El Paso County’s new state representative from District 75, Mary Gonzalez, has made a much bigger splash than most freshmen in the Texas Legislature.
Gonzalez, 29, is the oldest of 11 children in her family but the youngest member of the Legislature and the first to come out as openly gay.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in history and Mexican-American studies from the University of Texas at Austin, a master’s in social justice from St. Edward’s University and she is working on a Ph.D. in education at UT-Austin.
Although new to elective office, she’s a veteran of the legislative process, having worked for three members of the Legislature since 2003.
The first was state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, who now chairs the House committee on human services. She also worked for state Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, in 2005, and state Rep. Paul Moreno, D-El Paso, in 2007.
It could be said that she’s passionate about almost everything. But she is trying to focus her energies on education issues, protecting parts of the San Elizario community from annexation by Socorro and on allowing the return of dairy farming to El Paso County.
A very liberal Democrat, she is the daughter of a very conservative Republican, Albert Gonzalez, a longtime and well-known Texas A&M agricultural extension agent who now works for a heavy equipment dealership.
Gonzalez tells great stories about her father and about Clint, the city of 900 that took her family in when their house burned down.
She quotes her father telling a reporter that he is indeed proud of her, then adding, “But every day, I wake up and ask God why he made her a Democrat.”
The elder Gonzalez is also good friends with Gov. Rick Perry, who got skewered in the Burnt Orange Report by Rep. Gonzalez for the “fantasy-land version of Texas” he described in this year’s State of the State address.
“We all know what the real Texas is like – the Texas that continues to be overlooked,” she wrote. “The last 14 years has created (sic) an insular, out-of-touch governor who can’t look past the reports and charts on his desk to see that millions of Texans need a greater investment in education, infrastructure, and health care.”
Despite being miles from the Texas mainstream represented in the Legislature, Gonzalez said she gets along with the Republicans who were “confused” by her at the beginning of the session and is expecting success with some of her bills.
She worries about the future of farming in the Lower Valley, about the fact that 52 percent of Hispanic girls in Texas high schools get pregnant and about the impact that has on high school graduation rates, which she thinks threaten the future of Texas.
During a quick trip to El Paso last weekend, Gonzalez found time to talk with El Paso Inc. about her life in the Lege, growing up in Clint and the unpleasant reaction to her big announcement.
Q: The Texas Legislature is a profoundly conservative workplace. Without delving into your personal life, how have members reacted to your coming out so publicly and to your unusual sexual orientation?
I think in the beginning they were confused by me for a lot of different reasons. You look at me and you don’t expect me to have an agriculture background. You read about me and my ambiguous sexuality. I think in the beginning there was confusion.
But, I hit the ground running. I filed 29 bills, opened my office before any other freshman. I’ve been at the mike asking pointed questions. I think I’m serious and that as progressive as I am, I’m not polarized when it comes to politics. I can work with Republicans and get along with Republicans, and I can get things done.
I think the best way to combat any oppression is for people to meet someone who is that identity. So, they’ve met me; they understand me a little better and see me as a person. They don’t care anymore.
Q: What about the public reaction?
Right after all the media stuff happened, it did feel like bullying. I was getting hate emails and ugly, ugly messages sent to me. At that point, I thought, “This is why no one comes out in politics. This is why kids don’t come out in schools.” While I’m proud of all the barriers we’ve broken, it has not come without a lot of ugliness attached to it.
Q: The Legislature only meets every two years, but it is a great show and a good place for a fast education in politics. What are your impressions?
It’s not new to me. I was fortunate enough to be a staffer here before, so I knew what I was getting into. People don’t recognize the diverse issues we address, everything from pesticides to public school finance to health care. There are a lot of different issues to think about in 140 days in a state as big as Texas. It’s really a whirlwind.
Q: The U.S. Congress is deeply polarized and has been unable to get much done. What about the Texas Legislature?
I think every session is different. In the last session, the governor was thinking of running for president and put a lot of controversial things forward as emergency items, like sonograms before an abortion and sanctuary cities. When you go in with 140 days and you’re forced to fight over ideological issues, then of course it’s going to be polarized.
But, this session we don’t have any emergency items, and we are able to think, find areas of common interest and get along.
The tone for this session is a lot different. Granted, we haven’t had the opportunity yet to discuss anything that controversial.
Take HB 10, making up the back payment for Medicaid. Luckily we didn’t have any fight on it. I think this session we have the opportunity to create relationships and to find some common ground.
