Newly elected Congresswoman Delia Ramirez talks about self-preservation, prioritizing immigration reform, and “going beyond hashtags.”
It’s a classic photo op: A candidate for office and their spouse cast their votes, side by side, on Election Day. But for Delia Ramirez and Boris Hernández, only Ramirez — then an Illinois state representative, and now the newly-elected U.S. congresswoman representing Illinois’ 3rd District — was legally able to vote. She was born in the United States after her mother, pregnant with Ramirez, nearly drowned crossing the Rio Grande en route from Guatemala to Chicago. Hernández, who immigrated to the States from Guatemala at 14 years old, isn’t eligible to vote due to his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status. So while at the polls on the 2022 midterm election day, Hernández could only watch. He represents who Ramirez says she fights for: people with the smallest voices in the U.S. system.
When the 39-year-old Ramirez arrives in Washington, D.C. in January 2023, she’ll do so as the first Latina ever sent to Congress representing the Midwest — and the first person ever to represent Illinois’s 3rd Congressional District, which was newly drawn in October 2021 to encompass parts of Chicago as well as surrounding suburbs.
Ramirez’s victory reflects the expanding political presence of Latinos. In Chicago, where Ramirez clinched her win, Latinos have become the city’s second largest ethnic group. (Her district has a 47% Latinx population, according to the latest Census.) Meanwhile, the Hispanic population across the United States — including the Midwest — is growing exponentially. And yet only about 1.5% of elected officials nationwide are Latinx, according to the nonpartisan group National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
Though Ramirez — endorsed by veteran progressives including Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — didn’t run for office to be the “first” of anything, she understands what it means to have someone like herself in Congress.
“The night I won the party nomination was an affirmation of what we’re building,” Ramirez says. “This district wants a unifier, a proven leader, and someone that’s going to work and fight like hell for them.” Ahead, Ramirez talks more about self-preservation, her very personal motivation for immigration reform, and “going beyond hashtags.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What’s it like deciding to run for office as a woman of color?
When you ask a woman of color to run for office, oftentimes the political operatives that ask you to do that don’t know or don’t care about what they’re asking. What they’re asking us to do is to put our entire life, any moment of pain and our entire family, through the wringer and through very emotional trauma. That person has to be able to have that conversation with family and ask themselves “Is it worth it for the bigger thing that we want to do?” Because if it’s not, don’t do it. Humanity isn’t always afforded to us. We have to protect our space. Because if we’re not whole and complete, and we’re not taking care of ourselves, we certainly can’t take care of others. When political attacks happen, I have to continuously remind myself how important, how worth it this work is.
What do you want people to know about you?
I want people to know that representing them is personal for me. I will represent a district that is 47% Latino population. I’m the wife of a DACA recipient. So when it comes to immigration, it’s not just something I want to co-sponsor; I want to be an intentional partner who moves the needle on the issue. [Immigration legislation] impacts my own family. I want my constituents to have a say and have an opportunity to actively participate through my constituency offices. What we need more of in Congress are coalition builders. I’m going to be a unifier. I’m going to be an effective leader. Yes, we’re sending the first Latina from the entire Midwest to Congress, but I walk in there with a clear responsibility to open the door and make sure more will come after me.
What worries you?
I’m worried about our immigrants. There has been an intentional strategy to scapegoat us to establish fear-mongering. And it’s not because we’re immigrants; it’s because of what we represent — our humanity and the contributions we make to this country. Republicans are using [immigration] to regain control over this country. I’m really worried what will happen if they succeed.
“Yes, we’re sending the first Latina from the entire Midwest to Congress, but I walk in there with a clear responsibility to open the door and make sure more will come after me.” — Delia Ramirez
What do you hope to accomplish in Congress?
I am a progressive Latina who wants to make sure people have quality of life and are able to retire with dignity. I will be joining the Congressional Progressive Caucus when I get to D.C. That’s a commitment, and I’ve made a pledge I intend to honor.
I’m coming in as someone who is passionate and feels a sense of responsibility to be a leader on immigration. I feel the same way on housing — everything from ownership to how do we prevent people from losing their homes, and addressing the growing crisis of homelessness. To get us on a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, it has to go beyond hashtags. There’s also a bigger conversation of what it’s going to take to have comprehensive immigration reform because there are people who only care about the economic [aspect] of this issue. What is the economic impact of continuing to deny people their ability to live and minimize their contribution into our economy? A third of people who are undocumented are business owners. They’re the ones that are creating these jobs, millions of jobs, [for our] country.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I’d tell my 16-year-old self — who really struggled with depression and who struggled in school with acceptance and purpose — that those feelings are only a moment, and to look for people who see in you what you don’t see in yourself. Seek out mentorships and relationships that will uplift [your] greatness, not affirm your insecurities. And to my 21-year-old self, the one who became one of the youngest executive directors in Chicago at the Center for Changing Lives, I’d say success isn’t defined by a job title, pay, or the number of people you manage. You don’t have to fake [anything] to demonstrate that you’re worthy and competent. What you need to do is find a community of people who have the skills you want to gain. Lean on others. The better leader you are, the more you’re able to do for others.
How much inspiration have you pulled from your mother and her story?
I am working class. I’m the daughter of a woman who walked more than 1,800 miles, so that her firstborn could be born in this country. The daughter she nearly lost in the Rio Grande when she was drowning will now be the second Guatemalan ever to join the U.S. Congress and the first Latina in the Midwest. That woman is a home care worker making minimum wage right now and on Medicaid. [Her daughter] will be able to transform this country. [Her daughter] will always remember where she comes from. We need more people like my mother, María Elvira Ramirez. The sacrifices [women like her] make, the two or three jobs they work, they’re all worth it. I am evidence of that. I’m a living testimony of that.