A peach-colored house in Boyle Heights brims with activity. A spray-painted mural of former President Barack Obama’s face covers one wall, and a sticky note-filled map of the United States adorns another.
This is the campaign headquarters of Wendy Carrillo, a 36-year-old journalist and activist hoping to become the next U.S. Representative for California’s 34th Congressional District. A special election for the position will be held on Tuesday; if elected, Carrillo would be the first formerly undocumented woman to serve in office.
Carrillo arrived in the United States from El Salvador in 1985 to escape the civil war. The aspiring congresswoman was undocumented from the ages of five to 13 before she gained residency, and became a citizen before turning 21. Growing up in Boyle Heights, Carrillo wasn’t aware that she was undocumented, but noticed differences between her experiences and those of other kids.
“I wanted to go to camp when I was in elementary school, but my mother would not let me and I always wondered why,” Carrillo said. “It was only until later that I realized it was because I didn’t have status.”
Passionate about engaging with different groups in her community, Carrillo completed a master’s degree in specialized journalism from USC. During her time at USC, she won a national journalism contest to be an embedded reporter at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. She has worked as a writer, political reporter, host for a public affairs radio show and online editor for Voto Latino.
“The thing about being a journalist is that for the past 15 years of my professional career, I’ve been listening to the people of this district,” Carrillo said. “I’ve been hearing and seeking solutions and I think there’s a big difference between being a politician and being a public servant.”
To Carrillo, being a public servant means taking action to combat the problems she cares about.
Last year, she drove from California to North Dakota and spent two months protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. In January, Carrillo spoke at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. She was the only person running for office to do so. Recently, Carrillo has been endorsed by Standing Rock Sioux chairman David Archambault, as well as the leaders of the Women’s March.
Fiercely critical of President Donald Trump, Carrillo has vowed to push back against any policies that may negatively impact minority groups. She holds the belief that diversity is essential to the fabric of American society.
“We have a president that campaigned off the backs of immigrants, women, undocumented communities, the LGBTQ community, the African American community, the Black Lives Matter community,” Carrillo said. “I think now, more than ever, we need to be really bold and unapologetic about who we are and what this country represents.”
A self-professed subscriber to the American Dream, Carrillo said she wants future generations of immigrants to have the same opportunities afforded to their predecessors. However, she recognizes that social, political and economic changes cannot be enacted without young people participating in the democratic process.
“It is not OK to simply be a social media activist,” Carrillo said. “It’s important to — aside from liking and sharing things on Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat — to actually vote, to do the process because that’s the way things are changed.”
Jessica Maldonado, Carrillo’s campaign field deputy and outreach coordinator, views Carrillo as a role model.
“I identify with Wendy,” Maldonado said. “I love that she fights for women’s rights. She’s a strong woman; she’s a woman of color. And for me, I wanted to see someone who reflects the values not just of the district, but of the future of our country.”