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Four Valley Siblings Running for Office. Are the Sorias a California Political Dynasty in the Making?
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By The Merced Focus
Published 2 months ago on
February 23, 2024

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Doctors said it would take a miracle for 16-year-old Joe Soria to survive a violent attack that left him clinging to life on a dark street in his hometown of Lindsay nearly two decades ago.

Brianna Vaccari Portrait

Brianna Vaccari

The Merced Focus

Now 34, he has long recovered from those injuries and is making the most of his second chance at life.

He’s running for Tulare County Supervisor to represent a district that includes Lindsay, a rural town in California’s Central Valley. Joe promises to invest in the county’s unincorporated communities in desperate need of simple amenities, such as street lights and sidewalks.

Those amenities still are lacking on Laurel Avenue, the street where Joe nearly lost his life.

By jumping into politics, Joe Soria is doing something he’s done his entire life – he’s following in the footsteps of his four older sisters, all of whom have held elected office in the San Joaquin Valley.

Three of Joe’s sisters also will appear on California ballots this year, either during the primary or in the general election.

Esmeralda Soria, 42, is seeking her second term in state Assembly District 27, which stretches roughly from Merced down almost to Avenal.

Perla Soria, 39,  the middle sibling and first in her family to run for office, will seek another term on the Lindsay Unified School District board in November.

Ivet Soria, 36, will run in November for a third term on the Lindsay Hospital District board. Upon her 2016 election, she was the youngest elected representative in Lindsay.

Additionally, Laura Soria Cortes, 45, the oldest of the siblings, previously served one term on the Lindsay City Council.

As the youngest sibling and only brother, Joe is the final sibling to pursue elected office.

Sorias Are Living the American Dream

Jose Soria Sr., the family’s 67-year-old patriarch, said he never imagined, after years of working in the fields of California’s agricultural heartland, his children would climb to such heights.

The Soria family’s journey is reflected in the youngest Soria’s campaign message: “Nosotros somos el sueño Americano.”

We are the American dream.

Jose Soria has proudly voted for his children when they appear on his local ballot. As the highest office holder in her family, Esmeralda is the only child her father hasn’t voted for because she pursued office north of Tulare County, where her entire family still lives.

“It’s a blessing. I never thought they would be politicians,” Jose Soria said. “I thought they would get degrees to go into teaching or work in an office. But I never imagined that they would get that far. I’m proud of all of them. They surpassed every goal that I had for them.”

 

 

Work Ethic and Sticking Together Are Keys to Family Success

The siblings attribute their work ethic and achievements to their parents, Jose and Maria, Mexican immigrants who worked in the fields and packing plants of the San Joaquin Valley to provide for their family.

In the 1950s, Jose Soria’s father participated in the Bracero Program, which temporarily allowed 5 million Mexican citizens to come to the U.S. to fill labor shortages in the agriculture and railroad sectors.

By 1977, Jose had found himself in the Valley, working the fields. About a year and a half later, he married Maria.

The Sorias planted their family in Lindsay, a small town of about 12,000 that sprouted up amid orange and olive orchards. About 88% of the town’s residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Nearly one in three Lindsay residents were born outside of the U.S., and nearly 73% of residents ages 5 and older speak Spanish at home, American Community Survey numbers show.

Jose worked in the fields for 15 years, picking whichever crop was in season. After that, he worked the following 25 years at a packing plant, always with his wife at his side, both enduring the backbreaking labor to provide for their family.

“I was doing hard work, picking oranges, grapes, olives, and lemons in the field. I would tell them to look at me as I came home, exhausted and dirty,” he said. “I didn’t want them to have the same life I did.”

Growing up, all of the Soria siblings worked alongside their parents in the fields, helping them pick crops on weekends or other occasions. Their parents hoped the work demonstrated to their children the importance of pursuing an education so they could earn a living by working with their mind, rather than their body.

“Les decia que le echaran ganas para que alguien dia tuvieran un buen trabajo – I would tell them to give it their best so they would have a good job,” said Jose, who primarily speaks Spanish.

Left to right: siblings Ivet, Joe, and Esmeralda Soria work in a citrus grove in their younger years. (Soria Family Photo)

While Maria Soria worked in the fields and packing plants, too, she was particularly dedicated to her children’s education. Outside of work, she earned her GED and attended classes to learn English, setting an example for her children.

The Sorias also dedicated themselves to their faith and local parish, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where they led a group for married couples, served meals, and organized events and fundraisers. The children attended youth groups and were altar servers.

