WASHINGTON, D.C. — Nykarlis Santos Núñez, 25, didn’t speak English when she immigrated from the white sand beaches of the Dominican Republic, where she was born, to the cornfields of Lawrenceburg, Indiana, where she attended high school.
“My town was so white,” Santos Núñez recalled in a phone interview with Latino Rebels on Friday. “I didn’t meet another Latino person in the U.S. for the first seven years until I was in college.”
Santos Núñez was raised by her grandmother in Puerto Plata after her mother left for Indiana when Nykarlis was just four years old. Visa issues prevented her from joining her mother in the Midwest for nearly eight years.
“It was a mess,” said Santos Núñez, now a staff assistant in the office of Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL). “At one point the lawyer handling my immigration case was shot and killed.”
After a year of community college, Santos Núñez transferred to the University of Northern Kentucky where she earned a bachelor’s degree in international business with a focus on sustainability in 2019. “I worked three jobs (simultaneously) the whole time I was in college while getting involved and leading student organizations,” she said.
During her junior year at Northern Kentucky, Santos Núñez studied abroad in France and the Netherlands, an experience the Dominican from Indiana says changed her life forever.
“I was escaping my life in the United States, working 40 to 60 hours a week, when I found a scholarship to go to France,” said Santos Núñez. “Getting on that plane and not knowing anyone who would be on the other side when I got out, not knowing anyone in the country where I was going but had put the time into learning the language … I fell in love with that special feeling.”
Traveling alone through Europe set the stage for her next big adventure abroad after she graduated with two bachelor’s degrees: a six-month, solo backpacking trip.
“I just bought a one-way ticket and came back like six months later,” said Santos Núñez, who landed in Senegal before making her way to Croatia, across western Europe, back across the Atlantic Ocean to Costa Rica, then down into South America.
In 2019 she launched a YouTube channel, Traveling Sola, where she gives tips on traveling abroad.
“While I was traveling my friend from Instagram sent me the link to a Congressional fellowship,” added Santos Núñez. “I was the last person on the waiting list when someone who had been chosen for the fellowship passed. That’s how I came to Washington, D.C.” in 2010.
The fellowship with Running Start, a bipartisan organization that supports women running for office, placed Santos Núñez as a legislative intern in the office of Rep. Yvette Clark (D-NY). In January, Santos Núñez joined Rep. Castor’s staff, where she has become a consummate utility player.
Santos Núñez also serves as programming director for the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association (CHSA), where she oversees opportunities for members to connect and network, including happy hours and a four-week group meditation initiative.
“Despite everything that’s happened in the last year, staffers are expected to work non-stop and not be affected,” said Santos Núñez. “So we partnered with NALEO and the American Psychological Association to do a ‘state of the tri-caucus’ mental health check-in for our staffers of color.”
As CHSA’s programming director, Santos Núñez booked legendary Univision anchor Jorge Ramos for a virtual conversation with members during Hispanic Heritage Month. She also spearheaded an initiative called “Diverse Latinx Friday,” aimed at highlighting LGTBQ, Black, Indigenous, and multi-ethnic CHSA members on social media and in the group’s newsletter.
Santos Núñez also serves as the president of the Capitol Hill Community Service Association, one of seven staff associations of which she is a member. A recent outing Santos Núñez led involved a canoe trip to pick up trash along the Anacostia River. “I forget how many pounds of trash we picked up but it was a lot,” she laughed.
Santos Núñez laments the fact that there are not more Afro-Latinas and LGTBQ Hill staffers like her.
“I’ve only met four other Afro-Latinas in all of Congress,” said Santos Núñez, who is a member of both CHSA and the Congressional Black Associates. “I’m not surprised there’s not a lot of Afro-Latinas in Congress because there’s not a lot of Latinx staffers and not a lot of Black staffers.”
Santos Núñez is planning a second solo backpacking trip across Asia when she leaves Rep. Castor’s office next month, after completing a full year in Congress.
“The reason why I’m going to Asia is because it’s my goal to go to every continent by 26,” said Santos Núñez. “I only have Asia and Australia left. Antarctica I’m leaving from when I’m older and have more money.”
Asked what advice she would give Afro-Latinas looking to follow in her footsteps as a Hill staffer, Santos Núñez said: “You really gotta get involved and extend a helping hand to other Afro-Latinas to come work in Congress.”
“Know coming in you’ll probably be the only Afro-Latina in most rooms here,” she added. “Everybody gets imposter syndrome and asks themselves: am I good enough? Am I smart enough? Am I tough enough? Of course we are.”
Pablo Manríquez is the Washington correspondent for Latino Rebels. Twitter: @PabloReports