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Selling Burritos in the Street and More Barrio Wisdom From the Viral Tortilla-Rolling U.S. Senator and First Latino To Represent California

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he nostalgic power of talking about life and getting deep over the food that you grew up on remains undefeated.

L.A. TACO shared a plate of birria (made from both beef and goat) and a great cóctel de camarón with the United States Senator Alex Padilla at El Tarasco Mexican Restaurant in Sylmar California, and his wife Angela Padilla who grew up on the other side of the Valley. Padilla grew up in Pacoima and has “eaten his way” through the entire menu at the Valley institution that has been open for 35 years. His mother, an immigrant from Chihuahua, Mexico, worked cleaning houses. From Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, who still lives nearby in the house that Padilla grew up in, his father was a short-order cook at diners his entire life.

An Alex Padilla, who is a proud product of L.A. public school, threw a mean fastball and relied on L.A.’s informal economy as a burrito-slanging street vendor. Over subconscious tortilla rolling and mouths of chiles de árbol, we got a peek into the Alex Padilla that only his family knows. More importantly, we crack open the wisdom and tribulations of what it means to be the first Mexican American and Latino senator from California—specifically, the big bad San Fernando Valley. 

These were the ten most significant takeaways from the reflective interview. 

If you want to make a change, you can’t wait for someone else to do it.

As a young pitcher in San Fernando’s Little League, Padilla remembers noticing the inequities between the Valley’s affluent and poor neighborhoods. “We’re all created equal. Why did my school get less funding or support from the district than the schools in the West Valley?” That question stayed with him, but instead of complaining or blaming others about it, he let that curiosity guide him to get educated and do something about it himself. 

Organize to reclaim your neighborhood. 

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the 80s meant seeing crime regularly and, as a young person living in that ‘hood environment, surviving your way through gangs. While Padilla saw his parents get involved with his community to intermediate some of these issues, it wasn’t until Padilla came back from college at MIT that he realized the power that organizing with others was the essence of politics. His return to Los Angeles coincided with the time that the infamous prop 187 was on the ballot. Being no stranger to the power of organizing with your community, he found himself and his family uniting with immigrant communities in East Los Angeles to march in solidarity with one another. 

Proposition 187 in 1994 changed California’s political trajectory.

According to Padilla, the scapegoating tactics blaming immigrants for the downfall of California in the campaign behind Prop 187 activated many Latinos to work towards amnesty and register to vote. It also was the pivotal moment that led Padilla to formally enter politics by becoming a campaign manager for Tony Cardenas, who also had roots in Jalisco, Mexico. Cardenas was considered the underdog in the race, and Padilla and Cardenas won.

If you are smart, hard-working, and committed to your is OK to learn and grow as you go. There are resources out there to help you with your goal or dream if you look for them.

There is not a singular way to enter politics, as long as your values are aligned. You can work and grow as you go. 

Let your upbringing guide your career.

Padilla’s upbringing in the San Fernando Valley to Mexican immigrant parents continues to inspire his political career. Padilla grew up with two other siblings. His sister started has worked as a Teacher’s Assistant and Princiap at LAUSD, and his brother is the Chief of Staff to Nury Martinez, the current President of the Los Angeles City Council.

Leaning on L.A.’s ‘informal economy’ to get by.  

Like many immigrants in Los Angeles, Padilla grew up with used cars that would sometimes not be working. He shared memories of his mother, who sometimes would “sweet-talk” mecánicos to get a lower bill or pay later. He also helped his aunt and uncle sell burritos de papas y frijoles or chicharrón at soccer games around parks in the Valley. In Padilla’s words, “we did anything to get by,” and this sentiment captures the daily struggles that many families still face in the United States to this day.    

It doesn’t matter how high-ranking of a government official you are. As a person of color, you will still deal with racism.  

The first impression that the rest of the U.S. Senators got with Padilla is that he was the first Latino in the Senate and that he was a child of Mexican immigrants because that has always been part of his narrative even when he was sworn-in. Six months in, an unnamed Senator “on the other side of the aisle” went up to Padilla at an event and told him, ‘Hey, Padilla! Are you serious? I just learned you graduated from MIT! How does that happen?” To which Padilla responded, “I studied, and I applied.”

Leave the place cleaner than when you found it.

Padilla reflects on sun-drenched outings with his family on L.A.’s beaches, complaining as a toddler, and learning the value of cleaning up after yourself—even if you didn’t create the mess. “It’s such a simple lesson but so profound at the same time to leave things better than when you arrived. Pick any issue: the planet or your community. That’s what I feel drives me in public service. How am I leaving this community and planet a better place than when I started? Not just for our kids, but for everybody’s kids. 

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