We often hear Latinas talk about their goals, dreams and aspirations, but it’s hard to be what you can’t see. Catherine Cortez Masto, who could be the first Latina in the U.S. Senate, knows that well.
The powerful leader spent her whole life pushing the status quo in her state. The Democrat took her Mexican-American roots and work ethic into public service and law enforcement. A lifelong advocate for women and children, she worked to strengthen laws preventing sex trafficking and violence against women.
She’s now taking her leadership to the next level. Learn more about Cortez Masto, her stance on important Latina issues and how you can help her on her journey to the Senate.
What would it mean to you to be the first Latina senator ever? And are you surprised there hasn’t been a Latina senator before?
Yes, I think it should have happened a long time ago. But now that it is, it is very important because it’s one thing to make history and it’s another thing to have a Latina at the table. You have to use your voice to create change, and I think I bring a different perspective because of my background, and being Latino, and all the issues we care about. One of them: Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act needs to pass.
It’s important to you, and it’s important to all of us. Even though 60 percent of Latinos is born in this country, we often have someone in our family who is an immigrant. For you, it was your grandfather. Can you tell us about that?
My grandfather was born in Mexico. And when he was a young man, he crossed the Rio Grande. After that, he served in our military and became a U.S. citizen. He ended up in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and that’s where my father was born. That was the beginning of my Mexican-American family, where they settled in Las Vegas in the early 1940s. During that time, there weren’t many Hispanic families in the area. That being said, it was about being more American for them – that is why my generation doesn’t speak as much Spanish. During that time, it was about assimilating. Now, Nevada is beautiful and diverse. Nevada now has a 25 percent Hispanic rate. We are a powerful voice, and we need to use our voices.
I am a Mexican-American, and my Spanish can be better as well. I am learning more now, and teaching my children as well. That being said, I thought my parents were doing me a favor in not teaching Spanish. Now, some of your critics have said to you, you are not Latina enough. To the people saying you are only half-Latina or don’t speak Spanish, what would you say to defend your Latina-ness?
That would be huge shock to my grandparents and parents. Truly, though, I do not have to defend my heritage, nor should I have to. I believe that’s what’s at stake here during this election. We need a voice for the people, someone who’s going to stand up against discrimination and fight for people who are still struggling – even here in Nevada and across the country.
You’ve done a lot of work for women. You’ve created a program against sex trafficking, which impacts a lot of Latinas, and fought for women to govern their bodies. Why do you think it’s important for you to advocate for women, especially Latinas?
Because it’s my voice. Throughout my career, I have seen domestic violence prevention and sexual assault prevention. Anything that we could do to tear down barriers to protect our people, and hold criminals accountable, I am in the fight. I will continue to do that in the United States Senate. Here in Nevada, we’ve seen people like to prey on the vulnerable. We see it in the Latino community as well, such as unlicensed health-care and fraud. We often hear of people claiming to be doctors and are performing surgeries in the back of a store. Those are the fights that I want to be a part of. Another fight is education; our families came here because they wanted more for us. And that to me is never going to change.
So Latinas make 54 cents for every dollar that a white man makes. What can you do for those Latinas out there who want equal pay?
I think it’s time to pass legislation to change it. As a Latina myself, equal pay for equal work is important. We are 55 percent of the population, and that being said that is one fight I plan to win. It’s not my voice I am taking to Washington D.C.; it’s our voice.
Millennials are the main demographic of Latinas now, and many of them care about the environment. What will you do for those who want a safer planet for our future generation?
When I talk to many millennials that is one of the issues they bring up. The good thing is they believe the science, and climate change is happening. You can see it with the wildfires, mudslides and bathtub rings. I am excited they understand the environment and want to protect the planet for the future. For me, this is a fight in Washington as well. We need to change the environment. I learned about caring for the environment by recreational activities. It’s a wonderful way to get involved with the outdoors.
What are the challenges you’ve faced as a woman and as a Latina as you go on this journey to try and become the first Latina senator?
I think people feel threatened, which is why they challenge my heritage. We should be coming together to solve problems, and comprise is not a bad word to me. It’s all about working on the future and solving problems while bringing people together. The interesting thing is I chose a career in law enforcement, which is traditionally male-dominated. When I walked into my first meeting with all my colleagues, not only was I the only Latino but there were also just eight women. This is a field where you have to stand up for what you believe in and not be afraid to use your voice. That’s why it’s important that we continue to diversify our government, corporate boardroom and more. It should be just as diverse as the community I am serving.
Where do you think all your “ganas”(“desire”) came from?
When I was growing up, I was thinking about it. I think it comes from my Mexican grandmother and mother. Wow, my grandmother was tough. You couldn’t put anything past her. She was a sales clerk and went home to work just as hard. I realized the work ethic, and I knew I had to work hard because of her. I came to respect her work ethics, which led me to fight for those who share the same.
Work and life balance is huge for Latinas to keep us healthy. Do you have any rituals you do?
I do. I learned it when I was an Attorney General in Nevada for eight years. All I did the first term was work, but then I realized I really have to take better care of myself. It’s all about prioritizing. Family is big for me; therefore, I made sure I was there for my husband. Then taking care of myself was key: I like to run, work out, hike and simply spend time outdoors. I think exercise is so important. Yes, as women we are multi-taskers, but we have to take care of our bodies.
What’s one thing you feel people don’t know about you?
I like to dance. I always make my husband dance with me when we are in the kitchen to whatever gets us moving. One my favorite is bands is Maná, but I like all kinds of music.
You can’t be what you can’t see. Right now, we don’t have a Latina senator or Latina president. Therefore, what would you say to young Latinas out there who are in aspiring to be any of those?
I’d tell them to start now, because I believe in mentorship. I believe a lot of women now should be reaching out to young girls and their ability to achieve. I always say if you have a passion, you follow that passion wherever it takes you. Passion helps you in protecting the community, and public service will follow it. That has been my career. It is the passion that drives me to do what I do every day. I’ve taken jobs with pay cuts, but I was always open to the many reasons as to why I was there. Don’t be afraid to find role models and mentors because you can learn from those people.
Who have been some of your role models?
My father and my mother. Also, when I graduated school, I worked under a judge. He was on the bench for about 20 years, and he was a respectful and smart man. He knew the law and always wanted to do the right thing.
Any famous Latinas you look up to?
Yes, Dolores Huerta. She has been there for me. She connects with people, and you can see it is her passion. She fights for families and for our people. Her son is now running for office, and she has even helped Hilary Clinton.
How did you get so brave?
I learned fear is not always a bad thing; it can be a good motivator. I think once you learn your voice, the next step is to learn how to use it. For me, if you want to get something done, you got to make some noise and really put yourself out there.
So, why should people vote for you?
It’s about continuing the fight for working families. I did that as an attorney general, taking on the economic crisis, taking on the pimps who are exposing women and much more. I also introduced and passed over 40 bills with the support of Democrats and Republicans. To me, it’s about problem-solving and creating the positive change.