St. Guillen stands her ground, even in the face of ten votes

Alejandra St. Guillen (right) speak at a candidate forum in Roxbury, hosted by Madison Park Development Corporation, on Oct. 22, 2019. Photo by Elias Miller/ BU News Service

By Hannah Harn
BU News Service

It’s election night, and Alejandra St. Guillen rolls in, her retinue close behind. At 9:45 p.m. Bella Luna in Jamaica Plain is full to the brim with supporters and staff alike, and the potential Boston-elect seems optimistic. They’re not too far behind in the Boston City Council race, and she’s confident they can make up the votes.

“Three years ago, I woke up a little horrified about the decision our country had made,” she said to the rapt crowd. Even with music playing, she projects clear to the back of the room. “It wasn’t until I walked by the elementary school by my house and saw a little girl just sitting there that I started to cry. I asked myself, ‘What kind of world is she inheriting?’”

She bounces around the venue, always staying close to her wife, Josiane. She thanks her team, glances at the projected numbers, has a drink, glances at the numbers again. At some point, she disappears outside. 

When St. Guillen arrives at the ABCD Thelma Burns Building in Roxbury in mid-October, her posse is small but remains mighty.

“Thank you!” St. Guillen said when someone compliments her leather jacket. “It’s actually vegan, you know, for the environment.” 

A bright scarf and black heels complete the ensemble. St. Guillen, a challenger running for Boston City Councilor At-Large, is dressed well and has impeccable posture, even when sitting and taking notes at the tightly-packed forum table.

At 42 years of age, St. Guillen identifies herself in numerous ways, and with every question she answers, she seems to draw from a different one. Whether she’s being a parent, a gay woman, a Latina, a trauma survivor, a wife, a Boston worker and resident or all of them at once, she is making eye contact with you.

“I remember Alejandra talking to this lady who was telling her that she couldn’t afford to live by herself so she was living with her mom,” Jessica Bahena, St. Guillen’s campaign manager, said. 

St. Guillen immediately started offering the woman resources and contacts of people who work in affordable housing in the city, even giving out her own cell phone number.

“It wasn’t just, ‘Let me give you her number,’ it was ‘If she can’t help you, I will work with you.’”

Anne Harvey Kilburn first met St. Guillen while working to set up a sort of pop-up shop for kids who had aged out of the foster system.

“As a stranger [then], she was so helpful in connecting me [to city government],” she said. 

St. Guillen went out of her way to assist, giving Harvey Kilburn contact information for her project. 

“It was difficult for me to reach out [for help], but St. Guillen was kind.”

St. Guillen is one of very few City Council candidates to have received an endorsement from Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, but it wasn’t too surprising for those close to her. She was appointed as the Director of the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Advancement in 2014, and while they didn’t always agree on everything, they knew how to work together.

“Thank you so much for coming,” she said to a few attendees on her way out. It is nearly 9:30 at night when the forum ends, and as perky and social as she is, St. Guillen seems tired. She waves goodbye to her friends as Bahena follows her to the door, calendar in hand.

Election night carries on, and St. Guillen is coming back from a short meeting outside. Nobody could hear their conversation, but she and her aides don’t look happy. It’s 10:30 p.m., and Julia Mejia is barely beating her for the fourth and final seat.

When she returns, the whole room falls silent. She concedes, explaining to the waiting masses that they’re just too far behind to catch up.

“It’s around 200 votes,” she said. “I believe deeply in our democracy. The voters [didn’t pick me], and that’s okay.”

Mejia’s party, according to Snapchats and Tweets, is celebrating down the road. The party at Bella Luna continues, but the mood is more subdued. St. Guillen slips out quietly with Josiane for a breath. A few moments later, she’s back inside passing out hugs to friends and staff.

She looks around the room, her eyes tired but her posture still perfect. 

“I’m going to wake up and I’m going to cry,” she said quietly. “But I’m proud of what we accomplished.”

The live WBUR debate, held on an overcast Oct. 22 starts in five minutes, and Alejandra St. Guillen has just arrived. She doesn’t pause long, just to put down her purse and grab her notebook. The first question of the debate goes to her, and she is ready for it. Throughout the debate, she’s eager to respond. One word from another candidate and her hand comes up subtly, letting the moderators know she’d like a moment to speak to their point.

“And can I just say,” she interjects firmly during responses to questions about Boston’s opioid epidemic, “that we should never police drug addiction and substance abuse?”

