Selena Alvarenga is a quadruple force: a woman, an immigrant, a Latina, and openly gay. Her innate ability to connect with diverse demographics and an unrelenting call to serve convinced her she is ready to tackle the foundational issues of mass incarceration, so she's running for judge of the new Travis County 460th District Court.
The Austin, TX, transplant began her journey as a child in rural San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador. She lived in a humble home with her father, a computer programmer, who fiercely tried to protect his daughter from the atrocities of a looming civil war. Her mother died early on and she had no siblings, so the duo relied on each other.
The war eventually pushed them away from the only home Alvarenga knew. It was March 1981, and the terrifying sounds of nearby gunfire and bombs exploding were commonplace. Nowhere was safe, including Alvarenga's private Catholic school. So her father took a leap of faith.
"One day, I literally woke up, and my father said everything was packed. He said it was getting too dangerous and we had to leave. We got in the car and we started driving north," Alvarenga told POPSUGAR. It marked the start of an immigrant journey like so many others. The father-daughter pair eventually arrived in Southern California and began anew.
"I didn't know any English, so I went to [an English as a second language] school," she said. After about six months, the school staff placed her in a regular classroom. An innately shy person, Alvarenga found it challenging to make friends, so she immersed herself in her schoolwork.
Her father could only get a job serving fast food, and when he finally found a job in his field, it meant moving the family of two to Alaska. Alvarenga was one of three Latin American immigrant students in her class. She refused to get discouraged — not when there was a promising future at stake. "Somehow, I managed to make it," she said. Alvarenga enrolled in community college before earning a bachelor's degree in business administration from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio. But she wasn't done yet. She realized she wanted to make a difference in people's lives, so she earned a law degree and became a US citizen in the process.
The Texas Bar admitted Alvarenga as a member in 1996, and from then on she forged a reputation as a passionate and dedicated advocate for a fair criminal justice system. She opened her own law practice that same year, choosing to focus on providing legal representation to underserved and indigent communities.
Her passion for service extends beyond the regular work day. Alvarenga formerly served as presiding director of the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association before taking on her current role as board member of the Austin LGBT Bar Association. She's also served as Austin Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza's appointee to the Austin Public Safety Commission, cared for and tutored children at El Buen Samaritano — an organization that helps Latinx families lead healthy and productive lives — while their parents attended ESL classes, helped build homes in Austin and San Antonio through Habitat for Humanity, and served at Volunteer Legal Services clinics.
Alvarenga has her eyes set on serving as a judge — not as a power-seeker, but as someone looking to make an even greater impact on her community. "People are going to be looking at me. It's a huge responsibility if that were to happen," she said.
Alvarenga believes her 23 years of experience as a criminal defense attorney, coupled with her perspective as a gay and immigrant Latina, means she understands what works and what doesn't work in the Travis County criminal justice system. She advocates for real alternatives to mass incarceration, including expanding diversionary programs that keep indigent, people of color, the working class, and minor nonviolent offenders out of prison. She believes in reducing pretrial detention and exploring alternatives to cash bail. She wants to work with community partners to end the school-to-prison pipeline and expand reentry and other programs that reduce recidivism.
Alvarenga has called Austin home for about 16 years. In that time, the city has experienced drastic growth and change. She believes the city is more diverse than ever and that its leadership should reflect that. "It's important that those people have representation," Alvarenga said. "That they can see there are people who look like them on the bench. It can't just be a bunch of white men or women who might not have an idea of what they're about or where they're coming from."
The significance of her candidacy as a member of the LGBTQ+ community is not lost on her — especially amid Pride Month. She wrestled with identity and self-doubt as she came to terms with her authentic self. She was 20 years old when she came out and unsure how her community would react, particularly since, as she said, the Latinx community tends to be conservative. But her family and friends offered her their unrelenting support. She knows many others aren't as fortunate.
Even though the US has made considerable progress when it comes to the rights of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community, she said work still lies ahead. "Every time we go back to the legislature, there's someone trying to pass a law that can end up discriminating against us," she said. "But we're not going to give up the fight. We're here to stay and demand others treat us with respect and as equals."