Crisanta Duran never set out to become the first young Latina in all things politics in Colorado. But coming from a family where political conversations were a dinner time staple, it came as no surprise when she ran for office five years ago. What Duran never expected at the time was that she was going to win in her electoral debut season by a landslide and that, only four years later she would become an influential voice in setting her party's agenda at the State capitol.
"One of the most powerful things that anyone can do is finding the ability to believe in themselves," said Duran. "It is powerful when people recognize their abilities within themselves and be willing to push themselves to the next level."
Duran, 34, is in her third term as the state representative and is already stamping a pretty solid mark in Colorado politics. In January, she became the first Latina House Majority leader, and four years ago, when she assumed office for the first time, she had become the youngest Latina legislator ever in Colorado, a state that is yet to see its first woman as a U.S. senator or governor.
She entered politics after many years of tagging along with her father in grassroots activism. Her father was a union leader and labor organizer. Her mother spent most of her time working for the city advocating for affordable housing. She recalls a particular trip to Watsonville, California, to rally with her father and some 30,000 people supporting strawberry workers. By age 24, she graduated from law school at the University of Colorado and became counsel for a local chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents people working in food chains like Safeway, King Soopers and Albertson's. Her father was the union's president.
In 2010, the labor attorney shifted gears from grassroots advocacy to political office. She ran for House District 5, which includes portions of northwest Denver, LoDo and now parts of southwest Denver up to West Evans Ave. That year Duran got 76 percent of the votes, almost 8 of every 10 people casted their ballot for the Latina debutant candidate - a proportion she repeated during the next two election cycles.
"We ran a campaign that was very inclusive, laid out a platform focusing economic issues and how we were going to strengthen it (the economy)," said Duran. "When I ran for office, four years ago, the Latino constituent voters were a little less than 30 percent and the number of registered voters was even less than that."
In a recent town hall meeting where she addressed food deserts issues within the neighborhoods she represents - Elyria, Globeville, Swansea, Lower Highlands and part of the Sunnyside - most people attending where non-Hispanic easily by a 10-1 ratio.
After the 2011 district reapportionment, 52 percent of the 75, 447 constituents were Hispanic and 37.79 percent White-Non Hispanic - with only 59,035 of voting age, yet only 26,817 are registered to vote, according to state documents.
As the House Majority leader, Duran is the second in command, working closely with the speaker figuring out what position the Democratic Party will have in all kinds of issues that affect public health, education, energy and the economy - and exploring ways to find a middle ground when negotiating political favors or duties with Republican lawmakers, who now control the Senate.
But before becoming a House Majority leader and the chair of two powerful House committees, the Joint Budget and Appropriations, she was already acting as a leader, especially within the Latino community. Duran set up a political action committee to promote a law that would allow college students without legal authorization to live in the country to pay in-state tuition like other Colorado residents, a bill that had been rejected six times before it became law two years ago.
"I tried to raise money ahead of the time that the legislation would even be heard to talk to candidates before they were even elected to see if they would support an initiative like Colorado ASSET," said Duran. "A good chunk of the funds that were ultimately allocated to candidates to support the Colorado ASSET was primarily the Latino community."
Duran won't go much in details about what higher office she will be aspiring to in the future of Colorado politics. She laughs when we compare her up and coming career with that of Julian Castro, a former mayor of the seventh largest city in the country, and his brother Joaquin, who became a U.S. congressman after serving several terms as a state representative in Texas.
But when she includes the four corners of the state of Colorado in her politics and initiatives, you know she's building blocks to run one day for a bigger office.
"It was never my plan to be the first," said Duran. "It is exciting to see Colorado changing and it is sending a message that young people, Latinos, women, people from different backgrounds have the qualifications to lead."
(Freelance reporter Paula Vargas contributed to this story)