Melissa Alfaro: "When my voice is heard, my family's voice is heard"
Melissa Alfaro serves as a community leader and a co-founder of the Hey Chica! movement, a Dallas-area organization dedicated to empowering Latinas. This past election cycle, Melissa and the Hey Chica! team made local headlines when they hosted a pop-up Latina Voter initiative. More than 16 Latina elected officials gathered outside voting locations (socially distanced) cheering on other Latinas who were voting and offering free t-shirts along with a chance to meet these leaders. Melissa credits this voting initiative as her greatest accomplishment thus far—citing the power of making a connection with Latinas and celebrating their participation in the electoral process. “When my voice is heard, my whole family’s voice is heard,” Melissa said.
Melissa was born and raised on the west side of San Antonio, growing up in what she described as a low-income household. She vividly remembered accompanying her mother to the food stamps office and her mother being denied despite having four children and living in a trailer house with no internal heating. Melissa started to recognize how policy and poverty intersected, particularly for her family. “Someone somewhere made a rule that kept my family from receiving the resources we needed,” said Melissa. As she grew older, she noticed these socioeconomic gaps growing wider and knew something had to change.
Melissa’s very first experience in the professional sphere made a lasting impact on her outlook on mentorship. As an intern, Melissa’s first supervisor was a Latina. New to the world of professionalism, she was completely lost and struggling to fit in. Her supervisor walked her through professional etiquette that may seem elementary for some but monumental for others, like answering an office phone. Melissa finds gratitude in the women who she met along her professional journey, hoping to reach back and give to others.
In college, Melissa was selected for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute internship which placed her in former Representative Pete Gallego’s office in Washington, D.C. While in this position, Melissa noticed that there were Representatives on Capitol Hill who were dissociated with constituents that came from a background like hers. While interning, Melissa met Rebecca Acuña who was working as a Communications Director in Representative Pete Gallego’s office. Rebecca took Melissa under her wing, bringing her to special “staffer-only” meetings and introducing her to other professionals. Ready for a heartwarming moment? At the conclusion of her internship, Melissa found a bodega that sold Hot Cheeto Puffs—a hard to find snack in Washington, D.C. at the time and Rebecca’s favorite—and paired it with a hand-written note asking Rebecca to be her mentor. Rebecca accepted and poured into Melissa. Rebecca’s mentorship and Melissa’s experience on Capitol Hill would inspire Melissa to pursue a career in policy.
Melissa’s first full-time job following college was as a Programs Coordinator for the (now transformed) Latino Center for Leadership Development. There, Melissa was able to identify problems affecting the Latinx community, help train fellow Latinx leaders be elected to office, and provide them with toolkits to address these issues. In this role, Melissa favored seeing women who she looked up to become elected leaders and making actual changes in the community.
Now, Melissa spends her free time organizing through Hey Chica! or working with the Barbara Jordan Leadership Institute, a Texas-based organization focused on training the next generation of Black women in leadership. In these capacities, Melissa has focused on organizing, communicating with, and encouraging Black and Latina women to become civic and social ambassadors for their communities—an accomplishment she prides herself on most.
The world of policy and politics can be a harsh environment for women, especially women of color. Melissa recounted an experience where she thought she absolutely nailed an interview for a prestigious fellowship. When she discovered that she had not received the position, she learned that the interviewers—both men—made private comments that Melissa’s “stance was really cocky.” Melissa was hurt by the statement, knowing the way a male candidate stood may not have been described this way. She knew that she had more to learn about how to navigate the professional world as a woman of color. Melissa left a parting piece of advice for women and femmes interested in policy or politics: “You don't know what you don’t know. Find someone who you trust, who you look up to, and ask questions. Build alliances and don’t let superficial things get in the way of your goals.” She posits that fellow women are not your competition. The more people you create alliances with, the more people you have supporting you, the bigger an army you have.