Norma Torres Mendoza: "Using my voice is a survival mechanism"
Updated: Jan 21, 2021
You may have heard her name when she drove cross country, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Houston, Texas, to bring her undocumented mother to her graduation ceremony at Harvard University. Her name is Norma Torres Mendoza. She is an advocate for Latinx communities, prided on her continual dedication to education and immigration policy. Mendoza currently resides in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas but calls Houston, home. Her experience working in educational institutions spans further than her current career; Mendoza founded a non-profit at age 19 that focused on helping first-generation students in Houston get accepted into college. She aspires to run for public office one day in her hometown of Houston, Texas, in hopes of representing the voices of the Latinx community.
Mendoza immigrated to the United States, from her home country of Mexico, when she was nine years old. Her journey began in the back of an 18-wheeler with her mother, Mendoza’s first and most powerful role model. Mendoza described her mother as a hard worker, specifically citing the fact that she immigrated to the United States with a 3rd grade education and only knew how to speak Spanish. Growing up, Mendoza remembered her mother emphasizing the importance of education – stating that anyone can get ahead with education, regardless of someone’s personal circumstances. Her mother’s dream for Mendoza was to be the first person in the family to attend college. Mendoza went on to graduate from Rice University for her undergraduate education. During her time as a student at Rice, she founded the Young OWLS Leadership Program, a student preparation opportunity that helps first-generation students build skills to become viable collegiate candidates. It was with the founding of this non-profit that Mendoza began to fully understand her capabilities as a leader; she helped over 400 students continue their education into college. Mendoza expanded her dream of assisting students when she partnered with former Houston City Councilmember Gonzalez to bring the Café College program, an organization that helps students enroll in college founded by Julian Castro, to Houston. Through Café College, Mendoza indirectly impacted more than 6,000 students attend colleges. Upon her recent graduation from Harvard Kennedy School of Government with a Master’s of Public Policy, Mendoza now works for IDEA Public Schools, a charter school program that primarily serves Latino, immigrant, and low-income students. When asked about the first time she decided to become involved in politics, Mendoza remarked that she never truly decided to enter politics, politics entered her life the moment she immigrated to the United States. Upon moving to Houston, Mendoza thought that because she was in a more liberal, urban region of Texas, she would be able to share her story as an undocumented individual more freely. However, in 4th grade, she was asked by her teacher to self-report her status to authorities, causing what would be a sequential deportation. She was shocked that the threat of being removed from the United States occurred even while in school, the one place she felt safest. Mendoza swiftly became active in her political community, standing as a voice for education reform and immigration policy. Being an active voice in her community was the only way Mendoza could prevent the deportation of not only herself, but other undocumented persons across Texas. She said “I knew that if I did not tell my story, others would use it for their own agenda. Using my voice is a survival mechanism.” Regarding her favorite resources for support and guidance, Mendoza relies heavily on the power of fellowship. She has participated in a number of programs that support a fellowship curriculum including Public Policy & International Affairs Program, Latino Center for Leadership Development “Academy Class”, Harvard’s “Women & Public Policy Program”, and Harvard’s “Public Policy Leadership Conference”. Mendoza accredits these experiences to have changed her life – helping her gravitate to other young people who were leaders in their own communities across the country. Mendoza hopes to run for office one day in Houston. She is currently not a U.S. Citizen but has permanent residency in the states, leading her on a long but dedicated track to citizenship. As an elected official, Mendoza would dedicate herself through public service to one of the most diverse communities in Texas - a melting pot of all four major ethnic groups that yields an unproportioned set of elected representation. The lack of represented demographics in elected office is unacceptable to Mendoza, who says “it is crucial and pivotal to represent all of the needs and wants in a community.” Not only is there a dissonance between the ethnic demographics of the voters and the ethnic representation in office but women are also lacking in proportion of elected office to the population. Mendoza believes that women are scrutinized far more than their male counterparts in politics, saying, "women are many times valued on what they wear instead of what they think or do. We are still expected to play many roles in our world, without polices that support our growth and development." Regardless of the obstacles, she still believes that it is critical for women to get involved in their political sphere, no matter the age or position.