WASHINGTON, D.C. — Ivelisse Alexandra Porroa-García is a Latina outwardly brimming with a self-confidence that allows her to operate as a top legislative staffer in the Capitol, but she says her main insecurity at work is her Peruvian accent.
“Being Latina and the color of my skin, being a woman, none of that affects me as much as whenever I can’t explain something to the extent where I would explain it in Spanish,” Porroa-García said in an interview with Latino Rebels on Wednesday afternoon under the Capitol dome.
Porroa-García, 29, was born and raised in Lima, Peru. She immigrated to southern California in 2011, living in the district represented in Congress by Rep. Raul Ruiz (D), a medical doctor now serving as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) chair for the 117th Congress. The CHC is a non-profit legislative service organization composed of 35 members of the House of Representatives and four Senators, tasked with crafting policies that impact Latino communities in the United States
“Ivelisse is a pillar of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus,” Ruiz said in a statement to Latino Rebels. “She is a coalition-builder and a leader with extraordinary talent who is committed to furthering Hispanic representation on Capitol Hill.”
Porroa-García directs policy for the CHC while serving as president of the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association (CHSA), a non-partisan, bicameral group of government workers founded in 1983 that is approved by the Committee on House Administration “to recruit, retain, and advance Hispanic staffers” in the congressional workforce.
Non-Latinos can join CHSA and Hill staffers can be members of multiple staff associations. For example, several CHSA members told Latino Rebels they joined the new progressive staff association (CPSA) approved earlier this summer by House Administration Committee chair Zoe Lofgren (D-CA).
A key difference between CHSA and the new progressive group is that Hispanic association members pay annual dues of $15 (or $10 for interns). The progressive association is free to join. The dues provide the funding for CHSA to enact a more robust agenda and programming for its members, according to Porroa-García.
La Presidenta Porroa-García
“Ivelisse is adamant about asking for higher wages for CHSA members,” said a board member who was not authorized by her member office to speak on the record with the press. “The ability to recruit members from both parties has also happened during her presidency.”
CHSA membership has grown from 198 to 353 dues-paying members, while association members from Republican offices grew from 3 to 40 since Porroa-García became president, according to CHSA recruitment director Francisco Flores-Pourrat, a Chilean-Mexican aide in the office of Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) who has helped spearhead the effort since he joined the board under the Porroa-García in February.
“The number one challenge of my presidency is that a lot of hiring managers who are white don’t have friends who are Latinos,” Porroa-García said, “and if they do, they might not be as close to them, so they go to the people they know and trust, which is mostly other white people, who send them resumes from white [job] candidates. Then they say, well, there are no Latino candidates, but it’s like, if you’re going to take a recommendation from your white friend, they’re all gonna be white candidates. So at CHSA, we take a proactive role in reaching out to the manager to make sure that the chiefs at least know that we exist and have a resume bank full of great staffers on the Hill.”
A management innovation Porroa-García introduced this year to help lighten the workload of the association’s executive board is allowing her team to deputize rank-and-file CHSA members to help advance the association’s agenda.
“I created the deputy system where each board member can have one, two, three deputies to work under them,” she said. “I was very hands-off and was like, tell me who it is. Tell me why. Then tell the whole board. And if the whole board agrees, perfect.”
Under Porroa-García’s system, unanimous consent is required for her board to approve a new deputy.
Latina Immigrant Staffer
After migrating from Lima to Banning, California, Porroa-García lived in a trailer park with her family before attending community college, then UCLA, before eventually landing an internship in her congressman’s district office.
“We didn’t have any money for a lawyer so I filled out my green card paperwork myself, downloaded it from the USCIS website and used a lot of the Google Translator to fill it out,” Porroa-García recalled.
Her application was eventually approved, and Porroa-García was naturalized in 2018.
By then, she was in her third year living and working in Washington, D.C. She spent time briefly in the office of Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) before joining the legislative staff of Rep. Ruiz.
“Back then, I always told the staff assistants and interns that if there was a tough call from a constituent or stakeholder to send it my way,” Porroa-García said of her early years in Congress. “I’ve learned to have a thick skin and manage the most-disrespectful callers with what Barbara Boxer would call the ‘Art of Tough,’ that is, responding to constituent concerns with both politeness and fearlessness.”
After a year of working entry-level jobs in Congress, Ruiz promoted Porroa-García to work on his legislative staff. Her initial focus was environmental legislation and veterans affairs. While pushing for a bill to address the medical issues resulting from veterans’ prolonged exposure to “burn pits” in combat zones, Porroa-García described an encounter with an icon of American political comedy.
“I told John Stewart, ‘I didn’t even know you were a big deal before meeting you,’” Porroa-García recalled. “We were having a meeting on the Senate side and I walked up to him and was like, ‘Hey! I’m Ivelisse Porroa-García, a legislative staffer for Congressman Ruiz. My office works on these issues. We would love to partner with you.”
