Lizette Escobedo’s home has been used for many things in the last year: campaign strategy sessions, debate preparation, and launching community canvasses, just to name a few. The campaign chaos from her historic run at Whittier’s City Council in early 2018 hit Escobedo’s home like a tornado, and it took months to declutter the stacks of paperwork and literature in the aftermath. The dust has long since settled, though, and tonight Escobedo’s neat and cozy home has been repurposed by her ten-year-old daughter, Rosa Jr. “Rosita,” as a slime making factory. While Escobedo pops a gluten-free pizza in the oven, Rosita diligently explains the complex process of making slime into a hand-me-down phone of Escobedo’s, making YouTube videos that do not get posted.
I met Escobedo during her City Council race, and I spent many nights huddled in her living room, pouring over spreadsheets and volunteer lists, analyzing and overanalyzing until we were all near the brink of insanity. Now, a corner of the living room has been converted into a makeshift home-office space for Escobedo’s new job as the Director of the National Census Program with the National Association of Elected Latino Officials (NALEO) Educational fund, where she works one day a week from home. Her walls, once covered in post-its and butcher paper with campaign information, are now decked out in wealth of certificates, awards, and commendations she’s received from virtually every level of government. Her “Democrat of the Year 2018,” award is framed next to a commendation from the California State Senate, which is next to Rosita’s school picture and a mixed media collage of Frida Kahlo. This past week, Escobedo was named Woman of the Year for the entire assembly district, and was presented her award in Sacramento by State Assembly majority leader Ian Calderon.
The spring and early summer of 2018 drug/dragged on for Escobedo. She lost her bid for City Council by a questionable margin of 54 votes, 49 of which were likely intended to be votes for Escobedo but were not counted due to a confusing ballot layout; and then, less than a month later she lost her 42-year-old brother Richie to cancer. Today, and every day since the fateful day in May that Richie passed away, she wears a wristband with the L.A. Dodgers emblem — Richie’s favorite team — and the words “In Loving Memory.” His swift battle with cancer and the insurmountable loss left the whole Escobedo family reeling, Richie was diagnosed in December and gone by April.
As her colleagues and community members spent the summer gearing up for the November elections, Escobedo took much-needed time away from the public arena to focus on healing and spending time with her loved ones. “After the election, there were so many people telling me about what I should have done differently, what I should have said that would have lead to me winning,” Escobedo says, eying her bracelet. “But when I lost my brother, none of that mattered. It caused me to think about what’s really important.”
So much devastating loss in such a short amount of time would break some, but an all-black phoenix is etched permanently on Escobedo’s forearm to remind her of her resilience. While canvassing for her campaign, a voter noticed Escobedo’s tattoo and asked her about it. “I told her, full disclosure, I am divorced, and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through. But, I decided that the phoenix rises from the ashes and I was going to rise, too.”
2018 was both a year of great progress for women in elected office, and a stark reminder of how far America still has to go. Over 100 women were elected into the House of Representatives for the first time ever, but only 12 of them were Latinas. There has only ever been one Latina Senator, Catherine Cortez Masto, who was elected in 2016. In Whittier, there is currently only one female City Council member, and there has never been a Latina in the City’s history. Escobedo’s election was three months before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her historical primary victory against an incumbent, almost a year before Ocasio-Cortez was sworn into office wearing bright red lipstick and her trademark hoops.
Escobedo’s campaign is a reminder that the “Year of the Woman” looks different in different places, and that progress is not always pretty. Whittier may not have been ready to fully shatter the glass ceiling, but there are deep cracks, bringing in new light where there wasn’t much before. Despite constant advice ranging from well-intentioned to patronizing on how to look, talk, and act, voters responded well to Escobedo’s laid-back and transparent approach to candidacy. “And you sure did rise,” the elderly voter told her.
By the conservative standards of Whittier, Escobedo was always an unlikely candidate for City Council. 2018 was the first time the City held district elections in Escobedo’s area, after a legal battle that lasted more than a decade, eventually proving the City’s former at-large electoral system was discriminating against the ever-growing Latino population. Escobedo is 34, which would have made her the youngest member on the Council. She has tattoos and a slight Spanish lilt to her voice. She’s a single mom to Rosita, she swears and wears hoop earrings and winged eyeliner. In her campaign photos, Escobedo’s hair is a fiery red and she walks hand-in-hand with her daughter at one of the City’s parks. Shortly after she announced her candidacy, a prominent local figure suggested that she “tone down,” talk about her daughter and being a single mom, lest it turn off more conservative voters.
Rising above the tragedy of 2018 hasn’t been easy for Escobedo, but she’s no stranger to striving. She’s the youngest of five children, and the only girl, in a close knit family. Her parents, Rosa Escobedo Sr. and Efrain Escobedo Sr., immigrated from Mexico in the pursuit of a better life, showing their children the power of hard work and perseverance. “They never, ever gave up on any of us. There was never a moment of, “pack up your stuff and get out,” no matter what we put them through. Home was always home, even after I got divorced, I went home and it was like nothing had changed,” Escobedo laughs. Although English is their second language, Rosa Sr. and Efrain Sr. participated actively in Escobedo’s campaign, making phone calls in Spanish and dropping off lawn signs. “They help me so much with Rosita, she gets out of school hours before I get off of work, without them I could not have the career that I do,” Escobedo acknowledges. “Whenever something good happens to me, I have to be sure to thank them because they’ve always — and they still do, to this day — put their kids first.”
