Blanca and Susan Rubio were deported as kids; now they’re California lawmakers

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They spent their childhood on both sides of the Mexican border, on both sides of U.S. immigration laws. Dad was a factory worker, mom a housekeeper. The family spoke little English.

In high school, in the 1980s, when Blanca and Susan Rubio expressed interest in college, a high school counselor suggested they look instead at home-economics classes to get ready for marriage and children.

The Rubio sisters did not grow up imagining careers in elected office.

“I used to believe you could only be in politics if you were related to a Kennedy,” Susan Rubio said recently.

What a difference education, persistence and a lot of teamwork can make.

When Susan Rubio, a Democrat, defeated a more established Democrat in November’s election for a state Senate seat representing the San Gabriel Valley, she and second-term Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio, also a Democrat, became the first sisters to serve together in the California Legislature.

It might take a while before the Rubios are thought of as a political family on the level of the Kennedys, or the Bushes, Browns, Hahns or Sánchezes. But one political analyst is already calling the Rubio sisters two of the 25 most powerful political figures in the region — emphasis on two.

“Those are two of the new power brokers in L.A. County,” said Alan Clayton, a Democratic redistricting expert who has worked to elect Latino candidates but wasn’t involved in the Rubios’ campaigns. “Because they’re a duo.”

Clayton noted that either of the Rubios could be well-positioned to run for the 32nd Congressional District seat if Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-El Monte, who’s 82, were to retire.

Blanca embraces the idea that they can be a potent team.

“We are going to be a force to be reckoned with,” she says. “I’m tenacious and Susan’s tenacious. Can you imagine us together?”

Election upset

Blanca Rubio, 49, and Susan Rubio, 48, both born in Juarez, Mexico, attribute their political success mostly to hard work.

“We knew we weren’t the anointed ones,” Blanca said. “We knew we had to work harder.”

While Blanca, D-Baldwin Park, ran unopposed in last year’s race for the 48th Assembly District, she walked precincts to help Susan, D-Baldwin Park, defeat Mike Eng for the 22nd Senate District. Blanca says she lost 35 pounds in the effort.

Susan’s 4.6 point victory was a surprise to most observers, even in a district where more than half the population is Latino. Eng, a former Monterey Park mayor and six-year state assemblyman who is the husband of U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, had the support of the California Democratic Party, many of the area’s top Democratic elected officials, and labor unions.

But Susan Rubio made the fundraising race competitive by drawing donations from business groups that saw her as their best option in an election without a Republican contender. Her top 10 campaign contributors, according to Votesmart.org, included oil, realty, construction, trucking and pharmaceutical concerns.

“It gives me a lot of optimism,” said Covina Mayor Walter Allen III, a Republican. Though Allen supported Eng, he views the campaign as an indication that his new senator will be friendly to local business interests.

Susan Rubio’s personal story helped her in an election year clouded by the sexual misconduct charges that forced three L.A. County Democrats to resign from the state Legislature. In divorce proceedings in 2016, she received a three-year restraining order against then-Assemblyman Roger Hernandez of West Covina, whom she said had assaulted and attacked her during their marriage. Susan Rubio’s biggest campaign contributions from political organizations came from the L.A.-based Women’s Political Committee and Sacramento-based Women in Power.

Her victory was one of four by Latinas in the state Senate, which started the year with zero Latina members.

Now, she wants to act on her experience with domestic violence by developing legislation to make lessons about healthy relationships part of the middle-school curriculum.

It’s one of the issues on which the sisters can team up: Blanca Rubio is chairwoman of the Assembly’s Select Committee on Domestic Violence.

Role models

The sisters say they want young immigrants to see them as the kinds of role models they lacked as kids.

In a story familiar to many immigrants, the Rubios didn’t know they were in the United States illegally. Their father, Sabino, had been in the Bracero program, working on bridges along the Texas-Mexico border, and the family stayed in the United States after the program ended.

Then came a day when Blanca, then 5, and Susan, 4, were enjoying a traveling carnival in Winnie, Texas, about 60 miles east of Houston. Their parents, Sabino and Estela, were confronted by immigration agents demanding papers.

