Mayra Flores and Michelle Vallejo are both products of South Texas. Flores emigrated with her parents from Mexico when she was six years old. She remembers the excitement she felt when she told her classmates that she was going al otro lado, to the other side. Her early experiences of Texas were defined by grueling work. Her parents followed onion and cotton harvests across the American South, laboring in the fields with young Mayra by their side. Vallejo also comes from a family that includes many farmworkers, and her parents also emigrated from northern Mexico for a new life in South Texas. She grew up helping them manage Pulga Los Portales, a flea market in Alton, just outside McAllen.
Last week, both women won key U.S. House races. In a special election in Texas’s Thirty-fourth Congressional District, anchored in Brownsville, Flores became the first Mexican-born woman ever elected to Congress. Up the Rio Grande, in the Fifteenth district, which includes McAllen, a recount certified Vallejo as the winner of her party’s primary. Their successes owe much to their early lives, which seem similar on the surface but shaped their political ideologies in very different ways.
Flores is a Republican, a hard-core Trump acolyte, passionate about beefing up border security, ending the legal right to abortion, and encouraging oil and gas drilling. Her bootstrap politics were shaped by the way her parents waited for years to get legal permission to enter the U.S., at a time when others were migrating illegally. As her parents toiled to get ahead in the country, it frustrated her that others had cut in line. Growing up in a strict Mexican household, she was raised, she says, with the sort of social values that informs her conservatism, in particular an emphasis on faith and family. Vallejo, meanwhile, ran as a left-leaning Democrat, championing Medicare for all, legal access to abortion, and a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Her keen interest in social justice came from her time with her parents at the flea market, where she saw both community and poverty up close, and where her parents’ hard work could be undercut by larger economic recessions that were out of their control. To her, it became clear that grit and hard work were not what separated the haves from the have-nots; there were broader systems at play. Today, her platform includes increasing taxes on the one percent and raising the minimum wage to $15.
In the days since her victory, Flores has made national news, while Vallejo’s Democratic primary election win just a few days later has gone relatively unnoticed. This makes some sense. Flores has won a seat in the U.S. House, in a special election called after the early retirement of Democratic congressman Filemon Vela. The media storm following Flores’s win has arisen largely because she represents one of the GOP’s biggest goals: to hasten the recruitment of Hispanic voters, particularly in South Texas.
Vallejo’s victory in the Democratic primary, however, complicates the scorekeeping. She beat a more moderate candidate, showing that even as some Hispanic voters shift to the right in general elections, a growing number of those who vote in low-turnout Democratic primaries find left-wing candidates and policies appealing. Farther up the river, the progressive candidate Jessica Cisneros came within one percentage point of beating the conservative Democratic congressman Henry Cuellar in the Democratic primary in the Twenty-eighth district. (Cisneros won more than 22,500 votes, compared with the 14,800 that propelled Flores to victory in her district.)
All across Texas—and indeed across the country—politicos are asking a question with major implications for statewide politics: What do Hispanic voters in South Texas want? These recent races—a primary in which only 14 percent of registered voters cast ballots and a special election held under unique circumstances—won’t be sufficient to answer the question, though they do offer some hints. Flores won with just 51 percent of the roughly 29,000 votes cast, even after outspending the three other candidates by twenty to one, with $1 million of her campaign’s funds and another $1.1 million in spending by the National Republican Congressional Committee. Vallejo won by only 35 votes.
What’s clear is that after decades of reliably supporting mostly centrist Democrats, a growing number of Hispanics in South Texas are shifting both left and right. Flores’s and Vallejo’s wins illustrate this trend, as do their personal histories. They’re both South Texas Latinas, raised in immigrant households, who grew up working-class. But as Flores and her parents waited for years in Mexico for the chance to emigrate legally, she felt frustrated once she arrived in the States and saw others that she felt had cut in line: the undocumented immigrants who lived in the U.S. while some of her family members in Tamaulipas, in northeast Mexico, were still waiting for their visas, and the households collecting Medicaid as she and her parents worked tirelessly in the fields to pay for their own health care. This resentment for those she perceives as line-cutters is one she shares with other members of Trump’s base.
Vallejo, on the other hand, grew up watching her parents work hand in hand with sellers at the flea market, other working-class entrepreneurs. Her family had an unofficial motto: No somos pulgueros, somos vecinos (“We’re not flea market vendors, we’re neighbors”). From an early age, Vallejo understood the vital role of a community. No matter how hard her parents worked, they couldn’t maintain their livelihood without the support and investment of the rest of the flea market. Today, her politics envisions this sort of solidarity across the broader economy, with policies that call for redistribution away from the one percent, and fair wages and dignity for working people. Her platform seeks to hold the rich and powerful to account for the economic system that denies equal opportunity to families in South Texas, home to some of the poorest counties in the state and the nation.
Despite the seeming contradictions in their platforms, there may be a common thread in the successes of Flores and Vallejo. After Donald Trump’s shocking improvement in South Texas between the 2016 and 2020 elections, I called a political consultant Chuck Rocha, a native of Tyler and a self-described “Mexican redneck.” In 2020, Rocha had developed a successful political campaign in South Texas, when he helped Senator Bernie Sanders sweep almost every county in the region in the Democratic presidential primary, even as the rest of the state’s Democrats went for Biden by a wide margin. By November, Sanders’s success in South Texas had been overshadowed by Trump’s, but I wanted to know what Rocha thought. How did a democratic socialist and a plutocratic white supremacist both do so well in the same neighborhoods? Rocha’s answer was simple. “The through line is economic populism.”
Voters in South Texas seemed tired of working hard and earning little, even as the rich got richer. Trump and Sanders both capitalized on that energy, albeit in different ways. Two years later, Flores and Vallejo have used the same playbooks as the two presidential candidates. Flores blames the Biden administration and undocumented immigrants for sucking up resources and government money even as American citizens in the Rio Grande Valley struggle to make ends meet. Vallejo shares a message of taxing the one percent and getting the rich to pay their fair share. Both messages proved capable of winning broad support here. Now the great question is: Which will prevail over which when both are on the ballot at the same time?