Linda Sanchez dines on colorful salad but shes as salty as the nachos

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Linda Sanchez’s conscience has had many awakenings.

Contending with bias and racism as the child of Mexican immigrants, experiencing a humbling encounter with the legendary Cesar Chavez, and logging hours on her sister Loretta’s congressional campaign all take a line on the r鳵m頯f her political identity.

And then there was having to be in by 10 on a Friday night.

While curfew isn’t usually tagged as one of nation’s great social ills, in the household in which Sᮣhez came of age it was chores and curfew that first roused her inner activist. “I grew up in a traditional Latino family where the boys had much more freedom,” reminisces Sᮣhez, the sixth of her parent’s seven children. “We could only go out one night a week and we had to be home before 10.”

“I used to be like ‘Mom, why is my younger brother allowed to go out Friday, Saturday and Sunday night and come in at whatever time he wants, and I only get to go out one night?’ This was a constant struggle for me. ‘Why does it have to be this way?’”

Pushing her mother for an explanation, Sᮣhez, who admits to being “the rebellious one” of the bunch — “I probably gave my Mom gray hair,” she laughs — finally got out of her exasperated mother, if not an answer, then a way forward.

“Some days she would say that’s just the way it is, get used to it. And some days she would say if you don’t like it go to law school and change the rules. She was the one who started me on this path of wanting to empower women.”

Sᮣhez replays her growing pains over lunch in Alegria, a small, bustling restaurant squeezed into a strip mall in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles, struggling to be heard over the blare of car alarms and the steady whoosh of traffic down Sunset Boulevard. With its pastel-washed walls, hipster wait staff, and lighter twist on traditional Mexican cooking, Alegria is Mexican food with a distinctly California pronunciation, making it an entirely appropriate place for Sanchez to start telling tales of change within the Latino community.

Sanchez orders a chicken salad. She asks for balsamic vinaigrette on the side. The restaurant is a Sᮣhez favorite, a regular haunt when she worked in a downtown law firm. That was after she took her B.A. from Cal-Berkeley and her J.D. from UCLA, but before she was elected Congress in 2002 at 33, following in the footsteps her sister, Loretta.

On a lunch break from El Latino Congreso, an international gathering of Latino community leaders, Sanchez has passed the morning as a panelist on the Voting Rights Act. Sanchez has made this one of her banner issues.

“The meaningful participation of citizens in the political process is like the cornerstone of democracy,” Sanchez says, recalling struggles she witnessed as the child of immigrants, quoting De Tocqueville on the virtues of an engaged citizenry, all the while sprinkling her conversation with signature “likes” and “you knows” of a true SoCal girl.

When President Bush renewed the Voting Rights Act this past July, Sanchez was at the White House to witness the signing ceremony.

The 39th district curls around the southern edge of Los Angeles in a peculiar U-shape, a fertile crescent of Democratic supremacy strung together by a band of working-class and immigrant communities. It’s also an area populated by union workers, and so a place that is heart to heart with Sanchez’s own hopes and struggles. Sister, daughter, dog owner, and congresswoman, Sanchez is also a proud member of the Brotherhood, the International Electrical Workers union.

“So long as greed is a motivator, there will always be a need for a union,” Sᮣhez says.

Sanchez’s salad arrives, the chicken haloed in fruit, her plate spilling over in the sunny Baja colors of the avocado, watermelon and mango. However, there’s no sight of the balsamic-on-the-side. Sanchez gently reminds the waitress, who scurries off, promising to deliver.

While it’s unadvised as a rule to compare someone to a salad, there’s something to the brightness of the food, echoed by the swirling pastel colors of the room, that correlates to the congresswoman’s own boisterous, friendly demeanor. There’s nothing gruesomely D.C. about her; she doesn’t carry herself with the fussy hauteur of power. Only the fact that she’s being pestered with questions at the expense of her lunch would suggest she’s any different from the other patrons in the restaurant.

She’s also a joker, with a hearty, bouncing laugh and a richly unfettered sense of humor. Let’s be frank: The nachos aren’t the only things to come salty at this table.

