How Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia found her voice
Julia Mejia has, like many successful women, often harbored a bruising case of imposter syndrome. Still, the circumstances in which she found herself last week felt especially unreal.
She was being sworn in to the Boston City Council in Faneuil Hall — the same historic building where she’d raised her hand to become a naturalized citizen nearly three decades earlier.
Now, she was accepting a standing ovation from an ebullient crowd as Boston’s first-ever Afro-Latina city councilor. She was trying in vain to contain herself, blinking back tears.
“Things like this don’t happen to people like me,” she reflected later, in the City Hall office she claimed by winning one of four at-large council seats in November.
Yet improbable things have been happening to Mejia for years. Twenty years earlier on this same holiday, Three Kings Day, she’d been hired by MTV to cover the presidential election and inspire young people to vote. Ten years ago in February, she gave birth to her one and only child, Annalise Cooper, at 40.
Time and again over her 50 years, Mejia has discovered that unlikely things do happen to her, when she lets her authentic self shine through.
That’s the message she wants her historic election to convey, said her campaign communications strategist Eldin Villafañe: That this is possible for everyone, no matter their polish or their pedigree. If she can be heard, they can, too.
“This victory was for the people,” Mejia said. “I really do believe that this wasn’t about me.”
To be sure, her victory was unlikely. In the crowded field of candidates that featured two Latina newcomers, Mejia was not the one expected to win. Alejandra St. Guillen was better-funded and more politically cultivated, already working for Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who had endorsed her, and sharing a campaign headquarters with two sitting city councilors.
Mejia didn’t get an endorsement from a single councilor and had spent the past few years as a school advocate who had been publicly critical of the mayor. (When the eight at-large council candidates were asked to grade his performance in office, Mejia alone gave him a C.)
She had worked to promote charter schools, creating skepticism among some progressives, and she was accustomed to pushing at government from the outside, having worked in civic and youth engagement and founded the Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network to teach parents to speak up for their children.
And though she was politically groomed at Emerge Massachusetts, a candidate training school for Democratic women, she initially doubted she could play the role of staid politician.
She is, as she describes herself, a little rough around the edges, someone who lets the “street” show through. For her first fund-raiser, she tried — wearing pearls and blow-drying her curls into submission — but bungled her remarks to a room full of wealthy donors with a self-deprecating joke about how she could “clean up well.”
“Julia is a little more flamboyant,” said Lorna Rivera, director of Gaston Institute for Latino Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “She can speak across social classes.”
She has been negotiating those strata since childhood.
Her single mother, Mirta Peña, 71, left the Dominican Republic for Boston on a visa that she later outstayed, leaving her undocumented and vulnerable for much of Mejia’s life. (She has since become a citizen.) Peña didn’t make it to the fourth grade.
“She never really learned how to navigate,” Mejia said. “All she knew was how to work in factories.”
Mejia stayed behind with her grandparents for three years, then followed her mother to Boston at age 5, wearing shoes that were already too tight. “Sesame Street” taught her to speak English. By age 8, she was a tiny translator, helping her mother and their Dorchester neighbors make their way through courthouses and welfare offices.
“I became ‘that kid,’ ” said Mejia.
She can’t say whether she was especially precocious or savvy with people; she credits necessity. “I became that kid because I needed to eat,” she said.
Early on, she learned to modulate the message, sanding off the sharp edges: Give Mami the facts but spare her the condescension. Convey Mami’s answer without her attitude.
“I became really good at advocating. And I had to,” Mejia said. “Those early years really set the stage for me and my work and in terms of who I am.”
Mejia and her mother moved often, staying with relatives or friends who would have them. She didn’t quite realize how poor she was. She made her own dollhouse out of a Pampers box. When she wanted Nikes, she made money handing out fliers advertising a new insurance office. By age 12, she was helping her mother clean downtown office buildings at night, and by high school was juggling several jobs, including selling shoes at Thom McAn.
School seemed pointless. She started skipping and by ninth grade, just stopped going.
But allies were looking out for her. Kathy (Guerin) Mahoney, the career specialist at Dorchester High tasked with getting students jobs, dragged Mejia back from the workplace into academics.
“I would drive down to her job and scold her: ‘Your life isn’t just going to be as a manager at Thom McAn,’ ” recalled Mahoney, then known as “Ms. G.”
Mejia was so resourceful that she managed to return to school and repeat ninth grade, without her mother finding out she’d left.
“I remember thinking, ‘I hope the world is ready for her,’ ” said Mahoney. “ ‘Because she is ready for the world.’ ”
Career inspiration came from a high school presentation by Liz Walker, the first black woman to coanchor a Boston newscast. Mejia realized that she wanted to work in TV and to do so, she would have to go to college. She made it to Mount Ida College in Newton, which set her apart from her friends back home in Dorchester. (“Oh, you think you’re white now,” she recalled hearing from friends who already had babies.)
But there, she got to know white people in new ways. She became fast friends with a girl from Southie who had also been raised by a single mother and was the first in her family to go to college. That friend later married Frank Baker, now Dorchester’s district city councilor; Mejia was a bridesmaid in their wedding.
Baker was not surprised to see Mejia enter politics herself. He remembers her going to New York to campaign for Ruth Messinger, who challenged Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 1997.
“It doesn’t surprise me that she won either,” Baker said. “She absolutely worked her tail off.”
Mejia’s path to MTV came through videography, a medium she’d been using as a way of engaging young people, starting at community organizations like the Boys and Girls’ Club. She’d given up on becoming an MTV veejay — she’d already been rejected, twice — and was working as a publicist. Her advocacy for someone else’s story put her in the right place at the right time. MTV was hiring reporters to cover the 2000 presidential election.
She became a reporter for MTV’s “Choose or Lose” campaign aimed at engaging young people in politics. At first, she was afraid she wouldn’t make it. At 29, she was older than the other first-time reporters, and she lacked a degree from Columbia or Berkeley.
“I was the only one from the hood,” she said.
She was trying to represent black and brown communities, but she didn’t yet know how to effectively pitch her story ideas to a national audience. She was failing to make the connections that would make her subjects come alive.
“I was trying to be everything else but myself,” she said.
It was only when an editor pointed that out to her that she found her voice.
The transformation is captured on video: With her relentless effervescence, she chased down a wary Newt Gingrich and demanded a hug. It didn’t matter where she came from. She was there as an intermediary to translate the fusty old world of politics to a feisty new generation.
That, she could do. Unleashed from stuffy expectations, Mejia found her footing as she covered the campaign of former vice president Al Gore. His election ended up in a recount — just like hers would 20 years later.
In the eight-person race for four at-large council seats, Mejia had argued that voters didn’t have to choose between two Latina candidates who got along. They could have both. But on election night, it came down to a contest between Mejia and St. Guillen for the fourth seat and a count so close it couldn’t be settled.
A recount ensued. The process was remarkably amicable, with both women stressing that every vote should count.
In the end, Mejia prevailed by a single vote.
And what outcome could better illustrate Mejia’s message that every voice should be heard?
It’s a theme she plans to promote as she encourages participation in the 2020 Census. And it’s the dual-purpose message her constituent services director was enthusiastically printing on buttons at 4 a.m. on Inauguration Day: “Every ONE Counts!”