Dangers Propelled Norma Torres to Move to U.S., Then to Politics
WASHINGTON — For Representative Norma J. Torres, a freshman Democrat from California’s 35th District, the debate over immigration policy is intensely personal.
Born in Guatemala, Ms. Torres, 49, moved to the United States with her uncle when she was 5, leaving behind a country riven by civil war and a mother who would die from heart disease a year later. Her interest in politics grew from a searing experience as a 911 dispatcher, when one night a girl was murdered after being placed on hold while waiting for a Spanish-speaking operator. Ms. Torres decided to seek elective office and became mayor of Pomona, Calif., before serving in California’s Legislature.
Ms. Torres, a mother of three, talked about the experiences that have shaped her perspective in this interview, which has been condensed.
What led you to immigrate to the United States?
I’m grateful that my parents thought it would be important for me to have a better future, a bigger future. It was very dangerous at the time. My father was very involved in union politics, and I don’t know a whole lot about that because it’s something that he doesn’t like to speak about with me, which is really unfortunate because I really wish that I knew more about my background or their background. They felt that with my mother’s illness, there wasn’t anyone really to watch out for me.
Tell me about being a 911 dispatcher.
A call that I will never forget: an 11-year-old girl was murdered at the hands of her uncle. I was very, very new at the dispatch center, and she waited 20 minutes for me to answer the phone, and the reason for that is because she only spoke Spanish. We had bilingual dispatchers that spoke Spanish within the department, so any other language we would have to get help from the translation services. But for Spanish speakers, they had to wait in line. There was no system at the time to prioritize those callers. When she called, she waited in line along with everyone else.
I think that call really changed my life. It threw me into a political world that I’d never thought I would be in. Ultimately I was able to get a $350,000 grant to make some technology improvements to our 911 center. The department was ordered to recruit more bilingual dispatchers.
Where do you see any potential for compromise between the parties on immigration?
I think that there are members on both sides of the aisle that are hearing from constituency groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce, such as different groups within our communities, that are saying this is the right thing to do — not necessarily for the 11 million people who are living in the shadows, but for the benefit that we stand as a nation to gain from that. To have people come out of the shadows and be full participants like I am, the opportunity that I had to gain employment, get an education, serve here.
You earned your bachelor’s degree in 2012 at the age of 47. What prevented you from graduating from college sooner?
Being a mom. Having to work. It was a lot of different things that became less and less of a priority. And that’s why I think community college is so important, because it was through the community college process that I never abandoned that hope to someday get my degree. I was a legislator at the time. I couldn’t be in a traditional classroom setting. Oftentimes it was online at 2 a.m., posting my homework, answering blogs, doing that kind of work.
In 2005, I had a fire at home, so everything came to a standstill. I was running for mayor, and I won that race, so I had to put my education, again, on hold to do that. All the way through 2008, I was still working as a 911 dispatcher. I worked the graveyard shift, got off at 6:30 or 7:30 in the morning and went home and slept a couple of hours and then went to City Hall.
Is there a sense of camaraderie among the women in Congress?
We all suffer from the same problems: shoe problems, hair problems and, depending where you come from, it’s either really cold or it’s going to be too hot.
It was the coldest day in November of that week that we were here [for freshman orientation], and, of course, we were taking our photo on the coldest day that we were here. And I’m not wearing stockings; I forgot my stockings. I don’t have a coat, and it’s not a wool suit, it’s a California suit. I have never been so cold before, but the rest of the members kept cutting in front of me because the wind was blowing in this direction, and they were using me as a shield, 5-foot-2. So that’s how I ended up — lucky for me, I was right in front.
Do you have any higher aspirations?
No, I’m really happy here, and I hope to be able to be a voice of reason for my constituents, for California. I don’t know how many members of Congress have been faced with a situation of having to check into a hotel with nothing but the clothes they have on, with one of their children not having a shirt and another one not having shoes because they’ve just lost everything to a fire. I don’t know how many people have that experience of being a 911 dispatcher and hearing an 11-year-old girl being murdered, or having to assemble two mobile field forces during 9/11 when that happened, or having to hear an officer’s cry for help during the North Hollywood shooting. Those are all real-life experiences.