Take Disneyland, for instance. While some might go weepy wistful remembering the kiddie thrills of the teacup ride, Sanchez, who was raised not far from Uncle Walt’s mad happy place, evinces no regressive love for the Magic Kingdom. Instead she shudders at the memory occasions upon which she had to play junior tour guide to friends and family eager to see the park.

“If I had to hear ‘It’s a Small World’ one more [bleeping] time … ,” Sanchez laughs, with a response that’s definitely more union sister than mouseketeer.

An Aquarius, Sanchez sees herself as a vision person, and one of those visions involves saving Washington, D.C., from bad Mexican cooking.

“You know the problem in D.C. is there are no decent Mexican restaurants — they all suck,” Sanchez laughs. “I sort of jokingly tell people that if my career in Congress doesn’t work out I’ll open a home-style Mexican restaurant in D.C. and become a millionaire.”

Sanchez is a regular in Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s (D-Conn.) annual fundraising cook-off at the restaurant Tosca. On her first gambit, Sanchez scored third place with her tortilla soup. The next year it was the gold for her green enchiladas. Last year her taquitos with guacamole came back in at number three.

Other than cooking, which she doesn’t find enough time to really enjoy, Sanchez unwinds by playing with her dogs Chavo, Baloo and Pip, a rescue dog named after the orphan in “Great Expectations.” An avid reader and baseball fanatic, she has just devoured Tony LaRussa’s baseball bestseller, “Three Nights in August.”

She is intense and focused on subjects close to her heart, issues as diverse as the genocide in Darfur, healthcare and protection of victims of identity theft — this last item being of personal weightiness because Sanchez recently had to contend with her own identity thief, a crack addict who stole Sanchez’s personal information from a medical office and used the data to get phone service in Sanchez’s name. The woman was apprehended before she could do Sanchez any real financial harm.

Sanchez admits, “It’s hard to be a young member of Congress.”

In Washington, unlike in California, there is no cult of youth in the dark and dirty backrooms of the old boy’s club. So as the Democrats wrestle with leadership allocations in the event they should take over of the House, Sanchez sketches out an argument for jumping ahead more junior members of the party.

“There is something to be said for experience and seniority, but I also think there’s something to be said for fresh ideas and young talent,” says Sanchez, adding with an exasperated chuckle, “I deal with colleagues who don’t even know what e-mail is, and yet we’re passing legislation that deals with it.”

What Sanchez’s Democratic colleagues do know is the frustration that comes with a decade of being the minority party. Sitting on both the Judiciary and Government Reform Committees, Sanchez will have a ringside seat if the Democrats reclaim power this fall.

She expects investigations, and has prepared her own bill of indictment, a list which includes beltway corruption, warrantless surveillance, and contracting and procurement protocols in Iraq. As lefty as she may be, she’s not a signatory to H.R. 635, Conyers’ exploratory impeachment measure.

“Everybody asks me, you know, if the Democrats take back control are they going to impeach Bush,” Sanchez says. The casualness with which the censure is bandied about makes her uncomfortable. She argues that the Democrats oversight needs to be “measured and strategic.”

The check arrives before the balsamic-on-the-side ever does. Sanchez resists throwing a “Don’t you know who I am? I sit on the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats” power fit, and lets the waitress off with a smile.

No Linda Sanchez story would be complete without mention of her sister Loretta, and a replaying of that worn out “sister act” that dominated the congresswoman’s press coverage when she first hit town. The tidbit Sanchez chooses takes her back to childhood, when Loretta, nine years older, was beginning to date. Concerned about what might happen to nice girls in the naked city, the Sanchez parents insisted that little Linda chaperone Loretta when she went out with the boys — an arrangement not without its pleasures for a kid sister.

“Loretta always dated really nice guys who would take us to things that would be fun for me, like the fair,” Sanchez remembers. As for what else she might have seen on those dates, California-47 needn’t worry, because California-39 isn’t giving up any secrets.

“Of course not,” Sanchez chuckles with mock indignation. “I’m not a stool pigeon.”