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Cecilia Muñoz was a first, too, and she knows what it means to make her way without exemplars to follow. The first Latinx to lead the White House Domestic Policy Council, Muñoz draws lessons from the challenges she faced as the senior Hispanic person in the Obama White House and as a longtime powerful voice in the Civil Rights Movement. She shares her insights, along with those of some extraordinary women of color she met along the way, as an offering of inspiration to women of color who are no longer willing to be invisible or left behind.
Full of invaluable lessons about working through fear, facing down detractors, and leading with kindness, Muñoz provides the thoughtful insight and tactical tools women of color need to be successful-without compromising who they are.
I OWE A GREAT DEAL TO THE SEVEN WOMEN WHO GENEROUSLY shared their stories and insights with me as I was preparing this book. I conducted the interviews in person or by phone, and with their permission, I took detailed notes and used a taping service to record our conversations. This made it possible for me to include extensive excerpts and share the women’s words with you as I heard them.
While writing this book, I gave a lot of thought to the choice of words that I used to describe the community that I am a part of. Some prefer to call ourselves “Hispanic,” which refers to our ancestry in the Spanish-speaking world. Others prefer “Latino,” which refers to our geographic origins in Latin America. Neither fully captures who we are, so for decades I have used both terms interchangeably, which is what I ultimately chose to do in this book.
This decision does not come without complications. Using “Latino” is problematic in particular because Spanish is a gendered language; for years, I have used “Latino” when I am referring to a man, “Latina,” when I mean a woman, and “Latino/a” when it could be one or the other. For the purposes of this book, I have traded the awkward “Latino/a” for the recently invented “Latinx,” which describes the community in a gender-neutral way.
I am aware that this is a controversial choice. People who use “Latinx” make the case that we should adapt our language to be as inclusive as we can, making room for men, women, and people who don’t conform to traditional ideas of gender. They point out that language has the power both to reflect the ways in which the world is changing and to pave the way for that change. Others argue that “Latinx” is a word invented outside of our community in an unwelcome attempt to change a language that many of us have fought to preserve. They rightly point out that “Latinx” is a term that most of the community wouldn’t recognize and may not accept.
I am respectful of and sympathetic to both arguments, and I wrestled with the decision. I believe in the power of language enough to have spent a lifetime insisting that we use it in a way that opens doors—and minds—to women. In the end, I concluded that the people in my family and community who don’t conform to either gender deserve the same. I found using a new and unfamiliar word uncomfortable at first, and you might, too. We’ll adjust. That’s the point.
IF THERE IS SUCH A THING AS A “TYPICAL” LATINA, I AM NOT IT. Most of us live west of the Mississippi River; I was born in Michigan. Most US Hispanics have roots in the southwestern United States, Mexico, or the Caribbean; my family is from Bolivia, right smack in the middle of South America. People of Hispanic origin don’t even come close to looking alike because we have roots in the Americas, Africa, and Europe, but we are understood in the US to be brown. I am a product of that history, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that to look at me. Like many Latinx people, I have ancestors who were indigenous Americans, but I look more like my ancestors who came to Latin America from Europe, some of them centuries ago and some as recently as my maternal grandfather, who traveled to Bolivia from Spain in the early twentieth century. The ñ in my name is a marker of who I am. I have spent a lifetime explaining it, insisting on it, and teaching people how to type it. I have given up on teaching people how to pronounce Muñoz. (They seem to prefer MOON-yohz, but it’s moon-YOHZ.)
You, too, are a product of your history, whether you know much about that history or not. It shapes who you are in overt ways that the rest of us can see and in subtler ways below the surface. I consider myself lucky that I know something about my family’s roots. Not everyone can say the same. And some of the history of how each of us got here—to this exact moment in the precise place where you are sitting with this book—is glorious and some of it is painful.
