Monica De La Cruz, Mayra Flores, and Adrienne Peña Garza, all from Hidalgo County, hope to flip congressional seats across the region.
Adrienne Peña Garza remembers the insults at least as vividly as her triumphs. In 2018, Peña succeeded in her campaign to lead the Hidalgo County Republican Party, based in McAllen, becoming the first Hispanic woman to sit as chairwoman. As someone proud to call herself raza (a word Mexicans use to describe themselves as a race), a woman of color, and a Latina, the win meant something special to Peña: it wasn’t just for her, but for South Texans who looked like her. That feeling of warm pride, however, soon clashed with the caustic burn of scorn. When she began leading meetings at the HCRP office, two women swung a sledgehammer outside, smashing open a coconut. The symbolism wasn’t subtle. With the shell cracked, Peña could see the brown on the outside and the white on the inside.
In 2018, that disdain from fellow Mexican Americans was not unusual for Republicans in Hidalgo County, especially with then-president Donald Trump in the Oval Office. In response to the indignities, Peña formed deep connections with the other Latinas who came in the HCRP office doors. In particular, Peña remembers when she met Monica De La Cruz and Mayra Flores. De La Cruz, a local insurance agent, started attending meetings the same year that Peña was elected head of the local party, and eventually volunteered as a precinct chair. In 2019, Flores, a respiratory nurse whose husband is a Border Patrol officer, began coming in for events supporting immigration agents during the government worker furlough. Peña recalls how the two immediately brought fresh energy into the office, as if someone had turned on music in a room that had been quiet. “I just thought, ‘Wow. You’ve got that something,’” Pena says. “‘And we need your help.’”
Through 2019 and 2020, the women worked to increase Republican turnout in South Texas, with Flores running the HCRP’s Spanish-language outreach. For the most part, they toiled outside of the spotlight. Even when De La Cruz announced a bid to try to unseat two-term Democratic congressman Vicente Gonzalez, national Republicans—and even the statewide GOP—paid little attention to her campaign. South Texas was still a blue firewall, a place where it seemed Republicans had no chance of winning. Some counties there had not elected a Republican in more than one hundred years, and in 2016 Trump hadn’t mustered even 30 percent of the vote in Hidalgo County, where Gonzalez’s district was anchored. Most of the time, the local news painted conservatives such as Peña as outspoken but hopelessly outnumbered in deep blue South Texas, like horseflies biting cattle down in the Rio Grande.
Then everything changed. The political world of deep South Texas was rocked in November of 2020 when Trump smashed expectations in all the counties along the Rio Grande, transforming once-clear political boundaries in Texas into disputed territory—and leading Democrats around the country to question whether they were losing Hispanic voters. Republican politicians from Governor Greg Abbott to U.S. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy made pilgrimages to South Texas in the months after the election. Money and resources have followed: hundreds of thousands of dollars have poured into midterm races for House seats, and the Republican National Committee opened new Hispanic community centers in Laredo, McAllen, and San Antonio. On the local level, Republican organizations like “Project Red Texas” have paid the filing fees for a bevy of local candidates across South Texas.
Overnight, local underdog political leaders, such as De La Cruz, Peña, and Flores, became conservative celebrities. The attention has both stunned and emboldened the Hidalgo County women. After the election, Peña had her name in publications as high-profile as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. (When a photo of her ran on the cover of this magazine, she and her family bought over a hundred copies.) This year, after Peña launched her reelection campaign for HCRP chair, she received a video endorsement from Donald Trump Jr.
Flores, meanwhile, saw her star rise most vividly on social media. On both Instagram and Facebook (where she was already popular before the election), she gained tens of thousands of followers from all over the country. She declared a bid for Congress shortly after the 2020 election. “#SomosConservadores,” she captioned a post last February announcing a bid for Congress to represent the Thirty-fourth Congressional District, which spans the western RGV and parts of the Gulf Coast, and extends as far north as San Antonio. After her announcement, Thomas Homan—the ICE director turned Fox News talking head—gave his endorsement, as did Texas congressional representatives Beth Van Duyne and Pat Fallon.
De La Cruz also saw her celebrity skyrocket. In 2020, when she ran against Gonzalez in Texas’s Fifteenth Congressional District, which stretches like an exclamation mark from the Rio Grande Valley up north to Seguin, the incumbent had expected to coast to victory, as he had in 2018 when he won almost 60 percent of the vote. De La Cruz nearly took him down, coming within three points. Then, following Trump’s lead, she refused to accept the loss, baselessly alleging fraud. When she made it clear she would run again in 2022, McCarthy, the minority leader, declared her a GOP “Young Gun,” one of the upstart congressional candidates whom the party will throw money behind in this election cycle; endorsements from Senator Ted Cruz and Houston congressman Dan Crenshaw soon followed. The Fifteenth, fresh off a round of redistricting to make it more favorable for the GOP, is considered the only truly competitive congressional seat in Texas, and De La Cruz has enjoyed immense support from all levels of her party.
