Rising stars: Mario Vasquez Zuniga, Lucas Public Affairs

Mario Vasquez Zuniga. Photo by Scott Duncan, Capitol Weekly

Mario Vasquez Zuniga is a digital strategist, co-owner of a flower shop and a passionate LGBTQ+ advocate.

The 28-year-old, who immigrated from El Salvador as a young child and grew up in the Palmdale-Lancaster area, loves coming up with creative solutions to problems. “I definitely have an entrepreneur spirit,” he said.

For the last two years he has worked at Sacramento’s Lucas Public Affairs, which specializes “in developing and executing high-level reputation, issues management, and digital strategic communications campaigns.”

LPA president Cassandra Pye says Zuniga’s skills are invaluable to her business. “We look to Mario to teach, keep us current and ahead of trends and constantly aware of all the new tools in this space,” she said. “It’s a big lift. We’re really grateful to have him and I’m absolutely certain his star will continue to rise.”

As a digital strategist, Zuniga works with websites, social media, paid advertising and email programs. He is knowledgeable about the Sacramento legislative process and the political dynamics. He determines which digital tools are the best to achieve clients’ goals and when best to use them.

He previously worked as a communications manager for the California Democratic Party, where he had one of his biggest successes through publicizing the Presidential Forum on Spanish language channel Univision. He pushed for the use of the hashtag #RealAméricaForum, which ended up being viewed by 45 million people and trending nationally. It was a great success in engaging the Hispanic audience, he said.

Zuniga said the hardest part of the job is keeping up with the latest platforms, and being able to adapt quickly. For instance, his biggest change this year was Twitter allowing everyone who pays a fee to get their account verified. Previously, that took a lengthy process. He said it will be interesting to see what this means for his clients.

Zuniga and his two sisters were raised by a single mother who worked at grocery stores most of her life. She later married, and her husband lost his job during the COVID-19 pandemic. He wasn’t sure what to do next, so the family decided to start Petals Florist Shop in Palmdale. Zuniga’s mother was already doing side jobs selling lunches and had begun to sell flowers. Opening a flower shop seemed like a logical step. “We were all in agreement that it was the best option for us,” he said.

His interest in activism was spurred by the challenges he faced as a gay teen in an area that wasn’t particularly welcoming to LGBTQ+ people.

Zuniga and his parents became three equal partners with Zuniga overseeing operations, finance and marketing. On busy days like Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, he travels back to Palmdale serving as delivery driver and cashier, while continuing to monitor online channels and messaging for Lucas Public Affairs.

“I live and work in Sacramento but I am very much engaged in Palmdale/Lancaster,” he said. “I’m still connected to teachers, administrators and elected officials driving the community.”

His interest in activism was spurred by the challenges he faced as a gay teen in an area that wasn’t particularly welcoming to LGBTQ+ people. “I had situations in school that drove me to want to create a more positive school environment,” he said. “There were situations that were making me feel unsafe and uncomfortable and unsupported by school staff.”

Zuniga began looking for resources and trying to find a community. In 2010, he and his friends eventually started a Gay-Straight Alliance at his high school, jumping through all the hoops to get approval from the administration. “I knew I wanted to be a positive influence at the school to fix the climate for other students like me,” he said, adding that as far as he knows, the club is still going. “There so little resources in the Antelope Valley that I became the resource.”

He went on to advocate for LGBTQ+ issues in Sacramento, including helping to pass the School Success and Opportunity Act (2014), which allows students to participate in sex-segregated activities consistent with their gender identity, and the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful Education Act (2011), which mandates that the contributions of LGBTQ+ people must be included in K-12 history and social studies curriculum.

He earned college credits during high school by attending Antelope Valley College, then transferred to San Francisco State University, earning a bachelor’s degree in communication studies and race and resistance studies.

With all his responsibilities, Zuniga knows how important it is to make time for self-care. He enjoys playing tennis and watching his partner perform in drag shows. He also loves getting away to Palm Springs when he can. “I grew up in the desert and I like the desert,” he said. “It’s also very gay, a gay desert.”

He plans to keep working in digital media and “continuing down a path of building and creating, growing capacity not just for me but for people around me to know and understand how tools can be effective for change.”

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