raise money and make a message. It’s a great tool to just hear about the process and messaging, regardless if you want to run for office or not. Volunteer your time. It’s about following your passion.