"We are a Latino city without people of Hispanic roots in leadership positions"
Gracie Saénz has extensive political experience in Houston, a Democrat city with 46% of Hispanic population. In an exclusive dialogue with LPO, she explains why the November elections could mark a turning point.

Graciela "Gracie" Saenz is a lawyer. Until 2022, she served as a Community and Public Engagement Consultant at the Harris County Prosecutor's Office. In 1992, Gracie was the first Latina to serve as a Houston City Council Member. There she served three consecutive terms and was later nominated as the first Latina Mayor Pro-Tempore by Mayor Bob Lanier. Gracie has also been involved on several non-profit boards and has received numerous awards for the community work, including the City of Houston Mayor's Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018. In this interview she tells La Política Online what it is like to do politics for a Latino in the United States.

What is your perspective on the growth and evolution of the Hispanic community in Houston over the last thirty years?

Houston is a Latin city. 46 percent of its inhabitants are of Latin origin. According to the 2020 census, we are 45 percent of Houston, but we feel that the number is much higher due to measurements errors. In any case, according to the census, even with this 45 percent of the city's population, we are already a majority Latino city. And among that population there are many generations of families who come from different places.

Could you explain it?

At first, more than 300 years ago, this city was dominated by the Spanish. After Spain, Mexico came and the city changed a lot. There have been - and continue to be - people with Mexican roots who have lived in Houston for many years. For example, my grandparents came to Houston in 1910, my dad is turning 97 and was born here. However, this migratory flow was not always constant. Unfortunately, in 1930, during the Great Depression, there was an expulsion of people with Mexican roots in the United States. It's estimated that between 600,000 and one million people were expelled during those years. Later, Mexicans and Spaniards were joined by the immigration of Cuban people. In the late 1950s, Puerto Ricans arrived. In the 1970s and 80s, Houston received many Central Americans, mainly Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Nicaraguans. In 1990s, South Americans arrived, especially from Venezuela and Colombia. By the 2000s, people from Mexico began to arrive again, but with a different profile. In the first years, there was a lot of immigration of peasants. Now many people of Latin origin with a high level of education are arriving in Houston.

"We are a Latino city without people of Hispanic roots in leadership positions"

It's a Latin city, but do you think Houston recognizes itself as such?

No. It's something that has truly become very difficult. The people with leadership positions, the important positions to run this city, are not Latinos. So, on the boards of directors of corporations, banks, universities and colleges, the majority of people in those positions do not have Hispanic roots. Therefore, it's non-Latinos who dominate the message about what kind of city we are.

Houston is a Latin city. 46 percent of its inhabitants are of Latin origin, but the number is much higher due to measurment errors. In the first years, there was a lot of immigration of peasants. Now Latinos with a high level of education are arriving.

Why do you think Houston has never elected, for example, a Hispanic mayor?

There are several reasons. We had the opportunity many different times, but we couldn't achieve it. In 1997, I ran for mayor, but I didn't succeed. It's said that there was an agreement between different political levels to elect an African-American mayor in that election. And then it became much more difficult for our population to believe in ourselves. On the other hand, it must also be said that Hispanics in Houston are a very young population. 50% of this population is under 18 and cannot vote. Of the other 50%, about half are people who, although they live in Houston, do not have US citizenship and cannot vote in the United States. As for those of us who can vote, we are participating almost at the same level as other ethnic and racial groups, such as African-Americans and Anglos from different neighborhoods of the city. So, due to all these reasons combination, we have not yet had political power.

"Si los partidos no movilizan el voto hispano joven, hoy no hay forma de ganar una elección"

And what challenges or obstacles did you encounter on this path in 1997 when you ran for mayor?

During that time there was also an FBI investigation against the councilors. The FBI was trying to find out if the councilors were involved in bribery. But it was not the same for everyone: only councilors of color and ethnic miniroties were investigated. A great failure led the community to have no faith in politicians. So, the Latino community chose not to participate in that election. However, enough time has passed and Latinos have regained trust in the political leaders of our community. Now we have that opportunity again. There are many well-prepared and educated people ready to occupy these positions. I hope they have the opportunity to serve on the council and the town hall.

"We are a Latino city without people of Hispanic roots in leadership positions"

Could you mention Hispanics who are growing in politics and, according to you, have a future?

Right now we have Gilbert García, who is a candidate for mayor and is a very successful businessman. García is the owner of García Hamilton & Associates, a firm that manages pension funds for many people. The amounts that this firm manages exceed 22 billion dollars. What does this mean? That Gilbert is not only an educated candidate, but he is also well-prepared for the position, having experience in responsible management of large sums of money. The city of Houston has a budget of 6 billion dollars. So, we need someone there who knows how to handle that kind of budget. In addition, we have Conchita Reyes, who is also running for the position of council member in the city of Houston. That position was the one I had. Since I left in 1997, we have not had another Hispanic representative at the city level. Also, we have Holly Vilaseca, who has also run for seat number 2, Richard Cantú for seat number 3 and people who are trying to reach the positions at the distric level, such as Joaquín Martínez in District I, Cynthia Reyes-Revilla in District H and Iván Sánchez in District J. They will all be trying to reach those different council seats in the next election.

