When Michelle Vallejo released a campaign launch video late last year, it was pure South Texas. An early-morning scene showed the thirty-year-old opening the gates to Pulga Los Portales, her family’s flea market in the small city of Alton, fourteen miles north of the border. As vendors arrived with avocados, bolillos, nopales, and tortas, Vallejo talked about how members of her family have to cross the border for affordable health care. “I’m running for Congress to change that,” she said, announcing that she would be seeking the Democratic nomination for an open seat representing the Fifteenth District, anchored in the border city of McAllen.
In the video, the first-time candidate exudes confidence and poise. But a few weeks earlier, Vallejo had made a more private announcement that rattled her nerves: she’d felt obliged to tell her maternal grandmother that she believes in a right to abortion, and that the issue would be a part of her campaign platform.
In Vallejo’s Mexican American family, abortion was seldom discussed. “We just wouldn’t talk about it,” she told me. “It was something that was private or shameful.” When the subject was broached, she said, it was only in disapproving terms. Vallejo remembers being surrounded by that attitude during her youth. On the billboards along the highways of the Rio Grande Valley, she said, she would see pictures of fetuses. On posters around town, she would see pictures of fetuses. On weekends, she would see Marches for Life wind their way through McAllen, as protesters carried posters with pictures of fetuses. Vallejo remembers returning to school for fourth grade and finding a group of students who’d gone to a church-based summer camp all wearing black anti-abortion T-shirts with virulent slogans—and pictures of fetuses.
But as a teenager, Vallejo began to question the orthodoxy she’d grown up with. By the time she’d finished high school, she knew several loved ones who’d had abortions. “They were people who I was going to school with, my friends, my cousins,” she said. At first, she felt anxious just hearing their stories. “It was something that seemed so bad,” she said. But gradually, she began to think less about the procedure itself and more about the women dealing with its realities. She thought about how alone they must have felt, in a culture of guilt and silence. “Realizing how scary that seemed for them made me do my own research,” she said.
While earning her bachelor’s degree in political science at Columbia University, Vallejo began to read about the poor access to health care that women faced back home in South Texas—including how difficult it could be to obtain not just a safe abortion but any reproductive health care at all. By the time she’d returned to the Rio Grande Valley to help care for her ailing mother and manage the family flea market, she said, “I had gotten tired of how shameful it is to care for yourself as a woman.”
When she sat down with her grandmother last December, that’s where Vallejo decided to start—asking her abuela about her own experience with taking care of her health as a woman. Her grandmother told her that when she was growing up in Mexico, teenage girls weren’t taught about aspects of health as basic as menstruation. In her family, she said, there had been a steely silence about the realities of sex, or even simple anatomy. At a certain point in the conversation, her grandmother said, “Women need to be able to speak up more about what they need.” That’s when Vallejo asked about abortion.
As she expected, her grandmother said she thought that abortion was wrong. “But when we started talking about the people who need to make these kinds of decisions,” Vallejo said, “very quickly we were talking about women who don’t have very much money, women who do not have a strong social network, women afraid to go to the doctor because of their immigration status.” The moment felt “beautiful,” Vallejo said; instead of talking about themselves, or about an issue, they were talking about women in their community. Her grandmother told her she believed that women’s health care needed to be advocated for, and that she understood her granddaughter’s need to talk about abortion as part of it.
It was a revelation to Vallejo that her grandmother could see abortion in a nuanced way. But that was only the first in a series of such revelations, she said. As Vallejo began to campaign across her district, she found that attitudes on abortion were evolving—and that most folks’ opinions were not separated neatly into “for” or “against” camps.
For generations, politicians and journalists have portrayed South Texas as a stronghold of opposition to abortion rights. When she began her run for Congress, Vallejo worried that the talking heads might be right—that her position on abortion rights could not only hurt her politically, it could alienate her from friends, neighbors, and even family members. Instead, Vallejo kept finding herself surprised. In rural town halls, men asked her how she would, as a member of Congress, work to bring back local women’s health clinics that shut down because of Texas’s ever-more-restrictive abortion laws. After the leak of U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion indicating that a majority of justices were ready to overturn Roe v. Wade, even conservative voters began telling Vallejo they worried about the government infringing on their rights. While door-knocking one day, Vallejo talked with an eighty-year-old who said she was strongly “pro-life,” but who nevertheless cut the young candidate a donation check, saying, “We can disagree but still support each other.”
