Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis at a Job Corps Vocational Training Center in Washington. (Benjamin C. Tankersley/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

I was always inquisitive. Around the time I was in junior high, the time of the Vietnam War, every evening my dad would come home from work and turn on the news. We were just glued to the television. I knew that there were a lot of folks from my neighborhood that wouldn’t be coming home from that war. At the same time, there was the civil rights movement happening in East Los Angeles, and that had an impact on me, because I saw inequalities that existed in terms of access to better-paying jobs and higher education.

I was one of those students who would question things. My seventh-grade U.S. history teacher at the time,
Mr. Sanchez, we used to get into these big debates, and we would argue back and forth. He would explain: “Well, this is what the Bill of Rights says. This is what the First Amendment rights are. The Constitution is supposed to provide equal protection under the law.” And I’d say: “Wait a minute! How could you say that when education is cut off for us? How can you say that when thousands of young men from communities like mine and others are faced with the draft, there are other people who don’t have to go to the war?”

Many young people from my community never had the chance to attend college because no one in their family had, and there was no pipeline, so to speak, that we knew about. I knew there were a lot of odds against us where we grew up. [It was] a small town in Los Angeles County called La Puente. We were from working-class families, and our parents were immigrants. Many parents worked in the local factory nearby; their children either joined the military or worked in the local factory.

I ran into [Mr. Sanchez] a couple years later in high school, and he said: “Hilda, what are you gonna do? Are you going to go to college?” I just looked at him and said: “Mr. Sanchez, I can’t go to college. My family can’t afford it. There’s seven of us.” I expected to go to work. I’m taking all these secretarial classes: shorthand, keypunch, typing. I was a really good typist, and that’s where I was tracked into.

My counselor, the one that was assigned to me by the alphabet, said: “Follow along the footsteps of your older sister. Be a secretary, ’cause that will suit you well.” Senior year, he tells my mother: “Mrs. Solis, I just have to tell you this — your daughter is not college material.” My mother was in tears. I got mad. That was the turning point. I ended up applying, and I went to college, and I got full financial aid. When someone says no to me, I say, “Get out of my way, ’cause here I go.”