This Capitol is My Capitol, También: A Latina Interns in Congress
A professor told me about scholarships open to students who were beneficiaries of President Obama’s highly debated executive action: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. That is how I, a DACA beneficiary, ended up on the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) web page and found out about the internship that would change my life and the way I perceived the country my parents had chosen for me. By clicking the link, voicing my intent to apply to several of my professors and colleagues, and deliberately pressing “finish” on a fresh spring evening, I began a journey alongside other Latino students from all over the United States.
I had never even dared dream that I’d be walking the halls of Congress with an official badge, a writing pad, CHCI pin, and suit. Walking into Longworth Monday-Thursday for seven weeks was surreal. Waving hello at congressmen, senators, and walking past them in the hallways was exhilarating. Connecting with staff, expanding my network, and learning more about how my experiences can propel my career was priceless. The week prior to the office work, I was participating in various team building activities with my 37 fellow interns. Weekly, we took part in programming with our intern class and various presenters brought to us by CHCI.
One week, we participated in story-telling training that enhanced my understanding of others and of myself by giving us tools with which to analyze what it’s like to be Latina, the stereotypes that we put on ourselves and each other, and our experiences as minorities in higher education. We did not realize the impact that our histories and family life had made on our journey to this point in our lives. Whereas some of my fellow interns came from a campesino background, living off of the fruits of the land, others in our cohort were raised in a family business--entrepreneurs before puberty knocked on our doors, still others had grown up in an insulated culture where their only ties to their Latino culture were their parents. Our lenses were tinted with the colors of our upbringings, and our views definitely showed in our discussions. For many, our parents had always pushed us. Others were pushed by their community’s strength and perseverance. We all came to DC, however, with a wish to energize ourselves and others with knowledge and empowerment.
Instead of going through our days in the office robotically, we were able to be introspective, always relating our duties to the meaning for the society in which we live and for our communities in particular. During Friday programming, our cohort was coaxed out of our comfort zones with questions such as “How does your Latino identity influence your views on sexuality?”, “What role do feminism and masculinity play in the Latino culture?”, “Is there a generational cut-off point for Hispanicity?”, “How do you know you’ve assimilated?” and many other questions that we are still trying to answer. So interested we were in learning about ourselves and each other that we tried to psychoanalyze each other in our spare time over dinner. We learned about each other’s lives and how our studies, lives as activists, leadership roles on our respective campuses, and organizations’ events shape our views on the world.
I had the unique task of describing my Alabama experience. When other interns or congressional staff saw me this summer with my CHCI pin, dark skin, dark brown hair, and Latina name, they were surprised to find that I came from Alabama, and were even more surprised when I shared my desire to remain in my state to continue the work of changing perspectives of locals towards my Latino/immigrant community. I was, in turn, surprised to find that our more progressive counterpart, California, was not as accepting as I had expected. I was engaged in conversations with other youth activists in Arizona, Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma who challenged my points of view and strengthened my resolve. I realized that although we are legislatively behind the curve of our western colleagues, our southern hospitality gives us the ability to coexist and have conversations in unexpected environments such as a baptist liberal arts college in central Alabama or a conservative church in rural Alabama where the confederate flag is flourished often. Through these conversations, I was given hope for the “hopeless Alabama” that the rest of the nation sees. I realized how much I loved Alabama when I found myself defending my “backward” state, regardless of the many faults it has.
I will never forget my last day in Congress. I had turned in my badge before heading to the Congressional Visitors Center for our closing ceremony. Earlier that day, I had gone through this very entrance with my badge and had been waved through without a hitch. This time, however, I was not wearing a badge, but still looked every bit the part of a congressional intern--eager face, nice dress, heels, smart blazer, CHCI pin, writing pad, and pen. The officers told me I was not allowed to enter because it was after visitor’s hours. I explained that I had returned my badge, and even showed them a letter with my office’s letterhead that I had in my writing pad. They did not believe me until I showed them a picture I had taken of my badge (left over from a message I had sent my mom at lunch, mourning the loss of my badge). I had not realized that in the span of the ten seconds it took me to hand over my badge, I had permanently lost access to the fortress of knowledge, politics, and legislation.
As an undocumented member of the United States, I am not legally authorized to work for Congress. No federal funds are available to students like me, and as a result, I am not permitted to be a paid employee of the US Government. When I realized that this would be my last chance to walk the halls of Congress freely and without a staff member accompanying me, I signed up to attend every hearing and briefing I could, I set up as many meetings as I could in places that only staff members were allowed, and I researched every constituent concern that came my way on the office computer’s database. I savored every minute, knowing that until I became a citizen, those seven weeks would be the only time I would be able to serve my chosen country in that capacity.
I charge you, readers, with the important task of finding what drives you, what impassions you. If you find yourself in the nation’s capital, expand your network as much as you can, find your story, and find a way to tell your story in two minutes--that’s the only time you’re allotted sometimes. Your future will become clear when you find the bits and pieces of your past worth taking forward with you.
Fernanda Herrera is a senior at Samford University in Homewood, Alabama. She co-founded and serves as chapter president of the Latino Student Organization. Herrera is also a Resident Advisor and University Fellow.