And then in June, four days after Vallejo was declared the Democratic nominee after a runoff and a recount, Roe v. Wade was overturned, triggering an abortion ban in Texas and potentially changing the complexion of the general elections in November. Vallejo, who was now running in a highly competitive race against Republican Monica De La Cruz, an opponent of abortion rights, naturally wondered how the decision, and the state law passed by GOP legislators, might change the dynamics of the campaign. She’s still not sure. “We did see people celebrating the end of Roe,” she told me in July, “but it’s a very small group of people who are having a party right now. I think the larger part of the community is trying to understand what the consequences of this will be here in Texas—for many folks, it’s been their entire lives that Roe is in place.”
In the past, opposition to abortion may have motivated many Hispanic voters to turn out for Republicans, or for “pro-life” Democrats such as South Texas congressman Henry Cuellar. But with the procedure now banned in the state, even in cases of rape or incest, could that change? Might the difficulties that many girls and women will face under Texas’s restrictive regime inspire more voters to head to the polls to support champions of reproductive rights such as Vallejo?
Her contest against the Donald Trump–endorsed De La Cruz will provide some strong clues that will resonate nationally. So will the competitive congressional race in the neighboring Thirty-fourth District, where Democratic congressman Vicente Gonzalez, an abortion-rights supporter who’s switching seats after redistricting, will be pitted against one of the most outspoken Hispanic opponents of abortion rights in the GOP, Congresswoman Mayra Flores.
But when you ask South Texas Democrats and Republicans alike how the issue will affect future elections, almost every one of them will tell you the same thing: vamos a ver. We’ll see.
For those with short memories, it might seem that Texas Republicans’ claims to be on the verge of winning majorities of Hispanic voters—and of winning elections in South Texas—are a recent phenomenon, the product of Trump’s big and widely hyped gains in some counties along the border) in 2020. But the Texas GOP has been touting and honing its appeal to Hispanic voters for three decades now, using its opposition to abortion rights as one reason that folks in South Texas should abandon their historic allegiance to the Democrats.
In 1998, Governor George W. Bush campaigned vigorously for the Hispanic vote, and won strong support by “linking his ‘compassionate conservative’ philosophy to the traditional Hispanic values of family, faith, and the work ethic,” as Texas Monthly put it. Twelve years later, his successor, Rick Perry, who had championed a series of major restrictions on abortion including a 24-hour waiting period, captured 38 percent of the Hispanic vote. In the 2014 governor’s race, right-wing groups supporting Republican attorney general Greg Abbott ran bilingual radio ads claiming that his Democratic opponent, state senator Wendy Davis, “puts late-term abortion ahead of our faith, our families, and Texas values.” Abbott won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote statewide that year.
This year, Republicans are banking on cultural conservatism to elect members of Congress from South Texas. While De La Cruz campaigns mostly on border security and economic issues, she also touts her “pro-life” convictions. She applauded the overturning of Roe, saying it would “save countless innocent lives.” Flores is running to defend her victory this year in a special election necessitated by a Democratic congressman’s early retirement, and she lists “Pro-God” and “Pro-Life” as the top two issues on her website. She is convinced that her stance will be politically beneficial. “South Texas is pro-life,” Flores told me emphatically when I interviewed her earlier this year. “Hispanics are pro-life.”
Polling data calls that into question. Both nationally and in Texas, a clear majority of Hispanics now support broad access to abortion. This year the Pew Research Center found that 60 percent of Hispanic survey respondents in the U.S. thought abortion should be legal in all or most cases, with 40 percent saying it should be illegal in all or most cases. (The margin was the same among non-Hispanic whites: 59 percent in favor, 39 percent opposed). In Texas, a University of Texas poll in June 2021 showed that 54 percent of Hispanics opposed a ban on abortion in the event that Roe was overturned, compared with 34 percent in favor. More recently, in a study this June, UT asked survey participants specific questions about when abortion should be legal or illegal. In every hypothetical scenario—including danger to a mother’s life and a married woman simply not wanting more children—at least a slim majority of Texas Hispanics supported abortion access.
