The story of how Teresa Leger Fernandez came to represent New Mexico in Congress shares an unlikely starting point with how the chile became the official state vegetable: 1492.
That was the year the Spanish Inquisition began to expel Jews, some of whom fled to Mexico and to what would eventually become the American Southwest. Among them were Leger Fernandez’s ancestors.
It was also the year Christopher Columbus famously sailed the ocean blue. Among his many so-called discoveries in the New World was the chile plant, which the Spanish colonists prized. In time, they brought their crops north to what is now New Mexico, where the Pueblo people adopted them in their cooking.
“When we look at history, it’s complex,” says Leger Fernandez.
The first-term Democrat sat down in her office to talk about her deep roots in New Mexico, chile stew, her father’s political advice and ranked choice voting.
Q: Seven months in as a congresswoman, what’s surprised you so far?
A: The generosity of my colleagues. I think time is our most precious resource, the biggest gift you can give. They’ve given me their time, as well as their guidance.
Q: Your late father was a state senator. What lessons are you drawing on from him?
A: He always focused on community. If you look at both how I ran my campaign and how I’m trying to govern, it is so community focused.
My rallying cry is “Ahora es cuando,” which translates to “It’s time now.” He always thought that was our job, to take advantage of the moment to make a difference. And boy, is this a historic moment.
Q: You’re a 17th generation northern New Mexican. What can you tell us about those first generations?
A: So I’m a 17th generation on my European side. I also have Apache, Pueblo and Zuni heritage.
Some of them were Sephardi fleeing persecution from Spain who ended up in northern New Mexico because nobody would find them, because there’s no gold there. Some of them were not great people and did bad things, and some of them were what I would call justice heroes.
It was a long, long time ago. La Malinche — she had the first acknowledged offspring of Spanish and Mexican — is seen as both our heritage, because that’s where we come from with this intermixing, but also very complex.
We have both good things and bad things in our history as individuals, like me. The trick is to come to reconciliation with that and say, “How do we move forward?” And that’s actually the moment we are also in right now in the United States.
Q: You brought the lawsuit for Santa Fe to recognize ranked choice voting. Do you think the rest of the nation should adopt that kind of voting too?
A: It is a much better way of exercising democracy when you have multiple candidates who are representing a range of issues. Democracy is never perfect. So our goal should always be to improve that, and ranked choice voting is an improvement.
Q: You’re close with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. What’s something about her that most people don’t know?
A: She loves to cook because she is a Pueblo woman, and she has a roaster that will feed 50 people. She lent it to me to cook red chile for some Congress people. Here in D.C., she likes to continue her tradition of welcoming people and feeding them red chile and green chile.
I have to get her roaster back to her.
Last book read? “The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop” by Felicia Rose Chavez.
Can the ends justify the means? I think we need to be consistent in our values in everything we do, including how you do it.
Least popular opinion? I don’t know, I haven’t done the polling. [Laughs.]
America’s best president? I’m going between FDR, because he met the moment, and Lincoln, because he also met the moment.
Closest friend across the aisle? Don Young. He’s my ranking member on the Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples. In our hearings, it’s hard to tell who’s Republican and who’s Democrat just based on the questions and interactions. I love that.