Brazilian-American makes history on Beacon Hill
Sena, a former DACA recipient, is now a state lawmaker
DANILLO “DAN” SENA is living what he considers to be the American Dream as the first Brazilian-American elected to the state Legislature.
Sena swept to a landslide victory on June 2 in a special election to replace former state rep Jennifer Benson, who left Beacon Hill to become president of the Alliance for Business Leadership. Sena defeated Republican Cathy Clark of Lunenberg by a margin of 4,226-1,471. He carried Acton, Boxborough, Harvard, Ayer, and Shirley, losing only Lunenburg, Clark’s hometown.
Despite being Brazilian in a predominantly white district, Sena said he felt overwhelming support. “The fact that I’m the first Brazilian and first Latino immigrant elected from this district shows people want a change and a different kind of leadership,” he said.
Originally from the northeastern agricultural town of Timbaúba, Brazil, he immigrated to Acton as a 14-year-old in 2001. His mother, Eronides, a retired high school teacher, brought them north in hopes of a better life. He spent several years undocumented.
The rescinding of DACA by President Trump in 2017 hit him particularly hard because he sees the program as a way to help hard-working people like himself who desperately want to become Americans.
“We have a president who is anti-immigrant and wants to see families separated,” Sena said. DACA’s fate is now being decided by the US Supreme Court, which is expected to rule on the program this week.
One of the reasons Sena became involved in state politics, first as a district director for Sen. Jamie Eldridge of Acton and then as a candidate himself, was to push for state level immigration legislation, specifically a bill that would provide driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and the Safe Communities Act, which would prevent law enforcement from asking immigrants about their legal status and informing federal immigration authorities.
“I don’t just want to see DACA recipients moving forward,” he said. “I want to see everyone here moving forward. It’s an injustice to have second class citizens like this.”
Sena went to Acton-Boxborough Regional High School, earned an associate’s degree from Middlesex Community College, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from UMass Amherst in 2013.
He met his wife, Melinda Yim, in 2009 during their days at community college. Yim is a Cambodian refugee, and together they have two children – Juliana, a kindergartener, and Leonardo, who is one.
Sena said he was always interested in public office. His uncle was a selectman in Brazil, and he remembers admiring his work growing up. Sena’s high school principal saw the same interest, reaching out to Eldridge to introduce the two. “[The principal] saw him as someone who could be a leader some day and wanted him to make that contact,” Eldridge said.
Sena said he considers the senator a “mentor, a friend, a boss, all of the above.” The two live houses away from each other in Acton and now represent many of the same constituents. “He doesn’t like me to say this, but his effort, his support, was instrumental for my campaign,” Sena said.
Canvassing during COVID was “very hard,” Sena said, especially without being able to knock on doors. “We just had to change our way of reaching out to people,” he said. “Running in a pandemic can be overwhelming!”
With Joe Sherlock of the Massachusetts Democratic Party and Monica Burke as his campaign managers, Sena was able to pull in Sen. Ed Markey to phone bank. “Every night we had phone banks with 15 volunteers – about 40 total,” he said. “We really lobbied the community. It wasn’t just me running for office. It was a movement.”
Sena’s family in Brazil is “very proud,” he said, and a local radio station there invited him on for an interview the day after the election. The Brazilian Times and Brazilian Magazine have run stories about his campaign and win, and “brasileros” from across the state and country have posted on his Facebook page.
In addition to immigration and renewable energy, Sena would like to push legislation creating universal childcare and fully funding universal pre-K. He would like to serve on either the Legislature’s Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy Committee or the Education Committee.“I’d like to reform the voucher system we have because I don’t think it’s working very well,” he said, noting the cost of daycare can run as high as $2,000 a month. “I’ve met a lot of families in the district who have decided not to go to work in order to take care of kids because the cost of them going to care is the same as their paychecks.”
Since he’s filling the empty seat vacated by Benson, Sena won’t have much time before he needs to hit the campaign trail again. He will run for re-election in November for his first full two-year term.