(Editor’s Note: The questions and answers have been paraphrased for clarity and brevity.)
Rep. Escamilla is a first term representative having been elected in 2012. At 35, he is one of Arizona’s younger legislators.
Tell us a bit about your background and where you grew up?
My family was made up of farmworkers who followed the harvest from Arizona through California and up to Washington. They would pick melons and cabbage and lettuce in Arizona, grapes in California and cherries, apples and pears in Washington. At some point they got tired of traveling and settled in Yakima, WA. I was born there in 1978 as were my brothers and sisters.
My father, along with his brothers, quit agriculture and went to work in car dealerships and eventually he and his brothers opened up their own dealership. My mother stayed in agriculture and continued working in apple packing.
I went to elementary school in Yakima, but in 1990 my grandmother got sick and so we moved to Arizona because my mother wanted to be closer to her. That is how I ended up in Arizona.
Have you stayed in Arizona ever since?
Yes we moved to San Luis (near Yuma) and I went to junior high school and high school in this area and then also to college at Arizona Western College in Yuma. I had a good high school career and got involved in the student body council and was quite active.
You became interested and involved in politics at a very young age. How did that happen?
At the time, there was a lot of turmoil in San Luis and we had a number of political leaders being recalled. Some people came to me and said they wanted a fresh start and wondered if I was interested in running for the San Luis City Council. I agreed, ran for office, and at the age of 19, I was elected to my first term. I won another term, then sat out for two years. At the age of 24, I ran for mayor and got elected in 2006 and re-elected in 2010.
Did you have a particular platform you ran on for city council and mayor?
San Luis is an ag community where as many as 60 to 80 percent of the population is involved in farm work. When I was a teenager and started in politics, there were very few community service programs. There was no YMCA or a youth center or anywhere else for teenagers to hang out. We had a high dropout rate and a high teenage pregnancy rate. I saw serving in city government as an opportunity to serve the community and make it better. Many people wanted to take the community in a new direction and I was in that group.
I had seen firsthand through many friends how high the unemployment was and how low the incomes were. I think we did a good job and efficient job of helping the community.
What made you decide to run for the Arizona House of Representatives?
It was the same issues. When redistricting happened, I saw that 75 percent of the new district (in his area) shared the border with Mexico. I believed I had a unique perspective as a border town mayor to represent the people in this district. I resigned as mayor and ran for the House of Representatives and was elected.
I see an opportunity to increase trade with Mexico and create jobs for this area and all of Arizona.
You are a Democrat and the Arizona Legislature is in Republican control. Have you found it frustrating or have you been able to work across the aisle?
When I was in San Luis, we ran a non-partisan government. One of the reasons I ran for the state legislature is that I believe it has been too partisan. Sure, we have our principles and our differences, but I think most of the legislation should be non-partisan. We should concentrate on the common ground of helping Arizona and improving the life of all of our citizens rather than letting the differences define us.
So far it has been a roller coaster ride. We have a lot of common ground but every once in a while an issue surfaces that defines our differences and it makes it difficult to get back to the common ground.
Do you think the Arizona Legislature is moving in the right direction?
I do think it is. We have a lot more younger members — the youngest is 28 and I am only 35 — who want to change things, improve Arizona and don’t want to play politics. We play politics too much but I think that is changing. I have built good relationships across the aisle. If we highlight our common ground rather than our differences, we can work better together.
What is your relationship with the ag community?
Of course I grew up with parents who were out in the fields and, as the oldest of seven children, sometimes we were out there and it was my job to take care of my brothers and sisters. When I was 17, I went up to Washington and picked cherries which was the only job I have actually had in agriculture.
Agriculture is a very important part of our state, and very important in the feeding of America, especially in the winter. I tell people that if you are eating lettuce and other greens in the winter, there is an 80 percent chance it came from Yuma.
Agriculture is very important for creating jobs in Arizona and I fully support the industry. Since I’ve been in Phoenix (with the Legislature) I have worked with a lot of great people in agriculture and I have developed a deeper respect for the industry and I have become more knowledgeable about the industry.
It is one of those issues that is and should be non-partisan. But sometimes, agriculture doesn’t get the attention it deserves. For example, when we are talking about water, agriculture is sometimes on the bottom of the list and it should be on the top of the list. Without water for agriculture, we would jeopardize our future.
After all, at the end of the day, we all have to eat.
Immigration reform is a big issue for agriculture. What is your view on that issue?
We are way overdue for a solution to that issue. We need to have some type of immigration system in place that works. Agriculture has played an important role in the debate and it seems as if they get it. In my area, there are 60,000 to 80,000 people that come across the border every day to work. They spend three hours in line getting across the border and then two more hours getting to where they work. And then they spend 10 hours in the field. We need a better system. They are doing work that most people hate to do. I have a lot of respect for that work but it is back-breaking work that most people won’t do. We need them.
The president of Western Growers, Tom Nassif, has been quoted saying no one raises their children to be farmworkers. As the son of farmworkers, do you agree?
That is absolutely true. My parents didn’t raise their kinds to be farmworkers and we are not raising our kids to do that work. Again it is an important job and I have great respect for people who do it, but everyone wants a better quality of life for their children. We need to make it easier on the people who do that work.
What is in your political future?
If you would have asked me that question two years ago, I would have said that I would be running for re-election to be a mayor of San Luis right now. At this point I am loving serving the community at the state level and I do plan to run for re-election. Beyond that I can’t tell you. But I don’t see myself as a politician and doing this forever.
Our members and your constituents grow the finest fruits and vegetables in the world. Are you a consumer of our products and did you grow up eating fruits and vegetables?
Absolutely. I love fruits and vegetables. I love green leaf items and they are an important part of every lunch and every dinner I have.
When I was kid we ate lots of fruits and vegetables, especially whatever our parents were picking that week. If it was lettuce, they’d bring home lettuce. If it was cherries, they’d bring home cherries. My mother was very creative at creating meals out of whatever she brought home.
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