News Column

D.C. Dignitaries Highlight This Year's 100 Influentials

October Issue

Rob Kuznia--HispanicBusiness Magazine

The HispanicBusiness 100 Influentials, 2009

If recent trends in Washington, D.C. are any indication, it's been a breakthrough year for Hispanics across America.

President Barack Obama, this nation's first African-American elected to the nation's highest office, has appointed a record number of Hispanics to key administration positions. Of his first 300 such nominations, 11 percent have been Hispanic – doubling President George W. Bush's record of 5.5 percent.

This year's most high-profile Hispanic nominee was Sonia Sotomayor, who became the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court justice when she was confirmed this summer. Others also include Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, two members of President Obama's 15-member Cabinet.

But the President isn't the only person bringing more Hispanics to D.C. – the United States electorate is, too. The 111th Congress boasts more Hispanic members than ever.

Due to these historic events, this year's annual listing of 100 influential Hispanic Americans, HispanicBusiness Magazine spotlights Washington D.C., which is in the vanguard of change.

This year's list includes 30 influential dignitaries from our nation's capital, reflecting a broad range of talent from a wide array of endeavors. They include elected Congressmen and presidential Cabinet selections in addition to prominent professors, Census officials, lawyers, lobbyists and ambassadors.

The other 70 luminaries were selected from various disciplines: the corporate world, information technology, health care, education, the media and other areas. This year's list even includes an astronaut who brought a Puerto Rican flag with him during his trip to the International Space Station in March.

But for all the historic leaps of late, there is still more progress to be made.

A decade ago, Hispanic elected officials occupied only a dozen seats in Congress. Today they number 27.

Yet, Hispanics remain underrepresented in Washington. At roughly 15 percent of the U.S. population, the Hispanic demographic is the largest minority group in America. But Hispanic elected officials make up just 6 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives. And only one Hispanic member – Robert Menendez (D-NJ) – sits in the 100-member Senate.

"If our job was done I'd be out of business," joked Arturo Vargas, executive director of National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). "Each of these milestones is a major step on a journey we are taking for a destination that is a ways away."

Just as a trickle leads to a stream, trailblazers – who serve as role models – lead the way for the next generation by breaking down barriers and exploring new directions for them to follow.

Legions of future lawyers, for instance, will no doubt be inspired by the story of Sonia Sotomayor, the daughter of a single mother in the Bronx who earned an undergraduate scholarship at Princeton and obtained her law degree at Yale. By the time President Obama nominated her to the high court, Judge Sotomayor had more experience as a federal judge than any other Supreme Court candidate in 100 years.

Role models for a new generation also include President Obama's two cabinet picks: Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, both pioneers in their own right.

Before becoming the nation's second-ever Hispanic Secretary of Interior, Secretary Salazar had already been a groundbreaking political leader in several prominent positions in Colorado. In 2005, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, joining Florida's Mel Martinez as the first Hispanic members to serve in the nation's most respected legislative body since 1977.

At the time, there had only been three Hispanic senators in the history of the nation – all from New Mexico. Although the Hispanic community has a sizable presence in Colorado – the demographic accounts for about 20 percent of the state's population – Colorado isn't generally considered to be the kind of Hispanic population center that has come to characterize states like California, Texas and, well, New Mexico.

To Secretary Salazar, this was a clear indication that the electorate chose him on his merits.

"The people of Colorado were able to look at me in comparison to my opponent and say, 'He's the best person for the job,'" he told HispanicBusiness Magazine.

Secretary Salazar said he takes great pride in his heritage.

"I am a descendant of Latino families who have inhabited the southwest part of the United States for 400 years," he said. "It's a part of who I am."

Secretary Salazar grew up in a poor family, one of eight children on a ranch in Colorado with no electricity or phone. It was the ranch where his grandmother was born in 1884 and father was born in 1916.

"They never had an opportunity to get a college degree," Secretary Salazar said of his parents. "They taught us that we had no limitations – that anything was possible."

As a result, all eight children became first-generation college graduates.

Meanwhile, Secretary Solis, the first Hispanic woman to serve in the U.S. Cabinet, has racked up an entire portfolio of "firsts" of her own.

