When Sandra Sepulveda started her campaign for Metro Nashville Council as a young Latina woman, she was told she needed to be a “white woman’s pet” to get elected into office, or else the political world would eat her alive.
She remembers those words vividly, but they only intensified her conviction to be the first Latina to be elected to the body in 2019. Sepulveda represents District 30, but as the only Latino councilmember, she knows she’s representing the 70,000 Latinos living in Nashville while simultaneously being a representative for her neighborhood.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Harder than campaigning,” she said.
Growing up Latino in the South
Sepulveda’s parents left their native Durango, Mexico for California in the 1970s, where they worked several odd jobs, from factory work to cooking in retirement homes, to support their four children. The family eventually moved from California (where Sepulveda was born) to Chicago, then from Chicago to Nashville, a city vastly different from the Latino-centric towns she was accustomed to.
Sepulveda had always lived in Hispanic neighborhoods, but Nashville in the early 2000s had not yet earned its multicultural stripes. Nashvillians hadn’t quite figured out what to do with the wave of immigrants searching for cities “where the cost of living is relatively low and entry-level jobs are available,” as the New York Times said. Metro created an Immigrant Community Assessment to “understand the needs of Nashville’s immigrant community” and figure out what infrastructure was needed to attend to the needs of the newly formed community.
As a child of an immigrant, you always want to make yourself better so that the sacrifice your parents had to go through wasn't for nothing. – Sandra Sepulveda
In the meantime, Sepulveda started school at Haywood Elementary School, where she soon found herself in the situation of not only being the new kid, but being a Mexican-American child of two immigrant parents in a Southern city. As a child, she often found herself to be the only Latino in the room, leading to an existential crisis about where she belonged. If she embraced being Mexican, she was accused of not being a true American. If she embraced being an American citizen, she was accused of rejecting her roots. And she was always conscious of the fact that she was different from other members in her community, because she didn’t live under the constant threat of deportation.
Eventually she found a home in Southeast Nashville. As the community grew, so did the number of children she could play with. Mexican grocery stores and shops popped up seemingly overnight, mostly owned by Spanish-speaking Kurdish people who embraced the Latino community. There were highs and lows, but she “wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world.”
When Sepulveda graduated from John Overton High School, she enrolled in Nashville’s Trevecca Nazarene University, working two jobs to pay for tuition. She graduated with a degree in history and political science and was inspired to run for public office because of her parents. She had witnessed their struggle growing up and knew she had been given the opportunity to “give the next generation a better chance.”
“As a child of an immigrant, you always want to make yourself better so that the sacrifice your parents had to go through wasn’t for nothing,” she said.
The pressure of public office
Sepulveda used her fear of failing the community to push through the grueling campaign process, which included a run-off election. Then came the difficult task of improving life for several thousand immigrant members in her community. She had no Latina predecessors to guide her into public office, and Sepuvelda quickly felt the pressure of being one of few Latinos elected to public office in the city —and the state.
Tennessee is one of many states and territories that have never elected a Latino American to Congress. There have been public officials, such as a former gang member turned county commissioner, but Tennessee’s rapidly growing Latino population is expected to nearly double from 5.7% to 10.2% by 2040, making Latino representation in public office a necessity.
The pandemic shone a light on the vulnerable status that many immigrants faced. Immigrants make up an essential part of the workforce but many lack healthcare, workers compensation, sick days, unemployment and overall financial stability in the middle of a crisis. By the summer of 2020, the Latino population absorbed a third of all COVID cases, despite only being 5.7% of the population in Tennessee.
As the highest-ranking Latino official in Nashville, Sepulveda found herself in a position to make a difference when Mayor John Cooper appointed her to the city’s COVID-19 Financial Oversight Committee to distribute federal relief.
She found herself calling nonprofit organizations after receiving complaints that they were requiring a social security number and creating a obstacles for undocumented immigrants.
“I don’t have the option to fail, but I don’t sleep a lot,” she said.
Recently, Sepulveda sponsored a bill to hold contractors accountable for policies that may have caused the death of a 16-year-old Latino teenager on a Nashville construction site.
She’s thankful that Nashville elected an “aggressive, diverse council” that has allowed her to attend to the needs of the community, but more Latino officials are needed, said Sepulveda.
Sepulveda hopes one day more Latino men and women join the ranks of public office and knows she will be able to provide a guiding hand.
But for now, she looks forward to her vacation this summer and sleeping in for the first time in years.
Featured photo: Sandra Sepulveda, who represents Nashville’s District 30 on Metro Council, throws a peace sign to a neighbor outside her home in South Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)