Each and every day, when Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto gets to work, she thinks about how lucky she is. There's so much history in the halls of Congress, and the weight of it amazes her each and every morning, she tells Alicia Menendez in the seventh episode of Latina to Latina. And yet, as Menendez points out, none of Congress' rich history involved people who look like Cortez Masto. In 2016, she became the first Latina senator — ever. "Now, I have a voice at the table to get something done," she says.
Her background allows her to connect with her constituents, a group she says are "normally underrepresented." Cortez Masto grew up middle-class with an Italian-American bookkeeper mother and a Mexican-American parking attendant father. "One Sunday, [we're at] my Italian grandmother at her house having sauce and pasta, the next Sunday at my Mexican American grandmother’s having frijoles and tortillas," she tells Menendez. What did both sides of her family have in common? "A lot of love, a lot of support."
When she decided to run for office, she wasn't fully aware of all it would entail, she says. "Had I known now what I know, I probably would've never had run because there's so much to it." There were few organizations dedicated to helping people run for office. "There was nobody to show you how to do it. There was no manual."
In the final conversation of the first season of Latina to Latina, Menendez and Cortez Masto discuss what minority communities have been telling the senator since her historic election, and refusing to read what other people write about you.
And here's the full transcript of the episode.
Music fade in.
Alicia: Hey, welcome to Latina to Latina, a Bustle podcast. I’m Alicia Menendez.
Clip of Cortez Masto: It’s not just about making history. It is about ensuring we have a seat at the table to get something done. Right? Because I’ll tell you what, don’t you think that it is about time that we had diversity in the United States Senate?
Alicia: That was U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto. In 2016, Donald Trump won by promising to build that wall and made his infamous comments about Mexico. But that same year, Cortez Masto became the first ever Latina elected to the U.S. Senate. A Mexican-American woman. We sat down in the U.S. Capitol to talk about what it means to her to be the first.
Alicia: We are in the U.S. Capitol.
CM: We are.
Alicia: Do you still have days where you just drive up to the Capitol, and you think, "Oh my God. I work here."
CM: Every day. Every day. And I tell people, if that changes and I become jaded than I shouldn't be here. I mean, and I think about it because my grandparents and my parents, where they've come from, how they worked so hard to make sure that my sister and I could have an education and succeed. And then just walking in thinking, "Oh my goodness. Not only do I represent them and all of their hard work, I'm here representing people of the great state of Nevada, right? All the people that I know and love because I've grown up there and wanna fight for." So, yes. Not only that, it's also very intimidating because then you think about all of the people before you who've walked these halls.
The senators that have walked the halls before you who sat at the desk before you, and we have a Constitution because of them and Bill of Rights because of them. We have treaties because of ... I mean, you just go on and on and on, and you could just really think, "Oh my goodness I don't know if I can move," because it's so intimidating at times. But I'm just blessed. I'm so happy I'm here.
Alicia: And yet, no one who walked these halls and no one who wrote the Constitution looked like you and had your life experience in a number of ways, right? I mean, both in terms of your gender, in terms of your race and ethnicity, in terms of where you geographically come from in the United States. We won't talk about the Constitution. And so, for you then, how do you situate yourself in that? I mean, the first Latina U.S. senator what does that mean to you?
CM: And that's why I'm excited to be here, because it really means that now I have a voice at the table to get something done, and I have a voice that's representing a constituency that's normally underrepresented. And so, now we're here. Hello, we've walked through this door and now we're here and we're gonna fight.
Alicia: You grew up middle class. Dad was a parking attendant, mom was a bookkeeper. And I think so often when we talk about someone who's had your anomalous ascension, we talk about it as though, you go to college, then you go to law school and you get a job but there's something more nuanced that happens too. Which is when you grow up middle class and then all of a sudden you're in corridors of power, there's a language to power, there's a language to wealth that you have to learn, right? So, my question to you is, how did you learn to comport yourself in arenas where there was power and privilege and wealth when that's not what you grew up knowing?
CM: You know, that's a great question. I think because of my parents. They really planted this seed with us. It wasn't about, to them, it wasn't about power and wealth and where you come from, it's about who you are.
Alicia: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
CM: It's true. It's what Martin Luther King said, "It's about the content of your character." And I think if you know and you're confident in who you are, where you came from and your values and why you're there, you can walk into any room and have any conversation with anyone. And I really learned that from my parents and, particularly, watching my father growing up because he had a tough, tough childhood, he fought for everything that he and my mother had, and then he went on to become a county commissioner and President of the Convention and Visitors Authority but he never forgot where he came from. And he talked with everyone equally and with the same respect. I don't care what job you had, I don't care where you lived in the community. Everybody he treated equally and I think that's what this is about. That's what I learned from him. And that's really why I do what I do every single day. To me, it's about that respect for everyone and fighting for everyone when they need that voice or they need advocate on their side.
