Caroline Menjivar was 14 when she began working as a cashier at a restaurant to help with the expenses at home. By state law, she had to request a school waiver to qualify for a job, which she did after her parents divorced and her mother became the sole provider for her and her siblings.
Menjivar’s parents, both Salvadorian, met at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, where many Salvadorian immigrants spend time.
Later, the family moved to the San Fernando Valley, where Menjivar grew up. Her mother cleaned private homes and her father worked as a waiter at a Studio City country club. The family eventually saved enough money to open a car dealership. At an early age, Menjivar saw for herself all of the financial and social and legal inequities working-class families like hers faced. That reality sparked something within her.
Menjivar recalled attending Encino Charter Elementary School, a public school in the high-priced suburb of Encino, CA. She immediately felt out of place, she said. “I was going to an affluent school where my classmate’s homes were big and they had big screen TVs,” Menjivar said. “That’s when I started [wondering] why my classmates had so many cool things, big houses, expensive things and we didn’t? As a kid, you don’t know what all that means. You just know that the inequity doesn’t feel right.”
“My mom was the matriarch of the family and the most hardworking person I know,” Menjivar said. After living in an apartment complex with her family, along with a few aunts and uncles, Menjivar’s mother was able to purchase her first home. She had to sap her life savings to pay for that dream.
That dream turned into a nightmare, as the family fell victim to the ongoing subprime mortgage crisis happening at the time. In short, unqualified applicants, including many Latinos, signed bad faith mortgage agreements that they were unable to cover and eventually lost their investments.
When Menjivar was 18, her family was evicted. “My mom was the one our family would go to if there were any issues and she would always be so giving, even when she didn’t have a lot,” she said. “That was continually instilled in me, the responsibility to help others.”
At one point, Menjivar considered becoming a firefighter. Later, she enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and served from 2009 to 2016.
After her stint in the military, Menjivar returned to earn her bachelor’s degree from California State University, Northridge Sociology, and then enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she earned her master’s degree in Social Welfare. At the time, Menjivar also worked in the L.A. Mayor’s Gender Equity Office.
Menjivar also served as a field deputy in the office of Councilwoman Nury Martinez, and later as the East Valley Representative for Mayor Eric Garcetti. Additionally, she organized the San Fernando Valley’s first-ever LGBTQ+ Pride Car Parade, according to her website.
Should she win the general election in November, Menjivar will become the first Latinx elected official in the 20th State Senate District, since the current state Senator Alex Padilla, who last served that district from 2010 to 2014.
The 20th State Senate District has a population of approximately 993,000 people and 70% of them are Latinos, according to Ballotpedia, a nonprofit, digital encyclopedia of local and federal politics and elections in the U.S.
The Senate 20 district is located in the heart of the San Fernando Valley and encompasses, among others, Burbank, San Fernando, Arleta, Canoga Park, Lake Balboa, Mission Hills, North Hollywood, Northridge, Pacoima, Panorama City, Reseda, Sun Valley, Sylmar and Van Nuys.
Today, nearly two decades after she began her first job at that restaurant, the 33-year-year-old self-described gay Latina, first-generation college graduate, is a leading candidate for 20th State Senate’s 20th District, having advanced to the general election after winning winning 29.76% of the primary election vote and finishing approximately 1% behind her first-place opponent, Daniel Hertzberg. That is quite a feat for first-time candidate Menjivar, considering that Hertzberg raised five-times ($712,896) the amount in political donations that Menjivar ($130,943) did.
“I’m excited from the numbers of the primary because my goal was always to be in the top two,” Menjivar said. “But I didn’t think I’d come this close to being almost first place,” she said.
CALÓ NEWS caught up with Menjivar to talk about her run for office and the goals she will tackle should she win.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Candidates in LA or LA County who wish to respond to questions related to issues that are important to Latinos should contact Brenda@Latinomedia.org.
Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
CAROLINE MENJIVAR, 33, LA, Politician/general elections candidate, She/Her, Latina
HOW DID YOUR TIME IN THE MARINE U.S MARINE CORPS INFLUENCE WHO YOU ARE TODAY AND YOUR POLITICAL JOURNEY?
