Cristina Garcia ’99 is one of California’s few Latina state legislators. As one of the youngest in the state Assembly, she’s already set a track record for reform that is being felt in the 58th Assembly District and in Sacramento — and Garcia says she’s only just getting started.
In just four years in office, Garcia has delved into issues ranging from political transparency to pollution to gender inequity, drawing statewide attention and even landing her on L.A. Weekly’s most fascinating people of 2014 issue.
Garcia is a native of Southeast Los Angeles, a largely Latino and working-class region where several small cities have been plagued by corruption scandals. In the mid-1990s, she left her hometown for Pomona College, where, Garcia says, she discovered her passions and developed her leadership skills and sense of social responsibility.
As a student, Garcia divided her time between academics and activism – fighting for immigrant rights at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment ran strong in California politics. “Math was my passion and politics was my hobby,” she says.
She admits, however, that she struggled to balance both, and credits her professors for checking in on her to ensure she stayed on track.
With a double major in mathematics and politics, she spent the next 13 years teaching mathematics at the high school and college level. Then, when she was 30, her parents’ health problems drew her back home – with a nudge from her siblings – to take care of them. “And in that moment I didn’t think about it, I came back,” says Garcia who was living in Pasadena and moved to Bell Gardens to live closer to her parents.
Although she made the move willingly, she says it came with a price. “I felt like such a failure because we have been taught that success meant leaving and never coming back to our communities.”
It took a heart-to-heart intervention by her younger sister to snap her out of it.
“She said, ‘you have leadership skills and you have a responsibility,’’’ recalls Garcia. “I was like, you know what, I’m going to start going to council meetings and start asking questions and eventually that led me to ask more questions.”
Garcia started by going to Bell Gardens’ city council meetings, trying to get information about the city budget and expenses. She hit a lot of roadblocks and found disturbing practices, she says. Next door, in the City of Bell, residents were asking similar questions to their city council, trying to figure out why their taxes were so high.
With other activists, Garcia formed BASTA (Bell Association to Stop the Abuse) after the Los Angeles Times broke one of the biggest corruption scandals to rock the state in recent memory. At the heart of it was rampant graft and theft of city coffers by a cohort of City of Bell officials, were later recalled and are currently serving prison sentences.
“I saw it as an opportunity for change for the whole Southeast [Los Angeles] since the problems that plague these cities are all very similar. A lot of the dysfunction I saw in Bell Gardens was present in Bell and other surrounding areas,” says Garcia.
“And thanks to the idealism that I grew up with and that Pomona College continued to foster, I didn’t even think about whether it was possible to create change and reform. It was just that: I have a responsibility, I have a passion for my community, I’m going to do this.”
Along the way, fellow BASTA organizers urged her to run in the upcoming state Assembly election. It was not a job Garcia necessarily wanted, she says, but her sense of social responsibility guided her to do it.
“I realized I had to sacrifice my comfortable life and become a public figure. I’d been private all my life. I’d been independent all my life. I’d been doing math all my life and that all changed all of a sudden when I decided I was going to do this.”
In 2012, Garcia was elected to the state Assembly, defeating a long-time incumbent, and re-elected in 2014 to represent the 58th Assembly District, which includes the cities of Artesia, Bellflower, Bell Gardens, Cerritos, Commerce, Downey, Montebello, Pico Rivera and Norwalk. Garcia is up for re-election this November.
Known as a reformer in Sacramento, Garcia is taking on a slew of issues that affect her constituents, from good government to pollution. She chairs the Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review, and is the vice-chair of the Legislative Women’s Caucus.
“I grew up in a household with strong women. When I showed up to the legislature, I became a second-class citizen in a way I had never felt. [I was] sexually harassed early on – even though I was a legislator. And I was told to sit down because I didn’t know what was going on. In Spanish, we have this saying ‘pobrecita está tontita’ [poor thing, you don’t know anything], that was constantly being told to me.”
“I decided that to be legislator, I was going to legislate to empower other women and change that. There’s a lot work and not enough women, so I want to share the wealth with other women,” she says.
Among her most recent and lauded efforts is the so-called “Tampon Tax,” a bill that would repeal the sales tax on pads, tampons and other menstrual items. Although the bill was recently vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, Garcia is not giving up.
“Now, I am known as ‘Ms. Maxi.’ I am the ‘Tampon Lady’ everywhere I go. ‘Ms. Flo.’ And it’s fine, I take on the jokes because I get to expand on women’s healthcare. It’s not something to be ashamed of or to see as something that is dirty,” says Garcia with a smile. “It’s exciting to talk to young women, it’s exciting to see it become a national discussion. It’s exciting to see women’s health in a different way and it’s exciting because it affects our day-to-day life.”
Recently, Garcia also introduced legislation to revise an outdated definition of rape – an issue brought to light when the survivor published an open letter after a judge sentenced former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner to six months after he was convicted on three felony counts of sexual assault.
“Part of getting rid of our rape culture is talking about it, but it’s also about how we define it… If we’re going to end rape culture, we have to call rape what it is, it’s rape.”
In addition to these bills, Garcia introduced a wide-ranging ethics and transparency package of bills in 2014 to reform the state’s political structure and restore the public’s trust in government. Gov. Jerry Brown signed five of her measures into law. On the environmental side, Garcia has fought for more cap and trade investment, and continues to push for accountability in man-made disasters like the Exide battery plant contamination in the city of Commerce.
In her four years in office, Garcia’s energy has not waned but she has honed in on her efforts, focusing on on three areas dear to her heart: good government and reform, environmental justice, and elevating and expanding the role of women in society and government. She remembers how she tried to “do it all” as a student at Pomona, a lesson she recently re-learned in the legislature.
“Don’t do it all. For a while I tried 20 different clubs [in college], but it’s better to find one or two that you’re passionate about and be really good at it,” she says. “This year I’ve pared it down to the basics: things I really care about. So I only have seven bills that I’m working on. They’re a lot of work, but really hands-on and I’m really passionate about them and I’m much happier about the work that I’m doing.”
Her advice to students: “Find something you’re passionate about and get engaged in it and figure out how you’re going to be engaged. Take on leadership roles like president or secretary.”
And Garcia is helping her constituents of all ages become agents of change. Her annual “There Ought to Be Law” contest gives residents a chance to submit proposals to improve their community.
Last year, a local fifth grade class invited Garcia to their classroom for a special presentation on
the nearly 1.5 million people of Mexican descent who were deported by executive order in the 1930s. “The students felt that history was repeating itself, so they did presentations, they wrote poems and books: they became activists and lobbyists,” she said.
Garcia encouraged the students to enter her contest and they won. Last October, they saw their proposal signed into law by Gov. Brown.
This year, all new public school history textbooks will include information about the Mexican Repatriation Act of the 1930s.
“I’m an idealist at heart,” she says. “I’m an idealist in the belief of the social contract, that in order to have a government that works for us, we have to invest in it.”
Assembly member Garcia will be in conversation with Professor of Politics Lorn Foster at 2-4 p.m. on Sept. 17 at the JW Marriott Los Angeles L.A. Live as part of the new Ideas@Pomona program. Registration is now open for members of the Pomona College community.