In November 2019, Myrna Melgar became the first Jewish Latina elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, where she has supported many initiatives and legislation to strengthen the City’s services for youth and families. Melgar wants to create a more equitable city for underserved constituents, particularly women and children, which is an ethos that she developed as the descendent of Jewish scholars and as an immigrant to the United States.
Melgar traces her family roots back to prominent Jewish scholar and rabbi, Benjamin Simon Oppenheimer, who was a prosperous and influential man when he died in Germany in 1908. One of his sons, Julius Oppenheimer, immigrated from Germany to San Francisco where he started an export company that moved manufactured goods between El Salvador and San Francisco. One generation later, Melgar’s grandfather, Guillermo, was born in San Salvador. Melgar describes her childhood as privileged but somewhat sad; her mother left her family to become a revolutionary combatant when she was only five years old. As a result, she grew up in her grandfather’s home with her father and her father’s family. “We talked a lot about being Jewish, but we were not part of the Jewish community, nor members of the synagogue. In fact, my grandfather converted to Southern Baptism as an adult,” Melgar explained. Judaism, as such, was mainly an abstract concept during her childhood in El Salvador–a piece of family history that was not very present in everyday life.
When Melgar was twelve, her father and stepmother immigrated from El Salvador to San Francisco, where her family endured hardship and had to work many jobs to make ends meet— “a typical immigrant experience,” she called it. “We lived in a little studio apartment off Mission Street, and three of us slept in a closet and we had very little food. My mom, my stepmom and my dad cleaned offices, cleaned houses and delivered Domino’s pizzas, did all the immigrant jobs, and us kids all helped.” Melgar also recalls the social services that the city of San Francisco provided her family during this period of hardship. “San Francisco provided political refuge for my family, refuge from the violence of civil war, and also a lot of opportunity for my sisters and me. ” Her father, who had been a civil engineer in El Salvador, was able to learn English fairly quickly, and sit for the engineering exams. This enabled him to become a civil engineer in San Francisco, which helped Melgar and her family gain financial stability. “Things were better for us,” said Melgar. “This city, the Bay Area, has such a wonderful path for people like me—immigrants and refugees—or it did at the time.”
San Francisco’s social services enabled Melgar to go to school and enter city politics. She worked for Gavin Newsom and served as a legislative aide to two Supervisors before deciding to run for office herself. A driving force of that decision was her involvement in a year-long program called Emerge, which trains Democratic pro-choice women to win political campaigns. “That was really transformational,” said Melgar of her time with Emerge.
When she decided to run for Board of Supervisors in District 7, which encompasses many neighborhoods in Western San Francisco, some of her colleagues expressed doubt. “It’s a conservative district. You’re too progressive. You have no chance,” Melgar recalled being told. “And I was like, I’m used to walking in different worlds. I’m Jewish, I’m Latina, I’m an immigrant. I’m so many different things. My synagogue is in this district. My kids all went to school in this district. I know all the PTA moms and all the soccer moms. I walk in different universes and I think that gave me that ability to just talk to different people, and connect with them.”
Her campaign was buoyed by the support of Norman Yee, the previous Supervisor of District 7. Yee was also encouraged to consider running in Chinatown when he first began his campaign, but eventually won to become the first Chinese representative of the district. When Melgar won and became Yee’s successor, she quickly learned the ropes of her new role, which involves serving both the city and county of San Francisco. Responsibilities include approving the county’s budget, caring for citizens of her district, managing constituent relations, and smaller-ticket items like making sure potholes are filled and garbage is picked up.
Melgar’s political priorities also were inextricably linked to her role and background as a mother, a Jewish Latina, and an immigrant. “Our self-identity as a city is that we are so progressive, but in action, not so much. So I have taken up, legislatively, all these issues around universal childcare, parental leave, and supporting women, women-owned businesses, access to capital–all these things that people don’t think about, but where there are deep, deep disparities,” said Melgar. “So for example, in San Francisco, the infant mortality rate among black women is very high. The disparity is huge. Black women who are pregnant are much more likely to be homeless than anyone else. I mean, it’s just stark. So I have focused on legislation to address those disparities.”
Melgar’s trajectory as a politician and civil servant occurred in tandem with the reintegration of Judaism into her and her family’s lives. “It wasn’t that one day I was like, oh my God, Judaism is for me… It was when I had kids that I thought I should get serious about this because I’m going to raise these people, and I want them to have values that are consistent,” said Melgar. “And the value that appeals the most to me about Judaism as a practice is that it’s an action-oriented path. It’s not about your intentions. It’s not about what you think. It’s about what you do. Like I said, I’ve always been in community development or politics because it’s the action that matters to me.” Recently, Melgar has introduced legislation to rename Stow Lake—one of San Francisco’s most visited tourist attractions—which is currently named after William Stow, a vitriolic antisemite. “We’re doing it, and I’m proud that the community here is very involved in it,” said Melgar.
Central to Melgar’s Jewish identity is being Latina and a Jew of Color. “JoC representation is important to me because it doesn’t occur to people that there are Jews in Latin America. I don’t know why. Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Argentina, all of these countries have a very large, active, visible Jewish population. But it doesn’t occur to people that that is the case. People just think we’re invisible as a population,” said Melgar.
Even in San Francisco, which has a higher concentration of JoC than the rest of the country, Melgar noticed that the Jewish day schools are overwhelmingly white, which deterred her daughters from attending. For those reasons, JoC representation is of central importance to Melgar’s parenting, politics, and personal identity. “I think it’s really important to have an organization like Jews of Color Initiative to provide that visibility so we can just be like, this is us. This is who we are. It’s really, really important.”