Dr. Jennifer Cantu: Running on "Sweat Equity"
Updated: Jan 21, 2021
Dr. Jennifer Cantu, a Laredo, Texas native, is a democrat challenging incumbent Phil Stephenson for Texas House of Representatives District 85, encompassing the more rural areas of Wharton, Jackson, and Fort Bend counties. Currently, Cantu works as an early-childhood intervention therapist and service coordinator for a Texas nonprofit and is a co-founder of Fort Bend For All, another nonprofit dedicated to serving the needs of indigent and minority members of the Fort Bend county community. Cantu is a dedicated mother of twin girls and her husband, Fernando, lives in Mexico.
Growing up in a border town, Cantu was somewhat removed from Texas politics in her early life. Unlike many Texas communities, citizens in Cantu’s hometown often spoke Spanish and were able to pay for products in pesos. Cantu had aspirations of attending college and becoming a doctor, and was considered a success among her peers; however, she felt unprepared for the rigors of college study when she began life outside Laredo. Because English is Cantu’s second language, she struggled to understand her professors. Nonetheless, she persevered and finished her degree quickly at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “It showed me that I was a fighter,” she said about her experience pursuing undergraduate education. “But most importantly, it showed me that it’s okay not to be ready. It wasn’t until I went up to my professors and sat down with them and told them I was struggling that I realized people are willing to help. We just need to ask.”
Cantu recalled her first experience with politics during her time in medical school at Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara. After demanding she and her colleagues repeat a round of costly tests they had already passed, the school threatened them with failing grades. “I just can’t stay quiet,” she said as she described her solution. “So, I went to the capitol.” Cantu showed up at the door of the Secretary of Education of Mexico in Jalisco and was continually rejected by staff until she saw a woman passing the building drop a large stack of boxes. She decided to help the woman who later revealed herself as a colleague of one of the Secretary of Education’s employees. “Doing good deeds helps,” Cantu said. She was able to get a meeting as a result of that chance interaction. She recalls many of her friends asking her why she would go to such great lengths in the circumstances, to which she replied, “If we do nothing, we are hurting everyone.”
After opening a women’s health clinic in Jalisco, Jennifer had to relocate to Texas to take care of her ailing parents. She would soon find out she was pregnant with twin girls, and later learned that one of her daughters, Giselle, had an autoimmune disorder that would affect her ability to meet developmental deadlines. Cantu, still facing student debt and having just begun her career, decided to sell everything in Mexico to stay in Texas so her daughter could begin treatment. “If I don’t do this as a parent, who will?” she asked. Once she was in Texas, she was able to lean on state benefits to keep her family afloat. In the midst of financial and emotional challenge surrounding her daughter’s treatment, Cantu never stopped fighting for her family and for the people around her. Cantu began working for Early Childhood Intervention (ECI), a statewide program within the Texas Health and Human Services Commission for families with children birth up to age 3, with developmental delays, disabilities or certain medical diagnoses that may impact development. After some changes were made to the funding of ECI services in the state, Cantu found herself having to turn families away. “They can tweak eligibility requirements for services,” she said about the state program. “When a child previously needed to have only a 2-3 month delay, or 15% delay to be eligible for services, now a child has to have a 6-8 month delay or 25% delay to be considered.”
Cantu’s platform has four main focal points: fair public education, infant and toddler protection, affordable and accessible healthcare, and rural development. She expressed some frustration in Texas’ current state representation and their inability to deliver on vital campaign promises. She gave an example, saying, “Everybody at the beginning says, ‘Oh! We love our farmers!’ but when we have to talk about protecting them with rural development and giving them access to funding programs, they say, ‘Oh, who? What?’” After the Texas legislature failed to expand Medicaid benefits and other federal programs and passed the anti-immigrant SB 4 law, Cantu decided it was time to take advocating for her community to the next level. “I could stay mad and stay quiet, but our kids are going to ask us, ‘What did you do?’ I want to be able to tell my daughters I did stand up. I fought for change.”
Being a Mexican-American woman who grew up primarily in the United States, Cantu is not your typical candidate running for the Texas House and represents the shifting nature of political representation happening in Texas. She feels the extra pressure for perfection put upon her every day. She likens herself to a quote from the film Selena, “The Mexicans don’t think you’re Mexican enough. The Americans don’t think you’re American enough. So, you have to work a thousand times better every time.” Cantu has felt the scrutiny of others while running, but she’s honest about who she is and where she came from. She has found that her experiences have made it easier for her to connect with members of her community. Many families in District 85 are minority, single-parent households, so Cantu has a unique opportunity to relate to her constituents. While she raises her daughters alone in Texas, she often brings them with her to campaign-related events. Cantu uses block walking and one-on-one contact as her main tools of meeting constituents and gaining support, and her daughters are a part of those daily experiences. “I may not have $50,000 in my bank account,” she said, “but I have sweat equity. I’ve gone through two pairs of shoes just block walking.”
Cantu credits her decision to run on 14 other women who encouraged her to do it. “When they say a woman needs to be asked 14 times to run for office before she says yes… It is true!” she exclaimed. Since then, her female mentors and Facebook groups such as “Women Win,” a group designed to support all women running for public office in Texas, have kept her motivated and have often been sources of comfort. There are a record number of women running in this year’s midterm season. Cantu expressed her thoughts that many in Texas are just ready to hear and see something new in their representatives. “Change starts with just one person,” she said. Wondering how you can help? Cantu has an answer, “You need to vote. Your voice will be heard if you vote.” Visit www.cantu4tx85.com to learn more.