Those of us with immigrant heritage often carry echoes of the choices that led our families to leave their homes and strike out for a new place. So many of us descend from people who didn’t leave their homes to come to America by choice at all—they were taken by force. Still others descend from people for whom America was home, and they were removed from their lands by force. We all still live with the legacy of that brutal history, especially those who are its direct descendants. Pretty much by definition, because we are women of color, we are at most only a few generations removed from people who showed extraordinary resilience and strength and who endured what seems unendurable. Our ancestors were survivors and strivers, generation after generation. That’s how we got here. We are their legacy.
Dr. Maya Angelou, the poet, novelist, and all-around wise woman, once told an interviewer from Huffington Post Black Voices that you have no way of knowing where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. “The more you know of your history,” she said, “the more liberated you are.” I think it matters to have a sense of where you come from, even if you don’t have a lot of specific information about your forebears. We know we are the products of certain forces of history, even if we can’t name many of our ancestors. And, of course, all of us bring our own personal history to every room we’re in. We may be the products of a set of historical trends, or descendants of some major diaspora, or not, but each of us is also someone from a family, neighborhood, and community. Our identity is the result of a lot of forces, but it is also uniquely our own. We bring all of it with us wherever we go.
I think of this identity as a major source of strength and a foundation from which to grow. In the moments when I am most challenged, I’m not sure if I’m succeeding, and I don’t know what kind of person people are seeing when they look at me, I am conscious of my ability to reach back and know who I am in some kind of deep way. I can see the person my family and friends see when I walk into a room. Whatever your circumstances, you are the product of a great chain of people, history, and forces that led to this moment and to you. It’s worth taking time to reflect on it and build it into your arsenal of things to draw on when you need sources of courage.
That is not to say that I always fully comprehended who I am. All of us go through a journey to understand ourselves and what we bring to the world, particularly when we’re young adults. My own understanding of myself as a Latina has developed in stages, owing largely to the fact that I grew up in a place where there weren’t many of us.
My parents came to Michigan as newlyweds in 1950. We were joined in the Detroit area by a collection of aunts, uncles, and cousins, which is how the United States became home to my family. Family was our major social circle; my school-age sleepovers were exclusively with my cousins—sleepovers with anyone else were kind of unthinkable—and they were made magical by my mother’s exotic stories about growing up in the eastern part of Bolivia, which is in the Amazon basin. There were some terrific stories involving snakes and caimans, but my favorites were the tales of the way my grandmother and aunts seemed able to sense when their loved ones were in danger, even from miles away. The stories were spectacular, full of menacing jungles and lurking jaguars. But the moral of the story was always connection: we are connected to one another no matter where we are, because we are family.
My siblings and I grew up bilingual, but like most kids in immigrant families, the Spanish began to fade as we got older and used it less. I have a distinct memory of the day I arrived at kindergarten and discovered that none of the other kids spoke Spanish. It was a startling revelation to me. Wanting to fit in, I switched to English with lightning speed. We understood ourselves as Americans—Michiganders and Midwesterners. We also understood ourselves as Bolivians—we often described ourselves as Spanish because nobody had ever heard of Bolivia and because language was a main marker for who we were, along with the exotic foods that we occasionally brought in our lunches (it’s quite possible that the only empanadas in all of Detroit in that era were produced in our kitchen).
Michigan didn’t offer much in the way of a Hispanic community. This was the 1970s, and there weren’t many of us in the Detroit area. I don’t need to use both hands to count the number of Latinx students and faculty I got to know during my four years at the University of Michigan. So, when I got to graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, the diversity blew my mind. There were immigrants from Mexico and Central America, along with Mexican Americans whose history in the country went back generations. Suddenly, this thing that had felt so exotic and unique in Michigan—the ñ, the language, and the culture—was everywhere, even in the names of the places and the streets. Suddenly there were things that I didn’t have to explain about myself because people knew. It was exhilarating.
