By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Each of the five Black women serving in the California Legislative Black Caucus talk about the importance of diversity and seeing others who “look like them” in the political space.
That has added meaning for Assemblymember Mia Bonta (D-Oakland), featured in the fourth installment of our “A Powerful Sisterhood” series highlighting the contributions of past and present Black women lawmakers in California.
Assemblymember Bonta knows who she is and proudly connects the dots of history for those who would raise an eyebrow and point to pretenders such as Rachel Dolezal or Jessica Krug, white educators who presented themselves as Black.
“I’m Puerto Rican,” she explained — she was born Mialisa Tana Villafañe. “Both my mother and father are Puerto Rican. The history of Puerto Rico is that people like my folks came from Ghana, from West Africa, on Spanish slave ships and were deposited on one of their first stops before they got to the U.S. mainland, which was the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. There were indigenous Tainos there, so I, in particular, identify as Black Latino.”
Others in Puerto Rico of different ancestry and different ideologies, even knowing the history, choose not to acknowledge that African connection.
“But I do,” Assemblymember Bonta said. “I do in all aspects of it. Being in that intersectional space of being both identified as Black and Latina makes conversations that have been set up for us, Black and Latino people, very interesting. We’re talking about the kind of dominant culture — or quite frankly, white supremacist culture or paradigm — that has made it a habit of pitting Blacks and Latinos against each other.
“I sit in that space of recognizing that we need to stop operating from a model of scarcity and start operating from a model of commonality. I get to be a part of the California Legislative Black Caucus. I also get to be part of the California Latino Legislative Caucus and am always looking for opportunities where we should actually be in a much stronger synergy around our common struggles.”
Bonta counts being the first Black Latina to serve as the Assembly’s assistant pro tem as a highlight. “It was really important to me to have my people, our people, know that I was sitting there.”
Representation matters, she said.
“We know our stories, we have a commonality of experience, we have a perspective that is not held here,” she added. “We know what it’s like to be undervalued and overlooked. And we bring that to these halls. I think it makes us very uniquely qualified and positioned to be able to do the work of this state.”
While Bonta shies away from the term trailblazer, she hopes to help build more connectivity. “I’m walking the path. I’m hoping that I can contribute to us being stronger together.”
Bonta represents Assembly District 18, which includes Alameda, San Leandro and Oakland. Her promise to prioritize affordable housing, public school improvements, environmental concerns and criminal justice reform helped her win a special election in 2021. She filled the seat vacated by her husband, Rob Bonta, who left to become California’s attorney general.
Before coming to the Capitol, Assemblymember Bonta served as president of the Alameda Unified School District board. She also led Oakland Promise, a college and career preparation program for high schoolers, and founded LitLab, a revolutionary literacy program aimed at immigrants and families of color.
Bonta said she was concerned about the state of the nation, and her community, in the midst of a divisive political climate.
“I decided to run for school board because I was, quite frankly, depressed,” she said. “The reality of Trump coming into office, the impact that that was having, particularly on our kids and communities, I felt like on the line at the time were communities of color. I felt like our ability to hold our democracy by actually being able to have people who were informed, who could have conversations of different viewpoints, but ultimately be able to support us contributing to our overall democracy was at stake and on the line, with a lot of the rhetoric that Trump brought in and had exhibited.”
Bonta, a mother of three, thought about what was going on with education and asked herself what could be done differently.
“It drove me to decide to run for school board. Running for Assembly had more to do with the fact that I knew that we were losing a very progressive champion in a lot of areas that I cared deeply about and I wanted to make sure that that work was done in a way that I could believe in and that was authentic, and that would center the experience of Black people, Latino people, people of color, in that.”
In running for Assembly she gained endorsements from Georgia politics powerhouse Stacey Abrams and California Chicano rights icon Dolores Huerta, as well as the state’s Black and Latino legislative caucuses and big names in California politics including Sen. Alex Padilla, Rep. Barbara Lee and Secretary of State Shirley N. Weber, the latter two of whom are former members of the Assembly.
Since taking office, Assemblymember Bonta has formed a powerful sisterhood with the other Black women serving in the Black Caucus.
“I walk on the floor and I see Dr. Weber, Tina McKinnor and Lori Wilson, and all I need to do is literally give a look from across the room and one of my sisters will come up to me and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ It can be about how I’m feeling that day, but more likely it’s about some policy that I’m struggling with and that I will need their support on. There’s that felt and understood intention that I think is really powerful for the Black women in the legislature. And of course I also get to see Lola Smallwood-[Cuevas] on the Senate side and there’s that same kind of completeness for us.”
Leading By Example
Each year, members of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus select individuals to recognize in March as a Distinguished Woman of the Year. For 2023, Assemblymember Bonta picked Elaine Brown, the only woman to lead the Black Panther Party.
