A friend from college once sent me a letter that broke my heart. She and I were part of a posse of Ivy League Latinos who – while visiting one another at Harvard, Yale, Columbia – would huddle over Long Island iced teas and lay out our blueprints to change the world.
“I still believe the world needs to change,” she wrote. “I just no longer think I’m the one who’s going to change it.”
Some people might call it that moment when we all grow up, when idealism gives way to realism. Others will label it that dark moment when we give up on our dreams, when our sense of possibility reaches its limit.
Thankfully, one of our mutual friends – another Ivy League Latina – hasn’t reached her limit. She’s still trying to change the world.
The Democrat is running for Congress in a special election to represent California’s 34th district, which includes Los Angeles. And she’s doing a good job.
I’m not surprised. Those of us who have known Maria Cabildo since she was at Columbia could have told you that the 49-year-old single mom, who has two teenagers at home, doesn’t do anything in half-measures.
And in a crowded field of nearly two dozen candidates vying to replace Rep. Xavier Becerra, who was recently appointed California’s attorney general, political observers put Cabildo in the top tier.
The election is April 4. If no candidate gets enough votes to win, there will be a runoff in June.
I recently caught up with my old friend as she hustled between campaign events, where she has built a reputation for being accessible to voters.
Determined to not allow a paralyzed vocal cord prevent her from speaking out for those who feel as if they have no voice in politics, she talks in a forceful whisper. Like Franklin Roosevelt’s polio or John Kennedy’s Addison’s disease, the disability serves as a reminder that Cabildo knows what it’s like to have to overcome obstacles. On the stump, she relies on a portable sound amplifier that she has nicknamed “La Poderosa” (The Powerful One).
“As a natural outsider, I’m not beholden to anyone,” she said. “The only thing I’m beholden to is my community, and that’s all that matters.”
Ah yes, the community. She’s talking about the Boyle Heights neighborhood in East Los Angeles with which she’s had a lifelong love affair. After Columbia, she could have lived comfortably on the East Coast. But Cabildo came home, and immediately set out to improve the lives of others.
I asked her that one question to which every candidate for elective office should have a response, the simple query that Hillary Clinton was never able to answer: Why are you running? Cabildo’s answer: There is still work to be done, and a call to serve.
Cabildo was an advocate for affordable housing before most Californians realized there was a crisis. She was a community organizer before that phrase became a national punch line.
At 29, she founded the East Los Angeles Community Corporation, a nonprofit community-development organization.
Cabildo’s skills, effectiveness and hard work have not gone unnoticed. She recently beat out the establishment’s preferred candidate to snag a coveted endorsement from the Los Angeles Times. Noting her “irrefutable” commitment to the residents of the district and her ability to “bridge the gap between the old guard and new idealists,” the paper’s editorial credited Cabildo with knowing how to operate “both inside and outside government.”
She describes herself with more precision.
“I’m a builder, a leader and a fighter,” Cabildo said. “I’ve built housing. I take risks, even if it makes people uncomfortable. I don’t just simply go along with the crowd. And I’ve been fighting for the community for years.”
At her speeches, she hands out blank index cards where she asks people to scribble down their marching orders. While some of her opponents lecture residents about what they need, she asks two questions: “What do you want me to build for you?” and “What kind of movement do you want me to lead?”
Don’t be fooled by the soft voice. When it comes to fighting for what she believes in, and taking care of the community she adores, Maria Cabildo’s passion comes through loud and clear.
Ruben Navarrette can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.