Fernando Florez has been waiting for District 11 for four decades.
The 81-year-old advocated for his Hemphill neighborhood soon after he arrived in Fort Worth from South Texas. After purchasing a house on Hemphill Street in Fort Worth’s Southside, he realized no one was going to advocate for his neighborhood — so he did.
“I consider the part that I played (to be) the achievement of my life,” Florez said. “I feel good about that. I feel like my life has been worth living.”
District 11, with its odd upside down ‘U’ shape in south-central Fort Worth, was formed during last year’s redistricting process with the Hispanic community in mind. The newly created district is 63% Hispanic, making it a Hispanic opportunity district.
About 52% of households in District 11 speak Spanish at home.
Rapidly expanding Fort Worth can attribute part of its growth to Latinos moving to the city. About 35% of the city is Hispanic or Latino. Historically, Latinos have settled in Fort Worth’s Northside where there were jobs available. As the city grew, Latinos also formed communities in Fort Worth’s southern neighborhoods where, despite working to advocate for their neighborhoods for decades, representation evaded them.
This year’s election provided these neighborhoods the best chance to secure a second Hispanic council member, advocates said.
What is redistricting and what happened?
Redistricting is a process that occurs every ten years to redraw the country lines of council districts. The legal goal of redistricting is to create a map that gives one person, one vote.
This year, the process was made more complicated after Fort Worth voters approved an expansion of Fort Worth City Council, adding two new seats. Advocates focused on encouraging City Council to create a second Hispanic Opportunity district. After a lengthy process, the final map included a district that bridged Fort Worth’s east and south side neighborhoods to create a new district with a Hispanic majority.
Three Latino candidates emerged in District 11 following redistricting — Jeanette Martinez, Ricardo Avitia and Tara Maldonado Wilson. All three said their identity and upbringing as Latinos impacted their desire to serve their community.
Martinez grew up in a working class family then chose a career that allowed her to guide people to resources. Avitia founded Hemphill No Se Vende, an organization that protects his neighborhood from outside investors. Maldonado Wilson worked as an activist uniting Black and brown communities in southeast Fort Worth.
The three Latino candidates share the ticket with Rick Herring, a white man, and Christopher Johnson, a Black man. Both Herring and Johnson have deep roots in the community, working in and around the south and east side.
Read about all the candidates
Meet the candidates for Fort Worth City Council District 11
Fort Worth’s new District 11, with its upside down ‘U’ shape, is set apart from the 9 other council districts that make…
This new crop of candidates represents another iteration of the political power Latinos have worked to cultivate in Fort Worth for decades, Florez said.
“Everything I have ever worked on is because somebody helped me, and that’s the whole key to it,” Florez said. “That’s what I love about this country, the fact that we’re all evolving.”
Peter Martínez, a history professor at Tarrant County College, said Latino communities both north and south have grown simultaneously since the mid-20th century. Despite Hispanics’ long history in south Fort Worth, the community’s voting power has been lessened by white, affluent neighborhoods surrounding Texas Christian University.
Meanwhile, the Northside has Hispanic representation on the council with Carlos Flores and Salvador Espino before him.
Portions of south and east Fort Worth are dotted with reminders of Latinos’ impact on the city. Ciquio Vasquez Park in Worth Heights and De Zavala Elementary School in the Near Southside honor Latino advocates.
Latino representation on Fort Worth City Council would formalize the political power they have worked to cultivate for decades, said Florez, the longtime advocate, and provide role models for young people in the new district.
Latino representation could also mean that, for the first time, Hispanic neighborhoods such as Worth Heights and South Hemphill Heights would share a culture, language and history with their elected representative, Florez said.
“We know the culture more, and the needs of the people,” Florez said.
Political power in Fort Worth’s Northside
Latino representation in institutions like Fort Worth City Council has primarily been restricted to Fort Worth’s Northside.
Peter Martínez attributes the strength of political activism in Fort Worth’s Northside to the institutions that exist there. All Saints Catholic Church was a source of political activism, Martínez said. Leaders like Sam Garcia helped establish political power in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Compared to south Fort Worth, Fort Worth’s Northside also had a thriving economy, which made it easier to establish clout at City Hall, Peter Martínez said.
“I think the business community had an interest in representation and having a piece of the pie,” Peter Martínez said. “I guess, more to gain, or perhaps more to lose, by not having that representation.”
Fort Worth’s first Latino council member, Louis Zapata Sr., won in the Northside in 1977, two years after Fort Worth voters created single-member districts in an effort to diversify the City Council. Since then, District 2, which includes the Northside, has been represented by a Hispanic man — except from 1993 to 2005 when the district was represented by attorney Jim Lane.
“You have some members, influential members of the Northside community… who want someone of Mexican descent to represent them, and others who are more concerned about having their voice heard, and somebody who they think will represent them, even if it’s not someone from their own ethnic community,” Peter Martínez said.
While the Stockyards was an anchor for Latinos in Fort Worth’s Northside, the steel industry brought the community to south Fort Worth, according to the Viva Mi Historia project, which documented the history of Fort Worth’s Latino families. Despite south Fort Worth’s growth, it was excluded from the benefits of city resources through infrastructure improvements and economic development incentives.
