Esmeralda Soria is the only female member of the 7-member Fresno City Council. Born 60 miles south in Lindsay, Soria spent most of her childhood following the harvests across California with her family.
The child of migrant farmworkers, Soria says her parents were determined not to see her and her three siblings end up working in the fields alongside them.
“They instilled in me not only hard work, but also the importance of getting an education if I didn’t want to end up working the fields like they did,” Soria said. “They motivated us and told us to get our schooling done.”
True to their parents’ hopes, each of Soria’s siblings went on to earn bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees. Soria landed a Gates Millennium Scholarship for her entire undergraduate education.
The 33-year-old is the first woman ever to be elected to District One, which encompasses the Tower District and Fresno High as well as neighborhoods near Lions Park and west of State Route 99.
She beat contender Cary Catalano in the general election last November by 534 votes. The District One seat she holds is the first she’s occupied as an elected official, but Soria is no stranger to politics.
“I’ve always known it’s important for me to be civically engaged,” she said, citing one formative high school experience. “As a sophomore, I spent a week in Sacramento learning about the political process in California and advocacy through the Chicano Latino Youth Leadership Project.”
Her family’s financial struggles soon became an area of focus for Soria.
“Early on I was very conscious of the disparities and inequities that exist in our communities,” she said. “Not having free summer or spring breaks to go on vacations like my friends did, because I did have to go and work … it made me very passionate.”
She continued, “ They were not the happiest moments in my childhood, but they were moments that shaped who I am today.”
As an undergraduate, Soria learned immigration advocacy during an internship at the National Council of La Raza in Washington, D.C. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, Soria landed a fellowship with former state Sen. Gil Cedillo, who she worked with crafting legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. The bill, AB 60, passed this January.
Soria also worked on legislation around public safety, women’s health and education for undocumented students.
She later returned to UC Davis to pursue her law degree though the call to public service remained.
“After graduating law school I gravitated again back to Sacramento to continue advocating on behalf of the issues that impact underrepresented communities here in the Valley,” Soria said.
Only later did she decide that after years of working behind the scenes, it was time to step out in front. Her decision was prompted in part by the knowledge that there were almost no women in leadership positions in the Valley.
“I never thought I would [run for office],” she said, adding, “I thought [women] also deserve a seat at the table. We have the skills and knowledge. I saw the void that exists in our community and the need for leadership.”
Every member on the council supported her opponent, but Soria did not let that intimidate her.
“The day I got elected it was a new day, and I began to build the relationships and find commonalities with my colleagues, which is necessary to create good policy.”
Soria took office Jan. 8 and was sworn in by her sister while their parents looked on.
“I think they are very proud,” she said. “They have been my inspiration and the speech that I gave during my swearing in, I gave it in Spanish, because I know it was all because of them, and their hard work, and who they are as individuals.”
Public safety and infrastructure are currently two of Soria’s top concerns. She wants to prioritize areas where the need is greatest, such as Highway City, where she said sidewalks need to be built in the city’s Shaw and Polk areas.
Getting young people engaged in politics is also a focus area.
“I think it is sad to see, statistically, in the last elections, especially with young people, you had a larger likelihood of being incarcerated than the percentage of people that went out to vote,” she said. “Our young people are not engaged, and so for me it’s important.”
Her office has an internship program for college students and she’s currently working on implementing a 9-month leadership program for high schoolers.
“I think young people need to realize how important their engagement is to making our community a better place,” she said. “They need to not only register, but actually vote. We need to educate ourselves because we can’t just let other people make decisions. We need to take ownership of our power.”
Elsa Mejía, 26, graduated from the Mass Communication and Journalism department at Fresno State in 2015. This summer she will be a public relations intern in Washington, D.C. through the Institute on Political Journalism program, which is part of The Fund for American Studies.