Arizona’s GOP primary on Tuesday will once again focus national attention on the Latino vote in this part of the country. One prominent Latina who has gotten much attention in the past year is Republican Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico. She’s a rising star in the Republican Party, and the GOP hopes she’ll draw in more of that critical Latino vote. But some Hispanic voters accuse her of pushing anti-immigrant agenda.
She’s the ultimate immigrant success story. Susana Martinez’s grandparents left their native Mexico to take modest jobs in the United States, where they hoped their children would have a better future. And that's exactly what happened. Two generations later young Martinez was the second in her family to go to college. She went to law school and ten years later was elected district attorney of Las Cruces, New Mexico's second largest city.
Martinez attended Riverside High School in El Paso. She walked these halls in a blue and orange cheerleader uniform. She was student council president and graduated at the top of her class. To her younger cousin, Cindy Retana, who is now a school principal, Martinez was a role model.
"You know," said Retana, "the big joke in our family is when they were all little… our grandma… would always call her the little lawyer because she was always the one gathering everyone around, being the spokesperson."
Martinez grew up in a bilingual household just blocks from the border with Mexico. At 18 she worked in the family business as a security guard carrying a 357 revolver outside a Bingo Hall. They were Democrats and she never questioned that party affiliation. That is until some Republican friends sat her down for a talk shortly before her run for district attorney.
“We talked about values," she said last year duringn a speech in Albuquerque, "we talked where we stood in reference to where the economy was going, we talked about welfare as being a hand up and not a way of life. We talked about the freedoms, the second amendment. I remember walking out of there and getting in the car with my husband Chuck and saying, ‘Well I’ll be, I’m a Republican.’”
And that’s in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 3 to 1. Despite that, Martinez won 60 percent of the vote as DA. When running for governor she beat her opponent by 8 percentage points and with significant help from Latino voters.
But though some Latinos crossed party lines to vote for Martinez, statewide protests erupted during her first year in office. Hundreds of angry New Mexicans protested a bill, supported by Martinez, that would repeal a law that allows illegal immigrants to get a state driver’s license.
The bill failed three times in the legislator, but Martinez is still pushing. She’s adamant that it’s strictly about preventing identity fraud. New Mexico is one of only two states that still allows illegal immigrants to get a driver’s license.
"This poem is titled, An Open Letter to Governor Martinez: Dear Susana, I want to understand you," reads Andrea Serrano, an Albuquerque based poet who wrote a piece that expresses how some Hispanics feel about the governor’s views. "It would be wonderful to be proud of you to hold you up to celebrate you I wish I could say, ‘Mira she’s one of us.’ But you feel so far away, so unlike a sister.”
Martinez has not revealed her views on larger immigration issues, in fact, critics suspect her advocacy of the driver’s license bill may have more to do with national republican politics than real conviction.
Christine Sierra is a political science professor at the University of New Mexico. She said, "[Martinez] could be a player among the party elite and weigh in on important policy debates. She could also continue a trajectory of rising importance and maybe reconsider things in the 2016 presidential election.”
Despite questions over her immigration stance, Martinez’s popularity in Democratic New Mexico is on the rise. The latest poll has her with a 66% approval rating-- up over 15 percentage points from when she first gained office.