In early 2009 Claretian Father Richard Estrada fielded an unusual call from his friend, then-Congresswoman Hilda Solis. “Her faith was being tested,” recalls Estrada. “She was feeling down about some very hateful things that were being said about her at the time.”
A few weeks earlier, President-elect Barack Obama had nominated Solis to become the next U.S. Secretary of Labor, but her confirmation was in danger of becoming derailed. “Politics,” Estrada says, “is still often dirty work. The things that go on can get to you.”
Estrada took her request for prayers to his regular weekday Mass community at La Placita, Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Los Angeles. With the prayers and support of La Placita parishioners—and many others—Solis eventually was confirmed, and since February 2009 has been serving as Obama’s labor secretary.
That Solis has been called one of the most pro-worker labor secretaries, is no accident. As the child of two immigrants—a father from Mexico and a mother from Nicaragua—she witnessed the struggles of low-income workers up-close.
“I had a humble upbringing,” Solis says in an interview with ¡OYE! magazine. “I was raised by wonderful parents who taught me the meaning of dignity, love, and respect. My father will proudly tell you he was a laborer, a farmworker, and a railroad worker; and he always stood up for what he believed was the right thing to do.”
Solis’ parents also instilled a strong Catholic faith in her. Her mother was very devout, and while still in Mexico, her father studied to become a Jesuit priest. But because his family was so poor, he was forced to abandon his plans and start work to earn money.
“Throughout my career as a public servant,” says Solis, “I have looked at my Catholic faith to give me strength in working to advance respect for life and the dignity of every human being. I believe that my faith provides me with basic principles on what I strive to do on a daily basis, which includes helping the less fortunate and disadvantaged, protecting the most vulnerable in our society, and ensuring that all Americans, regardless of their faith, can share in the blessings of this country.”
Solis says her faith convictions also help her persevere: “When I know deep down in my heart that it is the right thing to do, I am not afraid to stand my ground, even if others don’t agree.” She cites her fight to raise the minimum wage in California and her determined leadership on a historic 1999 environmental-justice law that helped protect the health of low-income communities from toxic chemicals.Asked what she would tell young Latinas about her own path to becoming one of the nation’s leading Hispanic politicians, Solis says, “I would tell young people, especially young Latinas, not to let others predetermine their destiny and to work hard to achieve their personal goals.”
She adds that she learned this lesson in high school when a guidance counselor told her and her mom “that I was not college material. He said, ‘Maybe Hilda should follow the career of her older sister and become an office secretary.’ However, I did not allow him to discourage me.” It’s an irony of history that today Solis actually is a secretary, just not the kind her misguided guidance counselor had in mind.
¡OYE! interview with U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis:
How does your Catholic faith motivate you in your work at such a high level in the government?
Throughout my career as a public servant I have looked at my Catholic faith to give me strength in working to advance respect for life and the dignity of every human being. I believe that my faith provides me with basic principles on what I strive to do on a daily basis which includes: helping the less fortunate and disadvantaged, protecting the most vulnerable in our society, and ensuring that all Americans, regardless of their faith, can share in the blessings of this country.
Which Hispanic Catholic traditions and experiences have shaped and continue to shape you the most?
I grew up practicing Catholicism, as my parents have in their native country and here in the United States. My mother was born in Nicaragua, and my father is from Mexico. My parents took me to Mass every Sunday, and I had catechism classes and was confirmed. Major Masses like Christmas and Easter were very important in my family. And of course remembering loved ones on el dia de los muertos (Day of the Dead). In short, in our household, we practice the Catholic traditions.
In addition, my father who studied to be a Jesuit priest in Mexico, but because his family was so poor, he was forced to stop and go to work. But growing up he taught me and my siblings to be disciplined and spoke often in Latin and shared passages of great philosophers such as Socrates and Plato.
What has been the most satisfying political achievement in your political career and why?
Helping improve the lives of people especially underrepresented communities has always been important to me. I am a big believer that government, if done right, can do a lot to improve the quality of peoples’ lives. As a public servant, I have encountered many challenges, but in times of trial and tribulation I have always found comfort in my family and faith. I strive to carry out my values through my actions.
When I know deep down in my heart that it is the right thing to do, I am not afraid to stand my ground, even if others don’t agree. For example, when I wanted to raise the minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.75 in California in 1994, the bill was very close to passing, but the governor vetoed it in the end. But I did not give up until I made sure the initiative was on the ballot and it successfully became law in 1995.
I didn’t give up because I knew deep in my heart that the people living paycheck to paycheck would benefit from that raise. And after learning that other states would follow my actions, I was glad that I had followed my instinct and not given up.
You also led the fight on the country’s first environmental justice law.
As a California Senator I authored a bill that would protect the health of underrepresented communities against toxic chemicals that were polluting their neighborhoods. Big-money industries opposed this bill, and after so much work, the bill was rejected. However, after an uphill battle, in 1999 the bill finally passed as Senate Bill 115. The law was historic because it was the first of its kind to protect the health of disadvantaged communities. As a result, I was the first woman to be recognized for my environmental justice work with the Profile in Courage Award by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.
Again, my heart told me that I had to help the disadvantaged people, even when businesses and other politicians didn’t agree with me. I just felt I had to continue fighting for the people who could have lost their lives due to the deadly pollution they were breathing every day.
And today, as Labor Secretary with an extraordinary team of 16,000 public servants, we are working hard to provide good and safe jobs for everyone.
How do you choose the issues you focus on, such as worker justice, environmental justice, immigration, homelessness, or poverty?
There's no secret to why and how I do what I do. The answer is simple: I had a humble upbringing and I was raised by wonderful parents who taught me the meaning of dignity, love and respect. My father will proudly tell you he was a laborer, a farmworker and a railroad worker; and he always stood up for what he believed was the right thing to do.
What do you tell young Latinas, who see you as a role model, about your own path to becoming one of the leading Hispanic politicians in the country?
I would tell young people, but especially young Latinas, not to let others predetermine their destiny and to work hard to achieve their personal goals. I learned this lesson while I was in high school, when I talked to my guidance counselor and he told me and my mother that I was not college material.
He said, “Maybe Hilda should follow the career of her older sister and become an office secretary.” However, I did not allow him to discourage me. Soon after that I met Mr. Sanchez, another counselor, who believed in me and encouraged me to attend college. He even guided my parents and me through the application process.
And as a result of being the first in my family to go to college, I was able to inspire my younger siblings to attend college, too. But looking back, that high-school counselor who told me that I should be a secretary almost got it right, because I did become a secretary, a U.S. Secretary of Labor.
By Meinrad Scherer-Emunds.