Michelle Vallejo exclusive: Meet the South Texas community organizer running for Congress
Alton, Texas – Michelle Vallejo is running for Congress to ensure that South Texans are able to live lives of dignity and equal opportunity. TAG24 NEWS spoke with Vallejo about her decision to enter the race and her progressive vision for her home district.
That move created an opening for a progressive challenger to take a shot at the seat.
Enter Michelle Vallejo.
The 30-year-old community organizer from Alton is running to represent the South Texas community she calls home.
One of the key moments that inspired her journey into politics came while she was studying political science and history at Columbia University and working with LatinoJustice. There, she organized national petitions against Arizona's SB 1070, known as the Show Me Your Papers Law, which cleared the way for law enforcement to demand proof of immigration status when investigating other suspected crimes.
Though shocking, the experience of racial profiling was familiar to her: "I had known it my whole life because I lived south of the border patrol check point. Going through it and getting stopped and asked if you're an American citizen on American soil is common to me, even though it was always kind of scary."
"I realized that a lot of the issues that were being discussed and decided on a national level were actually rooted here," Vallejo told TAG24. "They were actually things that were happening directly to me, to my family, to us, and I could see how it affected how we see ourselves."
"We experience people having shame for staying home, for going through the education system here, for getting a job here, for having a family here and choosing to grow older here. Many folks don't have a choice because they're DACA recipients, or they're not able to go past the checkpoint because they're going through their processing," she continued.
"People live in that experience where it's shameful in a sense, and it affects us overall through our health, our education, our economy – it trickles everywhere."
"The people's candidate"
Vallejo herself brims with passion and pride in her community.
After studying at Columbia, she returned to her hometown to work with her father at the flea market, known locally as "La Pulga," which her parents established when she was little.
For Vallejo, La Pulga has always been more than a market. It is the center of her community.
"To me, I see the flea market like a little city," she said.
She helped further develop it into a community hub by partnering with La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) to facilitate outreach events. Vallejo also co-founded the annual Hustle + Socialize women's entrepreneurship conference and a progressive leadership training organization called New Leaders Council – South Texas Frontera.
This strong community involvement is why she was nominated by LUPE Votes to represent her district in Congress.
Initially, she was hesitant to accept the nomination – until one conversation with her father changed her perspective. He told her, "You have to answer to this calling. It doesn't happen all the time, and I think if the community has seen your work and knows and trusts you, you have to trust yourself too."
"Then I realized that even me not seeing myself or other people in my community who I know are doing work like me as enough to be representatives of our community, that's voter suppression in action already."
Progressive solutions for everyday problems
Establishing humane border and immigration policies is a key priority for Vallejo, whose parents both immigrated from Mexico as children.
When she was in high school, Vallejo began to notice that certain spaces she was accustomed to visiting felt less safe and there was a jump in cartel activity. This was followed by a notable increase in the presence of border patrol in her community.
After returning from New York, it sank in that the top-down response at the border was neither effective nor beneficial: "I really saw firsthand how letting that idea of problem-solving for the border run rampant had hurt my community. It really caused me – and, I could tell, other community members – to find other ways to solve this problem."
Vallejo turned to organizations working to provide housing for migrants seeking asylum, create safe spaces for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers, and record the stories of families separated at the border. Through those experiences, she "got to see that there is a lot more opportunity when you approach this problem from a different way."
In fact, she sees the border as "a home for the fusing of solutions, of culture, of experiences that could be the solutions that we need." To her, building walls and constantly surveilling both citizens and non-citizens is "like taking a bat to a fly."
In addition to immigration reform, Vallejo is also a supporter of minimum wage increases, affordable and accessible education, and Medicare for All, among other progressive policies.
The need for universal healthcare is personal for Vallejo: while she was studying in New York, her mother passed away after living with multiple sclerosis for 15 years.
Her South Texas community lacks the physical infrastructure to address the health needs of its population, she said. Members of the community regularly have to go to Mexico for affordable care, or host fundraisers to cover the costs of medical attention in the US.
Changing narratives through personal connections
With her positive vision and community-first approach, Vallejo is on a mission to shift common perceptions about her South Texas home.
One of those narratives is that people in border regions are increasingly swinging toward the Republican Party.
Vallejo said her team is reminding people that voters in the region do not hold particular party loyalties.
Instead, they vote for the people who actually speak to them.
"Unfortunately, our previous president was doing that. He was talking to folks who felt that they had never been spoken to," she said.
But that fact is also an opportunity for her grassroots campaign: "That's why I am so excited that I've chosen to do this because I know I'm a candidate who can connect with folks, who is connected with folks."
"This is my life – connecting with parts of our community who have been so largely ignored. It upsets me, and that's why I do it with even more 'ganas.'"
Vallejo urged people around the country to turn their sights toward the Texas-15 race: "This district is one that some people want to think of as a shoe-in on the Republican side, but they need to know – and they're learning very quickly – that there are challengers. There is someone on the ground holding the line, and that's me."
The Texas primaries are scheduled for March 1, with a January 31 voter registration deadline.
Cover photo: Michelle Vallejo for Congress