Five years ago, if someone had asked Nathaly Arriola whether she was involved in politics, she would have said no.
It didn’t matter that teachers expected her to voice her opinion on hot topics such as immigration reform and gang violence. It didn’t matter that her first brush with advocating for a cause she believed in had come four years earlier, when she told city councilmembers how budget cuts would affect her.
Because the reality was, Arriola, now Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s press secretary for Hispanic media, didn’t really understand what politics were or how the government worked.
“I didn’t know the structure,” the 23-year-old said. “I didn’t know anyone who was in it or involved in the party.”
She immigrated to the United States from Peru at age 10, a couple of years after her father moved for work. After a brief stint in New York, the family settled in Hayward, Calif., nestled in the Bay Area near San Francisco and Oakland.
When the college preparatory program that Arriola was in faced budget cuts from the city council, she went to a meeting and explained the reality of her situation.
That was her first turning point. She was hooked and spent the rest of high school getting involved in different causes, whether helping organize immigration walkouts or speaking out against police brutality.
Despite that, her formal education was lacking; Arriola didn’t grasp how political parties worked or what their roles were in the government.
The second turning point came when she decided to study political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Arriola struggled in the introductory classes.
“I saw how prepared other students were,” she said. “A lot of the basic philosophies and theories were normal to them. They brought that from high school, and I had no idea.”
With the help of professor Corinna Reyes, Arriola got through the classes and was accepted into the University of California’s D.C. program, the Washington Center. This launched her right into life on Capitol Hill, where she interned in the office of Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) in 2009. She learned firsthand how the legislative process worked. This experience convinced her that Congress was where she wanted to work.
But even as she came to that conclusion, she didn’t think she was qualified for it.
“I knew that I wanted to be on the Hill, but I didn’t know how you got here,” Arriola said. “I thought you had to be the Harvard grad with the 4.0 and the political connections. ... It wasn’t me.”
Nevertheless, Becerra’s office guided her through the application process for a fellowship with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. She got the call right after graduation in June 2010 — she was heading to D.C.
Arriola was offered places with Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), then the House Majority Leader, and with Reid. Thanks to the program, she had the chance to do both.
Some questioned why she didn’t work for a Hispanic Member.
“I had that experience in Becerra’s office,” she said. “I thought it would be interesting to see the other sides of leadership.”
Working for Reid’s office also gave her the opportunity to work with some highly regarded Hispanics on the Hill, including Senior Policy Adviser Angela Arboleda.
As her fellowship with Reid’s office came to an end in March, Arriola was offered the chance to become the new press secretary for Hispanic media, an opportunity that she jumped at. As the one-year anniversary of her arrival in D.C. approaches, she uses her job as a media liaison to connect back to the community, the place where it all began for her.
“The media was the only source that we had to find out what was going on,” Arriola said. “The media is very trusted in our community. My new role helps me tell them what’s happening in the halls of Congress, and I’m excited about that.”
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