“We’re not playing that game”: Michelle Vallejo's Congressional bid is voter-focused
A South Texan entrepreneur makes her way to a congressional battle for Houston’s 15th Congressional district. Michelle Vallejo’s bid is all about the voters.
MORE IN THIS SECTION
Michelle Vallejo is an entrepreneur-turned-politician who hopes to represent South Texas’ 15th Congressional District, a historically Democratic stronghold in the traditionally conservative Lone Star state of Texas.
The “pueblo’s candidate,” a name she adopted after her nomination, will face Mónica de La Cruz Hernández, a rising star among the Republican Party, endorsed by former president Donald Trump in the November congressional election.
However, her opponent’s presence and a radically right-wing platform are an afterthought on Vallejo’s mind as she rallies the support of her community.
“[Voters] understand we share other common bonds. Whenever I come across a voter who might not see ideologically eye-to-eye with me, I connect with them in other ways,” Vallejo said of traditionally conservative voters who don’t share her views.
“I connect with them in other ways. It always starts with my background, with my story,” she continued.
Across the Rio Grande
Vallejo’s story began in northern Mexico when her grandparents immigrated to Río Grande Valley in South Texas to pursue the American ideal, an opportunity to work and succeed. Her parents, Daniel and Maribel Vallejo, first settled in Austin, where, upon graduation, they took on multiple jobs to stay afloat while welcoming their first daughter.
Her father, a civil engineer, and mother, a public administrator, met in Texas.
“It was just so challenging for them (...) My mom ended up providing daycare services where they lived, which was a trailer park. My dad also had multiple jobs. They were trying to have a family,” Michelle said.
Vallejo’s parents were also the oldest in their family units who resided in the valley.
A traumatic car accident ultimately brought them back to Río Grande Valley, after which they decided to stay and build a life there. Inspired by the flea market scene in Austin, Vallejo’s parents built a concession stand, and laid roots for a bustling business district in the small border town of Alton, Texas.
“They’ve always been entrepreneurial. I’ve gotten bit by that bug,” Vallejo said.
Pulga Los Portales
When she was seven years old, Vallejo helped with her family’s business; a small concession stand where they sold a variety of produce. At the outset, the stand had no customers, but that didn’t deter Vallejo from customer outreach work.
She told AL DÍA she would run to a fence that bordered a busy avenue, where she yelled the stand’s number and would implore customers to visit. She also helped her parents purchase produce and stock the small store.
“Come to the Pulga!” Vallejo remembered yelling to passing cars, adding in jest, “I tried to do my own marketing, even though I was no help at all.”
A Pulga is traditionally known for selling second-hand clothing and food at a discounted price.
Initially, the concession stands included a few carts lined up along a cement road that Vallejo’s father laid down so they wouldn’t need to work on a dirt road. They advertised themselves as West Town Flea Market and Rodeoría, a name that drove clients away, given that they thought they were outsiders.
Thus, Pulga Los Portales was born.
At the time, the government shut down flea markets in neighboring cities, a key event that changed a few carts and a concession stand into a community enterprise.
“You didn’t really trust going to the Pulgas. But over the past 20 or 15 years, it’s actually transformed into becoming a place with a lot of pride and joy,” said Vallejo
As Pulgas became cultural staples, the exodus of neighboring Pulgas into Los Portales completely transformed the family business, now comprised of vendors from all across the county.
Return to La Pulga
Vallejo left Alton for college to attend Columbia University in New York, where she studied History and Political Science and would continue her career in law school. She worked with nonprofit organizations during her college years and helped craft a petition to combat racial profiling policies in Arizona in 2010.
But despite a successful first few years at Columbia University, Vallejo returned to South Texas following her mother’s death after a 15-year battle with multiple sclerosis.
Vallejo now co-runs Pulga Los Portales with her father to honor her memory and legacy and to build a cultural and business center.
