When U.S. Representative Xochitl Torres Small was six-years-old she asked her parents if she could change her name. Her birth name was “Leanna.”
“I was jealous,” she said. “My brother had an Aztec name and I didn’t.”
Her brother’s name is “Quetzal.”
So she asked her parents to let her go by “Xochitl.” It means flower. They said “yes” and now Torres Small gives her parents the credit.
“Really the story is I have really understanding parents,” she said with a laugh.
Her paternal grandparents immigrated from Mexico to the United States. Her great-grandmother was Indigenous and spoke Nahuatl, which can be translated to Aztec. This link was part of the reason her brother was given an Aztec name.
However, Torres Small doesn’t identify as Indigenous but says her roots help her to be a good ally to Native nations.
“It speaks to me of the importance of heritage and maintaining culture,” she said. “It helps me be as strong of an ally as possible for Native American sovereign governments to recognize the potential of loss and what that can mean.”
Torres Small’s parents met at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico where they would later raise their family. Torres Small watched Cruces grow from 70,000 people to over 100,000.
Her grandfather was a police sergeant, her father was a social worker and her mother was an educator.
This gave her a broad perspective on the issues facing her community.
“I’ve spent my career trying to find ways to serve my home,” Torres Small said.
One of those ways has been as a field representative for Tom Udall’s campaign, clerked for a federal judge and went to law school to study water and natural resources law. She graduated from the University of New Mexico School of Law and started working in New Mexico.
Then, the representative seat opened up when former-Representative Steve Pearce decided to run, unsuccessfully, for governor.
“I was actually trying to find someone to run,” she said. “I thought it was really opportunity to have real representation and I had this list of people I was trying to get run.”
Eventually, that list got one name longer.
“There was this point where I thought what if it’s supposed to be me on that list?” she said. “What if I’m supposed to do this job?”
In a close race, that came down to absentee ballots, Torres Small won by 3,722 votes which resulted in her earning 50.9 percent of the votes.
“I’ve never loved a job more,” she said with a smile.
She is the first woman to hold the District 2 seat in the state of New Mexico making her part of the historic wins that included her colleagues Rep. Deb Haaland, Rep. Sharice Davids and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez plus many others.
Ultimately, Torres Small hopes to make a positive difference for the communities she represents.
“I saw people that I loved feel like they had to choose between the home that they loved and their best opportunities,” she said. “My best friend got a higher paying offer somewhere else. I had another friend who couldn’t afford to stay in New Mexico and be able to pay off his student loans. My brother was worried about education for his kids and so didn’t come back home.”
On issues facing Indian Country
Torres Small represents seven of the 23 tribes in New Mexico. They include the Navajo Nation, Fort Sill Apache, Mescalero Apache, Zuni Pueblo, Acoma Pueblo, Laguna Pueblo and Isleta Pueblo.
She heard from tribal nations that were severely impacted but the government shutdown earlier this year.
“During the shutdown I received lots of stories about the impact that the shutdown had on Native American sovereign governments and it was disproportionate compared to what other communities experienced,” she said. “So many services, because of our trust responsibilities, come from the federal government. So people who had trouble with law enforcement or case workers coming to help in domestic abuse situations, people who had trouble with the IHS.”
This is why Torres Small’s office is keeping an eye on the advanced appropriations legislation that has been introduced to the House and the Senate. The bill would allow appropriations one year in advance to help
“We saw real challenges and my understanding is the advanced appropriations legislation would insulate the Native American sovereign governments in event of future shutdowns,” Torres Small said. “It also saves money because you’re not having to have those start up and shut down costs.”
Torres Small is also an advocate for Native language programs. She co-sponsored the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act that would provide $13 million every year from 2020 to 2024.
While on the campaign trail, Torres Small visited the Alamo Navajo community, which is a satellite Navajo community located over 200 miles away from the capital of the Navajo Nation. During her visit, she was able to see a Navajo language program and the positive impact it has on the youth.
“You see the pride that these kids have in their identity and their home,” she said. “The generational trauma that has been experienced is a real challenge to address and every time I ask Native American sovereign government how we can support your effects in addressing that, language and identity are a fundamental piece of that.”
When it comes to the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement, Torres Small has seen how the process works as she clerked for Judge James Wechsler when he was the presiding judge over the 2010 Navajo San Juan Agreement Settlement that allocated about 635,000 acre feet of water to the Navajo Nation every year.
“I understand the dual role that the United States has in supporting a Native American sovereign government’s sovereignty but also fulfilling its trust responsibilities in helping resolve these issues,” she said.
Torres Small wants to ensure that money is made available for water infrastructure.
“So getting information about the ongoing settlement is incredibly important because we have a real opportunity to resolve these issues by providing money for infrastructure, by supporting negotiations with the state and making sure that paper water turns into wet water on the ground,” Torres Small said.
Still on the campaign trail
Torres Small hasn’t had an easy transition to her new position. Her GOP opponent, Yvette Herrell, filed a lawsuit to contest more than 8,000 absentee ballots after the election. The ballots were eventually certified by the state.
Then, just a couple months into her term, there are already potential challengers who are also Native American, Herrell, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and Gavin Clarkson from the Choctaw Nation, have expressed interest in running again.
So, Torres Small hasn’t gotten a break from campaigning.
“There’s a reason why we have campaigns every two years,” she said, “It’s tough because you have to do your job and you’ve also got to campaign.”
But she looks at this as a positive.
“The chance to make sure that I’m continuously in communication with the people that I’m serving and that I’m continuously getting feedback on how they feel I’m doing is valuable,” Torres Small said. “No matter whether it’s campaign or not.”
Pauly Denetclaw, Diné, is a fellow with Indian Country Today. She is a staff reporter for the Navajo Times. Her work is supported by a grant from the Bay and Paul Foundations.