Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez on Celebrating Deb Haaland, Passing COVID Relief, and Turning Pain into Policy

Culture
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When Teresa Leger Fernandez was elected to represent New Mexico’s 3rd congressional district this past November, she became part of history: For the first time, the state had elected solely women of color to its U.S. House delegation, including her mentor Deb Haaland, who’s now been confirmed as the nation’s first Native American cabinet secretary. Leger Fernandez also became the first woman, and the first Latina, to represent her district.

But for members of the 117th Congress, the 2020 election was only the beginning of what would be a critical legislative year. Just days after members were sworn into Congress, the Capitol came under attack. Shortly after, President Biden was inaugurated and Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial began. Then in March, a year into the coronavirus pandemic, Leger Fernandez and her Democratic colleagues worked to pass the American Rescue Plan, Biden’s first major COVID-19 relief bill.

This Monday, just hours before Haaland was officially confirmed, Leger Fernandez went live on ELLE’s Facebook to answer 20 questions about her time in office. She was joined by A’shanti Gholar, the founder of The Brown Girls Guide to Politics, as part of a special Women’s History Month collaboration between ELLE and The BGG. Find an abridged version of the Q&A below, or watch the full video here:

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Gholar: For you, what is it like being a part of history?

Rep. Leger Fernandez: It is absolutely marvelous because we recognize that this is our future. But oftentimes I’m the only Latina in the room. I bring my perspective to the questions at hand. Sometimes it’s as simple as we’re sending a letter to Biden’s then-transition team, and I say, we haven’t mentioned tal y tal y tal, I’ll list three issues that are close to my lived experience. Those are the key things, to be able to be that voice in that room at all times.

We can’t talk about the first 100 days without talking about Jan. 6. I was thinking about everyone there, especially the women, the women of color, because it was very obvious who they really wanted to attack. What are some ways we can continue to support you and the other women in Congress after that horrible day?

You’re absolutely right, we know that white supremacy was at the core of the rioters and the insurrectionists. In my Congressional Hispanic Caucus, there have been some members who immediately after, on the flights home, were attacked for who they were [because] they were easily identified. The hard thing we all struggle with from that day is the fact that it was an attack on our democracy, on this thing we love so much. The attacks were clearly because they didn’t like what democracy was doing. Democracy was electing people of color. It was electing our first vice president woman of color. I think that the way you support us is by doing it again: fighting back, registering, voting, organizing, being active, bringing joy and energy to this effort to save our future.

We know COVID-19 has disproportionally impacted our tribal communities. You said on the House floor, “Native Americans are four times more likely to be hospitalized and twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white Americans.” How has our government, particularly the previous administration, failed our Indigenous communities?

The failures that have led to the death and despair in Indian country are really decades and centuries in the making. We have failed to live up to our trust obligations to Native Americans. We promised, as the United States, to provide healthcare, to provide education. We have failed in that. As the chair of the Committee on Indigenous Peoples, I’m going to want us to start fully funding the [Bureau of Indian Affairs], fully funding the Bureau of Indian Education, fully funding the Indian Health Service, and then saying, we know that Native American tribes can do a better job at running these programs than we can. In the meantime, be very aware of the many ways in which our culture puts down Native Americans and be very supportive of things like Deb Haaland becoming the next Secretary of the Interior and celebrating those wins.

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One of the things you talked about when you were campaigning is being a breast cancer survivor. How does that impact your approach to your work in Congress?

I had breast cancer. I’ve also had near-death experiences related to maternal health. What I have is the willingness to talk about what’s it like to almost die when you’re trying to give birth, what’s it like to have cancer and be bald and be weak and be terrified and deal with all of those insurance forms. What I have coming out of it is empathy, and it’s empathy born of experience. And it’s not just our own baldness or weakness and reliance on friends, but the fact that we don’t spend enough time addressing unique health concerns of women. I lost both my mother and my sister to lung cancer, which it turns out that non-smoker women are more likely to develop a certain kind of adenocarcinoma of the lung, but we don’t send the alarm bells out about it, so it doesn’t get diagnosed till it’s stage four and you lose those who you love.

So then the question is, what do you do with that pain? I think what’s important is that we use it to build our policies. I want to create the opportunities we each need and deserve from that place of love that comes out of trauma. You can do different things with it, and what I want to do is build empathy and build policies that are rooted in that sense of vulnerability.

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Who’s another history-maker you look up to?

Dolores Huerta. “Sí, se puede!” I was listening to her being interviewed on Latino USA, and Dolores said, “Make sure you dance a lot when you’re young, so you have the energy to march a lot when you’re old.” She is 90, and she is still active and going.

If you had to quarantine with one person from the 117th Congress, who would it be?

It actually would be the Speaker [of the House Nancy Pelosi] because one, think of all the stories she has, right? She’s got stories of battles going back decades. She has a joy about her, which is really wonderful. She also clearly likes good food. So there would be good food, good stories.

What’s the most outrageous thing someone has said to you in Congress?

During the markup of the American Rescue Plan, [a colleague said] that it’s alright for immigrants to pick crops in his district, but we don’t need to make sure they’re protected during the pandemic. That to me was outrageous, the idea that we will take your labor, but we won’t give you any of our respect or any of the protections that the entire community needs.

What are you most looking forward to doing once the pandemic is over?

Dancing under the stars. Santa Fe has great music every night of the week in the summer, and I need to dance a lot so I can be marching with Dolores Huerta when I’m 90.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed. Listen to the entire conversation here.

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