Kentucky elects first Hispanic woman to office

Christine Thompson ran for the Livingston County School Board and won, making her the first Hispanic woman to serve in public office in Kentucky.

ELLEN O'NAN | The Sun

Christine Thompson said she ran for Livingston County School Board to make a difference in her home state and be a voice for children.

The 37-year-old mother of two didn't realize she'd be making history in the process.

Voters may not have known when they marked their ballots for Thompson, neé Alonso, that they were electing a Hispanic woman to office for the first time in Kentucky.

"Honestly, I was shocked," said Thompson, a former Paducah resident and the daughter of two Mexican immigrants who earned their U.S. citizenship in the 1970s. "I was just certain there was somebody out there, another Latino who had served in public office in Kentucky."

Thompson was partly right: Kentuckians elected their first Hispanic representative in 2014.

Ralph Alvarado, a Republican, represents Kentucky's 28th District in the state senate. But the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO, confirmed Friday that Thompson is the first Hispanic woman to win a Kentucky election. NALEO records go back to 1984.

Hispanic voters turned out in record numbers for the 2018 midterms, according to the Pew Research Center, and Hispanic candidates made history in statewide and national races. Thirty-seven Latinos will serve in the 116th Congress, compared with 34 in the 115th, NALEO reports.

Thompson believes these historic gains are a result of that group becoming more involved in politics, as well as voters of all backgrounds finding common ground with Hispanic candidates.

"There's this generation of Latinos who want to make a difference. We want to contribute," Thompson said.

"Immigration is not the only policy we care about. (Hispanics) care about health care costs. They care about wages and jobs. … We're being embraced by our communities, and I think that's great."

Thompson was born in California to Maria and José Alonso. Her mother was a homemaker, while her father worked as a chemical engineer. They arrived in the U.S. on tourist and work visas and spent six years earning citizenship.

"We carry our parents' journey with us, and their journey was about the American dream," Thompson said. "I think people don't understand how that shapes who we are, for first-generation Americans."

The family, including Thompson's brother and sister, moved to Kentucky when Thompson was 14. Her siblings and mother still live in the commonwealth. Thompson graduated from Lone Oak High School and earned her bachelor's degree at Murray State University, where she's currently working on a master's. She has lived in Ledbetter for five years.

"I consider this my home," Thompson said. "My family is here, that's No. 1 for me. I like the area. I think it's a good place to raise your family. The people are nice, and I've learned to really embrace the culture."

Thompson said most of her challenges as a first-generation American have been internal. The Alonsos encouraged their children to assimilate, and Thompson learned English as her first language.

"You feel like you have to prove that you're American to your American friends, and to everyone else. You also have to prove that you're of Mexican descent," she said. "You don't want to be the outsider, and I think that was hard growing up, feeling the pressure to be fully American and also hold onto that Mexican side."

Thompson has come to embrace her heritage more as an adult, teaching her daughters Spanish and saving recipes handed down from her grandmother. More significant still, she said, are the values her parents instilled in her.

"What sticks with me (are) my parents' work ethic and the importance of getting an education. Those two were the biggest things they pushed," she said.

Thompson's motivations to run for school board include her 7-year-old daughter, Natalia Turner, who attends second grade in the district. She and her husband of three years, Ben, also have a 2-year-old, Mia.

Although her campaign was stressful at times, Thompson said she's grateful for the learning experience.

"I think the best part of it was getting to know my neighbors, listening to their concerns. It made me more passionate about what I was doing," she said.

Thompson said her top priority as a school board member will be to keep students safe and ensure everyone is provided an opportunity to succeed. She hopes to work with everyone to help bring "peace back to the school district," she added.

The school board consists of five seats, and two of its members-- Thompson and Terry Watson -- will be serving for the first time. There are 1,194 students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade in the district, the school board office said.

"We welcome Mrs. Thompson and Mrs. Watson," Superintendent Victor Zimmerman said in an emailed statement. "(Their) willingness to serve our county and students is greatly appreciated. They will bring unique experiences and skills to our board that will become assets to our school community."

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