The following is a conversation I had with State Assemblymember Blanca Rubio of California’s 48th Assembly District, encompassing parts of the eastern San Gabriel Valley.
JM: Assemblywoman Rubio, thank you so much for sitting down for this interview for JLife. Can you share a little bit about yourself? After all, not many schoolteachers are elected to California’s State Assembly.
BR: Absolutely and thank you for having me. It is an honor. You know I have been trying to participate as much as possible so this is on my list of things to do and I am really excited to be able to give you an interview. I am trying to immerse myself in everything you do, so this is great.
This is the beginning of my fifth year in the state assembly. The path to how I got here was very windy. Most people in these positions knew for a long time that their ultimate goal was to be in an elected position. But for me, it was very, very different.
I was born in Mexico and came to the United States by way of Texas. Before coming to the states, my family and I lived in Juarez in Mexico. The town is essentially the breeding ground for some of Mexico’s drug cartels. So my parents were adamant about us not growing up in that environment, so going to “el Norte” was always a goal. When I attended my first school, I was handed some pieces of paper and crayons and sat in the corner. There was a perception that since I didn’t speak the language, I was dumb. I remember slowly picking up English and wanting to participate in class. And I was paying attention, but even though I kept trying to go back to sit with my peers, I remember my teacher continually moving me back to the corner. That experience helped shape who I am.
We came to Los Angeles in 1977 and although you would think L.A. would be more open, the laws were still very restrictive. While now you have to test or assess a child in their language, back then that was not the case. My four siblings and I were enrolled in school. My brother didn’t pick up the language as quickly and when we were assessed, I was placed in 3rd grade, my sister, State Senator Susan Rubio (CA-SD-22), was placed in 2nd grade, but my brother Robert was put in Special Ed because they assessed him in English. This devastated his life since he was misdiagnosed and was not able to thrive.
My family had humble beginnings. My dad was a tufter (carpet pattern designer) and worked the graveyard shift, my mom was a house cleaner and worked during the day. With this schedule there was always someone home with us, so we didn’t need a babysitter. They worked just to survive. With this schedule, and because they didn’t really speak the language, they weren’t able to go to the school district to advocate for my brother. Both Susan and I talk about how this experience propelled us to become teachers and into public service.
After graduating high school, my friends encouraged me to go to college. After I earned my AA degree, I went to Azusa Pacific and after I graduated, I started working in human resources in the local school district. There was a teacher shortage in 2000, and my boss said that they were giving emergency permits. I was literally in my human resources office on Friday and began teaching kindergarten on Monday.
I had never imagined or even thought about teaching. But when I started teaching, I fell in love with the children. I was teaching in Baldwin Park and that community is basically me. So I fell in love with teaching and I fell in love with the families. They called me “la maestra de la agonia,” which translates to the teacher who scolds you. Because I had a similar upbringing, I was able to relate to the students and families and remind them that they did not have an excuse for not trying. I told them, “You and your family didn’t leave your home country, your family and friends, to be worse off than you were.”
For me, the way I pay my parents back for bringing me here is by being better or being what they expected. That was in 2000. … I still have kids who stay in touch with me. I just heard from one of my former students who emailed me to let me know that he had just graduated from Arizona State University and he is a teacher today because I inspired him. I was his kindergarten teacher. He was one of those students whose parents told me “you don’t understand.”
My teaching position gave me a platform to start advocating. I still feel like I could have done more, especially for my brother. I still had a hard time with feeling like even though I was helping all of these kids, I couldn’t help my brother. That sense of responsibility, that burden, I carry with me. I always try to figure out what more I can do to help somebody out.
JM: It sounds to me like you have been trying everything you possibly can to ensure that the experiences your brother had do not happen to any one. In essence , you have been using it to “fuel your fire.”
BR: I am telling you this story because in a place like Sacramento, there is no time to tell the story. People just imagine that since I am an Assemblymember that I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth or that my path was a list of successes from day one. I grew up in Downtown L.A. and went to Belmont High School, in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. I grew up surrounded by gangs and drugs but managed to get out of there. I was toughened up because of my experience there. So when people are arguing with me, or being tough with me, I often say, “Bring it on.” I feel blessed that I have had the experiences I have had because it really has shaped who I am and how I can be successful up here in Sacramento.
I give credit for my win in the Assembly, in which I was a huge underdog because I was not the “chosen one,” to my upbringing and my ability to connect with both my constituents (because of our shared values and experiences) and also with donors.
Before I was a teacher, I was involved in politics. I was elected to the Valley County Water District Board of Directors in 1997. I loved the experience and spent eight years as a board member. I also ran and won a seat on the Baldwin Park Unified School District board in 2003. So for two years, I held both seats. Before I was elected to the State Assembly in 2016, I had been in public office for 19 years.
JM: A few years ago, you attended our annual meeting. And you had just learned that you had Jewish ancestors through DNA testing. What has this experience been like for you, and how has it impacted how you govern in Sacramento?
BR: It has been an amazing ride, specifically because I joined the California Jewish Caucus. All of us in Sacramento are a part of multiple ethnic caucuses. With the Jewish Caucus, what I have found is that all of the challenges the Latino Caucus (which I am also a part of), the Black Caucus, and the Women’s Caucus have, the Jewish Caucus also has all of the same priorities and issues. The Jewish community has been discriminated against, as well as the Latino caucus.
The AAPI [Asian American Pacific Islander] Caucus is going through very similar experiences right now, just like the Jewish people have gone through multiple times. For me, it is an extension of my advocacy and support of different ethnicities and cultures that makes this connection to Judaism even more amazing.
Although I have been Catholic my entire life, I have always felt a special kinship with Judaism. But as I look back, all of a sudden I remember little things that happened in my life. Like when my grandmother used to light candles on Friday night and had no idea why … it was just something she did. Because somebody through our ancestry just did it and it was passed down. We didn’t know then but as I have been exploring and talking, I am learning more.
