By: Danielle Chiriguayo
“What a full circle moment it was.”
During her tenure in the White House, advocate Alejandra Campoverdi remembers introducing her mom to then-President Barack Obama.
“Here was the same single mother who struggled to survive – in an embrace with the President of the United States. That moment was a testament to the generational sacrifices the women in my family have made. As Latinas, we often feel a heightened sense of matrilineal connectivity so it makes sense that many times, our proudest moments are shared with the powerful mujeres who raised us.”
Campoverdi has spent much of her life advocating for what she believes in. It’s taken her across the United States – from her apartment in Los Angeles, all the way to the White House in Washington D.C. And although she has spent much of her life trying to accomplish what she believes in, her journey has taken a very personal turn as of late – and she’s doing what she knows best: fight against all odds.
The Luz Collective caught up with Campoverdi in early October before her preventative double mastectomy procedure. You can follow Campoverdi’s journey on Instagram @acampoverdi. The following Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What it was like growing up in California as a young Latina?
I was raised in Los Angeles by a single mother and by my grandmother who both immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico just a few years before I was born. Spending my childhood in a three-bedroom apartment with up to eight family members at a time, we had a lot of love but not a lot of resources and we sometimes relied on public assistance and Medicaid to survive. I’ve had to take out massive student loans, receive Cal Grants, work side jobs, and live completely off credit cards in order to pursue higher education and access professional opportunities. Struggling to succeed against all odds taught me many things – how to be resourceful, the value of community, but most of all, what it means to fight. These experiences led me to pursue a career in public service, working at a private health foundation, earning my Master of Public Policy at Harvard, working in the White House as an aide to President Obama during the time the Affordable Care Act [ACA] was passed, and eventually running for Congress in 2017 when the ACA was under threat of repeal.
Who were some of your mentors growing up?
My grandmother had a monumental impact on my life. She was so strong in her faith and in her dedication to public service. Every day, she modeled the kind of person I want to be. She would drive me to elementary school in the morning and after saying our prayers to La Virgencita, we’d stop to bring coffee to the homeless man who sat in the park across from my school. These kinds of selfless gestures were weaved into the fabric of her character. It was second-nature to her to regularly look for ways to be of service and to alleviate suffering in others. I admire her and miss her very much.
What motivated you to get started in the world of activism?
I was in high school during the 1990s during the debate over Proposition 187, Rodney King and the LA riots, and the O.J. Simpson trial. It was a politically and racially-charged time that inspired me to consider my identity and my place in the city and the country. What I saw on television and on the news about my community did not reconcile with the experiences of my family and friends. Hearing immigrants, and Latinos in general, referred to in such a negative, one-dimensional light made me feel indignant and protective. Proposition 187 catalyzed my interest in activism, advocacy, and storytelling, as well as in making sure that our community’s perspectives are never ignored.
You worked with the Obama administration, eventually becoming the first White House Deputy Director of Hispanic Media. What was it like filling that role, and what type of work did you do in that role?
Working for President Obama was one of the greatest privileges of my life, particularly during the passage of the Affordable Care Act. When I was a child, I never dreamt that I would have the opportunity to work in the White House, let alone feet from the Oval Office, fighting for the issues that continue to impact the lives of my family and of our community. My role as White House Deputy Director of Hispanic Media was very special to me because it lived at the intersection of who I am, who I care about, and what I believe in. I could not have been more proud to develop and implement the White House’s communications strategy around a broad range of issues directed towards the Hispanic community.
What work are you doing today to empower Latinas in your community?
The work I’m doing at the moment has taken a very personal turn. Breast cancer has had a presence in my life for as long as I can remember. My great-grandmother died of breast cancer shortly after I was born, my grandmother died of breast cancer when I was 16, my mother successfully fought breast cancer when I was in my early twenties, my aunt battled breast cancer just last year, and another aunt was just diagnosed a few weeks ago. Because of my family history, when I became aware that there was a test available to detect the BRCA1 & 2 gene mutations (otherwise known as the “breast cancer genes”), I made sure that my mother and I were tested. After testing positive, it wasn’t long before I decided I’d undergo a preventive double mastectomy. It was a no-brainer for me once I realized that in one surgery, I could lower my risk of developing breast cancer from 85 percent to under 3 percent. My surgery is scheduled for this Friday and as my surgical journey has unfolded, I’ve thought a lot about the disparities in women’s health as they relate to breast cancer and women of color.
When it comes to breast cancer, Latinas are 69% more likely to be diagnosed at an advanced stage than non-Hispanic white women. What contributes to this number is that Latinas are getting less mammograms and are delaying follow-up of abnormal screening results. This is due to many socioeconomic and cultural factors that affect screening behaviors. Latinas suffer from financial barriers (having no health insurance, poverty), structural barriers (poor geographic access, lack of transportation to providers), and personal barriers (language, discrimination). Yet studies show that social support and culturally appropriate outreach can improve screening levels. This is why I launched the Well Woman Coalition. The Well Woman Coalition is an initiative whose mission is to empower women of color to have agency over their own health and healing through awareness, education and advocacy. I’ve seen firsthand the heartbreak that comes with not having access to health care during a devastating medical diagnosis time and time again so it was very important to me to center Latinas through this experience and hopefully use this difficult moment to ensure that no one feels like they have to go through this alone.
In today’s America, what role and what spaces does the everyday Latina fill?
Latinas can fill any role or space they want to fill! The most important part is to own all of who we are once we get there. People always say don’t forget where you come from but I always say, where you come from will never let you forget. It’s our responsibility, even obligation, to take every piece of us into whichever rooms or tables we get access to. Our voices and perspectives are critical yet many times we are made to feel that we need to dim ourselves in order to fit in the boxes that are laid out for us – both professionally and personally. We need to hang a lantern on those colorful pieces of ourselves, not lessen them in order to make others more comfortable. Our families teach us more than we realize about just how to do that. A lot of what has compelled me to take big risks is the immigrant spirit that was passed down to me by my bis-abuela, abuelita, and mama.