A Conversation with Elizabeth Guzmán

Elizabeth Guzmán was elected in 2017 to represent District 31 in the Virginia House of Delegates, part of the Virginia General Assembly alongside the Virginia State Senate. Born in Peru, Delegate Guzmán became the first Latina—and the first immigrant—to be elected to Virginia’s state legislature. She gave the Spanish-language rebuttal to President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union Address at the request of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

PHOTO COURTESY OF ELIZABETH GUZMÁN CAMPAIGN

PHOTO COURTESY OF ELIZABETH GUZMÁN CAMPAIGN

Conscience: As the first Latina and first immigrant to be elected to Virginia’s legislature, you have inspired a lot of young women. What advice would you give to any young woman seeking to run for office?

EG: I would say to them: believe in yourself. Set specific goals and work towards them. Do not allow anyone to define you. To immigrant women especially, I would say keep working hard and deriving strength from your parents who came to this country, or from your own personal journey to this country. Take the energy from that experience to be brave about what you want to achieve. When you run, you have to find a message that resonates with everyone and find that common ground with constituents from all backgrounds and walks of life. In my case, having been a single mom working three jobs at one point, I met so many mothers who were working full-time and raising kids, and they really connected with my experience. They knew I understood what they were going through.

Conscience: I know your faith is important to you. How does your faith inform your views? What do you think is the proper role for religion in politics? What limits should there be to ensure the separation of church and state?

EG: I feel that everything I have achieved is by the grace of God. He has a path for me and prepared me for where I am today. As a politician, it is important that you reach out to people of different faiths. When I was running, I visited many churches across my district to speak to people and to let them know that there was an election and how important it is to exercise your civic duties. I do not think churches should get involved in politics. They opened their doors to me to visit and let people know there is an election and that was it. It was clear to me that I was not replacing the preachers. And that the preachers were not saying what candidate they supported, but simply opening the doors to various candidates to come and speak to the people.

Conscience: As a woman who became a young single mother, and as a mother of four, what guides your prochoice position?

EG: I decided to have my first child at 18. It was my personal decision and mine alone. My parents did not tell me: “You must have this child.” And I appreciated their unconditional support. That is why when I watch men making decisions about women’s bodies, it really disturbs me.

We have systems in place to help teen moms—including schools for teen moms. But it is definitely not easy being a young mother—there is a maturity element that is very important. I worked hard trying to provide for my child as a single mother. I have also seen women give children up for adoption, and that is a very complicated process. Some of these children end up in foster care before they find the right adoption family for them. There are instances of children facing trauma after being taken away from their parents for different reasons like abuse or neglect. These are really complex situations not to be presented lightly as alternatives.

That is why it should be about making personal decisions. If you believe you’re ready to be a mother, the state should help and, if you’re not, we should help as well. We believe in a free country. All choices have consequences. But I made my choice.

We cannot have laws trying to define for women what they should and should not do with regards to if, when and how they have children.

Conscience: How did it feel to deliver the State of the Union rebuttal in Spanish? Many rebuttal speakers have gotten infamously nervous when delivering such a high-profile speech; how did you stay calm under pressure?

EG: When Speaker Pelosi’s team reached out to me to ask that I do the rebuttal in Spanish, I was surprised. The first question I had was: would it be me delivering a direct translation of the English rebuttal or my own distinct message to Spanish-language speakers? I felt strongly about delivering my own message to this important voting bloc. And Speaker Pelosi’s team said, “Yes of course!” I centered on three key messages: 1) my experience as an immigrant achieving the American dream and how to defend our democracy, 2) how we must stand up against President Trump’s attacks against immigrants and refugees and 3) the importance of instilling the value of voting into immigrant children.

Conscience: Today, Latinos make up more than 40 percent of American Catholics. How do you think the changing face of Catholic America will impact the religion? How might it impact the positions of the Catholic hierarchy? How might it impact American society in general?

EG: I find English-language Catholic Mass to be much more ceremonial than Spanish-language Mass! I do think Pope Francis’ pastoral approach is important. It is important that families feel welcome when they come to church. In Latin America, traditionally, families with LGBT children or teen moms would not go to church because they felt judged. We need a more progressive hierarchy that is more welcoming. We need to have these conversations.

Conscience: Virginians voted overwhelmingly in favor of prochoice candidates up and down the ballot in the latest gubernatorial elections. How important do you think choice is to the Democratic Party platform?

EG: Choice was very important. I sometimes have to remind my fellow Members that we are the pro-women party. In previous elections, candidates wanted to be safe—to stay in the middle on positions—and it simply does not work anymore. People want candidates that take positions and defend them, candidates that are firm in their positions and knowledgeable. We need to stick to our platform and our values: we are the party that is staunchly working-class, prochoice, pro-immigration reform and pro-education.

That is why it should be about making personal decisions. If you believe you’re ready to be a mother, the state should help and, if you’re not, we should help as well.

Conscience: Who is your favorite author?

EG: Growing up, my favorite author was Gabriel Garcia Marquez—by far the best writer in South America. Nowadays, I use Audible a lot. As I got into politics, I have really enjoyed reading the success stories of famous politicians from the past. I loved reading Bobby Kennedy’s biography and how he became such a powerful advocate for the poor despite his privileged background. I also really enjoyed reading Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In, which talks about his path to running; how he held town-hall meetings to listen to people’s needs, and how he sought to build a platform that reflected what he heard. I have always been a Democrat, but I was motivated by the Sanders campaign and how he shook things up and emphasized core values. I was a Sanders delegate. He encouraged people to run, and so I considered how I could contribute in Virginia and decided to run. I was one of the first candidates endorsed by Our Revolution.

Conscience: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would be your beverage of choice?

EG: If there is a bar on the deserted island, then definitely a pisco sour! I could also live with a margarita.

Conscience: Virginia has a lot of vacation spots—which is your favorite?

EG: Williamsburg. You can go to the amusement parks and also visit the sites to learn more about Virginia’s history. It’s important for me and my husband, as immigrants, to continue to learn about American history. And, of course, for our children to see and experience in person the sites of historical events they are learning about in school. There is also great seafood nearby.

Conscience offers in-depth, cutting-edge coverage of vital contemporary issues, including reproductive rights, sexuality and gender, feminism, the religious right, church and state and US politics. Our readership includes national and international opinion leaders and policymakers, members of the press and leaders in the fields of theology, ethics and women's studies.

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