Meet The Afro-Latina Coming For Rep. Luis Gutiérrez’s Congressional Seat

credit: Josh Ford

She’s Running is a FIERCE series highlighting Latinas running for office in local, state and federal elections.

When Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) announced last year that he would not be seeking re-election, Sol Flores’ phone started buzzing.

“Did you hear? Did you hear? I think a strong woman should run,” Flores, the executive director of La Casa Norte, an organization working to end homelessness in Chicago, remembered her friends from Illinois and Washington, D.C. telling her. “I said, ‘yeah, I agree. Let’s call her.’ And they replied, ‘No, fool. I mean you.’”

The thought of running for public office took the 44-year-old Afro-Puerto Rican activist by surprise. While she had spent most of her life advocating for youth and families, often pressuring members of Congress to pass legislation to help the most vulnerable, she never considered herself on the other end of the negotiation table.

Contending for the open seat also meant going up against heavyweights like Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who has already received endorsements from Gutiérrez himself as well as Senator Bernie Sanders, in the crowded race.

But then Flores remembered a stat: Just 38 of the 106 women serving in Congress in 2018 are women of color. Eighteen are Black, 10 are Latina, 9 are Asian American/Pacific Islander and 1 is multiracial.

“That’s not what our country looks like, so that’s not what our representatives should look like,” she told Fierce.

More than one million Latinas call Illinois home, yet the state has never elected a Latina to Congress. Flores, who tossed her hat into the ring in November and quickly received an endorsement from national women’s political group EMILY’s List, is ready to be the first.

We chatted with Flores about her bid for the Democratic seat in the 4th Congressional district of Illinois, her longtime activism work and the need for more women of color in politics.

Why did you decide to run for office?

(Photo Credit: Josh Ford)

I wasn’t sure at first. I never aspired to run for office. I’m not following someone else’s footsteps in my family. But I did start to reflect and realized, I’m getting out of bed every day for young people and families, and I’m doing it because I believe so deeply in them, and this is an opportunity to do more of that. When I talk with legislators, I’m always on the other side, wanting them to have a deeper understanding of community issues and being as passionate about them as I am. I thought, wait! Could I be one of those people, the ones who get it and work to make a difference for vulnerable populations? I’d say the realization that I could be that person was about 70 percent of my decision to run. The other 30 percent was simply not being happy with the way this country is going and not being OK with always being the only woman and/or person of color in the room. If I believe we are not using 50 percent of our talent, and think we are better when we have more diverse voices, then, yeah, we need more people like me.

You said previously that “service was a demonstration of my love for people and for doing what’s right and what’s just for others.” How so?

I’m from a family of activists. We all grew up together, living in this one building. My grandparents were foster care parents. My aunts were in unions and were anti-war. My uncle was a Young Lord. They were involved in the community in lots of different ways. For them, being political was more than just going to the ballot box; it was also expression. It was families and communities caring for families and communities. Having this influence helped cement my core values. For me, doing this work is so personal. I’m living my life guided by a set of principles and values, and that’s love and justice. Love is defined by the promise of humanity, who you are as a human. I don’t have to personally and intimately know someone to love them. I love people because of what we are capable of doing. And justice, doing what’s right in the moment, from not cutting in line and returning something I found on the floor or standing up for heroin users, is very important to me. Love and justice, this is how I live my life, these are my guiding principles.

Some of the issues you have mentioned as important to you include immigration, DACA, homelessness and sexual violence. Why?

I grew up in a Puerto Rican home, in a vastly Puerto Rican neighborhood, but when I was in my 20s, my mother remarried a man from Ecuador. He became a naturalized citizen marrying my mom, and, through reunification, he brought my step-sister over as well. I was there when she took her naturalization oath of allegiance to this country, and it was such a powerful experience. What I saw in her face was hope and dreams for the future. She has a deep love for Ecuador, but she also loves this country and this is where her life is now. That’s why it burns me thinking of what’s happening to dreamers, because the same thing I want for my step-sister, this opportunity to realize her strength and talent, is what I want for them. We’ve asked these young people to do everything right, and now we have to do our part.

With homelessness, this is work I’ve spent much of my life working on, and there’s much intersectionality to this. People say homelessness is intractable, but I know it’s not rocket science. We know what works: affordable and accessible housing. Without this, life doesn’t work. Moms shouldn’t have to choose between medicine and after-school programs or between therapy and veggies. We also can’t continue to criminalize substance users and demonize mental illness. When we start to treat these people the same way we do cancer patients, our country will be better and people will get to thrive. We know what works, but we don’t have the political will to speak up because we’re too busy passing judgment and criminalizing. That’s tragic.

Your first campaign ad focuses on your experience with sexual abuse as a child. Why was this important for you to share?

My “Me Too” story is a stand of solidarity with girls. We are more than victims. We are survivors, and we are thriving. I want voters to know that this is personal for me, and while it doesn’t define me, this is why I do the work that I do. It’s why I think protecting children and families is so important. I know more women than not who had these experiences. Since sharing my personal experience publicly in the last 36 hours, I’ve received numerous calls, women crying and saying I’m afraid to speak up but this happened to me too. This was about solidarity, understanding this happens to so many of our girls and not minimizing these experiences and stories.

