Corey Torpie

Student Loan Debt Almost Stopped Jessica Cisneros From Running For Congress

'If they don't want to take us seriously right now, they will later on down the road, trust me'

Jessica Cisneros is ready to provide south Texas with change — no matter what walls stand in her way.

Cisneros is 26 years old, just one year older than the required age to run for Congress, and is already fielding criticisms that she’s “too young” to be running. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is also trying to make it harder for same-party challengers to run against incumbent Democrats. And fundraising is notoriously difficult for political newcomers, especially for women. But added challenges aren’t stopping Cisneros from running for congress in Texas’s 28th district.

On June 13, the 26-year-old lawyer from Laredo, Texas, officially kicked off her campaign for the seat, which has been held by Democrat Henry Cuellar since 2004. She’s running with the help of Justice Democrats, a group that seeks to recruit candidates who believe in progressive policies over corporate interest. (They’re the same people who worked with Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley.) But while as a Democrat, Cuellar is among the minority of Texas’s legislative breakdown, Cisneros believes it’s time for change within Texas’s Democratic party, and within her home county.

Deciding to run wasn’t a choice she made lightly. Among other things, she had to consider whether she’d be able to pull off a campaign and pay off her student loan debt from law school (it’s in the six figures, she admits). Still, the overwhelming response to her campaign kickoff has been encouraging, and she’s looking forward to Texas’s primary on March 3, 2020 — and for November 3 after that.

MTV News talked to Cisneros about her decision to run, how she’s using a campaign playlist to send a message, and why people who think she’s too young to run need to take her seriously.

MTV News: To start, what inspired you to run for office?

Jessica Cisneros: The simple fact that south Texas really needs a leader. Texas deserves better, and they need somebody that's going to be championing the interest of people that are here and not outsiders like ExxonMobil, the NRA, and the Koch brothers.

I was born and raised in Laredo. I'm the proud daughter of Mexican immigrants, like so many hardworking South Texans. Just growing up here, I saw firsthand how difficult it is to raise a family. I would see injustices that led me to wanting to become an immigration and human rights lawyer. I committed myself to one day giving back to the community that gave so much to me.

The culture here really inspired me to advocate for families that look like mine, and that's what led me to go to law school. Once I was actually an attorney I also got to see firsthand how the policies in Washington affected American families. I can tell you it was very heartbreaking to present the best cases possible and give immigrants some of the best representation that they could have gotten and still have a judge tell you, "I want to help you and I want to help your client, but I just can't because the laws just aren't there yet."

To me, that was kind of a wake-up call: “If the laws are the problem, and if there's a judge telling me that she can't grant [what she wants to] because of the laws, then let's go to Congress and change them.”

MTV News: How do you plan to use your background to inform both your campaign and, if elected, the work that you would do in Congress?

Cisneros: All these experiences that I've had growing up here, as a South Texan, and then also my experience as an attorney where I see first-hand how these policies are affecting people around me — I'm definitely going to be using those to inform my campaign. On a personal level, it's been great because people finally see themselves reflected in a campaign, but I also know the consequences of the policies and what effect they're having to the people of south Texas.

Right now we're seeing young women wanting to become involved and take up these spaces that we for so long have been denied access to, and now we're fighting to be able to take up those spaces. [TX-28] has never been represented by a woman, which is especially important because votes against women's health have devastating consequences for women down here. Just the other day my friend texted me saying that she had to [cross the border and] go to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, for a checkup with her OB/GYN, and that's not the way things should be. We should be able to get women's health care assistance on this side.

And also in terms of immigration, the Congressman is voting for funding for the wall, and that has very real life consequences for people down here. People in Starr County are now going to lose their property, and they are obviously so upset about this. The Congressman can say that he's being reasonable, and that he's all for bipartisanship. But bipartisanship comes at what cost? Just so he can have that label? Meanwhile the people are suffering. [Editor's note: MTV News reached out to Cuellar for comment prior to publication but did not hear back.]

MTV News: It's interesting that you point out the idea of bipartisanship, because in recent days a number of other politicians have claimed that's the way you get things done, and that making concessions is just the way it is. But there’s a lot of pushback to that thinking, especially from Millennials and Gen Z, who are generally progressive. As somebody who is in those generations, what does it mean to you that we are seeing such a concerted call for action?

Cisneros: Here in the district, there's this myth that we are so conservative, that we aren't ready for these progressive ideas and laws. It just validates what we're doing because people like Cuellar benefit from that myth that south Texas is so conservative; it allows him to just stay silent on issues, and do what he believes he has to do.

In the first week since we launched our campaign, there's been an overwhelming outpouring of support. We headed down to the valley, and community members were, first of all, very surprised that somebody that's running for Congress was asking them what they thought the problems and the solutions were. They were also talking about their basic needs, and needing health care but not having access to it. That's why Medicare for All is so important out here. They’re also working really long hours for much less pay. That's why a $15 minimum wage is very important, especially in a district where poverty is so rampant. You've got the younger folks that want to go to college, but they're facing the dilemma of taking on crippling debt. That's why free college and universities and trade schools are so important. It's not fair that we don't have access to these basic resources to be able to follow our dreams.

