Heard on the Hill

From poverty to power: Staffer for Rep. Darren Soto reflects on childhood

23-year-old Clarissa Rojas is communications director for the Florida Democrat

A chance encounter at a Chick-fil-A drive-thru helped turn Clarissa Rojas toward a career in government. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

“My mom would be upset that I’m doing this interview,” Clarissa Rojas said softly inside the lively Longworth House Office Building cafeteria. “I’m doing it because I think it’s important that people know what Capitol Hill is made of.”

Rojas, the new communications director for Florida Democratic Rep. Darren Soto, didn’t find herself in one of the nation’s most expensive cities because her parents could afford it. After all, her father didn’t even pay the child support she and her older brother could’ve used growing up.

At 23, Rojas is among the youngest communications directors on the Hill, but she’s no stranger to breaking barriers — given that she’s the daughter of a Mexican immigrant who survived domestic violence and cancer twice, it’s in her DNA.

Rojas grew up in California’s San Fernando Valley near the affluent city of Calabasas. Her reality was different than that of the families who lived in multimillion-dollar homes just miles away. Instead, Rojas was grateful for the mattress on the floor of the domestic violence shelter that housed her family and the cardboard box that held her boiled eggs.

“It was hard, but I was in a good mindset,” she told me. “I understood what my situation was.”

Her “situation” was balancing homework and multiple jobs once she attended high school. She didn’t take her private school education for granted — financial aid provided the schooling her mother couldn’t afford. Once at California State University, Northridge, tutoring math and tending the register at Chick-fil-A took priority over semesters abroad.

Clarissa and her mom at California State University graduation, Northridge (photo c/o Clarissa Rojas)
Rojas and her mother at her graduation from California State University, Northridge (Courtesy Clarissa Rojas)

But it was a quick exchange in the drive-thru that helped Rojas change course. She met a woman who ended up being the assistant to the university’s vice president. She was so impressed by Rojas’ work ethic, she offered her a job in their office that same day.

“If it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t have transitioned out of fast food and into student government,” Rojas said. It was her involvement in campus politics that sparked her desire to move to Washington.

Once timid about her underprivileged upbringing, Rojas now feels privileged to share her story. She owes much of her newly found confidence to Hill colleagues and peers in the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association, a nonpartisan and bicameral organization “whose mission is to recruit, retain, and advance Hispanic staffers in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives,” according to its website. Rojas calls it “a great network of people” with similar lived experiences.

Now living in a high-rise near the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City, Rojas is far from the “tiny” apartment she once shared with her family. She says she’s living out the American dream her mother proved could be a reality.

“I give my mom major props,” she said. “I tell her all the time.”

Rojas recently worked as a press secretary for California Democratic Rep. Nanette Barragán and the move to another Latino member’s office was not a coincidence. Latino members “have a really big role to play and they have a big community to represent,” she said. “As the caucus gets bigger, we’re able to do more work and we’re able to focus on issues that really didn’t include Latinos in the conversation.”

At the root of her work is an interest to help others. “I can see how many people helped me when I was younger and I really want to pass that forward.”

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