Alicia: So mom's of Italian descent.
CM: She is.
Alicia: Dad is of Mexican descent, did you grow up thinking of yourself as Latina?
CM: Both. Well, actually, it was funny. Both. Listen, you come from those big families, you can't run from it, right? One Sunday my Italian grandmother at her house having sauce and pasta, the next Sunday at my Mexican American grandmother’s having frijoles and tortillas and so, that's how our Sundays were. You spent it with family and with your grandparents and around food and lots of people, right?
Alicia: Monday through Friday must have been a lot of cardio.
CM: Exactly. But we celebrated everything and if you lost your tooth, oh, family's coming together or Tooth Fairy's coming or the first communion. Oh, it's the first communion, now all the family's coming together. And so, you don't run from it and you just embrace it and I loved it and I did. I came from both kinds of cultures but they're still similar in the sense that there's a lot of family, a lot of love, a lot of support.
Alicia: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Alicia: I want to talk a little bit about your time as AG, a lot of emphasis on the most vulnerable communities, seniors, women, children. Why?
CM: Because I'm an advocate and a fighter. I've always been. I just hate the idea that there's people out there that are getting stepped on or that just need a helping hand and nobody's there to help or fight for them. The best part that I feel that of all the jobs that I've had is, when somebody calls up and says, "I'm having trouble here and I need somebody in a position that can help me maneuver through this and give me help." And that is the best part of anything. When I was practicing law, I was most fulfilled when I was doing pro bono work, right? The partners didn't like that, right?
Alicia: I was about to say I'm sure your firm was thrilled by that.
CM: I know. They weren't crazy about it but that's what I loved, right? Because people need help and I always felt that if I can be in a position, what we call a power, whatever, that you can knock down barriers, cut through red tape and help people. That's what this is about.
Alicia: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
CM: And I've always felt that way. It just hasn't changed. That's what I love about public policy and what I do.
Alicia: Let's talk about running for office because so often when we talk about running for office, especially when we talk about women, we talk about that moment when ... Getting women to run. But even once you get women to run there are all of the obstacles, institutional support, party support, fundraising. For you, what was the biggest obstacle?
CM: Probably, for me, was at the time there was nobody to show you how to do it, right? There's no manual. At the time, I didn't know about Emily's List, there was no emerge of these programs now that are wonderful that if you want to run for office you can go through this program, they can talk to you about it and what you need to do. I had no idea.
CM: Literally no idea. Just that I knew I wanted to do this, that there were issues I wanted to fight for. I knew my state, I knew I had to get around and talk to people and ask for their vote and explain why I wanted to represent them. And I will tell you this, had I known now what I know, I probably would've never had run because there's so much to it. But I love what I'm doing now and I'm so grateful that I just jumped out and said, "I may not know everything that's involved in running for office but I'm gonna do it."
And I think there's times when women running for office look at it differently than men run for office. Women want to make sure, well, did I check this box? Do I have the experience? Do I have the education? Am I gonna be able to do this job? And men are just ... The question they ask is, "How much does it pay? I'm in." It's this kind of different way we look at things and I think more of us just need to say, "Listen, I am passionate about an issue. I can do this job like anyone else. I have the qualifications and I'm gonna do it. And I'm gonna jump in."
Alicia: So, it's almost if it had not been for a little bit naïveté, we might be sitting here.
CM: That's right. I mean, that's true. 'Cause now you look at these races, particularly the one I just came out of, it was brutal. And I think many people look at those races now and say, "Oh my gosh, I don’t want to go through all of that. That's just crazy." You have to put all yourself out there, they're gonna talk about you all the time, they're gonna talk about good and bad. Make up things, whatever.
Alicia: Though how do you steel yourself for that? Because most people won't have the experience you have of running for office and seeing headlines and fabricated things about yourself. How do you manage when people are saying really negative things about you?
CM: I learned it when I was Attorney General for eight years. You don't read it. You stop. If you read everything that people put out there about you good and bad, it is not healthy.
You have to have a hard shell. You have to be able to take the criticism. Constructive criticism I always accept, I think everybody should accept that. I think it's important. But some of the negative stuff that you see out there, you have to have this hardened shell to be able to recognize it's gonna be there, don't read everything, don't believe everything and focus on what your belief is. Why you're there, what your values are, and why you're fighting. I always tell people when they wanna run for office, the first thing you have to do is your self analysis. Why are you running? You're gonna put yourself out there, so them you've gotta be honest with yourself and sincere. Why are you doing this? And now you gotta explain to people and talk to people about it so that you get their vote and they believe in you. That’s the good part of all of this.
