Doing what we can

It has been a year, almost exactly, since Mary Espinoza, my grandma, stepped down from her career in public service.

She served for 16 years on the Mountain View School District Board of Education, and for 25 years before that, as a bilingual instructional assistant and school attendance clerk.

“Hice lo que pude,” she told me.

I did what I could.


Grandma, after her final school board meeting in Nov. 2015.

My grandma was born in El Paso and raised along the Texas-Mexico border.

She attended segregated schools, and did not graduate. Not at first.

But she went back.

She earned her GED a little before her oldest child, my mother, finished high school.

Grandma was 65 when she first sought elected office. She had no political ambition, but she was driven to contribute. To help, to share, to serve, to solve.

“That first time, it was just family and a few friends who went out walking precincts with me.”

Home from college, I was dispatched to the public library where I scrolled through microfilm to look up returns from the district’s previous three election cycles. How many doors did we need to knock on? How many lawn signs did we need to print? How many phone numbers did we need to dial?

Relatively speaking, it was not a very sophisticated operation.

But she won.


I try not to forget the democracy that lives and breathes under the fluorescent lights of school board chambers and city halls. Rooms with scratched linoleum floors and metal folding chairs where people like my grandma work and keep working. Fight and keep fighting.

“You have to listen, and you have to hear,” my grandma told me. “That’s why you were elected.”

She doesn’t regret retiring, she said, but “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the involvement. I do.”

(She has spent the past few weeks phone-banking in support of California’s Prop. 55, which would extend income tax increases on the state’s wealthiest residents to help fund education and health care.)

Today, she and my grandfather will walk to the polling place down the block to cast their ballots.

We have come so far, and we have so far left to go.

And yet I believe in the promise entrusted to people way down at the bottom of the ballot. Who pledge in good faith to do what they can.