Kamala Harris, presidential hopeful and buzz-worthy candidate, has spoken about the importance of having two immigrant parents to her own political values and causes. In particular, she has spoken about her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a Tamil Indian-American who became a leading cancer researcher and activist and passed away from colon cancer in 2009. From Kamala's name (Shyamala gave her and her sisters Sanskrit names to connect their heritage with their identies) to Kamala's focus on immigration and equal rights, Shyamala has had a profound influence and lasting legacy on her high-flying daughter.
After graduation from the University of Delhi, Shyamala got a PhD in nutrition and endocrinology from UC Berkeley. She stayed there for her career as a breast cancer researcher, then later worked at the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin—even eventually being a part of the Special Commission on Breast Cancer. In addition to inspiring Kamala through service, she was also a civil rights activist. She passed this activism on to her daughter. Matt Sedensky wrote in an Associated Press article earlier this year:
As much as mother and daughter shared, Gopalan Harris believed the world would see them differently. Those who knew her say she was dismayed by racial inequality in the U.S. Understanding her girls would be seen as black despite their mixed heritage, she surrounded them with black role models and immersed them in black culture.
The family lived in California (Kamala was a student who was part of the historical busing in the state) until Kamala's mom got a job in Canada. By that point, Kamala's parents were divorced. Kamala doesn't post a ton about her dad, who criticized one of Kamala's joking comments during her campaign. Kamala's connection to her mother seems far simpler, and filled with joy and inspiration.
According to Shyamala's obituary, "She made substantial contributions to the field of hormones and breast cancer, publishing her research in countless journals and receiving numerous honors...Her discovery sparked a plethora of advancements regarding the role of progesterone and its cellular receptor in breast biology and cancer." She was also well-known as a mentor, particularly to students of color.
Shyamala's life and later sickness had a profound impact on her daughter, In a New York Times article, Kamala addressed the sadness she felt about her mom's passing and how witnessing her suffering led to her understanding of health care. "She got sick before the Affordable Care Act became law, back when it was still legal for health insurance companies to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions. I remember thanking God she had Medicare."
"As I continue the battle for a better health care system, I do so in her name," she added.
Kamala posts on social media about her mom to this day—to the extent that she directly cites Shyamala as an inspiration for her to run for president. As a matter of fact, according to Kamala, her mom was her first campaign staffer—that's how much she supported her daughter.
On July 10, Kamala posted, "My sister Maya and I were raised by a strong mother...She taught us not only to dream but to do. She taught us to believe in our power to right what is wrong."
She added, "And she was the kind of parent who if you came home complaining about something, she’d say 'Well what are you gonna do about it?' So I decided to run for President of the United States." She added a sweet throwback picture of her mom and sister.
And as a part of an E! News culture survey, she lists her mom as her favorite superhero. She also calls her mom "the reason for everything." In her memoir and the New York Times article, she explains, "There is no title or honor on earth I’ll treasure more than to say I am Shyamala Gopalan Harris’s daughter. That is the truth I hold dearest of all."