Latinos seeking US government jobs—Where is Tio Sam?
By EMILY WAX-THIBODEAUX, The Washington Post
WASHINGTON, DC, Dec. 14, 2013 (AP): Iraq war veteran Chris
Gómez, 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, Latino-Americans, the nation's
fastest-growing minority group, remain chronically
underrepresented in the government. And Latinos say in large
part that they are hamstrung because they lack the kind of
contacts and networks that have helped African-Americans secure
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,
DC, to find multiple relatives across several generations all
working for the government.
Latino-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
The numbers are stark.
Just 8.2 percent of about 1.9 million federal workers are
Latino, 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. (Latinos represent 17 percent of the U.S.
population, while African-Americans make up 13 percent,
according to the US 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
Gómez needed. Gómez 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
``There's a real need for mentors to walk young Hispanics
through the maze that is government culture,'' Gómez 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 veteran’s hospital in Waco, Tex., working
with traumatized military service members.
The Divine Nine—the black experience
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
```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
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 Pérez 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, Pérez 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,'' Pérez 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.
Pérez and others, including his diplomat wife Stephanie
Espinal, have formed the ``Tuesday Luncheon Group''
for Latinos. They've come together recently to organize happy
hours with other minority groups at the department. And Pérez
has visited high schools to talk about opportunities for
Antonio R. Flores,
president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and
Universities, said some government recruiters have an
``outdated'' concern that Latino applicants may not be U.S.
citizens or don't speak English well.
But in Pérez'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 Pérez, 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.'''
Information from: The Washington Post,