- Jade Esteban Estrada
Last June, during a UTSA panel discussion on the Texas Legislature, Republican State Sen. Pete Flores acknowledged that holding onto his seat would be a challenge in 2020.
In the upcoming race to represent Flores’ District 19, one contender sees a golden opportunity in his political vulnerability. If Democrat Xochil Peña Rodriguez, daughter of former U.S. Rep. Ciro Davis Rodriguez, is successful in winning Flores’ seat, she’d not only become the first Latina to represent the increasingly conservative district, she’d also continue a family tradition.
It’s a sunny Friday afternoon and I’m sitting across from Peña Rodriguez at the Embassy Suites at Brooks City Base in Southeast San Antonio.
Though she’s embarking on her first campaign, Peña Rodriguez is familiar with the playing field. Her father held elected office since 1975, eventually serving as the congressman for Texas’ 28th then 23rd districts. He currently serves as a Precinct 1 justice of the peace. What’s more, her uncle and godfather, Sergio “Chico” Rodriguez, has been Precinct 1’s county commissioner since 2005.
So, the campaign trail was quite literally her childhood playground. And watching the news and discussing policy over dinner were family rituals.
“It took a long time before I realized that not every family talks that much politics at the table,” she says with a laugh. “We grew up on West Harding, over there between Pleasanton and Flores. It was always a loving household. My dad came to all of my plays, even when he was going up to Congress.”
At 37, Peña Rodriguez hopes to build on that background and catalyze the changing face of power in District 19. Fitting of her first name — a word of indigenous origin meaning “flower” — she seems ready to bloom into her political potential.
But that will require some serious campaigning. The district is comprised of 17 counties and covers 400 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border along West Texas.
Peña Rodriguez is proud of her Mexican American heritage. However, when the term “Latinx” comes up, she says has reservations about its personal meaningfulness.
“I do use ‘Latinx’ fairly frequently, but I will say it’s a very American term, you know? Even when you’re trying to say it, it doesn’t sound Spanish,” she says. “If you say ‘Latino’ or ‘Latina,’ it rolls off [the tongue]. If you say ‘Latinx’…”
She squints as if to say, “Sorry, no cigar.”
When it comes to staying true to her values, she looks no further than her father’s vote on the Iraq War.
“The whole drumbeat, everything, was marching towards war. But he was taking a look at the evidence that was coming in and what they were saying — which now has come out as false — and he held firm,” she says proudly.
Politics may have been a key part of her upbringing, but for Peña Rodriguez it wasn’t all parades and dinners with heads of state.
“My mom always sheltered and protected us, because a lot of times people would be angry, or there would be threats and that sort of ugliness — even back then,” she recalls.
Though she feels qualified to serve in the Texas Senate, Peña Rodriguez expects the opposition to weaponize her inexperience — and her privilege.
A practicing attorney for more than 10 years, Peña Rodriguez initially attended law school because she felt it was the best way to make change and have an impact. And, over time, she’s pinpointed the areas where she thinks she excels.
“I gravitate more towards the policy,” she says. “[I’m] more cerebral.”
Beyond her policy chops, she understands that serving in office requires patience.
“It’s [about] trying to get those hard-won compromises [when] people on both sides might be mad at you. ... But you’re at least moving the dial in the right direction,” she says. “You’re going to piss off people from both sides... inevitably. But that’s politics. We’ve got to be able to talk to each other, work through issues and figure out how we can all make a better Texas.”
I ask how she’s navigating her privilege as a woman, as a Latina, as the daughter of a congressman and as a young person in politics.
“I’m also thin. I’m also light-complected,” she adds. “And you do get treated differently, sometimes. You get a different kind of reception when you’re walking through a store, when you’re driving and you get pulled over. And obviously, I’m also very educated. We all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Everyone deserves that no matter what your job is. No matter what family you’re born into. How dark or light you are. What size you wear. I think we need to acknowledge the privileges we do have in order to be a good ally.”
Peña Rodriguez first met her husband while doing theatre in high school.
“After I came back from law school, we ran into each other again,” she says. “Sparks flew, and we’ve been together ever since.”
Coincidentally, Peña Rodriguez and her husband, both native San Antonians, were born on the same day and the same year. The Catholic couple have one still-unbaptized daughter. The family’s priest was transferred, she explains, so they’re hunting for a new favorite priest to conduct the ceremony.
I ask Peña Rodriguez if she wouldn’t mind performing a bit of Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a role she’d played as a freshman in high school.
She laughs, looks around the lobby, then agrees.
“So, Titania is the fairy queen, and she has her court. I kind of viewed her as a strong woman character,” she explains. “She has some misfortune that happens to her, but she comes through it with a smile.”
When Peña Rodriguez recites the character’s final line — “Hand in hand with fairy grace will we sing and bless this place” — it echoes softly through the hotel lobby.
Peña Rodriguez is now vying for a new role.
Though every step she takes during this journey may have a familiar ring, her campaign experience will be singular and will bring the opportunity to connect with voters in her own way — all while demonstrating the political will that seems to run in her family.
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