New Mexico and our women political figures made big news this spring as we saw our U.S. Congressional representative Deb Haaland tapped for a cabinet position. There are definitely women in politics all over our country. But in N.M. it just hits a little differently after what can only be considered decades of the “good old boys” network at play—you know who I’m talking about: the Bruce Kings, Jerry Apodacas and Bill Richardsons of the past. More recently, however, we have seen the likes of Susana Martinez and Michelle Lujan Grisham in the governor’s office. The majority of seats in the Legislature are now held by women.
As chair of the Native American Democratic Caucus of New Mexico, Aleta Suazo has seen this shift with her own eyes and gives credit to those working on an organizational level. “You know, it is also the result of work from great groups like Emerge. Emerge has been so beneficial; there are a lot of women in New Mexico that have gone through Emerge and now hold offices. Even Deb [Haaland] went through Emerge. I think it’s honestly the best thing that has happened in women’s politics. They get women involved, and they show them how to run a campaign, train them to understand what it takes and provide support systems. You look at our Legislature and many of the women there have gone through that.”
She is right; upon review of Emerge New Mexico’s alumnae currently in office, there’s a “Who’s Who” list of nearly 100 individuals, from school boards, county commissioners and even a federal cabinet appointee in Deb Haaland. Emerge New Mexico is one of 27 state-oriented chapters of the nationwide Emerge organization, which is focused on identifying, training and encouraging women to run for office, get elected and to seek higher office. The Emerge website mentions, “Our intensive, cohort-based six-month training program is unique.” It goes on to add that, “Too often, women do not see themselves running for office—they assume they aren’t experienced enough or they don’t know where to begin. Emerge New Mexico is changing that!”
The numbers don’t lie. Our state has seen young women increasingly entering the political field—47 on the ballot in 2018 alone. Here is a crazy statistic: Nearly one-third of the women of color who have served in any statewide executive office are from New Mexico. The success of those who have gone before is catching on. “Even well-weathered political participants have found a renewed sense of service and political motivation,” says the organization’s website.
Mrs. Suazo stated, “It’s been within, I would say, the last 10 years a movement. I myself wasn’t involved as much as I am now. I was a Democrat, a loyal volunteer. I would do the canvassing. I was never that involved. But recently, within the past 10 years, I started to see more women running for office and quite literally taking over the Senate and House in New Mexico. And I somehow just got more involved.”
Deb Haaland’s astronomical rise from relative unknown to major political clout is astounding. Very few political figures create a buzz and a following like she did. She literally went viral. Cartoon versions were created of her likeness, and phrases like “Be Fierce” became synonymous with her campaign. That sort of pride and vigor to support a candidate reached beyond N.M. It’s a status usually reserved for national candidate campaigns like Obama, Biden and Harris.
As Suazo sees it, “I think Deb’s seat and her new position, it is just the beginning. Right now, Deb is the most recognizable Native woman in politics. While there are so many more to mention—including people like Peggy Flanagan, lieutenant governor of Minnesota. How many people know that, that is a Native woman in the office? I didn’t know that. There are differences in what it is to be a ‘practicing pueblo,’ or practicing Native. It is interesting to see that change now. Because many of us in those societal roles didn’t think about leadership as we see it today.”
What Suazo alludes to is often the most significant single opponent an Indigenous individual must face—that is: themselves and their community. While many fierce, independent and forward-thinking women are out here working, many still fight against the long-standing male-dominated value system every day. Sometimes, our own societal norms make us shy away from “putting ourselves out there” as Native people. You don’t even have to be Indigenous to hit these walls, as we have seen in the spat between N.M. Senate President Pro Tempore Mimi Stewart and Albuquerque Democratic Sen. Daniel Ivy-Soto during the final round of the Legislature. Stewart called Ivey-Soto’s rebuttals and line of questions accusatory and bullying. Her statements were backed by many, and hit the news quickly. If two male senators argued on the Senate floor, it would not have been an issue, not newsworthy.
In 2020 we saw Kamala Harris win the vice presidency, and 2021 has shown us the glass ceiling has broken, especially for Indigenous women. Are we ready for this? For centuries—not just in N.M., but especially here—our mothers and sisters have cared for our survival. We entrust them with raising us. Maybe we should entrust them now to lead us through these turbulent waters. And maybe these waters are turbulent because we never heard them out before? Aleta Suazo leaves us with some final thoughts.
“New Mexico and our woman take on these roles a little differently. It is those core values of family, community and heritage that set us aside from any other tribe in America. The fact that we are still in our homelands for the most part, our language, our religion is still strong, and all of that is what makes us different. We live community a bit different. We are invested in our communities and people. This is what we are taught: community first. These young women, those coming up, will continue to carry that torch.”