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Rep. Norma Torres talks guns, threats on her life and the end of Roe 

‘I’m not going to apologize for defending myself,’ the California Democrat says

“For me, politics is what I have to do to deliver on the things I want to do for my community,” says Rep. Norma Torres.
“For me, politics is what I have to do to deliver on the things I want to do for my community,” says Rep. Norma Torres. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Norma Torres has had an eventful couple of years.

An online spat with El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele led to threats on Torres’ life and gang members allegedly casing her home. 

That came in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, during which the California Democrat was among a small group of members trapped in the House Gallery. She keeps the gas mask she got that day in her office. 

Torres — whose political career was launched after she pressed the Los Angeles Police Department to reform its dispatch policies — emerged from both seemingly undaunted. She’s doubled down on her criticisms of El Salvador’s authoritarian leader and repeatedly taken aim at her Republican colleagues who’ve tried to paper over the events of Jan. 6.

As she enters her fifth term, Torres, who was born in Guatemala, says her “home is like a compound now.” She spoke to Heard on the Hill about the overturning of Roe v. Wade, defending herself with a gun and how Democrats can retain Latino voters.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: Last month would have marked the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. How are you feeling now that it’s gone?

A: I don’t think Republicans will back off. I think they have been energized by the Supreme Court, unfortunately. We have seen efforts at the state level where they are trying to mandate what women legislators should be wearing on the floor. I mean, what’s next? 

This issue is very personal to me. After I had my third son, I wanted to have a tubal ligation. I was done with having children. I went to my doctor and he said, “Oh sure, here’s all the forms you need to sign.” One was a consent from my husband. 

He doesn’t own me. I choose to be married to him. What authority does that ring or that wedding have over my body? But we were still very young, and the doctor felt that there are disagreements in marriages.

It was a very difficult time for both of us, because my husband felt the same way. He didn’t want to sign the form, not because he didn’t want to give me consent, but because he felt he was putting ownership over me. And I was beside myself. 

I ultimately got the procedure without his authorization, but only after threatening my doctor that number one, I’m not going to stop having sex, and number two, if I get pregnant, I’m not going to have an abortion, and I’m going to kill myself because I’m not going to have another child. Why did it have to get to that, for me to be an independent decision-maker about my body?

I think back to when we first got married. I couldn’t open credit on my own — I had to have my husband’s signature. As a woman of my age, I had the right to an abortion if I wanted. But there are other rights that young women take for granted. 

Q: Some people declared 2022 the year of the Latina Republican. What do you make of that, and why are Democrats losing ground with Latino voters?

A: I don’t think we’re losing that base. I think there are special cases where Republicans have done a better job in outreach. But if you come to a Congressional Hispanic Caucus meeting, we’re so diverse. We share in common that we speak Spanish, but we have different dialects. And the food is very different. I am Central American, my husband is Mexican — his spices are chiles, mine are flowers and seeds. 

Latinos traditionally have been very conservative on religious rights, and there’s a strong male dominance. Heads of households have traditionally been just the males, and the women are the support. But that has changed, and what Latinos want and need is an explanation of how government works. When you come from a country that is killing its citizens, as many of these immigrants do, they don’t trust the government. So they fall prey to things like QAnon, where a lot of these folks are talking to them in Spanish. 

The Latino community is ours to lose, for sure. It is one of the reasons why members like myself have been pushing and pushing on the DNC to do a better job. It is the reason why in our caucus, we push to have a Latino outreach program and our talking points translated, not just in Spanish but in other languages.

Q: You’ve said you sleep near a gun because you fear for your safety, especially after some tense online exchanges with the president of El Salvador. How do you square that with your calls for stricter gun laws?

A: I grew up with a gun in the house. As an adult and as a mom homeowner, I chose not to. For me, I couldn’t risk it. 

I raised three very mischievous sons. I have a safe, and in 2005, we had a fire in our home. When the fire department opened the safe, they found a pair of white tennis shoes. The boys had gone into my safe. I don’t know how they opened it — maybe they were able to find the combination — but they took out all my important papers, birth certificates, my citizenship certificate. One of them didn’t want the other one to wear his shoes, so he locked them in the safe. 

I knew my sons, and I knew that I couldn’t trust having a gun in the house. But later, I had gang members come to my home, threatening my husband, threatening me online.

I’m very focused on the root causes of migration. I feel strongly that the issue at our southern border is a symptom of these presidents in Latin America failing their people. We have sent millions and millions of dollars in assistance, and in many cases that money has gotten into the hands of corrupt officials. I’m going to talk about that. My responsibility is to U.S. taxpayers, not to those governments in those countries, and I’m going to call them out for it. 

[After I called out the El Salvadoran president on social media], two gang members showed up and threatened my husband. It took over an hour for my local police to respond. I went in my house and grabbed a gun, and I came out, and they left. I’m not going to apologize for defending myself. 

Someone said, “You need an AR-15.” What, so I could shoot through walls and kill my neighbor? The imminent danger is in front of me, and I [can address that] with a handgun. 

We’re not saying you should not have a right to defend yourself. I support the Second Amendment. I just don’t think automatic weapons, weapons of war, are part of the Second Amendment. 

Q: Do you still sleep with a gun close to you?

A: The threats have slowed down. After that incident with those gang members, Capitol Police spent a week parked in front of my house, talking to the police departments to see what they were hearing from their local gangs. A couple of days after they left, an MS-13 affiliate came back to my house and graffitied all over the front. So it’s been rough.

Now I have a gun safe, and it’s very close to me when I’m home. Capitol Police has a budget for members of Congress to secure their residences. It’s so sad. My home is like a compound now. I have cameras everywhere, and every window is protected.

Q: You worked for years as a 911 operator. When you were younger, did you ever think you would get involved in politics? 

A: Never. I hated politics. My husband loves politics, he loves history. But for me, politics is what I have to do to deliver on the things I want to do for my community. 

It was a 911 call that threw me into the political world that I never wanted to be a part of. A little girl waited for me to answer her call for her help. She waited 20 minutes, because that night, we only had two or three 911 dispatchers who were bilingual. 

All I could hear was thumping and horrible screams. Later, I learned the thumping was her head being bashed against the wall, followed by five shots point blank. The screams were not screams, they were words: “Uncle, please don’t kill me.”

My captain and my department said, “This is how we do things. We’re not going to change.” So I taught myself to lobby on behalf of this victim. I had to speak publicly at city council meetings, which I’d never done before. They were forced to make the changes I was suggesting, like creating a community outreach program and hiring bilingual dispatchers, not just in Spanish but in other languages.

That little girl, she did not survive. But she made me. She created this political monster.

Quick hits

Last book you read? I read “Elephant and Piggie” with my 8-year-old grandson. And I love historical novels about British queens and kings.

First concert? It was Rod Stewart. My best friend’s mom was a housekeeper for them, so they got tickets. It was a lot of fun because we got backstage passes, but no teen should have been a part of that — just a lot of open drugs, sex and alcohol. 

If you could do any other job, what would it be? I spent 17 and a half years as a 911 dispatcher. Believe it or not, I had stayed on a leave of absence, and I just formally retired from that job a year and a half ago. 

Least popular opinion? I don’t like country music. That’s like [fingernails on the] chalkboard. 

One thing you would change about Congress? The dysfunction. The part where we cannot have a grown-up debate, a civil debate. Those disagreements have become so personal and such a threat to our public safety.

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