That’s how Reps. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez and Sonya Jaquez Lewis answered the roll call on the Colorado House floor on opening day last week.
The 72nd Colorado General Assembly has the largest Latino Caucus in its history. It still isn’t proportionate to the state’s Latino population, but the members’ growing influence at the Capitol was evident in 2019. Many of the current members were new last year, and say they were learning the ropes. Now, they have ambitious plans for 2020.
The members, who represent both rural and urban areas, passed legislation in areas of immigration, criminal justice and the economy. This year, they plan to tackle both traditional “Latino issues” and ones that will affect all Coloradans — particularly middle- and low-income families.
Lawmakers are looking at immigration bills, such as Commerce City Rep. Adrienne Benavidez’s bill to establish more oversight of the privately run Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Aurora. Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, is looking at a bill to prevent ICE agents from entering courthouses to make immigration arrests.
Gonzales-Gutierrez is backing a bill that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in school board elections.
Members are signing on to bills related to reducing health care costs, implementing a statewide paid family leave program, abolishing the death penalty and repealing Columbus Day. They’re looking at environmental bills such as one to monitor and reduce emissions at oil refineries.
The caucus has come a long way from when former Sen. Polly Baca was elected as the first Latina to the Colorado Senate in 1974, a century after her great-great uncle was among the first Latinos elected to the statehouse.
“I am so excited and encouraged by the number of Latino legislators that we currently have, and I’m particularly excited about this group of young Hispanic women or Latinas,” Baca said.
She made it her mission to get more Latinos elected to government, and she said until they reach parity, the cause still exists.
To be fully representative of the Latino population in Colorado, the caucus would need 21 members — at least according to U.S. Census numbers, which estimate that 21.7% of Colorado’s population is Latino or Hispanic. But the numbers are likely even higher with the state’s undocumented immigrant residents.
One of the most obvious examples of the Latino Caucus’ growing prominence is in the state Senate. Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat, was elected president, the first Latino to serve in that position. He received unanimous support from his Democratic colleagues for the post.
“It’s truly one of the greatest honors I think I will ever have,” Garcia said.
The 13 Latino House and Senate Democrats championed legislation in 2019 that affected multiple areas of Coloradans’ lives last year, from equal pay for equal work to immigration policy, and they intend to continue that work in 2020.
They had some wins, such as the passage of a bill limiting cooperation between Immigration and Customs Enforcement and local law enforcement, though Gonzales-Gutierrez acknowledges it was watered down from the initial proposal. They passed a bill that required including minority contributions when teaching American civics courses — one that had failed several times previously. Another new law allows cities and towns to implement higher minimum wages. They made headway on criminal justice and housing reforms.
But the caucus also had some losses. It was unable to advance a bill known as Virginia’s Law, which was named after a woman who called police to report an assault and was then detained by ICE. The bill would have protected undocumented immigrant victims of crime from being contacted by federal immigration agents and detained.
On the Republican side, the only Latino legislator is Rep. Dave Williams of Colorado Springs. He’s not part of the Latino Caucus — that’s only open to Democrats.
Williams supports President Donald Trump and his immigration policies and said he has been invited to the White House to discuss them. Those are many of the same policies that the Latino Caucus has worked against. For his conservative district, his positions make sense, Williams said.
Hispanic voters overall tend to lean more toward Democrats and their policies, with those who are older or foreign-born more likely to describe their political views as conservative, according to data from the Pew Research Center. Although Latinos historically held more conservative social views, the president’s rhetoric toward immigrants appears to have changed those affiliations.
Members of the Latino Caucus say they are working to provide a voice to those who normally don’t have one in state government.
“What we heard from our community is there’s a lot of hope still with having us there,” Gonzales-Gutierrez said. “They know that they can contact us and we will sit down with them, and we want to hear from our community.”
Getting choked up, she references a story from her co-chair, Sen. Robert Rodriguez of Denver, that continues to motivate her: A young Latina woman went up to him after an event and told him how the lawmakers serve as role models for them.
That means a lot to Gonzales-Gutierrez, who has three kids of her own. And the power of it is not lost on Garcia.
“Latinos want to be trailblazers in the right way,” he said.
The Latino Caucus received Internal Revenue Service approval last month to become a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and its members plan to launch an educational outreach effort to Latinos throughout the state to hear about their issues, concerns and inform them about what their governing bodies are doing for them.
Gonzales-Gutierrez wants to use the outreach as an opportunity to educate people on the various boards and commissions and elected positions available throughout the state, to encourage more people from underrepresented populations to get involved.
They already do some of that work with some Latino advocacy organizations, including through the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights Action Fund. Members of the caucus appear on a Facebook Live series about how policies are made.
“We continue to engage them because we understand the importance of having a voice that represents the Latino community because representation matters, perspective matters, when it comes to policy making,” said COLOR executive director Dusti Gurule.
Young Latinas and Latinos need to see people who look like them in office and are looking out for their interests, she added.
“To be able to have state elected officials who hear our community and who are willing to listen and explore different ways to make the state more fair and equitable for everybody is so important,” Gurule said.
Gonzales-Gutierrez hopes to see Latino allies take on some of their issues, too, pointing to Rep. Susan Lontine’s bill to ban the term “illegal alien” from state statute as an example.
As their influence continues to grow, Gonzales-Gutierrez hopes the caucus will be able to pass more legislation that affects the lives of Latinos and other Coloradans positively.
“There’s a reason we’re there,” she said. “We’re bringing that voice forward.”
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