By: Patricia Guadalupe
Vice President Mike Pence had a clear message for Latinos, that the Trump Administration would keep its campaign promises. “And we’re just getting started,” he concluded.
Pence spoke at an event sponsored by the Latino Coalition called the “Make Small Business Great Again Policy Summit” which also included SBA Administrator and wrestling entrepreneur Linda McMahon as a keynote speaker. The Latino Coalition is a California-based organization which advocates for Latino entrepreneurs. Its chairman is Hector Barreto, who was appointed to lead the SBA by President George W. Bush in 2001.
In Washington, DC, access is power, and in attendance were many of the Latinos who have ties to the new jefe, President Donald J. Trump. Among them was Latino Coalition board member Manny Rosales.
“You have high-ranking officials coming to talk with us and paying attention to us immediately,” he said. “If we didn’t matter they wouldn’t be talking with us. They are interested in the community and what we have to say. Even though it is still early, I am very optimistic about what the president will do for our community.”
Republican media strategist and business owner Danny Vargas agrees:
“I think it was incredibly encouraging to see the Vice President go to the Latino Coalition event and the President sit down with Hispanic business leaders in the White House, particularly so early in this administration. With everything else that is going on, to provide that level of attention, time, and interest was very encouraging.”
To many Latinos, Trump’s promises include mass deportations and building a wall along the border with Mexico, so the Vice President’s assurances had an ominous tone. “This administration has virtually no contact with the Latino community,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) in an interview with Latino USA.“We have reached out to them since day one and have invited the President and the Vice President to our events, but they’ve declined.”
But at the Summit, the mood was upbeat, and along with Pence were some of the Latinos now in the White House. Among the first to be appointed was Helen Aguirre Ferré, the Director of Media Affairs. A Jeb Bush supporter and former TV host in Miami, Aguirre Ferré says she has a new way of working with the media. Previously, the White House maintained an Office of Specialty Media focused on Latinos and other ethnic press, but that has been scrapped by the Trump administration. “I’ve taken a very different approach on this,” she says. “I didn’t like the specialty media category. Specialty media is always pushed back, pushed to the side. It’s all media, whether you deliver your information in English or Spanish. I believe we all belong at the same table. We’re trying to bring everyone together.”
Aguirre Ferré’s goal is to ensure greater access overall, as there is no one particular issue affecting just one community. “There are some issues that some communities may hold near and dear to their heart but fundamentally we all want the same things – good schools, quality healthcare, the opportunity to live in peace and freedom, and I think whether you say it in English or Spanish, whether you’re black, white, Asian, we all feel the same and our policies should reflect that reality of working together. What’s good for the Latino community is good for the African American community and other communities,” she says.
When Trump took over, the White House web pages in Spanish were scrubbed, prompting criticism that the new administration was not bring back Spanish-language pages, but Aguirre Ferré says they are currently working on a Spanish-language website, although no date has been given as to when it’ll be launched.
She works closely with Sofia Boza, the White House’s Director of Regional Media, who is also bilingual. At a recent meeting with several members of the executive board of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Aguirre Ferré said the White House is interested in increased access and a close relationship with members of the press: “We’re here as public servants and we are here to help, and to make sure that the message gets out of what we’re doing. We are growing the office and still staffing up and bringing in new people.”
Aguirre Ferré, who is the daughter-in-law of former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré, says this is a unique opportunity like none other she has ever had. “I’m in awe of the opportunity. I think of my parents every single day, of the sacrifices they made, and how lucky we were to share in the American experience but also not forget our family and our roots. Sometimes I want to pinch myself that I am living this dream. I feel crazy blessed.”
She adds that the White House still keeps in close contact with many of the Trump supporters and those who served as surrogates during the campaign, including members of the Trump campaign’s ad hoc Hispanic Advisory Council. Steve Cortés, for instance, continues as a Fox Business News contributor, Sergio de la Peña is at the Defense Department, and Joseph Guzmán, a campaign advisor and co-chair of the campaign in Michigan, continues to teach at Michigan State University. “We stay in touch with Trump surrogates. Their work and support in the community continues to be significant, and there are many who continue to be a part of the conversation in providing opinion and guidance,” said Aguirre Ferré. “There are calls we do on a daily basis, and email blasts. We consider their work absolutely critical and our eyes and ears as to what is going on around the country. We truly value their participation; they enrich our experience and make it easier for us.”
Jovita Carranza, a former Deputy Director of the Small Business Administration in the George W. Bush administration and a member of Trump’s Hispanic Advisory Council, is rumored to be under consideration for a position. While Carranza did not want to comment specifically on that, she says that many have underestimated President Trump:“He truly does care about the Latino community. Media reports about him don’t reflect how he really is. It’s still very early. We need to give him a chance to work for all of us and succeed.”