Heeding her parents message that education was the pathway to success, Escobedo set off to the University of California San Diego (UCSD) at eighteen, where she earned bachelor’s degrees in Communications and Ethnic Studies. Escobedo recalls the difficulty adjusting to life at UCSD, where the Latino population at the time was below five percent. “I mentioned to my oldest brother, Efrain, that I was thinking of dropping out because I just didn’t get any of it. Going from a community that was predominantly Latino to an almost all white classroom was really difficult,” Escobedo says.
In response, Efrain, who was attending the University of Southern California (USC) after dropping out of high school and becoming a father of two at a young age, brought her a dictionary inscribed with the Bob Marley quote, “I don’t come to bow. I come to conquer.” Efrain told her, “when you’re raised in a community like ours, and then you enter these spaces like USC and UC San Diego where everyone is speaking in convoluted words, part of your imposter syndrome is feeling like you would never be able to use these big words because you don’t know what the heck they mean,” he pointed to the inscription. “That’s when you pull out your dictionary.” The lesson never left Escobedo, and she credits Efrain with helping her to take up space and own her experiences. Efrain also introduced Escobedo to NALEO, where she interned in college and was hired on right after graduation in 2008.
In the five years Escobedo originally worked for NALEO, she held the title of Director of National Programs and Community Relations, and was a part of their 2010 Census Campaign, as well as their Citizenship Campaign. “Rosita learned to walk there,” Escobedo says, smiling. Now, she’s back at NALEO for the 2020 Census after seeing dangers of the Trump administration’s citizenship question. Although the Census is intentioned to be a count of every person living in the United States, not just those eligible to vote like some conservative lawmakers backing the question have suggested, undocumented immigrants are fearful that if they answer the question truthfully the data could be used for mass deportations.
The other alternative for vulnerable populations is to not fill out the form, which also has serious consequences. “[The Census] determines federal funding for various programs: children’s programs, food stamps programs, educational programs. So, when you have the potential of having a severe undercount in predominantly Latino communities, it’s a huge disservice,” Escobedo explains.Despite a federal judge blocking the citizenship question from being asked on the Census, the Trump administration is expected to appeal and expedite a hearing with the Supreme Court.
She makes big hand gestures when she talks, extending her arms to emphasize the gravity of the situation, and in the process revealing her other forearm tattoo: I am no longer accepting the things I can not change, I am changing the things I can not accept. Angela Davis’s words are more than just a tattoo for Escobedo, they’re a motto she lives her life by. “I thought, if there’s anything that needs to be fought for this year and next year, it’s the fight for our Census and to make sure that the census is not a political pawn. The Census has always been a way to ensure that we have accurate data and that our government works.”
The NALEO Educational Fund is a non-partisan non-profit, meaning that Escobedo has had to step back from some of her previous responsibilities within the Democratic party. Elected in 2016 as a delegate for the California Democratic Party, Escobedo chose not to seek another term and also resigned as chair of the Rio Hondo Democratic Club. Although the City Council election was non-partisan, it is unlikely Escobedo would have been able to accept the position with NALEO had she been elected. “I genuinely believe that everything happens for a reason,” she says, gazing at Rosita’s picture mounted on her wall. “All the shit I’ve gone through in the past year has really caused me to take stock of my life and to think about the world I want to leave behind for my daughter.”
As if on cue, Rosita skips up to the couch, abandoning her slime and her cousin Efraincito to flop over the couch, and tease her mom about Escobedo’s use of swear words. If there’s any indicator of the Escobedo family’s progress, it’s Rosita. Recently I was in Escobedo’s living room, talking to her about her new job while Rosita zoomed around the couch, dropping post-it notes in my hair with messages like, “You are very pretty,” and “You are smart. You make lots of money,” the result of daily positive affirmations Escobedo does with her. The idea that she can do anything a boy can doesn’t even register, because it’s never occurred to her that there’s something she can’t do at all.
Although Escobedo is unsure if she’ll ever run for office again, she does believe it is important to encourage the next generation of female leaders. “I wanted to be intentional with hiring my campaign staff to make sure we picked talented young women, because when we looked around we realized there really aren’t any female campaign managers,” Escobedo says. Her staff was all female, predominantly Latina, and all under 25 despite having many connections to more experienced consultants and an understanding that her path to victory was already narrow. “We came a lot closer than I ever expected, according to the numbers that we were looking at I didn't really ever have a chance. I mean, it was a predominantly conservative district and the person that I ran against wasn't a wasn't someone with a whole lot of controversy. He was seen as, like, the nice uncle in the community,” Escobedo says. Still, she decided to put her life on hold for almost six months, taking a leave of absence from her job as the Communications Director of Service Employees International Union Local 2015 chapter. “I genuinely appreciate all the advice I got when I was campaigning, but my hope for the future is that female candidates don’t have to worry about their appearance. I want women to know they can be badass and still be the most qualified person in the room.”
2019 looks bright for Escobedo; she’s fresh off a trip to D.C. for her new job when I interview her, full of optimism about her work and the legacy it will leave behind. Her brother Christian is expecting a baby in May, a girl. For the moment, she seems to have found a balance with all the spinning plates: how to be an advocate for equal access, how to be the only woman in the room, how to be the only Latina in the room, how to be a single mom, how to make her parents proud, how to make sure that dinner is in the oven and it’s gluten free, how to make sure that Rosita is fed and clothed and loved and her homework gets done. Her contract with NALEO is up once the Census is completed, and she’s unsure of what she’ll do after that. One thing she does know, though, is that she’ll go wherever the fight against inequality and injustice takes her — ready to conquer, hoops and all.