RICHMOND — The call came from out of the blue last week: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wanted to speak with freshman Virginia Del. Elizabeth Guzman.
"We were like, whaaat?" said Christopher Fleury, one of Guzman's young staffers. No one was more shocked than the delegate herself, a novice legislator who had yet to get a bill to the floor of the House of Delegates or cast a vote in subcommittee.
Guzman thought that maybe Pelosi (D-Calif.) was seeking her thoughts on immigration. But when the former House speaker said she wanted the Prince William County social worker to deliver the Spanish-language rebuttal to President Trump's first State of the Union speech, Guzman couldn't contain herself.
"I started yelling, 'Oh, my God! Hell yes!' " Guzman said.
Her nascent political career has hit one high point after another since Virginia voters swept Guzman and 10 other Democratic women into the House of Delegates last fall. Featured among other female candidates on a recent cover of Time magazine, elected as president of the Virginia Democrats' freshman class, Guzman has quickly come to symbolize a new generation of diverse leadership that her party hopes represents the future.
"Showcasing Delegate Guzman speaks to a lot of the enthusiasm we've seen in some recent elections, including in Virginia," Drew Hammill, Pelosi's deputy chief of staff, said Monday. "I think she also is a very authentic voice for a younger generation of public servants."
Guzman said she had always hoped to take her life story to a bigger audience, but she didn't expect the chance so soon. Originally from Peru, Guzman, 44, moved to the United States as a single mother in search of opportunity. Now married and with four children, she had never sought political office before last year — when she raised the third-most money of any candidate for the House and beat eight-term Republican incumbent Scott Lingamfelter.
Her speech will be original, not a Spanish translation of the official Democratic response to the president delivered by Rep. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts. Guzman began making notes last week immediately after speaking with Pelosi, then spent most of the weekend writing. She worked until 1 a.m. Sunday, slept for five hours and then resumed writing. Pelosi's office consulted on the speech, she said, but the words are hers.
And she insisted that the speech use simple words and clear images, to reach not only native Spanish speakers but also children — such as her own — for whom Spanish is a second language.
The speech will be eight to 10 minutes, she said. She'll start by telling her own story as an immigrant, then talk about what Trump has done on immigration-related issues during his first year in office.
She'll conclude by inviting Latinos to join the Democratic Party.
"I thought about all hard-working Virginians that sometimes feel that they don't belong to this country," she said. "Many times the president makes statements making us think that the American profile is for somebody who looks like him, and anybody else is beneath him. He belittles minorities any time he has the opportunity. And it's sad because this was a nation of immigrants . . . and I think this is what made this nation the greatest in the world."
Guzman traveled into the District on Sunday evening to record the speech, which will air Tuesday on Univision, Telemundo and CNN en Espanol after the presidential address. Guzman and her husband will attend the State of the Union speech as Pelosi's guests.
Media outlets from around the world have been calling since her selection was announced last week, she said — particularly from Spanish-speaking countries such as Peru, Mexico and Spain.
Despite the rising international profile, around Richmond, Guzman remains a freshman delegate from a party that's still in the minority in the General Assembly. So far, she's had one bill killed in committee and another stuck in what she suspects is limbo.
On Monday morning, she met with a parade of lobbyists — organized labor, electricity co-ops, an activist for loosening the state's sex offender registry, community rehabilitation programs — one appointment overlapping with the next. Guzman volleyed bill numbers and committee strategy like a veteran.
When one lobbyist warned that he would oppose one of her bills in committee but that he favored another, she talked him into showing up later in the week to testify on her behalf.
Her fellow Democrats say the selection of Guzman for the big speech keeps a spotlight on all of them.
"I think it recognizes that in Virginia last fall, we sent a very clear message to the rest of the country that things going on . . . in this administration will not be tolerated," House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said.
Even Republican leadership granted that "it's a great opportunity for her personally," as House Majority Leader C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) put it.
Guzman admits to being a little stunned by all the attention.
Bonita Sherman, in town with other members of the Delta Sigma Theta service sorority, saw Guzman passing by on Monday and couldn't resist calling out.
"We are behind you 110 percent! Keep it up," Sherman said. "And congratulations for being the Spanish interpreter to the speech."
"Actually, it will not be an interpretation," Guzman said. "It's my own speech."
"That's much better — I'm loving it!" Sherman said. "We're very proud!"
Guzman has seen the recording of the speech. "It's a little fire, a little spice in it," she said. "I'm usually a little feisty when I speak, but this one when I watched it, I was like, 'Oh, my gosh!' I was into it!"
There will be an English translation, she said, and she's hoping it will air with subtitles. Only one thing makes her nervous: how the president will react.
"When somebody speaks up or stands up . . . he's very mean afterwards," she said. "So I'm scared about what he's going to say after it. I just need to be prepared that he's not going to, you know, belittle me. Whatever he says, I'm prepared."