Wendy Carrillo has long shown up for her community. A grassroots organizer and journalist, the El Salvador-born mujer frequently engages with the people of her East Los Angeles neighborhood, advocates for the issues impacting them and holds local politicians accountable. Now Carrillo, 36, is hoping to continue that work on a larger scale.
She is running for Congress, hoping to fill the soon-to-be vacant House of Representatives seat in the 34th district, previously held by outgoing Congressman Xavier Becerra, who was appointed the state’s next attorney general.
If Carrillo, a Democrat, succeeds, she would become the first formerly undocumented woman in Congress, but she’s not intimidated by that prospect. The Boyle Heights native is ready to take on the Trump administration and help rebuild the Democratic Party. She wants to be at the table, fully present, when politicos engage in conversations that impact those like her: people of color, women, immigrants, undocumented communities, young folks and more.
We spoke with Carrillo about her run for office, how she intends on tackling issues important to her largely Latinx district, getting people of marginalized identities in politics and more.
Why did you decide to run for office?
I’ve always been involved politically and helped elect progressive leaders. I’ve been in the background working in politics, but haven’t had the opportunity to run in a very big way. Congressional seats don’t open up often, and so when I saw the representative was stepping down, I saw it as an opportunity. When he did that, I was in Standing Rock, and so I had all these mixed feelings on the future of the nation, on the human rights violation there, and all over the country; I couldn’t wait for more politics as usual. We need more fearless voices in Congress, and I’m one of them. Who best to support my community than someone who lived there? It was literally answering the questions: “If not me, then who?” and “If not now, then when?”
You said previously that you plan to “put the people first.” How so?
When you have your ear to the ground, you know the issues and fears of the people. You know their dreams. So I don’t’ need to take a poll to tell you this community cares about immigration, health care, jobs and education. Those are the four top issues that face this community, which is largely Latino and largely immigrant. This district, the 34th, is one of the most ethnically diverse in the state and country, with Latinos, Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Anglos and Blacks. We are an incredibly diverse district.
Some of the issues you have mentioned as important to you include: Immigration, deportation, incarceration, rehabilitation, homelessness, student debt and more. How do these issues impact your district?
The district is 64 percent Latino and 49 percent foreign-born. Even more, 33 percent of the people cannot vote. There’s a large percentage of students that depend on DACA. All of these communities are facing hate-mongering from the White House. The district is home to Skid Row, the largest homeless population in the entire country. All of this is interrelated, from health care access, not waiting till you’re really sick to go into an emergency room, to mental health, homeless folks have no access to the help they need. As we continue the development of Downtown LA, the homeless community is being pushed out without a solution, so all of those things are related issues of the district.
As a woman, a woman of color who was formerly undocumented, what do you think your identities can bring to this position?
It’s very layered. In terms of having Republicans continue to talk about people in my community without having us at the table, when you are in the room, people have to look you in the face. It makes a difference. I want to go to Congress and be able to at the very least represent people like myself and advocate for immigrants, women, women of color and undocumented communities that are scared. Secondly, for my community itself, for people who are like me and have a similar background, I have learned and am honored to be an inspiration for people, like, if you can do it, I can, too. To see a formerly undocumented woman, an immigrant, in this country achieve the American Dream, run on an American platform to represent this community, that’s a beacon of hope. We are worthy and able, and this country belongs to us as much as it does to everyone else. We have an opportunity to own it and change it in the direction we want, and we can only achieve that through political representation and political power.
How do you think your experience in media, particularly your community-based program “Knowledge is Power,” could help make you a better fit for public office?
I’ve been listening to the issues Angelinos care about for the past 14 years. I’ve been listening and holding people in elected office accountable. With my experience in media, I can clearly advocate for issues of communities I care about. I’m the only candidate called to local and national radio shows to talk about these issues, in English and Spanish. When people ask, “what are you going to do in Congress,” I say, “I’ve been doing it.” We need different voices throughout America. LA thinks and moves a certain way, and we use media to do that.
As a strong critic of President Donald Trump and his policies, how would you take him on in Congress?
By continuing to challenge him and agitate him. Trump is a very narcissistic man who desires to be loved. His own self-admiration will be his detriment. I being an organizer, an activist, a journalist, knowing how to work the media, I plan on taking him on by doing what I do. I’ve already been Trump-trolled. I say I’m running for Congress, and as a formerly undocumented woman who is unapologetic, that pisses people off, and I cant wait to do it with a bigger platform in Washington, D.C.
You said, “Our country should not be a country of fear, but a country of promise.” How do you intend to bring promise back to the U.S.?
Reclaiming the American Dream. The American Dream doesn’t belong to just certain people, and it looks differently for everyone. It’s the right to an education, the right to afford a home or the right to be successful – whatever that means to the person. The American Dream belongs to all of us.
What would representing your district in Congress mean to you?
It means that when we talk about political parity and political representation as a Democratic Party, we mean it. You cannot keep talking about immigrants, women, Latinas, undocumented communities and refugees if you do not have those people at the table. This is the first response to a Trump administration that campaigned on the backs of Mexicans, Latinos, Muslims and LGBT folks. He campaigned on a platform of hate, and the 34th district is a first response to all of that, and, quite honestly, it sets the tone for the 28 midterms. Winning this seat will also create a dramatic shift in the Democratic Party. You can’t simply go after Trump and not look at your own house. When Democrats talk about getting more women and immigrants in office, this is what it looks like. Right now, the party is struggling. It’s still trying to identify itself after losing. The party is in chaos, and it needs a dramatic internal shift in policy and thought and to have more people at the table.
What do you think your possible election could mean to the tens of thousands of undocumented young people living in this country?
It means they get to see themselves in what we’re doing. Their voices and experiences are in Congress. There are parts of it that are about identity. You need to feel you are represented. Knowing there is someone who knows your experiences, that cares about you and your family and has achieved getting elected into Congress could potentially mean you can also, and that is exciting. I have several students on my campaign who are DACA recipients. They know that even though they cannot vote, they can get others to do so and represent them. Political power is not just in the voting booth but organizing communities and making sure people in office represent you. I hope that in the future we have more formerly undocumented people in Congress. We need to normalize this.
Do you have a message for Latinas with dreams to run for public office but see those as unfeasible?
I would say, stop asking for permission and stop doubting yourself. We have it just a little harder to raise money and get connected. It’s easy to fall in the role of helping men get elected and be behind the scene. But Latinas are one of the fasting-growing communities. Latinas outnumber Latino men. We need to stop self-doubting and thinking, I’m not ready and I need to learn more, and just do it. Just put yourself in groups with like-minded women and just figure it out along the way. Get connected and don’t be afraid. If I hadn’t decided to just run, I don’t know how many other women would have. I was the first woman to announce it, and I did it without asking for permission, and it upset people, but who cares? We all have power in changing this country. If your mission is true, just do it – haters to the side.
California's 34th Congressional District election is April 4.