december coverWise Latinas in the White House

When asked by LATINO Magazine if she ever thought she’d be employed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Cecilia Muñoz replied, “Never in a million years.”

She’s the Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, handling relationships with state and local governments. While she is the most visible and highest ranking Hispanic at the White House, she’s only one of several Wise Latinas working there on a broad range of issues. This should come as no surprise from a President who appointed Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.

Previously, Cecilia served as Senior Vice President for the Office of Research, Advocacy and Legislation at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the nation’s largest Latino civil rights organization. “It never dawned on me as an advocate that I would be working in government, and I never thought that I would be here working at the White House.” In fact, when she was first approached by the White House after the 2008 election, she said, “No, thanks.” Her mother had died earlier that year, and Cecilia did not want to turn her family’s life upside down. “I was at first very reluctant, but my husband and my two daughters have been wonderful.”

The daughter of Bolivian immigrants, Cecilia was raised in Detroit by parents she considers her inspiration. “The first thing I did when I got to my office here was put up a picture of my parents. I’m very moved by them.” At NCLR, she worked on a variety of issues of importance to the Latino community, including civil rights, healthcare and education, but none more so than immigration policy. Considered an authority on the issue, she brought her considerable expertise to the White House in a push for comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

Immigration reform has never been considered a legislative cakewalk, but the tone and rhetoric is decidedly much more heated. “I’ve been in Washington for more than 20 years and I’ve never seen an environment this polarized,” she said, adding that the frustration among immigration advocates and other supporters of immigration reform that nothing has happened in Congress on the issue is shared by President Obama. “We have a great sense of urgency at the White House. We understand that we only have a certain number of years to get things done. We continue to push. It is frustrating, but democracy is a process.” Even at the world’s most powerful address, no one has a magic wand.

Herself a seasoned political veteran, Cecilia says she is proud and in awe of her younger colleagues: “They are so motivated and so full of energy. They have accomplished so much already, and I’m inspired and excited for the future of our community.”

One of them is Alejandra Campoverdi, Deputy Director of Hispanic Media. Prior to her current position, she was Special Assistant to former White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Mona Sutphen, and joined the Obama presidential campaign after earning a Masters degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. In her current role, she works with Hispanic Media Director Luis Miranda to promote the President’s message and agenda to Latino media outlets. It’s the first time any Administration has had a team focused exclusively in this area.

“It speaks to the President’s commitment to the Latino community,” Alejandra said. “The Latino community is interested in the same issues as other groups, and this Administration is fully committed to reaching out.”

The Los Angeles native credits her family’s experiences and her previous work at the California Endowment---whose mission it is to expand health care access to underserved communities---as good preparation for the work she does now: “I was raised in a Mexican immigrant household by my grandmother and by a single mother who started out working in a factory that made car mats and then went on to become a teacher. Every day, I saw firsthand struggles with immigration status, unemployment, and access to health care, and so I see communicating the priorities of this Administration as communicating the issues of importance to my own community. The same issues I’m working on personally affect my own family.”

Over at the Office of Public Engagement is Associate Director Julie Chavez Rodriguez, who leads the Administration’s outreach to the Latino community. The office was previously called the Office of Public Liaison, and Julie says the name change at the start of the presidency was done to reflect Obama’s desire to be as connected as possible to the American public. “[It is about] dedicating the time and having a commitment to the community.”

In this position, she brings together Latino groups and individuals who want to interact with the Obama Administration on a variety of issues and ensure that their priorities are heard. “It is a tremendous honor as well as a huge responsibility [to be working in the White House],” she says. “I am one of the individuals who have been entrusted to do right by the community. It is more than a 9-5 job.” The granddaughter of civil rights icon Cesar Chavez, Julie grew up in the farmworker community, and considers that a strong foundation for wanting to be involved. Most recently she served as the Director of Youth Employment at the Department of the Interior under Secretary Ken Salazar, and prior to that she served as Director of Programs for the Cesar Chavez Foundation, a non-profit organization set up by the Chavez family to educate the nation about his life and work. She helped launch the foundation’s service-learning programs in Latino communities across the country, an initiative that took her to several major cities to help develop school curricula.

“I stand on some pretty great shoulders of those who came before me. I think about how their struggles and efforts helped pave the way for me and others to be here,” she added.

At the Office of Public Engagement is Deputy Director Stephanie Valencia, who has been at the White House since the start of the Obama Administration in January 2009. She worked on the presidential campaign, serving as Deputy Latino Vote Director. Before that she was press secretary to then-Senator Ken Salazar, and also worked for other members of Congress, including Representative Linda Sanchez of California. She started her career as a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Fellow, and is a graduate of Boston College

Her current position has been a “nonstop” whirlwind and one that she is very happy with. “It is an honor to be here,” she said, recalling the time her grandparents were able to visit her at the White House “very special.” Politics was always in her blood growing up in New Mexico---her father was deputy mayor of Las Cruces in the 1990s---and helped shape her desire to work toward change, which she sees in the diversity of people working at the White House.

“The President is surrounded by very strong women who have been mentors to me and by Latinos and Latinas in very influential jobs throughout the Administration. That shows how far we’ve come,” she said.

Stephanie added with a smile that one of the things she misses about her home state is green chile, which she tries to bring up to the nation’s capital as much as possible. “I can’t get away too often to see the family in New Mexico, but when I do, I bring back a real heavy suitcase,” she chuckles.

In the Domestic Policy Council, Felicia Escobar is a Senior Policy Advisor for Immigration, developing the President’s policy strategy on the issue. Her role involves coordinating efforts toward passage of comprehensive immigration reform while working on administrative improvements to the immigration system at every level.

“It is a difficult issue, but we continue to reach out and meet with people all over the country to move the ball forward. This is a long-term process and it takes time. The President cares a lot about this issue and remains fully committed,” she says.

The San Antonio native says growing up in a city with such a large Latino population helped her see how the issue of immigration touches every other issue. “In San Antonio you see it [immigration] in every issue. I originally thought I would be working in education, and I ended up interacting with undocumented students in Texas, and the issue that mattered was immigration. For going to school, for getting a job, for everything, your immigration status matters.”

Prior to her current position, Felicia served on then-Senator Ken Salazar’s legislative team, and advised him during the comprehensive immigration reform debates of 2006-2007. She has also worked at NCLR, and says her previous positions helped her understand the legislative process and coalition building, tools that are vital in her current White House role.

Felicia, like all the other Latinos at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, feels that working in the Obama Administration is “an incredible privilege,” but there’s one thing in the world’s most-recognized American home that keeps her grounded: honeysuckles.

“There are honeysuckle trees just like in my grandmother’s yard,” she said. “The White House is a special place, but the honeysuckle trees make it feel like any backyard in any home in the country.”

By Patricia Guadalupe