I am trying to do more of the traditional things because I am so fascinated by the Jewish story. The experiences Jews have had can be learned from and help change people’s opinions for the Jewish community, for the Latino community, and now for the AAPI community. We are all going through similar things. Now that I have made that connection and it has made me more sympathetic and improved my ability to connect with people and let them know I do understand. It has helped me broaden my horizons.
I am trying to be a very active participant with the Jewish caucus and continue reading more books about Judaism. While I had been part of Jewish events through the years, now I get to say, yes, I am Jewish, too.
JM: There has been a lot of discussion around the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum and the Jewish Caucus was instrumental in ensuring that most detrimental components were not included and the guardrails were placed upon within the approved version. Can you share your thoughts, both as a former teacher and as a legislator, about the importance of this ethnic studies curriculum and the impact it can have?
BR: Let me start by putting my teacher hat on. I taught fourth grade for a long time. And we always taught the California history curriculum. And I always felt very uncomfortable when it came to teaching about the missions, because I know the history and the atrocities bestowed upon the Native American community.
I often say “History is never written by the loser. History is always written by the side that wins. Therefore, they write the narrative.” I always felt uncomfortable because Native Americans were always portrayed as these evil people, savages. While I stuck to the curriculum, I always told my students that they could do a story about the missions, or the Native American tribe that was in that area. And a lot of my students decided to do it on the tribe.
The purpose for me at the time was also for the students to learn that it wasn’t great, that Father Juniper Serra was not the savior for all. No, he was responsible for a lot of the atrocities. So moving forward, I am always concerned about who is writing the curriculum. Is it through the lens of the people who were in power or is it through the lens of the people who were impacted? This is where I think the Jewish Caucus did a fantastic job. Even though we are in California and you want to highlight the Latino community, the reality is there are so many other cultures and communities that need to be looked upon and included in the curriculum, and I am glad they were included in the final version.
JM: Where is your focus in your current term, as we transition out of the COVID-19 pandemic?
BR: Obviously, the recovery is a huge focus. I am the chair of the “MOD” Caucus so the business community is really important. We all want to recover, but we understand that the business community will help get us there, so I have been doing a lot of work there. People in my district don’t necessarily believe in the vaccine, so I have to work really hard in convincing them that they should get vaccinated. But before I go any further, I want to tell you about something that is not necessarily specific to my district but is in California.
So I did some work a few years ago with Angel Food Project. This program originally started in West Hollywood during the AIDS epidemic. While people were receiving medical treatment, they often had a difficult time getting food. So this group started delivering food to the people who were basically in bed. Since then, the program evolved into giving medically tailored meals to folks with diabetes, congestive heart failure and renal disease. So it has grown and continues to deliver meals to people who are sick. It is kind of like Meals on Wheels but it is medically tailored meals.
Three years ago we started a pilot program, and collected data, to see if receiving these medically tailored foods made a difference in helping to keep people out of the hospital due to their illness. When we finished the pilot program, the numbers went from 1 in 3 [hospitalized] to 1 in 20. Can you imagine how much money is being saved, especially for those in the Medi-Cal program, by taking care of folks?
My long-term goal was to make food a prescription so that people could go and say they needed medically tailored food and it is provided through the Medi-Cal program. This new program is currently included in the early draft of this year’s state budget. Even though it still needs to pass the final budget hurdles, I am super excited and hopeful that it will remain in when the budget gets passed and is ultimately signed by Governor Newsom. I am really proud of that, because I feel that if we can get that started a lot of our diabetes patients would qualify for that and can you imagine the change in the quality of life for some of these folks?
And as a state, I can tell you that we are going to save a whole lot of money. But more importantly the quality of life for these people is going to change dramatically, especially in the African American and Latino communities, who have the highest incidence of diabetes. Plus a lot of these people are food insecure as it is. So not only will they receive this medically tailored food but they will be receiving it on a regular basis.
I wanted to mention this because it is going to be huge, not only for my community, but also for the entire state. You know, in an age when we are suffering with COVID, food insecurity, people are unemployed, and dealing with all of these other things, how awesome it will be to start the program when people are recovering from all of this.
JM: Since California is such a leader in the entire United States, a program like this could be adopted by other states as a good model that others can copy.
BR: And the state coffers are going to be healthier because we are not spending so much money on hospitalization and medicine, as opposed to food. As a legislator, it is exciting to be able to say that we are saving millions and millions of dollars because this program is in effect, while also provide this very basic need.
Turning back to locally, we are going to need to get people back to work, businesses back up and running, people vaccinated, and children back in school. We are going to have to do a lot of work, especially within those communities that don’t have the access to the education. The achievement gap is getting wider, so that is going to be a challenge and that is something I am working on. Trying to make sure that kids that are already behind get the services that they need to catch up.
We need to be extremely thoughtful about how we are going to provide services, including the fact that some of these people still don’t have internet. So I am working to help pass the Broadband for All bill. These are things that were not in place before or during COVID that we need to make sure are in place before we are confronted with any other crisis, so when it happens we are prepared. We hope that it never happens, but if we have the systems in place to make sure that we can react and to be able to do what are doing right now, and everyone has access, that is what we need to focus on.
JM: Is there anything you would like to share with our local Jewish community?
BR: Know that I am excited to be part of the community and I am looking forward to continuing to immerse myself. I learn a little every time … don’t expect miracles but a little at a time is going to help me as a person know where I came from. I am looking forward to going back to Israel again and getting a little bit more of the history and just overall becoming a better legislator because I have Jewish roots. And please know that when we get back in-person, I want to participate in your first event. I want to be there.
JASON MOSS is executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Greater
San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys.