A California border town’s first transgender mayor faces recall. Is gender the reason?

A transgender person in sunglasses and a colorful dress poses in front of a border wall with Mexico.
Raúl Ureña, Calexico’s first City Council member who has come out as transgender, poses in front of a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

The LGBTQ+ pride flag had just been hoisted outside Calexico City Hall when a woman in overalls pushed past a police officer, charged through the cheering crowd and lunged at the mayor.

Raúl Ureña, the first out transgender City Council member in the struggling little town on the U.S.-Mexico border, stood quietly as three police officers pulled the profanity-spewing woman away.

She screamed: “He’s not a woman! He’s not a woman!” Then she kicked the mayor’s dad.

Even before Rebecca Lemon made a beeline toward the mayor last June, Ureña was well-acquainted with her.

Lemon was, at that point, the public face of a movement to remove Ureña from office. Lemon had personally served recall papers a month earlier on Ureña, who promptly ripped them in half.


The recall organizers appeared to distance themselves from Lemon after the ugly scene at the pride flag raising. And they succeeded in forcing a recall election targeting Ureña and another brash young progressive council member, Gilberto Manzanarez. Voters will decide their political fate in a special election on April 16.

A person in a colorful dress greets passing farmworkers on a Calexico sidewalk.
Raúl Ureña speaks with Calexico farmworkers after they teased her for wearing a dress. Ureña says many people will make fun of what they do not know.

The recall is about many things — homelessness, economic development, political grudges. But the campaign against Ureña in particular has thrown the almost entirely Latino city of 38,000 people in the rural Imperial Valley right into America’s culture wars over gender identity.

For better or worse, Ureña, 26, stands out.

In California, there are just 11 transgender or nonbinary people in elected office, including Ureña, according to the LGBTQ+ Victory Institute’s Out for America map, which tallies queer politicians at all levels of government.

Ureña, who uses all pronouns but prefers “she,” believes the recall is driven in large part by “tried-and-tested, predictable transphobia.” Fellow recall target Manzanarez agrees.

“We’re a city where a lot of our population are señoras who are Catholic,” said Manzanarez, 30. “Mostly, the town is socially conservative.”


When they came into office, Ureña and Manzanarez were cheered as changemakers in Calexico, a town long plagued by corruption, scandal and poverty.

Ureña was first elected in 2020, at age 23, with 70% of the vote. She was ushered in to finish the term of David Romero, a council member who went to federal prison after taking bribes in exchange for a guaranteed city permit for a cannabis business.

Another then-council member, Rosie Fernandez — now a recall supporter — had pleaded guilty earlier that year to driving under the influence; she was sentenced to probation and had to install a court-ordered alcohol-detection device in her vehicle.

Ureña publicly came out as gender-fluid and transgender after her reelection in 2022 and eventually started wearing dresses and makeup in official appearances. Some voters said they felt duped, saying they thought they had voted for a gay, cisgender man. Detractors trolled Ureña’s social media accounts, leaving vulgar, sometimes threatening, comments.

Recall papers came the next spring.

Recall organizers put a disclaimer on their campaign Facebook page: “This recall will not focus on the lives of anyone due to personal and sexual choices.” And Maritza Hurtado, a former mayor, became the new public face of the campaign after Lemon’s attack.

Manzanarez was elected in November 2022. He had been in office less than five months when Lemon served him recall papers.

A woman in business attire poses in front of a farmworker painting.
Maritza Hurtado, a local businesswoman and former mayor of Calexico, is spearheading the effort to recall two young progressives on the City Council.

Hurtado, 58, said the young politicians need to be ousted because “they are disrespectful; they are toxic.” Their decisions, she said, have made downtown a crime-ridden eyesore, with rampant homeless encampments and human waste on the sidewalks.

“We’re losing business because people do not want to come here because it’s disgusting,” said Hurtado, who runs a downtown tax and immigration services business.

Hurtado said Ureña is quick to call anyone who disagrees with her, on any issue, transphobic or racist. The recall, Hurtado said, is about the young politicians’ leadership — not Ureña’s gender.

Still, some prominent recall supporters are quick to mention, and to share, photos and posts from Ureña’s personal social media accounts — some that pre-date elected office — in which she is scantily clad or wrote bawdy captions.

