After almost three decades of service as a Congresswoman, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), has announced her retirement. She became the first Latina and first Cuban-American elected to Congress in 1989. Here, we take a look at how she shattered the glass ceiling and what her accomplishments mean for Latinas in the future.
Ros-Lehtinen’s calling to politics traces back to her start as teacher and principal of a bilingual elementary school in Hialeah in the 1970s and 80s. Today we may take the bilingual school concept for granted, but in the 1980s, bilingualism in South Florida was quite controversial. English only activists like Emmy Schaeffer campaigned to repeal Spanish’s status as a second official language in Miami Dade county. Ros-Lehtinen made it her mission to fight for an educational system that would benefit South Florida’s diverse community and families like hers.
A true crusader in the fight for LGBT rights, Ros-Lehtinen became the first Republican to support the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. The mother of a transgender son, she became a strong advocate for marriage equality in the Republican Party, and made it her goal to educate others on the topic. She was one of the founding members of the LGBT equality caucus.
Financial Aid Reform
If you’ve applied for financial aid, you know that the process can be quite complicated, not to mention time consuming. Ros-Lehtinen’s website is full of advice for applicants and she has dedicated staff to assist with students in need. She has also worked to simplify and streamline the process with aid reforms and additional options for repayment.
Why Foreign Policy Hits Close to Home
An immigrant and political refugee to the United States from Cuba at only eight years old, foreign policy is inseparable from domestic affairs for Ros-Lehtinen. Her family experienced Castro’s Cuba first hand, so she has been a harsh critic of the dictatorial regime and a supporter of Cuban refugee programs. At the time of his death, she did not hold back on denouncing Castro and used this opportunity to continue to advocate for greater freedom and democracy on the island. She has also voiced her opposition of other dictatorships and human rights violations, particularly in Venezuela.
In an interview with Katie Couric shortly after being elected, Ros-Lehtinen expressed her disbelief that it took until 1989 for a Latina to be elected to Congress. But following her accomplishment, Latinas have continued to hammer away at the political glass ceiling. Just this past year, Catherine Cortez Masto became the first Latina Senator. And there are no signs of this movement slowing down.
Ros-Lehtinen might be best remembered for one of her key strategies—working across the aisle. Ever since she began her career in politics, she has focused more on serving her constituents rather than aligning with goals of the Republican Party. In a largely Democratic district, she managed to be elected for fifteen consecutive terms through her willingness to break with party lines and instead represent the views of her district. While the future of her Congressional seat may be up in the air, potential successors may learn best from how she worked tirelessly as a bipartisan voice for the people. And being able to work closely with others regardless of their views is something we can all learn from.