“The collective and respective contributions of the other women [also] recognized, the doctors and teachers and social activists and humanitarians, is so powerful as to allow me to stand taller and work harder in the interests of all people and the planet,” Brown said of the honor. She also shared stories with Bonta about how the Black Panthers influenced Latinos in Chicago and New York to become social justice warriors.
It was a full-circle moment of sorts for Bonta, whose mother was part of the Young Lords Party in New York. Written in 1969, the group’s 13-point platform was similar to the Black Panther Party’s 10-point program and called for better treatment, an end to poverty and violence, and declared solidarity with indigenous people, Blacks and Asians who “slaved to build the wealth of this country.”
“I grew up with my mother being a strong advocate and role model and kind of stepping into the fray,” Assemblymember Bonta said. “All of this around issues that affected Black Latino women in particular, like child care, equity of access to higher education, economic justice, the ability to not be accosted or assaulted while you are trying to get a home for your kids.
“She raised me as a single mom and faced all of those issues. So for me, my guide and my north star was really my mother, in terms of what strong woman representation within the realm of politics looked like.”
Living in the Bay Area, Bonta found kinship and friendship with women like Black Women Organized for Political Action President Dezie Woods Jones, who she refers to affectionately as “Mama Dezie,” and Oakland City Councilmember Treva Reid.
“I’ve just been surrounded by a lot of Black women stepping up in their leadership, but not necessarily in political leadership at the state Assembly, because the reality is that I am the first Black woman, since Congresswoman Barbara Lee, to represent anywhere north of L.A. for the last 23 years.”
It’s a reality and responsibility that Lee reminded Bonta of during her campaign.
“She had a series of conversations with me over many months. She’s known for not really endorsing in a lot of races. She grilled me, in a very nice way, about the logistics of my campaign, the strength of my campaign efforts, what I stood for, and what my values were.
“I think she was looking to make sure that if there was somebody coming after her that there would be another strong progressive Black woman in that position. She just reminded me that she’d worked really hard to be able to be in the role that she was – that it was important for us to be able to represent our constituents with intention and to be deliberate about it. She told me a lot of stories, using herself as a model and how she had had to stand in her integrity and live by her word.”
The interaction meant a lot to Bonta.
“It gave me the inspiration I needed to carry through a really difficult campaign. To wake up every day and leave my kids and come to the Capitol, sometimes it’s difficult.”
The Work Is Plenty
Bonta recalled working for a youth development program as her first job after graduating college.
“There was a sign over the door of my office space. It said, ‘You will sleep when you’re dead,’ to just make sure that we were really clear that all of who we were was to be dedicated to the intention and the mission of the organization,” she said.
“For the 20 years that I worked in the Bay [Area], that was pretty much my motto to be that driven and focused and intentional about serving children and families. Things like work-life balance and taking care of yourself and all those things are sometimes pretty elusive for me, but I use the power of those experiences of being able to represent kids in the court system or struggling alongside a family who had just been evicted, but still wanted to make sure that their kid was going to school every single day, just a lifetime of stories that really reflected my own experience to be able to make me real clear on what my intention would be when it came to the state Assembly.”
Spending purposeful time in Sacramento is important to her, as is getting back to her district and talking to people about their everyday challenges and how she can help find solutions at the state level. That, she said, is what keeps her grounded.
“It makes me have a clarity of purpose around what I’m doing here because there’s a lot of noise that can keep you focused on a lot of other stuff that’s not really about making people’s lives better.”
Being out front means there are a lot of eyes on you and the moves you make. Assemblymember Bonta recently found herself under a media microscope after being appointed to lead a budget subcommittee in charge of the California Department of Justice and public safety spending, which falls under her husband’s purview as attorney general. While she denied any conflict of interest, Bonta recused herself from hearings directly involving the DOJ’s budget.
“That was a very hard moment for me,” the lawmaker said. “What made it hard was, I committed to be a whole legislator, a whole champion, a whole advocate for people in [her district]. And when people decide to frame a story, or frame a narrative, that would keep me from being able to be a whole legislator, when we have such critical issues in our districts, I’ve got to take a real hard look at the opportunity costs and the opportunity costs are, am I going to be able to fully serve people in my district?
“The struggle for me was that while really everyone with the legal or legislative understanding of how this place operates and how we make laws was very clear on there not being a conflict of interest, there was a narrative out there that was different from that. So it was really important to me to be able to make sure that I could offer the kind of transparency and trust that helped me to get elected.”
Bonta wondered if the conflict of interest allegations would have been made if she weren’t a woman of color.
“Who knows,” she told The OBSERVER. “I do know that generally, we’ve experienced this in all aspects of our lives. I will say this: it is important to teach people how to treat you. I kind of leave it at that.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: “A Powerful Sisterhood,” a series of feature stories highlighting the contributions of past and present Black women lawmakers in California concludes next week with Senator Lola Smallwood-Cuevas.