Yvanna Cancela rapped on another mobile home door.
The 22-year-old was new to Las Vegas and felt like the July heat was baking her alive. Nonetheless, she was excited to spend the afternoon canvassing for Sen. Harry Reid’s 2010 re-election campaign.
The door swung open, revealing a brown-haired woman with sweat on her brow and a baby in her arms.
Their conversation was brief, no longer than 10 minutes, but it left an indelible imprint on Cancela. The woman’s child was sick, her husband was out of work and she had a question of her own.
“What do you think politicians are going to do for people like me?”
Less than two months out of college, Cancela had no answer. She spent the next six years trying to figure it out while working for Culinary Local 226, Nevada’s largest union.
“I really came to believe the only way you can help other people is helping them help themselves,” she said. “You can’t fix everything, but if you can empower other people to fight for themselves you can actually make a big difference in the world.”
Along the way Cancela has led protests, lobbied state lawmakers and played a pivotal role in turning Nevada blue last November when most of the nation wound up red.
On Monday, the 29-year-old Cancela will be sworn in as the Nevada Legislature’s first Latina senator, appointed to the District 10 seat to replace Ruben Kihuen, who was elected to the U.S. House in November.
Kihuen, himself a Latino, said he cannot think of a better successor to fill the seat he occupied for six years.
“I never saw her as a lobbyist. I saw her as more of an advocate of working families of Nevada,” Kihuen said. “When you’re representing a union that represents housekeepers and janitors and chefs and bartenders and cocktail waitresses — the people who make Las Vegas run — you’re more of an activist than a lobbyist.”
‘CAUGHT THE BUG’
A national high-school debate standout and Northwestern University graduate, Cancela could have launched her future from almost anywhere.
She nearly picked Tanzania.
“I was dead set on doing the Peace Corps after college,” she said. “I had been accepted and was on an expedited timeline.”
It was a bold plan for a young woman who was raised in Miami, attended Catholic school and enjoyed modern luxuries.
Cancela is the granddaughter of men imprisoned by Fidel Castro’s regime, but she was born in Phoenix and grew up in South Florida. Her parents, both Cuban exiles, worked hard to provide for their children — Jose Cancela as a broadcast news executive and Rosy Cancela in real estate — and Yvanna Cancela’s childhood included ballet lessons, summertime ventures to theme parks and annual trips to New York City to celebrate Noche Buena.
But Cancela was not defined by privilege, according to her mother, who said her daughter headed a high school book drive for the children of migrant farmers.
“I remember how touched she was by those kids’ realities,” Rosy Cancela said. “It was different from anything she was used to.”
Yvanna Cancela earned a debate scholarship to Northwestern, but competed for only one year. Instead, she dabbled in college clubs, joined a sorority and completed close to 10 internships while earning a bachelor’s degree in communications and a minor in sociological research.
It was a Washington, D.C.-based internship writing Spanish language posts for Reid’s website in 2009 that guided Cancela’s trajectory toward Nevada and politics. She was in the U.S. Senate gallery when Judge Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed as the U.S. Supreme Court’s first Latina justice.
“I think I caught the bug,” Cancela said. “Most of politics is a grind. It’s all of these small steps to get to really big moments like that, but to me that was extremely meaningful.”
Still Cancela might have wound up in Tanzania after graduation if not for her mother’s constant push against the move.
In an email campaign, Rosy Cancela warned of pricey plane tickets and flesh-eating ants.
But it was a harsher reality that changed Cancela’s mind. If her grandparents fell ill, she may not make it home to see them before they died.
So Cancela joined Reid’s 2010 re-election campaign. That September she flew to Florida after her grandfather was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“I really felt it was the universe saying, ‘You made the right decision, and there’s something about Nevada that you should really think about,’” Cancela said. “It just felt right in my gut to be out here.”
POLITE BUT FEARLESS
Cancela was 16 years old when she decided she was a Democrat.
It was 2004, and her father was running for mayor of Miami-Dade County. Cancela listened to him campaign on platforms of government transparency, fighting corruption and putting restrictions on local lobbying efforts.
“It was the first time I understood the difference between the parties,” she said. “I kind of anchored myself in thinking I believe this is where I land. This is the kind of party I want to vote for. These are the values I have.”
Jose Cancela was eliminated in an open primary, but the Democratic values stuck with Yvanna Cancela and guided her to Culinary Local 226 after Reid’s re-election in 2010. Her first job there was convincing non-union workers they could demand better wages and benefits from their bosses by joining the union.
Cancela became the union’s youngest political director less than a year later.
In that role she led pickets that blocked traffic on the Strip, was cited twice for trespassing during sit-in protests, and, last year, organized dozens of taco trucks to surround the Trump International Hotel on the night of the final 2016 presidential debate.
Through the years, Cancela has built a reputation of being polite but fearless. Competitive but never merciless. Equipped with a big heart and a mind trained to analyze, dissect and argue both sides of an argument.
“She could go become a Democratic operative and make six figures easily, and she’s chosen not to do that. I think that says a lot about what she thinks, believes, her character and sort of her vision,” said D. Taylor, general president of UNITE HERE, Culinary Local 226’s parent union.
Today, Cancela is the executive director of the Immigrant Workers Citizenship Project, a local nonprofit helping immigrant families naturalize. And she remains a committed advocate for the working class.
Last month she ascended the steps of Lloyd George U.S. Courthouse to deliver a speech to the Women’s March in Downtown Las Vegas.
“Change doesn’t happen when we stay home,” she told thousands of onlookers. “Today we have a choice: Do we stay home, or do we fight back?”
Contact Michael Scott Davidson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3861. Follow @davidsonlvrj on Twitter.
Ensuring Nevadan’s retain access to quality health care if the federal Affordable Care Act is dismantled.
Protecting Nevada’s undocumented immigrants from “unnecessary and egregious deportation.”
Repealing sales tax on feminine hygiene products, also known as a “pink tax.”
Mandating that public schools post the nutritional content of the food they serve where parents can access it.