She drops little pieces of herself in her responses. Her father immigrated to the U.S. from Venezuela in the 1970s and her mother was a New Hampshire hairdresser. The last show she binged was “Schitt’s Creek,” the last book she read “Just Mercy.” And while she’s not the first openly gay person to run for or be on Boston’s city council, she’s one of very few, and would be the first Latina to hold a seat.

A big part of what drives St. Guillen’s commitment to public service is her own experience with trauma. In 2006, her younger sister Imette was killed in New York City by a bouncer, which led to legislation requiring background checks for bouncers. Now, St. Guillen uses her career to carry on Imette’s legacy.

“I lived through trauma and came out the other side,” St. Guillen said in a campaign video. “I know through this work I can never bring my sister back, but I sure as hell can make her proud.”

For many, St. Guillen’s varied life is what makes her approachable. People often reach out to her to talk about their own experiences, good and bad.

“Alejandra is very vocal when it comes to her story of self and her lived experience in terms of combatting trauma and depression, her story of coming out,” Bahena explained after the debate. “She’s been very open about that. People feel comfortable asking her those kinds of questions.”

St. Guillen shakes hands with her fellow candidates and with the moderators as the debate ends. Attendees move toward the doors and St. Guillen is camouflaged briefly, soon reappearing at Bahena’s side. Before she’s even finished thanking guests for coming, she’s got her eyes on her calendar, Bahena pointing to the next event they have to attend.

“On to the next thing,” she smiles. “I’ll see you again at the next one?”

It’s the last forum of the race, and St. Guillen is running a little late. If she is anything, it’s busy. When she schedules meetings, there’s never more than a spare half-hour of free time squeezed in between the daily onslaught of events, meetings, fundraisers and canvassing trips.

“We try our best to schedule family time,” Bahena explains. “That’s usually Friday evenings, but it gets complicated in the final stretch.” 

Though St. Guillen is constantly working, her wife is supportive and understands the time commitments. The staff often take turns watching St. Guillen’s son, Jose, at different events.

St. Guillen is comfortable letting her son, lovingly called Jams, explore at will, color with volunteers or stand with her. Kilburn described her as relaxed, which she connects to as a fellow adoptive parent.

“She wasn’t flustered about him doing what he wanted to do,” Kilburn said of St. Guillen at a recent house event. “She’s a pretty relaxed parent and just very authentic about it.”

Throughout the forum, St. Guillen is unafraid to let her emotions show. St. Guillen and Councilor Michelle Wu often shake their heads in disagreement and share looks as the forum goes on.

“Alejandra is very raw,” Bahena laughed. “She doesn’t have a poker face and that’s something that I like about her. Her whole thing is keeping her platform, her personality, her thoughts very transparent, whether that’s being reactive on a certain question or even giving an unpopular answer, saying something that people might not want to hear.”

It’s not the latest night they’ve had, but as quickly as she arrived St. Guillen is getting ready to leave with Bahena close behind.

“I have to drive Alejandra home.” She gets out tomorrow’s calendar, hunting for a free moment to schedule a new meeting. “It’s been really busy recently.” 

In just a few days, St. Guillen will be rallying with U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley for Get out the Vote, but Bahena doesn’t even know where St. Guillen will be canvassing yet.

“There are times where I think, ‘Yeah, she’s ready [to be done],’” Bahena said, “and then times where she could keep going for months.”

St. Guillen has stopped to chat with a student, asking about college and what year the student is. In the middle of their reply, she sits, pulls a second pair of shoes from her bag and changes into them. Sleek black heels are replaced by worn, well-used sneakers.

“I just couldn’t anymore,” she laughs. “Too long in heels is just … ugh.”

It’s around 11:15 p.m. and Bella Luna is mostly empty when recently re-elected Councilor-at-Large Michelle Wu calls, the unofficial final tallies glowing on the screen across the restaurant. St. Guillen, who has been in her heels since 6:45 a.m., turns away from the table to answer. Still, not let a single attendee leaves without a proper goodbye.

“Aren’t you going to take your shoes off?” a young man asks. 

“No,” she laughs back. “Because I’m a diva!”

When she comes back inside, she has news: it’s a ten-vote split. The words “recount,” “lawyers,” “official statement” and “Mayor’s office” start to bounce around the now-empty restaurant.

Bahena, not far off, springs into action. 

“We’re working on the statement,” she said quietly.

St. Guillen, who is hurriedly calling lawyers and staff members, agrees. Her eyes are firm and just like that she is busy again. 

“We are going to call for a recount.”

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