These findings indicate a profound—and rapid—shift in attitudes: as recently as 2014, a Pew poll found that just 30 percent of Texas Hispanics believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
The first major political test of evolving attitudes began in 2019, when 26-year-old immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros launched a long-shot bid for Congress, challenging powerful eight-term congressman Cuellar—also known as the “king of Laredo”—for the 2020 Democratic nomination in the Twenty-eighth District. From the start, Cisneros made abortion rights a centerpiece of her campaign, often reminding prospective voters that Cuellar’s support for abortion restrictions had earned him another title: “the last anti-abortion Democrat” in Congress. In stump speeches, ads, and mailers, she touted her endorsements from pro–abortion rights organizations such as Emily’s List and Planned Parenthood.
Even some progressive Democrats thought Cisneros’s strategy was unwise. Abel Prado, executive director of the voter-turnout group Cambio Texas, told me that while he supports abortion rights, he felt Cisneros’s decision to put the issue front and center “on every mailer” was a mistake. “Most folks in our community,” Prado wrote in a 2020 election postmortem, “consider abortion a nasty business.”
But Cisneros said that, although she grew up in Laredo seeing the same billboards and Marches for Life that Vallejo saw in McAllen, her neighbors’ attitudes tended to run more along the lines of “no seas metiche”—mind your own business. “Growing up in Laredo, at least where I grew up, people are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet,” she said. “You’re not really focused on what sorts of personal decisions other people are making for themselves.”
Cisneros also believed that many South Texans thought of themselves as “pro-life” without examining what that really meant. She relished the opportunity to talk frankly with voters about the issue. While campaigning door-to-door, Cisneros said she would often meet folks who didn’t like the idea of abortion but also didn’t like the idea of the government making health-care decisions for them. Others would tell her they were against abortion—but then would acknowledge they’d support those who chose it in cases of rape, incest, or risk to the mother’s life. “That means you’re pro-choice,” Cisneros would tell them.
According to Cisneros, her efforts were buoyed by an upswell of abortion rights activism in South Texas. “It’s not just me,” she said. In recent years, a growing coalition of mutual aid groups and pro–abortion rights organizations have worked to help South Texans access abortion care. In 2014, Melissa Arjona cofounded South Texans for Reproductive Rights with her sister. Arjona says her cofounder is proof that attitudes have changed in South Texas: as a teenager, her sister was part of a church group that protested at clinics; now, along with other members of the new group, she was escorting women into clinics. This year alone, the Arjonas’ group says it has distributed more than 5,800 Plan B (or “morning-after”) pills across Texas. Arjona said the fall of Roe and the imposition of the Texas abortion ban have helped to shatter the silence on the issue among Hispanic South Texans. “People are having the conversations,” she said. “Even if it starts fights, they’re angry enough that they’re raising the issue.”
Cisneros, who raised the issue in a way that South Texans had rarely seen, is convinced that it helped rather than hurt her at the polls. In 2020, most observers had expected Cisneros to lose to Cuellar by a wide margin. Instead, she shocked the country when she came within 4 percentage points of defeating him. When she challenged him again this year, she forced the congressman into a runoff, ultimately falling short by 289 votes after a recount.
While it’s impossible to accurately gauge how much the two candidates’ differing positions on abortion influenced those outcomes, Cisneros believes that by nearly dethroning Cuellar, she proved the viability of pro–abortion access politics in South Texas. In her first interview following her second campaign, Cisneros told me she believed she had moved the needle on abortion in the region. “I think Cuellar and other folks at the national level understand that we came so close to defeating this incumbent because of our pro-choice and progressive policy stances, not despite them,” she said.
Cisneros’s success may have set a new tone for South Texas Democrats. In Michelle Vallejo’s primary campaign this year, abortion was not a key issue—but only because her most serious opponent, Ruben Ramirez, also supported abortion access. While Ramirez ran a more centrist campaign than Vallejo (who supports Medicare for all and a federal jobs guarantee), he championed “a woman’s right to her own body.” But in Vallejo’s general-election matchup with Monica De La Cruz, who came within three points of capturing the seat in 2020, the contrast will be sharp.
