Women of Hope
Latinas Abriendo Camino
First Puertorican Congresswomen
"My community is always at the center of what I do, as inspiration, reason, and hope."
When Nydia Velázquez was in high school in rural Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, she organized her classmates and closed down the school. Their protest against the dangerous and unsanitary conditions of the school building was finally heard and the necessary renovations were made. Velázquez, now a second term congresswoman from New York, has been stirring people to action and getting the job done ever since. She became the first Puerto Rican woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992.
Grassroots organizing comes naturally to Velázquez. The daughter of a sugarcane cutter, one of nine children, she was raised on a steady diet of political debate at the dinner table.
She often accompanied her father, a local activist, to political meetings where he was a major force in a movement to focus attention on workers’ rights in the sugar cane industry. "I remember growing up seeing him give speeches denouncing the farmers," she says. "He instilled in me the value of justice and equality."
Velázquez understood at an early age that she had to go after what she wanted, and what she wanted was an education. After skipping several grades, she graduated high school early, and by the time she was sixteen, she was already enrolled in college. Velázquez was the first one in her family to receive a high school diploma. After graduating with high honors from the University of Puerto Rico, she won a scholarship to study political science at New York University where she received a Master’s degree in 1976. She taught for many years as a university professor both in Puerto Rico and in New York.
Velázquez credits different teachers for providing her with a deep sense of humanity. They also taught her the invaluable skill of analytic thinking which she insists is fundamental for forging ahead to solve problems.
Velázquez has a straightforward approach to affecting change. "I never take no for an answer," she says. She goes in and identifies a problem and then looks for a practical solution that people can take into their own hands to empower their own lives. For example, when she came to New York and saw the conditions of the Puerto Rican neighborhoods, her anger and sense of injustice moved her to get involved. She recognized immediately that the lack of political influence had robbed her community of a strong voice.
In her position as Secretary for Puerto Rican Affairs in the U.S. for the Puerto Rican government, she launched a community empowerment program in 1987 known as "Atrévete", initiating a major voter registration campaign. More than 150,000 new voters in Puerto Rican neighborhoods were registered. The voices of these communities could finally be heard. At the same time Velázquez was a vocal activist for a project to fight the spread of AIDS in Latino communities. She is outraged by attempts to deny basic services such as health care to non-registered immigrants. "How do you think some lethal virus is going to distinguish between someone with the right papers or not," she asks, "Believe me, our society is going to pay more in the end."
In her role in Congress, Velázquez is particularly concerned with speaking out for the rights of disenfranchised people, especially minorities, and women and children. She was the lead sponsor of The Family Violence and Prevention Act which establishes family prevention services and educational programs. She has also worked to bring about new housing for low income families in her district, one of the poorest districts in the country.
Congresswoman Velázquez is also an active member of the Democratic Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, and the Women’s Issues Caucus. Velázquez repeats: "Being a Latina elected official has not been easy. I don’t vote the way they want me to, don’t play by the rules...The needs of my community come first."
Velázquez insists she is not pessimistic about the future in spite of what she sees as a trend toward reactionary and racist measures against poor people and people of color. "However, our community is accustomed to an uphill battle, this is what we have always known how to do, we are a testimony to our struggle. We need to keep on raising awareness in this country and reinvigorate the grassroots movement."