Vanessa Fuentes recently secured her place on Austin City Council—a race that she won by a landslide against three other opponents. Her campaign was monumental, given the fact that she was the only woman candidate to run for a seat in District 2. She ran a progressive campaign but, with a majority of the vote, Vanessa was able to secure votes from across the political spectrum. Vanessa believes this is because Austinites resonated with her values. Vanessa is the new face of Austin City Council.
Vanessa was raised in Brady, Texas, a conservative town with a population of 5000 located in the center of Texas. Because the town was so small, Vanessa was born 45 minutes away in Brownwood, Texas. While many folks in Brady shared the same political affiliation, Vanessa was exposed to a vast array of views when she began attending the University of Texas, located in the heart of Austin. Vanessa believes her shared experiences between her conservative hometown and her new, diverse community gave her the ability to grow her own set of ideologies.
Vanessa’s first role model was her mother. Vanessa admired her mother’s drive to pursue education. Her mother immigrated from Mexico with only a junior high education. As a child, Vanessa remembers going to elementary school during the day and watching her mom practice her English with the very same teachers at night. Eventually, her mom would successfully receive her G.E.D. Her mother’s focus on education led Vanessa to equally prioritize it as well, becoming a first-generation college graduate.
Vanessa’s first exposure to politics began when she ran for student council in middle school. She learned how to craft a message, run a campaign, and represent the interests of others. But her desire to work in politics did not culminate until Vanessa met former Texas state representative Diana Maldonado. This was the first time Vanessa had met a Latina elected official. She was not used to seeing people who looked like her in positions of political leadership. “Seeing [Representative Maldonado] in action and meeting her led me to believe how important it is to have representation in all levels of government,” Vanessa said.
Vanessa went on to work at the Texas Capitol during the 2013 regular legislative session. She was able to witness former state senator Wendy Davis’s famous filibuster against an anti-abortion bill. Vanessa saw thousands of Texas women rally and advocate at the Capitol, a movement she was able to see up close. Vanessa started to realize the impact policy-making has on the day-to-day lives of Texas.
After her time at the Capitol, Vanessa accepted a role with the American Heart Association as a policy advocate. In this role, she successfully advocated for raising the tobacco sales age to 21 and requiring congenital heart screenings for newborns. Her proudest accomplishment was the co-development of the “Leaders with Heart” program, a nonpartisan policy academy hosted by the American Heart Association. Austinites who participated in the academy were equipped with advocacy tools to help create policy change. “Seeing the fruition of this pipeline is my greatest accomplishment,” Vanessa said.
Like many progressive candidates, Vanessa was inspired to run for office after Donald Trump took office in 2016, specifically because of his hateful rhetoric about communities of color and immigrants. While she had not planned to run this soon, Vanessa filled to run for Austin City Council in 2020. Four years after she was first inspired to run, Vanessa was on the same ballot as the first woman of color vice president and the presidential ticket to dethrone Trump.
Vanessa’s campaign platform was driven by the COVID pandemic. She hoped to bring major citywide issues to the table that were magnified by the virus such as healthcare disparities and unemployment rates. District 2 faces some of the highest unemployment rates in Austin, forcing many of her constituents to lack affordable or accessible healthcare. Vanessa hopes to address these concerns, now that COVID has placed both issues on the forefront. She wants to provide easily navigable resources for Austinites that address both healthcare and employment in this era of economic downturn.
As part of her campaign preparation, Vanessa leaned on organizations that train candidates to run for office. Specifically, Vanessa trained with She Should Run, Annie’s List, and Latino Center for Leadership Development. On a more personal level, Vanessa leaned on her friends and family for support during her campaign. She prioritized time with those closest to her to maintain a sense of self-care. She also began following Instagram accounts focused on empowering folks, such as She Se Puede.
As a young woman of color, Vanessa faced sexism and racism when running for office. Her experience was constantly diminished, though her white or male counterparts did not face the same scrutiny. To combat this, Vanessa believes it is critical that women of color stick together. “It is really important to stick up for one another and mentor one another,” Vanessa said.