Jose and Maria legalized their immigration status in the 1980s, thanks to Ronald Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. With the push from their children, the couple attended citizenship classes and received their U.S. Citizenship in the late 1990s.

Along the way, Jose Soria invested an unexpected windfall and started a small business that buoyed the family’s finances as his children – and their needs – grew. About 20 years ago, Jose used a $2,000 payout from a traffic collision to buy his first churro cart.

“That’s how we started making extra money. All my kids helped sell, and the business began to grow,” he said.

Swap meets and special events overtook the family’s weekends as the business expanded and sold more snacks, becoming “Pepe’s Snack Shack.”

“He really stretched out that business so that we all had cars when we went to college,” his son Joe said.

Jose took an early retirement six years ago to become the primary caregiver for his wife Maria, 64, who lives with Alzheimer’s Disease and uses a wheelchair. Their children are vocal advocates for the fight to end Alzheimer’s.

Now, the couple lives in Jose’s dream house on the outskirts of Lindsay, surrounded by lemon, mandarin, and orange trees.

“I never thought I would have my own ‘ranchito,’ ” he said.

Joe Soria, right, kisses his mother Maria, center, who is living with Alzheimer’s Disease. Her husband, Jose Soria Sr., left, is shown comforting her. (The Merced Focus/Christian De Jesus Betancourt)

Facing a Near-Death Experience as a Family

From earning a living to fighting for their brother’s life, the Sorias tackled life’s challenges as a family unit.

Joe admits he fell into the wrong crowd as a young teen.

At a house party on the last day of school when he was a junior in high school – graduation day – he saw a group of 10 young men show up to the party who he knew didn’t like him.

They chased Joe down a dark, residential street that dead-ended into a citrus grove. Joe knew he was outnumbered, but he hoped his athleticism would carry him to the safety of the orchard.

He didn’t quite make it before he was shot in the chest, stabbed and slashed with a 12-inch knife, and beaten nearly to death. An ambulance transported him to Sierra View Medical Center in Porterville, about 15 minutes away.

“I remember yelling, ‘Go faster, go faster, go faster! I’m dying, I’m dying, I’m dying! Because I understood, and I’ve seen enough movies, right? I understand anatomy. I’m like, ‘This is a gunshot wound, in the chest of all places.’”

He described it as “fighting for my life.”

His family gathered at the hospital and learned the likelihood of Joe surviving his injuries and surgery was low.

As the eldest sibling, Laura Soria remembers translating what the doctors were saying for her parents before fully processing and understanding the words herself.

“They told us ‘If you believe in miracles, right now is the time to ask for one,’” she recalled.

Before going into surgery, Joe spoke to his father.

“I was apologizing because I knew the trauma I was putting him through,” he said. “He was just trying to calm me down. He just kind of gave me his blessing before they showed him out.”

Surgeons went to work removing splintered bone fragments and pumping blood from his lungs.

Miraculously, Joe survived surgery. Before he was able to speak, he agreed to fully cooperate with investigators and penned his statement from his hospital bed.

Despite a long road of recovery, a rocky return to school, and the resulting criminal trial, Joe graduated high school and attended UC Berkeley on a full-ride Chancellor’s Scholarship. He was the third sibling to earn his bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley, following Esmeralda and Perla.

Ultimately, his attackers were found guilty and completed their sentences.

“Dealing with what I dealt with when I was 16, I feel very blessed that I’ve had this entire second life,” he said. “It’s a privilege.”

Joe Soria is shown at a Sacred Heart Catholic Church in his hometown of Lindsay. (The Merced Focus/Christian De Jesus Betancourt)

The Importance of Having ‘a Seat at the Table’

Long before the Sorias pursued political office, their counselor with the school district’s migrant program, Ernie Flemate, pushed the siblings to aim high.

Both Perla and Esmeralda were early recipients of the Gates Millennium Scholars program after Flemate encouraged them to apply.

Perla says Flemate inspired her to pursue a career in education.

“Because of that, I wanted other students like myself to have those amazing experiences because our parents aren’t able to give those experiences to us. They were working so hard,” Perla said. “I think it’s only equitable that we try and give (others) those experiences because it does open a whole different world. It can plant a little seed for God-knows-what in the future.”

Three siblings also participated in the Chicano Latino Youth Leadership Project, where they learned about propositions, laws, and representatives. That’s where Esmeralda first experienced Sacramento politics and learned a catchphrase she’s known to use.