And the language in the official recall petition strikes a moralistic tone. Ureña, it says, “has proven poor leadership with open and public indecency and intoxication shared on social media with absolute reckless disregard for accountability towards families with children.”


Ureña said her personal photos get resurfaced regularly by detractors, who call her scandalous.

“I looked sexy as hell,” she said. “Those are some of my best photos and I still won the election.”

Raul Urena poses for a portrait in front of a rainbow flag.
Raúl Ureña came out as transgender after her 2020 election and started wearing dresses and makeup in public appearances. Some voters said they felt duped.

Ureña maintains that the recall effort cannot divorce itself from transphobic overtones. Or from Lemon.

Lemon — who is 43 and described herself as a “white, Lutheran, conservative Republican, everything they think is hateable” — said she was deeply offended when she learned Calexico would raise the pride flag, a first for Imperial County. It was, she said, an affront to U.S. military veterans like her father and grandfather to fly any banner besides the Stars and Stripes outside City Hall.

“I called my sister and said, ‘Raúl’s trying to raise a pride flag at City Hall. If something happens, just bail me out.’ ”

Driving to City Hall that day, she saw Ureña in a sleeveless green dress, surrounded by cheering people. She whipped her truck to the curb, jumped out and started yelling.

“I snapped,” she said.

The recall campaign has, among other things, highlighted a stark generational divide in Calexico, pitting Ureña and Manzanarez against the city’s more conservative old guard, most of whom are Democrats.

“They call us dinosaurs. So we call the recall ‘Dino Power,’ ” said 72-year-old Jesús Solano, a retired welder and automotive technician who supports the recall.


Hurtado said she is a “normal Democrat” — one who, in 2019, helped organize a protest of President Trump’s visit to the border fence that included the infamous orange “Baby Trump” balloon. Ureña and Manzanarez, she said, are far-left activists.

She said they dismiss downtown merchants’ concerns about homeless encampments and have, instead, focused on what recall proponents see as more frivolous projects, such as installing charging stations for electric vehicles that most people in town cannot afford.

Hurtado also called Ureña and Manzanarez disrespectful toward police officers, whose use of force and riot equipment they have questioned.

“They are some of the biggest supporters of Black Lives Matter in Imperial County,” Hurtado said. “You guys are anti-police? We are a border city. You don’t belong here.”

Ureña countered that Hurtado, a member of the City Council from 2010 to 2018, bears responsibility for the city’s problems and is bitter that she and her old allies are no longer in control.

“It’s as simple as power,” Ureña said. “We’ve de-established a lot of establishment and status quo interests ingrained in the city for many decades.”


The one thing everyone agrees on is that Calexico, separated from the sprawling city of Mexicali, Mexico, by a rusty steel border fence, is struggling.

Calexico is the second-largest city in Imperial County, which last year had a 17% unemployment rate — the highest in California and more than three times the statewide average, according to the Employment Development Department.

In December 2022, the Calexico City Council, seeking state and federal money, declared a state of emergency over a sudden influx of asylum-seeking immigrants whom U.S. border officials dropped off on city streets.

A scathing state audit released in October 2022 said Calexico was in the throes of a “financial crisis.” Previous City Councils, the audit said, approved budgets based on unreliable financial data, and the municipality overspent, depleting its reserves and pushing its general fund into a deficit from fiscal years 2014-15 through 2018-19 — years Hurtado was in office.

Finances have improved, but financial mismanagement by past City Councils exacerbated a staffing shortage that still exists across municipal departments, said City Manager Esperanza Colio Warren.

White EV charging stations seen through an opening in a mesh-covered chain link fence
Raúl Ureña and fellow progressives on the Calexico City Council pushed a project to equip the city with electric vehicle charging stations, an effort opponents dismissed as frivolous.
People visit a shopping arcade in Calexico, California
Some of the most vocal proponents of the recall effort against progressives on the Calexico City Council are downtown business owners who say the council is not in step with their concerns.

The Police Department, which cut officers’ pay amid the budget shortfall, had 26 officers in 2014. It now has just 16, and many shifts have just two police officers and one sergeant on duty, she said.

Ureña, who studied economics at UC Santa Cruz and is now a master’s candidate at San Diego State University, moved back in with her parents in Calexico when schools went virtual in 2020. She said she was infuriated by what was happening in Imperial County, which, at that point, had the state’s highest mortality rate from COVID-19, with farmworkers traveling in packed buses with few protections and rural hospitals overwhelmed.

