After a 5-1 vote, Javiera Caballero has been selected to fill a vacant at-large seat on the Durham City Council.
She is the first Latinx member of the City Council. Her appointment also makes the body majority women.
The seat opened up after Steve Schewel was elected mayor. Twenty-three people initially applied for the job.
A mother and a former teacher, Caballero works for an education consulting firm and serves as president of the Club Boulevard Magnet Elementary School PTA. She came to the United States from Chile as a child and grew up in Charlotte.
Caballero was sworn in at tonight's regular meeting of the City Council, about an hour after the council voted to appoint her in a special meeting. She delivered her first remarks in English and Spanish, thanking her supporters and vowing to “fight for all of us.”
“This has been a historic moment for Durham and I’m proud to be part of it,” she said.
Caballero said she was surprised to get the appointment, although she prepared for that night’s council meeting just in case.
"I came into the room thinking I didn't have it," she said. After the vote, and a brief standing ovation, she quickly got to work, with a briefing from council member Charlie Reece on a zoning item.
"I believe that she is the leader we need at this moment in our city's history, both to bring the voices of our Latinx community to the table here in City Hall but also to fight for a city we all deserve," said council member Jillian Johnson, explaining her support of Caballero.
Initially the council had split, with three members (Vernetta Alston, Johnson and Reece) supporting Caballero and three (Mark-Anthony Middleton, Schewel and DeDreana Freeman) supporting Pilar Rocha-Goldberg. Schewel said he would switch his vote to Caballero, saying while he felt Rocha-Goldberg was the best candidate, both are “excellent.” Middleton agreed, and aiming for a unified vote, switched his support as well.
Freeman remained in support of Rocha-Goldberg, but said she felt the best candidate had dropped out. She declined to name that person.
Before casting his vote, Reece said Caballero has "shown that she can reach out across all sorts of lines that exist in our community."
Johnson said Caballero shares her values, would bring a unique perspective to the council and will represent an underrepresented community. About 13 percent of Durham’s population identifies as Hispanic or Latino. Neither the Durham County Board of Commissioners and Durham Public Schools board have Latinx members.
In a public input meeting last week
, supporters said Caballero has earned the trust of Durham’s Latino community. Those sentiments were echoed by a small group that came to watch Tuesday’s vote.
“She connects with every type of person, especially immigrants,” said Laura Henaine, one of a group of Caballero’s supporters who came for the vote. “She understands the problems and challenges immigrants face.” Caballero believes family is the root of a good society, Henaine said, and that’s important to her and her peers.
As part of her work as an educational consultant, Caballero helps to develop equitable hiring practices. Alexandra Valladares, who also serves on the PTA, says that has informed Caballero’s work at Club Boulevard. She has been resourceful and able to engage non-parents with the public school system.
“I believe the work she’s done in the schools is a microcosm,” she said.
Community organizer Ivan Almonte said Caballero has consistently shown up for Durham’s Latinx community – as then high school student Wildin Acosta was taken into ICE custody two years ago and as police checkpoints sparked fears of deportation last spring.
“Finally I will have a voice I feel comfortable representing me as an immigrant, as a Latino in Durham,” Almonte said. “I think more than ever being a community organizer right now it gives me more motivation to keep fighting for social justice for my community.”