Jeff Rosenfield/Cronkite News Esme Franco Ruiz, board secretary for Aliento, walks around a neighborhood in south Phoenix, knocking on people's doors and providing informational pamphlets to encourage voting in a local election, Mar. 5, 2021.
Jeff Rosenfield/Cronkite News

Latinos are a growing force in the nation’s political landscape, even as they lag in election to public office in Arizona.

Esme Franco Ruiz is passionate about her work in politics—even though she despises politics.

“I don’t like politics because it tends to be very, very shady,” she said. “I don’t appreciate how it’s a popularity contest of sorts. There’s not really an importance put into actually informing people; it’s more like people are just trying to get your vote with any means possible.“

Ruiz, a sophomore at Arizona State University who’s double majoring in transborder studies and Spanish, also is a member of Aliento @ ASU, a youth-led organization that advocates for undocumented immigrants.

She spends many afternoons in Phoenix neighborhoods, walking door-to-door putting up flyers about upcoming elections.

Ruiz hopes to put more effort into local elections and candidates who “might not have the spotlight in ways that they should,” including Hispanic politicians.

“One of the reasons that change is so slow is not because we don’t want (Hispanics) in office, but we don’t inform people enough in the Latino community,” she said.

Latina leaders in Arizona

Latinos are a growing force in the nation’s political landscape, even as they lag in election to public office in Arizona and elsewhere. Hispanics account for the nation’s largest ethnic or racial minority and more than half of the total U.S. population growth since 2010, with most of the increases in the Southwest.

Hispanics make up nearly one-third of Arizona’s 7.3 million residents, although their last statewide representative was Raúl Castro, who was elected governor in 1974.

That 46-year drought ended Jan. 4, when Anna Tovar and Lea Márquez Peterson were sworn in as Arizona Corporation Commissioners – Márquez Peterson as the chair – and became the first Latinas elected to statewide office in Arizona. They also were the only identified Latinas in the country to win a position in statewide elected executive office in 2020.

Tovar and Márquez Peterson each drew more than 1.4 million votes in the general election.

Esme Franco Ruiz, board secretary for Aliento, walks around a neighborhood in south Phoenix, knocking on people’s doors and providing informational pamphlets to encourage voting in a local election.
Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

The election of two political opposites – Tovar is a Democrat, Márquez Peterson a Republican – symbolizes a way forward for Latina political power in office. Experienced and emerging leaders point to pride in identity, the examples set by their families and prodigious preparation and determination as key forces.

Nearly 30% of Latinos identify as Republicans, a statistic Márquez Peterson said she considered as she campaigned.

“I’m a Republican and I’m Latina – I had to make sure that I could win a primary with a Hispanic surname and that people understood what I stood for,” Márquez Peterson said.

Gov. Doug Ducey appointed Márquez Peterson to fill out a departing member’s term on the commission in May 2019, which required her to run for the seat in November.

Márquez Peterson, an entrepreneur who’s also president of the National Association of Women Business Owners in Tucson, said she’s honored to be one of the first Latinas elected to statewide office.

“I was astonished to learn that I was the first when I was appointed because it was shocking that it took that long,” she said.

Her leadership began in seventh grade, when she was president of Future Business Leaders of America, a school club.

Tovar’s interest in leadership and politics also stems from her childhood, where she grew up close with her grandparents, who owned a grocery store in Tolleson.

“They were migrant field workers who were very entrepreneurial in spirit and came to the United States for a better life for their children and grandchildren,” she recalled.

“My great grandmother actually worked at the state Capitol delivering mail. At that time, there was no one serving that was a person of color, but she felt it was necessary that our presence was seen in that environment, and it was her dream one day to see one of our family members not just delivering mail but actually serving there.”

Being one of the first Latinas in statewide office is a major responsibility, said Tovar, who served as a legislator in 2013. But she’s familiar with firsts – in 2016, Tovar was the first woman elected as Tolleson mayor.

The 117th Congress has a record number of 119 women in the House of Representatives – 27% of its 435 members. There also are a record 48 women of color in the House, or 11%. Of the 43 Hispanic members serving, 30 are men and 13 women; in total, Hispanic women make up 3% of Congress.

More Latinas ran for Congress than ever before in 2020, with at least 75 candidates. This is more than four times the number in 2010, when 17 Latinas ran.

Domingo Garcia, president of the advocacy group League of United Latin American Citizens, recognizes the importance of political representation for people of color.

“It is important to Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans that they have a place at the table,” he told CNN in December. “Because if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

Bumps in the Road

The journey sometimes has been rough for such trailblazers as Tovar and Márquez Peterson.

“I’ve definitely encountered discrimination and bias,” Tovar said. “Not only being a woman, but also a woman of color.”

Pointing to her time at the Legislature representing District 19 in the West Valley, Tovar said her male counterparts questioned her word more often, and she had to prepare twice as hard to establish her credibility.

