Teresa Alonso Leon blazes path for future leaders

SALEM, Ore. -- Only minutes after she had been sworn in as a state Representative in the Oregon Legislature, Teresa Alonso Leon had a special guest.

Her niece, Emma Garcia, 8, sat in the Oregon House chambers Monday during the inauguration of Governor Kate Brown.

Photos: Teresa Alonso Leon blazes a new path

When Alonso Leon decided to run for office, Emma was thrilled.

"Right before we had our launch party ... my niece said, 'Tía (aunt), I'm going to make a poster for you,' " Alonso Leon said.

Emma drew her sketch, which read, "If I could vote, I would vote for my tía." She walked around with a large version of the poster at the party.

Alonso Leon took Emma and other nieces with her to vote in the national election so they could see and understand the process. In the car, Emma said to Alonso Leon, "Tía, I want to be the first Latina president."

"I just started crying," Alonso Leon said. "It was like, 'Wow, she's going to get to see her auntie be a state legislator and now she is aspiring to be the president because it's absolutely possible.'

"She does not know there are any boundaries, all she knows is she can dream," she said with tears in her eyes.

Alonso Leon said she has included her family in every step of the process she can, saying this is all new to them as immigrants. "We've never experienced anything like this."

Alonso Leon's family performed a folk dance traditionally performed by the Meseta Purepecha people — who are indigenous to the area along Lake Patzcuaro in Michoacan, Mexico — at the start of the festivities in the House chamber.

They did a celebratory dance called "El Baile del Torito" (Dance of the bull).

"It's hard to describe my whole experience today," Alonso Leon said. "It's a dream come true and I get to live it, I get to be a part of history — that my family gets to be proud of their daughter who has achieved this much and has come this far."

Alonso Leon served as a city councilor in Woodburn for three years and is the first immigrant Latina to be elected to the Oregon State Legislature. She won the seat for Oregon House of Representatives District 22 with 53 percent of the vote.

"I feel like there's no words," she said. "It's so historical, it's (such a) once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, but I hope that by having me be part of this year's cohort, other young people and other ... people (in general) think about running for office.

"Sometimes it takes someone who inspires you and motivates you, and I hope that my presence helped them think about, 'Hey, I can run for office someday.' "

Alonso Leon was born in Michoacán, Mexico and moved to Oregon with her family when she was 4 years old. She grew up in the Woodburn area for most of her life, attending Gervais Elementary School, and going to middle and high school in Woodburn.She earned her U.S. citizenship five years ago.

"The fact that our district chose me as a leader that's going to lead them and moving Oregon forward ... it's an honor," she said. "We have worked really hard."

Becoming a state representative wasn't part of Alonso Leon's original plan for herself, but she's glad it was the path she found herself on.

"I was very fortunate to have gone through several national leadership programs, and not a lot of people get that opportunity. Because of them, one in particular ... (had) a training in Washington, D.C. and we got to meet the highest ranking Latina women working in the White House," she said.

"Of course, for me personally as an immigrant (and) first-generation college student, I never thought I would get to meet these amazing women.

"But they were so humble and they talked to me as if, 'this is what you are going to potentially going to do, so let me know what I can do to help you when you do.' I think having those opportunities really helps."

Budget, transportation funding top issues for legislature
Going into the legislative session, Alonso Leon said her top priorities include education, health and affordable housing.

"Education is huge for me ... I want to make sure we continue to look at investing in our education system," she said. "It makes me sad that when we started canvassing, we (Oregon) were the fourth worst in the country for graduation (rates), and by the time we were done, we were third worst. I was like, 'What? That is not okay.'"

Alonso Leon has worked in education in one way or another throughout her life; she recently left her post as the state's High School Diplomacy and GED administrator for the Office of Community Colleges and Workforce Development to be a state representative.

She said Oregon has looked at the K-12 system a lot, but hasn't looked at some sub-groups, like the 16-60 year old students taking the GED and pursuing further education.

"I want to be the voice of those students we aren't talking about," she said.

Alonso Leon is serving on committees for both education and health in the coming session.

Though Monday was a tiring first day, Alonso Leon was excited to get started.

"It's been an amazing day to celebrate not just my win, but all of the other representatives who were also celebrating today," she said. "This is the most diverse legislative body in the history of Oregon and I am proud to be a part of it."

Contact Natalie Pate at npate@StatesmanJournal.com, 503-399-6745, or follow her on Twitter @Nataliempate and Facebook at www.Facebook.com/nataliepatejournalist


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