Representative Teresa Alonso León is the first Latina immigrant and indigenous woman to serve in Oregon’s House. She’s a member of the Purépecha community from Michoacán, Mexico, and is the first person in her family to attend college.
Before being elected to Oregon’s legislature in 2016, Rep. Alonso León was a Woodburn city councilor and a GED administrator in the Office of Community Colleges and Workforce Development. She worked for nearly two decades to help students in Oregon secure educational opportunities—a passion which informs her legislative work. She holds her master’s degree in public administration from Portland State University.
Rep. Alonso León is widely admired for her dedication to protecting working families and promoting inclusiveness within higher education. Her unique election campaigns were conducted in three languages (English, Spanish, and Russian) and her staff unionized with the Campaign Workers Guild—a first for Oregon political workers. She currently serves on the Committee on Health Care as well as the Joint Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Services. She’s also the vice-chair of the House Committee on Education and sits on the Executive Committee of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators.
Please note that this interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
[OnlineEducation.com] Representative Alonso León, it’s a real honor to speak with you. You’ve already broken barriers as not only the first Latina immigrant and indigenous woman to serve in Oregon’s House of Representatives, but you’re also the first person in your family to attend college. Tell me a little bit about the significance of education in your life.
[Representative Alonso León] I attribute my success to education. My parents didn’t have an opportunity in Mexico, our home country. My dad didn’t get the chance to go to school and my mom only went up to fourth grade. She actually gave up her educational opportunity so that her younger brothers and sisters could go to school. She’s one of nine people in her family. My dad was the oldest in his family and as a male, part of his job was to work, so he started working from a very young age with my grandfather.
Coming to this country for both my parents and not knowing how to navigate the education system, it was important for them to make sure that I had that opportunity.
I was very fortunate that when I started elementary school here in Oregon—in Gervais, to be specific—I fell in love with school. Teachers were so loving and supportive and encouraging. When I discovered my love for sports, they went out of their way to go visit my parents at home and ask them if they would allow me to play sports. I had that amazing opportunity as a very young person.
I’ve always had teachers who were very supportive and they saw something in me that I didn’t know I had. They were always pushing me, which I think really contributed to my love for education and my wanting to support others.
And I did become the first person in my family to go to college. But when I was a sophomore in high school, I went through a phase. I think I was probably overwhelmed with life and all of my responsibilities as the oldest of the family.
We transferred to Gervais High School from Woodburn High School, and one of the school counselors pulled me aside and asked me why I was so sad. I didn’t even realize that, but he was paying attention. He didn’t give up on me, and finally we had a chance to talk and I told him my story. He said, “Wow Teresa. So what is it that you want to accomplish? What do you want to do after high school?”
I said, “I want to go to college!” My face lit up; that was my dream! And he said, “Well, do you think you’re ready to go to college now?” And I said, “Absolutely. If we can make this happen, I would love it.”
So he actually went and looked into some programs for me. He came back and said, “You know, if you’re ready to go to college and this is your dream, a way to do that is to expedite your high school experience. There are some programs that I can share with you.”
Among the programs he told me about was a high school equivalency program at U of O. And after having a conversation with him, he said, “If you are accepted, they’ll give you a full-ride scholarship to go to the program, but you’ll have to live in the dorms in Eugene at the U of O. And then when you’re done, you get to decide whether you want to go to U of O and apply or go to community college. You can start your college career quicker.”
I was excited! I applied and got accepted and ended up going over to U of O’s high school equivalency program. It was a GED program for students who have a migrant background. U of O no longer has it unfortunately, but OSU did apply for a federal grant and they now have a similar program over there.
So I graduated from the high school equivalency program and started going to community college after.
[OnlineEducation.com] Oh, that’s wonderful.
[Representative Alonso León] It was awesome. Yeah, I guess the rest is history. I went on to study at Western Oregon University, where I got my bachelor’s degree in social science. Then, I started my professional career and a few years later got accepted into PSU’s public administration program. I took some time off because it was overwhelming starting a new job, and then when I had the opportunity to go back and finish, I did and graduated in 2013 with a master’s in public administration.