As a woman, and as a Black Latina, what do you think your identities can bring to this position?

I’m a Puerto Rican woman who is proud of her culture, her blackness and the nuances of my identity. I can be a bridge to Black and Latino communities, showing our shared path and struggles. Even in a city as segregated as Chicago, multiculturalism has been part of my existence.

You started and lead your nonprofit, La Casa Norte, which offers housing and services to Chicago’s homeless families, single parents and survivors of domestic violence. Do you think this experience can help make you a better fit for public office?

(Photo Credit: Josh Ford)

Absolutely. A billion percent. First off, this is my own experience. I was a young poor girl of color. There were times when I came home and the lights were off. It was normal for me to shop at thrift stores, and it wasn’t called “vintage” then. Now working in the public sector, working in nonprofit, I know what it’s like to fight to introduce programs and push policies that help implement change. As a member of Congress, I think you should have that experience of working with the most vulnerable, and I’m proud that I do. Additionally, I’m an executive manager. I’m a businesswoman. I know how to deal with revenue, budget losses and how to manage stakeholders who have different beliefs and needs. This is the experience and skills I’d bring to this work, and having that will make me more efficient at my work and more respectful of the people I’m serving. I get that politics isn’t an overnight thing. It takes negotiation, tenacity and bringing people together. My voters will always be in front of me, front and center, understanding, listening and negotiating.

You are one of a growing number of women, including several women of color, running for office following Trump’s election. You, too, are a strong critic of the president. How would you take him on in Congress?

I respect the office of the president. I had the privilege of traveling around the world, and it’s humbling to know you live in a place where there are protections for women and people of color, where the rule of democracy and passing of power is relatively seamless and peaceful. Having traveled around the world, seeing that, I recognize how important this is, so I respect the office of the president and democracy. What I don’t respect is racist rhetoric and discriminatory acts and legislation that take us 20 steps backwards. It’s so clear that this president does not know me or our community or our country. He has lived in some bubble that does not look like this country, and I will take him on in Washington. I will constantly take a fierce stand for my community, uplifting their stories and advocating for them. I will educate my colleagues on, and introduce them to, the people they represent, like victims of domestic violence, people living with mental illnesses and trans people. We are more than our president. We are a body of legislators. I may be from an urban setting in Chicago, but I know the legislator of rural Vermont is dealing with heavy stuff like poverty just like I am. Where do we find our commonality?

What would representing your district in Congress mean to you?

I don’t have children, but I have a beautiful 9-year-old Blackarican niece, and she represents our next generation, which is of mixed ethnicities. I want her to be able to see herself in me. Unlike me, she grew up in a world where a Black man can be president, and I want her to see that women of color can also have power and influence. I want boys and girls to see someone who shares their physical attributes and/or their life experiences. Representing my district in Congress would be an honor. For 16 years, families and young people have trusted me, told me their stories, came into our centers in their moments of crisis, and that’s the same thing I want to do with voters, listening and serving them with grace and dignity. After all, this seat wouldn’t belong to me but to the people I serve.

Do you have a message for Latinas with dreams to run for public office but see those as unfeasible?

(Photo Credit: Josh Ford)

Yes! I understand why it doesn’t seem feasible. According to research, we ain’t got the money. Many of us are first-generation who are working hard and making more money than anyone else in our family. We are trying to fulfill dreams and need our jobs. We can’t afford uncertainty. So we aren’t running because we don’t have access to that type of privilege. I’m single. I don’t have a husband, wife or partner who can cover the mortgage for us. I don’t have a father at a law firm or a friend who owns a startup that can help me parachute for a year. I don’t have a year’s worth of savings, not because I’m fiscally irresponsible, but because that’s just not my reality. But here’s the thing: we can overcome these obstacles. I know because I had to think about this for myself. I often thought, Oh my God! Am I blowing up my life? But I have beautiful friends who reminded me that I have skills and talents, and I will land. I’m also very fortunate to have a board of directors that allowed me to take a leave of absence. You need to create this professional network of people who will look out for you or create a safety net for you somehow. It’s so incredibly hard, but know, if you want to run, you will die one day, but it won’t be from this. Also, you don’t have to be a full-time legislator. There are cities with part-time jobs that are incredibly important and need you, too.

Also, don’t let a lack of experience stop you from running. I don’t have 10 years in policy work, but neither do most men. Yet they still see themselves as qualified. Be open, have a network of friends, be vulnerable and stand in solidarity with other women. Stand with Latinas, with African-American women and all women of color. Check your own internal -isms, and know that we are stronger together and can dismantle oppressive frameworks together.

The Democratic Party primary election takes place on March 20 in Illinois’ 4th District.

Read: Afro-Latinas Are Kicking Down Doors And Stepping Into Political Office Ready To Fight For Us

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