Heard on the Hill

Latino Staffers Who Call the Shots on Capitol Hill

Seven aides discuss challenges they had to confront because of their backgrounds

Olivia Perez-Cubas is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s communications director. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Latino staffers are leading offices on Capitol Hill, running communications operations and advising some of the highest-ranking members of Congress.

Many started out their careers as interns. Some got their big break through the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, or through someone looking out for them.

They share their wisdom for other Latinos who hope to follow in their footsteps.

Getting a foot in the door

 

Joanna Rodriguez, communications director to Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla.: “It was actually another Hispanic woman. She was in charge of hiring interns for Sen. Rubio at the time and brought me into the office early on.”

Bianca Ortiz Wertheim, chief of staff to Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.: “My path through government is that there’s goodness. There’s a belief that there can be goodness in government and that the shared love here in the office for New Mexico is also a common denominator.”

[Editor’s note: Ortiz Wertheim is one of two Latina chiefs for Senate Democrats. The other is Susie Perez Quinn, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson’s chief of staff.]

Veronica Duron, legislative assistant to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.: “I came to D.C. 10 years ago through the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute fellowship. I did a year long placement on the Hill, on the House side, with Congressman Solomon Ortiz.”

Olivia Perez-Cubas, communications director to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.: “I started as an intern for Sen. Rubio. I’m from Miami and it was actually Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and her staff who connected me to the senator’s office.”

Juan Pachon, communications director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democrats: “I was able to get to D.C. through a fellowship program for Hispanics. It’s through the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.”

UNITED STATES – July 11: Senior Adviser and Director of Member Services to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Jaime E. Lizárraga, poses for a photo in the Capitol Wednesday July 11, 2018. (Photo By Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)
Jaime E. Lizárraga is senior adviser and director of member services to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

Daily challenges

Jaime E. Lizárraga, senior adviser to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.: “This is probably more a thing of the past but … I’ve often heard the expectation that as a Latino staffer, you would only work or focus on Latino issues. All issues are, in my mind, Latino issues. Every policy issue that Congress acts on affects the Latino community in one form or another.”

Emily Benavides, deputy communications director to Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio: “I didn’t come from a background where we were super politically active. … This was a totally new direction for my family, so I had to sort of scrape my own way and build my own network. It’s challenging but I was lucky in that I was able to find other young Hispanic conservative women and we banded together and supported together, created our own community here in D.C. and thus were able to promote one another whenever we heard about jobs becoming available.”

[Black Women Movers and Shakers on Capitol Hill]

Ortiz Wertheim: “It’s not just like people don’t look like me, it’s just the lens that you grow up on when you come from a place like Nambé [New Mexico] where I grew up, where it’s about family, it’s about … you are a community, you take care of each other. Coming here, you have to find … where are you going to be able to show that leadership and find the core group of folks in this new place who can help you?”

Rodriguez: “I think coming from a Hispanic background, especially a Hispanic conservative background, you’re taught to be very opinionated and outspoken at a very early age, and that’s something people aren’t always used to. Fortunately, it’s become one of my strengths.”

Duron: “There is a small number of people of color that work on the Hill and so any time when you’re in that environment, it can be difficult but …I’ve been fortunate to be in an office that’s very welcoming and inviting and open to all input and ideas and folks from all backgrounds, and that’s sort of how we operate and succeed in our office.”

Perez-Cubas: “My grandparents, they faced challenges coming here from Cuba, not speaking the language. But I think that’s a testament to America and the kind of country it is — two generations later, I’m working for my Florida senator.”

Pachon: “I don’t think it’s by coincidence … the fact that I work for one of the highest-ranking Latinos in the U.S. Congress. There’s still a long way to go until we have the diversity needed.”

[Editor’s note: New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.]

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Advice for others

Ortiz Wertheim: “Lean in when there’s an opportunity you either want or is available to you. Don’t take yourself too seriously. You have to find humor.”

Lizarraga: “Build your networks as much as possible — build and expand them, and the person you work with today could be your boss tomorrow or vice versa.”

Benavides: “Make friends. The bigger support network you have, the most successful you’ll be.”

Duron: “Stick it out … If we want to get more Latinos into senior positions, then we really need to stay on the Hill and build up your experience to get to those higher positions.”

Perez-Cubas: “Work hard, stay positive and be confident.”

Watch: Texts, Baseball Bombshells and Snapper Fish — Congressional Hits and Misses

 

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