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Leading the way

2013 Arizona Latina Trailblazers

Anna Tovar

Anna_Tovar_0055_ScanIt was in her grandparents’, the Bustamantes, general store in Tolleson that Arizona State Senator Anna Solorio Tovar began learning the principles that propelled her on the path to the state legislature. Established in the 1930s, the store is where her father, Luis Solorio, met and fell in love with her mother, Ernestina Bustamante. From her fourth day on earth, when her mother brought her to the store, Anna grew up in John’s Market and gained the sense of being part of a larger community, a value she carries with her today. Her family and the Market instilled in her a strong work ethic, excellent math skills, a warm sense of belonging to community and the ethics of a responsibility to help others.

“I remember my grandpa telling me that he wasn’t in the business to become a millionaire; he was in the business to help out his community,” Senator Tovar recalls. “He would always tell me, ‘Whatever you decide to become, don’t forget where you came from.’ That was always an important message given to us by my grandpa and my mom.”

She explains that when people sometimes couldn’t afford groceries, her grandfather would discreetly tell them to take what they needed and pay later.

At the store Anna saw some harsh realities. She speaks of the shock of seeing neighbors being hauled off by the Border Patrol. Sobbing children being separated from their parents was beyond a young girl’s comprehension.

Tovar recounts, “I didn’t know what was going on at the time, but then my grandparents later explained to me why they were being taken back to Mexico. So, at that point, it became real to me and I understood there was that issue in the United States and it was prevalent back then like it is today. I’d hear my grandparents talk about César Chávez and the Movement, how to fight for our rights. I think to be involved in that at a state level, they would be proud, knowing I’m still trying to fight for that.”

Anna and her husband, Juan Carlos Tovar, met in high school. While he went to the University of Arizona, she graduated from Tolleson High School and was in the first graduating class of Estrella Mountain Community College. Through letters, they became close friends and married in 1995.

Attending Arizona State University, Anna found that becoming a teacher fulfilled her love for children and her family values of public service. She began teaching at the Tolleson Elementary School that is now P.H. Gonzales Elementary. But her education did not prepare her for the children who came into her classroom abused and hungry. She always had food and snacks in her classroom and speaks of the rewards of seeing students with little self esteem light up when they realized they were smart and worthwhile. She finds it especially heartwarming when former students meet her and say that she gave them the confidence and the inspiration to succeed.

As to how she blazed the trail to the state capitol, she says the roots of her journey include her father’s 30 years as a union member. She joined the teachers’ union and soon presented some progressive ideas about how to move forward as a school. She caught the attention of some community leaders. Tolleson mayor, Adolfo Gamez, her longtime mentor, asked if she would run for city council. At first she laughed, but her husband pointed out that she should stop complaining and “be the change.” With her two sons in strollers, she went campaigning door-to-door and won, joining the Tolleson City Council in July 2001. Of her many accomplishments, she holds dear the Tolleson Teen Council Project that is training the next generation of public servants.

In August, 2001, she was diagnosed with of a rare form of leukemia. Anna eventually had to quit teaching during her two battles with chemo and bone marrow transplants from her brother. She used the months in protective isolation at the hospital to pour over Council materials and participate via phone.

In 2009, it was Mayor Gamez who suggested that she might replace Steve Gallardo in the Arizona House of Representatives for District 13. She was appointed minority whip and, after nearly two years, was elected to the Senate, becoming minority whip there as well. “Whatever life presents to us, you can’t give up fighting. I know there are a lot of my constituents now that are fighting to be heard for driver’s licenses; they are fighting for health care; fighting for better education. I want to inspire them to be fighters. To never give up hope.”

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This Article appears on the March 2013 issue of LPM under Features

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