On the same day California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced a Latino — Alex Padilla, his secretary of state — to replace Kamala D. Harris in the U.S. Senate, President-elect Joe Biden announced his third Latino Cabinet pick — Miguel Cardona — to head the Department of Education. Cardona is positioned to serve alongside Alejandro Mayorkas, nominated to head Homeland Security, and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, nominated to head Health and Human Services.
Their appointments mark important milestones for Latino Americans, who constitute the second-largest racial group in the country. If confirmed, Cardona, Mayorkas and Becerra will oversee departments whose portfolios cover policy issues central to Latinx voters, including their social, cultural and political well-being. But where are the Latinas?
Biden has promised to create the most diverse presidential Cabinet in U.S. history, specifically invoking race and gender diversity as paramount to that goal. So far, Latinas are completely absent.
Latinas have a long history of political leadership, and there are a number of women with the experience and expertise needed to fill Cabinet posts. Take, for example, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who was in the running for HHS secretary. Or Lily Eskelsen García, former president of the National Education Association, whose name had appeared on shortlists for the Department of Education post.
In California, Latinx advocacy groups floated several Latinas to replace Harris in the U.S. Senate, including Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis and state senator and labor leader Maria Elena Durazo. Other activists rightly pointed out that Harris’s departure left the Senate without a Black woman, and they urged Newsom to consider Reps. Karen Bass or Barbara Lee for the post. (Harris won her 2016 Senate race by defeating another woman of color, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a Democratic House member from Southern California who would have been the state’s first Latina U.S. senator.)
Overlooking Latinas is especially frustrating because they play a central role in the Democratic Party. Latinas’ support for Democratic candidates and issues has been central to the party’s success nationally, and especially in California.
In the 2020 election, data from Latino Decisions, Edison and the Congressional Election Survey show that Latinas once again delivered for Democrats. While Cuban Americans’ support for Trump in Florida drew attention, Latinos overall broke heavily for Biden: 70 percent for Biden to 26 percent for Trump nationally, and 76 percent to 22 percent in critical states like Michigan. In addition, more than two-thirds of Latinas supported Biden and Democratic candidates in down-ballot races. When compared with Latinos, Latinas consistently vote more Democratic and support more progressive candidates and issues, producing a gender gap between Latinas and Latinos.
Meanwhile, Latina-led grass-roots organizing was key to delivering a Biden victory in battleground states like Arizona, while also helping the Democrats maintain their power in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. Targeted outreach and mobilization matters for turning out Latinx voters, and Latinas were central to the leadership of several groups doing this work, including Voto Latino, Mi Familia Vota, Mijente, United We Dream and the UNITE HERE labor union. From get-out-the-vote efforts at the national level to contacting voters in competitive districts, Latinas are important community builders and have consistently organized, mobilized and delivered for the party’s candidates and causes.
This work isn’t new, as Latinas have a long — and often erased — history of fighting for inclusion and working to expand the promise of democracy. Think of women such as Mexican American Juana Briones, whose struggle to protect her family and land in California from White squatters in the 1800s ultimately reached the Supreme Court long before she was allowed to vote or hold public office, or Isabel Gonzalez, whose effort to migrate to New York in 1902 after the Spanish-American War laid the groundwork for Puerto Rican citizenship in the United States.
Their legacy lives on in the current generation of Latina leaders. Following Trump’s 2016 election, even more Latinas engaged in the electoral process as advocates, fundraisers, donors, campaign staff, commentators, canvassers, organizers, voters and, most importantly, candidates and officeholders. In 2018, they won a record number of congressional seats around the country. States such as Texas sent their first Latina representatives to the House, and their election overall contributed to Democrats reclaiming the majority.
Latinas’ presence also matters in ways beyond their symbolic importance. They face policy issues that are unique to how gender, race and ethnicity intersect in their daily lives. The news of Latinas undergoing forced sterilizations in deportation centers, as well as the disproportionate impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on Latinas’ economic well-being, demonstrate how vital Latina voices are to producing racial and gender justice.
Despite a renewed commitment to diversity among Democrats, Latinas have once again been excluded. In an era where women and people of color are seizing the stage and speaking truth to power, Latinas have been left out in the cold. A Cabinet without Latinas is not a Cabinet that reflects the Democrats’ winning coalition. And it’s certainly not a Cabinet that looks like the United States.
Jennifer Piscopo is an associate professor of politics at Occidental College. Anna Sampaio is a professor of ethnic studies and political science at Santa Clara University.