“I have navigated through those and try to do my best to prevent those barriers from being placed upon future women leaders,” Tovar said.

Ruiz, the activist with Aliento @ ASU, became interested in politics last year through her work with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which highlighted the lack of basic political information for Hispanics – including education about voter registration, how to update information and where to vote or drop off ballots.

Lea Márquez Peterson, left, was appointed to the Arizona Corporation Commission in 2019. Anna Tovar, right, became the first woman mayor of Tolleson in 2016. In 2020, they became the first Latinas elected to statewide office in Arizona with their elections to the corporation commission, where Márquez Peterson was also selected as chairwoman.
Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

“What I would like to do is help fix the discrepancy among Latino voters and all other voters, making sure that they have resources,” she said. “Even if it’s as little as making sure that all the websites that provide information have a Spanish translation – which seems like common sense, but it’s not.”

Ruiz said she, too, sometimes is dismissed.

“I’m a tiny little girl; like literally, I’m five feet tall,” she said “I don’t get taken seriously, despite my work. My boyfriend works in politics and he gets all the attention, all the time.”

When making calls to domestic workers through the alliance, Ruiz said, she primarily reached out to women. When men answered the phone, she said, they sometimes would not allow women in the household to speak with her.

“We like to pretend that we are moving away from gender roles and rules in the family, but that still happens a lot,” Ruiz said.

Márquez Peterson recommends Latinas address bias by embracing their identity.

“I would start by not thinking of it as an obstacle, but really something special that sets you apart,” she said. “I’ve never gone into a situation thinking that I’m at a disadvantage because I’m female or I’m Hispanic. I’ve always thought of it as, ‘What a great advantage, I’m bringing this diverse voice.’”

Márquez Peterson said she likes interacting with others, which was helpful in her journey in politics.

“When you decide to run for office, you have to be an extroverted person and really enjoy going to events, shaking hands with strangers and talking to folks,” Márquez Peterson said.

Although Ruiz describes herself as shy, she said her work with Aliento @ ASU is meaningful because of her father, whose perspective about voting has changed from apathetic to passionate.

“My dad became a citizen, and he doesn’t really think that he matters,” Ruiz said. “Seeing that change in him inspires me, and every time that I see that change in somebody else, it reminds me of my dad in a way. It’s so important for me when I see that change – that’s how I know that my work matters and that it’s important.”

Rising Representation

Ruiz stressed the importance of representation in office for people of all backgrounds and hopes to improve that through her own work.

“I can explain to you what being Latina is, but if you’re not Latina, you don’t really understand my experience,” she said. “I’m not saying that we can’t understand each other because we’re different – I’m just saying it’s really important to have people with firsthand experience of what that feels like.”

Esme Franco Ruiz, board secretary for Aliento, walks around a neighborhood in south Phoenix, knocking on people’s doors and providing informational pamphlets to encourage voting in a local election.
Jeff Rosenfield/Cronkite News

Mi Familia Vota and similar organizations have emerged to push for greater voter registration and election reform, particularly in the Hispanic community. They played an influential role in the 2020 presidential election, encouraging Hispanics to turn out at the polls to help turn Arizona blue for the first time in 24 years.

Ruiz said she’s glad there has been growth in political and leadership opportunities for Latinos in Arizona.

“If everyone isn’t voting, if everyone isn’t aware of the situation, then we can’t rightfully say that somebody is the candidate of the people,” she said.

Female leaders in Arizona – elected and appointed – include Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, Ann A. Scott Timmer, vice chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, Regina Romero, the first Latina mayor of Tucson, Becky Daggett, vice mayor of Flagstaff, and Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams.

Tovar said representation in public office is critical at every level, from school boards all the way up to state and national levels – a point that her mother and grandmother emphasized.

“I remember them strongly telling me, ‘Don’t wait to be invited. You show up, and you speak your mind and you bring solutions to the table,’” she said.

Ruiz said more young people need to vote. She pointed to the rise of political activism on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, but when it comes to voting, she said, few show up at the polls.

“We as young people complain about the decisions and the effects of the behavior of older people, but we don’t do anything about it,” Ruiz said. “At the end of the day, if I’m not using my voice, if I’m not working towards this, I have no right to be upset at everything that’s going on.”

Tovar turned her voice to politics after teaching elementary school for five years. She also faced personal health struggles along the way.

“I really, truly thought I was going to be a kindergarten or first-grade teacher for the rest of my life,” she said. “One thing about life is it can throw you some curveballs – my curveball was cancer. I navigated through that twice and truly put my life into perspective. If I can accomplish what I’ve accomplished, I know that anyone can.”

Ruiz is fueled by a desire for change. Others, she said, can also take action.

“If you’re outraged about the lack of representation, if you’re outraged for how often women have been put to the side and have been undervalued, you can’t sit there and complain unless you do something about it,” she said. “You should strive for that.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story included an incorrect title for Esme Franco Ruiz.