Memories of that segregated California still have an influence over the man now representing the country’s most populous state. Padilla, who was sworn in on Inauguration Day, finds himself in a unique moment in Latino political history, both as the first Latino senator from California and as a first-generation Mexican American, an identity that’s uncommon in the top levels of the U.S. government. (Padilla was appointed to finish Kamala Harris’s term, which ends next year.) He came of political age while California was experiencing a rocky transformation from a Republican-dominated, majority-white state into a solidly blue state with a Latino plurality. Now he’s in Washington as America undergoes a similar demographic change, with Black and brown Americans becoming bigger players in the electorate.
Claiming a spot as a national Latino leader won’t be easy. Latinos in the United States remain divided across class, education, nationality, and geography. The 2020 election reminded the country, and the Democratic Party, that while many of these voters share a language, not much else cuts cleanly across the Latino community—even the term Latino was invented rather recently. That reality presents a major challenge for anyone hoping to speak for or to American Latinos. Any politician runs the risk of flattening the diversity of Latinos as he tries to reach as big an audience as possible, and a generic appeal to identity could turn off those who don’t see themselves reflected in any one person. And to be clear: The audience Padilla is trying to reach is big. Latinos are already the country’s largest minority, and their share of the American electorate will continue to grow over the next decade—a Latino becomes eligible to vote every 30 seconds. Most of them are Mexican American, like Padilla himself.
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Padilla told me that, through his work in the Senate, he wants “to ensure that the American dream my family has experienced in the San Fernando Valley is still within reach.” The past four years have tested that dream for millions, especially Black and brown Americans. Can Padilla convince them that the Democratic Party will keep it alive?
Padilla made two promises in high school that changed the course of his life. The first was to a family friend who’d just completed his first year at MIT, and who pestered Padilla about applying to the elite school. Like Padilla, the friend was from Pacoima, a majority–Mexican American, working-class neighborhood 20 miles from downtown Los Angeles. At the time, Padilla had his heart set on a university with a good engineering program near a beach, but the friend bothered him so much that he vowed to apply.
Then there was the promise to his parents. “I knew that if I got in, I needed to go,” he told me in a recent interview over Zoom. “Yes, it was a chance of a lifetime for me to get a good education. But it would be the fulfillment of my parents’ dreams. It’s why they came to the United States.” His parents, Lupe and Santos, a housekeeper and a short-order cook, respectively, feature prominently in the stories Padilla tells about his political career. (Lupe died in 2018; Santos lives in the same home that Padilla grew up in.) His voice thickened when he told me about how his dad would interrupt him late at night while he was working on school assignments to remind him of his duty to graduate college: “Mi hijo, cuando crezcas, quiero que trabajes con tu mente, y no con tu espalda.” “Son, when you grow up, I want you to work with your mind, and not your back.”