She pushed for eviction protection, protested police brutality after the murder of George Floyd, and successfully ran for office without knocking on a single door.

A bearded man in glasses and a black shirt poses amid red blossoms.
Gilberto Manzanarez says the recall effort against him and City Council ally Raúl Ureña is a standoff between progressives who come from marginalized backgrounds and the border town’s old political guard.

Manzanarez, a behavior technician who works with autistic children, was working for a nonprofit in San Diego when the pandemic began. Manzanarez has severe asthma, and working in person stressed him out. He, too, moved back in with his parents in Calexico, and in 2022 successfully campaigned for City Council alongside Ureña.

“We’re straight from the working class,” said Manzanarez, whose mother works in retail and whose father is disabled because of an accident suffered while working in a sugar plant. His grandfather, a field worker from Mexicali, survived the 1974 crash of a farm laborer bus that plunged into an irrigation canal near Blythe, killing 19.

“The offspring of these people who have been marginalized and abused and were victims of disinvestment, of lack of protections — guess what, now we’re in positions of power,” Manzanarez said. “We’re not the rich landowners, the rich business owners, the people who have historically been in power.”

A group of people cross the street near a U.S.-Mexico border fence.
Calexico is the second-largest city in Imperial County, which last year had a 17% unemployment rate — the highest in California and more than three times the statewide average.

From the start, Ureña and Manzanarez regularly clashed with other council members, citizens and elected officials in other towns, especially when they criticized the police.

Recall supporters were furious that Manzanarez, Ureña and their council ally, Gloria Romo, conducted public meetings in Spanish without translation. During the City Council meeting last spring in which Lemon handed Ureña and Manzanarez recall papers, she blasted the use of Spanish.


“You think that you live in Mexico! We don’t. This is America,” she said. “Our municipal code, all the laws, are in English. You’d better learn to respect that.”

A woman in purple shirt poses with a transgender person with a star necklace.
Gloria Romo, left, is now mayor of Calexico and an ally of City Councilmember Raúl Ureña, right. Romo, too, has been targeted for recall.

Ureña said she would like for all meetings to eventually be conducted bilingually, with both English-to-Spanish and Spanish-to-English translation. She noted that the state audit criticized Calexico for presenting its budget only in English since most residents speak Spanish.

Hurtado said Ureña has called her racist for objecting to speaking Spanish from the dais. Ureña did not deny it.

“Who is this kid, to be out there on social media calling me a racist?” Hurtado asked. “How can you call a Mexican like myself a racist in a 99% Mexican city?”

Lemon said ex-politicians and ex-cops started messaging her on social media last spring after hearing her go off on Ureña during a council meeting. She said they decided to organize a recall and that she became “the middle man” among all the former politicians, law enforcement officials and business leaders “because they all hate each other.”

After the pride flag incident, she said, other organizers “tried to make me walk away,” but she refused, saying: “I started it.”

Last fall, organizers gathered sufficient signatures to get recalls for both Ureña and Manzanarez on the ballot.

Signs for and against a recall hang from a chain link fence.
The recall election targeting progressive Calexico City Councilmembers Raúl Ureña and Gilberto Manzanarez is set for April 16.

Joshua Spivak, a senior research fellow at the California Constitution Center at Berkeley Law, said the vast majority of recall attempts fail to make the ballot. But when they do, the politician is more likely than not to be ousted. Since 2011, some 61% of officials nationwide whose recall made the ballot were voted out, he said.

“Once you get to the ballot, people are upset enough at you, they managed to do this work to get all the signatures, and there’s a good chance they’ll kick you out,” said Spivak, who wrote the book “Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom.”

In January, Ureña and Manzanarez voted to pass the honorary title of mayor to Romo. About 20 minutes later, Hurtado served Romo with intent-to-recall papers.

For months, Manzanarez and Ureña have been knocking on doors, campaigning against the recall. Manzanarez said several constituents have called Ureña anti-trans slurs to her face. During one outdoor rally, he said, a jogger screamed until he was red in the face, making fun of Ureña’s attire.

“I feel horrible, with the amount of hate Raúl has to put up with,” Manzanarez said.

“We’ve had people in suits and ties get taken to jail out of the City Council. Very well-dressed,” he added. “I’d rather have someone in a dress who’s actually gonna work for the people.”