After launching a search for a progressive candidate to rally behind, LUPE Votes found their candidate for U.S. House District 15 in a young entrepreneur who co-owns one of the most prominent businesses in the Rio Grande Valley.

Michelle Vallejo, co-owner of La Pulga Los Portales in Alton, is running on a progressive platform to be the next representative for the district which has recently become more conservative due to redistricting.

Vallejo, 30, joins a growing field of individuals running to replace U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen. Instead of seeking reelection to his current seat, Gonzalez is now running in neighboring U.S. District 34 after District 15 became more competitive.

Growing up in Alton, Vallejo says she basically grew up at the pulga which her parents opened approximately 23 years ago. She now co-owns it with her father.

From 2009 to 2012 Vallejo studied political science and history at Columbia University in New York City. After working with nonprofits there, she began making the transition to moving back to the Valley a few years later. At the end of 2016, she committed to focusing on South Texas.

It was then that she connected with La Union Del Pueblo Entero, or LUPE, a nonprofit organization that provides resources for people of low income.

Vallejo has collaborated with LUPE and other organizations, to hold community events at the pulga like courses to help people improve their businesses, information sessions for people facing eviction, and back-to-school events where people offered haircuts, dental checks and school supplies.

Events like those reminded Vallejo that simple things like a pencil sharpener can be luxuries for some people.

“I forget that this is work that I’ve been able to do through the pulga, through Los Portales, with organizations like LUPE and also working with the public schools here,” she said.

At the pulga, they also did outreach for the U.S. Census, getting in touch with people who might have been discouraged from completing the census due to fears of a citizen question.

“So over the past few years and joining my dad in the leadership of the pulga and working with our team and doing more community outreach, that felt like there were more solutions,” Vallejo said. “That felt like there were more answers.”

In November, LUPE announced the launch of LUPE Votes, a 501(c)4 nonprofit group through which they could endorse candidates for political office. LUPE Votes reached out to Vallejo along with other community organizers informing them of their search for a progressive candidate through their “We the Pueblo” campaign.

A few people nominated Vallejo to be that progressive candidate and after some discussion with her father who encouraged her to take up the opportunity to serve her community, she accepted.

But it wasn’t an easy decision given her other commitments.

In addition to co-owning Los Portales, she also co-owns Hustle + Socialize, a women’s entrepreneurship conference held in San Antonio once a year. She’s also the co-founder of the South Texas Frontera chapter of New Leaders Council, an organization that trains progressive leaders from Laredo to Brownsville.

However, Vallejo said that she would be taking a step back, particularly from her duties to the flea market, to focus on the campaign.

Among the issues that she’s running on, Vallejo said she ardently supports Medicare for All, an issue that became personal to her following the loss of her mother when Vallejo was still in college.

Her mother had been living with multiple sclerosis for 15 years and the experience of traveling for her mother’s medical care highlighted to her the importance of healthcare access.

Vallejo said she also supports raising the minimum wage, a federal jobs guarantee program that focuses on green energy jobs, and immigrant justice.

“It’s very, very complicated and I really do see that there is a backlog of people in the system and also many more coming and it just seems like a huge administrative mess,” she said, “but I firmly believe (in) being a place where we could welcome people and where we could embrace just all the fusion of ideas and joy and love and family and community.”

The community of vendors fostered at La Pulga Los Portales became like family to her. Seeing, first-hand, the struggles many of them often endured to make ends meet served as a basis for the things she wants to fight for.

“When I think of Los Portales I also think about why I’m running for Congress,” she said. “I see a lot of our vendors who’ve been there for 20 years not have a choice but to work until they die.”

To Vallejo, it became increasingly obvious that decisions made by leaders representing the Valley had not been to the benefit of the people here.

Yet, she never believed that someone like her could reach Congress.

“I used to believe that that dream was over, like there’s no way that people like us, people from the community, working class people, immigrant people and daughters of immigrants, or daughters, could take this path or have these hopes,” she said.

Now, though, she thinks it might be possible and, having connected with the community through la pulga, she thinks she might be the right one for the job.

“(I) truly firmly, firmly believe that I could be the best representative that South Texas has had,” she said.

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