Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen 2018 Gala Speech


honoree congresswoman ileana ros-lehtinen SPEECH
at the 2018 CHLI Gala & Leadership AWRDS

April 11, 2018

I cannot believe this night has been so magical!

I am so very honored and extremely grateful to mi hermano, Lincoln, and to each one of you for this wonderful evening.

Although I haven’t retired just yet, I’m thrilled that we get to celebrate my almost 40 years of public service together.

Dexter Wayne, love of my life, thank you for your unwavering love and support, and I am so proud of our beautiful children, Rodrigo, Patricia, Douglas, and Katharine, and all that they have accomplished.

Thank you to my wonderful staff, past and present, for all you do every day.  Whether it is helping an abuelita with her immigration case, or spending those late nights tracking votes. I am most thankful.

Thank you, Richard and Caitlyn, for your advocacy. 

For using your spotlight to fight for those who are oppressed and discriminated against.

And thanks to each and every one of you.

Because I wouldn’t be able to do what I do, without you.

I remember when Lincoln first had the idea of forming a bipartisan organization, this bipartisan organization, seeking to promote the values and interests of our comunidad Hispana, and to provide a unique opportunity to young people, our future leaders, to come to D.C. and experience firsthand what it’s like to work in a Congressional office.

Those opportunities were not available to Lincoln and to me and so many others back in the Stone Age, but I am so glad that is no longer the case.  And that we are increasing the representation of Hispanics in the public and private sectors. 

From the fellowship program, to the trade symposium, and the timely and informative briefings this organization hosts on Capitol Hill, I am so proud of how far CHLI has come.

So I am very thankful to Lincoln for his vision and leadership, to the Board of Directors, to Mary Ann, and the wonderful team that, throughout the years, have made CHLI what it is today.

There is no doubt in my mind that CHLI will continue to flourish.

Throughout my almost 40 years of public service, I have had two tenets:

  • First, serving my constituents; and
  • Second, upholding the founding principles that have made our nation a beacon of freedom and opportunity for all.

As a political refugee, I have a unique perspective on the greatness of the United States.  

America opened its arms to my family and me, as we fled the communist Castro dictatorship.  

We came to Miami on one of the last commercial flights to get out of Cuba.

I was 8 years old.

I arrived in this great country not knowing a word of English.

My parents worked odd jobs to make ends meet, but even in the face of uncertainty and confusion, we made it through.

It was my parents’ resolve that permits me to stand here before you.

I really owe this all to them.

They constantly reminded me to dream big and to never stop working hard for what I wanted. 

Our conversations at home usually centered on the principles that have made this country what it is, and how much we wanted Cuba to once again be free. 

I attended Miami-Dade College and Florida International University, became a Florida Certified Teacher, and earned a Doctorate in Education from the University of Miami while I served in Congress.

I was fortunate to found and serve as the principal and teacher of a private bilingual elementary school in Hialeah.

Many of my students' family members would come to me with their issues and concerns.

They would ask me about immigration and how to navigate the myriad of government agencies and programs. 

But in addition to helping individuals, I wanted to help my community on a larger scale, so I decided to run for office.

I had no experience in running a political campaign, neither did my family. 

My challengers had a lot more experience than I; and, in fact, my Cuban background was actually used against me in later races.

But that didn’t scare me away.  It gave me more enthusiasm.

That is because I knew that the only qualification needed for public service, is a desire to make a difference.

So I ran and, against all odds, I was elected in 1982 to the Florida State House of Representatives and later to the Florida Senate in 1986, becoming the first Hispanic woman to serve in either body.

In 1989, I decided to run for Congress to fill the seat held by the late Congressman Claude Pepper.

That was also a hard-fought election.

The next day, I went on the Today show for my first interview as a member-elect. 

I was taken aback when Katie Couric asked how it felt to be the first Hispanic woman ever elected to Congress. 

I just couldn’t believe it.  I told her that could not be true, but it was!

I was elected to Congress during a special election.  That means that the Congressional session had already started and Committee assignments completed.

But you want to know how I became the first Hispanic woman to Chair the House Committee on Foreign Affairs?

Because I never accepted no for an answer.

Congressman Dante Fascell from Florida was Chairman of the Committee at the time I got elected.

I went up to him and I made my case about why I wanted to serve in that Committee, the second oldest Committee in the U.S. Congress.  By the way, and trust me, I know about old.

I was so persistent that he went to his leadership.  At that time Democrats were in control of the House, and Congressman Fascell convinced them to increase the ratio for the minority so that I could join.  And I did.

There was no room on the dais.  So they had me sitting down below in what looked like an intern desk.  But I did not let that impact my role.

I immediately worked to give my constituents a voice in influencing U.S. policy toward the Western Hemisphere because in my South Florida community, foreign policy is domestic policy.

A few years later, the GOP won the majority, and then Speaker Newt Gingrich picked me to become Chairman of the Africa Subcommittee.

Time and time again, the Republican leadership would come to me to ask me to undertake new challenges and even if they didn’t, I sought them out.

To think that a Cuban refugee, who arrived to this country at the age of eight, not speaking a word of English, was now crafting policies to protect our national security and advance U.S. priorities is simply amazing.

What a country!

I never thought I would be traveling all over the world or meeting heads of state.

But that has been part of my career for nearly three decades in Congress.

Just last week, I led a Congressional delegation where I met with President Tsai from Taiwan, and with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in northern India in exile from Tibet.

That is just major cool!

But I didn’t come to Congress to become a trailblazer, though I am glad I did.  I didn’t come to Congress to Chair a Committee, though I did.  Or to meet important people.  Or to achieve power or prestige.  I came to represent my constituents.

And I have been able to succeed, because I have never forgotten where I came from.  More importantly, I have never forgotten the people who sent me here.

I don’t take my seat in Congress for granted. Not for one day. In the time that I have left, I never will. 

There have been tough votes.  There have been honest disagreements with my own leadership.

But I have stuck to my convictions and to what I think is important for South Florida and our country.

That is exactly what drove me to seek elected office.  To impact those in my community and our country.

Forget about titles.  I love what I do.  When you love what you do, it doesn’t even feel like work.

Whether it is helping a veteran obtain the VA assistance he or she needs.  To fight against climate change.  To secure funding for our natural resources.  Or to pass legislation to help those oppressed by totalitarian regimes -- public service is about helping others.

Every day I see that Capitol dome, I pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming.  

Where I was born is not just a place listed on my passport.  It has defined how I view the world: through the prism of democracy, freedom and human rights.

These fundamental principles have animated my legislative record:

  • Fighting for equal rights for all Americans and every person around the world.  
  • Advocating for the natural allies of the United States like the democratic Jewish state of Israel and the Republic of Taiwan. 
  • Promoting freedom for the people of Tibet who are also victims of Chinese aggression. 
  • Reestablishing democracy and the rule of law in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.  And sanctioning rogue regimes like Iran, Russia, North Korea and all those who wish to do us harm.

These are issues important not only for me, but for my community in South Florida.  Where everyone is from somewhere else. I will carry them wherever I go next.

It has been the highest honor of my life to represent the great people of South Florida.  I am excited to start a new challenge, opening the doors for those who, like me, are inspired to improve our slice of paradise.  I will be urging my new colleagues, as I did my Congressional colleagues:

“Put me in, coach.”

Thank you again Lincoln, CHLI, for this wonderful night of celebration. Muchísimas gracias