Julie Chavez Rodriguez isn’t the first Latina to work in the White House, but she may be the most famous Hispanic presidential aide in history.
President Barack Obama’s deputy director of the Office of Public Engagement is the granddaughter of farm labor legend Cesar Chavez, and she has assumed the White House mantel that America’s most famous Latino once turned down.
In 1962 President John F. Kennedy offered Cesar Chavez, then a labor and community organizer, a position in his young administration, and he had to weigh long and hard whether to accept that position or start the United Farm Workers of America labor union.
“He was asked to be the head of the Peace Corps in Latin America and he decided rather than he making the decision himself that he was going to ask my aunt and uncle and my mother,” says Rodriguez.
“As the story goes, they all had a secret vote because none of them wanted to have (the responsibility) and all of them voted to start the union except for my youngest uncle, Anthony Chavez, who said, ‘Heck, no, I want to move to Latin America and have a big house!”
Chavez turned down the appointment and that year began what would amount to a long, difficult struggle to organize the nation’s first farm worker union – which took hold in California and of which Julie’s father, Arturo Rodriguez, is president today.
“My grandfather turned down that position because for him founding the union wasn’t just a quick decision that he made,” said in an interview while director of programs at the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation before joining the Obama administration.
“It wasn’t something that he was even fully confident about.”
“He had a lot of self doubt, and he knew that was such a huge leap of faith, and he wasn’t sure whether or not he would succeed. But for him, he did it anyway because he realized he could not live another day in his life without at least trying.”
Julie, 35, herself never expected to wind up working in Washington herself.
“If someone had asked me five years ago that I would be at the White House doing this interview with you,” Rodriguez often tells reporters today, “I would have said they were out of their minds…”
She has spent much of her three years at the White House have been under the radar, with a recent Los Angeles Times profile reporting that until last month, when the White House screened the new movie about Chavez, “even White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough was unaware of Rodriguez’s relation to Chavez.”
But her visibility has skyrocketed since the White House screening of the Diego Luna film “Cesar Chavez” at which Rodriguez introduced the president at the event.
And it was Rodriguez who stole the show.
“The air in the room was palpable. Her ovation and applause was even louder than it was for our president because you could feel the history and the gravity of having Cesar’s granddaughter there,” says Sarah Chavez, no relation to Julie or her family but a promoter of the film from Topeka, Kansas.
At the White House, Rodriguez runs Obama’s organizing efforts in support of immigration reform and also supervises Latino outreach, having been the president’s point person on the Affordable Care Act, jobs and the economy.
But it hasn’t been without its rocky points.
Originally published on VOXXI as Julie Chavez Rodriguez walks in her grandfather’s footsteps