Hill Climbers: Latin Power

Posted November 19, 2008 at 5:56pm

There has been much talk about the historic nature of this year’s presidential election, particularly for African-Americans.

[IMGCAP(1)]Angela Maria Arboleda would agree, but she says the Hispanic community’s increasing voter turnout makes it an important moment for them, too — and she is going to work hard to make sure that enthusiasm does not fade.

“This is a historic time for the Latino community,” she said. “The community is strong, energized and engaged.”

Arboleda recently became a senior policy adviser for Hispanic and Asian affairs in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) office. She’ll examine policy from the Latino community’s standpoint. She described it as “putting that Latino lens on what we’re working on here on the Hill.”

“It’s a great opportunity to make sure that the interests of the community and the needs of the community are translated to the Majority Leader,” she said. “Right now is a particularly exciting time for me to be in this position.”

Arboleda, 34, has been an advocate for the Hispanic community for some time, having been the director of civil rights and criminal justice policy at the National Council of La Raza for seven years.

She was born in Bogotá, Colombia, raised in Mexico City and spent a year between high school and college living in Sierra Leone. That upbringing, she said, influenced her decision to work for social justice and civil rights.

“I understand the challenges. I intimately understand what it is to grow up in countries that are undeveloped,” she said. “In Sierra Leone, people are living with almost nothing but are happy to be optimistic and see the glass half-full.”

In 1998, Arboleda earned her degree in international affairs with a concentration in Latin American studies and a minor in women’s studies.

When she saw a job posting for the policy adviser position, it seemed like a good way to apply her understanding of the Latino community to work for positive change.

“It’s a really good match,” she said of her job in Reid’s office. “He cares deeply about the Latino community. The fact that he has a Hispanic Affairs team speaks volumes about his commitment to the community.”

Jose Dante Parra joins Arboleda on the Hispanic Affairs team as communications director for Hispanic media.

Reaching out to the many facets of the Hispanic community makes the job interesting, although the work “definitely adds up to more than 40 hours” a week, he said.

“You’re relating to this very diverse group of folks, trying to convey a message to them,” he said.

Parra, 34, was a journalism and mass communications student at the University of Miami, where he earned his undergraduate degree in 1997.

He was a reporter for the Miami Herald and in the Miami bureau of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel before shifting to public relations work. But the two jobs aren’t so very far apart, according to Parra.

“It’s the same skill set with a different mindset,” he said.

Like Arboleda, the historic nature of this election was not lost on Parra. During a lunch run on Nov. 5, Parra found himself in the Rotunda by himself, and he was struck by the meaning of the elections and the opportunities that come with his own job.

“You’re looking at all these paintings and you realize, wow, I work here,” he said. “It’s such a privilege to be so close to the gears that make this country turn. The election crystallizes that in that moment. It’s definitely a moment where you could step back and look at the big picture.”

Parra will be working closely with another new member of the Hispanic Affairs team — Diana Tejada, who became the press secretary in October.

Tejada, 26, also has worked at La Raza, and was with the multicultural marketing firm Comunicad before coming to Reid’s office.

She was born in Washington but moved to Panama City, Panama, when she was 11. After graduating from Oklahoma City University in 2005, Tejada knew she wanted to come back to D.C. to work on behalf of the Hispanic community.

While in Oklahoma, Tejada met members of the Hispanic community there who had been raised rather differently than she had. She had never doubted that she would go to college when she grew up, while many of the people she met would not even entertain the thought.

“They would ask me, ‘Why are you going to college? Why not just work? What’s the point?’” she recalled. “They felt very limited.”

At that point, she decided to become an advocate for the Hispanic community so she could show them that “they do have options.”

The job with Reid’s office seemed like the ideal way to do that, she said.

Tejada said she had wanted to work on the Hill since she was in college but has toyed with the idea of joining the Peace Corps. It’s still a possibility — she even has the application halfway filled out.

But when the Hill became an option, she couldn’t turn it down.

Besides, the job with Reid lets her blend both of her passions. It’s “the perfect marriage — enforcing social change on a broader scale and tying that to the Latino community,” she said.

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