From our earliest brainstorming meetings, we always knew the Nevada politician Lucy Flores was "totally Lenny" and a woman we wanted the rest of the world to meet. Lucy, who is currently running for Congress in Nevada's fourth district, is a most vibrant example of how the personal is the political. She's a Hispanic woman who grew up in a family of 13 children. Their mom left when she was nine, and Lucy subsequently dropped out of high school, joined gangs, committed petty crimes, went to jail, and saw each one of her six sisters get pregnant as a teen, before she got pregnant herself. But Lucy would not allow herself to fall prey to low expectations for her future: she had an abortion, got her GED, went to college then law school, and then she was elected to the Nevada State Assembly in 2010, when she was just 31 years old.
As an assemblywoman, she fought for domestic-violence victims so they would have the right to break leases with their abusive partners and advocated for early-childhood education. She also established a PAC to help more Hispanic people run for political office. Her main concern as she heads into the next election is the rampant economic inequality that threatens to keep so many Americans, but immigrant families especially, from success. She was battling for an increased health-education bill on the Assembly floor when she revealed she had had an abortion at 16, and that she got pregnant because of the lack of sex education at her school. The death threats that inevitably followed did not deter her. On social-media channels, her supporters started calling her #FierceFlores.
When Lucy and I spoke over the phone one Friday morning, it felt like I was talking to a friend. She's warm and funny, and her resolve is undeniable. We talked about her family, her goals, and why not giving up when the odds are stacked against you is about more than just your own success.
Laia Garcia: I want to know a little bit more about your relationship with your dad, since I know the two of you are very close, and I've heard you like to sing mariachi songs together.
Lucy Flores: Well, you know, we are a very nontraditional family. There's a lot of brothers and sisters, and some are closer than others. We don't necessarily have those Christmases, holidays, and birthdays when the entire family gets together. We've all experienced a lot of challenges, and because of that, we haven't necessarily kept that strong family unit.
My dad and I, we're very, very close, and he's has always supported me one thousand percent in the things that I do, but at the same time, my dad struggled. He had to be almost detached in order to focus on making sure that we had all of the things that we needed. You know, the basic things: food, housing, clothes. He worked day and night, literally, almost his entire life.
He struggles to understand what I do, the sacrifices that I make in order to serve. Sometimes, he wonders why I'm not at home and can't visit as often as he would like me to because I'm off campaigning or whatever it is that I'm doing.
It's been interesting. He's got a third-grade education. He's really smart, and I try to explain exactly what I do and how government functions and the intricacies and the challenges of it all.He's incredibly proud of me, but it's just hard to relate.
LG: So many young women have to get their abortions in secret. Did your family know when you got one as a teen? Were they supportive?
LF: All of my family knew about it, and it wasn't a celebration. At that point, I felt like I knew enough, and I'd seen enough on TV, where I felt like the process of being pregnant should be a really happy one. Hopefully something that's planned, and you can have a great baby shower with all of your girlfriends, and have a house, and the ability to buy the things that you need. I remember when I told a few of my sisters, they were like, "Oh, OK!" And I just thought to myself, It's just another occurrence! It's kinda the status quo. And that just didn't sit well with me.
I knew that if I decided to have a child at that age that I was very likely not going to have a lot of opportunity in my life, and I wanted to be a better role model to my nieces and for myself. I just wanted to do something better, and because I was only 16, I didn't have a job, and if I did, I was probably working a job that was five dollars an hour. Frankly, I didn't have any other options, so I felt like if I was going to give myself a fighting chance, I was gonna have to be courageous, and do what I had to do, and tell my dad.
I knew that if I decided to have a child at that age that I was very likely not going to have a lot of opportunity in my life, and I wanted to be a better role model to my nieces and for myself.
I just remember going to him crying and telling him all of that, that I felt like I needed to give myself a shot at something better, and he was completely supportive; I don't remember there being a whole lot of discussion. I told him that I needed to have the money in order to have the procedure done, and even though we didn't have a lot of money, he found it some way. He gave me what I needed, and I made the appointment. I went with one of my best friends at the time.
LG: Back then, was there something specific that interested you, something that made you realize you didn't want to follow the same path as your sisters? Did you have any idea of what you wanted to be when you grew up?