Susan Rubio got emotional last week when she recalled her parents’ “look of fear (about) not being able to protect their children.”

“The feeling of knowing that you will have to go back to a country that doesn’t provide much opportunity … and possibly not being able to feed your kids, is heartbreaking,” said their mother, Estela Rubio said, in response to emailed questions.

The Rubio family returned to Juarez before moving back to the U.S. legally, using papers available to the family because younger sister Sylvia Rubio had been born in El Paso. Choosing California because the state was more friendly to immigrants, they settled in the late 1970s in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles.

The four — later five — children had to overcome low expectations. Not only was there the school counselor who couldn’t see a future for the girls beyond raising kids. Susan’s twin brother Robert, was mistakenly put into a special needs class after testing poorly on a test presented in English, and he eventually dropped out of school. (The youngest sibling, Bryan, 27, is in the Army.)

Susan and Blanca, who became citizens in 1994, earned master’s degrees in education at Azusa Pacific University. They say Robert’s setback was motivation for them to become teachers.

“Every time we fight for a child in a classroom, we feel it’s something we owe our brother,” Susan said.

As a teacher, Blanca said, she said she often lectured students and parents who thought being immigrants prevented them from succeeding.

“I was just like you,” Blanca Rubio said she told them. “My parents didn’t have any money. We were undocumented. But I learned early on that education was the key. If you left your country for a better opportunity, demand more of your kids.

“Other families can say, ‘If they (the Rubios) can do it, we can do it too.”

Their experience informs her view of border politics.

“I believe the United States is the greatest country in the world, where someone like me can have a seat — and now my sister can have a seat — and be two of the 120 people in the state who do what we do,” Blanca Rubio said.

“(President) Trump says immigrant families are rapists, we’re criminals, we’re all of the things he said. We’re not. We’re valuable contributors, not only economically but socially. We are examples of what immigrants are capable of.”

Into politics

A passion for equity in education also helped to drive them into politics, starting with Blanca Rubio’s election to the Baldwin Park school board in 2003.

At last month’s ceremonial swearing-in for Susan Rubio, attended by a few hundred district residents and local public officials at San Gabriel Mission Playhouse, Blanca Rubio joked that her sister is always one-upping her: After Blanca Rubio was elected to the school board, Susan Rubio ran for citywide office and became Baldwin Park city clerk and then a city councilwoman. And after Blanca won an open seat in the Assembly, in 2016, Susan set her sights on the state Legislature’s upper house.

It’s not one-upmanship, Susan says. Instead, it’s the result of Blanca “always encouraging me to reach higher.”

The sisters share a talent for persuasion, said Alejandra Avila, a Baldwin Park city councilwoman who was city clerk when Susan Rubio was on the council. It was Rubio who talked Avila into running to succeed her as clerk.

“I had never thought about it (running for office),” said Avila, who worked for the Baldwin Park school district at the time. “The way she talked with me, and motivated me about what I could do for my community, made me realize I had this in me.”

Blanca is chatty; Susan is more reserved. Susan enjoys musical theater, painting and history; Blanca says she’s a tomboy whose hobbies revolve around her 11-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, and brags that, at age 49, she can still climb a tree.

Blanca calls herself the “protector” of her younger siblings and says — in another boast you don’t hear from an elected official every day — “I can beat people up.” She said Susan, whom she usually refers to as “the senator,” is “a little milder.”

In a surprise, the sisters recently discovered they have Jewish relatives on their mother’s side who came from Spain. They’ve become members of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus.

“We’re Catholic, but I would love to know the (Jewish) traditions and participate,” Blanca said. “I have a lot of learning to do.”

In Sacramento, they’ve lived together at Blanca Rubio’s house since Susan Rubio’s official swearing in on Dec. 3. But their calendars are too full to allow much time together. To have dinner together one day last week, they needed their schedulers to coordinate a time.

They seem to be thinking: If two Rubio sisters are a good thing, why not three?

Younger sister Sylvia Rubio is a field representative for the city of Carson. Blanca said: “We have plans for her. She just doesn’t know it yet.”

Or maybe she does. Said Sylvia: “The possibilities of the Rubio sisters are endless.”

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