After stepping down as U.S. treasurer last summer, Rosario Marin returned to the working-class Latino community of Huntington Park where she has lived since arriving from Mexico as a poor 14-year-old.
She bought a new house on Hope Street. She painted it white and blue -- to go with the red roof. And she embarked on a campaign to convince her fellow Republicans that she is the candidate to knock Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer from office.
Marin talks like it's destiny. "The future is now. I am a woman. I am a minority. I am a Republican," says Marin, 45, as she cruises in her "Adios Boxer Express" bus toward a campaign stop with Silicon Valley executives.
Marin's pitch that she is the ideal Republican to mirror California's changing demographics is the source of her appeal and her dilemma.
To Republicans eager to expand the party's traditional base to moderate women and Latinos, she represents the forefront of a more inclusive, and successful, Republican Party. But in a GOP still dominated by white conservatives, Marin, a Latina with moderate stances, may be too far in the forefront to win the primary.
"Barbara Boxer's worst nightmare," as one campaign slogan reads, still lives in Huntington Park, a city southeast of downtown Los Angeles where Marin learned English, went to school and raised her three children.
She is bilingual, an abortion-rights advocate, and supports the assault weapons ban. In short, Marin says she is not like the conservative male Republican candidates that Boxer has trounced in two previous elections.
"Barbara Boxer has always attacked her opponents in our party as being anti-woman, anti-minority, and anti-working-poor," Marin said. "How can she [say] that I'm anti-woman? A woman who is pro-choice. How can she ever say I'm anti-minority? I am one, and an immigrant no less. Anti-working-poor? My dad was a janitor, my mom a seamstress."
But Marin doubters say her candidacy looks a lot better on paper than in real life. Her immigrant's tale, they say, isn't enough to overcome her inexperience and unproven track record for fundraising.
And she has been passed over by key GOP power brokers, such as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former governors Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian, who have endorsed former Secretary of State Bill Jones.
Whatever the outcome, her life is an exemplar of immigrant success. Rosario Spindola was born in a two-room house in Mexico City in 1958. The family was so poor, she says, that her parents and four siblings shared one bedroom. Her father, Mariano, supported the family for years by sending money home from California, where he worked for a label manufacturer. The factory, Marin said, had helped her father get a green card. Eventually, Mariano, with help from the company, moved the family north, Marin said.
Marin didn't speak a word of English, and scored 27 out of 100 on an IQ test. She would listen to songs on the radio, and enunciate English words to accelerate her learning. A few years later she graduated from Huntington Park High School at the top of her class.
Marin's parents -- both of whom have sixth-grade educations -- were thrilled, but sending her to college was not a priority for the financially struggling family.
Marin got a job and helped raise her younger siblings. She went to Cal State L.A. at night, sometimes studying until 3 a.m. It took her seven years to get her bachelor's degree in business, and she set her sights on one day opening a bank. She also married Nicaraguan-born Alvaro Marin, known as Alex, and started a family.
Her life took an abrupt turn when she gave birth to her first son, Eric, now 18, who has Down syndrome. Recognizing that parents of developmentally disabled children could benefit from increased assistance, she started a support group that eventually became FUERZA Inc. Marin would later be honored with the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Prize for her work with the disabled.
Her activism propelled her into public life, and she became part of the administration of then-Gov. Pete Wilson, first as a legislative aide in the department of developmental services and eventually as his liaison to the Latino community.
While working for Wilson, she ran successfully for City Council in Huntington Park, an overwhelmingly Democratic city where she became known as a hard-working, law-and-order politician who never shied away from battles, both inside and outside City Hall.
When the city's main drag attracted disorderly mobs after soccer victories by the Mexican national team, she stood alongside police officers trying to keep the peace. She also backed a crackdown on the black market for illegal documents.
In two terms there, she engaged council opponents in numerous raucous debates. Marin fought for more funding for the city's police force, opposed a no-bid trash-hauling contract for a friend of the then-mayor, and criticized the same mayor for making what she called racially biased comments against Mexican immigrants.