Adrienne Peña-Garza remembers the insults as vividly as the triumphs. In 2018 she succeeded in her campaign to lead the Hidalgo County Republican party, based in McAllen, becoming the first-ever Latina to sit as chair. Her feelings of pride, however, were undercut by the scorn she evoked from some neighbors, who called her a race traitor. One day, she heard a noise outside the party office. When she looked out the window, two women were taking a sledgehammer to a coconut, smashing it open. The symbolism wasn’t subtle. Looking at the cracked shell, Peña-Garza could see the brown on the outside and the white on the inside.
Back in 2018, such expressions of disdain were regularly flung at Republicans in Hidalgo County. Perhaps because of that, Peña-Garza formed deep connections with the other Latinas who came to volunteer at the party’s headquarters, including Monica De La Cruz and Mayra Flores. De La Cruz, a local insurance agent, started attending meetings the same year Peña-Garza was elected as head of the local party and eventually volunteered as a precinct chair. In 2019 Flores, who works in respiratory health care and whose husband is a U.S. Border Patrol officer, began attending party events supporting immigration agents during a government-worker furlough and ultimately stayed to volunteer. De La Cruz and Flores immediately brought fresh energy into the office, as if someone had turned on music in a quiet room. “I just thought, ‘Wow. You’ve got that something,’ ” Peña-Garza says. “ ‘And we need your help.’ ”
Through 2019 and 2020 the women worked to increase Republican turnout across South Texas, with Flores running Hispanic outreach. For the most part, they toiled out of the spotlight. Even when De La Cruz announced a congressional bid, in 2020, to try to unseat two-term Democratic congressman Vicente Gonzalez, national and state Republicans paid little attention to her campaign. South Texas was still a blue firewall. In 2016 Donald Trump hadn’t even mustered 30 percent of the vote in Hidalgo County, where Gonzalez’s district was anchored. Most of the time, the local news painted conservatives as noisy but hopelessly outnumbered in South Texas, like a few horseflies amid a herd of cattle.
Then everything changed. The world of South Texas politics was rocked in November of 2020, when Trump far surpassed expectations in all the counties along the Rio Grande, and De La Cruz came within three points of ousting Gonzalez. Long-established Democratic fiefdoms now looked like disputed territories. Progressive Democrats’ messaging about defunding the police, abolishing the Border Patrol, and promoting green energy had proven deeply unpopular.
Republicans have rushed to take advantage. Almost $2 million has poured into one House race alone. The Republican National Committee has opened new Hispanic community centers in Laredo, McAllen, and San Antonio, drawing in curious residents with taco breakfasts and movie nights. At the local level, Republican groups such as the super PAC Project Red Texas have paid the filing fees for a bevy of local candidates across South Texas. This year, after Peña-Garza launched her reelection campaign for HCRP chair, she received a video endorsement from Donald Trump Jr.
Shortly after the 2020 election, Flores announced (using the hashtag #SomosConservadores) her bid to represent the Thirty-fourth Congressional District, which spans the western Rio Grande Valley and parts of the Gulf Coast and creeps as far north as San Antonio. Flores, who immigrated from Mexico, had built a large following on social media with her hard-line messaging. She’d posed with AR-15s, called Democrats “radical socialist communists,” and sometimes captioned photos with QAnon hashtags, including one meme joking that President Biden wanted to lower the “minimum age” to fifteen. But her district became more Democratic-leaning after the Legislature’s redistricting last year.
The path to Congress is clearer for De La Cruz. After she decided to run again this year in the Fifteenth District, Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, declared her a GOP “Young Gun,” one of the upstart congressional candidates the party will throw money behind in this election cycle. Texas’s Republican lawmakers reshaped the Fifteenth District to make it more favorable to the GOP. And then Gonzalez, the incumbent, cleared out of the way, declaring he’d run for a newly vacant seat in the neighboring (and more Democratic-leaning) Thirty-fourth District, where Flores will be his opponent in November.
If De La Cruz or Flores wins, she’ll make history. South Texas has never elected a Republican member of Congress. Nor has deep South Texas—the borderlands from Laredo down into the lower Rio Grande Valley—ever sent a woman to Washington. Meanwhile, if Peña-Garza wins reelection to chair the Hidalgo County Republicans, she’ll be one of four Latina GOP chairwomen in the Valley—a sign of how entrenched women’s leadership has become among the region’s Republicans.