“A heightened sense of distrust toward city elites existed among South Side residents to the point that, although it was one of the most blighted neighborhoods in Fort Worth in the 1970s, it also reported the lowest numbers of voter turnout in local elections,” Moisés Acuña Gurrola wrote, pulling from oral histories collected from residents.
Voter disenfranchisement was also drawn into Fort Worth’s City Council maps, Peter Martínez said.
“I think there’s probably a lot of longstanding members of the community who probably haven’t voted in the past, because their vote, in their minds, wouldn’t have counted,” he said.
“I think it’s really hard to change that mentality over time, knowing that you’ve been defeated, so to speak, by maps being drawn that advantage others and not yourself.”
History suggests that, when Mexicanos have the opportunity to take power and elect someone from their own community, they have, Peter Martínez said.
In 1977, the first election following the creation of single-member districts, about 3,800 people from District 2 went to the polls. In 2021, about 3,900 voted to secure a win for Carlos Flores despite the district more than doubling in population.
“So when I say they feel like they have a chance of getting that power, that’s what I mean by that. People are excited and they go out and vote,” Peter Martínez said.
District 11 presents new opportunity for representation
Florez remembers the discrimination he faced when first advocating for his neighborhood.
“They said, ‘Mexicans don’t want to do anything.’ I said, ‘Really?’” Florez recalls being told. “‘They don’t even want to come to the meetings.’ I said, ‘Let me try.’”
He began knocking on doors and speaking to his neighbors in Spanish, inviting them to participate.
“I had little old ladies bring snacks, and all kinds of things. I got people to the meeting,” Florez said.
The majority Latino neighborhoods of Worth Heights, Hemphill Heights, Rosemont and Riverside have long been overlooked by the city, both advocates and candidates for District 11 said.
Not only is District 11 primarily Latino, it is also mostly young and working class. The median age of the district is 33 and fewer than 18% have some form of college degree.
Part of the challenge in establishing a Hispanic opportunity district is that a segment of the population cannot legally vote, or choose not to vote, Peter Martínez said. Candidates for District 11 said they remain committed to advocating for the interests of those who can’t or won’t help them secure a council seat.
Advocacy for the working class is reflected in Ricardo Avitia’s platform. The Fort Worth Report reached out to Avitia several times but did not hear back by the time of publication.
“I understand the person firsthand, the experiences of working class Americans in this community,” Avitia said at a Fort Worth Report candidate forum March 29.
Tara Maldonado Wilson said representing the community as a Latina means understanding the issues.
Jeanette Martinez said the experiences she has collected as a Latina — a child of immigrant parents who were deported multiple times, a first-generation college student and now a wife and mother — allow her to understand the struggles of the District 11 community.
“There’s a lot of immigrant residents in Fort Worth, but there’s also a lot of generational Latinos that are facing the same struggles that everybody’s facing,” Jeanette Martinez said.
If either Martinez or Maldonado Wilson were to be elected, they would be the first Mexican-American woman on the City Council. That is very significant, said Eva Bonilla, a longtime political activist with deep roots in the Fort Worth Hispanic community.
“It’s past time to get a Latina on council,” Bonilla said. “They really do help a lot. They have a lot of great ideas and we need to move past that here in Fort Worth.”
The first Latina to run for City Council was Juanita Zepeda in 1971, before the creation of single-member districts. Zepeda and her husband, Pete, were active in the business community and were founding members of the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Since then, several Latinas have run unsuccessfully for City Council including Jennifer Treviño in 2017 and Malondado Wilson.
Misogyny has seeped into political leadership in Fort Worth, Maldonado Wilson said. In Hispanic culture, women are trusted to lead the household, she said, but struggle to be empowered to seek public office.
“I think it’s important that we have to start seeing a different-looking leadership so that we can start changing our culture,” Maldonado Wilson said.
Lacking a Latina perspective has hurt the whole of the city, Maldonado Wilson said. Despite Latinos being split up between north and south Fort Worth, when driving through the neighborhoods, they tend to see the same issues, she said.
Representing the entire District 11 community is important to Jeanette Martinez.
“I felt like I could represent the entire community of District 11, not just the Latino community,” Martinez said. “This district needs somebody that will be able to work with all the ethnic groups and somebody that is not afraid to have those crucial conversations… that has the experience to build those relationships and keep those relationships and bring folks to the table.”
Because Fort Worth’s population is 35% Hispanic, Jeanette Martinez also pointed out that proportionally, there should be three Hispanic City Council representatives.
Florez said there has been criticism of the final District 11 design that he worked to secure, saying the redistricting could have led to an even stronger Hispanic opportunity district.
After working for decades to secure a second Hispanic opportunity district, Florez said this last round of redistricting was successful because he was able to form a broad coalition of advocates through Citizens for Independent Redistricting Fort Worth.
Florez believes that District 11 will give Latinos the opportunity to win in south Fort Worth.
“The election is going to further awaken the giant that has been sleeping,” Florez said. “Even if it doesn’t happen this time, it’s going to happen.”
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. 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.