Javiera Caballero made history in November by becoming the first Latinx person elected to the Durham City Council, topping challenger Joshua Gunn for the third at-large seat by fewer than four hundred votes.

From the outset, her road to a narrow victory was a trial by fire, paved with personal and xenophobic attacks. The campaign exposed uncomfortable, sometimes ugly rifts between the city’s African American and Hispanic political communities.

Caballero—who was first appointed to the council in January 2018 to fill the remainder of Steve Schewel’s term after he became mayor—makes particular mention of one social-media troll whose attacks she likens to Donald Trump telling four congresswomen of color to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places” they came from. 

“It’s a story of who belongs in America and who doesn’t,” she says. “I understand my role. It’s not about me. It’s about opening up [opportunities] for others.”

After the October primary, failed candidate and community activist Victoria Peterson sought to invalidate Caballero’s campaign with challenges to the county and state boards of elections, arguing—without evidence—that Caballero, whose family immigrated from Chile when she was a child, had not proven her citizenship, though records show that Caballero has been a registered voter in North Carolina since at least 1986 and has voted in Durham since 2010. 

Those challenges were summarily rejected, although, facts be damned, Peterson is pressing on with her claims that Caballero has committed voting fraud. Last week, she told the INDY that she will appeal the State Board of Elections’ decision in Superior Court. 

“Maybe you don’t know it’s going to happen,” Caballero says, “but when it does, you’re not surprised. It’s unfortunate that it happened, and there was a lot of stress on my part. I was threatened throughout the election, but I was not shocked by it.”

Caballero says she was surprised such bigoted accusations come from a black woman. Then again: “It was a sentiment I heard over the whole election, and not just from her.”

Caballero’s critics also accused of her being a weak candidate who pulled across the finish line because of her alliance with fellow incumbents Jillian Johnson and Charlie Reece; the three ran under the People’s Alliance-endorsed slate Bull City Together. 

The debate within the PA around endorsing Caballero over an African American candidate—Gunn—prompted Durham filmmaker and fellow Chilean émigré Rodrigo Dorfman to send a fiery missive to fellow Latinx activists accusing “elements” of the black political community of being against “any” Latinx representation on the council. 

In Dorfman’s view, the city’s Latinx community, which consists of many immigrants, didn’t have the clout to win a seat on its own; Caballero’s appointment gave them the opening they needed, and support from Schewel, Reece, Johnson, and the PA was essential to maintaining that voice. He took the argument by some black PA members for endorsing another African American candidate as an attack on Latinx residents. 

At the time, Caballero took a levelheaded approach to the controversy: “This firing squad right now is not useful. It gets us nowhere in the long run,” she told the INDY. “Eyes on the prize, people.”

During the campaign, Caballero pointed out that Latinx residents make up nearly 20 percent of the city’s population and 36 percent of students in public schools. While Mexican-Americans “have been here for a minute,” she says, that’s not the case with immigrants from Central America who are fleeing gang violence and drug wars. 

“There is so much trauma,” Caballero says. 

The soft-spoken mother of three has been on the front lines of Latinx issues, in the city and across the state, since her appointment to the council. Among her priorities has been advocating for a better U visa policy, which grants immigration protections to victims of crimes who can aid in prosecutions. She championed the city’s language-access plan, which was unveiled in May. It ensures that residents whose first language isn’t English receive the same quality service as everyone else. 

And she helped mobilize elected officials across the state when the General Assembly introduced a bill requiring sheriffs to honor ICE detainers—an attack on newly elected black urban sheriffs, including Durham’s Clarence Birkhead, who had declined to do so. 

Caballero was not the only local candidate to knock down barriers this year. Raleigh elected its first two openly gay city council members in October, Jonathan Melton and Saige Martin. The latter is also Raleigh’s first Hispanic council member, as well as its youngest.  

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

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