I don’t want to overstate it; Hispanic American culture is a very diverse and complicated thing. Bolivia is far from the places where most Latinx people have roots—the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, or the Southwestern US—and there is a great deal that is different about the cultures, some of it trivial (a torta is a sandwich for a Mexican and a cake for me, as I learned to my chagrin the first time I ordered one) and some of it profound. Nevertheless, what I found during those years was a sense of community with other people who were products of the same historical phenomena: the impact of the Spanish colonizers of the Americas and the consequences of their interactions with both the indigenous people they encountered there and the people they kidnapped from Africa and enslaved there.
The diversity of people who spring from that experience is breathtaking. And for a variety of reasons, a lot of us have roots in the United States—in some cases, roots that go back 500 years. Hispanic America may not be a monolithic thing, but we are a thing. I discovered the vastness and beauty of the US Latinx community, that I belonged to it and it belonged to me, when I lived in California. And the excitement I felt in discovering where I belonged also began to reveal to me the kind of work I wanted to do in my life beyond Berkeley.
Find What Is Yours to Do
I am fortunate in that my life and work often put me in the path of young people of color, particularly women, in forums that give them a chance to tell me what’s on their minds and ask for guidance. The questions I get the most often fall into two categories.
The first is about what kinds of credentials and experience I think are the right ones to forge a particular career path, especially for people who are interested in some kind of public service and some way of making a difference. People want to know what I think should go on their resumes.
The second kind of question is broader. I get asked whether I believe change is possible and whether I think the people I am sitting with can be a part of that change, given the distressing state of the world right now.
For me, the same answer applies to both kinds of questions. Whether you do it through your job or through some other aspect of your life, you already possess the power to make a difference in the world. And the world needs you! It is full of challenges to be met and problems in need of the right people to apply themselves to find solutions. There are as many ways to go about making a difference as there are people. Your job is to figure out what is yours to do.
To me, this job is more important than the credentials on your resume or the grades you got in school. I would never talk someone out of going to college, though I will say that some of the smartest people I have ever known did not have college degrees, starting with my mother. I have talked more than one person out of going to law school, though I think a career in law is an excellent way to make a difference. These people were asking whether that credential on their resume might propel them into the right job. The trouble was that they didn’t want to be lawyers. There is no single formula for success, and there are infinite pathways to having an impact on the world, whether you do it as a career or as a passion outside of your work life. The key is knowing yourself and what energizes you enough to make you want to engage.
Think of a straight horizontal line made up of an infinite number of points, and each of those points is a way to make a difference. There are career-focused ways to make a difference, like teaching at a school, joining a firm that is pioneering clean energy, working in a hospital, or leading your company’s effort to develop effective diversity and inclusion efforts. I think of those as being at one end of the horizontal line. On the other end are other ways of making a difference that aren’t how you make your living: joining your block association, participating in a group that is trying to change a law by writing to your legislature, taking a turn when your congregation organizes meals for people in need, or showing up at a march or rally. All of it matters. We need good people at every point on the continuum. The question for you is, which point feels like the work that you’re meant to do?
As someone who has hired a lot of people in the past thirty years, when I see people who really love the work they are engaging in or hope to take on, it shows. It practically shines right through them. In that situation I’m much less concerned with what’s on their resumes except insofar as their experiences give them a chance to tell me the story of why they love this work. The inverse is also true: it’s not hard to spot someone who is looking for a credential on his or her resume but doesn’t have that spark of enthusiasm for the work.
I don’t mean to suggest that this determination is easy. It isn’t. Sometimes it takes a little experimentation to find what feels like yours to do in the world. Sometimes following your heart means taking an unconventional path and doing something that nobody else is doing. Especially if you feel like you’re swimming against the tide, it can help to know you’re trying to be true to your spot on that continuum and doing what is yours to do.
Learn by Doing
I not only built a connection to my own community during the years that I lived in California but also stumbled upon what would become my career path, though I don’t think I knew it at the time. This may sound like unconventional career advice, but I highly recommend being open to discovering what you are meant to do by accident. This strategy has worked for an astonishing number of people I know, including me.
