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WATSONVILLE—Since announcing in April her candidacy for a California Assembly seat, Karina Cervantez Alejo, 35, has dashed, driven, tweeted and flown from the Central Coast to the state capitol, down to Southern California and up to the East Bay. When she is home, she circles District 30, a diverse 10-city region spanning four counties that she hopes to represent one day.
“The greatest thing has just been to connect with the people,” she says. “I love to see people engaged.”
In the Cervantez family, civic involvement was a prized activity. Her parents, first-generation Mexican immigrants, are agriculture workers primarily in the table grape fields in Tulare County. When the fieldwork slows, her mother works in a produce packing facility. Cervantez Alejo describes a “mixed status” family in which only some relatives can vote on the issues that affect them.
“Others do not have the opportunity yet because they’re immigrants and still don’t have a pathway to citizenship,” she says. “It was always important for my parents that we paid attention and became involved.”
The campaign is as much about familiarizing herself with the distinct communities in District 30 as it is about fundraising, building alliances and establishing her own name—a name that she shares with the soon-to-be termed-out incumbent, Luis Alejo, her husband.
Better access to quality, affordable education and the creation of high-wages jobs are core platform issues. The challenge, she says, is connecting people’s passion with opportunities to change things.
“It’s about starting from this appreciation and genuine love for our communities. I think that’s where you can start building coalitions and reaching consensus on tough issues.”
People have described the Alejos as a power couple or a tag team, but Cervantez Alejo says her campaign is not about following in her husband’s footsteps.
“It’s about seizing the opportunity to serve.” She notes that they met on a local political campaign. “Both of us have always been inspired by the history of organizing, the history of struggle, the place of Watsonville and the voting rights history. Both of us have been inspired by the giants that have come before us.”
In 2012, Cervantez Alejo was the second Latina elected to city council; the same year Alejo proposed to her on the floor of the State Assembly.
In addition to serving out her last year on the Watsonville Council, Cervantez Alejo sits on numerous boards and commissions. She teaches quantitative research methods and senior seminars in social and behavioral sciences at CSU-Monterey Bay and is one dissertation away from her doctoral degree at UC-Santa Cruz.
The primary election is in June and she has endorsements from local progressives and state leaders. She faces two opponents so far, including Peter Leroe-Muñoz, a Gilroy City councilman and Anna Caballero, Salinas mayor, former cabinet secretary and state assemblywoman.*
Despite her growing public profile, Cervantez Alejo describes herself as unusually shy.
“I think with my community involvement and my passion that I feel for many of the issues, sometimes people don’t realize that part of me.”
She lives in Watsonville with her husband and their two dogs, Diego and Frida.
* Updated to reflect recent announcement ofAnna Caballero’s candidacy for State Assembly’s 30th District seat.
This was first published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.