Located in Hidalgo County, Alton is a small-ish town made up of 19,000 or so residents and is just a few miles north of Highway 281, a popular route from the border to San Antonio, Texas.
Growing up so close to the border shaped Vallejo’s views. Individuals who crossed the border would often travel through Alton, and many of whom, according to the candidate, have gone on to serve as veterans and are DACA recipients.
As the daughter of immigrants who successfully built a business and their lives due to immigration, Vallejo has always been acutely aware of her story. Even through college, Vallejo said she always felt the need to work in her own backyard, which proved to be a big undertaking for the South Texan turned Columbia student.
“On the other side of my actual relationship with people here (...) people started telling me ‘te fuiste,’” Vallejo recalled. Residents no longer saw the Michelle who grew up in La Pulga, but someone who left to pursue success elsewhere.
However, Vallejo remained steadfast because she knew something would bring her back to South Texas.
“You’re going to see me, and I think it was a bit of my stubbornness too. Don’t reject me. I am from this community. I represent this home. I’ve had challenges, and I’ve had successes, but I’m still from my home place,” she said.
Upon her return to Alton, Vallejo worked tirelessly at her family’s business while also involving herself in advocacy work.
Courted for Congress
In 2021, she was courted by LUPE Votes, a political organization made up of community members in the District 15 area who seek out potential candidates to endorse and nominate for Congress.
The first person she told was her father in a short conversation while handling preparations in Pulga Los Portales.
“I took it pretty seriously. I told my dad probably the next morning while we were checking in on business updates and what we had to do for that week,” Vallejo said of her conversation with her father following the nomination.
“Maybe I need more experience,” Vallejo recalled telling her father, to which he responded: “I think you should give yourself a chance to believe in yourself in the way that your community believes in you. The same way I believe in you. That’s all it took.”
Following her nomination, Vallejo defeated Texas Lawyer Ruben Ramírez in a dead-heat race ending with a 30-vote difference.
All about the voters
In the general election, Vallejo will face off against Mónica De La Cruz Hernández, a Trump-endorsed conservative favorite who won by a wide margin in her own primary. In South Texas, redistricted maps reduced and increased the number of conservative voters in the area, an obstacle Vallejo said she is not afraid to take on.
“I think these are the conversation we’re having across the board that bond people to this campaign. We’re not focusing on necessarily being the far left or the middle center. We’re not playing that game,” she said of her platform.
She told AL DÍA: “It’s funny that you asked how I’m comparing to my opponents' campaign, but I’m focusing on the voters. We’re not playing that game.”
Vallejo’s campaign started in December of 2021, making her the candidate with less time and resources to build a platform for her nomination, a fact that has not stopped her from continuing to amass the support of her voters.
The “Vamos por 15” campaign has run smoothly, though much is yet to be seen from the upcoming election.
Vallejo must also reckon with campaign finance laws, which monitor a candidate’s assets throughout an active nomination. Recently, Roll Call reported that she failed to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in the financial disclosure report.
When asked by AL DÍA, she said it was an honest mistake.
“It was a joint account I had with my dad which, in my mind, I had no access to, but I am a beneficiary to it. We went through everything again with our compliance team and immediately amended it,” she said while adding, “I think it comes at the expense of being new to the game and reporting assets in this way.”
In response to a question about whether the House Ethics Committee would issue an investigation or fine, her campaign didn’t think so.
“Absolutely not,” was the response given to AL DÍA.
As far as her platform, Vallejo’s priority is to invest in the border region.
“Families can’t even sit down and have dinner with each other,” she commented of recent immigration setbacks. “It has brewed a mistrust when it comes to how we handle immigration issues.”
“We need to invest in a pathway to citizenship so that people aren’t just landlocked and people are able to engage in society,” she said in stark contrast to her opponent’s platform, which shares the view of more robust border security and has echoed Trump’s border wall sentiments.
“I know what it’s like to live south of the border patrol checkpoint and also of what the experience is as soon as you cross,” said Vallejo.