That’s a sentiment that is echoed by GOP strategist Adolfo Franco, who says that now that Trump is president, it is time to work together. “I think he will be good for the Latino community. I haven’t been asked to join the Trump administration, but I would certainly consider it,” says Franco, the COO of the Direct Selling Association.
But one of the most visible surrogates, Latinos for Trump founder Marco Gutiérrez, seems to have dropped out of the spotlight. Infamous for his warning of a “taco truck on every corner,” he does not appear to be affiliated with the Trump administration.
In addtion to Aguirré Ferré and Boza, another Latina serving in the White House is Jennifer Sevilla Korn, born and raised in East Los Angeles, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant. Korn is the Deputy Director of the Office of Public Liaison, the main communication line between the White House and the public. “We engage with all communities across the country, building coalitions, engaging with organizations and constituents. It’s very exciting. It’s long hours but I have a smile on my face every day at the end of the day. It gives me great joy to be able to bring people to be able to talk about the issues tha are so important to them,” she says. “My role is to welcome communities from across the country to come into the White House and have a voice, and build coalitions around issues that are important to help this country go in the right direction. I look forward to bringing in people to really have their voice heard in changing our country for the better.”
Korn, who used to work at the Republican National Committee and with the George W. Bush re-election campaign, appears to be the highest-ranking Latino in the White House and says that the hardest part of her job is not having enough time. “There are so many things to do and so many groups that we want to bring in, but we have the time factor.
Former Harvard government professor Carlos Díaz-Rosillo is in the newly created position of Director of Policy and Interagency Coordination. Díaz-Rosillo, born in Venezuela to Cuban parents and raised in Miami, was never involved in any political campaign until he reached out to the Trump campaign early last year and later joined the transition team after the election. “I never really wanted to be involved in a campaign because I wanted to be ojective, but I felt that his election was far to important not to get involved. This is the first time I’ve ever been involved in any political endeavor but I felt that Donald Trump was the guy to lead the country,” he said.
Díaz-Rosillo’s role in the White House is to coordinate and work with different departments on implementing policy, and he feels that coming not from the political or campaign world but rather the academic world is an advantage for him: “People who know me know that I don’t have a political agenda. My agenda is to serve the president and serve the country and do what helps him advance his agenda, so not having been a member of any staff on the Hill or any think thank or any previous campaign, gives me objectivity. The president has been very clear that he wants outsiders, people who think outside the box who bring fresh and new ideas, and I think I can help with that because I’ve never been involved in government.”
Like other Hispanics who work in the Trump White House, Díaz-Rosillo believes the stories excoriating the president are off-base: “He’s gotten a bad rap in the Latino community. The media has been masterful at portraying him in a negative light. He is a warm and talented guy who really wants to do what’s best for the country, and that’s not what you read or hear when you turn on the television.”
But political strategist Luis Alvarado is taking a different approach. Even though he is a Republican, Alvarado says he’s not convinced that the Trump White House is serious about engaging with the Latino community and is unconvinced that the Latinos in the White House to date have any real power or influence.
“Yes, we have Latinos in the White House, but if we have 100 Latinos in the White House and they are prevented from having any voice or influence they would be nothing be a spectacle,” he says. “In general we don’t see any structured outreach programs from the White House to the Latino community. We know and see how the policies that are being enacted are detrimental to the community. By not engaging on any topic, all you see is negative messages toward the Latino community from the White House which continues to fuel the bitterness toward Donald Trump.”
Alvarado adds that saying it’s too early to judge is just an excuse.“When you hear it’s too early and we’re not prepared, that goes contrary to anything that we heard during the campaign, that they were going to be reaching out. It gives us pause to believe that there is any serious engagement plan to actually unify the nation. I would like to see a sincere engagement with leaders who are respected in the Latino community.”
If confirmed, the only Latino in Trump’s Cabinet will be Alex Acosta, nominated for Secretary of Labor after Andrew Puzder withdrew. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Acosta currently serves as dean of FIU College of Law, a post he has held since 2009. Prior to that, he served at the Department of Justice and the National Labor Relations Board. “Alex is going to be a key part of achieving our goal of revitalizing the American economy, manufacturing and labor force,” said Trump.
But nonetheless, Alvarado says the dearth of Latinos in high-ranking positions in the Trump administration is telling. “When it comes to other positions, we haven’t seen any other Latinos being seriously considered for any high-ranking position. It’s not the fact that [the Latinos in the White House] are in largely deputy positions because those historically have had some level of engagement, it’s that we don’t see any type of direction that makes me believe there’s going to be a bridge between the Latino community and the White House.”