California’s new senator, who filled Kamala Harris’s seat, is hoping to speak for his fellow Latinos. That won’t be easy.
Alex Padilla was radicalized early. The young man was 21, freshly graduated from MIT with a mechanical-engineering degree, and he had returned to his childhood home in the San Fernando Valley to figure out his next step. From the television in the living room, Padilla heard a grim voice offer a warning: “They keep coming.” Grainy black-and-white video showed shady figures wading through cars waiting in line at the crossing in San Ysidro. “Two million illegal immigrants in California. The federal government won’t stop them at the border, yet requires us to pay billions to take care of them,” the voice added, menacingly.
“Who is it that they’re referring to? Latinos coming from Mexico to California to work?” Padilla thought. “That’s the big threat?” The people in the ad could just as easily have been his family, so when the time came to protest anti-immigrant legislation in the state, he eagerly joined. Padilla and his mom gathered a group of neighbors to attend the massive 1994 demonstration in downtown Los Angeles against a ballot referendum that would limit immigrants’ access to public services. In doing so, he put himself on a path that would lead him to the Senate.
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.