Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez
Breaks the Job Barrier with Tenacity and Hope
Story By: Chriss Swaney
Lupe Valdez’s life patterns would make great lyrics for a country Western song.
For nearly three decades, Valdez’s elbow grease and a frightening single-mindedness to solve any and all problems helped her become the nation’s only female Hispanic sheriff, and one of only four female sheriffs in Texas.
As the miles wrap themselves around her career, Valdez reflects on a life well-lived.
“I never dreamed I’d be in law enforcement,’’ she says. “All I thought about growing up was the next job and where I would get my next meal.’’
The daughter of migrant workers would survey her handkerchief-sized kingdom through the sun-scorched bean spouts her family would labor to pick at 4:30 a.m. each day of harvest season. There were no fantasies of patio awnings or automatic charcoal starters for the portable grill. There were no diversions except hard work. But it was that tenacity and stubbornness that gave Valdez the spark to escape her humble background.
“I never had a new pair of shoes until I was in high school because being the eighth child of migrant parents, I got all the hand-me-downs,’’ Valdez says.
Her luck began to change when a concerned school teacher encouraged her to transfer across town to a better high school in San Antonio. At first, Valdez struggled to keep up. The curriculum was much harder and she was unprepared. “I was the child in the corner of the room nobody saw,’’ Valdez remembers.
Her aha moment came when she first noticed that her shoes were always muddy when she arrived at school. She recalls looking out the school window at pristine sidewalks. And then it hit her: “I come from a part of town that has no paved streets.’’ She knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but her persistence paid off. Now, she is planning to attend her school’s 50th anniversary later this year.
Her high school experiences set the stage for success in higher education. She earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Bethany Nazarene College (now Southern Nazarene University), and later earned a Master of Arts in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Texas at Arlington.
Similarly, her road to career success has been sprinkled with gnarled challenges and, in some cases, downright negativity. “At the outset of my career, one law enforcement official said he would work to get me fired,’’ she recalls.
Valdez weathered discrimination like a storm trooper, and she thrived on the structure that law enforcement jobs offered. Her law enforcement career began as a jailer, first in county jail and then at a federal prison. She then moved on to investigative roles as an agent of the General Services Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and finally, the U.S. Customs Service, where she was a leader in the federal Counter Smuggling Initiative.
With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, she became a senior agent, serving in that role until her retirement in 2004. In January 2004, Valdez retired to run for Dallas County sheriff. And the rest is history.
When she entered the 2004 campaign, she was widely considered an underdog as a female, Hispanic and lesbian. “I simply never gave up, and that is the advice I would impart to any person. Learn from others’ mistakes, always stay positive and be fair,” she says.
Her mantra for success is very simple: “Educate to elevate.” Valdez says everyone has to think about what type of person he or she wants to be. “I took bad experiences and learned from them, and vowed never to treat people the way I had been treated,’’ she says proudly.
As sheriff, she continues to make improvements within the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department. Some of the department’s accomplishments under her leadership include the hiring of 400 new detention service officers, the expansion of the freeway management patrol system, construction of a 300-bed medical facility within the Lew Sterrett Justice Center, and health care improvements for the mentally ill.
Valdez says change is the only constant in her job. She has to be thinking outside the box daily. “We have to consider how to handle these new driverless cars and what legislation will be necessary to make them safe on our highways,” says Valdez who rarely has any free time due to the demands of her job. But she still finds great reward in public service.
“I’ve had to learn to let go,’’ she says. “I now take a couple days to unwind and just think. I take a silent retreat and recharge, and then I’m ready to go again. Crime never takes a holiday.’’
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