When Sylvia Garcia arrived in Houston in 1972, she was intent on finding a way to help people. She’d just graduated from Texas Woman’s University in Denton and had driven down in her blue Volkswagen Beetle stuffed with every single thing she owned.
Raised in the small valley town of Palito Blanco, the daughter of a farmer and a house cleaner and sister to nine siblings, Sylvia Garcia was not the first in her Mexican American family to go to college—her two older sisters went before her—but she was the first to land in Houston. “Like so many other people still today,” she says, “I came here to look for a job.”
She found one as a state welfare worker, making home visits. She settled in and started exploring her new town, teaching GED classes to kids who dropped out and working with the elderly, traveling the back streets of Harris County from Baytown to Barrett Station. “I know how to get most places in Houston without getting on the freeway,” she jokes.
Garcia just knew she wanted to be of use—she became a legal aid lawyer to assist those in poverty to gain better public assistance, and her engagement in the community, with groups like the National Welfare Rights Organization, naturally led her into politics. In some ways it was an almost inevitable evolution that led her into the public spotlight. In the early ’80s then-mayor Kathy Whitmire appointed her a municipal judge. From there, friends urged her to run for office, and she’s had her share of ups and down since.
She first ran for her U.S. House seat, TX-29, which stretches like a dragon across largely Hispanic communities from Aldine to South Houston, in the 1992 primary, and lost—“It was the first major redistricting in Texas, and three of us were Hispanic,” she recalls. But she kept at it, holding local elected positions including city controller and state senator, until she landed back at square one in 2018, running for the TX-29 seat again. Only this time she made history: Garcia became the first Houston Latina ever elected to Congress.
We were lucky to get her on the phone amid her insanely busy schedule—this year she’s served on the house judiciary and financial services committees, was selected as an impeachment manager, marched for justice for murdered Army soldier Vanessa Guillén and called for a Department of Justice investigation into her case, and has been at the forefront of pushing for better testing and health care for our underserved communities during the pandemic, especially in the Greater East End.
“Segundo Barrio,” Garcia calls it. It’s the Houston neighborhood that’s influenced her political career more than any other (though she lives on the Northside, in Lindale), and it still does today—it’s part of her massive district, which happens to be 76 percent Hispanic with 68 percent of residents speaking a language other than English at home. We asked how it’s helped shape her career.
How has the East End inspired you?
To me, as soon as you get out of downtown and go underneath the underpass and hit Navigation where it forks off, that’s the neighborhood that, when I think of the Houston community, that’s what I see, and I learned how it worked because I quickly realized that understanding it would be crucial to being able to do the work I wanted to do.
The church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, is the heart and center. We’re always so strong on faith and our social justice values. Across the street is a nice park. Again, a place for children to gather—that’s another value of Latino community, being strong in family. They closed the elementary school right there. But to me, that’s always the hub of where the activities and the politics were going on. There were a lot of meetings being held: the Mexican American Bar Association, and a number of groups.
Now if you keep on going to Doña Maria—every politician in town, at some point, goes to have breakfast at Doña Maria. Whether it’s Hillary Clinton, or you name the person, they’re always taken to have breakfast at Doña Maria. It’s always been a hub of activity, always been important to our community—our church, our school, our activism. A lot of that happened around Navigation Drive.
The area does seem to be changing quickly, with lots of development. Do you look at that as a good thing or bad thing?
It is a little concerning. I’m a little taken aback about the townhouses and projects that are beginning to pop off, closer to the Hardy area, and even in some neighborhoods—we don’t know what that will do to across the way, around the Guadalupe Church area.
The neighbors are concerned. They want to see growth, but they don’t want to be displaced because of the property development. That’s the neighborhood that built Houston. That’s the neighborhood where a lot of the railroad workers lived that helped build Houston. The city has a locomotive on its shield for a reason, because that’s how Houston developed, the railroads and then, of course, the port.
But you take that, and you also know that area has always been a food desert, a doctor desert—it’s mostly just restaurants and very small businesses. We don’t know how many will be able to survive the pandemic. And when you have too much development, and it becomes something different, they get very scared about losing the culture and flavor of the neighborhood.
What other issues in the East End are you passionate about?
For us it’s always health care and education. Ripley House and their new facility does help address the network of wraparound services needed for a community to survive.
There’s still poverty. There’s still a lot of people that don’t have access to health care. We don’t fully have a hospital-type facility around there.
Remember when the Houston Chronicle had that map of where all the Covid-19 testing sites were? I think there were orange or red dots showing where the most vulnerable populations were with no testing sites there. Well, that area is one of them. It took us a while to get up and ready and certified at El Centro de Corazón [providing testing for both children and adults].
There’s a lack of medical care. A lack of transportation, other than up and down Harrisburg and up and down Navigation. Because a lot of people don’t have vehicles to get to work, we need more mobility projects there. I will tell you the East End Management District has been a blessing, because they work on all those issues, along with food distribution drives, mask distribution drives.
We can tell people to put on their mask, but that’s assuming they have one. A lot of folks in our areas don’t have a mask and don’t know how to get one.
Is there a particular person who inspired you politically?
Barbara Jordan. We were trying to make some changes in the welfare laws, and a consultant said, “Why not talk to Barbara?” That was always a good idea. She was incredible, a brilliant woman. What an inspiration she was.