Hispanic White House leaders visit USC
Former East Wing press secretary Noelia Rodríguez and Secret Service agent Héctor Hernández recounted their experiences working in the White House at the event “Hispanics in the White House: From the Secret Service to the First Lady’s Office” Thursday.
The wide-ranging conversation touched on personal anecdotes of the pair’s time in the White House, as well as how being Latinx has impacted their careers and their hopes for the political future of America.
Rodríguez, who is a Fall 2022 fellow for the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future, got her start in Los Angeles politics before working in Washington, D.C. Rodríguez was former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan’s press secretary and then his deputy mayor. Rodríguez said she was confused upon receiving an invitation to interview for the position as First Lady Laura Bush’s press secretary.
“I literally laughed and said, I’m a Democrat from California, and I just worked on this little project called the Democratic Convention,” Rodríguez said.
Rodríguez interviewed for Laura Bush’s office and was offered a job as press secretary on the spot.
Rodríguez was the first Mexican American to be the press secretary for the first lady, but she said she never felt out of place in the Bush White House.
“I never thought about the fact that I’m Mexican American or anything like that,” Rodríguez said.
She felt that since President George W. Bush had previously served as the governor of Texas, he had a unique perspective on the importance of Mexico-America relations. Rodríguez recalled that President Bush’s first state dinner, just days before 9/11, was with Vicente Fox Quesada, the president of Mexico at the time. While preparing for the state dinner, Laura Bush noticed that the table settings had cascading green grapes and asked to have them removed.
“Obviously, it would have created a political reference to grape growers and farm pickers and César Chávez,” Rodríguez said. “The fact that she was the one who recognized it told me a lot about Mrs. Bush and the president.”
While Rodríguez never thought that her heritage negatively affected her career, Hernández had a different experience.
Hernández, who grew up in the predominantly Hispanic community of El Paso, Texas, said he was taken aback by the discrimination he faced in the workforce. He recalled showing up to his first day at the Social Security Administration in Oklahoma, and the lady at the front desk turned around and yelled, “Our new Hispanic is here!”
“I felt like an Amazon package,” he said.
Hernández started out in the Secret Service when Bill Clinton was president, and later became the first Latino to serve in the Vice Presidential Protection Division, where he was in charge of Former Vice President Mike Pence’s security detail.
Hernández said that sometimes he felt discriminated against, but he still was honored to work at the White House.
“Did I let that bog me down? Did I let that bury me? Did I let that steer me away from continuing to push forward? Absolutely not,” he said.
Despite any discrimination they faced in their time in the White House, both Hernández and Rodríguez said they are passionate Americans.
“There is no other place in this entire earth that God created, none better than the United States of America. None,” Hernández said.
Their patriotism did not go unnoticed by the audience.
“American exceptionalism has a negative connotation, at least in my generation,” one participant said.
In response, Rodríguez said that the level of discord in the current political sphere is not the norm.
“Now the responsibility is, quite frankly, up to your generation to pivot back so that we have at least a modicum of civility among our elected officials and our public officials,” she said.
Dr. María Romero-Morales, who moderated the event, also shared her experience as a Latina working in a high-level position. Romero-Morales is the assistant chief inclusion and diversity officer for communication, community and student engagement at USC.
Romero-Morales has a long history at the University, having received her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from USC. She recalled looking at Bovard Auditorium, where she now has an office, as an undergraduate and wondering who worked in the building. Now, Romero-Morales said she makes sure to be visible to students from her office window, which faces the Ronald Tutor Campus Center.
“I purposely want you to see me in there, and I want you to see that there is a woman of color, a Latina, first gen, transfer student who has made their journey from all these different pathways into USC, and now I’m in Bovard,” Romero-Morales said.
Like Romero-Morales, Hernández and Rodríguez said they are hopeful that more Latinx people will have the opportunity to effect change. Rodríguez noted that just two weeks ago, Vanessa Valdivia, a Latina Annenberg alumni, was tapped as First Lady Jill Biden’s press secretary.
“We may have been the first,” Rodríguez said. “But we take very seriously that we’re not the last.”