Republican victory this November is far from a given; South Texas has yet to elect a single Republican member of Congress. If De La Cruz and Flores both win their races, however, they wouldn’t just be the first in their party to be elected in the Fifteenth and Thirty-fourth districts, respectively—they would also be the first women elected to Congress from anywhere in deep South Texas, the borderlands from Laredo down into the Rio Grande Valley. Meanwhile, if Peña wins reelection to chair the Hidalgo County GOP in March, she’ll be one of four Latina GOP chairwomen in the RGV’s five counties.
This marks a remarkable shift: for generations, South Texas border politics have been dominated by men—and often their male heirs. Politically powerful families, some with towns named after their ancestors, have frequently passed down political offices like heirlooms. Other onetime political newcomers, such as Representative Henry Cuellar (the child of migrant workers, and the incumbent in Texas’s Twenty-eighth, anchored in Laredo), have held office for decades, forming powerful grips on local politics.
That female candidates—Latinas—are now the most poised to change South Texas politics is not a complete coincidence. Trump improved his approval rating among Hispanic women in 2020 significantly more than in many other demographic groups. And besides their conservative ideologies and expansive political platforms, candidates like De La Cruz and Flores offer a vivid sense of something new. Many voters, even those who will vote blue this year, are tired of the unwieldy Democratic Party program in South Texas, which, as with any party machine that spends decades in power, has become convoluted, rigid, and prone to insider politics.
But perhaps the clearest answer to why women like De La Cruz, Flores, and Peña find themselves at the forefront of conservative politics in South Texas is simple: they’re the ones who were there, doing the work, organizing and striving before anyone was paying attention.
At her office in Alamo, Monica De La Cruz greets me with the industrial-strength warmth of a consummate politician. During our late January interview, an ear-to-ear grin that spreads up to her eyes never fades. It’s a face set with the sort of confidence I’ve known dancers to practice in the mirror, but De La Cruz might not need to feign happiness. Things seem to be going her way. She’s got hundreds of thousands of dollars in the war chest, and none of her eight primary opponents in the Fifteenth can boast her eighteen endorsements from current members of Congress. If she makes it to the general election, she’ll no longer need to face an incumbent: after Republican gerrymandering redrew boundaries, the incumbent, Vicente Gonzalez, chose to run to the east in the Thirty-fourth, a district the Republican-led Legislature packed with Democratic voters, where Flores is running. Meanwhile, the Fifteenth—already mockingly known as “the fajita strip” for its farcically long shape—got sharpened down like a pencil, as Republicans shaved out counties that favored Democrats, turning a district that favored Biden by 2 points into one that would have favored Trump by 3. Local Democrats, forced to scramble at the last minute to find a replacement for Gonzalez, have not coalesced behind any one candidate.
Despite De La Cruz’s newfound political stardom, her campaign still has some of the trappings of her underdog 2020 run—what she calls her “true grassroots” first effort. De La Cruz’s office is a nondescript building off U.S. 83, where she works as an insurance agent. (Incidentally, Apple Maps will navigate a person to a nearby used car dealership if one searches for her office on the app.) But today De La Cruz speaks like someone who already has an office on Capitol Hill. Her answers acrobatically return, without fail, to bullet points from her stump speech. When I ask why she first decided to run, she brings the question back to border control: she says the thousands of migrants crossing the border in 2019 convinced her of a need for change. When I ask her how, if she wins, she intends to represent disparate constituencies in her large district, she brings the question back to border control: “The number one issue from the south to north is border security.” When I ask what she plans on doing when she first gets to Washington, she once again brings the question back to border control: “The first thing I’ll do if elected to Congress is to meet with our Border Patrol leaders and be their voice.”
Unsurprisingly, De La Cruz’s first campaign commercial, released in January, also focuses on the border: it was filmed largely in front of the wall in Hidalgo County. In the spot, De La Cruz emphasizes her identity as an 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 with what look like stock images of cocaine bundles and tattooed gang members.
Focusing on immigration is an interesting pitch to make in TX-15, where more than a quarter of residents are immigrants, and many voters have families with 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—like Trump’s messaging—portrays border crossers as dangerous criminals or, at its worst, denigrates Mexican Americans as an entire ethnic group. De La Cruz’s 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, then this district would not have swung eighteen points in his favor,” she said.
