When first-term Alamance County Democrat Ricky Hurtado lost his reelection bid against Republican Steve Ross in a tight race last November, it marked a shift for the state: Hurtado had been the only Latino legislator in the General Assembly. 

The son of Salvadoran immigrants, Hurtado’s 2020 win against a four-term incumbent offered some representation for the state’s 1.1 million Latino residents. 

And while the loss came as a disappointment to Irene Godínez, executive director of the Latino voter outreach and leadership development organization Poder NC Action, she said Hurtado was a catalyst for others to run for office. The efforts to increase Latino electoral power, she said, is imperative as the General Assembly enters into its long session later this month. 

“It doesn’t mean that we can’t have a presence here,” Godínez said. “It puts the onus on the members that are there to lift up Latinx voices.”

Both parties have historically lagged in electing legislators of color in the state, even as North Carolina is becoming increasingly diverse. The lack of Latino representation in the state legislature is also out of sync with national trends; and the U.S. Congress now includes a record number of Latino lawmakers. 

Democratic leadership in the state has pointed to ever-evolving district maps as a hindrance to electing and retaining more representatives who come from diverse backgrounds. 

“I just think that that was one of the more disappointing losses that I’ve seen, at least in my eight years,” House Democratic Leader Robert Reives told The Assembly

Hurtado, 34, had  garnered national attention; we profiled him here in 2021. District 63 had been viewed as a critical race to assess if Democrats could hold a seat in Alamance, a mostly conservative county.

The Assembly recently spoke to Hurtado about what’s next for Latino representation in the state. The interview has been edited for length. 

What are the repercussions of no Latino lawmakers in the House this term? 

I felt the significance in becoming the only Latino legislator in North Carolina. There was certainly a weight of responsibility that came with that. I felt the enthusiasm and optimism from the community. It was both a gift, and I don’t want to call it a curse, but certainly a challenge, because I understood that I was just one vote—at a time where Democrats were in a minority here. There’s limitations on any legislation that you could get done that was specific to either Latino or immigrant communities, given the lack of support in the Republican Party. 

One of my good friends, who is Latina, said many constituents went on this sort of journey with me and that’s why losing felt all the more painful. Upon winning the 2020 election, people weren’t too sure what they were getting themselves into, as a community that historically hasn’t had much of a political voice. Taking office was a way for people to understand what it meant to be represented and why state policy was important. The journey taught us that our voices are desperately needed in the General Assembly.

In many ways, my loss may be even more significant than my win because it’s shining a light at the severe deficiencies of our current representation, and what lack of even a single voice means for the community over the next two years. 

Ricky Hurtado walks in front a mural in downtown Graham in 2021. (Cornell Watson for The Assembly)

What’s next for you?

What drove me to run for office has much to do with my own story as a son of immigrants, but also understanding that my family’s history is deeply rooted in education. 

Public education really transformed my life, from attending public schools here to being a first-generation college student. That’s always been at the forefront, and part of why I loved working in the GA was being able to tackle those questions across the state. 

Politically, I’m dedicated to this mission of seeing the GA reflect the diversity in our communities, whether that’s by race, gender, or geographic location. The GA is one of the most important elected bodies in N.C., and so I want to do my part in making sure that becomes a reality in the future. 

I think the other part is helping to connect people who are invested in activating the Latino community to have a greater political voice in North Carolina. If there’s something I’ve learned through my work in Alamance County, and where I live now [Graham], is that the future of North Carolina is really diverse. There’s more that unites us than divides us. So, I have been really invested in bringing that up across communities, in conversations with folks who have a really vested interest in thinking about what a multiracial vision for NC looks like. What does it look like for us to come together and really build on a North Carolina that works for all of us?

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned over the last two years? 

I was a young Latino legislator in a county where people were surprised that I was their representative. It’s the reality of Alamance County politics: It’s a pretty red county. Something that I worked really hard to do—and I guess wasn’t that successful at because I didn’t win this election—is to let my work and work ethic define me. I wanted to defy the expectations of what it meant to be young, Latino, and a Democrat. I was on a mission to find solutions and to build bridges between communities. 

I think people are having conversations they’ve never had before. I’m proud of myself for being able to broker some of those conversations and bring people together. People often imagine a certain type of person needing to do that. Maybe older, right? Perhaps not Latino. But I think people have room in their hearts to dream in a really different way if you show up for them. That’s the biggest thing I have learned, and throughout this work, I’m much more hopeful than most people about our politics, maybe naively. 

It’s just been a really remarkable thing to knock on people’s doors, show up at their churches, and to just be in their communities—for people to begin to perceive us slightly differently than before.

Call that youth and naiveté, but I refuse to become another politician that is jaded and not thinking outside the box to find a real way to engage our communities. Because at the end of the day, I believe that those closest to the problem are closer to a solution. 

You mention the weight of responsibility you felt in winning in 2020. How has that changed, or has it? 

There were moments when I was serving where I really felt this, like when a young mother who only spoke Spanish came into the GA. The security guards knew Spanish speakers would come into my office with questions, and so they directed them to my office. It didn’t matter whether the constituent was in my district or not. Whenever things like that would happen, I would be reminded of why this seat was unique, and had a responsibility to more than just my constituents.

The reality of this is where the weight comes in. I’m one person, right? I recognize the diversity of the Latino community and I wanted to do right by the community when I was meeting with them and speaking on their behalf, because I know it’s not possible for one person to represent a million voices across North Carolina. For this to work, you need Latino representation in your own community, and not just one person who happens to identify as Latino. 

Why do you think the House has lagged in representation and had a harder time retaining more Latino legislators? 

Part of it is intentional decisions made by our elected leaders when it comes to redistricting and gerrymandering. If districts were drawn more competitively and with an eye toward true representation of our community, then you’d see more Latino legislators in the GA, especially from our urban areas. 

The other challenge is I actually don’t think that diversity or Latino representation has been a priority for either party. They look at the numbers and need to get to a majority and don’t really care how they do that. So, whatever is the most competitive path toward that is their priority. Until recently, there haven’t been a lot of opportunities to run Latinos in races that gets them there. 

But is there a will to see more Latino representation in North Carolina? How do you make that happen?

Heidi Pérez-Moreno is a senior studying journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill and daily news intern with WUNC. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times En Español, Texas Tribune, and NC Health News. She has also served as editorial managing editor of The Daily Tar Heel. Follow Heidi on Twitter @heyperezmoreno.