Kevin de León: California won't 'regress back to the politics of scapegoating'
The name on his birth certificate isn’t Kevin de León.
That’s how the Los Angeles Democrat identified himself more than two years ago when he was sworn in as the 47th president pro tem of the California Senate, the first Latino to hold the position in more than a century.
On his birth certificate and voter rolls, however, the 50-year-old politician is Kevin Alexander Leon.
Hardly anyone knows this story.
Kevin de León
While he’s spent more than a decade climbing the ranks of California politics, rising to become state government’s second-most influential elected official, how KAL became KDL, as he’s known at the Capitol, is a tale he’s resisted telling the public. When he discussed his upbringing, he offered a simple account of growing up with a single mom who came to the U.S. from Mexico.
“Hardly anyone knows this story,” de León told The Sacramento Bee recently. He agreed to do an interview over dinner after The Bee asked about his name.
The certificate says he was born on Dec. 10, 1966, at California Hospital on South Hope Street in Los Angeles.
It describes his father, Andres Leon, as a 40-year-old cook whose race was Chinese and whose birthplace was Guatemala. De León’s mother, Carmen Osorio, was also born in Guatemala, the document states. She was 26 when he was born.
As a child, de León spent time on both sides of the border, in Tijuana, Baja California, and Logan Heights in San Diego and identifies strongly with Mexican culture, though he doesn’t know where his grandparents are from. He didn’t know his father, Andres, but remembers meeting him as a boy. De León said he didn’t ask his mother about him in the ensuing years, believing that “ignorance is bliss. You don’t know what you don’t know,” de León said.
It wasn’t until he was 19 or 20, and a student at UC Santa Barbara, that de León said he was blindsided by a classmate’s question: “You don’t have a father, do you?’ ” the friend probed. “I said, ‘You’re right. I don’t have a father,’ ” de León said, taken aback by the question.
He said the exchange lingered with him, and he started asking himself who he was, and whether he would be a better person if he knew the elder Leon. From that point on, he said, he began writing “de” in front of his last name, “thinking that I would somehow connect with my father.”
Adding two letters “was never a stretch,” de León said, because ‘de’ means ‘of’ in Spanish.
Though he’s used the name – with an accent – for the last 30 years, de León never changed it on legal documents.
“Everything that I sign is ‘de León.’ Everything I sign is ‘de León’ ... (It) always will be de León,” he said.
At the time, he stressed, the idea of running for office someday never crossed his mind.
De León gave me that sense that I belonged to something, to somebody – even though at the end of the day I didn’t.
Kevin de León
“I didn’t want to be viewed as a bastard child,” he said. In his search for structure, and for roots, he added, the name “de León gave me that sense that I belonged to something, to somebody – even though at the end of the day I didn’t.”
People often ask de León who his role models were, and they expect him to say Cesar Chavez, the Mexican American farmworker who became a labor and civil rights icon. Instead, he tells them he didn’t look to any figures like that growing up.
In high school, he said his home was a basement where the bedrooms were secured with padlocks and the bathroom was outside and up some stairs.
De León remembers taking the Greyhound bus to Los Angeles to spend a week with his cousins. His aunt and uncle had a home, and they would do what he describes as “the most extraordinarily normal things” he was starved for: They brushed their teeth together. They ate at the same table together – at the same time. When the day came for him to go home, “I wanted to stay so badly. But it was impossible,” he said.
They drove him to a Greyhound station in Los Angeles and put him on a bus. Arriving near what is now a resurgent Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego, de León recalls passing pinball arcades, tattoo parlors, peep shows and the old Pussycat Theatre. He would catch the No. 2 bus.
“I would get home and just cry myself to sleep,” he said. “It was a search for normalcy.”
De León doesn’t know where or how his parents met, but both were married and had their own families when he was born. It’s unclear which countries his biological grandparents were from. De León thinks his father, Andres, was a quarter, or as much as half-Chinese, pointing to the pockets of Asian populations in Mexico, including Mexicali.
He has two older half-siblings from his mother. One recently died, he said, and the other lives in Tijuana. He also has half-siblings on his father’s side, but said he doesn’t know much about them. He said his mother’s family lived in Guatemala and Mexico, and his mother moved to Tijuana in the 1960s.
He doesn’t know when she relocated to Los Angeles. Working as a housekeeper, she heard the name Kevin, and liked it. After his birth in L.A., she moved back down south, to San Diego. She married a Mexican man when de León was around five years old, taking his name to become Carmen Osorio Núñez. They later divorced. De León was raised in a blended family in a culturally Mexican neighborhood.
Testifying before a state Senate panel this month, de León said “half of my family” would be eligible for deportation under a recent executive order by Republican President Donald Trump because they used false identification, drivers licenses, Social Security or green cards.
“That’s what you need to survive, to work,” he told the committee. Later, he said his Twitter account exploded with activity in response to the remarks.
De León clarified in the interview that he was not referring to his family in the present, adding that since they arrived in the U.S. years ago many have become legal permanent residents and naturalized citizens. “As a result, they have had U.S.-born kids,” he said.
He felt compelled to speak about his family’s experiences because they aren’t unique. “There (are) so many undocumented immigrants working behind counters, (as) nannies, working in factories,” he said.
De León’s mother, now deceased, was among the undocumented members of his family.
As he grew up, he was torn by two things: While he wanted a father, he came to realize that “I am who I am today because of my mother.”
I don’t go through my life any longer wishing I had a father. I believe I have surpassed that moment in realizing that I am a product of my mother.
Kevin de León
“I don’t go through my life any longer wishing I had a father,” he said. “I believe I have surpassed that moment in realizing that I am a product of my mother.”
Looking back, however, he knows he felt resentment growing up – “a chip on my shoulder. “I wasn’t good enough, maybe,” De León said. He said he hasn’t reconciled his family issues, and doesn’t know if he ever will.
The Democratic leader still knows very little about Andres Leon, who would be about 90 years old today. De León believes his biological father is alive and in San Diego, based on an account given to him sometime ago by a family member. He said he hasn’t personally looked into the whereabouts of Andres Leon, and doesn’t plan to.
“I don’t think he knows I am a senator. I don’t think he knows I am the president of the Senate,” de León said.
“He knows about me. He doesn’t know what I do.”