The people occupying important leadership positions are not Latino. On the boards of directors of corporations, banks, universities and colleges, the majority do not have Hispanic roots. It's the non-Latinos who dominate the message about what kind of city we are.

Conchita Reyes is also your political goddaughter, right?

She is not only my political goddaughter, she is also my niece (she laughs). She is a very well prepared politician. She is an accountant who studied here in Houston. Additionally, she is bilingual and, above all, she has a kind heart for the community.

"We are a Latino city without people of Hispanic roots in leadership positions"

Could you share an anecdote or project you worked on that had an impact on the Hispanic community during your years on the Deliberative Council?

During those years, we had the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA. The mayor chose me to lead the city committee at the time. We decided to do everything possible to ensure that the treaty was approved and became law in both the United States and Mexico. I had to lead that committee and I had the opportunity to travel to both Washington and Los Pinos in Mexico City. I was also present when the treaty was signed. Additionally, I led a non-profit organization called Houston International Initiatives. Through this organization, we make any commercial trips to cities in different countries in Latin America. Every year we made three business trips and took business people with us from Houston to other places. Destinations included the cities of Guadalajara and Tabasco in Mexico, as well as Costa Rica, Peru, Chile and Panama. I was also in charge of what was called The World Energy Cities Partnership, an organization that represented cities known worldwide as oil and energy capitals. The city of Houston was already one of those cities at that time, and I was its representative during those years. In addition, as a representative of the entire city, I had opportunities to represent it through my position as Mayor Pro-Tempore in different conferences. For example, I was selected by President Bill Clinton to be part of a national conference called The Conference for Children and Youth. In this project we focused on creating and modifying laws to help young people. Through that position, I had the opportunity to return to the city of Houston and create programs for our youth that were implemented through the collaboration of the Houston police and fire departments, libraries, parks and the Department of Health. Each of these departments focused on creating programs to attract young people, protect them, supervise them, provide them with guidance, and keep them out of trouble. It was something very positive for the city.

"Todo el mundo entiende que necesitamos a los migrantes, incluidos los políticos racistas que los usan para la campaña"

With all this tradition of migratory flows in Houston, but also in the entire state of Texas, how is it possible for a governor to find an anti-immigrant speech profitable?

The governor is a person who I feel makes decisions based on those who support him, his voters and his base. What he has done on immigration matters is racist and his management as governor of Texas does not at all represent the state of Texas as a whole, much less the Latino community.

"We are a Latino city without people of Hispanic roots in leadership positions"

A recent article in the Houston Chronicle reported facts of intra-ethnic discrimination, that is, within the same ethnic group, especially among Latinos. What forms of this exist?

This is something that has been happening for many years. For example, due to my skin color, which is not white, I have faced discrimination throughout my professional and political career. But there are people of Hispanic roots who are white and tend to think that, therefore, they should be treated as Anglo-Saxons. As a result, they lose their culture and roots. They have tried to leave their Latin heritage behind, because they have been told it is negative. When I was in elementary school, my teachers told me: "Speak only English, because Spanish is bad and if you speak it, you will be punished." So, I though that if I was punished as much for swearing as I was for speaking Spanish, then, in my mind, Spanish was a bad thing. During my childhood, I refused to speak Spanish. This continued until high school, where a second language was required to attend. I didn't understand why we were prohibited from speaking Spanish. Some people have given it up completely and don't want to be part of a minority. There was also a time when some men married whiter women to ensure their children would not be dark. There have been people who have discriminated against us, Latinos, and we have also discriminated against people of other ethnicities and ourselves. Some friends currently support the governor and (Donald) Trump's candidacy. Personally, I don't understand them.

There are people of Hispanic origin who are white and think they should be treated like Anglo-Saxons. They have tried to leave their Latin heritage behind because they have been told it is negative. When in primary school, my teachers told me: ‘Speak only English. Spanish is bad, and if you speak it, you will be punished.

What advice do you have for those who aspire to serve in public office and advocate for their community in local government?

Preparation and education are the most important things. The person must understand that changes are constant and must be prepared to recognize these changes, get information, negotiate and present proposals or ideals in a professional manner. Education is crucial, especially about our history. When you don't know your history, anyone can tell you what your history is, and you can believe or not. It's up to you, but if you don't know your history, someone else will impose it on you. Finally, I would like to mention the ethics that leaders need to hold public office. Leaders need to learn to do the "right thing" before entering politics. There is a great temptation for the power that comes from these political positions. There are many examples of people who lost their way because they were tempted by power, fame and greed. In general, I often ask anyone who is about to apply, "What or who keeps you accountable?." I always find it comforting to hear your responses. Sometimes it's your spouse, your children, your constituents, or your God. Whatever your answer, at the end of the day, there is something that reminds you that your behavior should always be in the service of others. In short, preparation, education, knowledge of history and ethics are the main tools that a politician, especially one who comes from a minority, has.

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Gracie Saénz tiene una larga experiencia política en Houston, una ciudad demócrata con 46% de su población hispana. En diálogo exclusivo con LPO, explica porqué las elecciones de noviembre pueden marcar un quiebre.