WASHINGTON -- When prominent Latino activists meet with President Obama, there’s one White House staff member present whom many of them have known since she was a child.
Julie Chavez Rodriguez grew up handing out leaflets and knocking on doors with her grandfather, Cesar Chavez, the activist whose campaign to organize farmworkers still inspires today’s Latino leaders.
As deputy director of the Office of Public Engagement, Rodriguez runs Obama’s organizing efforts in support of immigration reform, and supervises Latino outreach.
On Monday -- Cesar Chavez Day in California, Colorado and Texas -- she’s to speak at a White House event honoring her grandfather’s legacy.
Usually Rodriguez keeps a much lower profile as a Chavez descendant. Her role is to defend the White House’s slow-and-steady approach to immigration reform at a time when many activists have demanded that Obama use his executive powers to stop deportations.
“My grandfather helped me to understand that change isn’t immediate,” Rodriguez said. “It doesn’t happen overnight. It does take a lot of time and sacrifice. It takes consistent, sustained organizing and pressure to be able to see great progress in our country.”
Advocates aren’t always as patient. Earlier this month, two top Latino leaders publicly branded Obama the “Deporter in Chief,” challenging the president’s argument that he can’t use his executive powers to take further actions but must focus on pressing for legislation to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.
In supporting the Obama point of view, Rodriguez cites “Tata Cesar” and his decades of work in organizing Latino farmworkers.
Rodriguez was born in Delano, Calif., home of the Delano grape strike and not far from the Chavez family home where her mother, Linda, was raised. She grew up mostly at the United Farm Workers headquarters, a small community named Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz, or Our Lady of Peace.
She and her cousins used to accompany their grandfather, leafletting or knocking on doors to find farmworkers. They joked that while other people went on family picnics, they went on family pickets.
Dolores Huerta, the legendary United Farm Workers leader, was often around, as was a young organizer named Eliseo Medina. Members of the Robert or John F. Kennedy families would visit.
Her first jobs after Tehachapi High School, while on break from her Latin American studies at UC Berkeley, were in AFL-CIO union summer programs. She worked with the United Farm Workers organizing strawberry pickers in Watsonville, Calif.
She worked for eight years at the Chavez Foundation as a program director, but when Obama ran for office in 2008, she traveled to Colorado to volunteer, knocking on doors. That led to a job in the administration working for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, followed by the White House job in 2011.
Last year, that meant accompanying her boss to the National Mall to sit with Medina, who had risen to head the Service Employees International Union, during his fast for immigration reform.
Rodriguez chose to remain outside the circle of fasters, noted Valerie Jarrett, head of the White House Office of Public Engagement. “Everyone in the tent knew who she was,” he said, “but she felt it was her role to be the staff that day.”
At the White House, conversely, most staff members don’t know they work with a member of the Chavez family. Until two weeks ago, when the White House screened a new movie about Chavez, even White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough was unaware of Rodriguez’s relation to Chavez. Rodriguez’s father, Arturo Rodriguez, succeeded Chavez as head of the United Farm Workers. He was present for the president’s summit with Latino activists two weeks ago.
Going into that meeting, the White House was put out by the “Deporter in Chief” remarks from Rep. Luis Gutierrez, Obama’s fellow Democrat from Illinois, and Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, the country’s largest Latino advocacy group.
After the meeting, activists emerged emphasizing their agreed agenda -- to pressure House Republicans to vote on immigration reform.
Medina, an old family friend, says Rodriguez is an effective spokesperson for the president because she argues for changes that will actually affect families.
“It is very important to have Julie at the White House as our country wrestles with the issue of immigration reform,” he said. “Her personal story and family history make her uniquely qualified to help inform the policymakers on why this issue matters to our nation and economy.”
At the White House, senior officials said they think her message carries a special weight.
“She and her cousins speak for the movement. In the Latino community, it’s like knowing royalty. It’s a very powerful thing,” said Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
[For The Record, 7:22 a.m. PDT March 31: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, as Cecelia Munoz.]