Q: You took quite a swipe at Gov. Perry, his view of Texas and his budget plan in your piece in the Burnt Orange Report about his State of the State address. Would you recap what you said for those who didn’t read it?
The governor gets up there and talks about how wonderful Texas is doing and how we’re the best at bringing in business and people. It was really frustrating for me because we also rank 49th when it comes to insured Texans and in the 30s and 40s when it comes to public school finance.
There are two images of Texas, and I’d rather talk about some of our marginalized communities, some of our struggles and the things we look for in the future. What is the point of saying businesses are coming here when they’re not willing to address education, when we need an educated workforce and we’re not willing to address water or the other problems we need to fix?
Q: Your father, Albert Gonzalez, was a Texas A&M extension agent for years before he retired and is well known to many here. Do the two of you talk politics much?
We fight politics much. My dad and I are very different. He’s a Republican. Here’s a funny story: At the opening ceremonies, I was there with my dad and the El Paso Times reporter sees my dad in the hallway and asks him for an interview and says, “Rumor has it you’re a Republican.” And he says, “That’s not a rumor; I’m a proud Republican!” Then she asks, “But aren’t you proud of your daughter? She’s broken all those boundaries and she’s the youngest one in the House.” And he says, “Yeah, I guess I’m happy and I’m proud.” Then he goes, “But every day I wake up and ask God why he made her a Democrat.”
He helps me humanize a different ideology. We may have different opinions but I love my dad, who is as conservative a Republican as you can get.
Q: As a Democrat in Texas, you’re probably on the edge yourself. How did you get so liberal growing up in Clint?
College. I went to UT-Austin. Going away to college and thinking about the things I was thinking about. My passion is trying to interrupt or challenge oppression, so I had to think very critically about how we get to a society that is inclusive of all people. That’s automatically going to make me have a more progressive lens when it comes to politics.
Q: Clint is a small farming community, very different from El Paso. What was it like growing up there?
Amazing. My house in Fabens burned down when I was 10 years old. It was the middle of the night, two days before Christmas and the coldest day of the year. We had a propane tank and the pipes got clogged. The gas exploded and set the whole house on fire. We barely got out.
After that, the people in Clint, the pecan farmers, just adopted us. My dad raised us by himself, so the town of Clint housed us, got us Christmas gifts. When we built our own house in Clint, they were the ones who made sure I got picked up from school, took me to get prom dresses.
I love the expression that “It takes a village to raise a child” because I truly believe the Lower Valley and the town of Clint, in particular, raised me. That’s why I have a deep sense of commitment to this area, to the place that made me who I am.
Q: We’ve had two really bad water years after a series of bad water years. Are you beginning to see farmers starting to give it up and deciding to sell their land for development and nonfarming uses?
We’ve definitely seen a decrease in agricultural land and an increase in development. Of course, you can understand that. Fifty percent of the people who farm didn’t farm last year because of the drought. I mean, row-crop farmers who plant cotton and alfalfa. It was less expensive for them not to farm. When you have hard times like that, selling land is sometimes all you can do and that land gets picked up for development.
That’s why it was important for me to have the Future of Agriculture Forum in El Paso because I wanted to ask the local farmers where they see local farming in 10 years in El Paso County. If we don’t stop the land development on agricultural land, it’s not going to exist anymore. We can build in the sand dunes, but we can’t farm in the sand dunes. We have to find ways to encourage our agricultural community to stay strong.
Q: You’re very interested in education. How would you describe the state of education in Texas today?
I would describe it as a disaster. I think if we keep on going in the direction we’re going, it will be very dangerous for the future. There was a really good study by Gallup about third graders. It says when you’re in third grade, 76 percent of the students are engaged in learning. By the time they get to high school, we’re down to 44 percent of the students are engaged in learning. Less than half of our students even want to learn.
Partially, I would say, because of standardized tests. We don’t have a learning environment that encourages them to learn, to appreciate learning and to be part of the process of knowledge. It’s just about learning to study for a test and to pass that test. It’s all about that test. Teachers can’t explore other ways of teaching that engage their students.
What is the society going to look like in Texas in 10 years if we do not change what is happening in education? It’s scary.
Q: What do you mean?
If you look at my district, a fifth of the people over 25 have never graduated from high school. We can look at the trend all along the border. It’s scary, because what did we do to make them not finish school?
