Democrat Tony Cárdenas is poised to be the first Latino congressman to represent Southern California's San Fernando Valley. The Los Angeles City Council member will represent a new, heavily Latino 29th District.
As the youngest of 11 children of Mexican immigrant parents, Cárdenas was born and raised in the valley city of Pacoima. His father was a self-employed gardener who would take young Cárdenas and his brothers to work with him. While still a teenager, Cárdenas got his first paid job at San Fernando Valley's Boys & Girls Club through a summer work program. "Every time I got paid, I would give my parents money. I would save some money, and I would have a little money to spend," he recalled in an interview.
He earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the University of California (Santa Barbara) in 1986. "I wasn't the student body this, student body that. I was not much into running for office," Cárdenas said of his college years. He subsequently went to work for Hewlett-Packard but left just five months later. "There has to be something different for me," he said he remembered thinking.
He returned home to Pacoima to live with his parents and sold life insurance for a year, then worked as a Realtor for five years before opening his own brokerage firm in the San Fernando Valley. During that time, the valley had become more Latino — but, he observed, political representation did not mirror that change. One day, a friend suggested that he run for political office. He did, and in 1996 became the first Latino to represent the valley in the state's 39th Assembly District.