Sonia Chang-Díaz is familiar with being “other.” In a Newton elementary school cafeteria, she was the girl teased for her lunch of rice and beans. She was the 10-year-old followed by a clerk in a Montana store while her blond-haired, blue-eyed cousin shopped freely.
Before legally changing her name in her 20s, she was the young woman — Sonia Chang — whose surname confused strangers who would awkwardly wonder if it was, in fact, a married name. “You don’t present as clearly Asian,” they would suggest.
“If you’ve never been on the outside, I don’t think you understand how that feels,” said Liz Kinsella, Chang-Díaz’s sister. “It’s quite motivating to make others not feel that way.”
It’s a perspective engrained in Chang-Díaz, a barrier-breaker on Beacon Hill now vowing to elevate the needs of those who have felt unseen in Massachusetts to its highest public office.
If elected governor, the 44-year-old Jamaica Plain Democrat would be the first Latina and Asian American to serve in the office. Before her election to the Massachusetts Senate 14 years ago, no Latina had ever been elected there, nor had voters ever sent an Asian American to either legislative chamber.
She must first make the gubernatorial ballot, including appealing to party activists at Saturday’s state Democratic Party convention in her uphill primary race against the front-runner, Attorney General Maura Healey. Healey, too, would make history as the state’s first openly gay governor, and either would be the first woman elected to the office.
Getting to this point, Chang-Díaz said, meant learning how to straddle different worlds at the same time. She was the daughter of an immigrant father, raised by a single mother in a predominantly white, affluent community. She has Costa Rican and Chinese heritage, yet faced questions during her successful 2008 Senate campaign of whether she, as a light-skinned Latina, could identify as a person of color.
Now, she is one of just two women of color in the Senate, representing one of the state’s few majority-minority districts — including all or parts of Roxbury, Roslindale, and Mission Hill — and among its most diverse. For several years, she was the only woman of color in the 40-person chamber.
“I know that people — sometimes just from looking at me, sometimes when I open my mouth on the Senate floor — feel like I’m other. You have to work past that, work through it,” Chang-Díaz said.
“I had to learn early on in life to just walk in comfort in, as I like to say, a multi-culti identity. Because it’s not simple, nor should it have to be reduced down to something simple.”
Case in point, she said, those identities are just one of many that define her. She’s also a mother of two young children, and a practicing Catholic within an interfaith family. (Her husband is Jewish.) A politician who represents an urban district, she also says — with a laugh — that she’s an excellent camper: ”I can build a fire in the rain.”
The threads of her heritage, and the identity they’ve helped cultivate, have deeply influenced her work in the Senate, her vision as a would-be governor, and the life that’s shaped them. Her father, Franklin Chang Díaz, was NASA’s first Latino astronaut, realizing a dream he carried with him when he immigrated from Costa Rica — where his grandfather had arrived decades earlier from China — to the United States. At 18, he arrived on a one-way plane ticket with only $50.
As a teenager, Sonia Chang Díaz spent a school year in her father’s native Costa Rica, living with family, soaking in the language and culture, and effectively graduating from high school twice — first, from the school her father attended, and then Newton North when she returned to Massachusetts.
And across seven terms in the Senate, she’s emerged as a leading progressive voice and a hard-nosed advocate for criminal justice and education initiatives, a focus seeded by her time as a teacher in Lynn. It also has earned her a reputation in some State House corners for inflexibility; she was removed in 2019 from the top of the education committee after she and House negotiators failed to reach a deal on a closely watched education bill.
Chang-Díaz refers to the episode as evidence of her willingness to represent the voice of low-income residents and communities of color, and not acquiesce to legislative leadership’s demands. “My first loyalties,” she said, “are with all the little kids out there who are going through a similar experience as my dad.”
It endears her to supporters eager to see a candidate for governor fold racial justice and equity into, as Chang-Díaz has promised, “every government policy.”
“I love Maura. She’s an incredible attorney general. But I don’t know her for her commitment to Black and brown communities,” said Representative Nika C. Elugardo, a Jamaica Plain Democrat now running in a four-way primary for Chang-Díaz’s seat. “We need a relentless warrior. That’s Sonia.”
How broadly the appeal of her history-making candidacy reaches remains to be seen. But as a candidate, her identities as a person of color is meaningful in perhaps “the most important sense,” said Paul Watanabe, a political science professor and director of the Institute for Asian-American Studies at UMass Boston.
Do they “impact her view of how the Commonwealth should serve its citizens, particularly those who are the most underserved and the most needy?” he said. “It’s pretty clear that they do.”
‘I can just be me — and everyone can figure it out’
Chang-Díaz’s mother, a social worker divorced from Sonia’s father, said she chose to settle her children in Newton to ensure Sonia and her sister received a good education.
