RHODE ISLAND — Former Soledad resident David Morales began his duties as a member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives last week after being voted in during the November 2020 general election.
The 22-year-old is among the youngest leaders to have been elected to state office in the United States, after having secured 49.4% of the votes in a three-candidate primary against incumbent Daniel McKiernan and challenger Angel Subervi in September, and receiving 96% of the general election vote.
Morales, who took office Jan. 5, came to the East Coast from Soledad and still has family who lives in the Salinas Valley town.
“I see this as an exciting opportunity to be able to advocate for working people in our communities of color who oftentimes are overlooked,” Morales said. “It is important that we have individuals with lived experience who can attest to why affordable housing is important, to why we need to increase the minimum wage, and why we have to have a health care system that guarantees coverage for everyone.”
Morales called the journey difficult, but credited grassroots campaigning with helping in his election.
“Door knocking and making phone calls clearly paid off, as I’m preparing to be the youngest Latino to ever serve in a state legislature,” Morales said.
Morales grew up in public housing in Soledad, raised by a single mother who cared for himself and his sister. He said his parents separated due to his father suffering from drug and alcohol addiction, which led to him not having seen his father since he was 8 years old.
“My mom had a lot of responsibility to take care of myself and my sister and make sure we were able to pay the rent and have groceries,” Morales said. “I recognize I had a lot of responsibility at a young age, and that to me meant I had to invest in my education to the best of my ability.”
Morales said he joined the Upward Bound TRIO program when he entered Soledad High School, a program that helps first-generation high school students who come from a low-income background to take early college courses. He took summer courses during his freshman and sophomore years, then added night classes with Hartnell College when he started his junior year at SHS.
Earning college credit early allowed him to begin his junior year at UC Irvine upon graduating from high school.
Morales earned his bachelor’s degree in urban studies in a year and a half before going to Brown University to work on his Master’s of Public Affairs program in 2018. That took him to the Rhode Island capital of Providence. He said he gained an interest in political involvement while at UC Irvine.
“It was definitely a lot of long nights, a lot of studying in between, and a lot of grassroots organizing,” Morales said about his experience.
He said Providence differs from the Central Coast in that it has more multi-family homes, which led to a culture shock when he first moved. He said one similarity is the number of people working minimum-wage jobs, which force them to take multiple jobs in order to pay bills.
Morales encouraged youth in the Salinas Valley to recognize how special places like Soledad are because of their tight-knit communities, something not found in large cities. He also offered them advice.
“Our potential is limitless and it is ultimately about the investments you’re willing to make for yourself, knowing you have the support of your family, your friends and ultimately your community,” Morales said.
While recognizing the importance of community, Morales recommended against trying to leave the area.
“The goal shouldn’t always be to get out of the 831,” he said, adding that there is value in making large social impact in rural towns with predominantly farmworker and Latino populations.
In the end, Morales said it is important to “create the best outcomes for the people that live there,” no matter where one lives.