In 1994, she became the first Hispanic woman elected to the California State Senate. Six years later she became the first woman of any ethnicity to receive the "John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award." Her feat? Successfully authoring the first bill of its kind to address the disproportionate presence of toxic-waste dumps and polluting factories in poor communities – despite firm opposition from then-Governor Pete Wilson who vetoed her first attempt. In 1999, Gov. Gray Davis signed Solis's bill into law.

Also among this year's influentials is Congressman Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, who stressed the importance of reaching out to the next generation. Rep. Grijalva said he enjoys speaking at high schools in the hopes that he can make an impression on the students he addresses. Sometimes, though, it works the other way around.

"They don't have as many filters when they ask questions," he told HispanicBusiness Magazine. "I hope it's good for them but it's certainly a very positive thing for me."

As an example, Rep. Grijalva cited an instance in which he was leading a classroom discussion during the last presidential campaign. A Hispanic student stood up and asked: "Why should I vote for a black man?"

Taken aback, Rep. Grijalva answered that the color of a candidate's skin shouldn't be a factor. The student responded: "'Yep, that's what I was thinking,'" Rep. Grijalva said. "He was testing me."

Much as this year's 100 influentials serve as role models to others, they, too, drew inspiration from teachers, parents and political figures that often seemed larger than life.

Rep. Grijalva was an early admirer of the Civil Rights heroes: Robert F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Cesar Chavez, as well as the fiery Malcolm X.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Raul Cisneros, chief of the 2010 Census publicity office, drew inspiration from President Ronald Reagan.

"He had a tremendous sense of optimism about the United States," Mr. Cisneros told HispanicBusiness Magazine. "The things he did eventually led to the end of Communism."

In some cases, Influentials drew inspiration from people of meager means.

Dr. Jaime R. Torres, a podiatrist for the poor in New York City and the founder of Latinos for National Health Insurance, said his own patients often serve as a reminder that the nation is in dire need of healthcare reform.

"I've seen people lose legs because they could not afford health care for infections," Dr. Torres said. "I've seen people coming into my office and saying, 'Can you see my wife? She's been in pain for a week. I only have $20 but I'll pay you the rest later.' This is happening now, in our streets. Not 20 years ago, but now."

Not all powerful players in Washington, D.C. are politicians or Cabinet members. Arturo Valenzuela is a professor of Latin American studies at Georgetown University—and his imprint on the world extends far beyond the halls of academia.

Professor Valenzuela has served in key advisory positions in the Clinton administration, and has been nominated by President Obama to be the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. That means he would report directly to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Professor Valenzuela was born to missionaries in Chile, where he attended a French high school until 1960, when it was destroyed by the Great Chilean Earthquake – which registered a 9.5, the largest ever recorded. Afterward, when his parents sent him and his brother to live in the United States to escape the chaos, the teens took a long bus ride through the segregated South – an experience in observing injustice that helped shape his life's work.

In 1964, professor Valenzuela wrote his college thesis on what was then a fledgling phenomenon: the Civil Rights movement. As a student he served on the board of Americans for Democratic Action, and in that capacity met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. several times.

Professor Valenzuela, who now serves on the board of directors of the National Council of La Raza, advises students to follow their bliss.

"Do what inspires you, what motivates you," he said. "I'm one of these believers in the fact that everybody has a vocation, and they are of equal worth."

Moises (Moe) Vela Jr., director of administration for the Vice President Joe Biden, says the biggest challenge for the Hispanic community now is to inspire more and more youth to follow their dreams.

"The challenge still lies in creating a pipeline," he said. "We need to groom young Hispanics to rise through the ranks of public service – to understand how it works and to become new leaders."

Rosa "Rosie" Gumataotao Rios, who was recently sworn in as the 43rd Treasurer of the United States – and whose name will soon appear on the dollar bill – agrees, saying "education is key."

"I have made it clear to my own children that college is not optional, graduate school is not optional," she wrote in an email to HispanicBusiness Magazine. "The more you learn, the more options you will have at your discretion throughout your life."

Although there remains a long way to go to obtain full equity, Secretary Salazar said there is good reason to be optimistic.

"The roots of the Hispanic community go back here for a very long time – more than four centuries before Jamestown and before Plymouth Rock," he said. "But it's also important to look ahead. In the 21st century, the Hispanic community is going to make up a very significant percentage of the population of the United States. I view the Hispanic community as being willing and able to be a positive and contributing factor in this mosaic of America."

Source: (c) 2009. All rights reserved.

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