On a cold, rainy morning in Austin, I sat down with Cristina Tzintún Ramirez in a cozy coffee shop. She’d ordered a cocoa for her two-year-old son, Santi, whom she spoke to exclusively in Spanish. She teased him that she’d finish his hot chocolate if he wouldn’t, negotiating and attending to him with the energy of any young, engaged mother. Little does this child know, as he pushes the boundaries with his ever-patient mom, that she is a leader, organizer, and senatorial candidate that is changing Texas.
When Democrat Beto O’Rourke ran to unseat Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas in 2018, he ignited the passion of Texas voters, whose turnout increased by 18 percentage points from the previous midterm elections. Although O’Rourke ran an effective campaign and accomplished the revolutionary accomplishment of traveling to all 254 Texas counties before election day, he was still defeated by incumbent Ted Cruz by a narrow margin. Still, the momentum behind Beto in the race for Senate bolstered him to the primary race for president, which he bowed out of on November 1st.
The success of O’Rourke’s senate campaign and the momentum that followed is due in part to the change in voter demographics in Texas and also to organizations like Jolt Texas. Ramirez started Jolt in 2017, just after the presidential election. She was six months pregnant at the time. This wasn’t her original plan. Believing what many of the polls suggested, Ramirez thought that Hillary Clinton would be elected president and that she could take a few months of maternity leave to welcome her son and take a “break” from her career of 16 years. Ramirez had been advocating for workers’ and immigrants’ rights since 2000. In 2006, she co-founded the Workers Defense Project and served as its executive director for 10 years. When Donald Trump was elected president, Ramirez felt she had to do something.
Ramirez grew up in Columbus, Ohio. She’s the daughter of an American man of Irish descent and a Mexican mother from Michoacán. She says that the experience of having a brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking mother and an Anglo-American father taught her the difference between how white Americans are treated versus how people of color and immigrants are treated. This sparked her passion for workers’ rights. She founded Jolt with the mission of mobilizing the Latinx vote in Texas. The idea was simple: engage with young Latinos in Texas, making them aware of the potential voting power they possess, and help them register to vote.
Today, 11 million Latinx live in Texas and 66% of Latinx voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Ramirez believes that it serves the interest of Republicans in power to suppress the turnout of minority voters. That’s why Jolt was created. When I asked her about those in the Latinx community who vote for mostly conservative candidates, she says that it’s important to help these voters see that Latinos have common interests and collective power. “We need people to realize that these aren’t just attacks on immigrants,” she says. “These are attacks on all of us. When the rhetoric focuses on fear-mongering about immigrants, that’s how lawmakers get away with not funding our schools, and that affects everyone.”
Ramirez didn’t intend to run for Senate in 2020. But just like the creation of Jolt, it was something she felt called to do. As a mother to a young child, she felt the time wasn’t personally advantageous for her. But after seeing the huge potential for change, she decided it was the right time for Texas.
“We have to say what we stand for, instead of just saying what we don’t,” she says. “It’s not enough to ask for an end to children in cages. We need to overhaul the immigration system and not sell out border communities as Democrats have done in the past. There are so many who are willing to hire immigrants and beg for the votes of Latinos while failing to recognize our full humanity.”
There are 10 candidates currently running in the primary election for Senator, four are women, two are Latinas. When I asked her about whether she thinks sexism will play a role in the primary run for senate, she points to the prominent female leadership that has emerged from Texas in the past. “Texas has had several powerful female leaders,” she says. “From Ann Richards to Barbara Jordan. But we say to dads running for office, ‘Thank you so much for your sacrifice’. And then we make women who are running feel like they are bad mothers.'”
She says she wants to unseat Republican incumbent John Cornyn for several reasons. She points to the fact that 1 in 6 Texans are without health care. She’s also passionate about putting Texas at the forefront of a transition to a greener future. But mostly, as a mother of a young son and as the first-generation American daughter of a Mexican immigrant, she wants to instill a sense of empowerment to each Texan and to help enhance their quality of life. “With everything I do, I want people to feel three things: a sense of security, a sense of belonging, and awareness of their own power. And I want to make Santi proud.”
We ended our conversation with a hug. She scooped up her son, double-checked for their belongings and informed me that she was off to a day of calls and meetings. In 2020, Texas will have a choice for who they want to represent them in the United States Senate. Will they choose to reelect 67-year-old John Cornyn, who’s served in the Senate since the Bush administration and has stood by Donald Trump? Or will they choose a new face, someone who represents their diverse interests and calls on them to utilize their collective power? Regardless, Ramirez wants to encourage all Texans and Latinx to vote in every election. “When people come together and they can see their common interests, they are unstoppable,” she says.