[OnlineEducation.com] That’s great. As you probably know, you bring a fresh perspective to Oregon’s legislature. How have your personal experiences as a woman, an immigrant, and a member of the Purépecha community shaped your policy-making and priorities?
[Representative Alonso León] I love this question! It’s influenced a lot of the types of bills and laws I’ve supported and advocated for. Having come from an immigrant, indigenous background whose family gave up so much for me to be in this country, I just feel such a responsibility to give back.
When I was considering running for office, I had a family meeting and talked about what that would be like and why it was important. And really what helped me make my decision was having that conversation with my parents and realizing that we did not have a true reflective representation at the capital. At the time, we had less than a handful of legislators who were of color. And as you know, if you don’t have representation, you don’t have the key voices that will help make those important decisions or advocate on behalf of communities that you’re representing.
For me, that was important and that’s why I decided to run for office. I believe I ran the very first multilingual campaign in the history of Oregon! We ran in three languages: Spanish, English, and Russian.
[OnlineEducation.com] I didn’t realize there was a Russian community in Woodburn as well!
[Representative Alonso León] Yes, I wanted to make sure that we were very inclusive. We were mindful of that and when people were talking about their issues, we wanted to have volunteers to speak with them in the language that they were comfortable with. That was really important to me.
And that’s the attitude also that I bring to the capital. It’s really important when we’re thinking about bills that we’re considering the whole population and how it impacts them. I do ask equity questions in my committees, and I sit on the Education Committee as a Vice-Chair. I actually became a Vice-Chair in my first term, which was awesome, and was able to get another Vice-Chair position in my second term.
Certainly, healthcare is really important too and I was blessed that I was able to sit on the Healthcare Committee. When we’re talking about how we can do a better job to support our whole community, that means we really need to be thinking about how we can improve outcomes. How can we do better to support segments of our community that haven’t felt like they’ve been heard?
I feel like as an indigenous woman, as a Latina woman, and as a first-generation woman, I brought all of those lenses to the capital and have been advocating on behalf of the many people who felt like they haven’t been heard. Our low-income families, our elders—I have this special place in my heart for our elders—I feel like I’m representing my grandma and grandpa.
[OnlineEducation.com] I love that.
[Representative Alonso León] Yeah, I go and speak to the elders and I just love them to pieces! They share so much with me so I want to make sure that I represent them really well.
[OnlineEducation.com] You’re part of a historic wave of women who were recently elected to government. Oregon has the distinction of being one of four states where women make up at least 40 percent of the state legislature. Why do you think that women and people of color are still underrepresented in government?
[Representative Alonso León] Yes, clearly this is the most diverse legislative body in the history of our state! We have four Latinos right now: myself, Representative Hernandez, Representative Salinas, and Representative Mark Meek.
Also, Representative Sanchez is a Native American and Representative Janelle Bynum who is the only African American on the House side. And on the Senate side, I believe there are three or four Senators who are of African American descent.
If you think about this historically, it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Movement and afterward that folks of color felt able to vote safely. It took a very long time to be able to freely get involved in politics without repercussions. Certainly, we still have a lot of places in our country right now where there’s voter suppression. We really need to work a lot in that area.
In the state of Oregon, if you want to run for office, it costs a lot of money and if you get elected, you’re not going to make a living wage. Our system is not made for folks who are low-income or even middle-income who have families. It is just not set up to be supportive for everybody.
I made this personal decision and this is my way of giving back to the community. I left my GED administrator position, where I was making pretty good money and loved my job. If I had a family and supported others financially, I would not be able to take this role. I made a very conscious, mindful, and strategic decision. I had to readjust my whole budget so I wouldn’t lose my home and continue paying my school loans. It’s been a rough transition, but I would not change anything.
We do not have a system that supports all those talented, brilliant people who would make amazing legislators. Unfortunately, they can’t right now because we just don’t have a system that can sustain them. We have a system that’s made to support folks who are retired and who have the time to commit to this work.
I was told that [being a Representative] would be a part-time job and realistically, it’s more than a part-time job. During session, I am working 12 to 18 hours a day because it takes so much energy. And in the interim, there’s a lot of other work that we do. So it’s feasible, but there’s so much contradiction; we need those amazing talented people to be in the office—especially folks of color, especially women—but we just don’t have a system that can support them right now.
