U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez was born 54 years ago in Puerto Rico, the daughter of a sugar-cane cutter.
Today, Velázquez is a senior member of Congress after becoming the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the U.S. House in 1992. And last year, when the Democrats took control of the House, the New York City Democrat became the first Latina to chair a full congressional committee: the Small Business Committee.
Velázquez will be making her first trip to Portland this week when she gives the keynote speech Thursday, Sept. 13, at the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber's Hispanic Heritage Celebration dinner. She talked with WW by phone about the importance of her other firsts and whether voters should send Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) to the White House just because she's a woman.
WW : Which is the more important first to you, being the first Puerto Rican or the first woman to do what you've done?
Nydia Velázquez: Legacy is very important. I really enjoy being able to go into a classroom where you have a lot of young Latina and Afro-American girls. I talk to them about my story and how it doesn't matter how difficult an obstacle you face in life—that you can break barriers. They're both important.
Because discrimination still exists, because economic disparities still exist. Despite the fact we were poor, there was some institutional support in place that meant I could go to college with a full scholarship. Look, whether you like it or not, there are still some remnants of discrimination in our country.
Should voters take into account Hillary Clinton's gender when considering whether to vote for her?
For a lot of people, it might be an issue. But a lot of people will make their decision based on her leadership skills and her record as a legislator.
How about for you?
Definitely. The woman factor is important. But for me, it's more because she's strong and because of her experience.
Why do you think she's electable when she seems such a polarizing figure?
Some people say she can't win, but I would invite those people to do a little research. When she first ran in New York, the political pundits said she couldn't win in upstate New York because it's Republican territory. But she won, and the second time she ran, she won even bigger.
What state is she going to win that John Kerry didn't in 2004?
The whole political landscape in our country is changing with Iraq and the economy and health care. But if you're just looking at states, there's New Mexico, Colorado and Iowa are all places that Kerry didn't win, and she can.
If Clinton does win, do you want to replace her and become America's first Latina senator?
We're not there yet. It's very important to focus on getting her elected.
C'mon, you have to have thought about it.
I've only been chairing the Small Business Committee since January. We'll see.
After dealing with both ex-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, who do you think plays better as a national candidate outside New York City?
I was never a fan of Giuliani. I have a better relationship with Bloomberg. Prior to 9/11, many candidates in New York didn't even want their pictures taken with Giuliani. We need a uniter, and he's not it. Bloomberg has more sensitivity. He has better skills dealing with people.
Do you think Bloomberg will take a run as an independent candidate?
If there's a crack, he'll take it.
Velazquez is one of nine children.
Nearly half of the residents in her congressional district—48.5 percent—are of Hispanic origin.
She won her race in 1992 despite the leak of medical records showing she'd attempted suicide in 1991.