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For the past year, Lilia Aguilar led a double life.
Every week, Aguilar flew to her native Mexico to resume her political campaign to become a national congresswoman. She sold her house there to finance her whirlwind plans, while balancing studies for an MPA at Harvard Kennedy School.
“As soon as I got back to Cambridge I was the student, with a lot of papers to write, discussing issues with amazing people like Amartya Sen,” said Aguilar. “Two days later, I was in Mexico, wearing heels and suits, speaking in the media. … But I believe in putting theory to practice, so I was doing both things because I thought it was possible to bring great change to my state.”
Born and raised in the northern state of Chihuahua, Aguilar grew up in cramped quarters without running water with her mother and 20 other children, whom she knew as siblings. Aguilar was one of the younger ones (“the pets,” she said), and her duties involved feeding the roosters that her mother’s husband used in cockfights. Aguilar and her siblings “carried water for two kilometers to take a shower in a tub in the middle of the street,” she said. “So I hated showering.”
Then one day when Aguilar was 10, she arrived home from school and faced two strangers — who turned out to be her real parents. Aguilar had been unknowingly living in hiding since she was an infant. A family friend had taken in Aguilar and her five blood siblings because their real parents were outspoken political activists involved with Mexico’s burgeoning labor party, and “it was not safe for us to be with them.”
“I didn’t know anything about my real parents. They came and took me away from what I knew as my family since I could remember. They were highly educated, and I went from doing all these physical chores. But with my real parents, there were only intellectual chores,” she recalled.
They demanded nothing short of academic excellence from Aguilar, who was being groomed to follow in their political footsteps. “My mother was a teacher, she was very rigorous, and she was a feminist,” said Aguilar. “She told me, ‘You need to excel because you’re a woman.’ That’s all I ever heard: ‘You are going to change the world, because when you’re educated, you need to give back.’ ”
Aguilar, who graduated at the top of her class, relinquished scholarships to local universities. She moved to El Paso, Texas, to live with an aunt and uncle, and enrolled at the University of Texas, El Paso, vowing to become, of all things, an astronaut.
“I studied physics and math, and then I discovered that I didn’t want that for my life. I came back, but I was reluctant to get into politics. I was doing a lot of activism in youth groups, though,” she said. She enrolled at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education to study financial administration. After graduating, Aguilar was hired by a financial consultancy company.
While on an assignment installing financial software for state governments, Aguilar said, she was asked to hide some shady dealings. “I worked with two different governments, and all they asked us to do is to cover up their big mess. I was really disappointed, and I wanted to do something,” she said. “So, I quit and went home, and said, ‘OK, dad, now I’m going to be a politician.’ ”
At age 23, she became a state representative for conservative Chihuahua. Aguilar’s youth and open character deterred many people from taking her seriously. But she had big ideas about reforming the state’s outdated constitution, and successfully helped to establish new laws for youth, women’s equality, and government transparency. “In politics, everyone likes to be in the media, but no one likes to do the work. So I took advantage of that,” she said. When she finished her term, journalists and fellow congressmen recognized Aguilar as the most productive representative.
In December, Aguilar returned to Mexico and got the offer to run for Congress. “It was not easy … there’s a lot of people scared of women, and women coming from Harvard especially.” Now she’s second in her party’s proportional representation list (the number of seats won by a party or group of candidates is proportionate to the number of votes received), and is likely to win a seat in the Mexican National Congress during the July 1 election. Still, leaving Cambridge will be bittersweet.
“What I like most about Cambridge is the energy. But above all, I love the river. It’s where everything happens in this town. I live in Peabody on the 19th floor in front of the river. So I have a view of all sunsets, and I can see the rowers and how they are yelled to push and push harder, the runners, the college kids having picnics when it’s warm, and the couples walking hand in hand. The river is for me the view of peace, the example of the unknown, and an example of the extra mile that Harvard is.”