- Jade Esteban Estrada
As I sit across from political consultant Laura Barberena in the office of her firm Viva Politics in San Antonio’s Deco District, I’m struck by her buoyant enthusiasm — arguably, her greatest asset.
“I’m 52,” she says. “But I think that I’m 32.”
Barberena, who prefers that her name be richly pronounced with a Spanish accent, began her career in politics working on the Clinton-Gore 1996 reelection campaign. Her first professional encounter with President Bill Clinton came during a commercial shoot.
“I always tell people, my big directorial debut was [yelling], ‘Mr. President! Look this way!’” she says.
That moment launched Barberena into the wings of the national political stage. Since then, she’s built a career by helping to galvanize and reengage the Latinx electorate.
Democratic candidates have witnessed Viva Politics grow into a behind-the-scenes, year-round presence. And, as the nation gears up for 2020, Barberena is ready to play a key role in what’s likely to be the most contentious election season in modern history.
“I’m excited to compartir mis pensamientos with your audience,” she says, switching between English and Spanish for the first of many times during our interview.
Born and raised in Austin, Barberena initially set her sights on becoming an actress. “Not an actress — a movie star!” she says melodramatically, referencing the 1982 film My Favorite Year.
While attending the University of Texas at Austin, she switched her major from acting to film because the film department offered more performance opportunities. Soon, she’d amassed a long list of student film credits.
But after a school trip to Los Angeles, she quickly realized that Hollywood didn’t feel like a good fit. When she received a job offer from a Hispanic ad agency in Albuquerque, she took it with the intention of building her reel so that she could make movies in Texas.
Instead, she discovered a passion for politics while making radio and TV commercials for the Clinton-Gore campaign and the Democratic National Convention. The high-energy work suited her dynamic personality.
“In politics, we work 24/7,” she says. “There’s no such thing as weekends or time off.”
Barberena considers her father — who came to the United States from Nuevo Laredo at age 18 — a major influence on her life and career. Her mother is also of Mexican descent, although she didn’t cross the border. Instead, the border crossed her. Though not politically active, both of her parents valued education.
Barberena also credits her father with inspiring her tireless work ethic. She worked at her his tortilleria through high school and college and developed an impressive array of skills.
“I can be sitting at a conveyor belt of tortillas and count them and pick them up and gossip at the same time,” she says proudly.
Currently, her work involves preserving the efforts of civil rights activist Rosie Castro and others who laid out the equality and visibility groundwork during La Raza Unida movement — progress she feels President Donald Trump is wiping away.
“It’s funny, because with friends we kind of talk about what’s going on now with President Trump, and we jokingly say, ‘Man, I miss Bush! Remember how we thought he was the worst? I’ll take Bush any day now!’” she says.
Later, as we chat about previous administrations, Barberena points out that many Democrats stood by President Clinton during his 1998 impeachment proceedings — even through allegations that he lied under oath and obstructed justice.
“I see that happening definitely with Trump, like I see [conservatives] rationalizing or ignoring his behavior, because at the end of the day they’re getting the judges they want, they’re getting the politics they want, and so they’re able to kind of look the other way.”
To be fair, she thinks Democrats did the same during the Clinton-Lewinski scandal.
Barberena says her time in politics has also helped her better understand people.
“Some people have a drive to help other people that is beyond understanding. [Others] are mean and ugly and hurtful and will do anything to win. And that hurts,” she says. “Politics has taught me that there are such extremes. But you know, politics is painful. So, when people run for office, the first thing I ask is, ‘Are you ready for this? This is going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.’”
Her political insight seems to lend an added thrill. While she was watching the Democratic debate in Houston, Barberena’s political Spidey senses kicked in and she hit on a realization.
“I thought, ‘This is the cabinet. This is the team,’” she says. “I wish we could put them all in a blender and put them into one mega-candidate, because that would be awesome.”
Like a Transformer, I point out. The campaign slogan could be “More than meets the eye.”
“I like that!” she says, laughing.
The highs in her line of work are often exhilarating, but the lows can be devastating. Barberena admits that it can be hard to pick herself up after an election loss.
In one particularly stinging defeat, she worked with a Latino candidate on the West Side, a veteran and widower, who ultimately lost to his female Anglo rival. “I lost to a white woman on the West Side of San Antonio? What the hell’s wrong with me?” Barberena recalls asking herself.
“I sat on the couch and read Harry Potter books the entire month,” she confesses. “I put my heart and soul and everything into it, so when you lose, it’s hard.”
Even so, Barberena loves what she does and sees her role as that of an agent of change.
“I want to keep doing this with integrity and with purpose,” she says. “I hope that [this work] will be change for the positive, change for the good and change that will lift up nuestra gente.”
Which, in the end, would be great for everyone.
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