Rep. Mike Honda, who learned Spanish while in El Salvador with the Peace Corps, is among the Members who often speak the language together.
After Rep. Grace Napolitano casts her vote on the House floor, she always heads straight for the same corner: the “barrio in the back,” as it’s called by those who know it.
Just to the right of the door closest to the elevators, near the back of the House chamber, congregate those lawmakers who are fluent in Spanish. There they chat about “anything and everything,” the California Democrat said, from a piece of legislation to a newly drawn district to a family member’s health.
“That’s our little area,” she said. “Sometimes we’ll find other Members sitting there and we’ll ask if they got permission. ‘What’s your password, you need the password.’ And we’ll start laughing. ... It’s very cordial, sometimes its comical. There’s always pranksters in our midst. They prank in English and in Spanish.”
The same group of lawmakers usually frequents the corner, including Reps. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas), Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), José Serrano (D-N.Y.) and Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.). Most who congregate there are Democrats from California or Texas, though the group welcomes anyone, especially those who speak Spanish.
“If you’re a Republican coming up, they just chat, they don’t say go away,” said Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), who learned Spanish while in El Salvador with the Peace Corps. “I’ve never seen them reject anybody.”
Nor do they reject those who don’t speak Spanish.
“They’re curious and they’ll ask, ‘What’s the big joke or whatever?’” Napolitano said. “I don’t think anybody’s ever offended simply because we’re discussing.”
Still, the group’s inherent exclusivity makes some wary, according to Honda.
“People say, ‘Why don’t you speak English?’ People are uncomfortable because they think we’re talking about them — and maybe we are,” he said, laughing.
Theirs isn’t the only group to gather in an area of the House floor. Napolitano was quick to point out that just like tables in a high school cafeteria, every Congressional clique has a unique space on the floor. The Congressional Black Caucus tends to gather on the left side of the House, while the Blue Dog Coalition prefers a spot near the middle left.
And just like those high school cliques, the group of Spanish speakers has its shining stars.
“You never want to see Nydia Velázquez get angry,” said Honda, who himself learned a great many swear words from Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.). “She’ll just tongue-lash you in English or in Spanish. And José Serrano, that guy’s funnier than hell. He’s so cool. ... There’s a comfort level that they have among each other. It’s just a camaraderie that’s enhanced by the language.”
Lois Lerner, director of exempt organizations for the IRS, arrives for a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the investigation of the IRS' targeting of political groups. Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right to not testify and caused a protest from some committee members when she offered an opening statement and engaged in dialogue with members before invoking the right.
Roll Call has launched a new feature, Hill Navigator, to advise congressional staffers and would-be staffers on how to manage workplace issues on Capitol Hill. Please send us your questions anything from office etiquette, to handling awkward moments, to what happens when the work life gets too personal. Submissions will be treated anonymously.