Robert Garcia's truth, justice and better tomorrow in Congress
Robert Garcia is the first Peruvian American and openly-gay immigrant member of Congress, and he’s in D.C. to make a mark.
Robert Garcia has accomplished a great deal, having served in some of the highest elected local and national offices in the U.S.
The Long Beach native has achieved several large milestones in the last two decades, most recently becoming the first Peruvian-American to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the first openly-gay immigrant elected to Congress in the 2022 midterm elections.
He first served on the Long Beach City Council and later became the port city’s Mayor before joining Congress where six-months into his first year, the President of the freshman Democratic class has further grown his legislative and cultural profile.
Garcia was a part of the record-high class of 13 Latinos to be elected to Congress last November and as an immigrant himself, and a gay lawmaker, he looks to continue his life’s work on the national level alongside a growing crop of next-generation leaders.
The California native spoke with AL DÍA at his D.C. office all about his immigrant experience, early life in Southern California, his political career, and new job on Capitol Hill.
From Peru to Long Beach
Born in the Peruvian capital of Lima, a five-year-old Garcia and his family immigrated to the U.S., and landed in Long Beach, California — one of the Golden State’s largest cities.
The lawmaker reflected on some of the earliest memories of arriving in Southern California.
“Our apartment,” Garcia said. “We had a little apartment.”
“It was my mom, my dad, my aunt. I remember going to McDonald's for the very first time. I remember going to the beach. I just remember being a pretty happy kid,” he added.
California has historically been a favorite destination among immigrants, particularly Latinos, where they more often than not find employment in the produce and farming industry.
Latinos, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures, account for nearly 44% of Long Beach’s over 451,000 population, which made for an upbringing embedded in Latino culture where most of those around him spoke the same language he did.
“Most of my friends growing up were Mexican. I spoke Spanish and had to learn English. But so many people in L.A. are Mexican,” he said.
Garcia’s parents would divorce early on once in the U.S., leaving his mother Gaby to raise a single child.
Despite his father’s absence in the aftermath of the divorce, Garcia cited some of the things he’d later find out to have come from him, as well as the many things that his mother instilled in him.
“My mom, for her work ethic, for love of this country. She started off by cleaning houses, and then worked in healthcare for almost 25 years as a nursing assistant,” he said. “She always instilled in me to be grateful to be here in the country and to give back.”
Garcia’s mother passed away in 2020 from COVID-19 complications.
“I didn't live with my dad, but we became close towards the last 10 years. He's really just an innovative person. I think I've learned a lot about how to communicate through him,” he added.
Long Beach City Council
Originally a journalism major, Garcia founded the Long Beach Post in 2007, a local news and sports reporting outlet. The site became popular among local political figures and community leaders. Garcia sold it prior to being elected mayor in 2014.
Less than two-years later after starting the Long Beach Post, Garcia would take his first shot at running for public office.
He defeated six other candidates to win his first-ever seat on the Long Beach City Council. He was reelected in 2010 and was unanimously elected to a two-year term as Vice Mayor by the City Council in 2012, becoming the first Latino Vice Mayor in Long Beach and the youngest in the city’s history.
“I was pretty young and I had a lot to learn. But I think it went really well. Long Beach is a big city so it was really, I think, very successful years” he said.
Mayor of Long Beach
After five years on City Council, Garcia went on to run for Mayor and became both the city's youngest and first elected openly-LGBTQ+ mayor. He was also the first Latino to hold the office.
Garcia was also the second person of color to ever be mayor of Long Beach.
He was openly gay throughout this time, but says it never posed any professional challenges.
“But it certainly made a lot of people upset,” he admitted.
“There was a lot of homophobia from some folks. I definitely dealt with that. Dealt with people pushing back on inclusion or LGBTQ+ rights, certain parts of the population.”
Garcia served two-full terms as Mayor and worked in part on improving international trade and human rights, labor and worker rights, public health, environment and climate change.
Running and winning Congress
In December 2021, Garcia announced his candidacy for California's 42nd congressional district.
The lawmaker made headlines on swearing-in day when he swore his oath of office using the U.S. Constitution, a picture of his parents and an original Superman #1 comic to officially become the first Peruvian-American and first openly gay Latino in Congress.
He opened up to Al DÍA about the political adjustment of working on Capitol Hill.
“The big difference here in D.C. versus back home, a vast majority of everybody is progressive. Everyone's politics are generally more similar in California, but especially in Long Beach,” he said. “That's not the case here.”
“I've never worked with so many people that I disagree with. I'm used to working in environments where we might disagree, but we're disagreeing within the progressive space. Now it's just very different,” he added. “I think most of the Republicans in Congress are extreme.”
Garcia cited recently federally-indicted New York Rep. George Santos and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene as examples of current extremism on Capitol Hill, whom he’s publicly and legislatively attacked.
The California lawmaker spoke to his willingness to call out others.
“As a longtime educator, I have a hard time seeing people blatantly lie and distort the truth, and not call that out,” he said.
In Garcia’s over six months in Congress, he has secured over $18.5 million in federal funding for community projects in Long Beach and introduced the International Human Rights Defense Act, a bill centered around LGBTQ+ rights alongside Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.).
“As a gay person I feel responsible to the community. We know that our rights, oftentimes they're being rolled back across the world,” he said. “We have to ensure that the State Department and the administrations long after President Biden is around are strong on this issue.”
The State Department would document and respond to bias-motivated violence against any LGBTQ+ person abroad as well as develop a national strategy to prevent and address criminalization, discrimination, and violence against these communities.
Garcia also touched on immigration, and how there has not been any real immigration reform in nearly 40-years since President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 that gave over 3 million undocumented immigrants their citizenship — including Garcia and his family.
“You're starting to see more within the agriculture business, in construction, in need of labor,” he said. “The immigration issue is about pathways to citizenship for folks that have paid their dues as Americans and deserve a pathway to citizenship. We should be able to do all those things, while securing the border at the same time.”
“The fact that we haven't done that is mostly the fault of extreme Republicans in the House,” Garcia added. “We have to win the house back. We have to keep the presidency. It's gonna be hard but we got to keep the Senate.”
Congressman Garcia has previously referred to himself as an educator who just happens to be an elected official.
For him, it really boils down to a few things — having love for your home and helping others.
“Everything I've done has always been just about public service and trying to give back to my community and country.” Garcia concludes. “I love this country immensely. This is just an opportunity to try to make it a better place for everybody.”