My pathway into my life’s work started through service. I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship to support two years of graduate school, which meant that I didn’t have to wash dishes or shelve library books to support myself anymore. I could invest that time doing community-focused volunteer work. I found the Office for Hispanic Affairs, a tiny Catholic Church–sponsored organization in the Fruitvale area of Oakland, and talked my way into a volunteer job supporting a lawyer and a paralegal who represented immigrant clients. I interviewed immigrants we were defending in their deportation proceedings and helped people fill out forms to bring in relatives and to become US citizens. This was my first exposure to immigration issues beyond my own family’s experience, and I have been engaged in immigration policy ever since. Like many others in the immigration policy world, I don’t think of myself as having chosen the issue. It feels as if it chose me.
I don’t remember being aware of that at the time, though. I thought my volunteer work was interesting, but I didn’t think it was leading me to my life’s work. At twenty-two, I was pretty sure I wanted some kind of job at an organization that provided social services to needy people, and my volunteer gig gave me useful insight into what that might be like. I didn’t really have a vision for what kind of services I was interested in providing, and I didn’t intend to pursue a career in immigration. I suppose that if I had had that kind of clarity, I might have gone to law school. Instead, I was getting a degree in Latin American studies and diving into things that interested me like Chicano literature, while also learning about how immigration laws and policies affect people. I had no idea how important this would ultimately be.
My point is that there’s value in what you learn in school and in what you learn in the course of your life. And if you are paying attention to what really interests you, the stuff that feels the least like work to you and more like something you want to be doing because it feels engaging, interesting, or important, the greater the likelihood that you are finding markers that will set you on your path. At least that’s how it worked for me.
Discover What You’re Good at, Even if It Means Failing Along the Way
They say that one learns a lot from failure. This adage has been true for me. In fact, the whole trajectory of my career began when I set a course for myself that turned out to be a terrible fit. When I was getting ready to leave graduate school, I was confident of two things. First, I wanted to be back in the Midwest, closer to home. California had opened my horizons, taught me a lot about myself, and connected me more closely to the Latinx community. But it also didn’t feel like home, and the pull of home was strong for me. I wanted to be someplace where it would be easy to visit my parents and extended family.
My older sister had started her career in Chicago, which I knew to be a vibrant city only a four-hour drive or train ride from home. Chicago has an enormous Latinx population, so it seemed like a place where I might find work that would allow me to be of service in some way, which is the second thing I was sure of. I wasn’t particular about what kind of work it was, as long as it connected to the Hispanic community and felt as if I was helping address challenges like the high school dropout rate, which was high at the time, or access to health care, which was low. I also had a boyfriend who had just gotten a job there, so the planets seemed to be aligning. Chicago it was.
Aside from the boyfriend and one friend from college (my sister had long-since relocated to Michigan), I knew absolutely nobody in Chicago. I perused the yellow pages (that’s what we did before the Internet) looking for Latinx-focused social service agencies to introduce myself to. I had one letter of introduction from a graduate school friend, a priest who had contacts in the Catholic Archdiocese. Thanks to that letter, I found a job with Catholic Charities, the largest social service provider in the city, helping parishes in immigrant neighborhoods organize their own neighborhood-based social services. The pay was modest, but it was enough to cover the cost of living in a tiny studio apartment. The job met all my goals: Latinx-focused social services. Perfect.
Except that it didn’t last long.
Two months after I started my new job, Congress passed a major immigration reform law that provided a one-year window for undocumented immigrants to come forward and apply to become legal residents, a process known as legalization. As it happened, Father Charles Rubey, the priest who oversaw my division at Catholic Charities—my boss’s boss—was also the guy assigned to figure out how the Archdiocese was going mobilize to help immigrants get their legal status. Because of my brief bit of volunteer immigration experience, I had questions for him. Would he start a separate division and hire a team, or use the existing legal services office at Catholic Charities? Did Catholic Charities have enough bilingual personnel to handle the challenge? Were they coordinating with other service providers in the city?
