Harrisonburg’s first Latino city councilman reflects on his journey to office

Story by Andrea Brusig

Photos by Mckenna Walsh

Harrisonburg, Virginia isn’t just the Friendly City, — it’s a special place. It’s a community of family and friends, and for many, it’s home.

For 13 years, Sal Romero lived in Guanajuato, Mexico — a place that doesn’t feel nearly like home like Harrisonburg. Romero works for Harrisonburg City Schools, was elected in 2018 as a City Councilman and currently serves as vice-mayor of the city.

Romero, alongside his four siblings, made the move for a job opportunity for their father. Their family has always been close — their parents have lived in the same house in Harrisonburg for 27 years.

Now, all the siblings and their families get together at the house once a week, and plan family hiking trips — complete with a picnic by a waterfall, of course. Romero’s parents created the family’s tight-knit bond that still exists today.

“They instilled in us that you do everything for your family,” Romero’s sister, Silvia Garcia-Romero, said. “You can’t really rely on other people the same way you can trust your family to be there for you. Our mom doesn’t have an education and she wasn’t able to help in other ways — but the way in which she’s always helped and provided is by using her own talents to do what she can.”

Romero’s first year at school in the United States was his first time going to an English-speaking school. At the time, he didn’t know English. And at John C. Myers Middle School, he didn’t receive the warm welcome he hoped for.

“There were only just a handful of Latino students, and it was really hard to make friends because of the language barrier,” Romero said. “But, it was also difficult because there were students who were just not interested in becoming friends with people like me.”

By the time Romero got to Broadway High School, many of the Latino students from the previous year had dropped out to work. Romero was one of the few Latino students left and was left with no one to support him.

“I didn’t really have any role models in high school, and didn’t have anyone that I could connect with,” Romero said.

Forming relationships wasn’t the only hardship Romero faced in school. The language barrier made school — an already difficult task before moving to The United States — even harder for Romero.

But his passion for playing soccer is the one thing that remained constant. He knew he wanted to continue pursuing that love when he got to Harrisonburg.

“But — there was not a soccer team at the high school,” Romero said. “So there were very few things that were appealing to me to be involved in.”

He was later discouraged by his peers from going to college. After being told to go straight into the work force, Romero got his associates degree from Blue Ridge Community College. Four years later, he attended James Madison University as a kinesiology major to complete his undergraduate degree.

He found himself working as an athletic trainer at Buffalo Gap High School in Augusta County for two years after finishing college. However, he later became involved with Harrisonburg City Public Schools, and has remained working in the department ever since. Romero even pursued a master’s degree in school administration at Shenandoah University to continue working in the school system.

He’s done various jobs within Harrisonburg City Public Schools: starting as a homeschool liaison, then an ESL teacher, an assistant principal, a director of a before and after-school program and finally his current job, the coordinator for family and community engagement within all 10 Harrisonburg schools.

As coordinator, Romero’s role is to assist the schools with their outreach and engagement efforts. He wants families to feel welcomed and valued within the educational system, and works with administration in schools to meet their vision for engaging with families. His own experiences growing up are the reason he loves his job.

“I first started out by wanting to be in the classroom and making an impact on kids,” Romero said. “But then I went bigger and wanted to commit to all the families in the school. I wanted to make sure I was more impactful in my outreach with families.”

Although Romero’s devoted his life to helping the Latino communities in Harrisonburg, he never saw himself in a city council position.

“Me? Run for office? I don’t even know what city council is,” he told a friend in 2010 when he was first asked to run. He lost by a few hundred votes in this election, which Romero now is grateful for.

At the time, he was finishing his master’s degree, the president of a Harrisonburg soccer league and was in and out of the hospital for weeks for his son, Dani’s, surgery, and the birth of his daughter, Jacky.

Romero enjoyed staying busy, but said it was a realization he wasn’t ready to be on city council just yet.

Eight years later, he found himself being asked again to run for the position. Members of a group of Latino leaders in the Valley told him, “We think this is your time, and we support you.”

Romero’s campaign manager, Karina Kline-Gabel, watched Romero grow up through a high school leadership academy specifically for Latino students. “He stood out as someone who was bound to be a leader,” Kline-Gabel said.

When Romero asked Kline-Gabel to be one of his campaign managers, she immediately said yes.

“He’s someone who represents our whole community — the fact we have such a high Latino population in this town and we didn’t have someone who represented us, we were really excited at the possibility of him being on city council,” Kline-Gabel said.

And on November 6, it was Romero’s time. His campaign team and family gathered the night of the election, ordered Mexican food and waited to hear the results. They watched the election coverage online, but the live feed was behind. It wasn’t until a friend came running into their campaign hub and said, “Did you hear?” when Romero knew of his victory.

But Romero didn’t just win — he won the most votes of any city councilman running.

From then on, his “typical” day started looking less-typical. But some things remain the same.

Each morning, he gets up at 4:45 to go to the gym. He then comes home to wake up his children and occasionally makes them an egg and cheese breakfast sandwich. But they say they’d rather eat breakfast at school.

He drops off his daughter, Jacky, and heads to the Harrisonburg City School office for work. While each day brings different meetings and fundraising events, Romero takes time in the middle of his day to meet with people who want to discuss city council-related issues. His biggest priority is ensuring every member of the community has their voice heard.

It’s normally over lunch, but he’ll occasionally hold conversations with people just in-passing downtown. He’ll always make time for the people in our community.

“I feel like there is value for those who live in our community,” Romero said. “I do it because I believe it’s important to construct a better Harrisonburg, and I hope we’ll continue to do just that.”

Garcia-Romero is hopeful for Harrisonburg’s future with Romero in this position. She says he’s the definition of what it looks like to overcome significant barriers.

“Sal had a difficult adjustment growing up, but he worked so hard,” Garcia-Romero said. “He’s someone that’s very open-minded and very caring, and he truly cares about our community. I think because he works in education and is exposed to a lot of social challenges that these families face, I know that he will advocate for the things that will improve the lives of people in this community. He’s just a huge advocate for people and for the betterment of this city.”

Contact Andrea at brusigap@dukes.jmu.edu.