This marks a remarkable shift: for generations, South Texas border politics have been dominated by Democratic men—and often, their male heirs. Politically powerful families such as the Lucios, a Texas statehouse institution, have sometimes passed down political offices like heirlooms.
But many voters appear to be weary of the region’s Democratic party, which, like any party machine that spends decades in power, has been accused of becoming complacent, unresponsive, and prone to insider politics. Given that Hispanic Trump voters were more likely to be male in 2016, it might seem odd that women are coming to the forefront. But Trump’s popularity surged among Hispanic women in 2020; polls found their approval of the former president rose by roughly 8 percentage points between elections.
Candidates such as De La Cruz and Flores offer something new for South Texas voters: shared immigrant stories and opposition to Democratic party policies that are unpopular in the region, combined with Trumpian rhetoric. But the gains the former president made in the borderlands were not matched by Republicans in down-ballot races, leaving open the matter of whether 2020 was a fluke or the beginning of a trend. Can Trumpian messages about immigration enforcement and oil and gas jobs, expressed in Spanglish, win races in local immigrant communities—and do it without Trump at the top of the ballot?
At her office in the town of Alamo, just east of the bustling border city of McAllen, Monica De La Cruz greets me with the industrial-
strength warmth of a consummate politician. During our late January interview, she wears a broad smile that never fades. It’s a face set with the sort of poise I’ve known dancers to practice in the mirror, but De La Cruz might not need to feign confidence. Things seem to be going her way. She’s got hundreds of thousands of dollars in her campaign war chest and sixteen endorsements from current members of Congress. In the general election, De La Cruz will not face a powerful incumbent this time. Meanwhile, the Fifteenth District—already mockingly known as “the fajita strip” for its farcically long shape—has been sharpened down like a pencil, as gerrymandering Republicans whittled away Democrats and turned a district that favored Biden by two points into one that favored Trump by three.
There are, however, reasons De La Cruz’s smile might seem strained. The proceedings of her ongoing divorce—including her estranged husband’s allegations that she verbally abused his teenage daughter—have brought her negative national attention. (De La Cruz has denied the allegations, telling the Washington Post that they were “false.”) In late February, however, she received heartening news: former president Trump had endorsed her.
Despite her newfound political prominence, De La Cruz’s campaign retains some of the trappings of her underdog run in 2020—what she calls her “true grassroots” first effort. Her office occupies a nondescript building off Highway 83, where she still works as an insurance agent. But today she speaks like someone who already boasts an office on Capitol Hill. Her answer to any question acrobatically returns to scripted talking points from her stump speech—mostly about immigration enforcement. When I ask what she plans to do when she first gets to Washington, she replies, “Meet with our Border Patrol leaders and be their voice.”
De La Cruz’s first campaign commercial, released this January, focused on immigration. It was filmed largely in front of a section of the border wall in Hidalgo County. In the spot, De La Cruz emphasizes her identity as an unhyphenated American: “I’m Monica De La Cruz and I love America,” she says. She then holds up a photo of her grandmother. “As a mom, I teach my kids to follow the rules, just like my grandma did, when she legally immigrated from Mexico. But Joe Biden abandoned us and our border, transforming our country with drugs, gangs, and violence.” As she speaks, images of asylum seekers crossing the border flash on screen along with those of cocaine bundles and tattooed gang members.
Such an uncompromising message might seem an odd choice for the Fifteenth, where about a quarter of residents are immigrants and many voters have families of mixed status—a parent, a tío, a cousin who is undocumented. I ask De La Cruz if she worries about alienating would-be voters who think her rhetoric portrays border-crossers as dangerous criminals, or, at its worst, denigrates Mexican Americans as an entire ethnic group. Her answers are not conciliatory. “If the people in South Texas were frustrated by President Trump’s narrative of the wall and of people coming illegally,” she says, “then this district would not have swung eighteen points in his favor.”
