For Jennifer Treviño, it was that she’s a “bad woman” and doesn’t speak Spanish.
For Tara Maldonado-Wilson, some said she just “didn’t have it.”
For Dora Tovar, it was the audacity to want to lead in the first place.
Latino politics researcher and expert Valerie Martinez-Ebers said that, across the country, when Latinas run for offices, they’re typically more likely to be elected than Latinos and white women. But this isn’t happening in Tarrant County.
Several former Latina candidates told the Report they faced barriers that men did not when running for office.
Her research also shows Latinas are more likely to win in Democratic counties, Martinez-Ebers said. Tarrant County remains red, but the top-elected Latina is County Clerk Mary Louise Nicholson, a Republican. In a nonpartisan race, Roxanne Martinez was elected in 2021 to the Fort Worth ISD school board.
Not fitting the mold
Treviño ran to represent the Northside on City Council in 2017. Her campaign came together after years of people asking her to run because of her work in the community, she said.
At the time, she was the chief of staff for the vice president of administration at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. Running for office is one of the hardest things she’s ever done, Treviño said. She’s grateful for the people she met and the connections she made.
But she faced some of the barriers to getting people of color elected. Although Fort Worth’s Hispanic population is about 36%, only one Latino sits on City Council, Carlos Flores, who beat Treviño.
When a woman runs, the rules change even more, said Treviño, now executive director of Leadership Fort Worth. Already, she entered the race as an anomaly. She is the “breadwinner” in her household. She’s more likely outside mowing the lawn than in the kitchen making dinner.
Aside from flipping those cultural norms, she chose not to have children. She doesn’t speak Spanish. She’s often called a “bad woman” for these choices and experiences, she said.
Latinas historically have been doing the work behind the scenes of political participation, Martinez-Ebers, director of Latino and Mexican American studies program at the University of North Texas, said. Men earned the spotlight and ran for office.
But that gap is closing, she said.
Challenges still remain for Latinas running for offices, like resources and time commitments, Martinez-Ebers said.
Tovar went into her Arlington City Council campaign in 2021 with years of experience mobilizing voters and working in campaign messaging. She lost the district 3 spot. She knew her experience was something worth sharing.
But at the same time, she was expected to be humble about it, in a way she said a man wouldn’t be asked to be.
“If I had been a man, a Latino, it would have been a natural thing to say, you know, look I have this experience, let me share it,” Tovar, who runs a PR company, said. “It’s that cultural divide that was really prominent when I became a candidate.”
Tovar wants to help more women run for office, which is why she’s one of the founders of the Texas Latina List PAC, which endorses Latina leaders and helps them in campaigns.
For many Latinas, cultural expectations of Catholicism have an impact on their campaigns. Service is indoctrinated in the church, which leads a lot of Latinas to feel as if they can’t tell people no, Tovar said.
“Because, culturally, then you’re not in the service of God and others,” Tovar said. “And with that comes admonishment, you know, and kind of a sense that you’re then going to bring up some kind of wrath upon yourself.
“I had somebody in Dallas tell me, ‘You know, Dora, you’re really unliked by the political men,” Tovar said. “And I think it’s the audacity. We don’t get over that easily. But we have to be resilient in the face of adversity. And so yes, there’s a double standard and no one would admit that to me.”
Politics isn’t something the Latino community spends a lot of time talking about, Tara Maldonaldo-Wilson, an ER trauma nurse, said. It wasn’t until later in her life that she became involved in politics.
Her Fort Worth political journey started when she moved to Cowtown and tried to go to City Hall to attend a council meeting after the killing of Atatiana Jefferson. When she arrived, the door was locked, she said.
She spent a lot of time talking to people waiting outside that day. Maldonado-Wilson realized she didn’t know much about what City Council does. She started researching the council, the city charter and what it takes to run.
By 2020, she was examining whether she could afford to run for office.