There are two kinds of people, those who run away from the chaos and those that run towards it. I run toward it. I joined the Marine Corps because in high school my teacher was a Marine and he would tell us about them. I joined and it’s the best decision I ever made. It made me the person I am today: disciplined, dedicated, someone with honor, and someone who takes their word seriously. I did it for seven and a half years. It helped me pay for my school and home. Yes, I have a bad back and horrible knees but it set a foundation for me to the point I am now and it opened a lot of doors. I turned to the skills I learned in the Marines now. As a politician, you have to work with all types of people and that’s what I did in the Marines. I worked with so many types of people to address missions, meet certain goals and come to an understanding. A lot of politicians don’t do that anymore. They hate each other’s views and values and they don’t talk to one another and the people who suffer are those in the communities. It was during my time in the Marines that I realized how different women were treated. I served under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and as a woman, I had to hide who I was, [as well as] my relationship with my wife. I had to deal with harassment, homophobia, and sexism. When I was promoted I changed the environment, not drastically, but I did what I could in my time there, with the people I came across. That’s when I knew that I wanted to change systems that were not in place for queer women, Latinas like me.
HOW DIFFICULT IS IT FOR LATINO WOMEN TO RUN FOR STATE SENATE?
Most Latinos are not born into wealth. We have to build and create the right connections, the right pathways on our own. I realized there were not a lot of people willing to break down those barriers in place for people that looked like me. My goal now is to change that, to go to Sacramento and be able to remove some of those barriers so that more people like me can live in equity and be able to run for office. As a Latina and as a woman, I’ve experienced some challenges in these political spaces. I’ve worked with people who are not BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) and they have told me that they and I are the same, that all women are the same. I knew that wasn’t true. There are certain privileges that other women hold over women of color. It was very hard sometimes, but I always remember that if I wasn’t at the table who would represent me? As a candidate, it’s always been harder for a woman candidate to raise money, even if it’s all first-time candidates. More people are prone to contribute to men than they are to women, unfortunately. I’m here as a qualified person across the board but I had to prove myself more than my opponents.
AS A CANDIDATE FOR DISTRICT 20, WHAT DISTINGUISHES YOU FROM YOUR OPPONENT?
This seat needs equitable representation and I’m the Latina running. I’m the person who speaks the language of the constituency that she’s trying to represent. That’s key because how can you lead a community to success if you do not speak the language of the majority of the people in your district? How are you going to know what we need to fix and change? In addition, I have close to 15 years of experience of working with this community. I have created coalitions, organized people in my community various times, put together Pride parades, and co-created events that highlighted and helped U.S veterans. I have paid close attention to the different crises in this community. I have already done the work, I’m just trying to take this up to Sacramento now. No one else can say that they have done work in this community. You can catch me at almost every community event hosted in this district because I want to be there with the people so that they get to see me experience the things they are experiencing. I want to build those connections with people that live in this district because these are my neighbors and we must care for one another. I have a professional and personal connection to every community in my district because I’ve been here my whole life and no other candidate can say that.
CALIFORNIA IS HOME TO SOME OF THE HIGHEST RENTAL COSTS IN THE NATION, HOW CAN YOU SECURE AFFORDABLE HOUSING FOR YOUR RESIDENTS?
Many people in this district are part of working-class families who oftentimes have to have more than one job to be able to afford to pay their rent. I have seen how much rent has increased throughout the years. I have worked with individuals who are looking to get assistance from the COVID-19 California Rent Relief Program. I have helped them fill out these applications for that and I know there’s a dire need. I think it’s important that some of the resources we brought out during the pandemic are extended past the pandemic.
While we all experienced the pandemic, there are individuals that are in the same pandemic-like crisis 365 days a year because they still can’t afford basic needs. I want to make sure there are programs like that year-round. California has the money surplus for that. We can create the material necessarily needed for everyone to thrive. I want to make sure we have state-funded programs for rent relief and that we are building housing where we need it. In my community, there are a lot of empty commercial buildings and there’s been a big push to see if we can build something.
I want to also make sure we are expanding programs for first-time homeowners. Even a couple who is making $100,000 a year together still can’t afford anything. The middle class is disappearing. I want to see first-time homeowners helping people who are actually at risk or on the income inequality spectrum. Recently, the old skate park where I used to go to was converted into congregate living for 107 unhoused individuals. It took less than a year to build and it’s beautiful and a great step to get people in our communities off the street and then into permanent and supportive housing. That effort is like music to my ears and that’s what I want to see and push forward. I know that tiny homes are not the forever answer but we need this right now until we shed those forever answers.