That meant stretching budgets. Chang-Díaz said her family were the only renters she knew in town. In high school, while her friends shopped at Bloomingdale’s and the Chestnut Hill mall, Chang-Díaz often pieced together her wardrobe from a Somerville thrift shop, where the clothes sat in piles and you could fill a grocery store bag for $2, her mother, Candace Chang, said.
Summer vacations sometimes included traveling back to Candace’s native Montana, where she said Sonia would visit stores with a friend, who was Vietnamese, and her cousin, who is white. Once, when she was 10, she and her friend were followed by an employee as they shopped, while her cousin was not, said Candace Chang.
It wasn’t until years later that Sonia revealed it to her when “I think she finally realized what it was,” said Candace, who is white.
“I think that was uncomfortable and a real experiential thing,” Candace Chang said.
Throughout much of her life, those around Sonia grappled, sometimes awkwardly, with her identity. Born Sonia Chang, her last name reflected how her father was recognized in official documents where “Díaz” was dropped after he immigrated to the U.S.
That often left people confused when they met her, Chang-Díaz said. People would question, sometimes by suggestion, why her last name is Chang. “And then when I got to be in my 20s, people would be like, ‘Is that a married name?’” Chang-Díaz said.
There was also the “Seinfeld” episode. Airing in the fall of 1994, “The Chinese Woman” featured a white character whose last name is Chang and whom everyone believes is Chinese until, of course, they meet her. At one point, Jerry, the show’s eponymous character, suggests to the woman that she change her name.
“I remember everyone calling us after that,” Sonia said. “ ‘Did you see that episode?!’ ”
To the Changs, it wasn’t a ha-ha funny reflection of their lives. Rather it unearthed a disconnect in other people’s minds.
“All my friends who called said, ‘Oh look, it’s you,’ meaning a white woman who is called by a name that doesn’t fit,” said Kinsella, Sonia’s sister. “It’s the total opposite.”
As he grew into a public figure, Franklin Chang Díaz eventually reclaimed his full name. Kinsella, who goes by her married name, remembers her father sending back mail if it wasn’t labeled correctly, and later in life, correcting people if they called him “Dr. Chang.”
Sonia said she was inspired by him to do the same, officially adopting in 2005 the name Sonia Chang-Díaz — she uses a hyphen, her father doesn’t — better reflecting not only her heritage, but her own sense of self. It would become the only name she’s been known by in elected life: She first ran for office the next year, the first of eight races she has run for state Senate, winning the last seven.
“A lot of people have this sort of tendency or temptation to ask you to over-simplify your identity,” Chang-Díaz said. The name change, she said, meant “not having to do so much work to carry other people along with my identity, to explain myself. I can just be me — and everyone can figure it out.”
Two barriers to break
That the name is now likely to be on September’s primary ballot is, for some, meaningful in itself. Meena Bharath, chairwoman of the Massachusetts Asian American Commission, considered it crucial for elected leaders to have empathy and understand the needs of different groups. But, she said, there’s also little replacement for lived, shared experiences.
“We need someone who gets it, who will fight tooth and nail,” she said. “The fact that [Sonia] is so well-qualified, Asian-American, Latino, and a woman — for our kids, for me personally — it makes you think: ‘This is a possibility.’”
Trailblazing, of course, is not uncommon in her family. Franklin Chang Díaz provided a real-life example of realizing the American dream, and the reality that doing so takes help. After graduating from high school in Connecticut and earning a scholarship to the University of Connecticut, he said he learned soon after that the school had made a mistake in awarding it to him.
“They thought I was from Puerto Rico, instead of Costa Rica,” thus making him ineligible, Chang Díaz said.
It was only after school officials petitioned the state Legislature, he said, that he was offered a lifeline: a one-year scholarship, giving him enough time to piece together tuition for the remaining three years through grants, loans, and work. He later earned a PhD in plasma physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, became a US citizen, and by 1986, made history as the first Hispanic American astronaut to fly in space.
He ultimately flew seven shuttle missions. No one flew more in NASA history.
“You almost have two barriers to eliminate — the one that is enclosing you and the one that is preventing you from entering,” Franklin Chang Díaz said. “It’s not just breaking the glass ceiling, or whatever. You also have to make it believable to those around you.”
Sonia never lacked the latter. Once in first grade, she and her classmates were assigned to illustrate what they wanted to be when they grew up. Kinsella said she remembers Sonia’s response because her family has kept the drawing all these years later.
“When I grow up,” it says in children’s hand-writing, “I want to be the Statue of Liberty.”
Given her path into politics, the aspiration has practically become family lore, Kinsella said. “She always wanted to have an active, and symbolic, role in societal change.”