Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: How I Learned to Love My Firstness

Being first comes with extra scrutiny and responsibility; people watch your work, your actions, and your words.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. 
©2012 Richard A. Bloom
Ileana Ros Lehtinen
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Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
July 25, 2014, 1 a.m.

After win­ning a hard-fought spe­cial elec­tion in 1989 to fill the seat of South Flor­ida’s le­gendary Rep. Claude Pep­per, I went on the Today show for my first in­ter­view as a mem­ber-elect. I was taken aback when I was asked how it felt to be the first His­pan­ic wo­man elec­ted to Con­gress. “I don’t think that is cor­rect,” I said, “but I’m glad to have won.” Katie Cour­ic in­ter­rup­ted and said, “Oh, trust me, we did the re­search, and you are in­deed the first Lat­ina in Con­gress.” Well, OK. No pres­sure, right?

(Richard A. Bloom)

When I ar­rived in the United States at age 8 from my nat­ive Cuba, I would have looked at you like you were from Mars if you’d told me that I would someday serve in Con­gress. While my par­ents, En­rique and Aman­da, set off to work, my chal­lenge was to learn Eng­lish. I learned and nev­er stopped learn­ing, even­tu­ally be­com­ing a teach­er and run­ning a small private school. (Was I the first His­pan­ic wo­man in Miami-Dade to own a school? You’d have to ask Katie Cour­ic.)

Like many wo­men — and surely a few men — my in­terest in polit­ics came from think­ing bey­ond my­self. My stu­dents’ fam­ily mem­bers would come to me with their is­sues and con­cerns re­gard­ing any­thing from ques­tions about im­mig­ra­tion to how to nav­ig­ate the myri­ad of gov­ern­ment agen­cies and pro­grams. I wanted to help my com­munity on a lar­ger scale, so I ran for state House and be­came Flor­ida’s first His­pan­ic wo­man in that cham­ber and, later, the first in the state Sen­ate.

Like so many wo­men who’ve broken pro­fes­sion­al bar­ri­ers, I’ve had to learn to em­brace my “first­ness.” Be­ing first comes with ex­tra scru­tiny and re­spons­ib­il­ity; people watch your work, your ac­tions, and your words. You’re ex­pec­ted to rep­res­ent those who’ve paved the way for your first­ness, and to set an ex­ample for those who will come after you.

After ar­riv­ing in Wash­ing­ton, I had plenty of at­ten­tion on my every move. My first task was to per­suade my col­leagues to grant me a seat on the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee. I knew from day one that the com­mit­tee was where I needed to be be­cause in my dis­trict, with its large Cuban-Amer­ic­an and Jew­ish con­stitu­en­cies, for­eign af­fairs are a do­mest­ic top­ic. I wasn’t shy; I told lead­er­ship and my South Flor­ida col­leagues that ob­tain­ing that seat was my first pri­or­ity in D.C. — which I did. Years later, in one of my proudest mo­ments as a pub­lic ser­vant, I be­came chair­wo­man of the House Com­mit­tee on For­eign Af­fairs.

My philo­sophy to­ward suc­ceed­ing as a His­pan­ic wo­man boils down to something quite simple that would serve oth­er wo­men well: Do everything like you’re the first, even when you’re not. I keep striv­ing for ex­cel­lence and work­ing just as hard every day as I did when I was a new mem­ber. In my case, that means fight­ing for South Flor­ida — work­ing to pre­serve the beau­ti­ful Flor­ida Keys and help small busi­nesses, for in­stance, while cham­pi­on­ing glob­al hu­man rights. My fo­cus on hu­man rights glob­ally was born from wit­ness­ing a re­press­ive Cuban re­gime take con­trol and op­press the people, while my in­terest in the plight of Is­rael came from my be­lief that we must stand with de­fend­ers of demo­cracy who are un­der siege.

As I liked to say from the start of my time in Con­gress, I’m proud to have been the first, but I am happy that I won’t be the last. Through the years, it’s be­come a won­der­ful priv­ilege for me to see more His­pan­ic wo­men join the ranks of Con­gress, and to help them nav­ig­ate the per­ils of Wash­ing­ton. Too of­ten we view polit­ics as a full-con­tact, zero-sum game. We should en­cour­age the op­pos­ite. No one achieves on her own, and it’s up to us — the firsts, and the nexts — to in­spire fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

Ileana Ros-Le­htin­en rep­res­ents Flor­ida’s 27th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict in the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives.

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