By Jennie Lusk
If most of today’s New Mexico Democrats had been unable to vote against Trump, we might know something of Cindy Nava’s joy in being appointed as the most senior of President Joe Biden’s ten policy advisers for the Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD).
Nava became a citizen only in January 2021 and could exercise her right to vote for the first time in the Congressional election that June when Melanie Stansbury was elected to replace one of Nava’s most significant mentors, Deb Haaland. As Trump worked his worst agenda for immigrant families and the well-being of all Americans, Nava was left without a chance to vote.
Nava is a first-generation immigrant whose family moved to New Mexico from Chihuahua when she was seven. Though she was a citizen by the time of her appointment to become the senior policy advisor at HUD, she is the first former recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) status to receive a presidential appointment.
DACA status conveys temporary credentials allowing recipients to work despite having no other legal citizenship status. A “Dreamer” or DACA recipient must have been brought to the United States as a child, have a clean criminal record, have met certain age and residency deadlines and be attending, or a graduate of a high school or obtaining a General Education Diploma (GED). Though some criticize the DACA program for not going far enough to support immigrants and their communities, Nava praises it—at least in part because her DACA status allowed her to travel back to Mexico to be at the bedside of her beloved paternal grandmother “Yaya,” as Yaya passed. Yaya set an example of dreaming big, daring to be “outrageous as you can be” despite appearing relatively quiet. But Nava identifies herself this way: “I’m not a dreamer. I’m a doer.”
When Nava came to the United States not speaking English, she was bullied. Fear of bullying triggered her response to refuse to speak Spanish outside her home. Initially, that childhood decision pushed her to learn quickly—perhaps obsessively, she now says. “But in high school, things shifted, and I had an awakening. I snapped and realized I had to be myself. Fully.” Even though her high school counselor and even some members of her family of origin advised her not to try college since she did not have a social security number and would have to pay out-of-pocket, Nava persisted.
Because of Yaya’s inspiration, Nava attended Santa Fe Community College, and as a student made a one-day trip to the legislature. That visit permanently changed her life. There she met her namesake, former state Senator Cynthia Nava of Las Cruces, as well as Democratic Party of New Mexico (DPNM) activists Kristine “Kooch” Jacobus, and the late Terri Holland. Nava became increasingly active in the party, receiving in 2013 the first fellowship of an undocumented person for the National Federation of Democratic Women (FDW). She interned for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in Washington DC, where again she was the first undocumented person. In 2015 she received the state party’s Rising Star Award, usually reserved for a legislator. When she received her DACA) status, she worked as the political director for then-Representative, now Senator, Ben Ray Lujan.
“I hold a whole lot of firsts,” Nava said, “but if I’m both the first and the last, [my experience] is worthless. I plan to open doors and keep opening them.” She continued, “Anything I can do to open doors to others, I will do.”
“I know what hard work is,” Nava said, learning from watching her industrious parents who cleaned houses and worked construction to provide a better life for their children here. She and her siblings were told to read books in the Children’s Section at the Erna Ferguson branch library while her parents cleaned, and she learned about HUD, the agency whose policy agenda she will help to set, while watching her father’s janitorial work at a HUD apartment complex in Santa Fe, mentored by a manager aware of HUD housing qualifications her family could not meet.
“Some people say the notion of the American dream is gone,” she stated, “but I beg to differ. I know from my own experience that, if you try, you can find support and opportunity. The American dream is real, and I know it. I am blessed and proud of the opportunity to grow. This country is full of growth, innovative communities and institutions.”
“I’ve had people ask me why I chose to engage as a Democrat,” Nava said. “I didn’t really ‘decide’ to become a Democrat. I had the opportunity to engage with Democrats and they were the folks who supported me and supported my community. My many mentors helped me build a network, and that mentorship has made all the difference in my life.”
And she intends to use her new national position to make a positive difference in the lives of others who share her story and the problems of so many. “After a lifetime of work, I finally could vote last year, whereas I couldn’t for so long,” Nava said.
“I couldn’t vote, but because of that I know the power of the vote. I believe in that power. It fills my heart to see all the communities I represent so excited by my appointment,” she concluded. “I’ll be crying my eyes out while I start at HUD,” both because she is excited by the responsibility of making change for the communities she represents and because she will miss her New Mexico home and the important choices between green and red chile and how to mark the Christmas holiday season.
“My heart is here even though I am thrilled to go,” she said. “Like (mentor and current Secretary of the Interior) Deb Haaland said when she was appointed, ‘There has never been a voice like mine,’ and I intend to use it.”
Nava’s appointment as a powerful woman, a New Mexico woman, a woman who had to work hard to gain the opportunity to vote, will remain uppermost in her mind as she takes office. As she does, she’s trusting that New Mexico Democrats will continue to include and welcome voices like hers, the diverse voices and communities that create national recognition and opportunity.