MTV News: Given that you went to both college and law school, do you have experience with student debt yourself?

Cisneros: I was very blessed to be able to go to my dream school, The University of Texas School of Law. Luckily for me, it was a state school and because I am a state resident, tuition was way lower than other schools. I still took on a lot of debt and it was just crazy because for undergrad, I had a full ride. So I was coming out of undergrad with no debt, and then I took on an enormous amount of debt to get my law degree. But I can use it to help the people. That’s always been my plan: to use my law degree to advocate for people down here.

That's the story of so many other American students. We're one trillion dollars in debt, and the high interest rates are incredible. We walk out with so much debt that it's basically a mortgage. I can tell you that my debt is at six figures. That was actually one of the factors when I was considering whether I should run or not: if I can actually afford it. Luckily, my parents said that they would take on some of my payments if needed. But again, that's another thing that's discouraging young people from running.

Vanessa Velazquez

MTV News: Something notable about your campaign video and social media feeds is how you regularly use Spanish and English together. Was that a conscious choice?

Cisneros: It's actually not really a conscious choice. If you come down here, there's so many people [who] just seamlessly transition between English and Spanish. Sometimes I don't even realize that somebody's talking to me in one language or the other. I might respond in a different language; they talk to me in English, and I might respond in Spanish. That's just part of the experience here. When you go into restaurants, they'll first talk to you in Spanish because it's just part of the culture here.

MTV News: What message would you have for people who are still discounting the youth vote, and the growing number of young people who are running for office?

Cisneros: They have to take us seriously. For me, there's so many factors that people try to use to discount me, or just not take me seriously. One of them is how young I am, and the other is that I'm a woman, and a brown woman at that. I feel like some people find it very easy to dismiss me, but they definitely shouldn't. We've already shown that this campaign is serious, that we are taking people's concerns seriously. We were able to meet our very ambitious fundraising goal of $100,000 in 48 hours. A lot of people were telling me, "That's impossible. You're not going to get there." But we did.

We might be young, but that doesn't mean that we don't bring the experience. Older people are telling me, "You don't have any experience." It's like, "What are you talking about?” I was born and raised here. I know what it's like to be a South Texan. And I have a very good professional experience that's going to really inform my decisions when I get to Congress.

I've always been told, especially by older men, white men, that I don't belong in these spaces, that I'm going to fail, that I'm not going to be able to accomplish what I set out to accomplish. But I've been proving them wrong every single step of the way — and I’m not alone. To me, it just means that I'm on the right track. And it also means that we need to turn out as many people as possible here in south Texas. If they don't want to take us seriously right now, they will later on down the road, trust me.

MTV News: Social media is already proving to be a big part of your campaign, and you just released a campaign playlist. What went into the songs you chose?

Cisneros: “Old Town Road” came out when I was considering whether I should run or not, and I just kept thinking about, that’s Texas, right? Just going out into that old town road, and trying to get out the vote. It's such a catchy song.

We also have “Somos Mas Americanos” by Los Tigres del Norte. This song is especially important to me because my parents introduced me to that kind of music and I'm a huge fan. A lot of their songs are really woke — they talk about the immigrant experience here in America. This particular song, I remember playing it on repeat the day after Trump was elected because it talked to the idea of how we were being made to feel like we didn't belong in this country when this country's actually ours. We've been living here for so many years, and for a white man to tell us, "No, you don't belong here,” is completely inaccurate.

Beyoncé and Cardi B are in there. Beyoncé just has so many female power songs. As a Tejana, I obviously need to have some Selena in there. We also have stuff from groups that were created here in the district, like Intocable and Duelo. They're Norteño music; my sister got me into that from a young age.

I don't know if you've seen a map of our district, but it's huge. There's a lot of driving involved, so we're going to be in that car for very long periods of time. The playlist is like four hours long or something, which still wouldn't cover the distance of the district if we were to drive it from tip to tip. So we're really looking forward to those long drives now.

MTV News: If elected, you would actually be the youngest woman elected to Congress. Did you ever imagine you'd be running for office at 26?

Cisneros: I actually didn't know that. Wow. I guess it shows more reason for us having to win, right? The Constitution just says you need to be 25, and that's one of the reasons I don't understand why people are like, "Why are you running? You're a baby." No, the Constitution says I just need to be 25.

It's funny because now that we launched the campaign, a lot of my friends and family are like, "Yeah, we knew Jessica was going to one day serve in office because she's always said that she wanted to be in a position to help the people here in south Texas. But we didn't think it was going to happen so soon." But south Texas can't wait. We need change now. And so when I was asked to run, I was like, "Alright, let's do this. We can't wait.”

This interview has been edited for length.