Ask Cisco Aguilar ’00 ’04 to name his political hero, and he won’t mention Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. or Susan B. Anthony. He won’t name anyone you studied in school or could read about at a public library. Instead, he’ll tell you about his grandfather, Frank Verdugo, who gave all he could to protect the rights of Latino miners in the Arizona towns of Hayden and Winkelman, right down to his life.
Verdugo, a union leader before OSHA — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — became a local hero after his vehicle plunged from a bridge outside Hayden following a negotiation. In the moment, no one voiced suspicions around the fatal accident — at least, not out loud.
But “he died for what he believed,” Aguilar says. “And he fought for what he believed.” In that second respect, like grandfather, like grandson.
In 2023, Aguilar, a graduate of Tucson’s University High School who earned three degrees from the University of Arizona, became the secretary of state of Nevada, where he’s lived since 2004. The role asks him to ensure the integrity of elections — including the general election slated for November 2024, in which the battleground state could play a pivotal part.
“Nevada,” Aguilar says, “is going to determine who the next president of the United States is.”
The state’s first Latino secretary likens his journey to that of Forrest Gump, the folksy hero of the film by the same name who says “life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.”
Aguilar has worked alongside retired tennis superstars Stefanie Graf and Andre Agassi, serving as general counsel for both Agassi Graf, the couple's management company, and the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education, which supports public education for underserved children in and beyond Las Vegas. (And, yes, he’s briefly knocked around tennis balls with each legend, though he’s not a player.) He was among the youngest chairs in the history of the Nevada Athletic Commission, which oversees boxing and UFC, and spent a year in Herzogenaurach, Germany, with Adidas on a fellowship offered through the Robert Bosch Foundation.
His journey as a public figure began long ago, when he first arrived on campus as the son of a stay-at-home mother and an electrician father, neither of whom received a college education. Back then, Aguilar thought student government was for “nerds.” But he soon met Joel Valdez ’57, the Tucson and university leader for whom the city’s downtown library — where Aguilar worked during high school — is named.
Valdez, who served as city manager and Wildcat vice president of business affairs while championing diversity across a half century of public service, made a prediction: Aguilar would not only serve in the Associated Students of the University of Arizona, or ASUA; he would become student body president. It came true.
Valdez, Aguilar says, was “a lion of a person” with “such a quiet soul,” someone who knew when to speak and when to listen. He taught Aguilar about diplomacy, a skill he leans on now.
Aguilar also leans on the concept of “community rent”: the obligation of those in positions of power to give back to the people and places that formed them. He’s lived in service to the idea, in part by spending 18 years on the board of Tucson’s Marshall Foundation. Marshall, a private charity founded in 1930 to improve life for Pima County citizens, is a major donor to the Arizona Assurance scholarship program that gives underserved Wildcats the means to come to the university and the means to stay.
Creating opportunities for anyone, regardless of background, to receive an education remained central to Aguilar’s purpose after he left Marshall to focus on projects in Nevada’s Clark County — the nation’s fifth-largest school district, where 3 in 4 students are from minority communities. In 2016, he became the founding chair of Las Vegas’ rigorous Cristo Rey St. Viator College Preparatory High School. Eighty-six percent of the school’s student body is Latino.
Aguilar, whose Democratic secretarial campaign received early support from Latino megawatt playwright Lin Manuel Miranda, says that his adopted state owes much to the Latino community. Latino workers, Aguilar notes, have been “significant” in building and maintaining the Vegas Strip, the city’s corridor of casinos and resorts. He says that part of his job is to make sure the voices of those workers resound.
“They’re working every day. And you look at the workers and understand, ‘Hey, they are very like my tío, my tía. They are very similar to who I am,’” Aguilar says, using the Spanish words meaning “uncle” and “aunt.” “Just because I am in this position doesn’t make me any different.”
Wherever his box-of-chocolates journey takes him next, Aguilar can draw on a lesson learned in Tucson.
“When you get into situations and they’re tough, it’s just remembering, ‘Hey, this is time to Bear Down,’” Aguilar says. “That applies to every stage of life and every situation that’s hard. You’ve got to have the fortitude to move forward.”