The data undercuts that argument a bit. Besides the fact that Trump and De La Cruz both lost in 2020, De La Cruz’s support largely came from far from the border. While she handily won more northern—and much more Anglo—counties like Guadalupe (roughly halfway between San Antonio and Austin), her vote total plummeted closer to the border, and especially in majority Hispanic districts. In Hidalgo County, De La Cruz flopped: she didn’t manage even 40 percent of the vote.
Another fact that makes De La Cruz’s emphasis on the border peculiar is that the border is not the primary issue for most voters in South Texas. Polling from Cambio Texas, a progressive advocacy organization that has headquarters based not far from De La Cruz’s office, in Pharr, found that among South Texas voters who supported Trump, the most important issues, by far, were the economy and health care. Of the 512 voters surveyed, only 14 percent said border security or immigration was their primary concern. (The border wall itself can also be a wedge issue among conservatives. Even among voters who want to see enhanced border security and who support the Border Patrol, the idea of a physical barrier—an ugly scar along the river with a dolorous environmental impact—can give some pause. In recent years, I’ve spoken with Republicans in Zapata and Starr counties who want to see a wall on much of the border—just not in their backyard. They’re worried it could cause flooding.)
De La Cruz’s emphasis on the wall, however, might not be entirely about courting voters in TX-15: instead, it’s about securing national endorsements, as well as fund-raising from Republicans around the country. According to FEC filings, more than 40 percent of De La Cruz’s campaign contributions have come from outside of Texas, with maximum contributions 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 Latina who is an American first; a Mexican American whose family came legally; and a border resident who wants to see Trump’s wall completed.
Indeed, although she says it’s exciting to see Latinas carrying the GOP banner in South Texas, De La Cruz stresses that her candidacy isn’t about ethnicity; it’s only about America. “The fact that women leaders like Adrienne, like Mayra, are willing to sacrifice their careers, the time with their family, in order to be leaders in this movement and awakening is just a testament of this country,” De La Cruz says. “And the fact that truly, anyone, everybody has an opportunity—whether you’re male or female, whether you’re Hispanic or non-Hispanic—if you’re willing to sacrifice and work hard for the opportunity, the road to the American dream is there.” (For De La Cruz, part of that sacrifice has been her privacy. In the midst of a bitter divorce, publications as varied as the Washington Post and People have broadcast the sordid details of her clashes with her estranged husband.)
Where once De La Cruz bonded with Peña and Flores over feeling ignored by the broader party and disrespected by local Democrats, today there’s a sense of excitement. De La Cruz speaks as if she’s already won her race, and, in a way, she has won something: she’s being taken seriously, dead seriously, by both national Republicans and national Democrats.
Like tens of thousands of others, I first encountered Mayra Flores through her social media. On Instagram and Facebook, she’s cracked the code of the conservative mass media: a mix of political memes, earnest prayers, and constant, seething resentment. On Facebook, she’s called for a militarized response against immigration across the border (“Send Troops To Our Southern Border Not Europe,” read a recent post). On Instagram, she talks about Democrats “destroying America.” She’s also made at least a subtle appeal to followers of QAnon-style conspiracy theories, captioning some photos with “#Q” and “#QAnon,” as well as with the conspiracy movement’s slogan (“Where we go one, we go all”).
I was surprised, then, by the Mayra Flores whom I met for coffee at He Brews Life Cafe, an evangelical coffee shop in McAllen. Flores spoke with clear compassion for undocumented immigrants and families arriving at the border, she seemed eager to represent both Republicans and Democrats in her district and work across the aisle in Congress, and she explicitly condemned the QAnon web of conspiracy theories and its supporters. She spoke with an optimism that belies the odds stacked against her: even if she clears the primary, the Fifteenth, as currently constructed, went for Biden, and Gonzalez has over $2 million to spend compared with the $180,000 Flores has raised.
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”).
Flores’s intense pride in her mexicanidad (her Mexican-ness) can seem at odds with her willingness to parrot Trumpian messaging that portrays Mexico as a country overwhelmed with violence, sending criminals and drugs across the border. She admits that the issue of immigration is difficult for her. She struggles to find the rhetorical nuance that captures the unique perspective she has, as someone who is both Mexican and American and as an immigrant married to a Border Patrol agent. Her idiosyncratic position means that she has felt out of place politically in the Republican Party at times. She remembers a GOP operative once telling her he couldn’t trust her or other Hispanic candidates in Congress because “Y’all always vote Democrat.” She also says she’s had Democrats tell her to go back to her own country and call her a slur for border-crosser.