[OnlineEducation.com] Yeah, the reality is that people with the wealth and the resources are in a better position economically to serve. That’s a really great point. How do you think that Oregon’s relatively diverse legislature affects the governing compared to other states that are predominantly white and male? Do you think that it shapes our policies and our legislating in specific ways?
[Representative Alonso León] I think that having folks from different cultural, ethnic, and economic backgrounds makes a difference. We get to not just bring the voices and the stories of our communities, but we also get to talk about our own personal experiences.
I often share my personal story of my family. My family struggled and my parents didn’t learn to speak English because they worked from sunup to sundown. I took on a lot of responsibility. Because of the language barrier, my parents didn’t know what resources existed to help us and so we ended up living in a house with no functioning plumbing. We were living kind of how we did while we were in Mexico. They didn’t know who to go to talk to about our landlord. My whole youth was incredibly humble and we just didn’t have a lot of resources.
I bring those stories to the capital and talk about how many of our families are still struggling. They’re still going through a lot of challenges and we need to make laws so that our communities can thrive. We do have some laws that either need to be amended or we just need to change them completely because they don’t make sense anymore. We also need to create laws that are more inclusive and are able to meet the needs of our communities.
For example, in 2017 we passed a law to make sure that 100 percent of our kids have health insurance. There was a law that had been passed several years before that had excluded our undocumented kids. It made me so sad to learn that, so I worked really hard to make sure that this time around, 100 percent of kids in Oregon would be covered; they’re all our kids and we want to make sure that we invest in them.
[OnlineEducation.com] Absolutely. You’ve spoken a bit about some economic challenges in serving in government. Have you ever faced any gender or racial discrimination in your service?
[Representative Alonso León] I wouldn’t say gender discrimination. I think what’s really cool about being a female legislator in Oregon is that we have three of our top ranking positions held by women. I think that sets this tone, right? We’re not going to take any bad behavior from men.
I personally have not experienced anything like that. I’m grateful and thankful, but it doesn’t mean that others haven’t. I feel like I can say what I need to say or advocate in the way that I need to advocate. Certainly, it was a learning curve for me as a new legislator and not having any background; what is the life of a legislator? I don’t think we have any training on how to be one. You have to live it to learn it.
[OnlineEducation.com] Do you consider yourself a feminist and what does that word mean to you?
[Representative Alonso León] Wow. I think there are different definitions for feminism, right? If we’re defining feminism in the way where you’re empowering and encouraging women—making sure women feel loved and supported—then I am a feminist.
I want to make sure that I create opportunities and encourage other women to feel empowered; whether it’s going into politics or going into any career field, I think it’s important for women to feel like they can, especially in those jobs that have been traditionally taken by men.
Being a woman should not be an impediment; gender should be neutral in careers. Women should just do what they want to do.
[OnlineEducation.com] Absolutely. That’s a great segue to my last question. You have a niece who because of you dreams of being the first Latina president! What advice would you give her and other young women who are interested in becoming leaders in government?
[Representative Alonso León] Yes, I love my niece to pieces, oh my gosh! We talked about this when I was filling out my ballot during my first campaign. We talked about voting for Governor Brown and for the first female president. We talked about all of the women running for office.
My niece Emma’s face… She said, “Tia”—that’s auntie—“if women can run for office and we’ve always had male presidents, I hope when I become a grown-up, I can be the first Latina president because I don’t think we’ve ever had a Latina president!” And I said, “That’s right!” She says, “Okay, so wait a minute: I also want to be a veterinarian. Now I have to make a decision.”
And I said, “Emma”—and this is the advice—I said, “Emma, you can have as many careers as you want. You can be a veterinarian and you can even have another career before you become the president! So whatever you want to accomplish, whatever you want to do, you can do it. Nothing can stop you but yourself. If you want to become the first Latina president, then I will help you get there. And if you want to be a veterinarian before that—or even during that—you can do that, too.”
Women have been doing multiple things all of our lives. This is not going to change.
[OnlineEducation.com] I love that.