“Like most Hispanic or Latino people, I come from humble beginnings and very close-knit families,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of wealth or anything like that.”
As a nurse, she was able to make more money in the pandemic because there was a need for people who speak Spanish. She started saving up her extra income to get her campaign for city council started.
She ran for council District 4 and lost to Alan Blaylock.
Maldonado-Wilson wants to see more unity among Hispanics, she said. During the campaign, she sought out a Hispanic mentor, and she found support. But she did not get the same level of financial support her opponent received from that same mentor.
Also while campaigning, she became aware of at least one Hispanic man telling people she “just didn’t have it.”
But to openly discuss the misogyny women running for positions of power in Fort Worth experience is a double-edged sword, she said. It’s hard enough for minorities to get into elected seats, especially Hispanics who are underrepresented in city government.
She doesn’t want to contribute to tearing each other down, because she knows that’s what people who don’t want Latinos in power want to see.
Maldonado-Wilson had to deal with an identity crisis in this, too. She’s always known she’s a third-generation Mexican. But learning about the difference in race, ethnicity and nationality caused confusion.
“All I knew was I’m this light-skinned güerra (or white) … and my whole family is brown,” she said. “It was always hard for me. It came up multiple times where we had to think about, Do we care about race? Looking at District 4, no they don’t care about that.”
That was disappointing for her in some ways because, Maldonado-Wilson said, she’s proud of her race. Even if she’s light-skinned, when she speaks, people know she’s not white, she said.
When it came to the ballot name, she and her team were trying to decide whether to hyphenate her last name or just use Wilson.
She settled on using Tara M. Wilson.
“Because all I could think about was my grandmother who picked cabbage in fields in Kansas, now having her granddaughter run for office in the 12th largest city in the country,” she said. Fort Worth now is the 13th largest city in the country.
Treviño also dealt with questions of identity because she is biracial: She’s Hispanic and Black, which brings a whole new set of complications.
“There’s often been times I’m not Hispanic enough because I don’t speak Spanish,” she said. “I’m not Black enough because I’m very fair.”
Treviño knows these factors don’t inhibit her ability to make tough decisions on budgets, thoroughly read the docket for City Council meetings or represent the Northside at events required of a councilperson.
She also knows her experience as a mixed race woman is different from that of other women of color in other races, or LGBTQ people. All of those experiences play a role in how people perceive candidates who aren’t white men, especially in Texas.
When Mary Louise Nicholson, whose mother is from Mexico and whose father is of Mexican descent, started her campaign, she had to have a candid conversation with a friend who was prominent in Republican politics. At the time, her married name was Garcia. She asked him, “Do you believe I won’t be elected because of my last name?”
Her friend told her he didn’t know if Republicans would look at a name and make their decision based on that. Nicholson thought the best bet would be to run on her record and not emphasize being Latina and worrying about whether that would help or hurt her, she said.
“Did I see it as a female, male thing? No. One of my opponents was very ingrained in the Republican Party, I didn’t see it as man vs. woman. I just saw it as who can bring the message, who can bring the experience, and who can effectively communicate in front of Republican primary voters that I am the best person for this job,” she said. “And I clearly did that.”
She continues to do that. She was first elected in 2010 and still serves as the county clerk. When she first ran, social media wasn’t how candidates won elections. Nicholson said it was about who could raise money for mailers.
Getting financial backing for campaigns can be a barrier for Latina candidates, trustee Martinez said. The Fort Worth Way means a lot of the city still operates under the “good ol’ boy system,” she said.
That leads to Latina candidates having to work twice as hard to get funding for campaigns. PACs Vote Mama and Texas Latina List provided a lot of help to her campaign, Martinez said.
Part of the reason for the lack of Latina representation is because they are not being asked to run the way others are, Martinez said. Some of that leads to imposter syndrome, but even after that there are other barriers.
“You still have those very traditional gender roles,” she said. “I was often thinking to myself during the campaign, I was running against two white males, and I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if they still have to go home and make dinner and fold their family’s laundry.’”