Alicia: What do you think the ratio of people who want to be of service versus just straight-up narcissists when they do that self analysis?
CM: Well, you know what's interesting? And I will say this, it's actually fantastic. Over the course of this last year from the Women's March in what? January 4th of 2017 to now, there are more people that are looking to run for office than we've ever seen before. I think that's fantastic. That tells me people are engaged, they're listening, they care, and they're really willing to step in and make a difference.
CM: When you came here, did you have a sense, here being in Washington D.C, did you have a sense of these are the things that I need to get done and want to get down immediately? I mean, especially when you're in the minority, is just beating back things you don't want to see happen. But do you have a sense for yourself of when I get these things done, than I will know that I've done my job?
CM: When I got to the legislature, particularly in Congress, I realized it takes patience. What they do here is a lot of networking, it is a lot of working with your colleagues and talking about important policies and then working to get that passed. It takes patience and it could take years to get something done. And I think many of us that came from the executive branch and then stepped into this legislative branch, are realizing, Okay, you need to throttle back in the sense and just be patient, take our time, have a strategy, have a blueprint where we wanna go and then stay on that path.
Alicia: We're in the #MeToo moment, and I think the sort of, larger cultural conversation around #MeToo is around power. And around power differentials between men and women, between people who are public and have public stature and people who are private citizens and so much of what we hear is just that women feel like they have no power as individuals. And here you are, one of one hundred U.S. senators. I think you're probably often referred to as a powerful person. Do you feel powerful?
CM: No, I don't feel...
Alicia: Of course, you don't. I feel like I knew the answer to that question before I asked.
CM: But I tell you what, what I do feel is that the need to make sure that those women have the power they need to succeed. And whether it is breaking down this culture of ... And, listen, I spent a career working in domestic violence prevention, sexual assault prevention, sex trafficking prevention, and, you said it, it's all centered around power and control. Listen, the conversation we have now with this #MeToo movement is fantastic because we're bringing attention to it. We're educating. The first step in prevention I always say is, education and awareness, that's what's happening now. Now we need to take that cultural change and institutionalize it, That means we need to change our systems and our processes that we have in place to ensure that everybody has the ability to succeed. And that is what I am focused on working on here now.
Alicia: One of the first things you did when you got you brought together all of the Latina staffers on the Senate side to get a sense of what they felt their opportunities, obstacles were, what was the number one thing you heard from them?
CM: I can tell you. I've done several of those. One of the first things for me was to increase the diversity here in Congress. You can just walk in and see there's not enough of it. And so, I wanted to understand what were the barriers so I have roundtables with Latinos that work on the hill. I've had round tables with African Americans working on the hill with Asian American Pacific Islanders, with LGBTQ, to really talk about what were the challenges, what were the barriers, what can we do to open that door, promote and move forward. And we've had some great conversations. And the first thing I really learned was the first step in getting in a door of those internships, right?
Alicia: Which is, in part, connections, class.
CM: Right, because they're unpaid and...
Alicia: You have to move to Washington D.C to take an unpaid internship.
CM: That's right, and who can do that? Well, if you come from a wealthy family, you can afford to do that but if you come from a family where we're trying to pull sometimes, diversity, where there's economically challenged ...
Alicia: You come from the middle-class family, that's hard to swing.
CM: You can't afford to do that. So that was to me the first understanding, okay there's a barrier, what do we do? The first thing I did was, created a scholarship in my office. We're gonna have a scholarship and then reach out and find those fellowships where we can find and give scholarships for first generation. Where we can find those people and bring them in. And then the next step is, okay, now we have or we're opening that door to diversity, how do we continue to promote them within?
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Alicia: Thank you so much.
CM: Thank you. I've enjoyed it.
Alicia: That’s it for now, but we want to hear from you. Email us at email@example.com, send us ideas for awesome guests or whatever it is you’re thinking about right now. Remember to subscribe to Latina to Latina on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you’re listening. And please leave a review… we love hearing from you. Latina to Latina is produced by Lantigua Williams & Co., mixed by Oluwakemi Aladesuyi, with assistance from Anna Parsons. Our executive editor is Emily Anne Epstein, our editorial supervisor is Rosanne Salvatore, and we gotta give special thanks to Jenny Hollander!
Menendez, Alicia, host. “Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.” Latina To Latina, Bustle, BDG Media, April 2017. www.bustle.com.