Before COVID-19 quarantines were imposed, Charlene Fernandez drove to the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix every Sunday when the state House of Representatives was in session.
From Monday through Thursday she managed a coalition of Democrats in the Republican-dominated legislature as House Minority Leader and on Thursdays Fernandez drove back to Yuma to spend the weekend with her husband.
Fernandez said representing Yuma in the Arizona Legislature is the culmination of a life devoted to making change for her community. She recalls her interest in public service beginning when she was a child.
“Election day was so important in our household. My mom would get dressed up to go vote and my dad was late from work because he had stopped to go vote, so I knew in the back of my mind that it was a big deal,” said Fernandez.
Born in Yuma to Mexican American parents, she remembers walking to school every day and dreaming of one day being a teacher. She looked to her parents, who had stopped attending school after the eighth grade, and began to understand the importance of having an education.
“When I think about my dad and my mom who were so intelligent. I think what a lost potential. He could’ve been an accountant or engineer. My mother could’ve been a nurse,” Fernandez shared.
When Fernandez set out to get an education of her own, she also encountered obstacles.
“Back then, you had to pay for your books. If you were going to go to high school you had to pay for your books. For Mexican Americans here it was a hardship because the parents couldn’t afford to pay for books," she said. "You had two or three kids in high school at the same time."
In a move that was life-changing and inspiration to Fernandez, the Arizona Legislature passed a bill in the 1970s that required high schools to provide books.
“A Latina out of Pima County, she is the one who passed the bill so that now high schools provide books. This woman, I mean think of all the people’s lives she changed. She changed my life. When I went to high school I didn’t have to have a job because my books were paid for,” said Fernandez.
But after graduation, college seemed unaffordable and Fernandez settled into married life and had three children.
She said she did everything from selling make-up to working for the Department of Economic Security, the agency that distributes unemployment benefits, while her husband worked as a counselor for the state of Arizona —a good job but not one that put a college degree within reach for Fernandez.
When her eldest son was seven, Fernandez enrolled at Arizona Western College. She finished two years there but realized she couldn’t afford to transfer to the Yuma satellite campus of Northern Arizona University to finish her bachelor’s degree.
“I had no idea that the tuition was higher. I went in there and this man, his name is Paul Dale, I went into his office and we were figuring out my classes for my first semester at NAU. He is adding it up and when he told me how much it was, I couldn’t even say the words that I couldn’t afford. I just said I’ll be back. I wasn’t going to be back because we didn’t have the money,” Fernandez said.
She knew the advisor saw the look of concern on her face and told her to wait for him as he left the room.
“So he saw it on my face and he said, just a minute, and he walked out of the room. He came back a minute later and he said you just got a scholarship for the first semester. He knew that he would hook me in with that. So they paid the first semester and the rest I paid for. I got a loan, I got scholarships. But he changed my life. He literally changed my life. That one person.”
During her last semester in college, Fernandez met another person who would change the course of her life, former Arizona Congressman Ed Pastor. She says she heard him speak at a campaign event, and signed up to help immediately.
She worked for Pastor for twelve years, coordinated constituent services for Representative Raul Grijalva and served under Governor Janet Napolitano as a liaison for the Arizona Department of Environment Quality in Yuma County.
After a term on a local school board, she was elected to the Arizona Legislature in 2015.
Fernandez says she surprised herself when she ran for House leadership in 2016. She never thought it possible that she could be selected among dozens of caucus members to represent the Democratic Party, but she moved into the Minority Whip position in 2017 and loved gathering votes throughout the term.
“Don’t stifle our drive. If you have got that drive don’t stifle it you have got to go out and do something. I ran for leadership my second term and I don’t even know where that came from. You know you have twenty-five other members that should run, but you choose to run for leadership,” Fernandez says.
By the 2019 legislative session, she was Democratic Minority Leader and is now positioned to become the first Latina Speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives.
Recent polling shows a tight race between President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden, but state Democrats, including Fernandez, are hopeful the state can turn blue, taking the Arizona house with it for the first time since 1965. Democrats are two seats from taking control.
If this happens, Irasema Coronado, Director of the School of Transborder Studies at Arizona State University and co-author of Políticas: Latina Public Officials in Texas says Fernandez’s bid for House Speaker would change Arizona politics.
“Should she be elected to serve as Speaker of the (state) House, it would be historical for Arizona, and it would give her national visibility as a first being in that position.”
It would also shift the balance of power in the Arizona house.
“It would give her power over the bills that are being introduced and over who gets to sit in which committees and that is very important,” Coronado says.
State Senator Lisa Otondo, Fernandez’s longtime colleague, also thinks Yumans would benefit from having Fernandez as Speaker.
“It could be really beneficial for our district. People from Yuma would have really direct access to (State) Representative Fernandez and she has long term relationships so that is really important. Important for our agriculture, businesses, nonprofits, healthcare centers,” Otondo says.
It could also inspire a new generation of young Latinas.
State Representative Athena Salman has worked with Fernandez since she was elected as a member of the Arizona House in 2017. In 2019, when Fernandez became Minority Leader, Salman replaced her as Minority Whip.
As a young Latina in her 30s, Salman says she was inspired by Fernandez’s political trajectory.
“We live in a world where a woman has to work so much harder than a man to get the same position, and for leader Fernandez, that doesn’t deter her from anything,” Salman says. “It makes her even more driven so that women and girls everywhere can see that we can get this done and we can still lead this country into a better future that includes all of us.”
ASU Professor Irasema Coronado thinks Fernandez has already influenced the lives of many Latina women who hope to run for public office.
“There is something called the Legacy Effect, which means that for every female governor or U.S. Senate there is an impact on the number of women that run for positions in the subsequent years. I think that Charlene’s trajectory could inspire other young women in the state of Arizona to subsequently run for office,” Coronado says.
Fernandez understands how important it is for young Latinas to have a role-model. She felt like there were few examples of women taking on non-traditional roles outside the home while she was growing up.
Coronado says many minority women struggle when thinking about running for leadership positions.
“Women wanted to be close to home, especially if they had children or younger children. There were ambitious and aspiring women that said, ‘I need to stick to local or county government. I can’t be elected to serve in Boston because of the commute. I can’t be away from my family and it is not worth it for me at this point in my life.’”
Coronado says in doing research for her book, she found that women of color serving as mayors and in city councils throughout Arizona are effective leaders, proposing plans and ideas informed by their own experiences.
“I think Charlene is one of them. She had legislation in terms of education, prison reform, the environment, with some substantive recommendations. Those are the kinds of insights that women bring to the table and that means they have a more distinctive policy impact.”
Fernandez says she’s just trying to make a difference. Her priority now is energizing Democrats to vote in November.
But she understands she could make history as the first Latina Speaker of the Arizona House and she knows what that would mean to young Latinas.
“Hopefully, if some little girl sees me if things go well for me and I am the Speaker, and one little girl sees me, just one little girl. I can change life. I hope so,” Fernandez said.
Correction: Oct. 28, 2020
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story mistated that State Representative Fernandez worked collecting unemployment insurance. Fernandez worked for the Department of Economic Security, the agency that distributes unemployment benefits.