The quest to achieve social justice is far from over, according to Congressman Luis Gutiérrez, a Democrat from Illinois.
Gutiérrez, who is the nation’s first Latino congressman from the Midwest and an advocate for immigration reform, addressed roughly 50 students, faculty members and local residents Friday at an event sponsored by La Casa Cultural and Despierta Boricua, Yale’s Puerto Rican undergraduate association. Referencing his memoir, “Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill,” Gutiérrez spoke of his journey to Congress and the challenges he has faced as a Latino in the United States.
Growing up in a “rugged neighborhood” rife with gang violence in Chicago, Gutiérrez said he had only faint aspirations of attending college. But when his family moved back to Puerto Rico when he was 15, Gutiérrez said he suddenly became aware of the wealth of opportunities for young Latino men.
“The mayors were Puerto Rican, the governors were Puerto Rican, the policemen were Puerto Rican,” Gutiérrez said. “I saw this whole world where myths about Puerto Ricans were just broken when I recognized all those things I could be.”
Gutiérrez, who returned to the United States to attend Northeastern Illinois University, also spoke of his former insecurities about being a young Latino in the U.S. Referencing how none of society’s role models at the time shared his background, Gutiérrez said he would sometimes straighten his hair in an effort to fit into cultural norms.
Reading a passage from his memoir, Gutiérrez described the early days of his relationship with his wife, whose family was also from Puerto Rico. Wary of ruining their first date at a college Valentine’s Day dance, Gutiérrez said he remembered filling out a note card full of conversation starters in case things got too silent. The first item on the list read, “Don’t talk about politics,” he said.
But politics soon became his career.
As a congressman, Gutiérrez said his desire for comprehensive immigration reform has shaped much of the way he views party politics. Congressmen need to reach across party lines to bring about change for men and women whose immigrant stories resemble those of his own parents, he said.
Gutiérrez said immigration reform remains at the forefront of his political platform because he feels an obligation to use his position of power to honor those who sacrificed to come to this country. Despite the fact that he is “dying to get out of Congress,” he said he will not leave office until immigration reform is completed.
Gutiérrez said one of his major concerns is the protection of immigrant workers who assume some of the most backbreaking and laborious jobs in the country.
Attendees interviewed said they particularly appreciated Gutiérrez’s down-to-earth persona.
Rosalinda Garcia, La Casa Cultural director and associate dean of Yale College, said Gutiérrez’s story of cultural identity was likely familiar to many Latinos.
“He’s just another person,” Garcia said. “He could be your uncle or your cousin, and I think that’s really inspirational. As a dean of students, I take a lot of pleasure in bringing leaders like that on campus because it allows our students to see themselves in Latino leadership.”
William Genova ’15, president of Despierta Boricua, said he could relate to Gutiérrez’s initial shock at the possibilities awaiting young Latinos. At Yale, Genova said he has come to appreciate how successful Latinos can be.
Isiah Cruz ’17, a La Casa freshman peer liaison, said he appreciated Gutiérrez’s emphasis on advancing education for all Latinos.
“I got a little emotional from the way he told us we could help improve the Latino community in the future,” Cruz said. “There are 11 million other Latinos out there. It’s our job at Yale to help other Latinos across the country who don’t know the importance of education.”
Gutiérrez assumed office in 1993.