But she says she’s been a conservative all her life, and describes volunteering and meeting other Hispanic Republicans as the culmination of a long awakening. Despite her father’s Democratic politics, Flores says she was raised with “strong conservative values,” among them a fierce work ethic and undying bootstrap-ism. The most animating political issue for her is abortion. “How can you say you have South Texas values if you’re not pro-life? South Texas is pro-life,” she says. (Much as De La Cruz pivots reflexively back to the border, Flores repeats that second sentence many times over the almost two hours we speak.) Flores says that once, while she was marching in an anti-abortion rally in a MAGA hat, a man accosted her in Spanish, calling her “vendida,” the word for sellout, traitor. “Eres hipócrito,” she shot back at him. 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.”
Flores can comprehend why tensions run high, especially in an immigrant community. When I ask if she worries that her fearmongering on the border might demonize others like her, she’s quick to agree that one must be careful with one’s language. “Absolutely I understand—and that’s when I say that there are good people coming. They want to come here for the American dream and work hard,” she said.
When pushed, it becomes clear how Flores supports aggressive border enforcement while still caring about those crossing the border: Though her campaign’s immigration messaging focuses on protecting Americans, she believes a tightly controlled border is also in the best interests of would-be immigrants. “There are good people wanting to come here,” she says. “But I don’t want the good people to go through that journey; I don’t want them to sacrifice that much. So how do we help them and guide them to do it the right way?” She also believes a stricter enforcement of immigration laws domestically is necessary to prevent undocumented immigrants from being exploited for their labor. It’s a restrictionist talking point already popular among politicians (including those in the Biden administration): that deterrence—making the border impossible to cross—is actually compassionate, because it discourages people from making the dangerous journey northward.
The theory does not often dwell on how many migrants coming north are also leaving a place where it’s impossible to stay. When I ask Flores what should be done about the those already here who are hoping for legal status, or those arriving on the border desperate, she again invokes her family waiting for visas in Mexico. “The people already in line, we should focus on them first,” she says. When I ask again what is to be done with the others not in that line, she says, “We absolutely need bipartisan immigration reform.”
Flores’s contradictions and complexities are a form of indigestion, as she tries to metabolize her own lived experience with the orthodoxies of conservatives in the Trump era. Nowhere is the strain more apparent than in her social media presence: her organic political beliefs and bold perspective on what Hispanic conservatism can look like has earned her a dedicated following. But she’s also consumed and regurgitated all the key takes that have gone viral in conservative media spaces; she believes the election was stolen from Trump. (In our interviews she said she condemned the January 6 insurrectionists. But on the day of the violent attempted takeover of the Capitol, she posted a photo on Instagram of what appeared to be crowd on the DC streets, with the words “PROUD AMERICAN” in bold over it.) She’s strongly in favor of beefing up voter ID laws. And while the memes slamming Democrats are often hilarious, they add up to a clear point: “owning the libs” is, for Flores, a legitimate political priority.
What’s behind the rise of Latinas in GOP politics in the valley? There’s a unique politics brewing among South Texas conservatives. Candidates speak in the same way as progressives on issues of identity, using the language of “representation,” but repurposed for a conservative audience. In interviews, Peña often brings up the fact that she’s the first Hispanic woman to chair the Hidalgo Republicans. And Flores gets solemn when she talks about how she feels about running for Congress as a Mexican-born Latina. “When elected in November, I will be the first Mexican American [born in Mexico] in the Republican party,” she says. (That’s not entirely true: New Mexico Republican politician Octaviano Larrazolo, the first-ever Hispanic member of the Senate, was born in Chihuahua in 1859; but Flores would be the first since Larrazolo left office in 1929.) When it comes to why Latinas are leading a political charge from the right, Flores attributes it in part to the fact that our communities often look to our matriarchs for moral guidance.
For the national Republican party, the value of identity is simpler and more strategic: putting a Latina like De La Cruz in Congress could send a clear message that the party is serious about shaking its long-term image as a white men’s club; that the tent is getting bigger. And in Texas, where Hispanics are on the precipice of becoming the largest ethnic group, Republicans’ ability to attract Hispanic voters is a matter of political survival. Candidates like De La Cruz and Flores know that and are capitalizing on that newfound power. After being ignored for decades, they have a voice in Texas conservatism. “Everywhere I go, I tell the party, you need to start investing in Hispanic community now,” Flores says. “I tell people it’s beyond Mayra Flores, it’s beyond Monica De La Cruz—if we don’t start investing in the Hispanic community to vote Republican now, we will lose the state in ten years.”