I was worried that I was making a pest of myself, but these felt like important questions to me, and in my youthful zeal for the subject, I naively assumed that my supervisors were following the issues as closely as I was and coming up with answers. I was wrong about that; evidently, my tiny bit of background was more than anybody else at the agency had.
It never occurred to me to angle for a job as Father Rubey grappled with the task of designing Catholic Charities’ approach to legalization. I had a job already, and I was only a few months in and still learning the ropes. So, I was surprised when one morning, my supervisor, Sister Rosemary Meyer, called me in to say that Father Rubey wanted to speak with me. She had a note in her voice that made it sound like something serious was happening, so I wondered whether I was in trouble. I walked into Father Rubey’s office, where I sat in slack-jawed astonishment as he told me that the Lord had sent him a message in a dream. That message was that I should lead the legalization program for Catholic Charities.
I am not making this up.
The moral of the story for you is definitely not that you should wait for the good Lord to tell your future boss that s/he should hire you. Though I consider myself a person of faith, I don’t believe that Father Rubey received a message from God; I believe that he was anxious about how he was going to get a legalization program up and running, and the pesky kid on Sister Rosemary’s staff seemed to know stuff. So, he took a crazy chance on a twenty-four-year-old in her first job out of graduate school with zero management experience.
If I had had mentors at the time, I hope they would have told me that it was crazy to take that job and that any supervisor giving an employee that kind of responsibility on the basis of a dream or desperation is not exercising good judgment. But I had no mentors, I was in a new city, and I could see clearly enough that, inexperienced as I was, there was nobody else in that enormous organization who knew much about what was going on. I knew enough to know that the legalization period was a huge opportunity for millions of people, including tens of thousands in Chicago, and at that point we had only four months to set up a program. I believed that my path was to forge a career through which I could help the Latinx community. I was scared to death, but I took the job.
Setting up that program, running it, and doing the cleanup when the one-year legalization process was over was one of the scariest and most exhilarating times of my life. I built a team that set up offices in twelve parishes across two counties, with a total staff that peaked at thirty-five people. We helped form a coalition (now called the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights) with the other organizations in the city that were also working to legalize people, and we made sure we were collaborating rather than competing. In the end, this collaboration was hugely successful. We helped many thousands of people go from being undocumented to becoming legal permanent residents, and the program I was running was the largest of the bunch.
I learned so much from that experience. Lesson number one was that the kind of work that I thought I was destined to do—working in a program that provided a vital service to people in need, the kind of work that I think of as direct service—is not what I’m cut out for.
I discovered in those intense two years in Chicago that I just didn’t have what it takes to be an effective direct service provider. As proud as I was of the positive results of our work for thousands of people, I couldn’t let go of the fact that there were also many people that we couldn’t help because they didn’t qualify under the law. Worse, I couldn’t let go of the faces of the people who didn’t qualify. This was the late 1980s, the era depicted in the movie Broadcast News, which has a memorable scene in which the highly strung lead, played by Holly Hunter, manages the stress of her job by spending ten minutes every morning crying. That was me, except I mostly cried in the evening.
I agonized. I lost sleep. The scale at which we were able to help people didn’t feel big enough, and the law seemed too restrictive. I spoke to a reporter about the part of the new law that was going to make it illegal for undocumented people to find work, describing my job as “like watching people be pushed off a cliff, knowing that you can save only a few of them.” That was hardly the language of someone who is energized by what she is doing. I couldn’t focus on being glad for the thousands we were helping. I was too busy worrying about those we couldn’t help, and although I was doing my job effectively, it was taking a large emotional toll.