“I learned how ‘having a seat at the table’ was critical for communities of color, especially for a young Latina,” Esmeralda said. “I got to see, for the first time, someone that looked like me in elected office.”

After gaining work experience at the state capitol, Esmeralda in 2012 took a job working for then-state Sen. Michael Rubio, who represented Lindsay. Around the same time, Perla was working as a counselor for Lindsay Unified’s migrant program – the same program she and her siblings participated in.

The school district’s decision not to renew Perla’s contract as a counselor sent ripples through the community. More than 300 parents and students signed and presented a petition to the board raising concerns about the program’s operations.

That experience nearly soured Perla on the education system. With a little encouragement from her savvy older sister who picked up a few campaign skills in Sacramento, Perla decided to run for the Lindsay Unified school board.

“I saw how much it impacted her, and I was like, ‘Well, you know what? We can do something about it,’” Esmeralda recalled. “Maybe you’re not going to be the counselor, but guess what? You can be on the board, and you can make sure that doesn’t happen to other counselors.”

Even though Perla was the first to run and get elected, “I’m going to blame Esmeralda,” she said, laughing.

“She’s the one who pumped me up and made me feel like I could do it,” Perla said. “She was my campaign manager because I was pregnant at the time. But even then, that made it more meaningful to me because I was going to be a parent. I wanted my little one to have a good experience in education – and not just my little one, but everyone.”

That campaign taught the Sorias a valuable lesson: Together, they win.

“That showed me that if my family can come together for one of our family members’ dream or passion or goal – I just felt unstoppable as a family,” Ivet said. “Maybe my sister couldn’t do it alone, but together – as my sister, my brother, my dad, my neighbors, my cousins, my friends – bringing everybody together, we can do it.”

Perla has served on the board for more than a decade now. She considered moving on from the position, but having a daughter with special needs reignited her drive to advocate for students and families. She’s running for another term this year.

The Soria family in a 2018 photo, from left to right: Esmeralda, Perla, Joe, Maria, Jose Sr., Laura Soria Cortes, and Ivet. (Soria Family Photo)

Holding One Another to a Higher Standard

Joe Soria decided to jump into the Tulare County Board of Supervisors race after closely watching the example set by Eddie Valero, the first Latino elected to the board five years ago.

But sharing DNA didn’t guarantee his family’s support. Esmeralda’s endorsement was one of the toughest to earn, he said.

“I wanted to make sure that he was in it – like with all his heart – and that he’s gonna work hard,” she said. “I wanted him to show that he was serious.”

Joe is following his older sisters’ playbook to win his election: canvassing, knocking on doors, hosting community events, putting up signs and – perhaps, most importantly – mobilizing voters.

He wants to see Tulare County reinvest in the small communities with the worst roads, worst water quality, highest crime rates and less viability to prosper.
“I’ve experienced the hardships of living in the unincorporated areas,” Joe said. “I really do see the need for that representation, that reinvestment, and a local leader that can connect with their community.”

Whether Joe Soria will be victorious remains to be seen.

He’s running against retired sheriff’s captain and incumbent District 1 Supervisor Larry Micari. District 1 includes the unincorporated communities of Lemon Cove, Poplar, and Tooleville, plus the cities of Exeter, Lindsay, Farmersville and portions of north and east Visalia.

Regardless of the outcome, the fact that four siblings are running for public office — in the same year, no less — is extraordinary.

“There’s no question: that family understands the concept of service,” said Henry R. Perea, the patriarch of another well-documented political dynasty in the Valley.

“You know the old adage that ‘sometimes people forget where they come from?’ Well, not the Soria family,” he said. “They know where they came from. Their roots are grounded in community service, and they’re humble people – great people.”

The siblings say their achievements demonstrate an ethos to help others that was instilled in them by their parents.

“We want to make sure that those opportunities that have been afforded to us — as a family, as individuals, as professionals — that those opportunities continue to exist for everyone, no matter what it is that they want for themselves,” said Laura Soria Cortes.

Valero, the Tulare County supervisor, says the Sorias have made local government more accessible to and reflective of the communities they serve.

“I think it’s admirable that (their) family has really tried to be a voice for the underdog and has always tried to make sure that people without a voice now have a voice at the governing table,” Valero said.

(Merced FOCUS bilingual communities reporter Christian De Jesus Betancourt contributed to this report.)

About the Author

Brianna Vaccari is the government accountability/watchdog reporter for The Merced FOCUS, a nonprofit newsroom covering the San Joaquin Valley.

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