Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported the percentages of Hispanics and African Americans in the U.S. population. The story has been corrected.
Iraq war veteran Chris Gomez, a Mexican American, was sure he was a perfect candidate for a government job. He had a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and was still serving in the Army Reserve as a sergeant first class.
For two years, month after month, he sent off applications to the Labor Department, the Bureau of Prisons and other federal agencies. They seemed to disappear. Where to? He didn’t know. He was never sure whom to call or how to follow up.
“I almost gave up,” Gomez said.
With a wave of government retirements opening the way for a new generation of federal employees, Hispanic Americans, the nation’s fastest-growing minority group, remain chronically
underrepresented in the government. And Hispanics say in large part that they are hamstrung because they lack the kind of contacts and networks that have helped African Americans secure federal jobs.
In the years after President John F. Kennedy tried to make government a model of fair hiring practices, African American fraternities and sororities — known as the “Divine Nine” — along with mentoring programs and fellowships helped unlock federal jobs and carve out a path to the middle class for hundreds of thousands of blacks. African American families often have become their own networks, and it is common, especially in Washington, to find multiple relatives across several generations all working for the government.
Hispanic American advocates say they are struggling to learn from that success. A LatinoMagazine.com article put it this way: “Tio Sam [Uncle Sam] has not yet been able to make any real progress.”
The numbers are stark. Just 8.2 percent of about 1.9 million federal workers are Hispanic, compared with 15 percent in the private sector, according to an Office of Personnel Management report released in September. By contrast, African Americans make up 18.2 percent of the federal workforce, nearly double their percentage in the private sector. (Hispanics represent 17 percent of the U.S. population, while African Americans make up 13 percent, according to the Census Bureau.)
“Our community could be way ahead financially if we were able to participate in federal government hiring the way African Americans did,” said Edward Valenzuela, co-chairman of the national Coalition for Fairness for Hispanics in Government.
Ultimately, it was Valenzuela’s group that provided the network Gomez needed. Gomez realized that his aunt was married to one of the leaders in the coalition and turned to it for help. The group identified job openings and guided him through the application process.
“There’s a real need for mentors to walk young Hispanics through the maze that is government culture,” Gomez said. “If I had that earlier, that would have changed everything for me.”
Before he completely abandoned the search, he landed a government job at a veterans hospital in Waco, Tex., working with traumatized military service members.
Established at the start of the 20th century, the Divine Nine fraternities and sororities promoted leadership training, networking and mentoring programs for African Americans. The aim was to help graduates find jobs in what was considered a highly hostile mainstream environment, according to a compilation of essays called “African American Fraternities and Sororities: The Legacy and the Vision.”
These groups operate much the same way today, with graduate mentors assigned to pledges, guiding them not just through college life but through life after college, letting them know about job openings and holding job fairs.
“It’s an amazing thing, because you get a mentor right from Day One,” said Kayla Taylor, 20, a Howard University student and member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, established by African American college women in 1908 at Howard University.
When Taylor joined, she mentioned her interest in public service, and the sorority matched her with a mentor who works as an international affairs lawyer in the State Department. “That sort of contact really helps the process of getting a federal job feel way more doable,” she said.
The story of African American employment in the government is not, of course, a fairy tale. Blacks have faced discrimination over the years in securing jobs and moving up.
Gladys Derricotte, 90, recalls the resistance she encountered during her long federal career. In the 1980s, she joined a successful class-action lawsuit alleging that African Americans faced discrimination when it came to promotions.
But Derricotte is the matriarch of a Washington family that exemplifies how kinship has helped African Americans move into the federal workforce through tradition and encouragement.
As a young woman, she came to Washington from Texas fresh from secretarial school after hearing from relatives who had migrated to the capital that the Government Accountability Office had clerical work. She married Randolph Derricotte, 88, who had come from rural Virginia and got a job at the Postal Service. Together, they put in more than 70 years with the federal government, opening the way for their children and grandchildren.
“ ‘Go on and get yourself a good government job!’ When we were coming up that’s all we heard,” recalled their daughter Denise Derricotte, 61, of Northeast Washington, who has worked in a variety of agencies and now handles procurement for the Forest Service.
Her sister, Michelle Peyton, 63, agreed. “It was just a life surrounded by government,” said Peyton, who most recently worked at the Patent and Trademark Office reviewing inventions for everything from airplanes to zippers. “Washingtonians would talk to each other on the street about job openings. It was just a part of the culture.”
Through their government work, Randolph and Gladys were able to help their children buy homes and their granddaughter Tisha Derricotte pay for her education at Howard, where she received an undergraduate degree and an MBA. Tisha, 43, now works at the GAO like her grandmother, but as an analyst reviewing programs related to community investment and financial markets.
In the small city of Belen, N.M., Paco Perez didn’t have one relative or neighbor who worked for the federal government.
“No one ever talked about it as an option,” said Perez, 30.
While attending law school at the University of New Mexico, he met Martin Brennan, a former ambassador to Zambia and Uganda,who was at the school as part of the Diplomat in Residence Program. Established in 1964 at colleges that are historically black or have other large minority populations, the program was set up to end the “bastion of white men in the State Department through recruiting,” said Terry Davidson, its coordinator.
While studying for the bar exam, Perez decided to take the highly competitive Foreign Service exam. He started meeting “religiously” with the diplomat and his successors at the school. “They would have me for dinner and coach me. I don’t think I would have made it without them,” Perez said.
He passed the test and joined the Foreign Service as a public diplomacy officer in 2008.
“There was maybe only one other Hispanic and it was like a punch in the stomach,” he recalled. “But then I thought, ‘I could have real impact here.’ ”
Forty years ago, African Americans at the State Department formed the “Thursday Luncheon Group,” a place where they could talk openly about the workplace.
Perez and others, including his diplomat wife Stephanie Espinal, have formed the “Tuesday Luncheon Group” for Hispanics. They’ve come together recently to organize happy hours with other minority groups at the department. And Perez has visited high schools to talk about opportunities for Hispanics.
Antonio R. Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, said some government recruiters have an “outdated” concern that Hispanic applicants may not be U.S. citizens or don’t speak English well.
But in Perez’s case, his bilingual skills have been an asset at the State Department.
“The irony is many of us have cultural experience and are bilingual and would be perfect candidates,” said Perez, who has been posted to Mexico and the Dominican Republic. “We look at the African American experience and think, ‘Well, we could do that, too. It’s just taking some time.’ ”
Proportion of the 1.9 million federal employees who are Hispanic.
Hispanics make up 15 percent of the private-sector workforce and 13 percent of the U.S population.