The Harris County judge tells PEOPLE about why her family left Colombia, the adversity she faces as a young woman in politics and being a role model to children who want to achieve like she has

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Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo stands for a photograph following an interview in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019
Credit: Sharon Steinmannn/Bloomberg via Getty

Lina Hidalgo has always been an achiever.

"There are pictures of me getting the number one ranking in my first- and second-grade classes," she told PEOPLE in a Wednesday interview. "But it wasn't something you bragged about."

As the first woman and the first Latina elected as the Harris County judge — a misnomer of sorts, as she is more like a city's chief executive — no one would blame Hidalgo, 30, for a bit of boasting these days. Harris County, which includes Houston, is the third largest in the country and the most diverse, with nearly five million residents, making it more populous than 28 states.

As County judge, she oversees an annual budget of $4.3 billion with four other County commissioners (who all happen to be men). She's responsible for emergency management, which means she's in charge when disasters strike, whether that comes in the form of chemical fires, floods, a pandemic or power grid failures during a historic winter storm — all of which she's faced during her term.

Though she's been recognized for her responses to such complicated problems like COVID-19, Hidalgo has also been proactive, keeping a high profile and pushing a progressive agenda with wins in criminal justice reform, transparency in government, voting rights and more.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo speaks at a mass vaccination site at NRG Park, in Houston
Credit: David J Phillip/AP/Shutterstock

Hidalgo was elected in 2018 at age 27, unseating Republican Ed Emmett, an incumbent who served for 11 years and was 40 years older than his Democratic opponent.

"The first election my parents ever voted on was mine," said Hidalgo, whose Colombian mother and father immigrated to Texas when she was 15 after spending time in Peru and Mexico. "They're just not politically engaged people."

But voting in an election for their daughter was a thrill. "They loved it. It took a long time because they were just like, 'Wow,'" she recalled. "My parents recognize that I'm doing this to try to give back to a community, and a country, and a state that has given so much to me and to our family."

The Hidalgos left Colombia at a time of political violence. "My parents really wanted us to be in a safer place and have more opportunities," the judge said, adding that traveling around Colombia at that time was dangerous because "the government didn't control all of the territory."

Even shopping trips could be frightening, Hidalgo said. "One person couldn't go alone to the grocery store. You'd have to bring two people, so somebody could stay with the car. And then, so the police could verify that a parked car wasn't a car bomb."

In Texas, Hidalgo continued to excel in school. "I was like the nerd in the class," she said. Hidalgo was confident and grateful for the "neat" opportunity shine at a public school where "being smart was celebrated."

Judge Lina Hidalgo
Credit: Aaron M. Sprecher/AP

Of course, not everyone is eager to see Hidalgo succeed now that she's in a position of power. She's faced plenty of doubters who can't see past her age, her heritage, or her gender.

"People do refer to me as a little girl. And why is that? Because there's just so much heavy history there in the role that women have in society," she continued. "I'm not going to change that overnight, but what I can do is be very mindful of it and just keep going. And so, I've learned to give people a little bit of space. And then I draw a line at some point. I'm obviously a strong person to be where I am, so I'm able to stand my ground if I need to."

Hidalgo said being a role model to young people is one of the most rewarding aspects of her public service. Out and about among her constituents, she said people want her picture, "but more than anything they want me to take pictures with their kids."

Last year on Halloween, Hidalgo retweeted a photo of a little girl dressed up like the County Judge. "Amazing," she wrote at the time. "Loving that power pose."

Inspiring children is something Hidalgo takes "very seriously."

"I always make it a point to talk to the kids and see what they're interested in and then encourage them," she said. "When you look at me, you see a woman, you see a person of color, you see a young person. That, in some ways, is different from the paradigm of the executive that is responsible for the 4.7 million people that live in this region."

In a recent video posted to Twitter, Hidalgo encouraged followers to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month and to embrace the cultural richness of Harris County's communities.

"It's incredibly diverse. You can be sort of worldly without ever traveling because there's just so many people from so many different places," she said in her interview with PEOPLE. "I cherish that. I celebrate it."

But asked about challenges facing Texas' largest metropolitan area and big cities across the U.S., she spoke about how divisiveness in politics makes the job of serving and protecting citizens more difficult.

Members of the Houston Dash along with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner celebrate during a victory drive-through celebration on July 30, 2020
Credit: Bob Levey/Getty

"It's really easy to fuel excitement with fear. Pandering is a great way to win people over. And as elected leaders we have a responsibility not to resort to these kinds of tactics that ultimately are destructive. But they're easy; they're shortcuts," she said, acknowledging that the politicization of the pandemic, voting rights and disaster response makes it hard to get things done.

"In a diverse community like mine, and a country that's becoming more diverse by the day, that's a dangerous proposition. I've lived in places where divisiveness becomes violence. And we've seen some of that here. That is concerning. And so, I worked very, very hard — as hard as I possibly can — to make clear to people I represent everyone."

That effort has paid off for Hidalgo, who earned the highest net favorability rating of any elected official among her constituents, according to a University of Houston study.

Despite that accomplishment (and the many others since she posed for those elementary school photos), there's still plenty of adversity for women like Hidalgo. "It's a fact of life," she said. "My philosophy is you just have to keep going."

That tenacity could be a warning to some. "Do people underestimate me? I'm sure they do," Hidalgo said. "Good luck with that."