Even though the population of Redwood City is 40 percent Latino, it wasn’t until December 2011 that a Latina became mayor. This first-time honor went to Alicia Aguirre, former school board member and long-time professor at Cañada College. And wow, is she proud of this historic moment! She is the fourth Latino to serve the city. The first was elected to the council in 1928. Fernando Vega served in the 1970s and Priscilla Marquez in the 1980s.
Aguirre is an American success story. Her family immigrated to the United States from Mexico. Her father arrived after World War II under the bracero work program. He did farm jobs in Florida and Mississippi and then moved with his wife to Detroit to begin a job on the assembly line of the booming automobile industry. Aguirre and her four siblings were born in Detroit.
Her father insisted that the children speak only Spanish at home even while she and her brothers and sisters were learning English at school. Today, she and her siblings are bilingual as are Aguirre’s two sons. Aguirre is thankful her dad insisted on strong ties to the culture, music, language and folklore of their heritage. It has played a major role in Aguirre’s career.
Life was a struggle in those early years. Her dad was frequently laid off and had to find odd jobs in a tortilla factory to support his growing family. Aguirre was the oldest and played the role of "mama chiquita,” little mother. Her own mom, who had been a school teacher in Mexico, was her model and inspiration. She instilled a hard work ethic and set high standards for her children. Aguirre’s mom died at 59, but her dad is still alive in Detroit. One sister is the community affairs reporter for NBC TV in Detroit. She came out to film Aguirre’s swearing in as mayor. All of the siblings have had successful careers. The youngest is now working for Ford .
Aguirre pursued her college education in Michigan. She was part of the mini-mayor program set up by then Detroit mayor, Coleman Young, to provide community outreach. She worked in primarily Latino neighborhoods. To advance her education and obtain a Ph.D. in archeology, she obtained a scholarship from the U.S. and Mexican governments. She studied in Mexico City but never completed her degree. Instead, she met and married a young doctor. The couple moved to Seattle. Then her husband was offered a position at Stanford Hospital and they moved to Redwood City where they met Rich Gordon.
Aguirre’s husband worked for Gordon’s partner, also a Stanford physician. Aguirre was new to the community and wanted to get involved. Gordon put her on the board of the nonprofit Youth and Family Assistance Program. Gordon was the executive director at the time. Nonprofits were always looking for good Latino board members and Aguirre more than fit the bill. But she told Gordon she didn’t want to be "the token Latina.” And she wasn’t. Soon she found herself on a number of community boards. Then on to the Redwood City Elementary School District Board of Trustees in 1990, where she served until she was appointed to a seat on the Redwood City Council to fill the vacancy created when Ira Ruskin went to the state Assembly.
Aguirre taught at several community colleges before obtaining a full-time job at Cañada College where she has taught for the last 24 years — ESL, Spanish and Latino heritage. For the past 14 years, she has been married to Pete Liebengood, a former sportscaster for KRON.
In Sacramento, the Latino caucus holds significant political power. In San Mateo County, it’s beginning. Aguirre is the third Latina to be elected mayor of a county city this year. She is joined by 27-year old Laura Martinez of East Palo Alto and Raquel Gonzales of Colma. The other Latino councilmembers are Pedro Gonzalez, South San Francisco; Sal Torres, Daly City; Ruben Abrica and Carlos Romero, East Palo Alto; and Helen Fisicaro of Colma.
What’s most significant is that there is now a San Mateo County Latino PAC (Aguirre was a founding member) which endorses and contributes to candidates. "It’s not an automatic endorsement if you are Latino”, Aguirre pointed out. " We are looking for the best candidate.” She also serves as a member of the Latino caucus of the League of California Cities.
With the demographics changing and reflecting more Latino political muscle, Aguirre may be the first but not the last Latina mayor of Redwood City.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.