When the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling came down on June 24, Claudia Alcazar, the chair of the Starr County Republican Party, says the news was met by celebration in her small border county. But when I asked her how the end of Roe and enforcement of Texas’s abortion ban might figure in the outcomes of this November’s elections, she was more circumspect. Her local party, she said, is focusing more on economic issues than abortion as the midterms approach. “I’m not sure [abortion] will affect the outcomes one way or another,” she said. “Everybody I talk to, they haven’t really brought it up as an issue because it’s not necessarily affecting their pocketbook. Grocery prices are affecting them, gas prices are affecting them.”
Alcazar admitted to worrying that Republican legislators in Texas have gone too far with their abortion ban. Even her own strong anti-abortion beliefs are tested by cases of rape, incest, and maternal risk. “You should never voluntarily terminate a life just because it’s inconvenient, that is my belief,” she said. “But there’s extenuating circumstances—medically and such. I don’t believe you should force someone in certain situations.”
The near-complete ban on abortions, Alcazar fears, might alienate Tejanos who support abortion restrictions but feel that the law goes too far. “That’s where I have an issue with my own party,” she said. “But I’ll tell you, I’m not the only one.” While “those getting the attention” take inflexible stances on abortion, she said, organizers like herself, working “in the background,” have to do the more difficult work of finding common ground with those who don’t see it as a black-and-white issue. But Alcazar said she’s still a dedicated Republican and will support candidates who back the abortion ban.
Alcazar acknowledged that, by confessing her doubts to a reporter, she might be in for trouble among her fellow Republicans. “I may be voted out for that, but what’s what I believe,” she said. But then she laughed and said, “I don’t live for politics. Politics don’t pay my bills; politics don’t pay for my gas. So I need to be honest. We need more honesty.”
Some South Texas Democrats also oppose abortion, of course. “I believe it’s an awful thing,” said Sylvia Bruni, Democratic chair for nearby Webb County. A devout Catholic, Bruni said she believes life begins at conception and she’s proud of loved ones who have chosen to have children despite serious complications. Even so, Bruni did not support the overturning of Roe v. Wade. “It’s not my place to tell others what choice to make,” she said. Now, after the end of Roe, Bruni thinks abortion is one of several issues—including the state’s still-vulnerable electrical grid and Texas officials’ inaction after the school shooting in Uvalde—that have impassioned Democratic voters, and could mobilize them this fall. “There’s anger in the mix, something I had not seen before,” she said.
Bruni’s nuanced stance on abortion is shared by Vicente Gonzalez, the two-term Democratic congressman who faces Mayra Flores in November. Like Bruni, Gonzalez personally opposes abortion, citing his Catholic faith—but he also supports a legal right for women to choose for themselves. In mid-July, Gonzalez voted in favor of the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would codify the protections of Roe into federal law. His fellow Democrat, Cuellar—who faces a challenge from anti-abortion Republican Cassy Garcia in November—was the only House Democrat to oppose the measure, which passed despite uniform Republican opposition. (It is not expected to pass the Senate and become law.) “It’s called conscience,” Cuellar told the Laredo Morning Times after his vote. “I am a Catholic, and I do believe in . . . right to life.”
But even Cuellar was forced by the overturning of Roe to go on the defensive. “I do not support abortion, however, we cannot have an outright ban,” he said in a statement after a leaked draft of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision was published in May. “There must be exceptions in the case of rape, incest, and danger to the life of the mother. My faith will not allow me to support a ruling that would criminalize teenage victims of rape and incest. That same faith will not allow me to support a ruling that would make a mother choose between her life and her child’s.”
The statement wasn’t necessarily a change in position—on prior occasions, despite voting for abortion restrictions, Cuellar had called Roe “the law of the land.” But it was notable coming from a congressman who had accepted an award in January from the anti-abortion group March for Life. That tension is emblematic of the one playing out all across South Texas.
Correction: This article has been edited to reflect the fact that Michelle Vallejo has not expressed support for the Green New Deal.