The Congresswomen of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and an ambassador of the administration relayed how they overcame adversity and found strength from within their roots.
They admitted it was the cantaleta, or nagging, they heard as children from their fathers that drove them into public service.
Three of them relayed their experiences during a luncheon on Latina pioneers held Tuesday at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute public policy conference. Each had a different story to tell.
When Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) decided to campaign for Congress in 1992 she sought the endorsement of the Democratic chairman in her county. Yet, he was offended. She recalls how he told her that she needed to ask permission before putting her name on the Democratic ticket.
“How dare you come here to inform me that you’re running. You have to ask for permission,” she vividly remembers as she stepped inside his office. “It’s part of the Democratic process to decide if you’re going to run.”
She responded that she was partaking in the Democratic process. That same chairman had been fighting her until this day.
“Our positions have not been handed to us,” she said. “We Latinas, we always have to fight for what we want.”
The Congresswoman, who is originally from Puerto Rico, is serving her 10th term and is considered a veteran leader in New York City, positioning herself as a stern voice in the caucus. In 2006, she was named Chairwoman of the House Small Business Committee, making Velazquez the first Latina to chair a full Congressional committee.
Her father was an activist by nature and she grew up watching him. Whenever he saw wrong he always questioned it and Velazquez learned.
“One thing I remember is my father came home sweaty and tired, but always asking all of us if we had done our homework—‘we are poor, but the only thing we could leave you with is education‘—and I made that connection,” she said.
Marie Carmen Aponte
Aponte, who is also Puerto Rican, told a similar story. She almost missed out on her opportunity to serve as ambassador. Obama nominated Aponte, but as several reports highlighted, she faced backlash from certain members of Congress including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
Rubio opposed her nomination as ambassador and later retracted in June of this year. Part of the reason her nomination was rejected the first time by the Senate was because she dated an insurance salesman who was accused of spying for the Cuban government. Aponte said she felt like she was on the fence, but that didn’t discourage her.
“I didn’t know it was going to be so tough through a confirmation process,” she said. “I knew that if I didn’t go through this, the doors were going to be shut.”
People thought, “Ah no, se dio por vencida—uh uh,” she added.
Aponte was the executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in Washington, D.C., from 2001 through 2004. She was also a member of the Cabinet of the Governor of Puerto Rico and is a close friend of Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Aponte said having a social conscience instilled a strong backbone in her life. Every night at the dinner table, she remembers her father asking them: “What have you done for us?”
Persistence paid off.
In 1992, Congresswoman Roybal-Allard became the first Mexican-American woman elected to Congress. Before that, she represented the 56th Assembly District of California for six years. Her father was the first chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and it was because of him that she modeled her career’s philosophy.
As the first Latino elected to the Los Angeles City Council in the late 1940s, Roybal-Allard said it was a time where there was rapid discrimination against Mexicans.
“When he got elected, the political power base made it very clear that they were not happy that a Mexican was now a member of the council, so he, my mother and my family were often belittled in public,” she said.
As children, she recalls having their phones tapped and running to safe houses because his life was often endangered, particularly when he was fighting police brutality in Los Angeles.
“You see this common thread that goes along our experience. Not only in terms of education, but also seeing our parents,” she said. “Our parents modeled for us our values and our commitment to giving back to our community.”