MANY CALIFORNIANS CONTINUE TO REMAIN UNEMPLOYED AND THE STATE POSSESSES AMONG THE HIGHEST UNEMPLOYMENT RATES IN THE COUNTRY. HOW CAN YOU HELP THOSE IN YOUR DISTRICT?
I don’t think we should be having any conversation about COVID-19 recovery without talking about how we are going to support our small businesses. L.A County was leading in Latina-owned micro-businesses. When we go to farmers markets, and street markets, women are the ones we see leading the business and that’s whom we should support right now. We were seeing that Latina- owned businesses were growing at an increased rate, more than any other micro-businesses. If the pandemic had not hit we would have seen an additional $2.7 billion in the state’s revenue. Those businesses would’ve created 347,000 new jobs in California, should they not have been impacted by the pandemic. I want to make sure grants exist for our small businesses. In addition, I want to ask for funding for the outreach component, because a lot of times when the resources or programs come out, not many people know about them or know how to apply. I have community-based organizations that I would want to bring aboard so they can be the messengers in the community, because they are trusted.
DO YOU BELIEVE POLICE REFORM IS NECESSARY?
I do believe police reform is necessary. I’m very upset over the recent Supreme Court decisions which are going to provide immunity to police officers who do not read people their Miranda Rights. It seems like we continue to shield one specific industry over and over again. Other professionals like doctors and mental health workers will lose their license if they do not provide adequate treatment for their clients, why is it that the police officers are the only ones that’s can get away with murder and nothing happens to them? That’s what I’m looking to reform. I’m not the candidate that’s here to push for defunding the police, I’m not that person. I believe we need officers but I want to make sure that people who do not repeat the badge they are wearing get fired immediately and lose their pensions. I don’t think it’s right that taxpayers have to pay the pensions of officers who have been fired. I’m a social worker and I want to see my peers like therapists, other social workers, and psychologists at the front lines. I would rather see them than officers responding to calls from individuals who are suffering from mental health issues, or the in-house individuals in our city. I want to remove them from these types of calls. As a social worker, I went to school for a long time to be able to know many of the things I know now as a social worker. Many cops only have a high school diploma and a couple of months of training. They should not be responding to mental health, unhoused individual’s calls. They are not fit for that. This should be left to a mental health team.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE TRANSPORTATION OPTIONS AVAILABLE IN YOUR DISTRICT?
We are nowhere near where we need to be. I’m looking to serve a community where many of them are dependent on public transportation. But when you come to the Valley there are often no bus shelters and you have elderly women waiting for buses in high heat temperatures. Sometimes the bus shelters have no lights, or nowhere to sit and I believe that’s all connected to environmental justice. My mom used to take the buses when she would come back from cleaning houses. When I see women waiting on the buses in unsafe areas, with no lights, standing for long periods, it angers me. I want to make sure that the Valley has a quicker transportation system to connect us to downtown LA or Hollywood. My goal for this district is for people to not rely on their cars. It’s a priority for me.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE PLACES IN YOUR DISTRICT TO VISIT?
I made my camping video on a hike in Sylmar, one of my favorite hikes, on Veterans Park Trail. It’s a beautiful hike and has a great view of the entire district. Another favorite place of mine is Plaza Del Valle, in Panorama City. It’s a colorful outdoor place with small shops. Great food and many colors which remind me of the Latinx culture. It’s a great place to hang out and grab some pupusas.
WHAT DOES FAMILY SUPPORT MEAN TO YOUR CANDIDACY?
Almost all of my family is Republican and very religious. They do not vote Democrat. I didn’t think I was going to have their support at all. I thought I would be doing this on my own but they surprised me, they did. My mom has been cooking Pupusas and Pan con Pollo to help fundraise for me. She’s been doing it every month and it’s something I didn’t think I was going to see. It’s outside her political views.. My sister and my brother-in-law have been coming out to canvas with me. Even though my sister is pregnant they have been there for me. My tío knocked on doors with me and he was great at it! My wife has been heaven-sent. She’s an introvert but she has done so much and she’s now a professional at canvassing. Her entire family has also been supportive and they’ve been in all of our fundraisers. Everyone has contributed in all the ways they could. My friends have been the ones to do text and phone banking and they loved it. I feel very blessed to have the people I have around me, people that helped me get to where I am today. This win is not just mine. It is also theirs.