Norma Torres, the only member of Congress born in Guatemala, opens up to People CHICA about relating to the struggles of immigrant families and the life-changing moment that helped her find her political voice.

By Lena Hansen
September 06, 2019 02:29 PM

As the only Central American–born representative in the United States Congress, Norma Torres is living proof of the American Dream. Now representing California’s 35th congressional district, Torres’s journey to politics began with a feeling of uncertainty, when she immigrated to the U.S. from her native Guatemala at age 5. “My immigrant story is not very different than many of the children that we see in our border custody today,” she tells People CHICA. “I came here with my uncle. My mother was very ill, she had a heart condition, she was in and out of the hospital. It was during the civil war in 1970 in Guatemala, and my parents just didn’t see a future for me there. I can’t imagine that decision for my child, but my parents decided that it was OK for me to come and to give me an opportunity to be successful.”

Norma Torres with her mother and sister in Guatemala
Courtesy of Norma Torres Family

Torres recalls her parents told her she was “going on vacation” with her uncle, but she didn’t return to her home country until decades later, when she traveled to the Northern Triangle countries of Central America earlier this year with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in hopes of “dealing with the real causes of migration for the immigrants that we are seeing at our southern border.” Besides helping to end the separation of immigrant families, Torres is fighting to change the negative dialogue about immigrants in America. “Some people see them as invaders, even though they are people who are suffering a great deal,” she says of the families fleeing political corruption, persecution and violence in Central America. “Going back to a country where I was born, a country that I left at a very young age, with the Speaker of the House [and other colleagues] — that is so powerful.”

Congresswoman Norma Torres speaks next to Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Mexico City.
(ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)

She sees herself in the frightened eyes of children she has met at detention centers at the U.S. border. “When I look at those kids, it’s so emotional for me because I see myself in them,” she says. “When I hear kids say, ‘I was here with my mom, my uncle or my grandma, and they separated us,’ I think, ‘That could have been me.'” She tears up when she remembers an 11-year-old boy she met at a detention center who told her, “God bless you.” “I’m a member of Congress, you are in a little cage, God knows what is going to happen to you, and you are telling me, ‘God bless me?'” she recalls. “For me, that’s very hard to see. The reason why they are coming here is they simply want an opportunity to be successful.”

Norma Torres with her sons in California.
Courtesy of Norma Torres Family

Her own journey to becoming a leader in American politics began unexpectedly. “I was a 911 dispatcher with the LAPD. One night working the graveyard shift, I took a call from an 11-year-old girl who was murdered at the hands of her uncle,” Torres recalls. “I heard her screams. Her last words were, ‘Uncle, please don’t kill me.’ I heard her head being bashed against the wall, and I heard the five shots that followed that ended her life. That is a story that is very difficult to talk about.” She still gets choked up remembering that call, but it would help her find her mission. “As horrific as that sounds, for me what was so personal and motivating — and changed my life — was the fact that she waited 20 minutes for me to answer her call for help. For somebody to have to wait 20 minutes and then end up losing her life for me was something I couldn’t live with,” she says. “I decided to take action. I was a soccer mom. I went from being that person disconnected from every political issue in our community to all of a sudden testifying before a public safety committee. I learned how to lobby for the community that I was serving. That experience turned that little soccer mom into someone who found her voice by force.”

Norma Torres years ago with her children in California, before she pursued a political career.
Courtesy of Norma Torres Family

Torres says she was able to get a $350,000 grant for her department to hire more bilingual dispatchers and make other necessary changes. “I challenged my own department and had to testify against my own captain and my own department. Doing that in a paramilitary organization is the toughest thing I have ever gone through,” she admits. The positive changes she saw as a result were well worth it, though. “At the end of it, Yahaira’s life was not wasted,” she says about the girl who called her for help. “She died, but she had a purpose in life.”

(JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

The Congresswoman assures her own purpose in life includes helping other immigrants. “There is so much still to do to help these families. We can absolutely do more. When I took that call of that little girl Yahaira and I refused to be quiet and I refused to allow her to die in vain … they can, too. They can find their voice,” she says of the Latino community. “They can get out there and vote, they can write letters to their representatives. There is so much they can do to stand up for the humanity of these children that is being stolen every single day.”

Courtesy of Norma Torres Family

She is also keen on motivating more Latinas to get involved in politics. “Politics is deliberately hard. For women it’s hard, but specifically for African Americans and Latinas it’s more difficult. But we need you in politics, we need you to be the CEOs that are responsible leaders of companies, we need you out there speaking out,” she emphasizes. “When we strip away the humanity of a child simply because they are knocking at our door saying, ‘Give me the opportunity to live another day,’ I guarantee you that your child will be next. Society as a whole and Americans cannot afford to allow for that to happen here. I wouldn’t be doing this if there wasn’t a rainbow at the end of it all. There are so many things we can do as members of Congress and legislators, and that is taking on issues that someone else may not care about. I’m the only Central American in Congress. I’m the only member born in Guatemala in Congress. If you are a Latina out there hoping to get into politics, stop staring at yourself in the mirror and waiting for someone to tell you to run for office. This is your time.”

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