LF: I didn't think that I could be anything. I didn't have role models like that available to me, you know, even on TV. There was no young Latina woman out there that I saw on a daily basis, outside of an entertainer or an actress, who was something realistic for the everyday person. I never envisioned myself really being anything other than just trying to get a job and hopefully making enough money to make rent and just live. Just survive. That's the kind of environment that I grew up in. No one in my family had gone to college, no one talked to me about college; so no, I didn't have a whole lot of aspirational thoughts.
When I was getting in trouble and being arrested all the time, the thought would come into my mind that maybe one day I could be a lawyer, because I was always trying to defend myself. I knew a little bit about [whether] I was actually breaking the law, or whether or not I felt I was being harassed or targeted unnecessarily, for doing nothing, just for walking down the street. But being a lawyer wasn't a serious thought. It wasn't something that I thought I could actually do. It wasn't until I was getting my GED and considering going to community college that I really set my sights on being a lawyer.
LG: After you embarked on this path, did you have any doubts? Were there any moments where you were tempted to not continue?
LF: Once I make a decision, I make a decision. I put my whole self into it. It wasn't a decision I made lightly. I knew that I was gonna have to stay really focused. At the same time, when I was going to college and law school, [I was] experiencing the everyday difficulties of being really poor. Not only was I trying to take care of myself in L.A., I was also still sending home a couple hundred dollars here and there to my dad to make sure that he was OK. It was really hard.
And sure, there were lots of times where I considered dropping out of college. I told myself a bunch of times that it was just too hard and that it wasn't something that was realistic for me and that I just needed to get a job and start taking care of me and my family again. Fortunately, there were lots of resources at USC, people who were supportive, people who I could talk to, people who could encourage me to continue going. Then, of course, there was my own desire to not give up, and my own desire to know that if I stayed the course and if I had faith, everything would work out. It really was those tough times when I would narrow my thought, like the only thing that I would focus on was getting through school, getting to law school, and knowing that once I accomplished those things, that life would be better for me.
Still, there were times that I didn't know how I was going to eat that day. It wasn't just about, I can't pay my credit card bill or I can't pay my rent; it was literally survival. I was collecting plastic, because in California you actually get a reimbursement for plastic, so I was collecting that wherever I could. I was doing whatever it took to survive.
LG: "The personal is the political" is a phrase that's often brought up to describe ways in which people can get involved and enact change. You've often mentioned your personal life in service of your political goals. How has that experience been?
LF: There's definitely been criticisms. I've been called really mean names, you know, but people who call me a criminal and call me a baby killer and call me all these terrible things aren't people who would support me anyway. So for me, it's really easy to ignore those things because I know that it's coming from a place of hate and distrust on their part. I focus more with the people who do identify with the various parts of my stories, or who identify with what I'm trying to do, or who identify with my goals as a public servant. People trust me. They know that when I say that I completely understand the day-to-day challenges that so many people in our country are facing, they believe me because I've lived it, too.
LG: You mentioned how hard it is for someone without a political or privileged background to run for office. I feel like that's a barrier that many young people face, not only in the political sphere but in other fields, where so many entry-level jobs are unpaid internships. It's so easy to give up and pursue something else. Do you have any advice for our readers facing those challenges?
LF: You do have to struggle harder. I always tell women in general, and especially young women, that it's harder for us. Period. You have to go into that situation accepting the reality in which we live, but at the same time, you have to go into it knowing that if you work a little harder, if you persevere, if you stick with it, that once you get there, you can be a part of changing that for others, and that's what I focus on. Yes, it's significantly harder for me, it's harder for me to raise money, it's harder for me to convince people to support me, it's harder for me to prove that I am qualified and capable even though I have a stellar record of accomplishments — legislative, professional, personal — you can't look at my record and say that I'm not accomplished.
And yet I have to defend and prove that record every day. And it does get exhausting, but at the same time I know that I have to do those things, and I'm OK with it. Because you know that in that process, you're going to be a part of changing things and making them better not just for yourself but also for others. That's part of the reason why we can't give up. You're gonna have to work a little harder, but once you get there it's gonna be completely worth it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Laia Garcia is the associate editor of Lenny.