Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis stands on the balcony outside of her office at the Department of Labor. She is the first Hispanic woman to serve in the U.S. Cabinet. (Bill O'Leary/The WASHINGTON POST)

When Hilda Solis was 10 years old, her mother worked in a factory that made Barbie dolls, and she would bring them home. “I love dolls,” Solis said. “When I was a kid I had, like, every Barbie doll.”

But her mother’s job had a down side, too: It meant Hilda had to help care for her infant twin sisters. “We had to cook, clean. You wouldn’t believe, back then we had to wash diapers. Rows and rows of diapers,” she said of the work that she and her older sister did. “I had to grow up fast.”

Solis hasn’t stopped working. She got her first paying job at age 14, in a youth center, and worked through high school, becoming the first member of her family to go to college.

All that hard work gives her an appreciation for Labor Day, which is tomorrow, and honors all that workers have done for the country. It’s an especially important day for Solis, now 53, because she is the Secretary of Labor.

Solis runs the Department of Labor, the government agency with 15,000 employees that is responsible for protecting U.S. workers and helping to create jobs for people who need them. She is also a member of PresidentObama’s cabinet, which is a small group of people whose job it is to advise the president on specific issues.

“It is a joy,” she said of her job. “I love helping people.”

And it certainly beats washing diapers.

Fighting for attention

As the third of seven children, Solis learned early that to get what you wanted, you had to be first, you had to be loud and you had to fight.

“My brother would pick on me,” she said, explaining her fighting spirit with a smile. “I had to defend myself!”

Solis’s father, who had grown up in Mexico, worked in a battery recycling plant where he was a labor leader; that is, he helped workers at the plant get better pay and safer working conditions. Solis’s father told her to get a jgovernment job.

“He knew if you got a good job in government, you’d have a good salary, benefits and [insurance to pay for medical care],” she said.

Running for office

But Solis, like many kids in the mostly Hispanic neighborhood outside Los Angeles, California, where she grew up, never planned to go to college. “I was an average student,” she said.

A high school teacher made all the difference. Solis always loved to debate with her teachers and challenged answers until she was satisfied. One teacher pushed her to apply to to college.

“That’s where the big break came for me,” she said. “He convinced me to do it.”

After college, Solis went back to her high school to encourage other kids to go to college. She was so convinced that education was the best way to succeed that she ran for the local school board, starting her government career.

She was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000, where she served until 2009, when President Obama chose her as Labor Secretary. She is the first Hispanic woman to serve in the U.S. Cabinet.

Top issues

Solis has devoted herself to environmental and labor issues for much of her career. As Labor Secretary, she also feels strongly about kids’ issues, including promoting job programs for teenagers and helping other countries find ways to keep the youngest kids in school. In the United States, there are laws that limit the work children can do. But in some of the world’s poorest nations, even the youngest kids work with their parents in fields or factories.

“It’s better . . . that these children are fed and educated and have other skills,” Solis said. “I know the importance of that.”

A kid at heart
Solis has pictures of her large family all over her office — as well as dolls from around the world.

She also has a sign on her desk that says, “Principal.” She can be playful with her staff and always keeps them guessing. For example, she’ll walk around the long outdoor balcony that runs around her floor of the building and surprise other staffers as she walks by — or pops in unannounced.

“This is very serious work, but you have to find time to smile and enjoy yourself,” she said.

— Margaret Webb Pressler