Omar Padilla’s journey started when his parents met in an English language class in California.
The son of a a Guatemalan father and a Mexican mother, Padilla’s childhood was full of packing and unpacking, moving between three countries and adapting to the different cultures.
After his parents separated, Padilla moved to Iowa with his father and two siblings when we was 15.
Like many immigrants, Padilla was enrolled in an ESL class [English as a Second Language] during his first year in school. Because of the language barrier, Padilla soon realized teachers didn’t expect much from him and his peers, let alone expect him to attend college.
He noticed many of his classmates were not motivated to move on from the ESL program. But he was different; he didn’t want easy, he wanted better. Padilla was motivated to work hard, learn English and exit the ESL program after a year.
He took advanced courses and graduated from high school as valedictorian of his senior class. He enrolled in the U.S. Marine Corps while leaders in the Latino community encouraged him to go to college.
“I admire those who serve in our military,” said Padilla, “but I am convinced that would not have been the right path for me. I was happy to get an education and I now work to serve our country and community in a different way.”
With help from the Latino community, Padilla was released from the military and enrolled at Simpson College where he graduated with a degree in sociology and criminal justice.
After graduation, Padilla landed various jobs until he was hired as a constituent advocate for former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, where he worked 5 1/2 years. While serving as an advocate, he had the opportunity to meet many political figures. He then realized the power of government and how it could have a positive impact on his community. While working at the senator’s office, Padilla met Rob Barron and the two became fast friends.
After 30 years serving the state of Iowa, Harkin announced his retirement and left the U.S. Senate in 2015. Padilla and Barron were already talking about different ways to help the Latino community and decided to create the Latino Political Network, known as LPN, in 2015.
LPN is a nonprofit created with the intention of helping Latinos run for office by providing training, giving them the tools to run a campaign and navigate the political system. LPN’s mission is to educate and empower Iowa’s next generation of Latino elected officials.
“Latinos need representation. We need people in office that understand our culture, our struggles and obstacles, people that are going to take our needs into consideration when making decisions that will affect our daily lives,” Padilla said.
Since its creation, LPN has held about 20 workshops throughout the state, typically drawing five to 20 participants at a time, most of whom are young Latinas. Some of them attend out of curiosity, while others have hopes of running for office.
According to the Iowa Data Center, in 2018 Latinos represented 6% of the state’s population. While Latinos are the largest and fastest growing minority group, no Latinos represent Iowa at the state or federal level. They hold fewer than 20 of the more than 7,000 elected offices in Iowa. By 2050, Latinos are expected to make up 13% of Iowa’s population.
When asked about lessons learned as a co-founder of LPN, Padilla said Latinos must take a greater interest in politics, and members of the community need to gain confidence — meaning the majority of Americans value them as residents and contributors to the state and country.
Latinos must be confident their fellow Iowans value what they bring to the state, including culture and diversity at all levels. After years of being marginalized socially, economically and politically, now the community has to live in fear under Republican President Donald Trump.
Padilla is hopeful politicians and their campaigns will make a meaningful effort to understand difficulties facing Latinos, particularly when it comes to voting. It’s not that they don’t care enough to vote, but often because they are in survival mode — they are worried about providing for their families and their immediate needs. At times, Latino families don’t have the luxury of volunteering, nor do they have a disposable income to donate to campaigns, so they continue to be ignored.
Padilla also stressed the importance of learning how to evaluate candidates, including what issues should be of importance to Latino voters.
Some candidates try to engage with our community, Padilla said, but he often wonders if candidates are asking the right questions. Developing a connection with members of the Latino community is key to building a lasting trust between politicians and voters.
Only time will tell if politicians and political campaigns will take this to heart and make the necessary changes to their approach and strategy with Latino voters, in an effort to achieve a deep and long-term relationship with the community in Iowa.
We ended our interview with an abrazo [hug], because that’s what we Latinos do.
By Claudia Thrane