Even her mother questioned her on the campaign trail and asked if she was still spending enough time with her family, Martinez said.
Martinez eventually won her race and currently is serving on the school board, despite people calling her and telling her not to run and her opponents saying they didn’t see her as a legitimate candidate, she said.
How to fight back
Maldonado-Wilson knows the Latino community isn’t outnumbered, but out-organized.
Now that she’s in District 11, Maldonado-Wilson is considering another campaign. Moving forward, her goal is unification.
Once people get into City Hall, they need support, she said. And it can be as simple as making sure someone ate. Supporting one another is how to make sure there is representation.
If more Latinas are going to be successful in getting into office, there needs to be more mobilization of voter registration, which, ironically, Latinas tend to run on campaigns, Tovar said. More voters could lead to more electoral influence.
When Latinas do run, they’re often met with passive aggression and don’t get the endorsements and support from Latino men who already are in power, she said.
“There isn’t that element of transparency and dialogue, to say, here’s why we can’t support you or wouldn’t,” Tovar said. “It’s the audacity to lead and to be self-propelled that’s admonished.”
The Latina List aims to create a new political machine for Latinas. The PAC aims to equip Latina candidates with consultants and fundraising to help these women become more of a force in the political sphere, Tovar said.
There’s no admonishment from hard work, because that’s culturally accepted, Tovar said. Latinas can volunteer all they want and it’s highly regarded, but when they say, “I’m considering running,” the game changes.
Cultural shifts in the Latino community could mean uncomfortable conversations that need to happen, Tovar said.
“The ability to call out our own in a safe place, it’s culturally totally new ground,” she said. “But somehow, to meet the challenge of the future, we have to find ways to do it.”
It’s important to ask who gets encouraged or tapped to run, Treviño said.
“Part of what’s happened in Fort Worth is, power and wealth were centralized in so many ways, and we haven’t seen that breakthrough in Fort Worth from a socioeconomic standpoint that you’ve seen in some of the other cities,” she said. “If you were a person of color, or you were successful, you tend to assimilate more into dominant culture.”
Nicholson said to get elected, people have to prove they’re a viable candidate and articulate a message about why their platform.
“There was no way I was going to win this if I couldn’t articulate my message in a debate and on the trail, and unfortunately not everyone can do that,” she said. “In the beginning it is about being electable, but once you’re in it is about your record, to me, in county government.”
But Nicholson encourages anyone to run if they feel called to because there is a need for public servants from the city to the federal levels of government, she said.
These shifts will require both intentional cultural changes and ones that happen naturally, Treviño said. One election can make a difference, like when Mayor Mattie Parker was elected and the median age on the council drastically dropped.
There still are gender wars at play in the Latino community, Treviño said. There are different expectations for women than there are for men, and that shows up when women decide to run for office.
Men aren’t asked questions about family and work-life balance and who will take care of their children if they win, but women still are, she said.
Treviño hopes for a future where those kinds of expectations and questions aren’t pushed on her goddaughter or nieces. But that’s a future women have to start fighting for now.
“Speak up now. Talk about those kinds of situations with them now. Expose them to different things,” she said. Don’t hold them back, you know, based on dolls are for girls and Legos are for boys. Women now, we have to be mindful that we’re not perpetuating any of that amongst ourselves.”
It’s daunting, especially considering how expensive it’s become to run for office in Fort Worth. Treviño said her campaign was in the $45,000-$50,000 range, but competitors spend nearly double that.
Tovar sees a chance for optimism though. She believes her work is setting up Latina candidates for success in the future.
“I know that at the end of the day Latinas, we’re worker bees,” Tovar said. “We’re mothers or grandmothers, we’re professionals. We care and we build infrastructure for our community. So if we’re empowered and build for ourselves and our families, inevitably that will produce candidates.”
Editor’s note, a caption in this story was updated.
Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.