This article was published in partnership with El Tiempo Latino, a Spanish-language media outlet based in Washington, D.C. Read here for the Spanish version of this article.
I’m a first-generation American whose parents are from the foreign Spanish-speaking countries of Mexico, Cuba, and Guatemala. I come from a family of laborers or “campesinos, gente de la cosecha.” We are people who understand one of the Latinx community’s essential values: growth, nurturance, and harvest. We live by the saying, “If we sow the seed of our values today, the harvest of our tomorrow will be as beautiful as we always intended.”
I know what it’s like to come from nothing and to be self-made, not just because of my upbringing but because of my family’s history and the stories of my ancestors. My family’s narrative is so palatable in the United States because it espouses the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or the “rags-to-riches” sentiment that is glorified. What matters is not this self-created anecdote but my real lived experience of sitting on the receiving end of the programs designed to uplift some of the most vulnerable populations of this country.
I grew up in the foster care system from age 5 onwards. I was a child of the government. Food stamps, section 8 housing vouchers, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, violence, abuse, and social services were commonplace in my life. That’s only because I was born in this country. The misfortune is that many people with upbringings like mine don’t have excellent outcomes at home or abroad.
According to data from The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 1 in 5 foster youth report being homeless between 17 and 19, and over 1 in 4 foster youth report being homeless from 19 to 21. One in five foster youth was incarcerated between the ages of 17 to 19 and between the ages of 19 to 21. Studies have found that less than 10 percent of former foster youth obtain a four-year college degree. About 4 percent of former foster youth receive a two-year degree. The statistics about life expectancy, psychological well-being, nutrition, social dysfunction, and beyond continue to be stacked against myself and my peers — but it doesn’t define us.
Outcomes are just as bleak — if not worse — abroad. Extreme poverty and communities riddled with violence, abuse, and social isolation are just as expected in the countries where my parents are from. I was able to see this first-hand when I visited. I’ve been to Mexico and Guatemala, and the child welfare conditions in those countries are drastically different. According to UNICEF’S annual report of 2022, Mexico has seen an increase in child poverty since 2020.
Some of these countries still operate orphanages, and there continues to be horror stories, flagrant abuse, poor oversight, and a lack of transparency in the child welfare systems. Data about the child welfare conditions in Cuba significantly differ as the country is still largely isolated from the global market, and its economy, people, and government continue to be a black box shrouded in mystery.
Eager to return to my roots earlier this year, I visited my motherland, Cuba. I went on this once-in-a-lifetime journey to meet my long-lost family, who had no idea I existed. I grew up in California with a Mexican foster family. My biological mother is from Guatemala, and my birth father is from Cuba. How was my family of origin supposed to ever hear about me when sealed records, HIPAA-protected documents, and child welfare proceedings are confidential and sensitive? I had little contact with my father before he passed away as a teenager and had limited communication with anyone besides my biological mother and relatives on my mother’s side until college.
As I set foot in Cuba, I was overwhelmed with powerful emotion — the privilege to go there by choice, compared to my ancestors brought there by force. I felt gratitude in this profound realization that, statistically, I shouldn’t be where I am in life. I witnessed firsthand the poverty and subsistence living my family continues to endure today. I pour my life’s energy into the systems that can help prevent conditions like these. It’s the age-old environmental perspective of “Think Globally, Act Locally.”
After college, I moved to Boston and did door-to-door sales and grassroots organizing as a solar energy consultant. Shortly after, I became a social worker and delivered direct care, systems-interventions advocacy, and support to at-risk families and children. I eventually moved to D.C. to participate in the Foster Youth Internship Program, where I began my federal advocacy career. After an internship with the House Committee on Ways and Means under the Worker and Family Support Subcommittee, I felt obligated to be present in our nation’s capital. I wanted to fight for the struggles of my people, empower those around me, and positively affect change in efforts to mitigate our nation’s negative impacts.
After the internship ended, I returned to Boston with a newfound sense of obligation and duty to myself and my communities as an advocate. I packed everything I owned with no job, housing, or two months’ rent in my bank account, and made my way to permanently live in D.C. After a few months of concerted efforts to re-enter the federal space, I landed on my feet with the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, where I supported the Committee through legislative efforts the American government has ever seen on clean energy, decarbonization, and climate change.
“Think globally, act locally” takes on a new tenor when you’re in the nation’s capital. When you get accustomed to the four quadrants of D.C., you begin to recognize the social fabric of the capital and, with it, the vein that it is unto the world and the country. How you navigate the social fabric of the district can tap you into a network of politicians, influencers, ambassadors, leaders, academics, savants, and beyond. I staffed the Committee from the 116th Congress until the 118th due to the House’s shift in control when Democrats lost the majority. I now have the privilege of being able to speak at conferences around the country, train volunteers nationwide, consult with national organizations and child welfare agencies, and raise awareness for thousands of foster and adopted youth that don’t have the same outcomes that I do. Beyond that, I focus on ensuring our communities are included as our nation begins to prioritize its independence through the merits of renewable energy, clean neighborhoods, and breathable air.
The mere fact that someone like myself can earn a seat at the table here in D.C. matters. Visibility and representation matter. We continue to benefit from the value added of those with boots on the ground, frontline workers, and the “hands-in-the-dirt” kind of sweat equity that we vest into our communities and our country. But as we roll up our sleeves to sink our hands into the work required to change systems, we must remember where we come from.
The more I occupy federal and national spaces, the more I’ve learned throughout life that there are crossover points. If we focus our resources, time, and energy on understanding where things intersect, we can have the most significant effects in maximizing community and minimizing isolation. We should dedicate portions of our time to delivering direct care and services to the people we live and walk with — investments of real-time and effort, not just money.
We are building a movement of lived experience, and the history of this present moment warrants this reflection of where we all come from and the struggles our families went through. We must focus on problems at a granular level and an interpersonal level. At the same time, we keep in mind the global issues that are before all of us as a worldwide community: poverty, housing stability, and quality and accessible jobs for the communities and people that comprise the fabric of this country.
Though some of my family is materially poor, they are culturally and socially rich. The vibrance of the music, the dance, and the spirits of my people make them resilient. From the “Campos de Colón” in Matanzas, Cuba, to the “pueblos” of Nayarit or Jalisco, Mexico, to the Lago of Atitlán and Panajachel, Guatemala, my family and my people understand what it means to be tapped into life, to be in touch with mother earth and its cries for help, and to want to tend to its needs and the needs of its communities.
Wherever we come from, our collective stories matter. Our time, efforts, and energy are precious, and we must continue to reap what we sow. So let’s continue to build this movement and create systems that reflect the diversity and complexity of our people. I’ve got a seat at the table to pull up a chair. And from my table to yours, “bon appetit” or “buen provecho.” Keep giving it all you’ve got. Focus on planting the seeds of your values today so that we can all harvest our shared garden the day after tomorrow, and let the bounty of our harvest feed our souls and nourish our minds.