First Person Singular

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.)

Sunday, April 15, 2007

I came to the United States at 8, not knowing a word of English. I got off that Pan Am plane, one of the last commercial flights to get out of Cuba, landing in Miami International Airport. We thought it was just another revolution in the homeland that would blow over in a matter of weeks. The weeks turned into decades, and here we are. Pan Am went bankrupt, and the Castro regime is still operating.

I became the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress, in 1989. When I got elected, I didn't know I'd be the first Hispanic woman. Then I did the "Today" show the very next day, and they said that, and I was stunned. I said: "Well, I may be the first, but I'm not going to be the only one. I'm sure there are going to be a lot coming behind me."

That first week, so many cameras were following me, and I just felt like: Just go away and focus on someone else, because I'm bound to mess up soon, and I don't want it to be on film. I had never run for office when I was in high school or college. We talked about human rights and freedom and democracy and Cuba around our dining room table, but I never thought about it in terms of political office. We were political in the sense of the bigger issues, but not in the sense of running for office.

I used to be a teacher. I got to know so many of my families at the school, and I got to know their problems and their issues, and it got me encouraged to make a difference -- and to run for political office . . . out of nowhere. Just talking to them and listening to their problems, I said, "I think I'll run." And nobody thought that I would win.

My dad was my campaign manager, and my mom was a volunteer organizer. We went to campaign seminars put on by the Republican Party and just copied a brochure that they showed us as an example. We just put my picture on the brochure. We followed the GOP training sessions on how to run for office to a T, and it got me where I am now. So I love speaking at those seminars, because, when you least expect it, somebody there in that audience is really going to use that information and run for office herself.

Interview by Cathy Areu

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