Stewart agreed, giving her his email.
“After that,” Porroa-García continued, “I went back to the office and was like, ‘Hey I got John Stewart’s email. I would like to set up a meeting between him and the Congressman. And they were like, ‘Oh my God, you met John Stewart!’ And I was like, ‘¿Pero quién es?’ Ni que si estuviera hablando con María Elena Salinas or someone like that and they were like, ‘No you don’t understand!’”
Porroa-García connected Stewart with her boss, who has been working with the comedian ever since to address veterans issues.
January 6 Response
On January 3, Rep. Ruiz, having just been elected a month before to serve as CHC chair in the new Congress, promoted Porroa-García to director of policy for the caucus.
— Hispanic Caucus (@HispanicCaucus) January 4, 2021
“The Caucus and I take great pride in knowing the key role [Porroa-García] plays in advancing legislation to positively impact the lives of millions of Hispanics across our country,” Rep. Ruiz added in a statement to Latino Rebels.
Three days after Porroa-García’s promotion, right-wing rioters stormed the Capitol complex, terrorizing members and staff, in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election results. Porroa-García, at the time a CHSA vice president, helped coordinate the association’s response to the deadly insurrection at their workplace.
“CHSA members went to work today to serve their country,” the association’s board said in a statement. “We stand with them as individuals on both sides of the aisle and with everyone in the Capitol whose lives were endangered by today’s events.”
Porroa-García, who at the time was running her election campaign to be the next CHSA president, was nominated to lead the association’s newly formed crisis committee on the insurrection following the riot. The crisis committee issued a statement on January 19 that circulated widely in the political press.
The statement from CHSA’s board of directors was addressed to Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), House Speaker Pelosi (D-CA), and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (D-CA). It singled out the law enforcement response to the rioters as biased.
“Given that too many of our members have also witnessed and experienced the inequities in how select USCP officers police individuals of color,” the statement said, “we are concerned that racial bias contributed to the security lapse on January 6th and continues to endanger the lives of all people of color throughout the Capitol complex.” The statement continued:
“…as congressional staffers, we have seen the USCP act swiftly to direct the arrests of peaceful protesters inside the Capitol prior to January 6. However, as violent extremists shattered the Capitol’s windows, broke down doors, and attacked anyone in their way, USCP leadership did not provide officers sufficient reinforcements to adequately identify, block, and immediately arrest them. Many USCP officers valiantly stood their ground, to the point where an officer was murdered. However, we understand from video footage that there were USCP officers who appeared to assist these violent extremists in entering Capitol grounds by removing the barriers that initially blocked their entrance.”
“Heightened security was enforced when peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors approached the Capitol during the summer of 2020. As such, we are concerned that individual members of USCP leadership and House and Senate Sergeants of Arms willfully overlooked the threat of a group of violent extremists that was overwhelmingly white, in spite of multiple warnings, as a result of the color of their skin. Given that too many of our members have also witnessed and experienced the inequities in how some USCP officers police individuals of color, we are concerned that racial bias contributed to the security lapse on January 6 and continues to endanger the lives of all people of color throughout the Capitol complex.”
Social Justice Focus
In March, after winning the election for staff association president, Porroa-García led the charge to rename the crisis committee, renaming it the Social Justice Collective which, according to CHSA’s website, is tasked with “responding to current events and programming events related to social justice.”
“We intend to establish consistent efforts to create space for all our members,” CHSA’s board of directors said in a statement on Instagram, “including LGBTQ, Afro-Latinx, and Indigenous Latinx members throughout the year. It’s time we acknowledge the diverse identities within our community and recognize their unique challenges to equip them to succeed on the Hill.”
To this end, Porroa-García said it’s the relationships staffers make on the Hill that are the true currency of the legislative workforce in Congress. As a Latina, she explained that her confidence in herself and belief in her mission to advance Latino staffers and priorities in Congress give her the strength to continue delivering results for her CHSA members. Still, Porroa-García noted that the path to achieving a diverse workforce in the Capitol remains fought with biases, both conscious and unconscious.
“There are many times when I would be in the room and people would say the craziest things because they would forget I was Latina,” Porroa-García said, “Like for example, and this is very classic of white people, they feel the suffering from Black folks and that is great because I feel like Afro Latinos are being seen, but when it comes to Latinos, people have a different perspective. They would be like, ‘Oh you crossed the border. That’s a crime.’ That would make me so mad. How can you see the discrimination against Black people as being objectively wrong but you cannot see it with these families that cross the border seeking safety, security, opportunity, dreams.”
“Not that I’m saying these things are the same, or competing,” Porroa-García added, “it’s just that white people have a long way to go in terms of being inclusive in their compassion in Congress.”
Pablo Manríquez is Latino Rebels’ Washington correspondent. He is an immigrant from Santiago de Chile with a political science degree from the University of Notre Dame. The Washington Post calls him “an Internet folk hero.” Twitter: @PabloReports.