Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, First Latina Elected to Congress
With humor and optimism, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen shares her difficult journey from Cuban refugee to becoming the first Latina Congresswoman in the U.S.
First Latina Elected to Congress
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen on leaving Cuba and her improbable journey to becoming the first Latina Congresswoman.
ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: I have to pinch myself whenever I see that dome lit up. And I think, they let me in here, and they let me vote. This is just incredible. For me, being born in Cuba is not just an interesting place on your passport. It's given me an understanding that comes from losing your homeland, seeing a communist tyranny take over, and understanding how fragile democracy is. It really left an impression on me. And I still have it with me today. I never would have thought in a million years that I would be in Congress.
I always wanted to be a teacher. My family started a private elementary school. And getting to know the parents of the school and getting to know the problems they had with immigration, social security, Medicare-- one day, I just thought I could actually be the person making these incredible, crazy rules that no one can understand. And I could maybe write them in a way that people could understand them. And that's how I got the idea of maybe running for office.
I really wanted to make a difference in the realm of foreign affairs. So I said, this is my passion. I'm going to run for it. There were about 13, 14 candidates for this slot. And I just told each one of them, do whatever you're going to do. But I'm going to run and I'm going to win, because you will not outwork me.
That election night was crazy. It was not until about 3:30 in the morning when I found out that I had won. And then the "Today" show calls me up. And they say, how does it feel to be the first Hispanic woman ever elected to Congress? And I said, what? I had not even realized it.
Is this a great country or what? I mean, to think that a Cuban refugee would come to the United States not knowing a word of English-- because I didn't know a thing. Nada. And I'm now the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a member of Congress. I'll always have that little niche in the history books. I'll be a small footnote, but a footnote nonetheless.
ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: In those incredible days in the early 1960s in Miami, there were bus loads of Cuban and plane loads of Cubans coming in every day. And our house was like a refugee camp. We had people sleeping on our couches and in the chairs and on the floor. And they had nowhere else to go. But they knew that in this family, they could always come and they'd always find some kind of food. We didn't have much. We were very poor. But to me, that's how everybody in the neighborhood was. Everybody was sharing the same experiences. And I remember going to one of those beautiful buildings-- that's still there in downtown Miami --my brother and my mom holding our hands. We would pick up boxes of powdered milk and boxes of cheese. That cheese must have been as hard as this table. But to us, it tasted like butter. It was wonderful, like creamy chocolate. And sometimes that's what we would eat for a whole month. But we were happy. And my parents were very active in the pro-freedom movement in order to be able to go back to a free Cuba.
ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Women are very important to the future of the Republican Party. And we would be very blind if we don't realize it. And we've seen that the profile of the voter is more and more a woman. So the Republican Party, we don't have to change our philosophy or what we stand for. But we have to let young women, single moms know that we care about their issues, that we want to help them get better daycare and get better educational choices for their children. So we risk being the party of yesterday, if we don't get on the bandwagon and understand that the future of this country is in the hands of women.
ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: I hope that I'm a positive role model for so many other young ladies who are thinking that, oh, politics is a dirty business. And they're all a bunch of crooks, and they're only in it to enrich themselves. So I hope that they see that there's another side of it, that there are a lot of good people. I've worked here with legends like John Lewis. I mean, can you imagine?
This is a man who walked with Martin Luther King. And I just think, this is incredible that I'm here and that I'm sitting with these legends. It's an incredible institution.
ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Being born in Cuba is more than just a spot on my passport. It's really been a defining characteristic of who I am. It makes you a fighter. It makes you a fighter for democracy. It makes you a champion of freedom and human rights. To me those concepts are not just abstract concepts. They're something that I believe in and that I strive for. The ability to speak freely, to criticize your government, to have-- to change democracy through the ballot box and not through bullets. Those are real concepts to me.
ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: I think that as more women throw themselves out as candidates, we'll be able to dispel that myth that the Democratic Party is home to women, and that the Republican Party is home to the angry white guy. We've got to build up a good farm team. We've got to have them run for smaller offices, you know, local offices first, and get their way up to Congress.
And sometimes our biggest challenges come in the primaries, where we get beaten by male candidates, because the electorate is sort of used to voting for the male. And they think, oh, in the traditional way, that the female is going to pay more attention to daycare issues, as important as they are, than national defense, and nothing could be further from the truth. So we've got to dispel a lot of those myths. They're wrong, they're antiquated, and I'm not sure that they were ever correct in the first place. [MUSIC PLAYING]
ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Being eight years old when we left Cuba, I remember one of the best moments of coming to the United States was when it got to be Halloween. And we thought, wow, this really is a great country. They give you this little grocery bag, and you're going door to door and people are giving you candy.
My brother and I were sold on the United States of America after October 31. We thought this was an incredible country. Who does this to the kids? Giving us candy.
ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: I remember those crazy days in the beginning of the Cuban revolution being 7 and 8 years old, not really understanding the politics behind it, but thinking this is very strange where I have to get down in my parents car on the floor, because you hear shots being fired around the city. And it's not the normal everyday kind of background that people have. But that's what it was like.
And thank goodness we have this generous, wonderful country that welcomed us with open arms. A record number of Cuban refugees coming to the United States, all in a span of 10 years, so many people coming and very welcomed in South Florida.
ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: I think that gender discrimination is a luxury for the affluent. There's no discrimination when you're poor. Everybody works.
So my brother cut the lawn, and I had to rake it, the-- rake the lawn. We didn't have a maid or gardener. We were the maids and we were the gardeners. Everybody had to carry their weight, and I think that's still true in so many households.
ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: When we lost Cuba to communism, at the time I didn't realize it, but little by little, through conversations with my parents, it's given me an understanding of how your life can change in an instant, and the importance of starting over again.
And my parents have always been very great role models for me, because they never looked back. Yes, they worked for a free Cuba, but they never looked about-- looked at their life as lost opportunities. Instead, they think of it as a wonderful challenge, having come to the United States, and starting over again. So it's been a wonderful opportunity for all of us. [MUSIC PLAYING]
ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: I think every woman in elective office should think of herself as a feminist, and I don't think that we should have labels as to liberal or conservative attached to that. Because I think that if you're in a position of leadership and that you can help young women aspire to be the best that they can be, that makes you a feminist, whether you want to call yourself that or not. You're a role model, you're a leader, and you're trying to leave your mark in the world and leave the world a better place. That makes you a feminist.