De La Cruz’s fierce opposition to illegal immigration is part of what motivated her to run, and many Hispanic voters share her attitude. (Indeed, in South Texas, many Tejanos claim that they didn’t cross the border—the border crossed them, when Tejas became Texas.) But 2020 didn’t conclusively establish that a Trumpian message on immigration can win elections in this region. In that year, many of De La Cruz’s supporters lived far from the border. While she handily won more northern—and much more Anglo—counties such as Guadalupe (just northeast of San Antonio), her vote total plummeted closer to the border and especially in majority Hispanic districts. In Hidalgo County, she didn’t manage to capture even 40 percent of the vote.
De La Cruz’s emphasis on the border wall, however, might not be entirely about courting voters; her message has helped secure campaign cash from Republicans around the country. According to FEC filings, about 30 percent of De La Cruz’s campaign contributions have come from outside Texas, with maximum allowable contributions ($2,900) reached by donors including a hedge fund CEO in New York City and a ski resort owner in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. De La Cruz offers a vision made to play nationally among Trump voters: a Mexican American whose family came legally, a border resident who wants to see Trump’s wall completed—and a Latina who is an American first.
To the east, in a much more competitive district, Mayra Flores is trying to win with a similar appeal: as a Latina conservative who can opine aggressively on border politics without appearing racist. “The Democrat Party [sic] worst nightmare is for an Immigrant and Latina to run against their far left radical socialist communist agenda,” Flores posted recently on Instagram. On Facebook, she’s called for a militarized response against immigration. “Send troops to our Southern Border, not Europe,” read a post in early February.
Flores long ago cracked the code of right-wing mass media: her bustling Facebook and Instagram accounts mix political memes, earnest prayers, and constant, seething resentment. I’m surprised, then, by the Mayra Flores I meet at He Brews Life Cafe, an evangelical coffee shop in McAllen. She speaks compassionately about undocumented immigrants and families arriving at the border, expresses eagerness to work across the aisle in Congress, and condemns Q. (“They’re false claims; I think it’s very toxic, and I think that a lot of misinformation is being spread. I want nothing to do with that,” she says.)
Flores does not read like your average Republican candidate for Congress. She was born in Burgos, Tamaulipas, Mexico’s easternmost border state with Texas, where she still has relatives who have been waiting for years for visas as the region becomes more dangerous. At six years old, she immigrated with her family to the Rio Grande Valley, where her parents had come to work the fields. In her adolescence, Flores worked alongside them, picking cotton in Memphis, Texas, to raise money for clothes and school supplies. Growing up, Flores saw firsthand the discrimination that the undocumented face in this country. When she traveled with her family to pick onions in Georgia one year, she saw managers denigrate and underpay some of the workers. When she asked her father why they were being treated that way, he answered, “Porque no tiene papeles”(“Because they don’t have papers”).
Despite her father’s Democratic politics, Flores says she was raised with “strong conservative values,” among them a fierce work ethic and determination to pull herself up by her bootstraps—so, she says, Republicanism was a natural fit. She was also attracted to the party’s opposition to abortion. “How can you say you have South Texas values if you’re not pro-life? South Texas is pro-life,” she says. Flores recounts how once, when she went to an anti-abortion rally in a MAGA hat, another anti-abortion protester accosted her in Spanish for supporting Trump. Flores shot back, “Eres hipócrito.” She continued in Spanish: “You’re here marching for the lives of the innocent, but in November you’re going to vote pro-abortion? Shame on you. You shouldn’t be here.”
That fighting spirit, which has only been reinforced by the flak they’ve taken, has thrust Flores, De La Cruz, and Peña-Garza into the leadership of South Texas’s burgeoning Republican party. They’re on a mission to prove that Hispanic voters are natural conservatives. For the national Republican party, electing a Latina like De La Cruz or Flores to Congress would be a sign that the party can diversify without moderating its messaging. And in Texas, where Hispanic folks are on the precipice of becoming the largest ethnic group, Republicans’ ability to attract Hispanic voters is a matter of political survival. “Everywhere I go, I tell the party, you need to start investing in the Hispanic community now,” Flores says. “I tell people it’s beyond Mayra Flores; it’s beyond Monica De La Cruz; it’s beyond Adrienne Peña-Garza—if we don’t start investing in the Hispanic community to vote Republican now, we will lose the state in ten years.”