Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, the Highest-Ranking Latina in Congress
Thirty years ago, when Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez first stepped foot on Capitol Hill, the doors didn’t open as easily as they did when we met with her earlier this year. After a brief photo shoot on the steps of the Capitol building, we followed her to her office in the Rayburn House Office building, observing the respect and deference she commanded as she marched by.
Donning an immaculate white suit and full of confidence, authority, and determination, the poised Latina welcomed visitors as she entered her office and talked with us while waiting to be pulled away to serve her constituents and cast votes.
A lot has changed since Congresswoman Velazquez graced the cover of LATINA Style Magazine along with former Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard and Ileana Ross-Lehtinen 29 years ago. Sworn into Congress in 1993, the Yabucoa, Puerto Rican native shares her journey to the halls of Congress, her struggles, triumphs, and her path to leadership.
“To tell you the truth, being one of three Latinas back in 1993 that were here in Congress, it has been a lot of pain and struggle to be seen and heard,” she shares. “I can say that Lucille Roybal-Allard, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and I were all three strong women who were laser-focused on understanding the historical moment that represented when we got elected in 1993. We understood the important role that we were playing in discussing issues that were not discussed before and to bring a unique perspective of the people that we represented back then to Congress.”
The first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress and the first Latina to chair a major Congressional Committee, public service has been at her heart since she was a young Latina. She is grateful for those individuals who noticed her work and allowed her the opportunity to grow. Representing New York’s 7th Congressional District, Congresswoman Velazquez is currently serving her 13th term.
“It was 29 years ago when I was just one of three Latinas and during this 118th Congress, we will set a record for the number of Latinos serving in Congress,” she proudly states. “This session, for example, we will serve alongside 46 Latino lawmakers in the house, with 17 being Latinas. So, when you ask me, what has changed? Well, there is power in numbers. And so now, we are a force to be reckoned with, not to diminish the fact that back then, we were only three Latinas, but we were able to raise the volume on issues that not only were important for our communities but were important to the nation.”
Congresswoman Velazquez has overcome adversity, being one of nine children and the daughter of a sugar cane worker, by persevering with a strong work ethic and strong values instilled by her parents. When asked if she faced stereotypes or overall inequality as she worked toward her career, she answered, “When I got elected the first time, I ran against the machine,” she shares. “When people now talk about those who run against them, I ran against the machine in my district. And ever since I got elected, I faced primaries by the same depth, the same Democratic Party that I was a member of. So, I knew that I needed to work hard in making sure that my constituents knew that I was, through my work, empowering my community.”
For the Congresswoman, the circumstances and the fight encountered made her a stronger person, allowing her to take positions that were not too popular back then.
“I think that I was shaped by my tenacity of self-preservation,” she shares. “I know that if I didn’t organize my community or I didn’t come back and educate my community about the work that we were doing here, that then if I face a primary by the machine, they will have an opportunity to take me on. But I prevented that by being proactive. And by having my eyes and ears on the ground.”
During her tenure, the Congresswoman is proud to have and continue to open doors for Latinas in Congress. Whether by supporting or mentoring them, the Congresswoman takes pride in nurturing those joining Congress.
“I have made it a goal of mine since I first got elected to nurture the new leaders, the youngest leaders,” she shares. “I am proud that I was able to nurture young people occupying different elected offices in New York at the city level, at the state level, and at the federal level. My legacy is Sonia Sotomayor, my legacy is Alexa Villas, my legacy is Maritza Davila. All these young women and men that I nurture are in leadership positions back home, they are my legacy.”
A leader and advocate on issues such as immigration reform, climate change, and healthcare, she also works hard to ensure that Latinos have ample economic opportunities as chair of the House Small Business Committee.
“Latina entrepreneurs are the backbone of our economy,” she states. “In order to get our economy growing again, we have to make sure that the resources are there for Latinas to continue startup businesses and to expand their businesses. So that is why I have paid so much attention to addressing inequities when it comes to lending Latinos access to capital is the number one issue for Latinos in this country and is a very important issue for businesses in general and for Latino businesses.”
Congresswoman Velazquez and Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA 43rd District) worked to reform the program to make sure that Latinos and black businesses were provided the opportunity to access the PPP loan during the COVID-19 crisis. And it happened when $60 billion was put aside just for brown and black people.
“We improved the ability for businesses to get through the crisis of COVID-19 and be able to survive,” she shares. “As the top Democrat on the Small Business Committee, I have long worked to increase access to capital for Latino and Latino entrepreneurs.”
Although she is very proud of her work in the small business community — providing economic opportunities for Hispanic businesses in our nation and improving opportunities, particularly for women, she is more proud to bring to the forefront the nomination of Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
“As chair of the Hispanic Caucus, I took it upon myself to make sure that we did everything needed to do in order to keep everyone on board and to come up with only one candidate,” she shares. “And that was Justice Sonia Sotomayor. And I believe in my heart that she has been an incredible asset. She has been the people’s job. I know that Latinos and non-Latinos are incredibly proud of the work that she has done to bring justice to everyone in our country. I admire her sense of justice, her steady hand when it comes to the judiciary, and because she was only committed to bring positive change for our communities, particularly in the judicial system.”
While she has faced adversity with strength, Congresswoman Velazquez shares she has gained strength from mentors and role models such as Justice Sotomayor and Nancy Pelosi, who have been by her side for years.
“When I got first elected, she was the first and the one who saw me in my district, and we had a huge event,” she shares of Justice Sotomayor. “And, of course, Nancy Pelosi, for being who she has been. She was always there to listen to me. And very attentive to the issues that matter most for my community. I always aspired to be like her, with that kind of energy, work ethic, and hard work. I always try to emulate that. I valued her advice, but more importantly, her steady support of my work and how much she respected my contributions. And she always made me feel that I had something to contribute. Whatever the discussion we were having.”
With more than a dozen Latinas currently occupying positions of power in Congress, she is more hopeful for Latinas and the country than she has ever been.
“I am optimistic and proud of the quality of the members that have joined us,” she shares. “I feel stronger as a member, as a Latina member, when I see the quality and energy they bring with them. The future is brighter with the new members that have joined our ranks.”
When it comes to offering advice to the new Latinas in Congress, she advises them to be disciplined and always decide. To have an agenda in place, define priorities, and then they will tackle that in Congress.
“You have to bring the federal government with you, in your district, and you bring your district with you to Washington and work together to see how you can advance an agenda that reflects the dreams and aspirations of your constituents,” she shares.