When I look at why Hispanics are not completing high school in my district, one of the reasons is teen pregnancy. Texas has the highest rate of repeat teen pregnancies in the country. Cycles of poverty and education. We have to start dealing with these things.
Q: A lot of kids whose first language is Spanish are graduating – if they graduate – from high school with poor English skills. How big a problem is that and what do you think it will take to change it?
That’s a difficult question. I think the first thing is recognizing that the bilingual system we have right now isn’t necessarily working. In Texas, we do a lot of things that aren’t working. But it’s like helping an alcoholic. The first thing he’s got to do is admit he’s got a problem.
Q: What are your thoughts on the bilingual education program? It was started in the ‘70s to keep Spanish-speaking students from dropping out of school by teaching them in Spanish for up to three years and gradually introducing them to English classes along the way.
But that’s not what’s happening. These school districts run bilingual ed a little differently. Some have immersion programs and some don’t. I don’t know the answer, but what I think would be an ideal situation would be for English- and Spanish-speaking students to learn both languages with full proficiency.
We live in a globalized society. In other countries, people are learning four or five languages. Why we limit our students to only learn one language is beyond me. We need to be thinking about what our kids will need in 20 years to be successful, not just get by.
Q: Do you think this Legislature will restore the $5.4 billion cut from education in the last session?
No, I don’t think so. Or, maybe they will, but that still doesn’t account for enrollment growth.
I had a conversation with high schoolers last week. I asked them, “How big is Texas?” and they gave me all these answers. Finally, we get to 24 million. I asked them if it’s getting bigger, and they said bigger. I asked them if their classes are betting bigger or smaller, and they said bigger.
One of them said they’re getting bigger because of fired teachers. I asked why, and they said, “because they cut the budget.” I asked how much, and they started at $1 million. We get to $1 billion, and I say, “No, it was more.” Finally we get there, to $5.4 billion, and one of the students asks me, “Well, if they cut $5.4 billion, where did it go?” And I said they kept it in a bank account to save it for a rainy day.
You should have seen that student’s face. These are young people’s lives we’re messing with. Our classrooms are getting bigger. Texas is the second fastest growing state in the country. If we put back the money we took out, we also need to account for the fact that our schools are growing and our classes are growing.
Q: Are you expecting any significant changes in standardized testing?
I think there’s enough outcry for us to at least look at it. But I don’t know if there’s enough interest to change it. I’m not necessarily opposed to standardized testing. I’m opposed to the high-stakes testing.
I would be OK if we kept the tests, if we got rid of all the high-stakes attached to them – graduation, 10th to 11th grade promotions, teacher performance, school performance and things that determine whether our systems are working – based on the one test.
Q: Priorities. Are there two or three things you want to be sure you get done in your first session?
Reinstating the education cuts. The second, I think is my dairy bill. I’m really passionate about that. Also, I’m trying to get sewer service to Cuadrilla, a colonia between San Elizario and Fabens.
Q: Your bill to allow the reinstatement of dairy farming in El Paso County. It was always a mystery as to why there were all those dairies up the road in New Mexico, and yet bovine tuberculosis kept showing up only at El Paso County dairies, which led to the quarantine of Texas. Did they ever figure that out?
No, they never did. That’s why one of my bills asks for a study. I think there were a lot of political dynamics that had to do with the buy-out of the dairies. But for the sake of the bill, I’m not looking at the past.
There weren’t bovine TB outbreaks, there were positive tests that came back. But the only way to test if a dairy cow has TB is to kill it. After they exterminated all the dairy farms and killed all the dairy cows that were here, there was actually no TB.
Now we realize there was no TB in the first place in dairy cows. In 2005, Mexico implemented U.S. regulations in regard to TB so that the northern part of Chihuahua is TB free. I think these things indicate there is a TB-free zone in El Paso if we just test it again. We have beef cattle here, but none of them has TB.
Q: So what are the chances for your bills, one to allow the reintroduction of dairy farming and the other to test?
We have a committee hearing coming up. I’ve been doing a lot of work on this legislation, and I think I’ve talked to enough to at least get them to agree to a study. Let’s not make statuses that determine the fate of a $40-million industry in a county when we can research to see if our data is correct.
Q: If you succeed, do you think there would be a thriving dairy industry in El Paso County again in, say, 20 years?
I think so, because we have plenty of land here and an agriculture community here that wants them. It’s interesting that some counties are trying to get rid of their dairy farms and I’m trying to bring them back.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Davd Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.