Putting the Spotlight on Latino Issues

Times Staff Writer

In Whatever Works, we feature an interesting person discussing some aspect of his or her career or special project. Today's columnist is Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles).

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Question: What is your new job as leader of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus all about, and how were you chosen?

Answer: This job is really about helping the caucus be the voice of Latinos in the halls of Congress, both through advocacy and through legislative initiatives. I was elected by the members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. There are 20 members, 17 Democrats and three Republicans.

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Q: What do you hope to bring to the job?

A: Given the fact that Latinos are going to be the majority in a lot of key states, such as California, Texas and Florida, I hope I will be able to bring an understanding to the general public about Latinos and the fact that Latino issues are American issues--that we all care about the same things. We all want a good education for our children, to have a healthy environment, to have good jobs and to live in safe neighborhoods. By working together, by building bridges of understanding between various groups, we can work toward these common goals.

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Q: How will Latinos (and others) in the Southland benefit from your new position?

A: Being the chair of the caucus enables me to bring more focus to California and to the Southland [by] being the primary spokesperson for some of the issues that are really important to the Latino community. Also, many times California interests are ignored because of a very deep-rooted, East Coast mentality in Washington. And I think this job gives me more visibility to articulate the concerns of Californians, and the Southland in particular.

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Q: Where will this position take you?

A: Hopefully, I will be involved in a lot of areas of policymaking decisions I would not otherwise be involved in. So it will open the doors of leadership.

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Q: Tell us something about yourself and your background.

A: I was born and raised in Boyle Heights. It was in the '40s, and when I was growing up there were no Latino role models in politics; in fact, they were nonexistent. My father was the first Latino elected to the Los Angeles City Council. That exposed me to the Anglo-dominated world.

It was a very difficult time, when we were punished if we spoke Spanish in school. It was a time when my father and our family were stopped at hotels and questioned as to why we were trying to enter. We'd be made fun of when we attended various events, like at the Hollywood Bowl. So in some respects we've gained a lot since the '40s and '50s, while at the same time much of the prejudice and the fear still exists today. So that experience has really given me an appreciation for the difficulties that people have, particularly right now when we're dealing with new immigrants.

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Q: Your father was a congressman before you. What did you learn about the job from him?

A: He taught me I should never confuse who I am as a person with the trappings and the privileges of office.

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Q: What did your mother do?

A: My mom tried to balance the responsibilities of being a mother with being the wife of an elected official. She ran a lot of my father's campaigns and worked very hard to get him elected and then to keep him elected.

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Q: What are some of your current projects?

A: One of the things I'm working on the most is the census. The census is absolutely critical not only to California, but critical to this nation. In California, we had a tremendous undercount and literally lost millions and millions of dollars.

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Q: When did you know you wanted to pursue this career?

A: I actually didn't think about this myself. It never occurred to me to run for office until I was approached by Gloria Molina, who was leaving the state Assembly. The woman who was going to run in her place decided at the last minute not to, and they were looking for someone. Gloria's political consultant remembered meeting me and suggested my name and had a friend call me. I thought they were kidding. At the time, I was working at United Way in agency relations.

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Q: What did you want to be as a child?

A: I think I used to imagine myself being a singer and being in theater. It was definitely a dream--I can't carry a tune.

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Q: What's something most people don't know about what you do?

A: Most people don't know just how much work it is, that it's seven days a week, it's late hours. Even when we're not in session there's tons of paperwork to do. Most people don't know that members of Congress don't have chauffeurs and we don't have bodyguards, [which is] always one question I'm asked.

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Q: What's the worst job you've ever had?

A: When I was about 18 years old, I got a job working at the L.A. Convention Center. There was some business event, and my responsibility was to type the cards for the people that were attending, just putting their name, their address and their business, but I didn't know how to type. It would take me three or four or five cards to get it right, and I was holding up the line. I was trying to get some Christmas money.

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Q: What was your first job?

A: I was 16, and I became a salesgirl at May Co. in downtown L.A. They assigned me to the basement, it was a sale in men's underwear. And I'll tell you, I didn't have any clue as to what a lot of these people were asking. The men would come down and ask for different kinds of underwear and stuff, and I had no clue what they were talking about. That was probably my second-worst job.

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Q: What do you hate about your job?

A: The times when I'm not able to help my constituents. On a personal level, one of the most difficult things is not having enough time to spend with family and friends.

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Q: How do you juggle work and family?

A: It's extremely difficult, and I'm very fortunate that I have a husband who is extremely supportive and children who are grown and understand the demands of elected office because the time with family is very, very limited. I've been very lucky because when I was elected to Congress my kids were already out of school.

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Q: How often are you back in Los Angeles with your family?

A: It depends on whether we have sessions on Friday and Monday. If we do, I probably stay in Washington, but when we have Friday and Monday off then I fly back.

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Q: What do you want to do when you retire?

A: Spend a lot more time with my family. Hopefully, by the time I retire I'll have grandchildren.

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