In the course of that work, I met many people who are good at managing the tension between what they can accomplish for people and what is beyond their grasp. There were social workers and other good people at Catholic Charities who confronted it every day as they served people struggling with poverty, substance abuse, and discrimination. They grieved and fought for those who fell through the cracks, managing to balance it all in their own hearts in order to get up and do it all again the next day. That’s the kind of person I thought I was going to be. I was disappointed with myself when I discovered that I wasn’t. I couldn’t find that balance, and it became obvious to me that I wasn’t likely to find it.
But even as I struggled with what I couldn’t control, couldn’t let go of, and wasn’t good at in those years, I began to discover something else, too: I learned that I am a natural advocate. As I collaborated with the leaders of other programs like mine, we discovered that we were all answering anxious questions from families who feared coming forward to legalize. The rules weren’t yet clear, so those seeking legal documentation couldn’t possibly know whether getting a bag of food from the food pantry would count against them in the legalization process, or whether coming forward might jeopardize other family members who had arrived after the 1982 eligibility date and didn’t qualify to legalize.
Because many of these families were nervous about coming forward themselves, and because we couldn’t reassure them without clarity from the government, we concluded that part of our job was to act as their advocates and raise their questions and concerns with the government on their behalf. And when the government took steps that would harm families or undercut the purpose of the program, our job was to push back, also on their behalf. Because we were in contact every day with people encountering obstacles to the very process intended to help them, we weren’t just helping families through the mechanics of the legalization process but were also identifying important policy questions.
It was through this work that I discovered I was skilled at identifying and explaining the problems and worries of the people who came through our doors for help. I turned out to be good at forming coalitions with others who were also serving the immigrant community, so that there were a lot of organizations standing together raising our voices on behalf of our clients. And I learned that I had a knack for building strategies to get problems fixed.
- "In More Than Ready, Cecilia Muñoz poignantly captures the challenges that women of color face as they try to compete on an uneven playing field, coupled with uplifting advice from her experiences rising to the height of her profession. Cecilia gives us insight into the critical lessons that helped her realize she, and we, are more than ready. If only I could have read this book when I began my career."—Valerie Jarrett, former Senior Adviser toPresident Barack Obama and author of FindingMy Voice
- "It was by watching incredible women like Cecilia Muñoz I learned the important life lesson that if you don't look like everyone else in the room, your perspective matters more, not less. When Cecilia spoke in meetings with President Obama, she did so with a powerful combination of integrity, wisdom, experience and empathy. She was often the only Latina in the room and often had the most insightful observations to make--the one thing that hasn't been said already that the President needed to hear. I have learned much from her and glad others will now have the chance to do so as well."—Jennifer Palmieri, former White House Communications Director and author, Dear Madam President
- "Muñoz provides reassurance and guidance for any woman who has also found themselves the first or only woman of color at the table... Women in all phases of life should find encouragement from Muñoz's experiences and thoughtful, tested, career-centered advice."—Library Journal
- "Cecilia is a wise guy who happens to be a woman, a 'domestic' worker whose 'house' work included the White House's public policy, an 'only' and a 'first' too many times in her life as a Latina. She shares with us what her triumphs and mistakes have taught her, stories that clear the way for women following in her brilliant path."—Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street
- "Americans are slowly, sometimes reluctantly, coming to understand that power and success comes in many shapes and sizes. Following the adventures of Cecilia Muñoz, a self-described 'diminutive Latina,' as she scales the heights of domestic policy-making and finds herself at President Obama's elbow, will inspire an entire generation of America's next leaders."—Anne-Marie Slaughter, President and CEO of New America, author of Unfinished Business
- "It has been my pleasure to work alongside Cecilia Muñoz while I served as the first Latina Secretary of Labor under the Obama administration. Cecilia's experience provides valuable lessons, especially to young people looking to make their way, wondering whether their voices matter."—Hilda Solis, Chair of theLos Angeles County Board of Supervisors and former Secretary of Labor
- On Sale
- Apr 7, 2020
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Seal Press